The stereotypical music industry executive talks real fast, issue a lot of broken promises and make their money exploiting young naive artists who lack the skill or experience to know when they're being taking advantage of. Artist, entrepreneur, business coach and lawyer, Jo-Ná Williams, has built her business, The Artist Empowerment Firm, based on the exact opposite approach. A bubbly, warm, and no-nonsense type, Jo-Ná has a real mama bear type vibe - she's the kind of woman who expects you to eat your vegetables even if you don't like how they taste and can smell your bullshit excuses a mile away.
Full disclosure: Boyuan and I have recently hired Jo-Ná as our business coach, so we're a little biased - but even before we worked with her, we were wowed by her impressive roster of clients (they include esteemed life + business coach/strategist Marie Forleo and vocalist Celia Faussart of Les Nubians) and had the pleasure of collaborating with her on our March event at the Brooklyn Museum for artist entrepreneurs. We were taken with her approach to genuinely ensuring artists are empowered financially and legally so they can do what they do best - create. We chatted with Jo-Ná about her start as a vocalist, the ever-changing climate of the music industry and how being an artist entrepreneur separates the kids from the adults.
So you used to be an artist?
I’ve always been a vocalist and grew up in choirs. I played the piano at a very early age. I decided I was going to be a vocalist professionally. I never saw myself as being the next Toni Braxton or whatever, I always saw myself as being an amazing back-up singer. So, I met an engineer and he wanted me to work with some artists and I was writing lyrics and contributing vocals on peoples tracks. He told me I was going to get paid, receive credits etc. so I trusted that I would eventually have all of these things.
It never happened. My voice ended up on tracks that ended up on the radio and shows but I was never credited or compensated. It kind of shut me down. I was like ‘I don’t want to do this if this is how it’s going to be.’ So I stopped and I ended up going to college. I still worked with artists but it took different forms. I was a manager for a little while. I started doing my own arts related events, I acted in some plays but I ended up being really good at putting on events. It was a skill-set I didn’t know I had. I ended up being the president of the board that did all of the campus programming for the university. Afterwards, people kept on wanting to hire me. It morphed into my business and I did that for 11 years and stopped at the end of 2010.
I was an artist and I still consider myself to be an artist - I still write – but I think having been an artist makes me better understand the artist mind. I have compassion and empathize with what it’s like for artists on a daily basis but I also hold them accountable to what it is they say they want. It’s different when you have someone who is a lawyer or a business coach and they’ve never had to go out and do what these artists do. Having gone through that myself, I know what it’s like. On the business side, they have someone who is an ally and who is not trying to take advantage of them. I think that’s the reason people feel really safe with me.
Is it ever a challenge for you to manage artists and practice your own art?
I think the way I express my art is different [now]. When I speak or conduct my business I feel like I am being an artist. There is a lot of creativity in being a CEO. I have always been creative and it’s just become expressed in different ways. I didn’t just have a dream of being a vocalist, I always wanted to be a great CEO and writer and speaker. So yes, I still get to be an artist.
I feel like part of my journey was created so I could do what I do now and I feel very fulfilled by what I do. I don’t have the desire to step on the stage in that way. I have the desire to speak on the stage and talk about this stuff and for me, that’s my version of singing. As a vocalist, you have a moment where you get to express yourself and have a platform and the audience gets to hear it and take that in and it means whatever it means to them at that moment. I think that’s what powerful speakers do. They get to express an idea or concept or personal story and you get to hear them on their platform and interpret it for yourself. You define what it means for you and I think that’s why storytelling is so powerful. So, being able to influence people in that way and helping artists express their art and move forward monetarily and in their personal power is to me, extremely powerful.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
I tell stories. I don’t know if I would define myself as a storyteller but I do think my story is weaved into what I do. I think that my story makes people want to listen to me versus me just being another music industry person. There’s an element of compassion that goes into what I do because I’ve been on the side of being an artist.
You often see artists being lambasted when they branch out and try different things – why do you think we’re often trying to put artists in a box?
