From Lower Broadway To Music Row, Mimi And Muziqueen Are Helping To Establish Hip-Hop And R&B In ‘Music City’

To name an organization Nashville Is Not Just Country Music is to convey a certain pugnaciousness, an impatience with the passé, popular perception that the city’s music scene is monolithic. That’s certainly part of what founder Thalia Ewing, a music publishing veteran and Nashville native who also goes by Muziqueen, and her co-conspirator Jamila McCarley, a product of the music business program at Middle Tennessee State who uses the shortened sobriquet Mimi, have in mind. Reputation isn’t their sole concern—they’re attentive to realities on the ground, unwilling to watch the city’s hip-hop and R&B music-makers exist in close proximity to the resources of the music industry while mostly being relegated to its margins.

Over the last few years, Ewing and McCarley have developed their own strategies for educating, equipping and empowering underserved singers, rappers, songwriters, beatmakers and producers, borrowing tried-and-true tools from Music Row and hip-hop culture alike. They’ve returned to putting on live events just in time for Black Music Month, and they’re using their urban writers’ rounds and DJ and beat battles to plant a flag for R&B and hip-hop in the famously tourist-mobbed sector of Lower Broadway. We discussed all of that and more for our latest Community Beats conversation.

Jewly Hight: Here at WNXP we take it as verifiable reality that country music is not the only music being made in Nashville. Who are you making the argument to with your name, Nashville Is Not Just Country Music?

Thalia Ewing: It’s a mantra for the world, number one, because the misperception is that all that really is prominent here in Nashville is country music. When I lived in New York, that’s what I heard: “Oh, that’s country music.” And I would always say, “Well, Nashville is not just country music.” And so that’s how it just came about, because I was saying it so much and I was just like, “Let’s just make it a movement so the world can know.” And yeah, Music Row needs to know, and the creators.

Mimi McCarley: The creative community needs to know that Nashville can support the creatives here that are not involved in country. There’s is such a large creative community and they all deserve to be serviced.

JH: Music-makers who specialize in hip-hop or R&B, some of whom are Black Nashville natives, might be living and working in geographical proximity to the established music industry and its resources, but they have had to figure out on their own how to launch a career, or get anything done professionally. What difference does it make to the priorities and strategies you’ve zeroed in on that you have experience in and knowledge of the music business?

MM: There’s levels to resources and access. What Thalia had done early in her launch of Nashville Is Not Just Country Music was providing educational panels, just speaking to music publishing. It’s one of those things that people know enough to be dangerously ignorant.

JH: That is a less visible side of the industry, publishing, licensing.

MM: And that’s a problem, when we’re talking about the amount of energy, effort, time, resources, money that goes into creating products that you want the world to hear, and you haven’t taken time to secure your buckets so that when money comes, you can collect. That’s not wise from a career standpoint. Education and empowerment is the heartbeat of what we do on a mass level and on an independent personal one.

TE: I researched and read books and things like that, but it wasn’t really until I got in the corporate music business space that I was like, “Oh man, we’re doing this all wrong.” When I got that knowledge, I definitely wanted to share that with artists so that they can be empowered, because as you’re on this journey, when you’re feeling like things aren’t coming, that can be super frustrating and you can get burnt out and then your creativity starts to suffer. I wanted to find the way that I could support them being able to bring their gifts and talents to the world, but also be able to make money from it. We don’t want it to be a hobby. You should be able to sustain your family and take care of yourself from your art. And if that’s just a matter of you knowing how to do a registration of some publishing or licensing, let me provide you with this information to help you along the way. That was how it kind of got started, from my own ignorance and learning. It was like, “OK, if I don’t know, other people don’t know. And they should know.”

JH: On a philosophical level, is your vision to help equip people so that they can gain access to the established industry system, or are you trying to help people learn how things are done so that they can build a world outside of the existing system? Or is it some combination of both?

TE: It’s definitely a combination, because we want to service both type of artists and creatives. Some are definitely more passionate about staying independent, and some are passionate about, partnering with a larger entity. Either creative should not be shut out. They should have access to the resources to help them get to where they want to go. What Music Row and Nashville has to offer, compared to New York, L.A., even Atlanta, we are rich with resources on the business side to really help an artist move forward. Those resources are just very limited to one specific genre of music.

