Photo credit: David Morrison
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Aishah White is a publicist. You might think you know exactly what that occupation entails, but this conversation complicates it a little bit.
Since 2000 Aishah’s worked with everybody from Babyface to Lil Pump, XXX Tentacion to Ty Dolla Sign. She currently runs her own company and operates independently, but she got her start at Def Jam, working her way up and through departments, after a pretty auspicious start:
As a publicist, particularly somebody with indie and major experience, and a woman, and a lifelong hip-hop fan, her work life stands at the intersection of a number of issues we come across in our conversations on Microphone Check: various power dynamics going on between the media and the music industry, the roles that members of artist’s teams play in their success or failure, what goes missing when women’s perspectives are downplayed, what is real, and what isn’t.
Aishah left her comfort zone to talk about these things with us, and we’re proud she trusted us enough to get into some sensitive subjects.
AISHAH WHITE: How you guys doing?
ALI: Can I call you Ms. White?
AISHAH WHITE: Don't do that. You call me Ms. White, that means something else.
FRANNIE KELLEY: I love it.
AISHAH WHITE: We should probably take that out.
FRANNIE: Nope. Veto.
ALI: Yeah, that's the fun part.
FRANNIE: Thank you for coming. We really appreciate it.
AISHAH WHITE: Thanks for having me. Long time coming.
FRANNIE: Yeah, yeah. I think that we've wanted to sort of illuminate for a while not exactly the role that publicists play, but sort of the responsibilities that you bear, and what it actually feels like to be in this mediating position between a musician and any type of publication, but also between the musician's fans in ways that I think have changed, keep changing. And also we recognize that it can be a sensitive position. How did you get into this line of work?
AISHAH WHITE: Kind of by accident. I always loved music though. I used to be a dancer, when I was younger, and that kind of just led me into wanting to work in the music industry. I couldn't sing or do anything like that, but I became a hip-hop head pretty early, around like 14, 15, and just –
FRANNIE: How? What did you hear?
AISHAH WHITE: What was the first things I heard? I think when I really started getting into it, love for it, was probably West Coast hip-hop, just because my family was ingrained in it and it was just something I was hearing throughout the house a lot. But my own personal journey –
FRANNIE: Cause you're from here.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah – with hip-hop definitely me getting into East Coast artists after I explored West Coast hip-hop. Tupac, always and forever, my number one, but I started branching out around 15, 16 and really fell in love with just the East Coast sound and the lyrics, the flow, and just started researching artists and loving it.
So I knew I wanted to do something in music very early on, but obviously I wasn't talented as a creative to be a producer or a singer. So I was dancing, and I got a call for an audition for a Ja Rule video. And it happened to be at the Def Jam offices, and I went there, and through that experience, me turning down this lead role in the video, is how I got an internship.
FRANNIE: For which song?
AISHAH WHITE: The "Rock With You" song with Ashanti.
FRANNIE: OK. Wow. That was a big one.
AISHAH WHITE: Yup.
ALI: Why'd you turn it down?
AISHAH WHITE: Cause it was less about dancing and more about me being in the video in a bikini around Ja Rule. And at that time, I wasn't a fan of Ja Rule. And I made it very clear in the meeting that I would not do that.
FRANNIE: I'm crying.
AISHAH WHITE: And because I was so adamant, they were like, "Yo, who is this chick coming in here like, 'Uh-uh?'" And they were like, "What do you do?" And I just told them, and because of that I got an internship. I left there with an internship instead of a dance opportunity. It was dope.
FRANNIE: Was it in the marketing/publicity department or –
AISHAH WHITE: I started in promotions, but I ended up interning in just about every department at Def Jam before I got hired. I went from –
ALI: What year was this?
AISHAH WHITE: This was in 2000. I went from promotions to marketing. I did some stuff with soundtracks and supervision, and then I eventually fell into publicity and just loved it immediately. And I knew that was it.
FRANNIE: Really? What did you love about it?
AISHAH WHITE: I loved the connection with the media and the magazines, cause I grew up reading magazines. I love magazines to this day. I'm still the person that subscribes to a bunch of magazines and reads them on the weekend. And I just always loved that part about it. And then I'm a people person, so it was easy for me to communicate and understand the ins and outs of publicity.
There was also someone who had just come into the L.A. office, a publicist, by the name of Keita Williams – shout out Keita. She's definitely a mentor of mine now. And she kind of took me under her wing and really showed me what PR was. And I just fell in love with it.
FRANNIE: That's cool. I don't know if everybody knows Ali also got his start as a dancer.
ALI: Ha ha ha ha ha.
AISHAH WHITE: I didn't know that.
ALI: That's hilarious, Frannie. Who have you been talking to? Yeah, I tried to dance, and then I stopped. What were some of the publications at that time that really – you felt greatly or favorably represented the culture of hip-hop?
AISHAH WHITE: Definitely XXL and Vibe during that time, and even the Source. They had a really strong run during some of those years. I can't remember exactly what it was, what year, but around Source Awards, I was all into that. But Vibe I subscribed to. XXL I subscribed to at that time. And since I was in high school, I was subscribing to those. They were kind of like my bibles for hip-hop.
FRANNIE: Yeah, Vibe, as a female hip-hop fan, especially when Danyel Smith was the editor, really impactful.
AISHAH WHITE: Yup. Yeah, she has a great voice.
FRANNIE: When you first started out were you basically assigned projects to work?
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah, I started out as an assistant, so I was helping the senior publicists at that time, and it was basically just doing whatever they needed done. I did a lot of media clips and working on press kits and filing things and research at that time. And I continued to just learn and develop as a publicist going from that to doing tour press and starting to coordinate interviews for artists, and then moving up to coordinator and doing even more with different larger outlets. I left Def Jam as a manager in 2000, and by that point I was already booking TV stuff.
FRANNIE: Right. My big question is how do you decide who you want to work with? What criteria do you use? But I'm wondering what you learned in that – those early years you learn so much so fast.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. You don't realize how much you learn until you're removed from it. You kind of look back.
