We spoke with YouTube executive Tuma Basa about the streaming climate, advice he has for young rappers, and trends he’s watching for.
Last month, Tuma Basa, Director of Black Music and Culture at YouTube, wrote a blog detailing the ways hip-hop has become the dominate genre on YouTube. In the blog, titled “If you don’t know, now you know,” Tuma writes:
“… between October through December 2020, hip-hop was the most-viewed music genre on YouTube in the U.S… hip-hop artists occupied all 10 spots in YouTube’s top 10 most-viewed artists in the U.S. list last year, meaning its influence on culture is not just here to stay, it’s increasing. Facts!”
Hip-hop being the no. 1 genre on YouTube shouldn’t be that surprising to fans of popular music. What’s surprising is the type of hip-hop artists that are dominating. While, yes, State Farm-ready artists like Drake still get monster streaming numbers, rough-around-the-edges rappers from the South run YouTube’s top 10 list, generating billions of streams on the platform. The most streamed rapper on YouTube in 2020 was YoungBoy Never Broke Again. Right behind him are rappers like Lil Baby, Rod Wave (who just had an album that went no. 1 ), and Kevin Gates. According to Tuma, it’s because the era of streaming has brought in a climate that is democratized.
“We’re finding out that those of us in the gatekeeper class, we’re not gatekeepers anymore,” Basa said over a Google Meet conference in mid April.
For the last 20 plus years, Basa has worked in the hip-hop industry, starting his career at BET and then enjoying an extended stay at MTV. In 2015, he became a public figure by joining Spotify and creating, naming, and launching RapCaviar, the most influential playlist of the streaming era. (RapCaviar is still around, and still very popular, but doesn’t have the cultural cachet it once had.)
In 2018 he left Spotify and joined YouTube in an effort to “increase engagement with the urban music community.” His most notable win, so far, was launching the YouTubeBlack Voices grant, a cool program that will help support over 130 Black artists around the world.
We recently spoke with Tuma Basa about the streaming climate, what young rappers should know about being in the industry, and upcoming trends he’s watching for.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So on YouTube, hip-hop is the most popular genre, and it’s also the fastest growing. How does that happen?
Tuma Basa: It feels like hip hop and YouTube’s relationship [has been] growing… for such a long time. This is not something that happened overnight. There was a choosing that happened.
It’s voluntary. Nobody has to be on YouTube, whether it be as a creator or as a user. People have choices of how they share music or share music visuals or lyrics or learn how to do a dance… Even if you don’t see something on YouTube first, if I hear a record in a car, I’m going to Google it and go, “OK, let me go see the video.” That it’s a voluntary act to go on YouTube. Or even if I’m an artist and I’m trying to blow up… and I have something that’s well done, I’m going to go share it right there on YouTube if I want to reach a lot of people. It’s a very voluntary act. And so, as a representative of both the culture within the company and a representative of the company within the culture, [I appreciate] this growth because that’s a very, very, very voluntary thing.
What is feedback that you have heard from artists about YouTube — positive, obviously, but also a critique?
The positives is… it’s always there. YouTube has been around long enough that we feel like it’s always going to be there. It’s permanent. It’s a fixture in the culture. So, I’ve heard a lot of people say that’s a positive.
A critique of YouTube that I’ve heard from artists — I don’t know to be honest with you. I’m not going to lie. I can’t think of any. And maybe that’s willful subconsciously, you know?
What’s something that’s surprised you about hip-hop and where it’s going over the last five months?
One of the things that surprised me was some of the behaviors. I’ll give you a perfect example. When [Drake’s Scary Hours 2] [with] Lil Baby [and Rick] Ross [released] I watched a watch party of kids online. It was like this video game kid who was huge on YouTube. They have their own world. You don’t even see it if you’re not in that world. I watched this kid in West Virginia, [and his followers] were waiting for the Drake drop.
And then, when the Drake drop happened, he started playing it in real time and then people were basically saying, “Oh, this is a hard verse.” So, for me, the surprise is the behavior. This is all in hip-hop. These are cross-section. There’s all these worlds on YouTube, whether it be British drill or gamers or these little reaction videos — all these different worlds.
But to witness the cross-section, you have to opt in to get that. [I caught it] because I was looking for it.
So, it’s not so much people’s listening habits, it’s how they’re engaging with the music.
Exactly. And how they’re using it. Because we know they listen. We know that already. And, by the way, you can listen to [music at a] million [different] places, but there are certain behaviors or certain engagements that are unique to YouTube.
