Unfiltered with…Tuma Basa
Born in Congo (Zaire), raised between Iowa and Zimbabwe, and now based out of DC, get to know YouTube’s Director of Black Music and Culture Tuma Basa and what’s on his mind in our inaugural edition of Unfiltered.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first fall in love with music and how did you end up making a career of it: what's the story?
In my mind, I am doing the things my dad would have done if he had the same opportunities.” Tuma Basa Director of Black Music and Culture, YouTube Music
Falling in love with music was my dad's influence. Since I was a little kid he always had a lot of records plus he would dub music. I would go through the records he was listening to and memorize the words of the songs he would play.
In my mind, I am doing the things my dad would have done if he had the same opportunities. He was aggressive in keeping up with good, popular music. He is a fan of lingala, rock, R&B, soul, pop; a way more eclectic taste in music than I have. He listened to artists like Sister Sledge and Simon & Garfunkel. But for me and music, it's unrelated, but I played the baritone in school. I never had any solos, maybe once in my six, seven years of playing. When I was in Zimbabwe, I tried to be a rapper. Even got a few spins on Radio 3 (ZBC). My name was B2maB and I flowed like H2O.
The actual career part came later on. It was a chance conversation with Ossie Davis when I lived in Utah for a year. There wasn’t a lot of diversity in Utah at the time and I was a stand-in for a “Touched by an Angel” spinoff pilot called “Promised Land,” which Ossie was in. The two of us ended up having a chance conversation where he told me to look at the behind the scenes in entertainment. So I told my parents I wanted to be an entertainment lawyer and I ended up doing three internships – one at EMI, one at Cutler & Sedlmayr (now called Sedlmayr & Associates) and then at BET in DC, where I moved in 2000. That's really where it all began.
YouTube is the archive and home to the world’s music videos. Do you have a favorite music video of all time and do you think music videos are still important today?
They are 100 percent important. I don’t have a favorite per se, but I think Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” is up there. Oh, and Michael Jackson’s “Remember The Time”. Both had similar vibes with the African royalty energy. Shout out to Iman. And both are great songs that never got old. Timeless!
The first part of my career was 100 percent dedicated to curating music videos on TV. I remember clearly when things started to move to the internet, I was programming MTV Jams, the channel. A lot of people wanted their videos played on there and I had an epiphany. I just reminded Lil B of this story last night; I had reached out to Lil B because he had a video called “Wonton Soup” that I wanted to play but he couldn’t find the hard drive with the final file. He was getting so much love on YouTube and the blogosphere that he was totally cool about it. That was the video that really made me realize that times had changed. I was already 11, 12 years into programming music videos on cable television at that point. That realization had a lasting impact on me.
I look at my role in two ways, internal and external. Internally, I represent 'The Culture' at YouTube and then externally I represent YouTube to 'The Culture.'” Tuma Basa Director of Black Music and Culture, YouTube Music
Can you describe what you do at YouTube?
I support and lead the efforts of anything that touches Black music, which in itself is a broad range of genres (Hip Hop, R&B, Afrobeats, Amapiano, Dancehall, UK Rap… etc). I work with all of the different departments from marketing, to artist and label relations, ad sales, government and public policy, trust and safety, communications - not just figuring out a way to add value, whether to an idea or concept or activation, but also making sure we are doing it with cultural accuracy, involving the right people and going about it the right way. It sometimes feels like consultancy, talking through the best route to make the most impact. I look at my role in two ways, internal and external. Internally, I represent "The Culture" at YouTube and then externally I represent YouTube to “The Culture.”
How do you define “The Culture”?
“The Culture” to me is the whole music ecosystem — not just the labels, managers, and the artists. It includes the fans, the media, the clubs, the festivals, even the people in the streets who hear a song playing from a car and don’t know who sings it but they just like what they hear. The music industry is just the commerce part. The holistic music community is “The Culture.”
Music culture and trends shift over time, what do you see as YouTube’s role in moving music culture forward?
I see YouTube’s best role as not here to interfere but to support the things that are happening. And that's what we’re doing with Avenues, an education program we launched in July 2022, where we seek to inspire and equip artists with the knowledge and tools to make a living on YouTube. Shout out to Wallo267, who is our Cultural Advisor and has spearheaded this effort.
The work we are doing at Avenues to drive equity and increase YouTube’s cultural relevance in Black communities across the US is really important. With Avenues, we are going directly to the streets and touching and educating the people on how to benefit most from YouTube! When they leave one of our sessions, they are better informed, better connected, and better equipped to share their music. Working with Wallo is a pleasure, he is one of the smartest and hardest working people I know and he makes the whole team better. He makes YouTube better. Something I have learned from him is that when you are in this position it's not about making smart decisions it's about making wise decisions.
Do you have a prediction for what's coming next in the music industry?
Micro-entertainment. More short-form, more quick laughs, more quick cries. Pretty much what we’re doing with YouTube Shorts. It's its own genre now.
What advice would you give to younger artists coming up in the modern music industry?
Have strong relationships where you can get information you can’t search for online. There is a lot of wisdom and real-life insight that hasn’t been shared online. Also, artists have to engage their audience regularly. Don’t get caught up in the matrix and lose that connection.
What would someone reading this be surprised to hear that you’re listening to today and what are some of your all time albums?
Yesterday in the car with my parents, I was listening to The Pointer Sisters, Kool and the Gang, and you know that Madness song, “Our House in the Middle of the Street,” We listened to that, as well as Thompson Twins, and Fine Young Cannibals. A lot of 80s stuff. I lived in Iowa City at that time and that's all that got played on FM radio in Eastern Iowa back then. It's hard for me to pick all time favorites but what’s coming to mind right now is Bob Marley’s Uprising album or The Harder They Come Soundtrack… or maybe Michael Jackson, Thriller or Off The Wall, or one of JAY-Z’s albums, Black Album or The Blueprint. HOV’s the G.O.A.T.
If you didn’t work in music, what would you be doing?
Listening to music!