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As we come to the end of a near two-hour chat, Yaw Owusu makes an interesting and revealing analogy. Before striding away across the upper levels of Liverpool One he tells me why he turned away from the A&R and the ‘hype’ side of the music industry. In quite dramatic terms, Owusu likens a musician missing their chance in the industry to someone getting shot. “These are people’s lives… it isn’t a war story,” he says animatedly, starting to describe an imaginary battlefield. “If we were going across and he was getting shot, they said ‘Go’ and then were like, ‘Oh, we thought he could go…’ and then he died. You killed him, career-wise, he doesn’t make music anymore.” Owusu is in fact referring to an artist he worked with, an incredibly talented musician who graced the front of Bido Lito! and has admirers across Liverpool’s music community. He no longer makes music due to their craft not being appreciated by the powers that be.
It’s a common story, but one that hurts when you care as much as Owusu does. Stopping to talk only between the time necessary to see off a Pizza Express margarita, Owusu outlines the various motivations behind his many achievements in a 17-year career in the music industry. It’s a career that has taken him from helping out his cousin to being the go-to for internationally significant brands and record labels. “I know what connects all this now,” he tells me at one point. It was only during lockdown that he was able to take off his many hats – manager, curator, producer, consultant – for long enough to take stock and work out some common themes of his work, as well as identify what he wants to do and what he does best.
A central motivation for Owusu from the beginning has been a yearning to ensure talent gets the help it needs and the opportunity it deserves. “Artists have a window, they only have a short period of time,” Owusu says. “I’d say, when you get to 27, 28, it becomes harder to justify trying to make it as an artist. So, we’ve all got to work away to spot the talent early and get them to the next stage where it’s on them, and the industry structure, to do whatever they can do.” Specifically, he is talking about the proliferation of opportunities for artist development which have been established in Liverpool in the wake of his LIMF Academy. But, moreover, it’s obvious the thought is a driving force behind much more of what he does.
The Academy started at the same time as Liverpool International Music Festival in 2013 and is a prime example of Owusu’s skillset and ambition manifesting themselves into a successful initiative that benefits young musicians as well as the city. While the festival and the Academy are perhaps well-known hallmarks of the self-titled creative consultant’s output, they are only a small part of the story.
The desire to help artists and realise talent began with Owusu helping his cousin, Kof. An artist out of the first wave of East London’s early noughties grime scene, Young Kof (his artist name at the time) wanted to make it on Merseyside after being transplanted to the region for university at Edge Hill.
Owusu was fresh out of a law degree and unable to take a US basketball scholarship due to injury. Accepting his aunt’s request, he managed Kof and quickly found that opportunities for a rapper in Liverpool were limited. “Our whole thing at the beginning was to start a company, a music culture entity,” Owusu says of those early days. “We’d make music and release music, but we’d drive the culture forward.” However, while RnB and associated genres were being supported in the clubs in Liverpool, an infrastructure for original music was lacking. This helped to inspire the formation of Urbeatz – a multimedia creative organisation specialising in a range of services, including artist management, consultancy, film and design.
Kof was the creative force in the Urbeatz operation and Owusu provided the organisation, the business acumen, as well as a keen ear for “what music should feel like”. Creating the requisite labels, club nights and radio shows for the music they felt needed to heard led to more and more opportunities and more and more influence on listening habits in Liverpool. At a time when urbeatz.com was banned in schools across Merseyside (too many pupils were logging on during lessons), Owusu and Young Kof were taking to the national airwaves via a regular slot on BBC Radio 1Xtra. At the same time, schools and arts organisations were hiring the duo to engage audiences with Black music and its heritage, and quarterly mixtapes were selling out as fast as they were dropping. Out of sheer necessity, Urbeatz was the only game in town which sated a hunger for new voices in rap and hip hop – voices with Liverpool accents – while educating people on the city’s rich Black music legacy.
Having established Urbeatz at a grassroots level, Owusu furthered his ambitions by founding the agency Nothin But The Music (NBTM) which worked with national and international brands curating events such as the MOBOs when they came to Liverpool. NBTM also continued to release music, secure sync opportunities and build on the solid local foundations in various facets of the music industry. While at Radio 1Xtra Owusu met Ray Paul, whose entertainment company The Playmaker Group partnered with NBTM. Kof stepped back into the studio to go back to his first love of creating and Owusu continued his mission of driving the culture forward as well as indulging another of his loves – storytelling.