MM: For me, the independent creative entrepreneur, that is a focus of mine. And it’s personal, because that’s what I am: I’m an independent, creative entrepreneur. I have found that I’ve had more success with people who want to learn, because no one’s going to care more about your business than you, not a label, not a publisher, not anyone. It starts with you understanding the business of creativity.

TE: I don’t expect you to be an attorney and be able to decipher everything, but you can read and you have comprehension and you can go through this [contract] and mark and ask questions about things that you may not have a full understanding of. It doesn’t matter if you’re the artist, you need to have some basic level of understanding what the business is, what publishing is, what a mechanical is, what these things are. If that is not your strong suit, you at least are empowered in knowledge to know, “I need to hire this person or bring somebody in that does specialize in that that can help me, because I know I need this service.”

JH: We’re talking about access not only to resources, but to knowledge and information. You mentioned that some of your first ventures through Nashville Is Not Just Country Music where educational panels. You’ve also done a lot of writers’ rounds, mixers and showcases, events that are commonplace within the established music industry in Nashville. How and why have you taken tools and practices proven on Music Row and applied them to the work you want to do?

TE: I mean, the formula is the formula.

And the thing was, Nashville grew. I’m a native Nashville. Nashville twenty years ago is not the Nashville of today. There’s a bunch of creatives moving here and they’re like, “Where can I find people who do hip hop? Where can I find people who do R&B? That’s what I do, but I don’t know where to go to find it, because when I go over Music Row or when I go to Lower Broadway, all I hear is country music.”

We started small with a networking mixer: “Let’s just gather and get these people in the room together and see what happens.” The first one, we had over 200 people come, from Kansas, Alabama. It’s like, “If you build it, they will come.”

MM: When I came to Nashville, all I wanted to do was write songs and develop my catalog. And how do you build the network when [those you’d want to write with] they’re so far and few between and spread out? Thankfully, I had my MTSU connections, but it was at these mixers that even I, serving on both sides of the table, were able to build my network of creatives up more because we’re all in one spot. I’ve written several songs with people I’ve met at mixers.

TE: Bringing in Music Row [was strategic], because some of these writers are affiliated [with ASCAP], but had never set foot in these offices. So it was twofold, because ASCAP got to see 200 urban creatives. We packed it in.

JH: I’m glad you brought up institutional involvement. I’ve been to loads of country and roots, and even some pop and rock, showcases in Nashville that have corporate or institutional backing, but I didn’t see much of that sort of sponsorship of hip-hop or R&B shows here, until Red Bull began to get behind some big shows. You just did this big live stream showcase on April 30th with significant institutional and corporate sponsorship. How did you pull that off?

TE: Full disclosure: you got to know the right people to ask. And I just happened to have a great connection and asked. And we were blessed to have BMG step up and be the sponsor, because from my knowledge, that was the first time a music company had supported an all-hip-hop showcase in Nashville that wasn’t like you said, a Red Bull, a Heineken or some kind of other brand. So that was that was historic and really big, and we were really proud to be able to do that and bridge that gap and hope to be able to do more things like that in the future.

MM: I think it was special—because Thalia works at BMG—for BMG to take interest in the culture that is happening in Nashville. When someone like a BMG says, “Hey, I’m willing to be the presenting sponsor,” it takes the buy in of one somebody to get the buy-in of the other entities that are needed. That was an event that we did in partnership with H.O.M.E. Nashville and Underground Music Collective. Then we also had success with Shannon Sanders over at BMI. We also had Red Bull, Guidance Whiskey, Slim & Husky’s. I think I know Nashville is changing. It’s a slow turn because Nashville is it’s been here for a while, existing the way that it has.

JH: The lineup that you assembled for that April 30th livestream showcase was made up of different kinds of artists from a number of different circles and sub-scenes within scenes. Derek Minor, for instance, operates in the different scene than 2’Live Bre and Daisha McBride and Chuck Indigo. We’re not talking about a monolithic musical world here. How did you go about assembling a lineup to showcase that breadth and why is that important?

