POWER UP, 2023

Ben Wynter on POWER UP: 'If you give Black talent an opportunity, Black talent will thrive'

POWER UP's co-founder on its origin story, what the future holds for the initiative and why the music industry must continue to honour its Blackout Tuesday pledges.

Sam Moore
  • By Sam Harteam Moore
  • 23 Oct 2023
  • min read

‘If we induct 40 people every year, in 10 years’ time we’ll have 400 people in the POWER UP network,’ Ben Wynter tells M about his ambitious long-term vision for the initiative he co-founded in 2020 to uplift Black talent across the music industry. ‘If each one of those 400 people brings another three people, that's 1200 people in the network. You then have a community that can start to generate its own ecosystem and create its own economy.’

Three years in, this projected growth of the POWER UP community is very much on track. Since launching in 2021 as a joint venture with PRS Foundation, who manage the initiative in partnership with YouTube Music, Beggars Group and the Black Music Coalition, POWER UP has inducted 120 Black music creators and industry professionals into its supportive network. The likes of Nova Twins, Speech Debelle and Donae'o are all members of its Participant Programme, as are broadcaster Jamz Supernova, AIM board member Despa Robinson and artist and label manager Lesley-Anne O’Brien. Speaking to M last month, Leeds artist Graft, who won the BBC’s The Rap Game UK in 2020, said that his POWER UP funding grant was ‘the best I’ve received in terms of the people I’ve met and the connections I’ve made. The support I’ve received is like no other.’

As well as championing its participants, POWER UP, through its Movement arm, is committed to enacting substantial change across the music industry in terms of addressing anti-Black racism and racial disparities in the sector. The initiative was devised in the wake of Blackout Tuesday in June 2020, when Ben held open and honest talks with PRS Foundation CEO Joe Frankland about how the organisation would be fulfilling its ‘black square commitment’ of working towards eradicating racial injustice.

‘We had a three-hour conversation about what it means to be Black in Western society, and the fact that if I leave my house I'll experience some form of prejudice, if not racism,’ Ben recalls. ‘I think it's really important to stress the difference between racism, prejudice and ignorance.

‘I then gave them examples of things I have to think about as a Black male that white males never have to encounter. On a work front, I explained how, in pretty much every meeting I was a part of, I was the only one of me in the room. We do gender equality, but there's no ethnic equality in these rooms. Going on trips to Reeperbahn Festival and Eurosonic, before I went I'd have to Google, "Is it safe for me to go?" Even going on a night out, I put two pairs of shoes in the boot of my car because [a venue] might say I'm not coming in because I've got the wrong shoes on. Alright, let me change my shoes, now let's see what happens. I have to think about all of these things just as a matter of fact, because that's normal life in Western society.’

Following a further conversation with the Foundation (‘It was extremely emotional: I'd never addressed the trauma I'd experienced in the music industry, because it's just part of my daily life that you just suck up and deal with’), Ben and Joe then set about laying the foundations of POWER UP.

'Initially, it was based on my own journey and experiences in music,’ Ben continues. ‘Like [coming up against] glass ceilings, where there hadn't really been opportunities for me to go beyond a certain point, or the prejudice I'd experienced, like managing a rock band and being told I can't come in the venue and people asking why I was there. The band had to say, "Actually, that's our manager, let him in."’

Bringing on board creative consultant Yaw Owusu, who is now Senior POWER UP Manager, Ben formed a series of steering groups to explore the potential scope of POWER UP: ‘We looked at different facets of Blackness. Over 100 Black people across the industry participated, [sharing their views on] gender, sexuality and different sectors of the business, including legal, live music, finance, management, marketing, A&R and PR. That helped refine and shape what POWER UP should look like.’

In addition, an executive steering committee comprised of ‘some of the most successful Black talent’ in the industry was formed, featuring the likes of Danny D, Taponeswa Mavunga and Keith Harris OBE. ‘It's such an amazing melting pot of successful Black people who have overcome the odds and were able to feed into the decisions that need to be made and understand the nuances and the effects that those things might have on us as people,’ Ben adds.

With the goal of ‘helping Black talent smash through the glass ceiling’, POWER UP set out on its mission to break down barriers, ensure better representation and accelerate meaningful change across the industry. As well as providing career-building grant support, the participant programme also offers a range of benefits including regular masterclasses, mentoring support, mental health resources, and free membership to organisations such as AIM.

While, as Ben (pictured below) says, the participant programme ‘rightfully gets a lot of recognition’, the initiative’s other focus is on accountability and enacting positive change through the work of POWER UP Movement. ‘It's about stepping in when needed, ensuring that there's accountability and making sure that we're making the industry a better, more equitable and more equal place, and create an opportunity for Black talent to thrive,’ Ben explains, before citing one recent example. 'I saw that the streaming debate was happening in Parliament, and I said, "Where's the Black faces?" Black music genres were among the early adopters of the streaming services and essentially made them what they are, because rap music is one of the most consumed genres on these services. Why are we, therefore, not in the conversation?

