Yaw Owusu is a Liverpool-based creative consultant whose work integrates music, culture and content production. With a love for his hometown (and an understanding of the disparities between the Northern city and London) he has been back and forth for years, working with clients such as the MOBOs, Universal Records and Liverpool City Council. Having recently launched the PRS Foundation’s Power Up participant programme – and elevated the careers of 40 Black music creatives in the process – here, Yaw talks to us about sacrifice and creating a “castle of creativity” in his city.
Levi‘s, PRS Foundation, Liverpool City Council, MTV, BET, MOBO, BBC, Universal Records, Liverpool Football Club
Place of Study
LLB Law, Liverpool John Moores University (2001-2004)
How would you describe what you do? Professionally, I describe myself as a creative consultant who designs and produces projects and initiatives that integrate music, culture and content production. These projects provide long-term impact for clients ranging from creatives and brands to communities.
I have been blessed to work in this capacity on some really impactful projects with and for the likes of MTV, BET, MOBO, BBC, Universal Records, Levi’s, Liverpool Football Club, Culture Liverpool, Liverpool City Council and more. Even though I’m based in Liverpool, I work across the UK as clients tend to be based here, there and everywhere!
“I understand the challenges of being Black in the UK, so it’s inspiring to see the change that Power Up is making.”
What’s been your favourite project to work on, from the past year, and why? I think working on PRS Foundation’s Power Up initiative has been my favourite project. In 2020, I began working with them to develop Power Up; a new and pioneering initiative that empowers Black music creators and executives in response to the conversations generated by the Black Lives Matter movement.
I worked on the research and development; building on the founders’ vision by reflecting on the experiences of over 100 UK-based Black music creators and executives. After gathering these insights I shaped the programme to reflect this. At the beginning of 2021, I was appointed as the senior manager, where I design and manage the Power Up Participant Programme that annually elevates 40 exciting Black music creators and industry professionals.
Power Up partners include YouTube Music, Spotify, Believe Digital and Beggars Group. We launched it last January and recently wrapped up year one. It’s been so inspiring because I understand the challenges of being Black in the UK and having to break through glass ceilings in the music industry. It is also great getting to see the positive change in the lives and careers of the participants.
Power Up: Empowering Black music creatives, Sky News
What kind of skills are needed to do your role? Would you say you need any specific training for what you do? I think my training has come from the various things I have done in my life. From playing and coaching sports to running youth projects, and trying to do lots of industry-related things such as A&R’ing, promoting, managing artists, radio promotions and creating content. The more I’ve done, the more I have developed my viewpoint, approach and skillset.
However that’s just me, I am not negating the value of studying in a more formal way and how it can impact your understanding and ability to deliver creative production or consult. I just never followed that route. I have, however, taken up training courses to enhance different aspects of my professional practice.
On the whole, I’d say the key skills for my role include ideation and creative development, pitching, collaboration, evaluation, business administration, IT, listening and presenting.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk or in your workspace right now? I’ve got a picture of my son, when he was one. We were at a festival I curated called Liverpool International Music Festival. I believe Shaggy was performing and there were 45,000 people watching. I was just holding my son, looking on, away from the crowd and a freelance photographer took the picture and sent it to me a few months later. It reminded me of the reasons why I do all of this work – providing for him. Hopefully I can also inspire him to do what makes him feel happy and fulfilled.
Yaw and his son
How I got here
What was your journey like when you were first starting out? Did you find your feet quickly? Starting off was hard; outside of what I had seen growing up on TV or read about, I was entering an industry that I had no idea about. Even though I was an avid listener and consumer of music and music culture, there wasn’t a scene in Liverpool I felt connected to, and I didn’t know anyone who worked in the industry. However, myself and my business partner (who was also my cousin and the artist I managed in my first role) had strong ideas about the contribution we wanted to make and what we wanted to do.
As I started trying to get support for what we were doing – shows, radio play, help with building our audience, finance and support – we were met with some negativity and apathy. So we had to find our feet quickly, in particular me, as I was the ‘driver’ of the business, so to speak.
We had to think on our feet and trust our gut and vision; it gave us confidence, tenacity, heightened our ability to learn through ‘doing’ and made us focus on discovering development opportunities ourselves.
Within four years of starting in this space, I was able to become a full-time music professional and haven’t looked back since. I thought I might last a year or so without a stable income from elsewhere. That was 13 to 14 years ago.
