The recurring complaint about the current state of the music business is that stars are fostered by a cookie-cutter, simple-minded, ringtone-friendly, sales-obsessed, talent-challenged system. Enter BET’s Music Matters program. The brainchild of BET Senior Director of Music Programming Kelly “Kelly G” Griffin, the music initiative began in 2009 and has helped spotlight the burgeoning careers of artists like R&B songstress Marsha Ambrosius, rap upstart J. Cole, Caribbean-Canadian hitmaker Melanie Fiona, eccentric singer/songwriter Miguel and U.K. soul sensation Jessie J. In this exclusive interview, Kelly G lays out the keys to empowering future stars.
On timeless records:
The biggest inspiration for starting this program came from the lack of what I believe is music that could stand the test of time. As much as we may enjoy those kind of one-hit wonders, or songs that I call ringtone and dance-type of records, I was asking myself a couple years ago, "Where are the artists and records that are gonna be around for the next ten or fifteen years?" And I found that we just didn’t have a lot of those artists to lean on. As a result of that thirst, I found in my search a lot of these great independent artists that are doing real music, that have amazing movements that are going on, and I wanted to utilize the Music Matters program to highlight this great talent and music.
On the ongoing search for new Music Matters talent:
I look for something that’s special. How does it resonate to me or other individuals? Whether it be through the person’s on-stage presence, their lyrics, their melodies, just the general music that they put out. Just something that says, "Yeah, there’s something special here. There’s something that has a lot of substance that will be around for the next ten or fifteen, twenty years.” One of our first Music Matters artists that we are very proud of is Marsha Ambrosius. Her debut album came out No. 1 in SoundScan. She’s up for, I believe, three BET Awards nominations. We have Miguel who’s just started off a little left-of-center performer, but a guy that’s really studied his craft, studied the greats before him and is interested in a different type of vision. Those two actually ended up signing to major labels. We have a kid named Jessie Boykins that’s been around for several years, has two or three albums out and has a huge following. We have another gentleman named Mali Music who is a Christian, inspirational, gospel-type of artist who has this ground-swell following, just an amazing online presence and cult following. We have KimberlyNichole, again same scenario--Left Eye meets Cee Lo meets Erykah Badu meets Ella Fitzgerald—all those kind of mixtures of music and a very dynamic performer. These two artists, Mali Music and Kimberly, will be debuting on the BET Awards, so they’ll be highlighted on that for Music Matters.
On getting away from the norm:
I think whenever there is a lack of something that we think has value, whenever there’s something missing, I think that ultimately comes to the top. At the end of the day, great music kind of swells to the top. And like I said, I can’t attribute it to one specific thing. Twelve years ago, we [were] in the ’90s where it was all about the New Jack Swing and Guy and all of those acts. And then 10 years before that was '80s with Michael Jackson—times change. So you’ve had your slew of one-hit wonders through the ’90s, through the ’80s, and obviously through the 2000s. But again, I think with technology [and] the changes of time, that disposable music is easily accessible. And I also think that you have an industry that shifts to whatever’s hot. If everybody’s doing the Auto-Tune, then you know what? Let’s all do Auto-Tune. If everybody has real drums on their records, then let’s all do real drums, or if everybody’s using the 808 kick drum, then let’s use the 808 kick drum. You have a lot of followers, and the industry as a whole has a tendency to gravitate toward that. And it’s unfortunate because the shift of the music industry had not allowed those who still are doing real music, who still have real instruments, and still play with live bands—the new music industry model didn’t help support that.
On the importance of educating:
I think it’s important for BET to show folks that, You know what? We still play real instruments; real instruments still have a value. Second to that is that we believe that having a live band, even for rappers, just brings a different texture to the music. And a lot of this new music that’s out now in hip hop is so melodic. So the actual live instrumentation actually complements what’s already going on. If you listen to Drake and Lil Wayne, these guys are very melodic. Even like what they’re calling a one-hit wonder type of record, YC’s “Racks,” if you listen to that record, it’s a very melodic record. So I think that’s kind of what we wanted to get; we wanted to be able to get to the fabric of the good music by using live instrumentation. I think music fans in general appreciate good music. And I think good music will always sell. That’s why you have an Adele that’s selling over 2 million copies. Alicia Keys comes out with a record; it sells. Marsha Ambrosius comes out with a record and it sells—people gravitate to good music.
On carrying on a BET tradition:
Music Matters continues BET’s legacy of “BET showed it to me first.” BET was the first place for music. We all grew up on BET and I think a lot of us can attest to the fact that the first time [you] saw Maxwell, or the first time you saw Erykah Badu, or the first time you saw Mary J. Blige was on BET. And Music Matters just continues that legacy. As technology has changed and our audience has evolved, we just found different ways to continue to bring you the next up-and-coming superstars.