But those years at Def Jam, I mean, priceless for me. I wouldn't be where I'm at right now if I didn't have that under my belt. And there were some people there at that time who now are running so many companies. We all just had a fire in us then to really want to be the best. And it was about who was doing the most, not about who was making the most money, about who had the best artists, who was running it. And that's what I loved about the industry at that time, that kind of family feel.
But nowadays, the things that I look at when I'm considering taking on a client, first and foremost is talent, for me. I get a lot of inquiries about working with different artists. I just don't feel that they're at the level talent-wise for me to work with them at this point, and I look for a natural talent first off, whether that is through lyrics, your writing skills, or through your actual performance or just your overall presence as an entertainer. Sometimes you don't have the best voice, but you have other things that make the package complete. Other times it's sheer talent, but they need guidance. They don't know how to become an artist.
And once I get the talent part, it's about the passion in the artist. Do they really want this? Cause you work with so many artists, and you put so much into it, but if they don't want it, no matter how bad you want it and how you bad you push for them, it's only going to get to a certain point. And that can be really frustrating as a publicist, cause we give so much of ourselves, and it's like selling ourselves to people when we are trying to break a new artist, and they have to be just as driven as we are. If not, it's not going to work.
ALI: When you say, if the artist doesn't want it, can you define what "it" is? Because I think that translates to a lot of different things to a lot of different artists, types of artists.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah, and I think it means different things in different situations too. There are artists who want to be superstars. They want to be pop icons. They want all of the major looks. They want to sell out arenas. They want to be in film and TV. They want to be a household name. This takes a certain type of format and work.
There are some artists that want to make a living out of their career but don't want to be a star. That's totally fine too. Certain type of ways that you work that type of artist and make sure that they have a strong presence in the tour space and a live show presence and things that can continue to help them generate revenue, without having to have them do every single interview or throw them in people's face.
And then there's some artists that have had a lucky break or they have a hot record and it just kind of fell into their lap, or it's something that they wanted to happen – they saw this happen – but they have no real aspirations of staying in this industry for a long period of time. They come in knowing that. And there's a lot of artists like that, especially in this day and age. And they're like, "I'm here to make some fast money. I'm here for three to five years. And I'm done." Or, "I'm making one album, and I'm done."
There's some artists that I worked with who literally told me, "I'm doing this one fucking album, and I don't give a shit. I'm done." And like, that's exactly what happened. They didn't realize that they didn't really want that to happen and what that would mean, but yeah, they're in that situation. They had their one album and now they can't come back.
FRANNIE: What do you mean "what that would mean?" Like, if they only cared about the one, they'd have regrets?
AISHAH WHITE: It's just that they don't care. They don't care about the business of it. They don't care about longevity. They're here for this moment, but they don't understand the bigger picture and that this moment does not give you financial security.
ALI: Yeah. What do you do to manage artists' expectations of your responsibilities? Because often I think people, when they don't really have a full understanding of a publicist, they look at you as this miracle worker who's really going to just – the moment you're brought into the situation, instantaneously is going to wave the magic wand and things for their career are really going to prosper just for the sake of having you around. So how do you manage people's expectations?
AISHAH WHITE: I'm just all the way 100 right out the gate. I let them know what it really is and what it's going to look like and that it's not a walk in the park or something that happens overnight. It takes work from everybody, the entire team, for artists to elevate and get to the next level or reach a certain status that they want. And it takes a lot of work.
I don't ever try to sell artists on these false dreams and sit down with them and say, "Oh, I can put you on Jimmy Kimmel next month, and we'll get you on Complex tomorrow, and you'll be on a FADER cover next month." It doesn't work that way. I'm very honest and realistic with all of my clients, and I let them know what it looks like and what it takes to get to these levels. And that it does take a lot of work, and if they're not willing to do the work with me, then I'm probably not the right publicist for them.
And that I'm not going to just say yes to everything that they think is right. I'm going to let them know. I've been doing this a lot longer than they have, and whether I work with them or not, I'll still have other clients. So I always go into a situation with that state of mind, and let them take it how they want.
FRANNIE: Can you describe what is the work that has to be done before you can get Kimmel or a FADER cover?
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. There's a lot of different components that kind of need to come together. It needs to feel a certain way. It needs to look a certain way. And when I say that, you'll have some artists who right out the gate have a Billboard hit single. It's going to be a lot easier to get this artist on TV, because they have the stats to back it up.
When we're talking TV, we're talking producers; we're talking ratings; we're talking numbers. And you have to have a certain aesthetic or reached a certain level within your single or your album status, or as you're a rising artist where people recognize you and you're now at a point where you're breaking through, to be able to get on TV.
It's an accumulation of maybe radio plays, of your presence online, that includes social media following and just engagement, and conversations around you. It includes the press credibility that's been coming out, major features, things like that. They're going to want to see that type of stuff. And it also – in this day and age, it includes a lot of times socials and your presence there and being able to have a built-in audience that is going to support you being on this show.
But most importantly, with the bookers, there are some bookers at shows who are actual music people. And it doesn't mean that you have to have a hit record to get on TV. You have to have something compelling to get on TV. And if you don't have that to begin with, it's definitely not going to happen. But all of the other things just help to get you there faster.
So a lot of things go into that, label pushes sometimes, and just sometimes building relationships too with the people who are at these shows. Not every artist that we see on TV is a major artist, and you wonder how these artists get to perform. It's a compelling song, I guarantee that, but they've probably spent some time building relationships, being consistent with the information that they're sending to the bookers, and making sure that the bookers recognize the presence and the impact the artist is having. It might not be through the numbers, but just the feeling that people are getting from the music.
ALI: Can you give us an example of maybe a couple of your artists that you feel have a tireless work ethic that actually inspires you?
AISHAH WHITE: Absolutely. The first person that comes to mind is Ty Dolla $ign. Hands down.
ALI: What is it about Ty?
