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.
From booking events for music festivals to managing artists like Nigerian hip-hop musician Jidenna, event curator and marketer Yusuf Muhammad always had a creative perspective that went beyond his Southwest Philadelphia block. His focus on broader horizons has led him to also managing projects like a recent Oscars afterparty for Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Kaluuya in Los Angeles.
As busy as Muhammad is working on projects in other cities, he has ideas about how Philly can keep its homegrown creative talents, and not lose them to other locales.
Muhammad grew up a block away from A&R rep Mont Brown, but didn’t connect with him until the two men were adults working in the music business. In those days, Muhammad remembered balancing his daily experiences in Philly with time in New York City that he remembers his mother intentionally planning. He came to understand her approach.
“Philadelphia is where you practice and the world is where you conquer,” he told Technical.ly. “It was this idea that if you could create it in Philly, it could be a success, and if you learn it here you could take it all over the world.”
As someone that grew up in a Caribbean setting, Muhammad’s childhood was shaped by experiencing local cultural events like the Odunde Festival, a celebration of the Black diaspora and going to Penn’s Landing for cultural festivals. He also saw block captains in his neighborhood that regularly organized community events. That, coupled with his affinity for 10 CDs he carried around of music from musicians like Anita Baker and Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) would go on to influence his interest in organizing events in the music business.
“I remember seeing block captains and their job was to create activations throughout the year,” he said. “Block parties were some of the first activations I saw. The concession space was the food everyone would cook. The entertainment was dancing stuffed animals or the local DJ. Growing up seeing this and being a part of the culture laid a strong foundation for who I’d end up becoming.”
As Muhammad’s skill for organizing concerts and events developed, he quickly found himself earning more money than he had ever seen in his life, and had his eyes set on more opportunities in the local music scene. With his experience in the market and understanding of what appealed to concertgoers, Muhammad’s next goal was to work as a buyer for talent at venues and help Philly artists get on more bills at festivals.
Just as quickly as Muhammad began making a name for himself in the local creative scene, the number of music venues in Philly rapidly dwindled.
“It makes you realize no matter how much greatness we did, that spot is a furniture store now,” he said. “Then I noticed all the venues in Philly were starting to close because of companies coming in and saying we want to control Philadelphia and make all the music come through us. I don’t mind, but the way it was done during my last five years in the city [showed me] there was a ceiling.”
A lack of infrastructure for true ownership was also a factor in Muhammad leaving Philadelphia to work elsewhere. He had supported concert venue The Blockley for years by booking a large number of its shows and when it closed in 2013, it was a sobering realization of a fading era and also removed many cultural opportunities in the city. Today, he is carefully searching for a venue in Philly that he and other Black creative professionals like him can have a stake in beyond serving as talent or employees.
“When I was creating in 2012-13, there were at least 20-25 venues I could choose from,” he said. “When I ask that now, there are three or four that people can name. I’m looking at getting a venue space. In all the neighborhoods we frequent, I’m trying to find a blank canvas.”
Muhammad said that while Philly may get a bad rap as a place to host events, he still keeps his hometown at the top of his mind. Even as he’s been working elsewhere, he once took a bus full of Philly artists to A3C Festival, a music conference in Atlanta, and also helped spotlight the work of Philly artists at Miami’s Art Basel, a global event for art and music aficionados. The last local show he put together was in November 2019, and he only stopped doing shows in the market because of the pandemic.
Collaboration is something that Muhammad understood better over the years, and having since booked more than 3,000 shows, he feels a need to pay what he’s learned forward. By supporting local young people interested in the entertainment business, he believes professionals can be more productive, rather than focusing on all of the famous talent that has since left Philadelphia.
“In Philly, you can get stuck in the promoter phase,” he said. “There is a level of gatekeeping where, if the door is locked to everybody, first, everybody outside will feel something about those three people. Then those three people will want to stay inside, and will only help their friends.”
Muhammad believes a creative consulting fund could help Philly retain its talent.
Muhammad still talks to other people trying to shake up the status quo of local gatekeeping, like Brown and Little Giant Creative cofounder Tayyib Smith about finding ways to support an infrastructure.
In a fiscal effort to support creative professionals negatively impacted by the pandemic, Philly launched its Arts and Culture Task Force in December 2020. Led by City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, the task force has worked to provide support for professionals in creative spaces via grant funding.
Like the Arts and Culture Task Force’s work, another solution that Muhammad believes could help Philly retain its creative talent is the establishment of a creative consulting fund for local creative professionals. Corporate entities like Live Nation may own many of the biggest music venues in the city, but all is not lost.
“Every year we could give this much money to just creative activations,” he said. “It’s actual people in the space that can help you execute this. It could provide dope events and pass on legacies. Is there $1 million that can go to block parties, street basketball tournaments and barbecues and cookouts in communities? In Philly, you end up doing so much on your own that when you go to Atlanta, Miami, LA, Chicago, New York, where everybody is trying to help you become successful, you’re going [crazy with excitement].”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2021 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. -30-