Walking into the offices of Music World Entertainment in Uptown Houston Texas was an especially exciting moment for me as an artist in Houston. In its 25th year, Music World Entertainment continues to add its rich legacy and history as one of the most successful independent labels in the world. Right here from Houston, Texas — awe-inspiring to anyone. I have admired and enjoyed all of the talent I see represented by the array of #1 records and coveted international music industry awards on display in front of me. I take a deep breath as I realize this is probably only a fraction of what they have. I am greeted by Corey Mason, our International Correspondent, who has arranged this interview for us with Mr. Mathew Knowles, visionary founder of Music World Entertainment, which is comprised of: Music World Gospel, Music World Music, Compadre Records, Music World Kids and Music World Properties. We walk back into Mathew Knowles’ office, which has an amazing view of Memorial Park, and more books, magazines, awards, and posters that I’d like to look through for days. A few moments later, Mr. Knowles walks in with a few of his staff and immediately puts me at ease by catching me off guard. He leans in and says, “I’ve never done this before”, immediately lightening the mood in the room. We settle in the sitting area and our conversation begins.
iF: You received the Greater Houston Partnership International Executive of the Year Award in 2007. Can you tell us what led to that award?
Knowles: You know I sold Music World in 2002 for 10 million dollars and 30 million in stock to Sanctuary, which was the largest Independent Record Label and Management company in the World. Then I became president of a division with 170 employees. I brought on-board five black managers. One is Troy Carter, who has served as Spotify’s global head of creator services since June 2016. I mentored him. Carter has managed Eve and Lady Gaga. Mary J Blige’s husband, I bought his company, then I bought the kids that had D12 and then we also had Mary Mary along with Destiny’s Child, Solange, Lyfe Jennings. So we had like an All-Star cast! And that was just on the management side. Then I did the O’Jays last album here, Earth Wind and Fire’s last album here, Chaka Khan and the London Symphony, Kool and the Gang, and so I got the award because I’ve sold more records outside of America and have brought more awareness to Houston than any one person that lives here. Did you see those awards and plaques outside? They are from all over the world!
iF: So, essentially you took Houston and its talent all over the world?
Knowles: I guess you can say that. Let me share with you, the biggest mistake if you saw Berry Gordy’s play about Motown, is when he moved to Los Angeles because then his artists got exposed to “Hollywood”. If he had stayed in Detroit, he would have kept his artists. I stayed in Houston because I didn’t want to be in New York or Los Angeles, and Houston is halfway.
iF: : There is a large music scene in Houston. I feel Houston has a great music family.
Knowles: You know, we just do a poor job of marketing entertainment in Houston. Period. It starts with city government, HoustonFirst, etc. They don’t get it! I mean we have a tunnel system that is five miles of space that could be turned into an entertainment destination with a blink of an eye but nobody’s getting it, so it closes at 6:30 and on the weekends it could be a destination. You know Atlanta has an underground where they have entertainment.
iF: So, you feel that we need to do a better job promoting art and music in Houston?
Knowles: Absolutely! I think when you look at our population and the companies here like Rap-A-Lot, one of the largest rap labels, Music World, some of the country and Tejano artists that are from here. We have a music scene but we let Austin take it over. It should be Houston instead of Austin. They had the President of the United States at SXSW, Jimmy Kimmel did his show live from Austin, because nobody gets it here in Houston because the good ‘ol boys just want to keep it good ‘ol boy. It kind of reflects where our country is today. When they say we want to “make America great again” what they’re really saying is we want to “make America white again”. In this whole thing of entertainment, there is an element of racism.
iF: Yes, very much so. It has also been true of the musicians I have known that they wanted to promote love and unity through their music around the world.
Knowles: I talk about it in my book, “Racism Through the Eyes of a Child”. I talk about the music Industry, because at Columbia Records, I was the manager of a white girl band and a white boy band, and I know how their recording budgets were twice as much as their “Urban” counterparts, their marketing budgets were twice as much, their advance that they got for signing was twice as much, from the beginning. I didn’t like the segregation of having an “Urban” division or black division and then a Pop division, which really was black and white you know, it’s segregation and some record labels still have that segregation. I talk about “Colorism” in my book.
iF: What is Colorism?