AISHAH WHITE: It's everything. It's him. It is what's inside of him inherently that he has to share with the world, and he understands that. And he's accepted that responsibility and the sacrifice that comes with that, cause that man works harder than anybody I personally know right now in music, and he doesn't get enough credit for it. But I think people are really recognizing the force that he is, as an artist and as an creative behind the scenes. Ty is pushing the culture forward, and he's going to be here for a long time. I always get excited talking about him, but when you say one artist that works, that's going to get it because they work, it's definitely Ty Dolla $ign.
FRANNIE: I think he's actually how we met the first time. I'm not positive. Was it?
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah.
FRANNIE: And what really struck me about your guys' relationship – I mean, first of all, yeah, he was definitely working. That was a long day. So this was before Free TC came out, I think, right?
AISHAH WHITE: Yup.
FRANNIE: Right before. And you were like, "I think he should go on NPR." And I was like, "Yeah, I've been trying," a. B, but I watched you convince him of that. I mean, I think you just showed him the T-Pain Tiny Desk Concert, but I wonder about that. Cause your understanding of the music journalism complex or whatever is probably pretty different from his. What he cares about might not be what you know to be effective. And so yeah, how do you convince somebody to do something that they think is corny or is outside their comfort zone or that they just don't understand what the benefit would be?
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. A lot of times it's about painting a picture for an artist. Sometimes they don't get it. They don't see it when you send an email. I tend to just call a lot of my artists and sit down with them and actually go through these requests or offers as they come in and break it down, paint the picture for them so that they fully get the – they get the full scope of what's going on. And sometimes with that, because they're visual a lot of times, you'll need to share examples and past examples of how it looks and how it works and why it's effective.
Artists today – there's a bunch of artists that don't want to do anything unless they get a check, including press interviews. They don't understand the value in it and when some of these artists have more followers than these media outlets, you – it becomes hard to argue.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah, I deal with that a lot, and sometimes I can't argue it. It's just like, "Point taken."
FRANNIE: Valid argument.
AISHAH WHITE: "Alright. You're right."
But then there are times when, again, they don't understand how it works and how this could affect them in the long run. So you paint that big picture and you talk about the next five to ten years, their legacy as an artist and what some of these outlets that have been around for decades have gone through and are still here for and are able to keep their story alive. So sometimes things like that work. Sometimes it doesn't. It's – you know.
FRANNIE: But there is some subtext in that, about going to a mainstream outlet and maybe have to explain yourself in a way that you don't really want to do or sell yourself in this way that feels demeaning or downplay other aspects of yourself. There's a lot of wrestling.
AISHAH WHITE: It's a job though, at the end of the day. As an artist, you come in wanting to create and get your music or your art out to the world, but with that comes the business side of it. And they go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other too much. And it's like, an artist at some point has to recognize that there is a business aspect to it, and I always tell my clients, "It's time to go to work when you're doing the interviews. You got to turn on when you need to turn on, because that's a part of your job. And yeah, a lot of us don't want to have to do that at times, but this is the profession that we've chose. And you need media just like they need you."
As much as people might want to say, "I don't need them," or, "We're not looking for that," or whatever. At the end of the day, they're all checking on social media to see who's talking about them, who's following them, who's commenting. They all care, whether they want to say it or not. I just like to get that point across, that this is a job. We all have jobs to do. You gotta show up for work. You're paying me, at the end of the day. You're going to pay me regardless. I'm going to get a check, so it's like, do you want to make the most of what you're paying me for or not?
Cause my situation is different. I mean, I have some clients that labels pay me to work with them, but the majority of clients I have pay me directly, and it's for a service, and they have to participate. If they're not participating, you're just wasting your money, wasting your time.
ALI: No, I was just thinking as you're saying that –
FRANNIE: We need a signal.
ALI: – one of the – especially for a newer artists, one of the things really for them to process is that, the job outlook of it. You often think, "I'm an artist. This is about me. I'm the boss. I'm doing all these things." But the things that you're describing actually is from a perspective of team and teamwork. And so you are – obviously as an artist, it is your team if you want to look at it that way, but in order for the entire operation to be successful then you can't look at it as an I situation. You really have to look at it, "OK. In order for my venture to work and be prosperous, then, yeah, I can't be an artist per se. I have to be a person who shows up and clocks in and performs a duty and a task."
Successful artists, they get it, I think. But for a new up-and-coming artist – I'm wondering how do you really convey that message to a young artist who just has a hit record. It's heavy rotation. And for them, through their eyes, they just got out of their neighborhood. They're making money, and they don't really see it that way yet.
AISHAH WHITE: A lot of that is building a trust with these artists to get past the business and to be able to connect with them on a personal level. I have personal relationships with all of my clients. We speak on the phone regularly. We're in – we're together a lot. And I know about what's going on in their lives too, not just with the music. And because of that, I can come to them from a real, authentic place and sometimes a nurturing, motherly type of way of working with them and talking to them.
A lot of these emerging, newer artists, they didn't have or they don't have artist development or someone around them to really help guide and help them navigate through all the decisions and things that they're doing in the industry. And I spend time with all my clients. We talk about a lot of these things, and not just on the PR side, just life in general, music stuff in general, from the making of the music to the marketing of it and to the goals, where you see yourself five, ten years from now and how we're going to get there.
Building a trust gives you that leverage and that power to go back in and say, "No. You need to do this. And you need to do this, because I'm telling you you need to do this." And they can trust your experience and what you know and the direction that you're going with them and feel OK with that. They might be hesitant, but they know that you're there with them to help guide them through it. And they feel that comfort and that support. And that's how you can get them to that place.
ALI: Have you ever – because of that kind of really hands on and really personal, direct relationship with the artist, in earning their trust, have you then had to weigh in on maybe a piece of art that's just ludicrous and crazy, and have you taken the step to kind of cross over that PR person's line to really just directly address what they're putting forth and give your opinion of maybe that not being the best –
AISHAH WHITE: Absolutely. If there is something that one of clients is going to put out or someone else is going to put out that they're connected to that will show them in a negative light, it's something we have to talk about, because it's going to come back. On the press side, it may come back to bite them in the ass. It probably will. And those are things we want to just put out there before it happens. I want to be completely transparent and let you know what you're stepping into. So yeah, I definitely do those things, and it's a part of the job.
