Photo courtesy of Binta Niambi Brown
Photo courtesy of Binta Niambi Brown
Binta Brown (IAC 89-91) has a resume that can make your head spin.
She’s a former corporate lawyer turned arts entrepreneur, a classically trained musician who plays several instruments, a Tony Awards voter, and she even once interned under Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. With such a wide range of experience, perhaps it’s not surprising that in 2014 Cosmopolitan magazine covered her work as a political influencer, or that Fortune named her one of its 40 under 40 in 2012.
Just how does one person advance so many different projects and skills—many of them seemingly contradictory—simultaneously?
“I’m a conductor,” she explains. She credits her training in reading orchestral scores with her astounding ability to lead and participate in multiple projects—and conversations—at once. And she traces everything she’s accomplished back to Interlochen Arts Camp, Cabin 2.
Learning to Speak
“Interlochen was transformative for me,” Brown says. She’s sitting in her office in Manhattan, having several conversations at once, as usual. Though she named her label Big Mouth as a nod to her tendency to talk—a lot—she says she didn’t speak much until she was 12. Instead she expressed herself through music, which she calls her “first language.”
She came to Interlochen as a high school girl with talent and skill, studying trombone and piano, and she left with the confidence and discipline to achieve her dreams.
“I was surrounded, for the first time, by a community that was doing the same, that shared my passions and my values,” she says. “It was the first time I really felt connected in that way. My family was one of the first to integrate where I lived, in Northern Virginia. Interlochen was the first place I didn’t feel awkward, that I felt a part of the community.”
Everything she learned during her summers at camp, she still uses today: a sense of discipline, the importance of practicing every day to achieve mastery, the skill of active listening, the discipline of perseverance, and the vision to innovate and experiment.
“When I’m in the studio with recording artists, I realize how well I’ve been trained,” she says. “I have the language to talk to commercial musicians about their work in a way that is constructive and specific. I can work with artists to help them know where they need to go—that’s not typical of most music execs.”
She insists that the ability to really listen, hear and process what’s happening in a room matters not just for making music but for how she practiced law, how she interacts with colleagues, how she delivers a speech, and how she advises a political candidate. “You can’t be a good leader without the ability to really hear and listen,” she says.
At Interlochen, where she auditioned weekly to keep her chair for World Youth Symphony Orchestra performances, she learned to do everything within her power to affect the outcomes she desired—then let it go. “If I know I’ve done my best and tried as hard as I could, I don’t worry so much about outcomes,” she says. “Interlochen gave me that confidence.”
That’s why Brown feels so passionately about working to make arts education accessible to as many children as possible. “It breaks my heart that some talented kid will never receive the kind of training I had, never be taught that kind of discipline and confidence,” she says.
Giving Musicians a Voice
Brown knew even as a young girl that she loved music and that she wanted to work in the entertainment industry some day. But she was also motivated by a profound sense of justice. That combination is what led her to a political science degree from Barnard College, and then to Columbia Law School.
“The law requires justice,” she says. “Without the law, I probably wouldn’t be having this conversation with you. But music and the arts, they bring us together voluntarily out of a sense of our shared humanity, the way it moves our soul … the arts give us a shared communal experience that can be personally transformative.”
She cites Motown, Norman Lear and Richard Pryor among those who opened her eyes to the power of popular media to both unite and divide.
But when Brown went to work in the industry, she found it rooted in a fundamental inequity that diminishes the artist’s desire to create.
“I just don’t think like those companies,” she says. Neither does she accept the common explanations for the decline of the industry or predictions for its doom. She believes that it’s simply in need of creative rehabilitation.
“Music touches every person, every space,” she says. “It’s in media, video games, at our political rallies. It’s even in the way we’re constructed: we’re all percussionists; we all have beating hearts. The music industry isn’t going anywhere, but we need it to get healthy.”
As an entrepreneur and problem solver, Brown knew she had to make a way.
Her company, Fermata, is attempting to reorder the relationship between artist, manager and label. All contracts are based on a handshake, with the artist free to move on if the system isn’t working. Fermata provides the financial resources to create an album from concept to execution and marketing—from rehearsal space (Fermata’s bands are required to rehearse, Brown says) to A&R.
“We are taking a venture capital approach to our artists,” Brown explains. “We invest in them, and we align our interests, but the artist maintains ownership of the art with us and participates in the economic success of what they’re creating.”
Learning to build something new on the shoulders of what works best—to innovate without disregarding tradition—is another lesson she learned at Interlochen.
“In order to bring about a more just and loving society, you have to be willing to solve problems and create,” Brown says. “But you don’t dismiss the past, the foundation. It’s not either/or. It’s about bringing everything you know to bear, and then taking it to the next level. It’s about bringing it all together.”
—Jessica Mesman Griffith