Brass Tracks: YolanDa Brown on her new venue Soul Mama and representation in the industry

Brass Tracks: YolanDa Brown on her new venue Soul Mama and representation in the industry

Few working in the music industry can stake a claim to be involved in as many different areas of it as YolanDa Brown. Almost a year into her role as chair of the BPI, the saxophonist, composer, radio presenter and music education expert is now opening Soul Mama, a new grassroots venue and restaurant. Here, the winner of the Music Champion category at our Women In Music Awards 2022 expands on her vision for the business and talks live music, diversification and hard work…


She must have picked it up from playing jazz, you think, as YolanDa Brown talks through her list of projects and passions. That ability to switch rapidly between modes while making everything seem like a coherent whole. It could be a jazz thing, or it could just be who she is. 

Brown is the current chair of the BPI, having taken over from Ged Doherty a year ago, but the musician and executive fills her time with much more than that. 

Brown is also [deep breath] the chair of charity Youth Music, along with sitting on various other boards and advisory committees with a special focus on music education. In June, meanwhile, she broke the record for the biggest amount raised by a restaurant on Kickstarter in order to open Soul Mama, a new small venue and restaurant space in Islington, North London, which she co-founded with her manager Adetokunbo “T” Oyelola. Brown also composes music, including for popular kids’ TV formats, from all-time classic Sesame Street and her own BBC series YolanDa’s Band Jam. Additionally, she works as a presenter for various radio stations, and on top of all that, she still records and tours as a saxophonist. 

Yet, she exudes calm and laughs easily and often throughout her sit-down with Music Week, which takes place during a typically busy day. 

“My primary role, and the reason I wear this many hats, in fact the reason I walk around like a hat rack, is to make connections,” she begins. “I’m very passionate about music and education and I know the gaps and the areas that need support. Sometimes, the industry can offer that support and I have a hat in that ring as well, I can have conversations that cross the border. I’m also an artist, and so I understand that perspective. But as much as it is a lot of hats, it’s nice to be able to stretch into those different places and maybe give a perspective that hasn’t been thought of around the table. That is the thing that drives me to keep doing it and to make more of those connections.”

Brown’s ability to bring people together for the benefit of others, and her capacity for sheer hard work, haven’t gone unrecognised. She has won several awards and honours, including the Best Jazz MOBO two consecutive years in a row in 2008 and 2009. Last year, she received the Music Champion Award at Music Week’s Women In Music Awards. 

“I mean, it was a huge honour just to have been selected,” reflects Brown, who led the room in a sing-along of her walk-on track, Take That’s Never Forget. “A couple of months before, I’d been announced as the new chair of the BPI, and although I’ve been in and around the industry, there were still some people I wanted to meet in that new capacity. The day itself was really great for me, because everybody was there. It almost felt like a welcome event to the wider industry.”

Brown was also awarded an OBE on the 2023 New Year’s Honours List for services to music, music education and broadcasting. 

“It was absolutely a whirlwind couple of months,” she recalls. “I mean, you don’t do any of this for the awards, but when you are honoured, when you are cherished, it does give you a lovely feeling. It helps you engage when you have those little moments where you wonder if this is still your calling.” 

On the day she collected the OBE, Brown met Brian May, who was receiving a knighthood at the same time. It turns out that being at Buckingham Palace together wasn’t the only thing they have in common.

“I was studying a PhD in management science before I went on to be a musician and it was in my final year that I put it on the back burner to pursue music,” she says. “Brian May left his PhD to be in Queen and then went back 30 years later to get his doctorate in astrophysics. I’d always thought of that. So it was nice to tell him and connect over that story. I knew if anyone understood the feeling it would be Brian May!”

Brown’s PhD remains on the back burner for now, and no wonder – she’s buzzing with big plans. It’s time, then, to find out what’s in store for YolanDa Brown, as we discuss everything from the BPI and the prospect of a BRIT School in the North of England, to grassroots venues and what the industry can do to open doors for young people…

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Let’s start with the BPI. How did it feel when you got the call to become chair?