ALI: It's a huge risk, because some people might not want that level of honesty from a teammate. They may feel like, "You know what? This is my department."
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. And then you get artists that completely take their careers into their own hands and fuck it up. I mean, in so many words. It's a give and take. It's a relationship. And they're not going to like everything we say, and they're not going to agree with everything I throw out at them. And that's OK. We can talk it about it. We can even argue about it if we need to. But as long as we're communicating and get to a common ground, then we're good working together. There's some artists though I just had to politely stop working with because we couldn't get on that same wavelength, and it just doesn't make sense to work together when you're not seeing eye to eye.
ALI: For the sake of people who are listening, and you don't have to go through, like, A to Z, but just maybe speak a few names of the clients that you work with.
AISHAH WHITE: Over the years, I've worked with a lot of clients from Rihanna to Ne-Yo, and Chrisette Michele, Ludacris, and Red and Meth, DMX – shout out. Earl Simmons, yes. A lot of artists. More recently, Fetty Wap was one of my clients who I was able to break early in his career. YFN Lucci is one of my current clients. Lloyd, I've worked with him, R&B artist. I think I mentioned Ty Dolla $ign. Right now Mozzy is one of my clients. Too $hort. Lil Pump is one of my clients. XXXTentacion is one of my clients. They vary. I've worked with so many different genres. I've even worked in the rock and alternative space. Worked with Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, PJ Harvey. More than I can think of right now. It's crazy. To Lionel Richie and Babyface.
AISHAH WHITE: Legend artists. I've been blessed to be around some amazing talent in my lifetime, and I don't take that for granted. I love music. I love what I do. And it makes me happy, just hearing good music and getting it to the world. Definitely makes me happy.
FRANNIE: So you don't only work with men.
AISHAH WHITE: No.
FRANNIE: But you do work with a lot of men, especially at this moment.
AISHAH WHITE: Right now, yeah.
FRANNIE: And there are no small amount of gender dynamics at play between publicists and music writers, mostly men vs. mostly women. I'm wondering how that stuff comes into play when you're put in situations like what Ali was talking about, where you're kind of – you're not exactly defending an artist, but you're in between a journalist who has some questions about what's happening with the artist. You're that line of defense.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah, I dealt with that a lot.
FRANNIE: How does gender factor in at those times? If it does.
AISHAH WHITE: It factors in at some times. XXXTentacion, very controversial artist, and I've had many many conversations, arguments, debates, straight up. I've had some pretty intense heated moments with journalists because of a difference of opinions, more so opinions than facts on music. And at times, it can definitely get challenging to be in the middle between the two. I respect all the journalists I work with, and I think they're great at what they do. They have a job to do. I also have a job to do, and so do my clients. And there are times when the jobs that we all have to do negatively affect each other, and it can be pretty tricky.
There's no one way or one answer that I have for that. It's case by case base, but with the gender role, I've just found that it's been more – in the situation that I've dealt with specifically with X, it's like, how can I, being a woman, work with an artist like X? And you know, everyone's entitled to their opinion. I get it. But no one knows me or X personally to really weigh in on why I'm working with him or not. I know Jah personally. I've had many personal conversations with him before I decided to work with him, during to the week of his death. And it's just – I know who he is as a person and that's why I chose to work with him. I don't need to justify that to the press or anyone else.
Cause a lot of it is just people being nosy and wanting to be in other people's personal business, which they have no business being in. Because when you flip it, no, they're not telling you about their personal life and issues, unless that's something they want to disclose. Right? And I totally respect that, but there comes a point where people cross the line, and when they cross the line, I am that mother for all my clients. I will come out swinging, and I will defend and protect all of my clients to the end if that's what's warranted at the time.
Not only is it my job, it's my right. And I work with these people because I personally chose to work with them. So if you're coming for them and it's something that you know nothing about, you don't have the information on, and you hit me about it, I'm definitely going to speak to you, but if you're getting aggressive and if you're taking it too far and if you overstep, I will let you know, and I will defend my clients. Period.
FRANNIE: Yeah. It seems like a very odd thing to focus on, your femininity and being his publicist. It seems to me a way to deflect a sort of wider culpability.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. Just to put it out there, I am a woman. I am a mother. I do not condone abuse on any level. And I chose to work with X, because I know who he is as a person, and I love who he is as a person. And no one is perfect in life, but everyone is special, and everyone has something to offer to this world. And everyone deserves an opportunity to learn from whatever mistakes they may have made in life.
And I personally gravitated towards Jah after several conversations that we had, and he made me love him. I didn't know too much about him when we first started first conversations, but I knew what was out there in the press, and I had my reservations. But I also know that not everything is at it seems, especially in the media, and that the least I could do is hear someone out and listen to who they are. And in our conversations, while I was still deciding to figure out – still figuring out if I was going to work with him or not, I got to know him, Jahseh, as a person, and he made me love him.
I tell that to everyone. Like, this kid will make you love him, the first meeting with him. He's just that type of person. He just completely brings you in. You can't escape him. He imprints on you as soon as you get around him, and he clearly imprinted on people that never even met him. And that was just his spirit. It is way bigger than what we know in this physical world, and it was all for a reason, and I'm grateful and blessed to have been able to work with him and to have known him and have him in my life.
FRANNIE: So a person in your position and our position, as you just said, you know that what you see in the media is not really what's happening a solid percent of the time. Is there something – is there one sort of theme of what is not in the media, but that is happening on the ground? Or is there something sort of essential that is misunderstood in that transaction?
AISHAH WHITE: Are we talking about X or are we just talking about in general?
