Known around the world for producing the first historical global documentary on Hip Hop music and culture, Muhammida El Muhajir hails from Philadelphia as a natural born, generational entrepreneur. She sheds light on what for her has so far been a vivacious, illustrious, and multifaceted career.
AC: Muhammida, what does it mean to be raised with the spirit of an entrepreneur without fear of the world?
M: I was taught to believe if you have an idea it can be manifested. That is hard for a lot of people. I am a fifth generation entrepreneur. My paternal grandparents had their own newspaper in Fresno, California. My grandfather, a floral shop. My grandmother was one of the only black realtors in Fresno. On my maternal side, my great, great grandfather came to California, to the Bay Area–Pittsburg to be exact. So my great great grandfather came to the Bay and owned a number of businesses — hotels and bars. Coming from this lineage, this is a part of who I am. You are really trained to be an independent and critical thinker. My mother was an entrepreneur. She never said you should have a business but I knew how to start and sustain a business. I never went to business school. I never took a marketing class in my life.
AC: In 2014 you were chosen to become a marketing and communications fellow in Ghana, at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology. What have you/did you find most inspirational and most instructional about being a Fellow in Ghana?
M: I was most interested in the Fellowship because I wanted to immerse myself in the tech space and learn as much as I could about the eco-system, change-makers, power players, startups, media, etc. I also wanted to better understand how my consumer brand marketing, branding and communications skills would translate in the tech world. I found that ultimately being a creative marketer has nothing to do with the product itself but the innovation in strategy is what’s most important whether a sneaker, a soda or startup e-commerce company. Working with Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) gave me the opportunity to work in Africa with some of the continent’s most brilliant minds and entrepreneurs while also being connected to Silicon Valley (where Meltwater corporate is based) and the global tech community. I stay up to date on African tech trends and personalities by editing two blogs, Women in Tech on meltwater.org and the Tech page for OMGGhana.com.
I also felt that incorporating a knowledge and understanding of technology would greatly impact my marketing and communications. Gaining an understanding of how PR can affect SEO and Google analytics has already impacted my media strategies.
AC: As someone finely in tune with Hip Hop culture, both locally and globally, how would you describe the impact and landscape of it in Ghana and West Africa? How does it compare to Philly and the U.S.?
M: I learned many years ago, producing the documentary, Hip Hop: The New World Order, (www.hiphopisglobal.com) the power and impact of Hip Hop. Hip Hop and Hip Life is the leading force in music in Ghana. Artists such as Sarkodie, Shotta Wale and Stone Bwoy (Afro-reggae) and Manifest are at the forefront while legends such as Reggie Rockstone are still making hits and continuing to build musical and cultural bridges with international artists. (Check his recent collaboration Selfie Remix with actor Idris Elba).
The Hip Hop style in terms of fashion and attitude is still very much influenced by US Hip Hop. And the scene is very much up to date on Hip Hop music and trends from the US. In the year I have been in Ghana, I am current on all of the new music and artists including the ratchet music, which is quite popular in the clubs. At hotspots such as Django and Yacht Club there are segments dedicated to Ghanaian music, Hip Life and Hip Hop.
The major difference between the Ghana scene and US scene is that as much as they know about US Hip Hop, in Ghana they also are huge fans of their own home grown talent as well as continental Hip Hop stars from Nigeria and South Africa, whereas in the States we only know about US artists and sometimes only the mainstream artists played in heavy rotation on the radio.
The similarity between Philly and Ghana scene would be that they are both relatively small markets very near to the major market (Philly to New York and Accra to Lagos) but still holding it’s own and keeping it’s own Hip Hop cultural identity.
AC: What were the challenges in connecting with the Hip Hop, Hip Life, and High Life communities in Ghana?
M: Although I have primarily been working in the tech space while in Ghana, I haven’t had any challenges with these communities in Ghana. I have connected with artists such as D Black, Panji Anoff, Wiyaala, artist manager and entrepreneur Zilla Limann, and Jimmy Davis manager for songstress Efya. As a matter of fact I have looked to build bridges and incorporate my relationships within the music industry with the tech industry. I am in the process of finalizing a partnership with Reggie Rockstone and a Ghanaian photo-sharing tech start-up called Suba, (subaapp.com). I have outreach with Nigerian artist/producer elDee who is also very involved in the tech space.
Through my Africa Love Party series, I have been able to really connect with key artists, media and personalities in Accra and will be traveling with the party to other major African cities later this year.
AC: Do the artists you come across make a distinction between Hip Hop and the growing Afrobeats movement? What is the dynamic around this like?
M: I haven’t noticed any major distinctions. As far as I can tell, artists consider themselves Hip Hop even if they perform Hip Life music, which is basically lyrics in Pidgin/Twi (or other traditional dialect) and sometimes High life inspired beats.
AC: How is technology enabling Hip Hop and Popular Culture in West Africa to flourish?
M: Technology is a major aspect of youth culture, pop culture and Hip Hop culture. Many artists here just as in the west engage their international fan base on social media as well as sharing photos, videos, music, news, and trends. Some of the very popular Nigerian artists have millions of followers on Twitter and millions of views of their videos on Youtube. Mobile phones also play a significant role because many people may not own a personal computer so the phone serves as the major connector. Unfortunately it is still very difficult for even the most popular artists in West Africa to realize revenue from their music sales. There are African versions of iTunes/Spotify but adoption of online payments is still slow especially in a market like Ghana compared to Nigeria.