Knowles: Colorism is where we discriminate based on someone’s shade of skin color. It’s not just in the black community. It is all over the world, Mexico, India, etc. The darker the complexion they will have the lowest economic status and menial labor jobs. In the music industry if you look at Top 40 Pop Radio and you look back over the last 20 years you will find maybe one or two artists of my complexion that have been played substantially. It’s just a fact. The numbers speak for themselves. Even now there is Mariah Carey, Rihanna, Beyonce, Cardi B … what do they all have in common?
iF: They all have that crossover sound?
Knowles: They’re looking for that crossover look. It’s not just the music. It is also the imaging that goes with it.
iF: Imagery. Has it always been a major part of the package?
Knowles: I can only speak from my 25 years coming from corporate America, imaging is as important as the music. I always say I do not make the rules, I know how to make them work for me well. When I look at signing an artist, especially a female, it is not as profound with men as it is with women, but it is a beautiful business. It’s a “beautiful people” business. The music industry just is. The only exception is Gospel. When you look at Pop and R&B, it is a beautiful people’s business.
iF: The new book that you have coming out, “Emancipation of Slaves Through Music”, how did it come about?
Knowles: In the fall of last year I taught a course at TSU that we had mutually created. It allowed flexibility to the professor and could be on any topic the professor wanted. It is called Special Topics. It just hit me moments before walking in on the first day. Let’s talk about the effect music has had on slavery in America. I only had ten students that semester, so I challenged my students, and they researched the entire semester and helped me write the book. I learned so much, and I get excited, because of the extensive research behind it. When slaves were taken from Africa it took two years to get here by boat. We were tribal, meaning that we did not speak the same language. People thought just because we were all Africans that we spoke the same language. Well, we didn’t speak the same language, there were so many different dialects. Also 25% of the slaves that came from Africa were Muslims. Most people don’t realize that they were of Muslim faith, and so how are these people going to communicate on this two year voyage? It was through music from clanging their chains to hitting against walls, humming, etc., that they began to communicate. Then it talks about when they got to America, the slave owners thought that when the slaves were singing they were happy, so they encouraged them to sing … not knowing that it was through music that the slaves communicated. It was through music that they freed themselves because in those verses there was information on how to run away and get to the underground railroad. It talks about how Muslim tribes like strings and chimes while other tribes like drums, the beat. The Banjo and the Harp were invented in Africa. Then it takes us up to now, the impact of the music post-slavery. How the northerners from the music industry realized the southern slaves were good songwriters. I don’t know if you saw Chess Records. They would come from the north looking for songwriters and Cadillac Records would give them a Cadillac and take all their royalty rights. They didn’t know anything about royalties and publishing rights so they thought they got a good deal. It continues into how Hip Hop and Rap have been influenced, it goes into a lot.What I hope the book does is give you a history of slavery. Most people just do not understand the roles that slaves really played. Give us recognition! Recognize and respect that we played an important role in the development and growth of America.
iF: Will you be teaching at Texas Southern again?
Knowles: I do not know. I am currently talking with a number of universities. I have three offers right now, so I’m excited about that.
iF: Choices are always good!
Knowles: Choices are great! We’ll make an announcement soon when the time is right. I was at TSU for eight years. We created a degree program called Entertainment Recording Management in the school of communications. It went from 0 students to 160 today. I have four interns that are in here right now that are part of that program. So, we will always be connected to TSU. It is time for me to take another step forward.
iF: The Music Industry has changed a lot …
(Mathew Knowles interrupts to ask me) What has changed about it?
iF: I would say the ways that you distribute music and the ways that artists and labels earn money with it have changed rapidly. I have watched how some artists caught on quickly while many others continue to struggle to adjust.
Knowles: I think you make a very valid point about how the distribution of music is but I think equally and more importantly is how we experience music as the consumer. We experience music differently so I predict in the future we will see music not hear it and by seeing music every time we hear it there will be a video playing on our phone, our watch, somewhere. Every time we hear it there will be a visual. Just like I predicted streaming when no one understood streaming. I knew that that would be the new medium. You know when Beyonce released Lemonade it was accompanied by powerful visuals. We had done that with the Destiny’s Child’s Video Anthology, which was exclusively at Walmart. Although Beyonce got the credit for being the first to do it, I had done it years before.
iF: Her being your daughter you let her have that, right?
