Look around you: If you look up, to your right, to your left, in front, and behind you, and you don’t see anyone but people who come from your background — specifically gender and race, you have an inclusion issue. Acknowledgement is the first step to healing. You aren’t a bad person, nor are you responsible for it being this way. It took a long time for our current institutions to get to their current state of existence. However, as you become aware of this current state of your business, industry, community, this is your first chance and responsibility to begin to step up.
As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Marcus Johnson, a successful entrepreneur and NAACP Image Award-nominated jazz keyboardist and pianist, as well as author of the inspiring book For The Love Of…Living the Journey of Life with Intention, Love, Passion and Happiness. Marcus has released more than fifteen Billboard charted albums and has most recently combined his eminently successful music career and love of wine in a unique endeavor with FLO Wine, LLC.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I have always loved music. But even more, I love making people smile, think, go DEEPER, and to get in touch with themselves. From a young age, I was always a little different. I was the kid who wanted to sit at the adult table and learn from them. Sometimes, I had the nerve to engage with them. Those were my first sparing grounds of using my music platform to grab the attention of people, only to take a couple of minutes and preach self-love and care from my keyboard pulpit. It’s kinda like a superpower.
The pivotal moment in my move this way was in the 8th grade. I didn’t play piano well at that point, but there was Jessica Rialano. And from the summer of 7th grade to 8th, I knew I was going to learn to play piano so that I could write her an amazing piece of music. So, I would hang with my cousins, who were in a band and just stay over their shoulders watching everything. I’d run home and learn the chords and scales and then run back to their rehearsal. Then serendipity hit. My stepfather won the Pick-3 Lottery and bought my first Roland Synthesizer with the earnings because he knew that was my passion — and maybe because of a suggestion or two from my mother.
I took that as a sign. Once we got back to school to start 8th grade, I had taken my two cassette recorders and made a makeshift multi-track recording of my first song called, “My Dream.” The smile on her face was enough to cement in my mind the power of working hard to develop our personal God/Universe-given gifts to inspire feelings of goodness, hope and compassion in others.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
This is a hard one because I value all of the experiences that I have had since I started my career. They are all interconnected. When you dare to take risks like I do, your whole life tends to be rather interesting — especially in hindsight. However, out of law school, I began working on a business plan for my record label. There wasn’t a physical record label at that point in time, but you couldn’t tell me that the vision that I saw inside of my head wasn’t as tangible as the labels that I saw on the backs of the many CD’s that I owned. It was my dream and I was confident that I would manifest it.
The original b-plan was over 200 pages long. So much for concise business writing. But with the help of mentors and the many rejections thrown my way, I was able to get it into a power-packed 70-page document full of a dream statement, five-year strategic plan, financials, and the accompanying appendices.
One day, I was performing as a headliner on the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival and saw that Robert Johnson, Founder of BET and the first African American Billionaire was there. I knew this was my chance but didn’t have any idea how I could get to meet him. While I was preparing to get on stage, a hand tapped on my shoulder. When I turned around, he said, “ Marcus, Bob Johnson. It’s a pleasure to meet you and I have been watching your career for a long time. I’ll be introducing you tonight!” WHATTTTT!? So we spoke for a few minutes and out of nowhere, my mind said, “ask him out to lunch!” When I did, he gave me his number and said sure.
The next week, I called his assistant and with the help of one of my friends who worked at BET was able to get to the TOP floor of the BET building where Bob had his office. His assistant stated that Mr. Johnson would like to invite me to his office for lunch and to bring a healthy appetite. I accepted.
This lunch was like no other. His personal chef made us crab cakes that were to die for. Unfortunately, I only had 2 bites of mine because Bob grilled me for 2 hours on the music business. At the end of the conversation he said, “ How can I get involved with you and this?” I explained that I had a business plan that I needed to tweak but that I would have it to him in 2 days.
A week later, and after his review of the plan seeking 2.3M dollars, we met again and dove deep into the numbers. had been working on the plan for so long, I basically had it memorized. I had my answers ready for most of his questions. Midway through, he stopped and said, “Just so you know, I’m doing the deal.’
Within 6 months we began producing and releasing music under the Three Keys music label. Many of the artists that we launched are still played on XM/Sirius WaterColors to this day.