AC: What roles do you see technology playing in the future of the music industry, and what kind of career opportunities does it create for people like the students and young entrepreneurs you spend a lot of time advising?
M: Solving problems and creating solutions to everyday problems with technology and innovation for Africans as well as the people around the globe is a huge opportunity for young entrepreneurs. The ideas are here but the investment, training and promotion/publicity are finally getting here to support Africa’s contribution to technology. What’s happening with US entertainers using their star power to align themselves and resources to invest in tech ideas, startups and entrepreneurs will fast track some of the more consumer based ideas as well as offer potential revenues for both parties.
I would strongly advise any young person to learn as much as they can about technology and consider a career in tech. There are many opportunities both career wise and entrepreneurial that exists in technology. I work with young entrepreneurs who complete a 1-2 year intensive training program that provide them with the tech and business skills necessary for launching a successful tech company. They are proving on a daily basis that stellar ideas can come from any place on earth. These entrepreneurs inspire me on a daily basis and I am even developing my own tech startup, so stay tuned!
Back in the late 1990’s Muhammida made a brave power move that is now paying off in more ways than one, especially with increased developments in new technology. She had neither a corporate sponsor nor a stack of 401Ks. What she did have was keen intelligence, a love for Hip Hop culture and that fearless and confident Philly style. Muhammida was a Philly Girl in search of the marvelous. She embarked on an international film tour to Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, France, England, Japan and Germany to document Hip Hop Globally; and it’d be featured in her film, “Hip Hop: The New World Order,” which is now available for video streaming and downloading. Muhammida shared some words on how her Film production came together, and what it was like – before that time – doing entertainment marketing for Nike and the William Morris Agency.
S: Did you know any Global Hip Hop cultural beings from Africa or the African Diaspora while a student at Howard University?
M: I mean, there may have been but none that I had contact with. They listened to what was on the radio. But I didn’t know any international people during the Howard days who were interested in the business side or anything like that.
S: When you saw Japanese Hip Hop Headz in New York clubs did you approach them to learn more about their interest in Hip Hop?
M: I didn’t approach any of them. I just observed. I knew it was very big over there because I saw so many Japanese in Hip Hop clubs in New York. I also saw Hip Hop artists from here going to Japan. So when I went to New York I was on an exploratory trip.. Most places I went, to be honest with you, had only one or two phone numbers. It was not this researched and planned out kinda thing. In some of these countries where I went in search of Hip Hop, I was there for one day and the person with me would be like, ‘What are you going to find in one day?’ I’m like, ‘just drive me where I need to go and translate.’ [Muhammida laughs knowingly]. Don’t ask me questions because the whole concept just sounds ludicrous. I mean, here I am, I am not traveling with a budget. I got my first camera when I was already in Japan. I got a mini-tv camera. Now, what I shot on Global Hip Hop is so rare! Honestly, when I was doing my film it felt like I was on a Hip Hop Underground Railroad!
S: Why do you say that?
M: Because when you were on the Underground Railroad you would just know one person and you would look for these signs on the doors or on the coats in the window or whatever it was and that is how it was when I was traveling around the world doing my film on Hip Hop. I’m serious, I would have one or two people who I would approach and I’d be searching for Hip Hop like I’m searching for freedom in the 1800’s. And Hip Hop was every place I went. It turned into a domino effect. I would go somewhere and they would say, ‘Oh, she’s here looking for Hip Hop, working on this Hip Hop Film Project.’ And they’d be like, ‘You need to meet this person,’ and I would end up covering the theme, who is who in each country I visited…… When I was in Japan the first time I didn’t get to the radio stations. I’ve been to Japan two or three times. The second time I went there I did another event. And the third time I wasn’t filming at all.
S: Were you already working at Nike at this time or was that later on?
M: I got hired at Nike when I was in France. I got hired while I was shooting in Europe.
S: What did you do at Nike?
M: At Nike I did Entertainment Marketing. So I worked in the music division. I oversaw all of our music relationships and labels; anything that had to do with the music.
S: Who were the artists you handled while at the William Morris Agency? Wasn’t that before you joined Nike?
M: Yes, I worked at the William Morris Agency. I worked in the music-booking department. I knew some of the American artists with William Morris even before I began working with them. But when I embarked on my Global Hip Hop Film Project, it wasn’t like I had this list of contacts. Who would have given it to me? Interest was just starting. Most of it, I would literally land down and try to figure this whole thing out.
S: What is the longest period of time you spent in any single country while doing the film?
M: I was in Japan for two months. I was in Cuba for three weeks. But there, I was filming as I was figuring out Hip Hop communities. Remember, when I first got to Japan I didn’t even have a camera. I was in South Africa for six days. I was in Brazil for two weeks.
S: In the film you appeared much more passionate about Hip Hop in Cuba than any place else you visited. How did the situation differ?
M: You have to remember I was in Cuba for a longer period of time. I was there for weeks and every day they were like, ‘Come here.’ I spent a longer period of time with people in the Hip Hop community there. It was not like we went where it was fast-paced. These artists are not ‘signed.’ You know what I mean? So the access is completely different and it was a different vibe.
To purchase El Muhajir’s Hip Hop: the New World Order Documentary, the first historical documentary film on Global Hip Hop, visit: hiphopisglobal.com
And while you’re at it, check out Suba, the highly acclaimed photo-sharing mobile app. Download it from the iOS or Google Play store. http://www.subaapp.com/
Copyright James G. Spady and Akinyemi Bajulaiye 2015