“There are some things I miss out on by not being in London, but it pales in comparison to the things I gain by being connected to [Liverpool] my city”
What has it been like building a career in the music industry outside of London? Did you ever move or consider moving to gain better access? I always wanted to ensure that the music we were making, the creatives we were supporting and their viewpoint and stories were a part of the storied cultural history of Liverpool. I’m still committed to that but I know that in order to have that impact we have to connect ourselves to opportunities outside of the city as there weren’t many that were impactful enough here. I was always back and forth between Liverpool and London – to the point where people thought I lived there. It was a great way to get in that circle, but yet return to my base where I could continually hone my craft and build a castle of creativity.
As I have moved further into my career I have had moments where I’ve had to spend enormous amounts of time away from Liverpool to access opportunities and be part of the conversation. For three of four years, I spent two days a week in London. And there have been times when people have proposed that I move there but I have my family and some amazing clients and causes I’m involved with in Liverpool. Luckily I have a few business partners based in London, so I’ve been able to continue to have the best of both worlds.
There are some things I miss out on by not being in the epicentre, but what I lose pales in comparison to the things I gain by being connected to my city. I have a mission to accomplish big things in Liverpool in the next 10 years.
Yaw Owusu officially opens the LIMF Academy 2016, The Guide Liverpool
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why? The Alchemist by Paula Coelho. I read this book a few months before I finished university. At the time I was having to look at other options; due to a tough injury, my pursuit of playing basketball at a US university was fading, and I wasn’t keen on practicing law. Ever since I read it, I’ve been inspired to apply its learning to all I do, especially my path as an ever-evolving professional.
Start with Why by Simon Sinek. This book was a fork in the road for me. Starting with purpose is not only effective but underpins my work. It’s so important to understand how to drill down into purpose and use it to answer the various questions you’re presented with in your career.
Abstract: The Art of Design on Netflix (particularly season one) really inspired me to consider the mastery of one’s craft. I watched every episode because I found all of the creative processes so insightful and aspirational, especially Tinker Hatfield, Ruth Carter and Es Devlin. Even from a content producer’s viewpoint, I loved the way the episodes were produced; they’ve informed and inspired some of my own audio documentaries.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way? Sacrifice. I have had to accept that to move forward, there are sacrifices that have to be made. Everything from sleep, free time, social activities, friends and family, peace of mind. But from my vantage point, I wouldn’t change anything. It’s never been easy and I can’t imagine that this tension will ever go.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work? Do you have any advice or learnings to share? I’m awful at social media and self-promotion. I came off Facebook about 15 years ago, I wasn’t on Instagram and Twitter for about six years, and have only just come back to Instagram in 2020. I have a LinkedIn which I nervously update or delete every now and again. I battle with feeling like a glorified self-indulgent promotions person. So yeah, I’m not consistent with social media.
However, I know it is important for people to know and understand what you do, so you can position yourself and your work. I’m keen to spend more energy in nurturing real life relationships and sharing, promoting and actualising opportunities that way. I feel that is a lost art and one the digital tools sometimes make us forget.
“I battle with feeling like a self-indulgent promotions person – but [social media] is important so people can get to know your work.”
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a freelance creative? I’ve learnt this the hard way but I try to create balance by taking care of what’s already on my plate. In my opinion, this is the best way to be more financially stable. I try not to be constantly chasing the next thing. As I grow and mature, I’m focused on working out who the best clients to work with are, and confidently charging what I know I deserve.
In a simple way, I’m getting so much better at saving for a rainy season. The skill is in knowing that if you had to, or wanted to, stop working for a while, you could maintain your lifestyle. Now I don’t have a lavish lifestyle – I don’t have an office, a flashy car or overpay myself – but it still costs, so I’m trying to extend what that period of non-working could look like.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received? Rob Swerdlow – who manages the likes of Little Simz and Michael Kiwanuka and is a scouser – told me that “the common myth in the music industry is that you have to be the label boss, with the corner office and millions of records sold to be successful.” He confirmed that there’s space for everyone, we all can contribute to the music ecology and we should take pride in doing what we do and try to master that. It was a lovely message. And one which I found refreshing to hear.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role? I’d congratulate them if they know what they want to do and say chase mastery. Dedicate yourself to understand the skill of creative consultancy and then take the necessary steps to enhance that skill and all of its nuances. Then be super ambitious and make some amazing work which really creates impact.