This is interesting to me because it is a great example of the adage, success is when opportunity meets preparation. It’s been key to helping me live by life models that create a step by step process for success and happiness in life. It’s interesting because it proved to me the concepts of the laws of attraction, assumption, and the fact that you can create your own luck.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Coming from a legal education, one has the tendency to over-think. At least I do. I remember being in multiple meetings where I would give long and drawn out answers that I considered thoughtful. And the funny part happened when I’d look up at my staff and they would look back like, “WTH are you talking about we just need to know if you want us to bring you back a coffee and a sandwich.” The lesson I learned from that and continue to learn is to not take myself so seriously. No plan is perfect. No concert is mistake-free. And I mess up all the time. You just have to stop, fess up, and laugh at yourself. That is what makes humans human, me, me, and you, you!
Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?
I work hard to highlight the work of those who are not featured in the most mainstream of pop culture. My radio show “Catch the Flo” highlights a format of jazz that was neglected by traditional smooth jazz stations. There is a whole world of urban jazz, chilhop, and instrumental performances by women and those of various backgrounds that does not get featured through traditional media. And when you look at the wine industry as a whole, you see a complete exclusion of minorities and women from the process and the associated business functions. I mean, out of approximately 8000 brands in the United States, there are about 70 African American owned brands? Is that a problem? Even if it’s not, it’s a glaring message for those of us that are outside of the bubble. Many times, that message screams, “You are NOT welcome here!”
So, what are we to do? Excel anyway and anyhow — any way that’s legal of course! Technology has allowed many of us to lower barriers to entry into certain markets and has allowed us the ability to create a direct relationship with our consumers. This is the essence of branding. I define it as building relationships characterized as trust in you and your product or service.
In everything I do or produce, you will find some deeper message of self-introspection, acknowledgement, understanding, and compassion. I believe that anyone who sells a product has a platform, an opening to help their consumers to be better humans. I also believe that is a responsibility of every citizen: corporate or individual. On our wine bottles, there is an artistic statement. At the end of my radio show, there is the FLO expression of the week. My book has tips at the end of each chapter. My music performances and wine tastings all have a component of a Marcus Message from the Keyboard Pulpit. By expressly challenging people to be better world citizens, with self-love, compassion, engagement, sympathy and the like, we all are better able to represent ourselves and allow for the acknowledgment of those who are termed “different “than us. That’s our FLO. It’s For the Love Of us all and the whole.
Wow! Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?
Absolutely, I was finishing a concert and signing in the DC area one evening. A woman came up to me, gave me a note, and ran off. I thought it was someone passing me a number. That was my arrogance. Once I was finished the signing, I walked my friend to her car and we talked for an hour. Once I made it back to the stage, that note was still sitting there. I smiled thinking I had a new admirer. The note said, “ Marcus, you have a gift! I woke up this morning suicidal! I will go to sleep tonight happy to be alive. Thank God for you and your message!” It makes me tingle to this day. It taught me to never be that arrogant and to know that with your gifts/blessings come responsibility. That responsibility is one thing we all should take seriously. We were both impacted by God that evening.
As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?
- Diversity represents the truth. To deny it is a lie. Whether it’s Fatts Waller composing some of the greatest Gershwin tunes or the female executive who really is the CEO of the company. The truth is the truth. Living a lie is hard work and that’s why it’s currently catching up to society in this present time. I think that telling the truth about the impact of diversity, cultures, genders, etc, would lead to a lot more optimism in depressed and oppressed communities. I think the macro effect would be positive to a magnitude that’s incalculable.
- Diversity and Inclusion make you better. Inclusion forces us out of stagnation. Diversity and inclusion make the music, TV, and all types of entertainment better. I have learned to do things in a different way than my white majority counterparts. Does that make their way wrong? NO! But If my additional wisdom can add to their foundational work, doesn’t that lead to a better product and outcome. Isn’t that what we want?
I think the real issue here though is that we are included. We just aren’t given the titles nor the recognition and access as is our counterparts. Isn’t that fraud? But in a world that deals in socio-psychological economics, some feel as though there is not enough room for us all and if you are equal to me in any way, you will take it all. That’s psychosis! Then I guess we have to ask Can a whole society suffer from paranoia? Hmmm. The other part of it is ego — especially in entertainment and culture. By including others, we really find our similarities. That’s key to a functioning and prospering culture. But ego doesn’t like it. We should aim to be better anyway!