Knowles: No. No. I am correcting that. If I do not tell my story “history” will be different because I am seeing more and more how people want to tell their version of the history behind Destiny’s Child and all that happened. I’ve changed, I used to be quiet about my role but let me be clear — there would be no Destiny’s Child, there would be no Beyonce if it was not for me. That isn’t from an arrogant standpoint. That’s just a fact.
iF: Right. It is just a fact that you were the vision and the force behind it?
iF: Do you have any more you’d like to say about the history?
Knowles: Well, you haven’t gotten a chance to really look at that room in there but there’s five people working continuously over 30 years of content going through boxes daily, everything from 20s to dat tapes that we are transferring, so we can come out with different types of documentaries. We are finding songs that we had forgotten had been recorded. So we are excited, and then we’re working on Destiny’s Child: The Untold Story that we hope to have out by the holidays or no later than Black History month in February.
iF: While “Emancipation of Slaves Through Music” is about the history of slavery, your other book that came out in 2017, “Racism Through the Eyes of a Child”, is more of a personal story, right?
Knowles: Yeah, I tell my story. I grew up in Gadsden, Alabama, a little small town. 30,000 people. I am 66 years old and I never went to a black school. In 1958 I was in a white elementary school, I went to a white Jr. High School and High School, Gadsden High School.
iF: How old were you when you left Gadsden, Alabama?
Knowles: When I left Gadsden, I was 18. I played basketball, so I integrated the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, and then my junior year, was the first time I had ever gone to a predominantly black school. I had never gone to a black school before I went to Fisk University, so I have a chapter it’s called “Fisk Out of Water”, because I had never been around black people. It was different for me being around all those black people. I.d never seen this before. I’m used to being around quiet people … now it’s loud and energetic. It’s about my experiences growing up.
iF: I heard that you just got back from Italy what were you doing in Italy?
Knowles: I was a keynote speaker in Florence and found an artist in the process who is now recording in London. I go all over the world speaking. In October, I will be in South Africa for a week co-hosting one of the largest TV shows there. So, I do a lot of international travel.
iF: You are still working with talent. The questions on everyone’s minds are: What is he doing with music? What kind of talent is he looking for? What is he already developing?
Mr. Knowles: Do you want to see it? Want to see a video?
He asks his producer to play two videos for us. We gather around his desk. I notice next to his desk is a dry erase board with the words “Think Big” written in large capital letters.
Knowles: The next big thing, I think, in music is Afro-Pop in America. It’s mainly Nigerian music. This artist is from Nigeria.
No one in my company can use the word “little”! Because if you say little, you think little. You see that sign? THINK BIG! My staff knows if you say little I’m going to chew you out.
The video begins to play and an amazingly smooth groove fills the room, ‘Light Up! Light Up!’ — his artist from Nigeria sings. The video is striking bright colors, beautiful dancers, designer appeal, with a very international feel. The imagery is very sexy and the beats were made for dancing.
Mr. Knowles: He has star appeal! Now, wait a few moments there is a surprise I want you to see coming up.
iF: He also plays the violin! That takes it to another level of sexy. Where was this filmed?
Knowles: This was filmed right here in Houston, and we still need to pop the colors and finalize the editing.
Mathew Knowles looks at what his team has produced with pride and a joyful glee in his eyes. He is visualizing and you can feel the energy in the room go up a notch. It’s electric, inspiring, a feeling I will never forget.
Mr. Knowles: Ok! Now we’ll go to the opposite extreme this is my rock band from LA. As a very tight and epic rock tune plays, the imagery is intense and very different from the Nigerian Pop video.
We are all listening intently and it was an electric moment when he spoke over the music to say:
“Look, I’ve had the #1 girl group in the history of music, ‘Destiny’s Child’, I’ve had the #1 trio in the history of Gospel, Trin-i-tee 5:7, #1 female artist with Beyonce, #1 album with Solange. So, I just want to do some different stuff. He leans back in his chair as the rock video plays on and repeats for emphasis, I just want to do some different stuff – but everything we do will always have a quality element to it … I learned that from Xerox. Quality!”
By: Heidi Powell-Prera