Interviews With Friends

In Conversation

Jocelyn Cooper of AFROPUNK

  • Jocelyn Cooper

Jocelyn Cooper, a music industry veteran who has worked with such artists as Beyoncé and Sean Garrett, collaborates with Matthew Morgan (former music manager of Santigold), to run AFROPUNK. Showcasing black musicians making alternative, experimental and underground music and hosting numerous events throughout the year, the production company throws the acclaimed AFROPUNK FEST every summer in Commodore Barry Park in Brooklyn, NY. On August 24 and 25, it held its ninth installment, featuring such celebrated acts as Grammy winners Living Colour, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and the seminal Detroit proto-punk band Death, as well as a diverse group of emerging performers such as Big Freedia, Mykki Blanco and The Skins.

At the penultimate installment of Uptown Fridays, the Studio Museum’s summer party series, AFROPUNK screened its short film The Triptych, the first in a series profiling Black visual artists, featuring Wangechi Mutu, Sanford Biggers and Barron Claiborne.

I recently sat down with Cooper to discuss her path to AFROPUNK, the ways in which artists shift culture and how the making of The Triptych came about.

So you started as an assistant at a recording studio. From there, where did you go?
In 1988, I moved into music publishing at Warner/Chappell, one of the largest music publishing companies in the world. I was what was known as a “song plugger.”—essentially someone that comes in, sits with A&R, or artists and repertoire, people and pitches songs to them. I would bring a song to industry exec Clive Davis, we would listen to it, and then play it for an artist or producer. That’s an old fashioned way that people made records, and I was really good at it.

From there where did you go?
I started signing writers to Warner/Chappell. In 1993, I was offered a joint venture deal to start my own music company called Midnight Music, which is where I signed D’Angelo. I worked there for four years.

You eventually ended up at Universal Music. How did that come about?
In 1998, Doug Morris, who is a music executive who now runs Sony, was going over to Universal and asked me to work with him. I ran the A&R department there for ten years. Instead of being the one that was plugging songs, I became the person listening to the songs for artists and signing them. I worked with a roster of about 125 musicians. Then I left and took a break. Afterwards, I worked with L.A. Reid, the current chairman and CEO of Epic Records, for a couple of years running his music publishing company Hitco.Then, in 2007 I met Matthew and started working at AFROPUNK.

What drew you to AFROPUNK?
Throughout my career I loved working with artists that were shifting culture. You look at someone like D’Angelo who was, at the time, king of Neo-soul. But when I signed him, Neo-soul as a genre didn't exist—he was the first. Then came Maxwell and Erykah Badu , Anthony Hamilton, India.Arie, Chrisette Michele, they are all considered Neo-soul. But D’Angelo was the first I later worked with Cash Money and helped usher in the whole Southern hip-hop movement Today,artists like Drake and Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne are popular.

But Nicki Minaj and Drake aren’t Southern rappers, per se.
But their sound comes from Southern rap. It really started with a label called Suave House out of Texas, with rappers like Master P and Mannie Fresh—but none of it really crossed over onto radio until Cash Money Records. It opened up a world of music that’s still on the radio now. And because I’d been a part of those musical movements, when I met Matthew, I knew in my bones that AFROPUNK was the same kind of thing. I wanted to be a part of it in some way.

So how did the making of The Triptych come about?
The making of The Triptych started with Barron Claiborne. When we thought to make the film, he was the photographer for The New York Times Magazine and had this illustrative career of photographing all these amazing, iconic images. When we started filming him, we found that while the art made by black artists was featured at certain cultural institutions, and there were resources that talked about their work, there was less about who they were separate from their work. The film evolved from a longing to know who these people were, particularly as individuals that shift culture and address culture in a political way.

So how do you think the artists featured speak to the AFROPUNK movement?
The AFROPUNK movement is about being an individual, being smart, being creative and bringing about change. These artists fit under this umbrella.  I think of not only Wangechi, Sanford, and Barron, but the artists we continue to shoot for the series. They are the bravest of all the people I know that are creating art for the current moment.

How many films or episodes do you foresee in the series? What artists do you want to work with?
We’ve got 50 artists that we want to profile, which is a very lofty goal. We’re thinking Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Nick Cave. The list goes on and on.

For this year’s festival, AFROPUNK produced a number of new T-shirts, including three with respective designs by Wangechi Mutu, Sanford Biggers, and Barron Claiborne. You can find them here.

Justin Allen is the Fall 2013 Public Programs and Community Engagement Intern at The Studio Museum in Harlem.