Message to the Community, Specifically the Leaders:
Rahim Islam is a National Speaker and Writer, Convener of Philadelphia Community of Leaders, and President/CEO of Universal Companies, a community development and education management company headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Follow Rahim Islam on FaceBook(Rahim Islam) & Twitter (@RahimIslamUC)
“You can’t change the color of your skin or the parents that you are born to. Poverty, ignorance, and the quality of life – we can change those things”: Kenny Gamble.
When we examine the devastation of life, the inhumanity, struggles and oppression of people globally some feel despair more than others. Even when we want to help, life gets in the way and we end up spending the majority of our lives running away from the problem. Some individuals drown out the painful feelings by selfmedicating and they, ultimately, become one of the casualties. Then there are some people like Kenny Gamble who were born to serve people and when they see the struggles and carnage of life, the pain in their heart drives them to spend their entire life doing something to improve these outcomes.
I can’t tell you how many positive responses I received from the first part of this article, “Message in the music,” regarding my mentor Kenny Gamble. Some asserted that I may be getting soft (less angry) and others were intrigued by my reverence for Gamble. For the record, I’m not getting soft nor do I believe that I’m angry. What might appear as anger is in reality, a call to action and consciousness to our leaders (Black and White) that the Black community is in a real “dilemma.” Importantly, we can’t wish, pray, or dream our way out of this dilemma. The current reality of the Black Community, demands a new strategy that addresses the residual issues from the legacy of slavery coupled with a serious and sustained effort undertaken by real people and real leaders like Kenny Gamble.
Usually those that write the greatest movies, books and songs are just that: “writers” and nothing more. Rarely do they act on what they write and create. In fact, after meeting many so-called “artists,” I came away with a very sober view: many have a selfish attitude, the opposite of what is needed to advance the Black Community.
Many times these people don’t really believe in what they write about. Their gift lies in their artistic expression and in that expression alone. In my previous article, I hoped I was able to articulate how Kenny is more than a songwriter and a great one, at that. Kenny’s life work is demonstrated in his sincerity as a humanitarian and what he’s now accomplishing. I call it, “living the music.” The lyrics in his songs were not only what he expressed, but what he believes and have served as a foundation for his life’s mission.
Kenny Gamble’s musical accomplishments are legendary and he is widely known for having written, produced, recorded, and published more than 3,000 songs performed by artists such as The Jackson Five, Teddy Pendergrass, Jerry Butler, The OJay’s, Spinners, Delfonics, Jones Girls, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, Phyllis Hyman, Spinners, Dionne Warrick, and numerous others (nearly 60 artists in total represented the Philly label). His accomplishments are memorialized in every musical “hall of fame” including the prestigious Rock and Roll, Grammy, and Songwriters Hall of Fames.
Gamble and Huff’s music was at the forefront of institutionalizing not only Rhythm and Blues, but also the pioneering of dance and disco music. Gamble and Huff’s musical success in unparalleled, not only in regards to the number of albums that this writing team would create (151), but their musical catalog is one of the largest and most successful catalogs in the world. This awe-inspiring catalog secured the following: 80 #1 Hits; 200+ Top #100 Hits; 175 Gold/Platinum Albums; #1 R&B Publisher Worldwide; #8 Pop Publisher Worldwide; Top Ten in BMI Play List (one of Gamble and Huff records is played every 13 minutes worldwide); 35 movie placements in the past five years including Donald Trump’s Apprentice – For the Love of Money). Kenny Gamble and his partner are the most prolific and most successful writing duo in all of music – this is remarkable when you consider the structural obstacles that both of men encountered when trying to make it in the music business.
Writing songs is a gift and a personal genius but Kenny Gamble is more than a songwriter. He parlayed his “in your face” creativity to build one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in America with Philadelphia International Records. Kenny launched the careers of a significant number of talented artists. I think he’s most proud of the number of talented artists he helped to cultivate within the industry (i.e. writers, producers, promoters, musicians, etc.). Philadelphia International Records was a musical mecca and interested talent from all of the world would seek out Gamble and Huff to get a piece of the magic that they were creating – the Sound of Philadelphia.