FRANNIE: No, I'm talking about in general. I mean, my guess is that a lot of the coverage and sort of some of the stuff that you're alluding to is more of a symptom of a bigger sort of sickness in this relationship. I'm wondering if there is something you can point to that you've seen that just doesn't exist in media or that people report and talk about a lot that isn't a factor at home. I know there are tons of little things, but I just wondering if there is something exemplifying.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah, that's a really good question.
FRANNIE: Is it more about money? Is it about who's writing, who's reading? Is it about audiences? Is it about race? Is it about fans not seeing artists as people?
AISHAH WHITE: You know how people sensationalize things on social media that should be shocking? It's like they're into the shock value of things, but not the realness of it?
FRANNIE: You know how all your feeds play to you now?
AISHAH WHITE: Yes.
FRANNIE: And your Apple news feed or whatever, now it has that section that's, like, "for you?" In my for you is constantly just death and tragedy and mayhem. And I'm like, "Frannie, it's your fault." You keep – you click on the story, cause you're like, "Oh my god, that car crash sounds terrible." Or you're like, "Oh my god, I can't imagine" –
AISHAH WHITE: But you have to click on it and see it.
FRANNIE: I click on it. I keep – I know it's my fault. I know that it's me, and also I know that when I do that, that's the end of my engagement with that story. And that that's – what was written, those two grafs and that photo has no relationship to the people that were in that car crash or their family or any of that. And there doesn't seem to me to be enough journalism that takes – that grabs you out of where you are on your couch or whatever or sitting in traffic and is like, "No, this is what's happening." How does that play out in music?
AISHAH WHITE: It's like with the trends, how people will jump onto something that is shocking or sensationalized.
FRANNIE: I see.
AISHAH WHITE: But they don't want to really look at real stories anymore. There has to be some sort of shock or something that is outlandish, and those are the things that you see all the time everywhere now. But you don't get any real stories on what's going on behind it or what's behind someone's life.
Even with all of the tragic losses that we've had this year within the music community, we see people touching on and – you see people sensationalizing and spreading photos and videos and clips of these horrific, tragic incidents. Nobody's really talking about what's going on in the culture and where these kids are at, why they're doing this stuff and what we can do as a community, how we're looking to change these things. No one's really talking about solutions and looking into, diving deep into the issues that are affecting the culture right now. We're just reporting on it. We're just showing all the shit. And no one's really getting into what is behind all this stuff and what's going to be done about it. Where do we go from here with all of this?
FRANNIE: Yeah, it's like the who, what, where, but never the why.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah.
FRANNIE: In my experience in pitching, when you only have a couple grafs and especially in pitching to a mainstream organization, that overcoming tragedy story, every motherfucking time, they're like, "Sure." Especially in hip-hop. That's authentic to them. It's like, you have to put your tragedy, your heartbreak, what was done to you, first.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. Or you have to be a character, and you have to have all these crazy antics to get on Everyday Struggle. To get on these things, you have to really be way out. And a lot of these people, these artists, this is not who they are. These are characters that they have to learn to play and rolls that they're falling into, and then they're getting caught in this trap and they're not knowing who they are anymore.
ALI: Yeah, that's what I was thinking, is just this topic is so heavy, Frannie, because – even the way that you were delicately addressing it, Aishah, it's – we want to deal with the truth, but then again, we don't. And so we're caught in this loop, and the first thing that came to my mind when you asked that, Frannie, was really you cannot escape that this is the entertainment business. And so that's the constitution. And it's a paradox, because hip-hop was not designed as an entertainment art form or way of communication between humans. It was just our struggles and finding a way to voice that, devoid of entertainment.
We use aspects of what is synonymous in other fields of entertainment to articulate the art, articulate the pain, the struggle, the hope. We do it in form of song. We do it in form of graffiti and writing. We do it in form of dance, right? It's all communication, but it's monetized. And at that very moment, it is then puppeteered. And so we're never going to solve that riddle until we cut those strings of the puppeteer to reclaim our true freedom.
And, again, it's the conundrum of – I was going to say being an artist, but it's bigger than being an artist. It's just being a person, and especially in America when, again, we're in a state where – a country where we are led to believe that we have these freedoms, these liberties. However, there's still control that then go against the very ideals of what this nation is supposed to built on. And when you even go back a step further to how it was even established and the people that was crushed to establish it, it's those sorts of things that when you start to really unweave this thing, you weave it back up because the truth is too much to deal with, and you'd rather just go back to the state of, "I'm just going to be entertained. Skip it."
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah.
FRANNIE: And you can't fault anybody for doing that.
ALI: No, you can't fault anyone. And to have the conversation, someone has to be brave, but then you can be the lone person just saying, "Yo, I got the truth. Who's going to stand here with me?" And when there's so much money to be made from the music and from our culture, good luck with that. When you're asking, I was like, "This is easy." We do our best with the information we have to shed a little bit of light on it, and hopefully through that then some brave soul will be like, "You know what? I want to unweave this a bit more. And I have the institutions and infrastructures to really shine a big light on it and to really bring forward help for us all."
And so it's brave that you even – you sit here, because I understand the role that you have in terms of not only having respect for the art, but you have respect the human beings who are the transmitters. And they themselves are – some knowingly understands what they're getting into, some unknowingly. It's just a dream and a hope and a desire to transform themselves, their loved ones immediately around them, their friends, and hopefully and eventually their communities.
Having a full understanding of the deeper person, you bear a great responsibility, because you then don't become a judge and jury against that. And so it's really brave – it's just – it's listening to this; I'm like, "This is really challenging."
AISHAH WHITE: It can be. Yeah.
ALI: I'm wondering in the 18 years – cause it's been about 18 years you've been doing this.
AISHAH WHITE: Thank you for, yeah, putting that timeline on it.
FRANNIE: Yeah. D-bag. Get it together, Ali.
ALI: But that's a lot! That's a dedication. That's a career.
AISHAH WHITE: No, you're right.
