Kenya Barris and Issa Rae are changing the music industry with their new record labels
Everything black-ish creator Kenya Barris does is big and bold, but it turns out he’s been quietly adding to his media empire right under our noses. In a recently announced joint venture with Interscope Records, he will now be running his own record label, Khalabo Music.
Barris announced the move in his recent Hollywood Reporter cover story, where he also explained his decision to break up with Netflix, part-way through his $100 million production deal with the streamer. "The stuff I want to do is a little bit more edgy, a little more highbrow, a little more heady, and I think Netflix wants down the middle," he said. "Netflix became CBS."
Now, Barris is focused on growing his Khalabo Ink Society media empire, and the new music label is a key part of that. Along with the label, the award-winning showrunner secured a first-look film deal with Paramount Pictures, a book deal with Random House, and a podcast partnership with Audible. Where some may see disparate deals all centered around Barris, he thinks his record label could be unlike anything else in the music industry. “So, if we sign an artist on the record label and she’s amazing, it’s, ‘Can we put her story into a podcast, keep the IP, and then go take that to Netflix and sell it as a doc,” he said in the interview.
Barris has already signed a few artists, though they weren’t named in the announcement. What he did share is that he wants to approach the artists similarly to how he does the film and television work and stars we’ve come to love from him, in the sense he wants them to be unapologetically themselves. Barris is no stranger to blending the music with his unique television world, with rappers Mary J Blige and Diddy appearing early in black-ish’s run. And Kendrick Lamar eating a bowl of cereal while the black-ish cast raps “Alright” around him is still one of the best promos for anything Barris has ever done.
This new label is part of a budding future of the music industry led by Black showrunners. In late 2019, Insecure creator and millennial trailblazer Issa Rae started her own record label, Raedio, in partnership with Atlantic Records. Rae’s most successful signee has been hip-hop artist Yung Baby Tate, who secured the label its first Top 20 hit on Billboard with her viral smash “I AM,” that had everyone from Kamala Harris to Chlöe Bailey professing their inner boss bitch-ness.
Music has been more integral in Rae’s work — Insecure developed a reputation for debuting new artists in its episodes — than it has in Barris’, but Raedio could lay a blueprint on how the merger of TV and music may work at a label. Rae’s Raedio hosts writing camps that have produced music for Insecure episodes; and the label has also handled music supervision for HBO’s A Black Lady Sketch Show, Hulu’s Woke, Epix’s Godfather of Harlem, and Starz’s P-Valley. These are all paths Khalabo Music could similarly take — particularly with some of Barris' newest projects that have obvious music crossovers.
Barris' creative pipeline is vast: As of now, The Hollywood Reporter notes, he's working on a Juneteenth movie musical with Pharrell Williams; a film starring Snoop Dogg as a football coach; and a potential collaboration with Migos; among other projects. It's easy to imagine, then, Quavo rapping about how slaves are now free to be as fly as they want, or Snoop Dogg motivating a star football player with hilarious inspirational raps. Remember, this is the same man who developed a Netflix animated music series with Kid Cudi and is working on another series with 50 Cent based on the artist's book The 50th Law.
While we don't know the specific contract details behind any of this, the integrated opportunities offered to artists through Rae's Raedio and Barris' Khalabo Music already seem like a breath of fresh air in a music industry known for suffocating artists with bad deals. Having not only a direct line to TV and film placement — especially when it's a central focus of an artist’s signing to a label — virtually ensures access to revenue sources independent of touring and merchandise, which are typically where most artists make most of their money. The pandemic showed how precarious those traditional sources of revenue can be, so labels that offer more ways to get artists paid sound pretty incredible.
Now, we just have to wait to see which artists will join Barris’s label and what comes from it. Knowing Barris, they’ll either be Black AF or Black-ish.