MM: When we were putting the lineup together, we were open. We wanted to honor people who we know have been growing and building. Derek Minor has really dominated the independent space for a long time, and Nate Rose. We brought in 2’Live Bre [because] we thought it was important to have him represent his voice and his new direction where he’s going with his music. We brought in TriplePlay Squeak because somebody from her sub-scene advocated for her to be on the bill and said, “Look, y’all can’t call it ‘The Best of Nashville’s Hip-hop’ if you’re not grabbing someone from every scene.” You had S-Wrap, who’s more conscious. You had Lord Goldie, who gave us the band feel. There was not one artist who was similar in their in their lanes.

TE:  And those things are intentional. We do that to showcase the variety, to make sure there’s something for everyone who is viewing or participating. If conscious is more your lane, we have somebody for that. If it’s more street and hood, we got something for that. If it’s more melodic and emotional, we have something for that.

JH: You’ve got a lot planned for June, including a mixer at the National Museum of African American Music and an urban writers’ round at Acme Feed and Seed. Certainly people are thinking about safe spaces from a from a health angle at this point. What has it taken to find venues that feel safe and visible in the sense that they’re welcoming to your events?

TE: The museum recently opened in February, and so they have been in almost full capacity. They’ve had numerous people come in and out the doors. They wipe down everything. They’ve given us number restrictions and things of that nature that we will ensure people’s safety, wearing masks will have hand sanitizer.

Acme, we had partnered with them pre-COVID. We had had just started a new residency there with the urban writers’ rounds.

MM: We were one of the first organizations to really [partner with] Acme in this space. Yeah.

TE: We were so excited to be [downtown], because we’ve had various locations. We were at The Local first and then we moved to True Music Room at Cambria Hotel and then Acme presented itself. And we’re like, “OK, we are on primo Lower Broadway, downtown Nashville.” Shout-out to Acme for partnering with us on that. And they called like, “Hey, we’re opening our doors back up. Do you still want your slot that you had pre-COVID?”

JH: And just a few a few blocks up the street is the museum.

TE: Exactly. We’re on the north side and the south side of Broadway.

MM: Diversity and music on Broadway sounds like the right thing for Nashville.  

TE: I’m gonna speak it: I think I think one day we will see Nashville Is Not Just Country Music Bar and Lounge on Broadway, to be able to showcase talent.

JH: You’re also presenting a Nashville cypher. What do you want to do with that?

TE: We’ve been out the loop for a long time. People are getting vaccinated. Things are opening back. What can we do to really just jump out the gate? Let’s just do everything. The cypher, the DJ battle, all those things just kind of came out of wanting to do something more than what we were doing prior to [the pandemic].

MM: We’re just making up for lost time.

TE: I was like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we just got as many Nashville rappers as we could to do this cypher?”

JH: Like, how many?

TE: As many as I can get: 20, 30, 40.

MM: Whoever got a hot 16 [bars].

TE: I just started hitting up rappers that I like on Instagram and saying, “Hey, this, something I’m putting together. If you’re interested, we’ll set up a day for you to come record your part.” We’re going to string it together and premiere it on YouTube. I figured that’s the best way to keep it safe, and make it so it can last and live on.

JH: It makes sense that that is coming from an impulse of wanting to catch up with momentum that already exists. When the Nashville Chamber of Commerce released the music industry report late last year, it indicated that Nashville’s hip-hop writers, rappers, singer, rappers and producers had been as productive as the music-makers in any scene or genre in the city during the pandemic. There’s proof in the number of projects dropped in rapid succession by Chuck Indigo, by Daisha McBride, and a number of their peers.

TE: Another thing we did during the shut-down was take this time to encourage them to step up their business: Now that you’re in the studio and taking this time to create, also take this time to get organized and make sure your stuff is registered, because we’re in a downtime. This is a perfect time for you to get caught up in those areas.

MM: We also during the pandemic, developed the independent music publisher incubator. We were like, “Let’s move away from just pitching songs and let’s pitch creatives, utilize our network on both sides and bring people together so that creatives have the opportunity to present themselves to executives, to labels, label heads.” We’ve done about seven of these pitches now where we pitch people. We’ve partnered with these creatives, helping them to develop, giving them opportunity and access to people that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. But on the flip side, [we’re] giving the executives and the publishers access to people that they are not going to know about, because Nashville is so disconnected with all these pockets.

TE: And they don’t have the staff, or have someone on staff, that is dedicated to finding this talent.

MM: Talent that we’ve been working with for 6 years.

TE: So we’re uniquely positioned in this situation.