I think if you ask a casual fan who are the top rappers they might say Drake. But, really you have this world where Rod Wave has a no. 1 album and rappers like NBA YoungBoy and Kevin Gates are dominating. Can you explain what’s happening there?
NBA YoungBoy is reaching his audience. His audience may not be writers with [a] masters in fine arts. He’s talking to the young kids in the streets, people who may feel like they’re being neglected.
So, what we’re finding out is that there’s so many different particular audiences that are craving for certain sounds or messages or a music want regularity because there’s no limit in how much music you drop on YouTube. We’re finding out that those of us in the gatekeeper class, we’re not gatekeepers anymore.
I’m glad that NBA YoungBoy [and] Rod Wave call themselves hip-hop because it gives the culture continuity. Because when I was a kid [we] were rebelling against the previous generation. They [wanted] a separation. They don’t want to be understood by a 45-year old man.
Can you give some insight on what happened with YG and “Meet the Flockers?”
Hip-hop has a long history and a pretty problematic past. And I wonder, how [many cases like that] you’re going to see in the future where artists are going to have to reckon with some [old hateful language] and, because of the streaming environment, they can change it. What are your general thoughts on that?
I have a lot of thoughts on that but I don’t know if this is the right place to discuss, you know what I mean?
The one thing I love about hip-hop is that hip hop is viewed — whether it be consciously or subconsciously — as a come up. It’s a second chance. It’s a chance to flip negative things that are negative to environments, sometimes it’s a trauma, [taking] very intriguing stories and flip it economically or socially or politically into power.
Some of these guys do a very good job in seizing the opportunity because opportunity doesn’t always have a name tag on it. “Oh, my name is opportunity. Oh hi, I’ve been looking for you.” This is not how it works.
I love it when people [are] like, “OK, I’m going to utilize this, make a better life for me and my family” [and] create generational wealth. I look at Gucci Mane and JAY-Z and I’m like, “Wow, these guys …” if you know Gucci’s history like… You see him and his family life with his nice teeth and he’s all healthy and giving motivational Monday [speeches]. Well, it’s like looking at this vocation, this craft, this talent, this entrepreneurialism. It’s like, he’s going to put people on and he’s going to distance themselves from whatever. And he realized, “This is real life. I’m going to find the next Pooh Shiesty or Young Thug… I don’t care if they have troubled backgrounds, they’re going to get these opportunities and they’re going to make the best of it.”
Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a successful rapper now compared to when you started in your career?
Harder. There’s no barrier to entry. I can call myself a rapper and I’m a rapper. It’s harder now. Way harder. Way, way harder.
You go to certain cities, everybody’s a rapper. You know what I mean? Literally. Somebody you don’t even know and then all of a sudden he comes up, “Yeah man, I want to do music, too.”
What’s something constructive and tangible that you would tell a young artist trying to be successful in the music industry?
I like to tell new artists, “If you’re an artist, you’re going to make music regardless, whether you get paid for it or not, if you’re a true artist.” However, when you’re a commercial artist, when you’re doing things for a sale or whatever, to be selective in what you push and what you put out there. [Make sure] that it speaks to your audience. You don’t have to put everything out.
[One reason I’m fascinated by] NFTs so much — if I make a song, and I think it is really well done, I don’t have to think about the commercial viability like, “Will this reach a million people? Will I get a million streams or whatever?” I just need that one person who also sees that value monetary.
It’s like we’re talking about high art. It just needs a handful of people who also think this is a million dollar song or this is a million dollar thing. So, I’m fascinated to see what happens. And it’s in line with that advice that I like to give young artists, “Be selective like curatorship.”
What’s another trend in the space that has your ears perking?
Livestream monetization. My guy, Shawn Gee — he manages The Roots – put me onto a few concepts. It’s called geo-fencing. If I do a live stream, I make sure that anyone can watch it, whether I’m in Johannesburg or Nashville. But if I do geo-fencing, this concept is only people within [a certain area.] So, basically I can do the same shows the same way I do in real life. I love that concept. Whoever pulls that off is going to be incredible. You have to prove that you’re not in those zip codes. So, I thought that was dope and futuristic.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article, in the question about YG and Meet the Fockers,” we attributed the quote, “I can’t get you any context on that but that’s something that I wasn’t actually involved in…” to Tuma Basa. He did not say this. This was a transcribing error.