- Diversity and inclusion make the product and its provision better. Even if you look at this in a pure macro-economic context, the inclusion of diverse programming and market segmentation are great for the bottom line. It allows for the efficient allocation of resources to entirely new markets with new demands, desires, tastes, interests, and disposable income. One only needs to look at the success of Black Panther, Tyler Perry, Oprah, Isa Rae, and the like to see that there are completely diverse market segments that have been ignored and what happens when you invest in them. Thus, it’s in these industries’ own best interest to create other sandboxes in which we can play. We don’t even have to compete for the pie. Help me make mine and we both can eat a little more. Note to those against it: Technology is allowing us to bake on our own. Why not be part of that party?
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?
I know that some might not agree with my next statement, but I believe we have an inclusion problem and not necessary a diversity problem. I think that inclusion acknowledges the true focus-scope of the problem. It zooms in to the next level. Diversity exists when you have 2 or more white people in the room. Not everyone is the same. And it could be insulting to insinuate that. What we ARE saying is that beyond our differences, we need to be included at all levels of civic, community, entrepreneurial, and the community. This inclusion should be free of the biases related to our diversity. It’s a 2-pronged issue — at least. With that as our baseline understanding of the problem I would propose the following:
- Look around you: If you look up, to your right, to your left, in front, and behind you, and you don’t see anyone but people who come from your background — specifically gender and race, you have an inclusion issue. Acknowledgement is the first step to healing. You aren’t a bad person, nor are you responsible for it being this way. It took a long time for our current institutions to get to their current state of existence. However, as you become aware of this current state of your business, industry, community, this is your first chance and responsibility to begin to step up.
- Make others aware of the issue and work with them inside of your company, institution, community, etc. to plan for change. I think that the George Floyd death and the video that documented it, coupled with all of us being in the throes of the COVID quarantine forced everyone to take a second or two to reflect on how a man could feel that it was okay to put his knee on another’s neck until he died. This introspection caused a lot of companies to develop diversity and inclusion panels within their companies. Others elevated Diversity and Inclusion executives to a C-Level position. The sobering part of this is the fact that many of these companies either had D&I panels/committees with no African American representatives on it or had to outsource this competency to minority firms. These are some of the same minority firms that were previously ignored.
This said, these firms launched initiatives that have had a pretty immediate impact on minority business and executives. It has affected my business directly as our wine production partner has reengaged with us in a very exciting manner. I’ve heard multiple stories of larger majority run firms taking serious steps to create plans to include minority and female owned businesses in their strategic development. Additionally, these firms are now studying additional consumer segments as a means of developing products and services for them.
- Commitment to the long-term success of inclusion programs. With acknowledgement, and planning, everyone must be committed to inclusion and to the fact that we must stay committed to the long-term growth and development of the resultant relationships. Our culture today is plagued by instantaneous gratification. We want change and we want it now. We want results now! We want stability now! We want it all now!
I definitely understand this mentality and sentiment. However, it’s key to understand that we are planting seeds now. The seeds of this round of diversity and inclusion must be nurtured so that they may be fruitful in our society. The plans being developed must include review of and an understanding of the fact that there will be some impact in the short-term, but there will also be challenges related to the compatibility or the lack thereof between corporate cultures and/or cultures in general. Even though we speak the same language, we use it in different ways. These differences, if used constructively, will be the foundation of the benefits derived from inclusion. This is why you want inclusion. Those being ignored aren’t asking for hand-outs. We are asking to be seen and for our value to be seen. It’s not unlike any other personal relationship that we have as humans. Good relationships built on trust and respect are grown. They don’t just happen because we have a panel and get access to the table. This takes time, commitment, execution, and reflection — over and over and over…..
If we can acknowledge the issue, work within and between cultures to plan for inclusion-based success, and stay committed to this process, all of humanity will be better for it.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership: one who evaluates the information from her/his team and applies it to a strategic plan designed to reach a common goal. Please note that I didn’t say someone who knows it all nor someone who has perfect decision-making skills. Neither exist. A great leader is able to move back in forth along a spectrum from “follower” to “lead implementation officers.” This person is constantly processing information, metrics, and analytics in a way that allows them to deploy the proper resources in a way that addresses a particular pain point within a community, industry, company, or inside the individual.
This person does so in a way that inspires others to follow them and to act in the same manner. The best teams are those were each player is the leader within their own position. They also provide information to the whole unit that allows the others to maximize their results.