“I got a call from a headhunter and thought, ‘Oh, this is something I’d really like to do.’ It felt like a good time to be part of it all and the changes that are happening. I think what’s really nice is when you go through an interview process and you speak your mind and it aligns [with what the employer wants]. So that was really motivating, I was absolutely chuffed and I’m enjoying it.”

Do you think your appointment proves progress is being made in terms of the calls for diversification in leadership positions?

“I think it probably is the way people look at me, but I don’t look at myself that way, or I would have been doing it for everything in my life since I was born… The area I lived in, the school I went to, the instrument I chose to play and the way I chose to play it. I understand the responsibility, but I don’t necessarily carry it as, ‘Hello, I’m a Black woman, see me here.’ I’m just YolanDa and I can only be me. And, as much as I know that we are living in a time of change and people will remark on that, I also hope that I’m here for what I bring as a human being.”

You’re coming up to a year in the role. What would you say you’ve achieved so far?

“It’s been a very unique year for me, I was remarking on that with the team just the other day. When I came in our CEO of 15 years [Geoff Taylor] was stepping down. So for the first six months it was about securing the future of the BPI, working out what that would look like and who would take the helm. It was good to speak openly with different people about where the BPI could go, but also very time-consuming to make sure we found the right person. I’m now very proud that we have Dr Jo Twist coming in as CEO. And, of course, there are still the conversations about AI, streaming and representation in our industry. There’s still lots of work to be done. I want to see those conversations being approached in a heartfelt way, to see that people really want change. Action can follow much more easily after that, so I’m looking forward to the coming years.” 

Earlier this year, you announced plans to open a BRIT School in the North. How could that benefit the industry?

“Bradford is where we settled on. A lot of research went into that, with a fantastic team at the BPI looking where the school could be, where there was a need, and it’s been great to see that reciprocated by the local area. We’re still waiting to see what the final decision will be, but I’m really excited about the potential. But in order for something like a new BRIT School to happen there need to be so many conversations, so much blue-sky thinking and working out how much industry support will come into it. That project is an example of how talking and thinking about a plan can result in partnerships developing along the way.”

Away from your work at the BPI, you’ve announced plans to open a venue. What was the motivation behind that? 

“Soul Mama is a live music venue and restaurant in Islington Square in what was the old postal sorting office. It’s lovely and we’ve already had some events at the venue – it’s been wonderful to see people in the space. We embarked on a crowd-funding campaign, people were booking tables in advance and buying membership to get early bird tickets. It’s going to be about creating a space supporting everyone from emerging acts to legendary artists; a space to have great food, great music, a community that supports all styles of music. I’m really excited. I know people will say, ‘Oh, she wears so many hats...’ but actually I see this as part of a full circle. It’s a place where education and industry can meet, a place where charity and philanthropy can meet, too.”

But why open the venue now, at such a difficult time for grassroots live music?

“I had a live music venue before, in 2010, and it is a very different landscape. But I saw the power of that space, the way people used it and the way people connected. So, yes, even though we’re going through a very tough time economically, we’ve also been through lockdown and a pandemic. And now more than ever, you need to get people together, people do want to have experiences. And having a space where it’s music and food means you can come out and have a great time and feel fulfilled. It’s mental wellbeing, it’s escapism. We still need other human beings, no matter what happens with AI, we need the spaces to connect.” 

So can Soul Mama help boost the grassroots sector? 

“It’s difficult, it really is. I’ve put a call out to audiences, the people who enjoy these artists and the content they produce, to go and see them in person, go and support their livelihoods. By doing that you’re also supporting these venues. If they didn’t exist, where would these artists play? We need to make sure they’re catered for as well as the biggest venues.”

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What kind of artists are you looking at booking?

