A decade ago, Andrew Sannie found himself in a dream spot. His hip-hop group, The Lytics — a family affair with his brothers Anthony and Alex, cousin Mungala and "adopted" brother DJ Lonnie Ce — suddenly was thrust into the spotlight, with unexpected airtime on local radio stations and a sold-out show at the Pyramid Cabaret. Bigger things were still on the way.
"It felt a bit like a bat out of hell," says Sannie, now 32. Local media attention was buzzing. Labels were reaching out to express interest in signing the group. Making music turned out to be the easy part. It was the rest — the conversations with publicists, lawyers, publishers and bookers — that felt overwhelming.
"We kind of froze in a lot of those situations," says Sannie, now a co-owner of Grape Experiential, a local marketing and consulting firm. "We were still figuring things out. All the things you need to know, well, I knew none of them."
It’s tough enough for any music professional getting started, but when you factor in race, says Sannie, who is Black, individuals can encounter glass ceilings, prejudice and racism, lack of resources and connections, and other disadvantages or barriers. Add in language barriers that may exist for newcomers, or financial barriers that might exist, and it gets even tougher. "It wasn’t obvious how to break those down and get in on the inside," he adds.
It’s with that experience in mind that Sannie has partnered with Manitoba Music to facilitate BPM: Black Professionals in Music, a program that will offer Black people in the music industry with networking opportunities, mentorship, career tips and professional guidance. It’s about not just opening the door, but helping up-and-comers figure out what to do once they find themselves seated at the table with publishers, executives, bookers, and agents; roles Sannie hopes participants will find themselves filling some day.
"When you look at the music industry, and in most industries in general, it might take five years just to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing," Sannie says. "We’re hoping to cut that time down. Expedite the whole process."
Monthly playlist highlights local Black artists
Another element of the BPM program will be a monthly public playlist of local Black artists' music, selected by a rotating cast of curators, available through Manitoba Music's Spotify.
Sannie took the first stab, and says he found an overwhelming number of artists to highlight.
The inaugural playlist is 43 songs deep, blending genres from rap to funk to jazz and everywhere in between. Highlights include: Francophone hip-hop artist Alpha Toshineza's Chaque jour; indie artist JayWood and Housepanther's Moon Cats; a trio of songs by Nigerian artist Blessoo, notably Akwanga; and What's Good by Cisha and Pay$o. Every song is worth hearing.
"I was blown away by how much good music there was," Sannie says. Blown away, but not surprised.
The only prerequisites to join are to be a resident of Manitoba and to identify as a Black musician or music industry professional, though Sannie says people interested in getting started are encouraged to participate as well. To register, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The idea for a program like this had been bouncing around for a while, said Sannie, but over the past year, conversations between himself and Manitoba Music executive director Sean McManus gained traction. "It had been in his heart for a while," Sannie says.
The organization already had several professional development avenues, but by centring this one on Black experiences, Sannie said the program is more deliberately attempting to address structural inequities that exist in the music industry at large.
"As an organization, we must do more to break down barriers, listen to the needs of Black artists and industry, and support and amplify Black voices," McManus said. "We’re committed to this work and to building further relationships and partnerships with Black-led organizations and initiatives."
Across North America this past year, systemic racism was a touchstone, brought on most prominently after the May 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis by a white police officer. Peaceful demonstrations flooded the streets, and in Winnipeg, thousands gathered at the Legislative Building in a rally for Justice4BlackLives and an end to police brutality against racialized people.
The music industry, built on a foundation of sounds and histories created by and in many cases stolen from people of colour, had to reckon with its own structural inequities. ADVANCE, a national Black music business collective, partnered with Music Canada and industry affiliates like Sony, Universal Music, and Warner Music this fall. Sannie’s a board member of ADVANCE, and with BPM, will look to bridge the same gaps on a localized level.
Sannie says he never expected to, but he’s found himself in a position to help oversee change in the music community. Over the past year, "everything came to a crescendo" for him, and he says it’s perfect timing to help make the long-gestating BPM program a reality.
The plan for now is to build a cohort of participants, and find out what type of guidance and mentorship they’re looking for, meeting over Zoom monthly and building a community there that will eventually move beyond the screen. From there, Sannie says, different Black industry professionals will develop training and information sessions, and along the way, begin an open line of communication with the group.
“These people will hopefully get an absolute masterclass.” – Andrew Sannie
"These people will hopefully get an absolute masterclass," Sannie says. Down the line, he hopes internships at labels and studios will be established, so when participants hear of a job or an opportunity they’re interested in, they’ll have the resume to back them up.
Ten years from now, Sannie says he hopes the program can reach hundreds of people, with participants sharing their knowledge with up-and-comers as they themselves progress in the industry. "It sounds idealistic," he says. "But this is how it always happens (in cities like Toronto, Montreal and more). This is how you build."
Years into his own musical and professional career, Sannie says he still leans on others in his circle for guidance, and has a lot to learn. But a program like BPM has the potential to help newcomers to the music world make sense of it all, with others figuring it out at the same time, making it a less solitary endeavour, and a less intimidating one, than in the past.
"Of course, we’re building the plane as we’re flying it, but this is the start," Sannie says.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.