A great leader knows when to sit back and let the team work. They know when to step in and ask questions that might inspire the team to make decisions and moves that will benefit the team on their own. They also know when to step in and forcefully nudge the individual team members to follow their direction. But for the team member to do that, they have to trust the leader.
Thus, the leader must possess the standing and wisdom required for that type of respect. They must be the tour guide that has “been there before” and not the travel agent that sends you somewhere they have not travelled. Of course, this is figurative speech. But the leadership journey is exactly analogous to that of the traveler.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Buy the property don’t lease it! When I started my first recording studio, we invested close to 500K dollars into its design. That’s hard-cold cash. At that time, I wish that someone had told me to look around and purchase one of the buildings that were around the area. I could have put that money down on the building, built the studio with the equity from the building, and in hard times leased the building out to other businesses. Don’t take a good-looking space and let it seduce you into a lease. If you have the cash, go speak to your banker, accountant, a commercial business broker, or your local US SBA Small Business Development Center. They all can help you make better decisions with your money. Note, you should speak to them anyway!
- Go with the established brand. When I graduated Law School, I had 4 record deals on the table. One of the companies was Blue Note Records-like the best of the best. In my youth and rather arrogant wisdom, I decided to go with the upstart company that was a reset for GRP, another great brand, but NOT Blue Note. At the time, I was 25, and just didn’t know. I could have always left a Blue Note and returned to the upstart, but the opposite wasn’t true. When you have a chance to go with the BEST and BIGGEST and they are motivated to work with you, do yourself the favor and take it!
- Spend as much time with your family as possible. I actually spend a fair amount of time with my family and I speak to my mother every day. That said, I lost my father 5 years ago and would give anything in the world to have any amount of time with him right now. When they are gone, you can’t get them back. Make it count now!
- As a young CEO, hire an older/wiser/connect president/advisor. I was the first person in my family to secure multi-million-dollar funding for my firm. As a result, I had no one in my family to turn to for the wisdom of how to run a start-up venture. I made so many mistakes that at points in the early times I just wanted to hide under a rock. What I found later is that older and wiser mentors could give me the guidance and the emotional support that I needed. I felt like I was the first person to ever makes these mistakes. My older mentors would laugh at me basically say, “Are you kidding! That’s nothing! How about this?” They always had a comforting story, thoughts on solutions, and connections with those who we could use to maximize our corrective efforts. An older established, successful, mentor and mastermind group are key to any young or new entrepreneur’s success and sanity.
- Trust your Gut! Even though I had all of this education, a new deal, and a sizeable investment in my company, I didn’t trust my gut at all times. The fact is, I was going to make mistakes and I’m going to make many more. Make sure that you have a great team, mentors, and then trust your gut. What you don’t want is to follow something that’s not your own, only to have it fail and know that it was contrary to what your gut told you. Intuition is real. Use it.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
This is simple. I would start the Go DEEPER movement. It would be for the love of thyself. All movements start with the individual. If we can dare to Dream, stay Engaged in it, surround ourselves with a fertile Environment, Plan strategically, Execute upon the plan, and Reflect on the process we would no longer feel like victims of life and would self-empower ourselves to realize our self-given purpose. Imagine that!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Act the way to want to be and soon you will be the way you act! — Roosevelt Johnson (my father).
I was always challenged to dream big and crazy dreams and then essentially fake it till you make it! Actually, it’s more like the law of assumption. When you assume the position in which you want to be, then use your imagination and go DEEEPER (mentioned above), it all just comes together. Want to be a lawyer? Do what a lawyer would do! Want to be a successful jazz pianist? Do what a successful jazz pianist would do! What to be a great parent or spouse? Do what a great parent or spouse would do! It’s that simple. The hard work and dedication is what makes it interesting…hahaha. Interesting as opposed to difficult. But when you assume the position, the universe will conspire to help you realize your goal!
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Dang that’s hard! I could say President Obama, Oprah, or Brene Brown, but I’d really love to speak to Sade. While the others will go down in history for working to inspire billions of people, Sade’s music has healed countless people. I’d love to know what she does for fun. I’d like to know if her heartbreak ever got any better and if it hasn’t, how has she dealt with it. I’d love to know some of her mistakes in life and where love led her wrong- and right. And most of all I’d love to know if she’d do anything different and what she’d tell my 8 year-old daughter about life, success, love, passion, business, leadership, and Womanhood. Because, after all, my best breakfasts to date are with my little lady. I do it all for her!
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