“I have a fantastic team, it would be too stressful not to. I have artists and genres in mind, my mix of music is reggae, jazz, and soul. So this space is really conducive for that style of music, but equally, for indie, pop, rock and singer/songwriters, it would be a wonderful space for them and their storytelling to really keep an audience involved. It’s really important for me to get that wide plethora of artists because I think that’s the one thing we do see with venues, that idea of, ‘You can only play a certain room if you play a certain type of music’. I don’t want that to be the case. I’ve experienced doors not opening because of things like that.”

It’s early days, but are there plans for any more Soul Mamas?

“That is the dream, for there to be Soul Mamas in different cities around the world. I would love to provide a touring platform for artists. One production rider that you can roll out across multiple venues. The guarantee that there will always be someone to look out for you and you will have an audience to come and see you. That’s the dream, to be able to give that to artists. Also, with a brand like that you could have so many spin-offs, like a record label or a charitable arm that provides education, whether that’s in sound, lighting, tech or culinary skills and hospitality. Nurturing in different ways, like an actual mama!”

Speaking of charity and education, what do you want to see happen in the industry on a practical level?

“We have all these conversations, but it always ends up boiling down to money. This is a time where money can be hard to come by or is tied up in particular places. But it’s also about accessibility. We’re living in a country where not every child has access to music making. It’s about education, offering opportunities, opening the doors of the industry to welcome young people in. We’ve got younger generations that are working really hard to be a part of the industry, but don’t even know the jobs that they could get into. There are so many connections that need to happen until we find that big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow that will [enable us to do] everything else that needs doing. So I think it’s finding those little pockets of things, collaborations and partnerships that can happen between education and industry that we can do in the meantime, and that will still inspire and motivate people.”

Do you believe that it’s possible for music education to be accessible to everybody?

“That’s my lifelong mission. And deep, deep down in my inner soul, I have to say yes in order to keep going every day. It’s a hard slog. I’ve been to corners of this country where they don’t have any music at all, they don’t have artists coming through, they don’t have any connections at all. And you think, ‘How do we even begin?’ I think, also, there’s a lot of lobbying to be done for the higher powers to understand the state of our creative arts at the moment. Deep down in my soul the answer has to be yes, because that’s what gets me out of bed every day. But it’s a lot of work.” 

Jazz, another of your specialist subjects, has been intertwined with recent developments in music education, with Tomorrow’s Warriors helping foster a new wave of talent. What excites you most about the scene right now?

“What’s really interesting about the jazz scene now is how far the genre can be pushed and moulded, how far it can branch out. I still remember, in the early days of me coming out as an artist, that it was always like, ‘Why are you doing that? Why would you want to mix reggae with jazz?’ And now you’re seeing grime, trap, folk music and all sorts coming in. And it’s not just in London, there are amazing artists in Scotland, Leeds, all over. It’s really encouraging because, for me, jazz is about expression, that improvised nature, that idea of not being held to a structure. It allows our young creators to say what they want to say. So we call it jazz.”

As a presenter on Jazz FM and Scala, how important would you say mainstream radio is to the genre’s development?

“Podcasts and streaming services are so great that you could wonder if radio will survive, but then you see listenership figures on the rise and that is wonderful. I have my two staple shows now, on Jazz FM and on Scala, and I enjoy bringing a new take on the genres I play to those audiences. It’s really lovely that listeners always communicate what music does for them. You know, messages like, ‘Just had a hard day at work, but you playing that song really helped me.’ I need radio, just to keep in touch with the listeners that are consuming the music.” 

Finally, you see the music industry from many different angles. What’s the one thing you would like to say to the industry as a whole?

“Firstly, I would say thank you for all the hard work. That doesn’t get said enough, especially when the hard times come. I think that we forget how hard people work in the various areas of the industry. But the main message would be to continue to find ways to collaborate and partner with one another. A fractured industry can’t make as many waves as one where we find our common ground and work together.”

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