Dropping in anecdotes about giving Shaggy his opinion on new releases and overseeing Wiley’s record label operation, while carefully charting the trajectory of a rapidly accelerating career, it’s clear that Owusu is a gifted raconteur. What is interesting is how the Maghull man has transposed this skill to large-scale projects and events to reclaim narratives. “What attracted me about LIMF is being able to tell a different narrative for the city of Liverpool, a contemporary one,” Owusu tells me.
It’s difficult to underplay the sea change that Liverpool International Music Festival represented for the city. The event, and its academy off-shoot, blew open the narrow parameters of music representation on Merseyside. It changed the narrative. On a train back from London in 2012, Owusu and Kof were debating whether to put their hat into the ring for what would be the successor to the ailing Mathew Street Festival. At the time, Liverpool City Council were putting out to tender ideas for a new event which would replace the festival of tribute acts that took over the city centre every August. “It was the usual suspects, so I thought, ‘I’m not going there because I’m not part of that Liverpool’,” was Owusu’s argument against answering the call. “They carve up the city for them and I try to get people involved. I still don’t feel part of that Liverpool.” In the end, the pair came to an agreement: “I’d just go and say whatever I want knowing that it’ll probably just piss them off and they won’t want to go with it. [I’d] just be honest.”
The plan didn’t work. A Culture Liverpool representative (the council’s creative arm) rang Owusu the next day inviting him to be the curator of the first LIMF. “I didn’t know what a curator was,” Owusu admits. The gauntlet was thrown down to overcome the politics that come with realising the flagship event for a music city, commissioned by the local authority. The curator would need to placate an array of stakeholders while achieving something altogether more progressive than Classic Clapton on the Water Street Stage.
A sprawling programme of events taking place over several weeks across venues city-wide showcased Liverpool legends such as Deaf School and The Christians, while the world of contemporary pop was represented by the likes of JLS and Ady Suleiman. There were also artists such as Martha Wainwright, Steve Mason and All We Are making appearances. The inaugural event managed to live up to its promise of representing the city’s past, present and future. “My focus is project design but for brands, organisations and creatives that are internationally focused,” Owusu tells me, and with LIMF 2013 he had aligned the city’s contemporary music ambitions with his own.
Such brands on Owusu’s CV have latterly included Levi’s and PRS Foundation. As disparate as the jeans company’s artist development programme seem to the music charity’s Power Up initiative to fight industry inequality, Owusu feels they are linked. He lays out the challenges in each project, “Levi’s coming to Liverpool, they could get that really wrong. Power Up want to do this national programme. There’s loads of things to think about [such as] intersectionality, regionality, nations, politics, [it has to be] commercially interesting to the labels and investors. [They’re] the underdog here,” Owusu explains. “Kof: underdog, Urbeatz: underdog…” Which leads us onto his most recent project and another initiative which marries up his passions and calls on his accrued experience and talents.
The second edition of On Record festival took place in October to November. Three weeks of events which celebrate contemporary Black music in Liverpool as well as finally giving due prominence to the artists and projects which came before. The programme is typically ambitious and thought-provoking. Black music in Liverpool has a rich, proud heritage but is somehow the underdog. On Record looks to shine a light on this history while ensuring the next generation get the kudos they deserve.
One strand in particular captures Owusu’s raison d’être. The Liverpool ONE Project: Take Two looks to a selection of artists operating in Liverpool 10 years ago making Black music and representing the zenith of their disciplines. In partnership with the University of Liverpool, Urbeatz mapped the artists’ projects and analysed the opportunities they got to make it out of their local scene. A decade later only three of the 12 artists still make music.
It’s saddening and all too familiar, again resonating with Owusu’s war story analogy. The On Record project will look at whether things have changed in 2021. The staggeringly talented Koj, P3lz and Remée are three of 20 artists who’ll hopefully be given more resources to fulfil their potential and pick up the baton in a very different Liverpool. Owusu has played no small part in making that difference. The likes of LIMF Academy and Levi’s Music Project provide the development, LIMF festival affords the opportunities and myriad other national and international brands look on as the talent that should be platformed is getting the spotlight it deserves and there are fewer career casualties.