When I was growing up, my mom loved to play the radio and my father loved to dance. Being the youngest of three and the only girl, I often had the privilege of riding my dad’s toes while he glided across the dance floor. In high school, my intro to hip-hop came via my two older brothers. It was Doug E. Fresh & The Get Fresh Crew’s “The Show” that had me meticulously writing down all the rhymes in order to rap them in the mirror. Even though mainstream media (which I knew nothing about at the time) thought the tune was comedic, it was the dopest thing I had ever heard.
In college I studied political science with the intent of becoming a judge, but it was a summer internship at Sony Music that changed the trajectory of my journey. I was fortunate enough to join the Columbia Records publicity department upon graduation. As an assistant, I cut my teeth on classic albums like Illmatic by Nas (1994), and The Score by The Fugees (1996) and worked with diverse artists in the R&B and jazz genres.
My first international breath was taken when I travelled with The Fugees to Haiti to put on a humanitarian concert, and shoot the cover of The Source Magazine (1996). It was here that I first grasped the concept that music is universal. It crosses borders, political divisions and can unite people across different continents. While in Port-au-Prince, Wyclef and I visited an orphanage where he played the guitar and the children were captivated by the music. This is where my heart first became committed to adoption. In 2011 my husband and I adopted our daughter Sitota from Ethiopia. She and my son Mekhi inspired me to launch my home fragrance company, The Sitota Collection, where my candle fragrances are reminiscent of my global travels. Retail in the States was harder for me to crack as a budding entrepreneur, however I was able to solidify my brand early on with retail in Nigeria.
During our travels to Africa in the early 2000s, my husband and I realized that there was a distinct business opportunity on the Continent. Interest was high and access to North American content was low. We set out to bridge that gap and make connections across the diaspora. We created a television series, “O Access,” that aired on DSTV for five years and became the number one entertainment show in South Africa. We curated shows that highlighted the biggest and the brightest artists in our culture. We brought festivals like T.D. Jakes’ Mega Festival to South Africa, curated music documentaries with MTV and VEVO, launched products and signed artists to major labels.
At Africa Creative Agency, we urge the industry to not look at Africa as a continent that is simply in need but as a continent that can bring you greater exposure and incredible returns on your investment. By all means I still believe humanitarian efforts are very important. In 2012, I was working with 50 Cent when he partnered with the United Nations World Food Program and donated sales from his Street King Energy drink to feed hungry children. We also helped to build a school in the Democratic Republic of Congo and many of those children have gone on to go to universities in North America. I’m super proud of that initiative. But Africa is also the continent where we can expand our brands and do profitable business. The times are certainly changing and over the past five years we’ve seen more and more success stories in Africa. We try to connect individuals to collaborate, partner and expand their business. Whether it was bringing NE-YO to Kenya to connect on a partnership with Coke Studios or consulting Time Warner Inc. and Essence magazine to bring the Essence Music Festival to Durban, South Africa, we encourage the industry to look beyond our borders and not only “Think Globally,” but specifically “Think Africa.”
I realize that this is a work in progress. There are a lot of people who still view Africa as a poor, starving Third World country and that is largely because of the media’s images and how the continent is portrayed. Some feel the media should take the lead in changing this perception but I feel that it’s our responsibility to change our own thinking.
In March of this year Kevin Hart brought his “What Now” tour to South Africa and made history by having the largest comedy show turn out in the country. He was totally surprised by the reception he received. “I travel the world and I tell jokes and I’ve gotten to the point where I feel that anyone anywhere can appreciate my style of comedy,“ he said, “but today [in South Africa] blew me away.” More than ever, the time is now to expand our thinking, expand our brands and take advantage of the global opportunities that will help our culture grow, prosper and remain rich.
It’s time to play big. Think Globally; Think Africa.
Yvette Davis Gayle is a veteran entertainment publicist and currently serves as Vice President of Publicity at Interscope Geffen A&M Records. She is also Executive Vice President of Communications for Africa Creative Agency and founder of The Sitota Collection. She’s a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. Gayle’s essay, “Think Globally,” is part of the Living Legends Foundation’s series on “The State of Black Music and Beyond.”