Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

A lifetime in the arts led this entrepreneur to help independent artists find ‘opportunities beyond the stage’

With an eye toward equity and awareness of the community value they bring, "we can all contribute to making sure more creatives are visible on the scene," Kennita Hickman says. Here's how she's doing it in Milwaukee.

Kennita Hickman.

(Photo by Chris Siegel)

Kennita Hickman has always had a knack for spotting creative opportunity.

But for much of her winding career path, she wasn’t quite sure where that instinct would lead her — or what her purpose should be. Still, she was determined that “not living my dreams was not a good way to live my life.”

Over the years, the Milwaukee native has held various roles in public relations, radio, artist management and event production including for organizations such as Ex Fabula and ImagineMKE. Now she’s trying on a new role for size — as an entrepreneur and founder at Catera.

Catera is a culture development and media company that helps independent creatives gain visibility and a voice. The startup combines Hickman’s passion for arts and culture and storytelling with services including brand strategy, content creation, project design, marketing and event production.

But in Hickman’s view, Catera’s mission is about so much more than just zhuzhing up an artist’s PR or branding. She’s aiming to highlight the value that independent artists’ bring to the collective community.

“There are so many incredible artists and we all deserve to live a life doing what we love — and get paid,” Hickman told Technical.ly. “Just because you’re not Beyoncé doesn’t mean you’re not a creator of value.

“I don’t know that Milwaukee has done a good job of acknowledging and supporting our artists.”

Going it alone

The average yearly income for all independent musicians hovers just above $12,800 — not nearly enough to be considered a living wage. That’s despite roughly 60% of Americans believing the “arts improve the image and identity of their community,” according to a survey from Americans Speak Out About the Arts.

Advertisement

In Wisconsin, the arts and culture sector represents 3.1% of the state’s economy, yet ranks 49th among states for ongoing arts and culture funding. Independent artists, and BIPOC creatives especially, remain critically underrepresented, Hickman said.

Kennita Hickman. (Photo by Chris Siegel)

“I want to help [artists] create opportunities beyond the stage,” she added. “I don’t know where it came from as a young girl, but I’ve been propelled to find joy and happiness and I find it with independent creatives and Black and brown artists. I want us all to win.”

Growing up on the North Side of Milwaukee, Hickman cultivated a love for reading, writing and music from an early age. When a spate of autoimmune disorders forced her to become temporarily wheelchair bound in elementary school, her passions provided a creative outlet.

Hickman credits her mom who spotted her talents and enrolled her in “every writing program” she could. In high school, Hickman began writing for the teen culture magazine GUMBO and its adult counterpart, and soon envisioned becoming the “Black Daly Carson,” working in radio and TV.

Later, she would get her start working her way up from carrying record crates for local DJs to production intern at Milwaukee radio stations including WNOV, KISS FM and V100. Hickman enrolled in college for a few semesters, chipping away at a mass communications degree, but found herself wanting to strike out on her own.

“Back then, I felt like I had all the answers,” she said. “The reality was, in 2004, there weren’t any entrepreneurship degrees; all the emphasis was on getting work through a four-year college education. I wanted to do it my own way.”

The big break

Working at the radio stations and freelancing for publications, Hickman became privy to the influx of press kits from both major and independent artists. She said there was a stark difference between the two groups. In her free time, she began reaching out to artists to ask if she could rework their bios. That work soon led to her managing artists and doing PR.

Kennita Hickman. (Photo by Chris Siegel)

“I didn’t recognize the word ‘equity’ back then, but I saw a space to sort of balance things out,” Hickman explained. “[Independent artists] didn’t know how to plug in. They didn’t know how or when or who [to connect to]. There was this whole gap of information that wasn’t getting to the artists. I saw that I could help artists in Milwaukee and do my part.”

Hickman’s career moved forward in fits and starts — she worked as an emcee, launched a video series called “Artist Eats,” penned stories as a freelance writer, and gained exposure as an events manager — until she said she finally saw a bigger picture. In 2021, she combined her experience and launched Catera. Yes, in a pandemic. With zero financial backing. All because she’s still propelled to find that joy and happiness with independent artists.

Over the past year, Hickman has been busy connecting artists with companies and other organizations for numerous events, tour performances and branding partnerships. Last year, Hickman was honored for her artist advocacy work with a Music Ambassador Award from Radio Milwaukee 88Nine.

“We can all contribute to making sure more creatives are visible on the scene,” Hickman said. “I view my work as a service. For me, service is the rent you pay while you’re here on earth. So I feel fortunate to do this work, and to do work I love, and to be in service to a community and people I absolutely adore.”

Subscribe to This Week in Milwaukee Rising:


Series: Milwaukee
-30-
Subscribe to our Newsletters
Technically Media
Connect with companies from the Technical.ly community
New call-to-action

Advertisement