The young people in the almost entirely African-American crowd pushing into Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium Sept. 9 were not all students, but they were all there for an education. They had come for the “President’s Panel” discussion, part of the Howard stop on the University Music Entertainment Black College tour. The president in this case was University Music Entertainment President A. Haqq Islam. Originally from Queens, N.Y., Islam started out doing promotions as a student at Howard years ago. He started his record label in 1994; it now has a roster that includes such well-known acts as Mya and the platinum-selling Dru Hill. Islam is the kind of person you don’t meet every day: a successful black man in the music industry.
Islam admits that traveling around to various black colleges—he calls it “a miniature Chitlin Circuit”—gives him a chance to promote acts on his label. Self-interest aside, Islam claims “Each one teach one” as the philosophy behind his company’s tour.
Before the panel began—at least half an hour late—a school administrator made a speech about the importance of music to the black community. Her words went on too long, but one line in particular resonated with the audience: “Music answers the call of the restless.” Many of the aspiring artists in the audience were restless, not just because they were tired of waiting for the panel, but because they had been trying to begin their careers in D.C. for some time. They were tired of running into walls with radio stations that are not willing to try out new material. They were tired of little record labels that sign musicians and backup singers and then collapse before anything gets released. They had come for a clue.
The folks in Cramton were hoping that Islam and the friends he had brought along would share some secrets with them. The first lesson they learned was about setting priorities: Sylvia Rhone from Elektra Records did not show up, because artists on her label were being honored at the MTV Music Awards.
Islam spoke of good relationships and better business practices. Although his advice was sound, it did not seem to bolster or echo the dreams of anybody in the audience. And when asked about difficulties with commercial radio stations, Islam replied, “They’ve been very supportive of me. Man, they play my records to death…. D.C. radio is great. They’ve always been great to me.” But why D.C. radio decided to gamble on his songs was a secret Islam was apparently not willing to share.—Neil Drumming