MNEK and WCM's Paul Smith on creating safe spaces through songwriting camp Proud Sound

MNEK and WCM's Paul Smith on creating safe spaces through songwriting camp Proud Sound

To celebrate Pride Month this year, Grammy-nominated songwriter, producer and recording artist MNEK held the very first Proud Sound songwriting camp in partnership with Warner Chappell Music

Hosted at the end of June at Three Six Zero Studios, the camp was part of MNEK’s aim to uncover the next generation of queer songwriting talent in the UK and create opportunities for creators within the LGBTQIA+ community. Warner Music partnered with Spotify on the initiative through the streaming platform's GLOW platform for LGBTQIA+ artists and creators.

“The aim, for me, is definitely to create safe spaces for queer songwriters,” MNEK told Music Week.  

Throughout the week-long camp, twenty-five songwriters and producers were able to work together and collaborate on music, with support from LGBTQIA+ industry talent as both mentors and co-writers.

Here, Music Week meets with MNEK and Paul Smith, VP, A&R of international songwriters at Warner Chappell, to learn more about Proud Sound, talk representation and diversity in the industry and explore how the business can be supporting the queer community beyond one month in the year… 

How did the idea of Proud Sound come about? 

MNEK: “The camp was originally something that I'd thought up a few years ago. It wasn't called Proud Sound, it didn't really have a name, it was just the idea of a camp for pride. When we did it, it was all about us seeing what would work. I really enjoyed it, but I wasn’t sure if I executed it in the way we'd wanted to, and the plan was definitely to try it another year. But then [the pandemic] happened so we paused it. It continued to be something I absolutely wanted to do, so I talked to Paul [Smith] and my managers Shanice [McConnachie] and Chrystal [Lecointe], and we started arranging everything around it [for this year] – the people who were going to be a part of it, the creative and the partners we wanted.”

Paul Smith: “This year it’s been all about scaling it up, powering MNEK’s ideas and working with management to be able to put the collaborations involved together to make it happen.” 

What is the aim of Proud Sound, and what does it offer songwriters who attend? 

MNEK: “I've been in the industry half my life and there have been times I've felt very comfortable and free, but there have also been times where I've definitely had to code switch and be mindful of the room [because of my identity]. So I wanted to create a space where none of the people here felt like that and could share their experiences freely. If that yields a song, a great friendship, a great writing partnership, then it’s been a good thing.”

MNEK, when you were coming up in the industry, did you have any safe spaces like this where you were able to develop? 

MNEK: “No. When I first started coming up, I didn't really know myself. There was also so much thinking that had to be done as far as sexuality or how I was expressing myself when I first got into the industry, because 10 years ago this was a very different system. So right now, it's about making the most out of the times we're in and opening the doors to give everyone a chance.” 

PS: “The aim of the camp was really about empowering songwriters, and giving them space to be able to work. If you think about some of the most important voices in music, they happen to be queer. We're lucky to work with these people at Warner Chappell, like MNEK, Tayla Parx, Justin Tranter or Orville Peck, who are all queer and are changing culture and writing some of the biggest songs in the world. If we can continue to find the next songwriters and give them space to be able to develop, then we’ve done our job.” 

What does a typical day at the songwriting camp look like? 

PS: “There is not a typical day in a songwriting camp!” 

MNEK: “Yes – there isn’t a typical day, but there are patterns that we’ve been seeing. The songwriters come in at midday, we have a little chat, I say ‘Hey, welcome back, hope you’re feeling good’, then I tell them what rooms everyone is in. And after that, it really is just everyone going into their own sessions, connecting with each other, going out for air, having chats that offer a chance to be more vulnerable and to open up. I have been noticing that the songwriters are taking intentional time to have conversations like those, which is really necessary to feel comfortable enough to make music.” 

How have you seen Proud Sound differ from other songwriting camps you have run or been a part of? 

MNEK: “It’s mainly the safe space, the freedom. I think whenever you're in a disenfranchised group of people, there is always going to be a sense of otherness or feeling like you don’t belong, so [you make yourself] palatable for the environment. At this camp it’s been nice to see everyone letting loose. I think your identity can sometimes be something that you feel you need to protect, and if that's alleviated, then you can just exist, which is why it’s great people can do that here. I was having a chat with one of the writers here who is trans and she told me that the camp was just ‘so affirming’. That’s what I want, I want everyone to feel like that.” 

Do you think the industry as a whole is doing enough to support queer artists? 

MNEK: “The industry can always do better because it has a hierarchy system and there are always opportunities for people to disenfranchise us, or make us feel like we're ‘other’. But I think the industry also tends to move with the times. Ten years ago, it was a different world – the lines [between straight and queer] were not blurred whereas now the lines are blurring. There’s something beautiful about that because it's bringing people together but, [as a queer person], there's obviously also a layer of wanting to protect your identity and art because you've had to do that to exist in the wider world. Now everyone wants to share in [queer culture], so the industry and everyone should be doing more to support queer artists.”

Paul Smith: “It’s also genre specific. If you look at certain genres, there is still rampant homophobia, but we are definitely seeing change. In country music for example, we're seeing more out and proud Nashville country singers, as well as in hip-hop. But there is still such a way to go and it’s about camps like this which shine a light on queer artists and are all about inclusivity.”

MNEK, you are one of the most renowned songwriters and producers in the music industry. As a queer artist, do you feel that pressure to use your voice for good? 

MNEK: “When you have a platform I think it’s good to use it for good, but I don't think I feel that pressure from anyone else. I'm very privileged to be where I'm at, of course I have my own like adversities, I'm black and I'm queer, but on the other hand, I've been doing this half my life and I've never had to struggle to really get into this industry. I was also in the industry before I even knew who I was, so I think my queer experience has been me growing up, figuring myself out, finding my safe spaces and understanding that I'm ever-changing. The reality now is that I’m almost 30 and I’m trying to do things other than songwriting, producing and singing, I want to do things that are bigger than me and that outlast me.” 

We see huge pride campaigns every year for pride month from across the industry. How can the business be building this kind of support for the queer community across the entire year? 

PS: “It always begins with business, and it’s about replicated things like Proud Sound, or building parts of it. It has to start with the labels, the publishers, all the big businesses within the music industry to make sure it runs throughout the year, not just 30 days. Being an ally as a company or organisation is the only way for this to sort of continue through the year.”

How important are songwriting camps like this for the mission of Warner Chappell? 

PS: “We as Warner Chappell and Warner Music Group as a whole are very lucky to work with amazing queer artists and songwriters. Our job is to represent them and their catalogue of songs, and provide them with opportunities. If we have these important queer voices who are making music, it's also our job to make sure they're supported, they feel loved and safe. If we can make that happen with camps like Proud Sound or another initiatives, scholarships, or whatever we’re looking to do, that has to be the only way we can provide those opportunities in a safe space. That’'s the most important thing we can do as a partner and as a publisher.”

Looking ahead, what does the future look like for Proud Sound? 

MNEK: “Well, the dream would be to do this every year and for it to be a constant for every pride. I want more people to come on board and more people to know about it and want to be a part of it. The other dream is for it to be going beyond pride and beyond just a week in a year. Proud Sound should really be a lifestyle, it should be a thing where queer writers and producers are championed beyond pride. But this is where it starts!”

PS: “I would love for this to be the genesis of writing teams formed here. That’s how the message would go beyond Proud Sound, it’s teams of people meeting, working together and having hits together because they met here. That is where I would like it to go.”


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