Recognizing the disparities in the music industries, in 1979, Kenny Gamble began organizing the different segments of the industry (i.e. disc jockeys, publishers, artists, songwriters, producers, musicians, etc.) to form the Black Music Association (BMA). Prior to the term Rhythm and Blues becoming the dominant term to define music developed by Black people, our music was called “Black,” “soul,” or sometimes “race” music. Without the proper marketing and promotions (investment) or access to airwaves that had wider reach. These stations were primarily for White or what is termed as “crossover” music Black music that was played on White stations. Notably, Black music held its own and, in many cases, exceeded White music in sales in spite of the lack of investment.
One thing became clear and was captured by a slogan the Kenny coined “Black music is Green.” This could not have been truer when in the late 70s the music industry was in decline, but Black music remained strong. Unfortunately, Black music wasn’t valued nor leveraged to the optimal level it needed to be by the White music industry. The financial success of Black music, despite the lack of investment on par with White music, coupled with the efforts of BMA, in late 70’s, White labels began to really focus on the development of Black music. Kenny Gamble and the BMA forced a new reckoning of Black music on predominantly White labels. As a result, entire Black divisions were created that were headed by Blacks. The birth of the Black Record Executive catapulted. Using the Gamble and Huff model with CBS Records, thus began the emergence of “private” labelling – people like LA Reid, Russell Simmons, and Puffy Combs owe much of their success to Kenny Gamble and the BMA because of this knowledge and the battles fought and won before they were born.
The BMA held annual music conferences that sought to educate Black participants about all aspects of the music industry and organize the Black community. The goal was to not only optimize our participation economically but also to use the industry to help advance the Black community. This mindset was the foundation of Kenny Gamble’s real purpose. Kenny began to organize the Black disc jockeys, publishers, newspaper owners, producers, songwriters, and artists. A movement was underway. Movements are nothing new to Kenny Gamble because, in addition to leading the Black music movement, Kenny Gamble led the efforts for a number of movements to liberate Black people in America nationally, and in Philadelphia, locally.
Under Kenny’s leadership, BMA became a force to be reckoned with. The group began to use their new political capital to assist Black artists in regaining their publishing and their songwriting credits. Oftentimes, unscrupulous record labels preyed on and stole from uninformed. Many times they undercapitalized Black writers. White record executives tricked many Black artists, such as Little Richard into giving up their rights to publishing mainly because they didn’t understand the business. Throughout this entire process, Kenny Gamble dominated the music charts. While he was leading this music revolution, he was growing Philadelphia International Records into a powerhouse. In 1979, he created Black Music Month, which is celebrated today.
Black Music Month was created to celebrate the impact of Black music in America and the world. The group successfully lobbied President Jimmy Carter to host a reception on June 7, 1979 to formally recognize the cultural and financial contributions of Black music. Since 1979, Black Music Month has grown from a small commemoration to national proportions with events held annually across the country. In 2000, US-Representative Chaka Fattah sponsored House Resolution 509, which formally recognized the importance of Black music in culture and the economy during President Bill Clinton’s administration. In 2009, President Barack Obama further defined June as African American Music Appreciation Month, declaring the start of summer as a celebration for all Black “musicians, composers, singers, and songwriters [who] have made enormous contributions to our culture.”
In addition to the BMA, Gamble is one of the founders of the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Sadly, over the years, due to the theft of their intellectual property, a number of great Black artists, have lost the publishing and ownership of their masters. Both are critical components of how the monetization of music is done. The publishing and the masters are the musical asset. Today, in addition to preserving Rhythm and Blues music, the Foundation provides financial and medical assistance to Black artists who helped build R&B music from the 1940s to the 1970s and who are no longer at the top of the charts and are now elderly without any income.
Kenny Gamble is an absolute genius and master organizer. He is absolutely committed to the Black community. After achieving one the most successful music careers in our nation’s history, instead of moving to Beverly Hills, Jamaica, or Europe to enjoy a life of leisure, in 1990 Kenny Gamble and his family moved back to his old neighborhood in South Philadelphia. Much like many Black neighborhoods at this time, his old neighborhood had fallen into absolute decay. In between careers, Kenny Gamble founded or helped to build numerous organizations with the sole purpose of helping those less fortunate especially those in the Black community – none more impactful than Universal Companies (“Universal”) to assist him in rebuilding his old neighborhood and now his home.
