Ava L. Hall
Photo credit: Jamie Winbush
Global Media Exec Ava L. Hall's Journey To Amplify & Unite The Rhythms Of Nations
On the top bills of some of the world’s largest music festivals, it isn’t rare for Afrobeats and Afropop artists like Burna Boy, Wizkid or Mr. Eazi to round out the lineups. Last month, Universal Music Group announced the launch of its Def Jam Africa division purposed with recognizing, supporting and signing talent throughout Africa. Apple Music also recently launched its "Africa Month" celebration featuring curated playlists, interviews and "Africa Music Now" hosted by DJ Cuppy (Nigeria), which offers the latest in Afrobeats, hip-hop, jazz and house music from the continent. With African and world stages at festivals like SXSW, major labels are signing more international artists than ever before as new fans migrate to the infectious sounds of the diaspora's various genres en masse. It's true that the premium on African and world music is gaining more and more traction every day.
In large part, Ava L. Hall's tireless efforts have paved the way for an ignited appreciation of AfroBeats (different from Afrobeat) and other world genres in the U.S. as they have made their way to the forefront of music's mainstream. The veteran Global Entertainment Executive is known and credited by the likes of many industry tastemakers and international artists like Sarkodie (Ghana), Stonebwoy (Ghana), BECCA (Ghana), Ice Prince (Nigeria), Fally Ipupa (DR Congo) and others as a viable force who helped bring commercial visibility and relevance to many African music genres and artists.
Hall describes herself and her work as always "having a finger on the pulse of culture." Her passion and love for black culture has driven her to create various platforms and opportunities for artists and talent from around the globe, often serving as an advocate, mentor and friend. Hall understands that expression of Blackness shows up differently all over the world, and she’s been able to lean into variant expressions of Black culture to amply and connect international talent to new audiences.
Throughout her 23-year stint at BET Networks, culminating as Vice President of International Programming and Brand Advancement, Hall's impact included helping to grow the iconic brand around the world, strategic programming on all international channels, content development and creating opportunities for international artists. When Hall first began her journey at BET, she worked on the U.S. side, eventually becoming Vice President of Special Projects and Creative Services.
"I remember my first week on the job interviewing the legendary Chaka Khan and I soon realized that was an indicator of what my BET journey was going to be like," recalls Hall of her early days as a Senior Director and Producer. It was there that she built her foundation for artist relations and outreach, working as a promotion producer on shows like "Planet Groove" and "Rap City" alongside artists who have gone on to be some of today's biggest. One of her favorite campaign projects was BET's "Where Music Lives," which profiled artists discussing their personal connection to music and the inspirations behind their work. In 2008, Hall was asked to help launch BET International, where she began using music's universal appeal in addition to her relationships with artists as the engine for connecting across cultures and communities.
"I think that’s what started it for me, and as time grew on it definitely became more apparent that this was not just a role or an assignment, it became a deepened passion, purpose and responsibility," she says.
Ava L. Hall pictured with Chaka Khan
Photo courtesy of Ava L. Hall
From there, Hall committed herself to bringing definition to the international landscape. In 2010, she helped bring about the first-ever Best International Acts category at the BET Awards with inaugural nominees including Dizzee Rascal (U.K.), Kojo Antwi (Ghana), Sade (U.K.), Corinne Bailey Rae (U.K.), K’NAAN (Somalia), P-Sqaure (Nigeria), Chipmunk (U.K.), Hip Hop Pantsula (South Africa) and Estelle (U.K.). For 10 years, Hall has managed and overseen the Best International, Best Africa and Best U.K. categories and international activations for the BET Awards. Hall’s goal each year was to maximize the international talent’s experience while in the United States. One of her most memorable activations was curating the "Sounds of Africa" exhibit with The GRAMMY Museum, which ran from June 2016 through June 2017.
"Although most of the artists were superstars in their countries, they didn’t have U.S. visibility," she says. "We were always looking at ways to create awareness and recognition. We asked ourselves, How can we shine a light on these artists and their music?"