ALI: And there's some people who don't know what they – who can't figure their lives out in ten years, 30 years sometimes. And so to have that assured step and involvement in a lot of people's lives in this culture, is there anything that you can reflect on over the 18 years that, especially with the changing dynamics of the music business – it's funny. When you were talking about 2000, I was like, "Yeah, that was the jiggy era. Everybody was trying to" – in Def Jam alone, they went from being real street – and Def Jam was always and still is street, but there was a moment that the pop switch activated.
AISHAH WHITE: And what was the switch? Let me ask you. Cause I touched on it, but I didn't say it.
ALI: Ah, c'mon. Don't get me on there. That's for you to say.
FRANNIE: Still mad.
AISHAH WHITE: OK.
FRANNIE: Still mad about it.
ALI: So – I'm not even mad. I'm not mad.
FRANNIE: She is.
ALI: You gotta – that's life. And you may agree with it. You may not. This debate will go on. Thanks to hip-hop we will have that debate forever.
AISHAH WHITE: Right?
ALI: However, the fact is there was a switch that activated the next wave, but then there was another switch after that. So we have streaming. We have all these other dynamics that really continue to catapult and push the business. It changes the way music is delivered, the relationship with the fans, the relationship with publications, because journalism, in a sense, has also changed. It went from magazines and now to these websites and things, direct contact on our phones. So there's so many different dynamics.
But I'm wondering in over all of that change, in the 18 years that you've been doing this, is there something that you look at and go, "This is still an issue and an obstacle and I wish that we could overcome it," and that's what you strive to do as you continue to do what you do as a publicist?
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah, women being recognized in this music industry for the work that they do, and I mean, like, properly recognized with the titles and the pay. And that's something that is still an issue. It's getting a lot better. More people are being vocal about this, and I think the industry is finally starting to recognize the value in women executives in the workplace. There's always been women executives, but they were never the ones to get the praise, and they weren't the ones being championed in the press. They weren't the ones getting the awards and getting the promotions and the titles and the pay that they deserve.
But I think it's a new day with major labels and indies as well. We've all found ways to make it outside of the traditional system, and we're now able to bring the things that we've created back in house and give something to these labels that they don't have, and that's the language. They can't speak the language to these artists and to these certain people. So you have to have these people in certain places, and women, we're a big part of that.
And I think it's good to see the shift is starting to happen. I've definitely seen it in this year, in the press, the awards that have been coming out this year. Even the Billboard Hip-Hop And R&B Power Playlist, you can see it there. Much more women being recognized, and much more women getting these senior level positions, positions that we've been doing for years. We just didn't get the titles behind it and the pay to go with it. So I'm encouraged with where the industry is headed and the changes that the major labels are making to help balance things out.
FRANNIE: Can you speak to what is lost when women's – cause what – yeah, women have been doing the work, filling those roles but not getting the pay, but they also haven't had the budget behind them that goes with those titles. So what is lost when women don't get that good corporate money?
AISHAH WHITE: Well, I think it's a variety of things. I mean, on the base level, you're losing the passion and the drive from the woman, and you're no longer getting the full commitment that you need from them to keep your project or campaign or whatever it is that you've got going working effectively. And then you see it trickle down, because the environment, the energy is off there. If we're not respected and we're not shown that we're respected through the pay, through the title, through the way that we're able to move within in a company, we don't feel like we're able to fully contribute. That takes something from us, and it puts us – it puts baby in a corner.
We are women. We are born emotional. We're supposed to be. We are nurturers, and we shouldn't feel like we have to hide that in the workplace either. That's always been a big thing. I think without a woman's touch, without the feminine qualities, without that emotional integrity, we wouldn't have the music that we have right now. We're such a big part of that, but it seems like they continue to try to suppress that in us in the music industry environment.
And I'm starting to see the shift there too. I think our voices are becoming powerful and more respected within these meetings and conference rooms and within these corporate companies. We're valued because we have that sensitivity. We understand it. We recognize it, and it comes through in everything that we do. It's a part of who we are, and that comes out in everything. And without it, it wouldn't be the same.
ALI: The story's not complete without it.
AISHAH WHITE: No.
FRANNIE: Right. Yeah. I mean, women see things that men don't see. Black women see things that white women don't see. And it's so hard to – it's impossible to know what could've happened if, like you said, one particular person wasn't put in the corner. What if that idea that she had that she was afraid to share would've revolutionized something?
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah.
FRANNIE: I wanted to ask about the moment in your career when you decided to go – to be an entrepreneur, to start your own company.
AISHAH WHITE: That for me was – it was a time in my life where I had to put myself first. During that time, I had just had my first and only child. She's 9 now. But I had Aliyah [00:57:20 ?], and I was in a different space, period, after I had my daughter. But during this time, I was also still grieving with the loss of a dear friend, Shakir Stewart, who many people know and we all love. And it really affected at that time in my life and what I was doing at the label.
I think that was a defining moment for many people, that time. And I had to kind of reevaluate what I wanted in life and what I wanted out of my career. And I decided I needed to spend more time with my daughter. I just needed to kind of step away from what was happening at the label, and I took a little time just to work on me, but I also maintained relationships that I had with everyone. And I just kept getting calls, people wanting to work with me, and I was like, "Alright. Let me start with one." And then it was two, and then whatever.
And then I was called by Michael Blue Williams and Chris Lighty to come in and start the PR for Primary Violator, and I took that position. I was excited about going in and doing something fresh and new with amazing creators. And yeah, I got there and shortly after, Chris was gone. And I was just devastated for a while with everything that was happening in the industry and just needed to step back from it all.
But then yeah, I came across some great artists and I got that fire again and I was like, "This music is amazing." At that time I was working with Melanie Fiona. And I just got this passion for it again, and yeah, one client led to the next and within a year I hard to start my own company just out of tax purposes pretty much is what happened. And I was like, "Oh, I have a company now. I'm a business owner. Now what?"
