The conversation I am having with Phiona Okumu feels like one I would have at a party, and Phiona is the life of it. When I later point out that it feels like she’s always the life of the party, she modestly protests. “You caught me on a good day! I had had lunch,” she says, laughing.
It is not just the fun conversation that leads me to this conclusion, it’s her life and journey to where she is today as the Spotify Head of Music for sub-Saharan Africa.
“I was a radio deejay in campus and to this day, I always wish that was something that had blown up for me. I really wanted to be in radio but it never happened! That was definitely a dream. I was also a club deejay, so I can spin!” she says.
The campus deejaying gig was at Rhodes University in South Africa, where she was at for a Bachelor of Commerce (Bcom), Economics and Statistics with Psychology as a minor.
“I didn’t do well,” she says. “I didn’t do well at all.” What she was focused on was music and deejaying, and was a star at that.
“What I didn’t even think to leverage was the fact that I loved music. I always seemed to love media. In high school I was in the newspaper, the school committee — did all of that stuff.
“But nobody really told me about self-awareness and knowing about who you are so that you can apply yourself to the intent of your future. Nobody. I never had that. It was really just, ‘go to school, get the degree, graduate and make the most out of that lot that you’re going to make for yourself.’ This was the mentality then.
“The irony is the fact that everything I could have learned education-wise was right there at the tip of my fingers but I just didn’t think that way. So when people ask me ‘What was your college experience like?’ I always say it was good, fun, but wasted a lot of money. If I hadn’t landed where I am today, I don’t think my parents would have been that happy,” she says.
Her parents moved around a lot when she was a child, so she is a Kenyan-born Ugandan but also lived in South Africa and in the UK.
“The reason we moved around so much is because when the family was still young, my parents were kind of still figuring out where they were in the world, professionally,” she says.
Her father was a teacher, but was also a student majoring in English Literature at Sheffield University, which is what initially took them to the UK.
Her mother had administrative roles and executive support roles and Phiona says she built herself up and was working for the UN as a project manager before she retired.
“When I was in high school and new in South Africa, my mum couldn’t find work because there was some fairly anti-foreign sentiment in South Africa at the time, so she couldn’t get a work permit.
“So she took herself to Botswana and got a menial job working with men, moving bricks in the morning because it would get hot, and the builders needed their bricks to be at a certain place at a certain time. She did such kind of work just so that we could make it. That is someone I look up to authentically,” she says.
It may be the reason, she says, that she has never been uncomfortable with the idea of change or of not having a safety net, living through seasons.
“All that moving around and seeing what the next best thing is, made me always be in the mindset of, ‘Change will come and you’re just going to have to figure out how that all works out for you.’”
One time, she and two of her friends took on a project that Phiona says broke them and she learned a lesson. She says this was the defining moment of her life.
They were to bring in American artistes to Johannesburg, South Africa. Lauryn Hill was going to headline. There was also Black Thought from the Roots.
“It was a great undertaking in theory but a terrible undertaking in practice because everything that you can think could go wrong with an event, went wrong. We didn’t have any experience in putting together an international event — how to deal with the press, how to be professional, when to say no.
“We learned from the management of Lauryn Hill that she was not going to make it to South Africa. We had to cut our losses but we just wanted something to happen and when the sponsors pulled out, we magically found money and got the event off the ground. If you speak to South African hip hop fans of a certain era, like age 35 upwards, they will always remember this as a defining moment in what changed the landscape of the live events in South Africa.
“But it broke us. We lost all the money we had.... It was depressing and we just felt silly at the end of it. The takeaway from that was that from that moment, I never assume what I know and I am going to go out and learn the things that I am supposed to. I had assumed that because I know and love music I was going to pull off something related to music and it wasn’t the truth.”
That was what sent her to the United Kingdom - to learn. She took every job she found - bartending, admin jobs, waitressing...
“I was terrible at those jobs but I did them while learning the thing that I wanted to learn and hopefully that has paid off,” she says.
Before getting into music tech, by “accident”, she was in the media, having what she says was a very fruitful career as a music writer and editor, fully immersed in popular culture. She started as a freelancer in the UK for New Nation, one of the newspapers for the black community there.
“That is where I got my start. I used to do music lifestyle stories, like interviewing every single one of my favourite artistes like TI and such. These were people I met and humanised by just asking questions. I learned to practice writing, but also how to engage artistes.
“You know, artistes for me are the most seductive practitioners of art in the world. Who doesn’t want to be a singer? Who doesn’t want to be friends with a singer? Because of this, I was drawn into the world of music by wanting to tell the stories of it and also not being able to be a performer. I wish I could sing, but I can’t!” she says laughing.
The writing led to her becoming a thought leader in music, and writing for the Guardian in the UK.
“This was a very long time ago before the world of playlists opened up. Again, I was afforded the opportunity to curate for what was then a very innovative streaming service at the time.
“It was called 22 tracks. It was based in the Netherlands. It was great! We would go on there and be like, ‘These are my 20 songs that you need to listen to today’ and they were the best of African music.”
At the time, she says, African music was not common. She had also fallen in love with the African culture scene while living in London. This was fashion, music, street culture being created by African immigrants or visiting Africans.
Finding a voice
“I also had a friend in New York who was experiencing the same thing. We had both left South Africa, trying to find our way in the world, really excited about life and just trying to find a voice. So we started a blog called Afripop.
“It was really an amazing opportunity. The blog was written mostly by Black, African women, which wasn’t intentional but it just so happened because we got on so well with this community of bloggers and writers - this was the time when Twitter was new.
“Discovering communities on Twitter led me to have a kind of Pan-African idealism and view that made me more curious and invested in the arts and culture and that has made me make a career of championing African music,” she says.
By the time she was getting into Spotify, she was an authority on music.
She quotes one of her best friends, Kenyan film director Wanuri Kahiu.
“Wanuri has given a talk before where she says, ‘Find the thing that makes you angry and make that your passion’. For her, it’s injustice. In every film she has made, you can see that there is something that she is addressing that is not right in the world.
“I have used that theory in my place of work. I find that I’m always fighting for artistes who I think can be overlooked because they are female or Black or new and emerging,” she says.
“So I think I’ve always been drawn to helping people have a voice, in whatever capacity.”