‘As POWER UP, we invited all the main players of the streaming debate to participate in a round table, but initially it felt defensive. We got there in the end: we had to have many separate and disparate conversations, and then pull everyone together to have a bit of a debate. I give Graham Davies [outgoing Chief Executive of The Ivors Academy, who worked with the DCMS Select Committee] his dues: we were very key to ensuring that POWER UP has a seat at the Intellectual Property Office round table for industry reform around streaming. I'll sit there with my POWER UP hat on, but that's very much because Graham saw the debate, understood it and went, "Yeah, we're being too fragile here". He stepped forward to say, “POWER UP should be at this table because they have a voice that needs to be heard.”’

Ben Wynter press

Achieving this level of influence demonstrates how far POWER UP has come since those first conversations in the wake of Blackout Tuesday. But since that collective promise was made by the music industry in June 2020, has enough be done subsequently to empower Black creatives and combat racism across sector? 'I think the music industry jumps on so many moments where it's like, "This is happening, we need to try and do X",’ Ben replies. ‘I think the music industry needs to really lock in when they're going to do something. I think Blackout Tuesday happened with the best intentions, but, three years on, I feel like there's fatigue around the messaging and the conversation.’

Ben is of the view that ‘there's a lot of things happening in the industry that I see [today] where people are doing and saying things that go against their black square commitments’.

‘That’s why I say this is a really important moment we're in right now,’ he continues. ‘As an industry, we can either go back to where we were pre-2020, or we can progress and become something that the whole world aspires to be. If we're not careful, we're going to slide right back to 2019, 2020. I feel like we have to say, "Actually, that's not where we want to be".

‘I think the most beautiful thing about Blackout Tuesday is it showed me that that's not who people want to be. That's the most important thing: I don't think anybody wants to be racist, nobody wants to be sexist or anything [like that]. I think everybody wants to be on the right side of things, or most people, anyway. I felt like that was a moment where the world showed that, "No, we don't want to be that way. We want to be on the right side of things". I just feel that old habits die hard, so it’s about putting that back in people's consciousness to be on the right side of things.'

Ben also believes that the industry needs to be more proactive in supporting pioneering initiatives like POWER UP. ‘It costs a significant amount of money to run POWER UP each year. I always wanted the industry to contribute and pay for POWER UP because the industry participated in Blackout Tuesday: they said they wanted to see change and that they would support change. There was talk of all these hundreds of million-pound funds that were available to support change. I'd like to see those funds being spent on initiatives like POWER UP, Black Lives In Music, Girls I Rate and Black Music Coalition that are there to support Black talent and move the needle within the business.’

This aligns with Ben’s steadfast belief that ‘if you give Black talent an opportunity, Black talent will thrive’. ‘Generally, Black talent has to be excellent to survive, so if you give them an actual opportunity to more than survive, they’re going to thrive. If they thrive, that's only going to help your organisation and your business because it's going to generate more income for you and it's going to diversify your business and your audience. My message is: give Black talent a chance to thrive, and you'll be surprised at what happens.'

Having announced their latest Participant Programme inductees back in July, POWER UP is already looking ahead to its fourth year in 2024. ‘Year 1 [in 2021] was very much online because of the pandemic, which was a little bit tough,’ Ben recalls. ‘Year 2, we were able to move into a hybrid thing and started asking how it could work. Year 3, we've got a lot more of an idea of how to manoeuvre and make this thing really work for people.

‘The meetups are crucial and really emotive. During our first Year 3 meet-up there were tears from participants, because they were like, "This is the first time I've been in a room in this industry with people that look like me. I'm able to be me and be free, not have to code-switch or wear a mask, and I'm free to talk about my experiences. Not only can I talk about my experiences, but you've had similar experiences and you understand what I'm saying!" It gets quite emotional.’

Noting how co-founding POWER UP is ‘definitely one of the best things I've ever done in my life’, Ben is further heartened by a quote Speech Debelle gave to M recently about how the POWER UP network represented ‘kinfolk’, adding: ‘Our skills and talents are so varied, and POWER UP shows we can be so many things while also being Black. Helping us stay connected is crucial to surviving the kind of tactics a place like the UK has against us. How can you pit us against each other when we can just pick up the phone?’

'It's such a beautiful quote,’ Ben says in reply. ‘I think Speech eloquently summed up the vision that I always had. To hear that coming from a POWER UP Participant who has been through it, come out the other side and is still engaged and still very much talking to all three years [of POWER UP], that's exactly what it's about. It's about elevation, moving forward, the network. It’s a beautiful thing to hear.’

You can find out more about POWER UP by heading here.