Yeah, I never saw myself having my own company. It wasn't my plan at all, but I'm glad that I decided to just do it that route and start branding myself, and also building a team that I trust and love and that I've been able to help grow and watch them go on and do their thing. It's just great to have a group of people together that are on the same page for the common goal of these artists. So yeah, I've been running AKW PR now for the last three and a half years, and it's been a fun ride, really interesting.
Within that time, I've done a lot with the major labels. I've worked with all of the major labels. I have clients at most of the major labels now. And it's interesting in them calling me for meetings to come work in house again. It's just, the shift of where things are now, with urban being the number one and there being such a lack of strong senior urban publicists, the labels, all of them, are in need of real publicists.
But nowadays you have so many people on Instagram just saying they're a publicist and not knowing what a publicist even means, it's kind of hard to cut through who's real and who's not for people on the outside that don't know who's really in the industry. And I feel sorry cause a lot of people are losing money dealing with phony publicists out there. Guys, do more than check Instagram please.
ALI: I was going to ask for most important piece of advice you could give, but I think that's pretty –
FRANNIE: That was it?
ALI: That's pretty massive. For real.
AISHAH WHITE: Yup.
ALI: I have maybe two quick-fire questions. You don't have to really give long answers to them. Besides your daughter, what is it that makes you run into a fire for this culture, for what you do?
AISHAH WHITE: My love for the music. That's it.
ALI: Alright. It could be that simple.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah.
ALI: Not to make all the rest of your clients mad, but you in a boat –
AISHAH WHITE: Uh oh.
FRANNIE: Oh, god damn.
ALI: – you only got one boat that's going to take everybody off – to get you to safety off the island –
FRANNIE: This is exactly the kind of question that a musician would be very annoyed about answering.
AISHAH WHITE: Right.
ALI: Sorry! I got to ask it. You only get to take three. Who's going with you?
AISHAH WHITE: Current clients or just my whole career?
ALI: Flash moment. Yo, it's like 9/11 all part two. Sorry, 9/11-ers.
FRANNIE: Jesus Christ. We're all getting fired.
ALI: But who are the three that's going with you?
AISHAH WHITE: Oh my gosh. I would take all of them with me if I could.
ALI: C'mon. You can't take them. You got the keys to the escape.
FRANNIE: How big is this boat?
AISHAH WHITE: But if I had to narrow it down to only three, oh my gosh. Well, it would have to be their different, how resourceful they are. Let me think.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I was going to say, who's going to save your life?
AISHAH WHITE: I would have to put –
FRANNIE: Who can fish?
AISHAH WHITE: I would have to put Ty Dolla in there for a couple of reasons. He's very good in the water. I'm not a swimmer, and Ty somehow is going to find a way to get some weed somewhere, and I'm going to need some at some point. So I'm definitely going to have him there.
FRANNIE: This is a very well thought through plan.
AISHAH WHITE: Yes. For sure. But you know what? I would actually also put Mozzy on the boat with me. Mozzy is like a little Macgyver. He –
AISHAH WHITE: Mozzy knows about things. He really knows how to put things together and make something work, so I feel like he could really start a fire or find a weapon to kill some –
FRANNIE: Navigate by the stars.
AISHAH WHITE: – get some food. He's like a hunter and gatherer for real. He's going to make it happen.
ALI: Alright, we can leave it two. That's good.
FRANNIE: I mean, what kind of boat. OK.
ALI: I mean, obviously not a big one. It's just you and the new world, and you've got room for three.
AISHAH WHITE: But three.
ALI: But we can leave it at the two.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah.
FRANNIE: What do you consider when you're making a plan to introduce an artist to the world?
AISHAH WHITE: I consider who the artist is when I'm making the plan. What is it that they're trying to get across and who that audience fits with. If it's press particular, then I'm dealing with introducing him to press people. I'm going to research and think about which of my writers or editors would gravitate to this sound, knowing their tastes first off. And then I'm going to really see what is here in this complete package, what all do we have to present, and how would this best look coming out in the world.
Some things, I mean, your best presentation might be a WorldStar look in some cases. Some things, your best first look might be an in-depth profile with someone who really gravitates and understands who you are as an artist and can champion you in that way. My client – I might have another client that might not have a single or something ready to go yet, but is a presence in a room. So then it's about me getting – setting up these meetings and getting him into the room to get the face to face, so that people can actually get to know this person and see for themselves.
FRANNIE: I'm now thinking about all the different – the times that I have been put in those situations –
AISHAH WHITE: Scenarios.
FRANNIE: – by publicists, and now I'm like, "Oh, now I see."
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah, we just try to think of what is going to be appealing, the most appealing or the coolest thing to do, depending on the type of artist you have. A lot of these younger artists, they don't deal with press regularly period, so you don't really look to the press. You look to drive – you look to do fan/consumer-facing things, and then have the press come to the artist.
FRANNIE: And see the intensity of the fandom or whatever?
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. Different ways to skin a cat, but you just have to think through it. It's about being a great publicist and being able to strategize. You have to do strategy.
ALI: Well, I have a puzzle for you in terms of being a great publicist, cause I know this happens often where you are working to pitch your client and for whatever reason, I can list a lot but I'm not going to, but just for whatever reason, you keep getting pretty much the door shut like, "You know what? We don't want to talk to this person." Or maybe the press feels this person is oversaturated or maybe they haven't been, but just there's not enough – but you believe in their talent and their ability, and you can see long-term the greatness in them. What do you do in that situation?
AISHAH WHITE: You keep knocking on the door, but you find other things to knock on too. You knock on a window. You might need to go through the garage. You sometimes have to look and find – what are those things called? Fireplace –
FRANNIE: Fire escape?
AISHAH WHITE: Fire escape. Thank you.
FRANNIE: Go up through the fire escape.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah. Or come down a chimney or whatever.
ALI: The fireplace.
FRANNIE: Who's that creeping through my window? OK.
AISHAH WHITE: You gotta find other avenues, and there's so many different things that you can do, but it is about finding other things. It might not be the music that gets them too. It might be a personal connection, or it might be a live performance that reels them in and they see a different side of an artist.
