This is music you won’t easily find anywhere else—except, perhaps in its region of origin. If you are an artist/etc and wish for me to remove your music, email me. The albums for sale I have licensed in collaboration with the artists who get 50% of any profits; the tapes posted here are free downloads for which I do not have the rights.
awesometapesfromafrica [at] gmail [point] com
Orders within the US ship via USPS Media Mail.
Orders outside of the US ship via DHL eCommerce.
ATFA accepts returns on goods damaged in transit. Please contact awesometapesfromafrica [at] gmail [point] com with replacement requests.
About Awesome Tapes From Africa and Brian Shimkovitz
RECORD LABEL ETHICS
For the sake of transparency, and so our fans and others know what we stand for, this is a non-comprehensive summary of the things we are doing daily—much of it since 2011 or earlier—to make an impact on the systemic racism, inequality and white (and passport) privilege endemic to the music business. I take responsibility for not making this info more clear to the public earlier. I had previously operated on the assumption that our work speaks for itself, but it’s now more important than ever to be clear. (For background on me personally and why I started this project and why it unfolded the way it did please see below.)
- ATFA works for its artists, not the other way around. We don’t own the music or control the artists’ careers. The recordings are legally licensed for a mutually-agreed period of time. Artists who don’t speak English receive contracts in a local language. We license the music directly from the artists or their families whenever possible to avoid the theft and trickery that’s been part of the music business when it comes to Black and African music.
- Label profits are split 50/50 with the artists. We invest the money needed upfront to pay for all manufacturing, printing, shipping, customs, warehousing, promotional campaigns and more, keeping costs as low as possible. The label recoups that money from record sales, after which time profits are split. This means we often risk money on a project that doesn’t get paid back. We are releasing music in regional languages featuring styles that are often locally important but less well-known internationally and therefore more complex to market.
- Marketing Black music to white audiences has a troubled history rife with exploitation and manipulation. ATFA’s central goal in promoting African music is to make the music popular outside its region of origin on its own merits and not use the sign-off of white artists or comparisons to well-known styles in the west as validation. When it comes to label artists, we avoid showy press materials and communicate information about the artists and recordings without hyperbole. We strive to get music reviewed by knowledgeable writers from diverse backgrounds, but recognize there is a system that controls who gets hyped and what gets covered. We know it’s seriously flawed and often prioritizes proximity to whiteness. So we focus attention on the artist’s stories instead of the label as a brand and seek to let the artists speak for themselves in the press.
- Accounting and record sales are reported twice yearly, at which time artists are paid if the release has broken even. Since the pandemic began, the artists who lost income from cancelled concert bookings have been getting paid bimonthly, where possible.
- We advocate for the artists in the digital realm where many Africa-based musicians aren’t able to get paid or are being swindled by former labels or distributors who, often without the artists’ knowledge, have put their music on streaming sites and YouTube but don’t pay royalties.
- We promote each release globally with ad campaigns, in-store promotions, direct pitches to editors, music supervisors, freelance journalists and concert promoters. We approach each release as deserving a full marketing campaign, spending months or years preparing and launching albums in conjunction with our distributor and outside colleagues we hire on a project by project basis when needed.
- We take on the responsibility to apply for visas for most of our touring artists which is an expensive, complicated, lengthy and often risky process quite often resulting in financial loss if the application is not successful. One must have all the concerts confirmed with contracts from promoters, along with flights, hotels and extensive documentation about the artist’s ability to draw audiences and willingness to return home to their country afterwards.
- Many of our releases are new recordings; we focus on active artists making new work while also re-releasing classic albums. In 2021 we released four new recordings and two reissues, for example.
- ATFA releases complete records as they were originally presented in order to tell the artists’ stories to the world in a contextualized way, using academics, knowledgeable journalists and/or local voices for the text. We don’t make compilations or change the art.
- I have close personal relationships with many of the artists with whom we are working. In many cases I’ve visited those folks and their families and I often work with people in their community in order to put the albums together. We engage local translators, technical advisors and more. I always defer to local experts or scholars whenever available. We regularly delay releases in order to get the right voices involved. Often our relationships extend beyond contractual obligations.
- I aim to place the artists front and center in social media and publicity materials and ask journalists to interview the artists instead of me.
- Some publications have attributed “discoveries” to me but I have avoided using words like that to describe the content of the blog or the releases from the label. I don’t describe myself as a “digger;” rather, much of my passion is focused on popular and mainstream music from the places I’ve visited (or dreamed of visiting). The point of the project above all is to promote regional household names who aren’t well-known globally. If those types of colonial tropes are used in media or promotional texts about ATFA, please alert us as it’s a constant battle to prevent characterizations such as this.