Her decades-long efforts have fueled the life of Afrobeats and other African Music genres, and many BET International winners have gone on to collaborate with U.S. artists. By 2015, Hall launched the Best New International Artist category to expand the platform and offer similar opportunities to emerging artists like Ugandan performer Eddy Kenzo, who took home the award that year. Hall notes that over 20,000 people, including the President of Uganda, joined Kenzo at the airport in celebration of the first Ugandan to win a BET Award, which now lives in a Ugandan museum. In 2019, Hall created the International Flow category in recognition of International rap talent in the BET Hip-Hop Awards.
[Pictured from left to right] Ava L. Hall, Eddy Kenzo, Minnie Dlamini and Johnny Wright
Photo courtesy of Ava L. Hall
Bridging cultures and laying the groundwork for rising talent is no simple task. Most times getting people to step out of their comfort zones for new genres and artists takes "a lot of intention and concerted effort." Describing the challenges of scaling artists around the world Hall says, "We can’t just be interested in those things that are coming from within us, but we should also be interested in other creatives from around the world. I think that was the biggest challenge initially, that people just weren’t open minded enough to want to understand, or hear, or see, or feel something or experience something differently."
And while there's now a world stage for African music that may not have existed in the beginning of Hall's journey, her focus has become to strengthen artist relationships on a deeper level. She says that a large part of her work now includes ensuring that genres and artists are not misrepresented and that people are engaging with them on a well-educated level.
"I’ve done this pre-work in making sure that there's a platform for artists to be seen, and what’s next, is how can I help once people are visible?" she says. "I want to continue creating space ... I’m hopeful that I’ve been able to develop other people who have an appreciation for this art form and can continue the journey that I helped to start. I’ll always be connected in helping to drive world music and black culture forward."
In 2020, the playing field of the music industry is still inevitably shifting. Since March, the consequences of COVID-19 have taken grave effect on the touring sector and overall health of the industry. Additionally, recent Black Lives Matter and anti-racism protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry and countless others at the hands of police, have proven, if anything, that the opportunity for equitable change is knocking at the world's doorstep. Included in that awakening, the music industry is tasked with using its power to envision a better, more inclusive future for artists, fans and larger creative communities.
Considering its role in contemporary culture and the future of our world, Hall is hopeful that African music will follow a similar trajectory of influence as hip-hop did. Originally an underground arts movement in the '70s, the collective genre was heard across the world by the mid '90s and helped to fuel the connection of nations. It's here that world music fits the puzzle piece in highlighting global struggles through expression and therefore, helping to mobilize action.
"My hope is that African music can do the same, and I think it’s possible. Beyond the musicality of it, beyond it being full of sounds that make you want to move physically, there is a deeper connection," she says. "Music can be celebratory and music can be cautionary. People can use music to speak love and celebrate love and things they adore, but it can also be cautionary in that it can speak truth to power. I feel that African music can serve well in that space, particularly in this political climate and world moment that we are in right now."
As Hall's impact suggests, perhaps one of the most legitimate and equitable actions that labels, executives and the larger music industry can do in supporting Black artistry worldwide is to commit to seeking out original, diverse talent and creating the space to fully celebrate and support those artists in any way.
"It's important that there's always this buffet of art, creativity and talent. I think the industry must always keep in mind that we should be a place of discovery for consumers, even if it's in incremental doses," she says.
“It’s important that art forms be celebrated from their original form. That’s why if you go into a leading museum around the world, whether it’s the Guggenheim or The Met or the Victoria Alberts museum, you’re not just seeing relics of American culture or relics of Anglo-Saxon culture—you're seeing relics from different cultures, all over the world. If historians can recognize this, I think we as arbitrators and promoters of culture should understand this as well, that there needs to be a balance of what is represented. I look at the world as a global village, so there needs to be balance to what we’re bringing to the world."