It might not be none of those things. They might just be off the artist completely, and when things like that happen to me personally, I fall back. I don't push it too hard. I let the artist do what they do, and nine times out of ten, talent is there like it's supposed to be. These journalists recognize it. They're just late on something, and they get on board late, but they get there. That's happened a lot of times too.
For instance, when I first started with Ty, Ty was making music that people called "overly raunchy," when Ty first came out. Remember that?
FRANNIE: Yes! It was!
AISHAH WHITE: Now everything is.
FRANNIE: I mean, still one of my favorite tapes of all time.
AISHAH WHITE: The first Beach House, we can talk about it.
FRANNIE: Oh, I was talking about that one with Joe.
AISHAH WHITE: Oh, even before! Yes!
FRANNIE: With "Woop."
AISHAH WHITE: Yes, "Woop." Oh my gosh. Yeah, I mean, Ty says some stuff.
FRANNIE: Gotta break them in.
AISHAH WHITE: But at the time it was just a little newer. Now it's the normal. Now it's what everybody's doing. You either catch it right before – and that's another thing. A good journalist can recognize a good publicist when they know something and you guys have this relationship. And I can hit them and like, "I'm putting you on to this early. You could be the first." Those type of things. I think they appreciate that and like that when you can hit them off with something a little early. Sometimes they don't recognize it right away.
ALI: Can I reverse the role? Maybe I'm going to get on the couch with this question, cause same question but kind of flipped differently: so you're the journalist, and you really are trying to get an artist that for whatever reason the artist is just in that zone of like, "Nah, I don't want to talk to them." What do you recommend for journalists and dope podcasters like us? How do we get through to these artists?
Cause I'll say this about myself, there's a reluctancy because I'm an artist to respect – as an artist, to respect artists. And I know I don't like talking to people, and when I say no, I really mean it. No one on planet Earth is going to change my mind. I make up my mind. I'm formidable with my decisions. I understand why. It doesn't matter who, not even my mom. So with that understanding, when an artist takes a position, I go, "Cool."
But there are times that I know we really want to talk to certain people, and I don't know if I'm ready to go through the fireplace, but I'm going to take that as part of the advice, but in addition to that, what do you suggest for us?
AISHAH WHITE: Try to find a personal connection with the artist, something that you can go back – circle back on outside of the music that might be a trigger for them. Nine times out of ten, personal connection is going to take you way further than anything in the music space.
If you can find that common ground, and whether you email it to the manager and the manager knows that this is something that that artist cares about, is into, or is something that's close to their heart, they're going to talk to them about it. Or you randomly bump into the artist or whatever, you show up to where they're at, and you just get in their ear about this particular topic. It's going to open the door up to whatever else. I've seen that happen a bunch of times. And then they'll just be like, "Oh yeah, got you. Whatever you need."
ALI: Got it. Thank you.
FRANNIE: So you're going to have to leave the house.
ALI: You know, for certain people, I will get on a plane, but I just don't want to waste my time. And maybe that's just the wrong way to look at it, but I am a busy soul. So my ego is not involved, but I feel that our flag is not a huge, massive, mighty flag, but for what it represents, it's mighty enough. And so when we say, "Hey! Hey! We really want to talk with you," we really want to talk with you. I don't have to beat my chest to show how compelling or how deep the desire is, but I definitely will take –
AISHAH WHITE: Attack them online too, and let the fans start retweeting your stuff too, and that way it gets to them.
ALI: That's good. That's good.
AISHAH WHITE: That always works, especially for the newer, younger ones. Or FaceTime them. You don't have to meet in person. None of them talk on the phone anymore. They only FaceTime. It's so frustrating. I'm like, "Why are people FaceTiming me. I don't want to FaceTime with you. I'm sorry." I FaceTime with my child. That is it.
There are two artists that I currently FaceTime with. One was X, and he, for a long time, was the only person that I would FaceTime with just out of obligation with him. He made me do it. I was like, "Alright. We're FaceTiming now." So it became our thing. But I just – I'm not into it, and all of these young artists, they don't want to ever dial the numbers. It's just a FaceTime.
ALI: It's the order of convenience though if you think about it. Nah? OK.
FRANNIE: I think it's more inconvenient cause you have to hold the phone over here.
AISHAH WHITE: Yeah!
FRANNIE: And then you have to look somewhere. It's hard to drive.
ALI: That's true. But there's also more of a direct kind of feeling of a connection when you can see a person.
AISHAH WHITE: Absolutely. But there are some days that I work from home in my pajamas –
FRANNIE: You don't have to tell us.
AISHAH WHITE: – and I don't want to FaceTime.
ALI: We can design a little small 3D version of you that we can put in front of you, and then you can clip it on and then it'll be like they're looking at you.
AISHAH WHITE: That would be great.
ALI: I'm going to get someone to work that. That's a dope idea.
AISHAH WHITE: Christmas is coming. Thank you.
FRANNIE: No, you know those things that girls – I don't think they have them for guys, but it's basically like a fake turtleneck. It's just the neck part and then a bib, and then you wear your coat, your blazer –
AISHAH WHITE: Over it.
FRANNIE: – over it. This feels like kind of a '90s thing or whatever.
AISHAH WHITE: It's interchangeable type of thing. Yup.
FRANNIE: That's what we need for FaceTime when you're working at home, just a fake outfit –
AISHAH WHITE: Cover.
FRANNIE: – from your chest up. That's all that needs to look professional.
AISHAH WHITE: Wait, no, that sounds like a great app idea.
FRANNIE: Let's go into business.
AISHAH WHITE: I just want to invent something, and I can stop all of this.
ALI: Thank you so much.
AISHAH WHITE: Thank you guys. This was fun.
FRANNIE: No, thank you for being open to coming here, and I know you're super busy. We really appreciate it. I think you –
AISHAH WHITE: I love y'all.
ALI: We love you.
AISHAH WHITE: This is one of the best shows and in-depth dives I've seen and out lately.
AISHAH WHITE: So I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me.