I think it’s because we, as people, try to understand things. Boxes make us feel comfortable. People can look at you and define you and grasp what you’re about and say ‘I get you now.’ I think that’s the reason art makes people uncomfortable. You can’t jump into the artist brain and pull out what it is that they are trying to express. All you can do is self-interpret. When you are an artist, you’re fighting being put in a box and you can only get out of that by clearly expressing what it is you’re trying to express.
That’s the reason I think branding is so important. You get to decide what you want people to see and how you want the audience to perceive you. You get to curate the experience for them as opposed to people looking at you and defining who you are. Of course, there are going to be people who are going to do that - but it gives you a degree of personal power and control. To me that’s what’s important about the work that I do which is helping artists better understand themselves and what they’re trying to communicate. I think sometimes artists get frustrated when people try to define them but it’s because they haven’t become clear. So you end up kind of reacting instead of being proactive about your stance.
I think a lot of times artists have created a separation between the business side of things and being an artist. Like you can’t integrate the two. One of my friends said that I’m the bridge between these two worlds. A lot of artists don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurial and a lot of business people don’t think of themselves as creative. There’s this divide between both worlds. There’s no doubt that we live in a world where you have to have money to pay for things. You shying away from that or being mad at the man - how is that really serving you? The more you’re able to deal with the essentials in your life, bills etc. the more you can create great things in the world. My mentor says money just makes you more of who you truly are, it just illuminates what’s already there. If you’re already shady, you’re going to continue to be shady. Money is energy, that’s all it is. Of course, I want to make more money but I want to make money so I can create more awesome stuff for artists and help artists and do bigger and better things in the world.
The music industry has turned into this do-it-yourself industry and artists are expected to be entrepreneurs. I have a friend who is a singer and told me 90% of work is taking care of business matters instead of doing what she really loves. What are your thoughts on how the industry has changed?
You have to make a choice. The way the music industry is now is that it forces artists to make a choice. You’re either going to dedicate your life and your everything to your music and getting it out in the way you want to get it out or you’re not. I think that has really forced people to say am I doing this as a hobby? Or, do I want to enter this industry and actually make a living being an artist? Even in my own business a lot of my time is spent helping another people, coaching people, doing legal work…I have to consciously make time to create my work. It may mean late nights, it may mean working on a Saturday. It showed me how committed I truly am to what it is I want to put out into the world.
You want the body you want? You have to go out and work out. You have to put in the work. It’s the same for an entrepreneur. Ok, I really love this part – but I don’t love doing this part. Who can I hire out? Who can I get to help me build this piece so I can spend my genius time here? It’s like Jay-Z said, you put all your creative time into creating this beautiful work then you have to go to the business side. How are you going to market it? How are you putting out your launch schedule?
The issue is that there is a breakdown of guidance in learning how to be an incredible artist and learning how to be an entrepreneur. Even when I was in law school, they teach you how to be a great lawyer; they don’t teach you how to run a law firm. The great thing is that there are business coaches. That’s part of your personal power to say, you know what? I don’t have all of the answers and I need someone to help me. And if you’re not willing to do that you’re not willing to go that route. I think the industry now separates the kids from the adults. You really want to do this? How badly do you want to do this? Step it up. It’s time for you to step outside of your comfort zone. Entrepreneurship is not easy but it’s rewarding. I work a lot to get on stage for one hour. I work for months to have that moment and it’s what we all kind of got to do.
There are a lot of artists who are frustrated and feel like they’ve been victimized. I chose to take my power back. I didn’t choose to live my life as a disempowered artist that had been exploited. The past does not define my future. It’s just a part of my journey.
You’re so clearly passionate about artists being protected and about the power of art. What do you think is the role or the purpose of art?
I heard Will Smith say this and thought it was perfect: 'the entire purpose of art is to uplift humanity.' It’s so simple and it’s not easy to be committed to that all of the time but it’s simple. That’s what it’s meant to do. It means to show us our own unlimited potential, to provoke us, to see who we truly are and be able to interpret our own experiences. To help you relate better to the world or to rebel against it – to become more of who you truly are.
Interview by Jahan Mantin
Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot.