Editor’s note: This profile is part of a series on Black entrepreneur expats — why they left, and what Philly could do better to keep the next generation.
Before he was an artists & repertoire (A&R) rep for Columbia Records out in Los Angeles, Mont Brown was a rep for his hometown.
“Growing up in Philly was cool,” he told Technical.ly. “I’m from Southwest, which is kind of like a melting pot. You have different cultures of Caucasian people, Jamaicans and West Africans. It’s like a pot of gumbo that’s stirred up. I had all kinds of friends and could see how they were living as well.”
Brown said seeing athletes leave his neighborhood and become successful helped balance the negative, violent image many people outside of the community had of it. But as a young person finding his way, Brown was more fond of using his talents to create music. That affinity for the arts became his sanctuary — as did his dream of making it in the West Coast city considered the entertainment capital of the world.
Brown first started visiting Los Angeles in 2008. His cousin Al “Boo-Bonic” Holly was part of the hip-hop duo Philly’s Most Wanted as well as heavily involved with the Los Angeles creative scene.
“I was young and it seemed alive,” Brown said. “When I got here, it was exactly that. I always told myself when I got older that I would move to LA.”
Brown has a reverence for his cousin, whom he considered a superhero for ascending from Southwest into the music industry at the age 0f 18 and eventually, succeeding as a celebrated visual artist and fashion designer.
Brown also has an undying love for Philadelphia. A penchant for community organizing led him to create the Kickback Festival, an annual festival featuring free food and entertainment for people in the neighborhood he came from. He even won a Mayor’s Philly Hero Award for this work.
But that love wasn’t enough to keep him local. He said he appreciates how his travels have stimulated his creative growth and allowed him to make a name for himself in other places — including Los Angeles, where he eventually moved full-time.
“Whether it’s LA, Chicago, New York or Japan, if you feel a personal connection to that place, that’s where you should be,” he said. “I love the energy, the food and the people in LA.”
Brown believes there’s a lack of resources for creative entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color in Philadelphia. While the city has been home countless successful entertainers and creative professionals, most have been from past eras, he said.
“I feel like if you want to talk about entertainment, there was no real structure built outside of [Philadelphia International Records founders] Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff,” he said. “After that, no one built any real foundation. We can talk about Will Smith and The Roots and they all went on to do great things. Once you’re rolling, you get so many opportunities and can’t give us your time because you’ve got so much other stuff going on.”
Brown says it’s important to understand the limitations of any one person or group of people with local roots, no matter how successful they may be. He’s fond of REC Philly’s efforts to boost a local creative economy; the membership org offers studio and performing space alongside coworking for creatives. Traveling from Southwest Philly to REC’s HQ in the Fashion District (fka the Gallery), however, takes time and resources that many young people who live on that side of the city may not have.
“I do think there are a lot of successful individuals coming from Philly and it’s time to put together their resources,” he said. “Kids from Southwest might not want to travel to the Gallery. It’s nothing against REC Philly. [Many] kids in poverty don’t go past a 10-block radius. You don’t know what you don’t know. It’s so many layers.”
A possible solution could be in establishing a foundation or using a formerly closed Philadelphia high school for a large-scale facility for art, music and fashion that could serve as a funnel into those professional industries, he suggested.
As Brown continues to navigate his way through the entertainment industry on the sunnier side of the country, he works to inspire youth back home. For instance, Brown said, before the pandemic, he talked with Philadelphia city officials about finding ways to support arts initiatives in local public schools that were just starting to recover from 2013 budget cuts.
Meanwhile, he’ll continue to tap into his creativity as a music industry professional.
“In life, the only thing we’ve really got is our art and creativity,” he said. “We shouldn’t be limited to the creations we put out there. We should always continue to create until our expiration date. I feel like the most we can do is to put our creativity into world.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.