- Most of the artists working with ATFA have had their music bootlegged/pirated, streamed for free online and/or sold by third parties without any royalties distributed, for decades sometimes. I spend months (often years) searching for the artists we work with in order to make their music more widely accessible in a way that gets them paid. I’ve been told an artist is dead more than once only to find them alive and interested in distributing their music.
- The blog only features music that isn’t for sale anywhere online, as a way to publicly archive music that’s hard to find. In many cases the release was produced only on tape format. Most of the blog’s commenters these days are Africa-based. If anyone wants their music taken down they can just email me.
- DJing arrangements for the past several years include a requirement about line-up diversity. When promotional materials or a line-up are problematic, I cancel gigs at my own expense. I say no to many offers for both ATFA DJ gigs and label artist performances, when there is evidence of tokenism, a history of racism or anything else that feels unethical.
- I will continue to contractually demand promoters who book ATFA DJ sets or ATFA artists to include diverse line-ups. When I am in control of line-up curation, I will continue to include BIPOC and LGBTQ artists.
- I do not seek to come across as an African person or as the person who produced the music that I DJ in sets. I don’t play edits or remixes and I primarily play the original songs directly from original cassettes. I play the music with respect and seek to celebrate it without changing it or making it my own. I don’t project my values on the music and avoid playing sacred or ceremonial music that would be inappropriate in a club or party setting.
CHANGES GOING FORWARD
- I’m DJing under the name Awesome Tapes going forward to avoid any confusion about where I’m from or who I am. I used the blog’s name Awesome Tapes From Africa when DJing because that’s how people knew me over ten years ago when I started playing cassettes at parties. The change is necessary to move forward and I appreciate those who helped me realize this is the right thing to do. I also apologize to anyone who felt misled or otherwise hurt by my using that name for DJing.
- I will require promoters to allot free or discounted tickets for BIPOC audience members.
- I promise to only hire Black artists for art and design work related to the label. We have been working with an internationally recognized female mastering engineer for every single release since we began. She gets credit on every release package along with anyone else who has helped along the way.
- When booking gigs I have been including questions about how the promoters plan to engage with local African communities and how they will access these communities to ensure that their local African diaspora are aware of the show, and can attend for free if desired.
- I will continue to prioritize performing with BIPOC concert/festival/party promoters and agencies, regardless of fee.
- I promise to submit detailed song info lists for every DJ set I play to venues for submitting to local performing rights organizations so artists whose music is registered can receive public performance royalties. One of the many subtle things I am trying to remedy with ATFA is getting more artists to receive these and other public performance and broadcast royalties.
- ATFA has launched a free series of workshops for anyone in Africa or the diaspora who wants to learn the steps involved with starting a label. Zoom-based monthly sessions began last October and last about 90 minutes. I am currently putting together printable follow-up materials and providing contacts and guidance at every level of the release process, from idea to manufacturing to international distribution.
All the above and more is open to discussion and I welcome feedback via email. I also welcome those who feel issues haven’t been addressed properly here or elsewhere in the past to let me know and I promise to respond with due accountability.
Awesome Tapes From Africa is a blog and record label that started in 2006. When it began, I was simply posting audio of the cassettes I collected while on a Fulbright grant project in Ghana. Before traveling to Accra, I spent two years preparing an application for a government-funded project with the help of my professors in the Ethnomusicology and Communication & Culture departments at Indiana University. The mission was to study hiplife, the localized Ghanaian interpretation of hip-hop, which at the time hadn’t been written about in academic circles. I was lucky enough after two attempts to win this grant and spend a year doing research in Ghana. But I realized quickly that doing research doesn’t really do anything for the artists I admired and worked with.
While doing research in Ghana in 2004 and 2005, the artists I spent time with all asked how to get their music heard overseas. I wanted to help them do that. But I knew I needed to develop a new paradigm for the distribution of African music because of the colonial history of white-owned companies large and small releasing African music without properly paying artists or their families. There are too many examples to list. Many older Ghanaian artists in particular told me that they felt ripped off by outsiders over the years. The message was loud and clear.
After a year in West Africa, I moved to New York City. I wanted to share the music I heard in Ghana—from hyper-local sounds to albums by international icons—that wasn’t easily available outside the regions of origin. It was the days before streaming—nowadays most African countries have numerous streaming and download sites, legal and non-, that serve local and overseas listeners—and YouTube had only recently started. I knew most of the tapes I had were not digitally available on the internet. I focused on tapes because at that time that was the primary medium of distribution in the places I visited in West Africa.
