“I helped Culture Liverpool when they brought the MOBO Awards to Liverpool, designing a grassroots engagement and education programme. We didn’t just bring in key national industry leaders to do sessions, though, we also managed to reflect and engage with the local creative communities in an authentic and impactful way.” Yaw Owusu is talking about the time when the Liverpool International Music Festival (LIMF) came into his life. It was 2012 and Liverpool City Council had started to think about a new music festival perhaps moving the city on from the Mathew Street Festival. “When they decided to move forward with LIMF, in January 2013, I was put forward to present my ideas on what a new music festival could look, sound and feel like,” reveals Yaw. “Not long after my presentation, the event and project manager, Sue Lees, said they wanted me to be the music curator and things have gone on from there.”
They really have. LIMF is unrecognisable from its predecessor. That’s probably because it doesn’t have a predecessor, though. Sure, we all like to think that the end of the Mathew Street Festival and the beginning of LIMF are connected (and, obviously, they are in a way), but the facts are our city’s obsession with nostalgia can sometimes lead to us shackling new ideas before they get busy being born. “Remember, LIMF is just a toddler,” says Yaw. “Imagine how interesting it will all get if we can get LIMF into its teens… ” He’s not wrong.
LIMF isn’t the only thing that occupies Owusu’s mind, though. He’s also creative director of music consultancy agency, Nothin But The Music, and a director and artist manager (including looking after the steady progress of XamVolo) at the playmaker group – as well as the subject of this week’s #LiverpoolLessOrdinary…
The modern music business makes extraordinary demands of those involved. What drew you to it?
I fell into it quite naturally. I started off helping out a family member who was dabbling with making music and we both used our different skill sets to do something we loved: creating and sharing music. One thing led to the other and, twelve years later, I’m still doing this… I have never thought about it as entering the music business, though, despite being very aware that we had to make money. Even today, I don’t consider myself as a ‘music industry person’, despite the fact that I work throughout many strands of the industry. It is demanding – and constantly in flux – but it’s very exciting and life-affirming, so I feel blessed to be able to do this work.
You manage, curate and organise. What strengths do you possess to enable you to do all three successfully?
I will have to trust your judgment that I do all three successfully! I still consider myself a beginner – trying to do what I do as well as possible. The main traits that have helped me survive are hard work, self-confidence, self-reliance and an understanding that you can not progress in a vacuum… we are all interlinked and connected. As is every part of our industry.
You’re known for LIMF. Tell us more about how you got there…
Before LIMF I had been working in and around music for nearly a decade, doing everything from management and promotions, to programming and curating media content.
You still do a lot of this, don’t you?
Yes, via Nothin But The Music and the playmaker group. I’ve put out music by local artists and worked with many international artists and brands: Wiley, The Roots, local legend KOF. I’ve also worked with brands like Cornerstone, BBC, Love Music Hate Racism etc. There’s quite a bit that exists outside of LIMF…
Where does your work ethic come from?
In a nutshell, I’m the middle child (which explains a lot)! I’m also of a dual heritage home – my Dad is Ghanaian and Mum is Jamaican – so music was always around… as was inspiration, order and good people.
Any childhood memories stand out as pivotal?
My cousin, Reg, introducing me to ‘YO! MTV Raps’.
How vital that a show as groundbreaking as that was able to reach a young lad in Liverpool.
Reg also played me hip-hop for the first time in around 1987… and then ‘YO! MTV Raps’ changed my life.
What about live music?
All the live music I’ve took in during my life has played a part – from the stuff I used to get from my cousin in London, to my close family here, to the indie bands my friends loved in secondary school, to the music in the clubs during my late teens/early twenties. The one thing I learnt early on is the intrinsic and social value of music and the need to respect all the different forms.
Was that the spark for your entry into the game: to use music, media and arts to engage with young people?
We started something called URBEATZ out of necessity – there wasn’t much structure for original urban music at the time. As I said earlier, we were just wanting to make and share music, so URBEATZ created what we needed to in order to get it out: a ‘label’, showcase nights, a studio, a radio show, a magazine, a blog… then everything just grew.
Very organic, then…
We ended up creating documentaries for TV, making a magazine, creating digital content, getting into alternative-education heavily and so much more. It has morphed into various other entities now – although it will always be my ‘business baby’.
I guess it all led to your current role as curator of LIMF. Why do you think LIMF exists?
I suppose there are various reasons why it exists. The reason I like to focus on is the need for a platform, project and event that reflects the ever-evolving relationship the city of Liverpool and its artists have with music.
And its development?
In the current climate, I believe the development of the festival has been unbelievable.
LIMF offers many benefits, including economic, but the most important I believe is it brings people together from all over (including outside of the city) to celebrate one of Liverpool’s best assets and exports: music.
Tell us about your favourite festival moments so far…
There are too many! I’ll give you thirteen, because it’s my favourite number: Damian Marley (2013); Boy George et al in St George’s Hall, directed by Steve Levine (2014); ‘The Record Producers’ Live’ with Lamont Dozier (2015); ‘Routes Jukebox’ documentary (which will be screened in Liverpool soon); ‘House Nation’ with Circus in the Palm House (2016); Echo & The Bunnymen at ‘Summer Jam’ (2015); ‘MTV Brand New’ with Becky Hill, Jess Glynne and Ella Eyre (2014); ‘BET Music Matters’ first ever UK live show (2014); The Wombats closing ‘Summer Jam’ (2016); the whole of ’76-16 – From Eric’s To Evol’ project (2016); LIMF Academy as a whole; Talib Kweli in St George’s Hall – think about that one (2015); and LIMF Academy/Royal Philharmonic Youth Company collaboration (2016).
What’s next from LIMF and Yaw Owusu?
I’m just trying to keep it moving, developing and exciting. As long as the people like what’s happening on the stages, the creatives feel they are being represented correctly and the council are cool with me doing what I feel needs to be done, I’ll keep doing it. I like to believe that no one could out-work me.
Pic courtesy Nothin But The Music