I started the blog in 2006, as a hobby. I simply posted the entire cassette as a download along with its cover art with the little info I could gather or already knew, asking commenters to fill in the gaps. I posted semi-religiously for a few years on the weekends while doing my dayjob and because I lived in Brooklyn, lots of random musicians found out about it. Artists like Ata Kak, who didn’t previously have a large fanbase, became well-known because of the blog.
In 2010, with the encouragement and support of mentors in the NYC music community, I began DJing cassettes at events. In 2011, with the help of Secretly Distribution, for whom I had interned in college, I began the work of contacting artists and licensing their recordings for physical and digital releases to be made available worldwide.
In the last decade, Awesome Tapes From Africa has been focused on bringing more African musicians into the global music marketplace, aiming to provide greater access to revenue streams that should be available to all musicians regardless of nationality, location, language, or banking circumstances. Because of the way systems are set up and because of lack of access to things like high-speed internet, direct deposit, etc, there are significant hurdles for African musicians getting their music distributed internationally. Locally, in most cases, if there is a producer making their album, musicians generally receive a one-time fee for their record regardless of eventual sales success. But I wanted ATFA’s work to include regular royalties reporting, accounting and revenue sharing. I borrowed the punk rock/DIY ethos of 50/50 deals and simple, limited-term contracts that allow the artist to retain rights and the copyrights for their work. We don’t own anyone’s music.
ATFA, as a company as well as myself personally, stands with Black Lives Matters and other movements demanding an end to the racism that is structurally embedded in every aspect of our daily lives from employment and housing, to education and of course, cultural production.
ATFA’s mission is to contribute to the visibility of African music and musicians through increased shelf space in physical and digital music stores around the world, with mainstream media appearances, and by creating performance opportunities and financial security through global touring. The idea behind ATFA is to provide a more detailed picture of the regional genres and styles of music that are out there, to spotlight music sung in languages that are heard less often, and from genres that aren’t well-known overseas or even in neighboring countries.
In interviews over the past ten years, I have tried to acknowledge my privilege as a white person. I have always sought to use that position and power to benefit the artists I work with. I’m someone who has access to distribution channels, gatekeepers in the media and concert industry, as well as an audience that spends money on records. I worked for seven years at a music/arts PR agency in New York City and use my background in the music industry as a way to make the music more widely available and visible in mainstream international media, as well as via the ATFA blog and its social media reach.
So far we have released over 35 titles (more than a dozen are new recordings). Many of those albums have launched the artists into international touring musicians. I build long-term relationships with artists beginning with reissues, as with the case of Hailu Mergia. He has now released two new recordings with the label, following some successful archival releases. We recently released a new recording by Nahawa Doumbia, following two reissues and two European tours we helped arrange. Artists on the label performed over 100 concerts worldwide in 2019, and we do not collect commission on those performances. I connect them with booking agencies to handle the shows or they are booked by me personally.
ATFA is focused on being a bridge for artists who want to play outside their home countries. So I am deeply involved in visa applications. The difficulty of getting USA, UK and European visas for artists hailing from most African countries is well-known and I have extensive experience with consulates and immigration lawyers around the world. The system of who gets visa-free travel and who doesn’t is racist and creates an automatic wall, limiting the variety of artists who get to perform high-paying shows overseas. The majority of the artists we work with require separate visas for each territory: UK, Europe, USA, Canada, Russia, Australia, Ireland, China and many others, for which one must apply months in advance with shows, flights and hotels booked and confirmed.
I began DJing after getting requests to bring the music from my blog to events; it was not an initial part of the plan for ATFA. The DJ gigs I play are a vehicle for introducing the label’s artists to promoters. We sometimes play shows together as well and in those cases I often take a reduced fee in order for the artist to get paid more. I earn half my income from DJing. Some of that goes to label expenses and artist tours as well as projects that aren’t guaranteed to ever break even.
My priority is to play shows where Africans in Europe and the rest of the world can attend, although I know this is not always possible depending on the city or event. In the past (although not recently) I’ve played parties featuring all-white line-ups or in spaces that don’t actively cater to a wide diversity of people. I’ve rarely played hotels and private clubs but some public or DIY spaces haven’t always done enough to welcome BIPOC audiences. Over the years I’ve worked with my booking agents to make sure that doesn’t happen. Given my position and background it’s absolutely imperative that I play venues that welcome Black people and don’t have a history of racism. All this is a big part of the decision process of what gigs I do choose.
I promise in my work to make even greater efforts to include more Black voices in how the label operates and you can hold me accountable to that and anything else mentioned here via awesometapesfromafrica [at] gmail [point] com.