Kenny Gamble’s relocation to his old neighborhood required not only a significant degree of vision, courage, and strength, but was a “game changer”. It was the difference, and not only did Universal become the catalyst to rebuild the neighborhood, but now is working in nearly eight neighborhoods in Philadelphia to implement what we call the “Universal Plan”. The Universal Plan basically recognizes that the problems facing the Black community are inter-relational and cannot be dealt with individually; these problems must be dealt with collectively and comprehensively.
The Universal Plan seeks to rebuild vibrant Black communities through a seemingly organic process, without the artificial and costly climate of one private or public entity funding an entire revitalization. It seeks to create mixed-income (not just poor Black people sideby- side with higher income White people), while connecting residents to the full benefits and services in neighborhoods that many would traditionally not be able to afford. The plan seeks to restore the connectivity (rebuild bridges that have been disrupted) between poor and prosperous neighborhoods that are right next to each other.
The plan seeks to grow Black neighborhoods without gentrification, knowing that private revitalization often leads to improved services, attraction of new businesses, and creates an active, “clean” environment. In addition to the “supply” side strategies (i.e. housing, education, and business, etc.), the plan seeks to organize and redirect the “demand” (buyer) side of the equation. Under the demand side, the plan seeks to organize, educate and redirect Blacks, especially high income, to return to our neighborhoods as a matter of choice. The plan seeks to show the value of improved Black neighborhoods over Blacks relocating to the suburbs. Every neighborhood is different with a unique set of assets requiring an individual planning strategy and Universal seeks to cultivate that strategy. No template exists for revitalizing a neighborhood. There exists a set of concepts that, when applied creatively to the unique circumstances of a particular place, can transform the area’s image significantly enough to create market interest while simultaneously providing access to capital. After nearly 20 years of implementation, the Universal Plan involves the following Principles:
• Local Community Leadership – Black people must lead the effort to rebuild our communities and no one else can do for us what we must do for ourselves. Who better can interpret the deep-rooted psychological issues that are at the core of every major challenge, than those who live in these communities? If local leadership doesn’t exist, it must be cultivated or successful business people must return to their community and assume a leadership position (i.e. Kenny Gamble story). Change requires hands-on management with personal and family commitment.
• Real Estate Development at Scale – The size of the plan must be planned and implemented as housing development at scale because the problems are so entrenched and magnified. The sooner we can get to a critical mass or tipping point, then we will have a better opportunity to be successful. Small projects just won’t move the needle. This should also be done in conjunction with education reform.
• Control The Delivery of K-12 Education – Blacks must change the paradigm of education and lead the effort to educate our children. As Malcom X once said, “Anyone who take their children to the enemy to be educated is a fool.” We must teach our children about who they are; how we got here; and what role they must play to fix our community (no one is going to do for us what we must do for ourselves).
• Long-Term Approach – The plan is better informed about the issues and the consequences of the issues involving the Black community. Many of these conditions are grounded in the legacy of slavery and can’t be resolved with a quick fix.
Any plan must be able to continue over the long term (multiple generations). These problems have taken hundreds of years to develop and will take a long-term approach to resolve. In addition, each strategy must incorporate both prevention strategies along with intervention strategies (outcomes).
• Rebuild Black Businesses – The plan incorporates that rebuilding our communities must be to grow wealth and jobs in the community and this can’t be done without a strong Black business community. Black businesses circulates money in the community before it exits and it becomes the catalyst for importing “new” money into the community. Blacks must own their communities so that we not only create wealth, but are able to transfer wealth to the next generation.
• Rebuild the Family – The plan rebuilds the Black family with a heavy focus on supporting Black men: the Black community is out of position because the Black family is out of position; the Black family is out of position because the Black man is out of position. Every effort must be made to help Black men to become providers and protectors of their families (i.e. education and jobs).
• Attract Private Black Investment – The plan will seek private investment especially with Black people. In the interim, we must innovate ways in which distressed communities are reconnected to existing strong economic markets utilizing private and public partnerships.
• Role of Community – The Black community must organize itself. We must come to understand that there are no “reserved” seats at the table of life. What people are able to obtain and hold on to reflects their organizational abilities. The basic premise of the Universal Plan is that no government program will work without a real community partner and the African American community must understand the challenges that it faces – specifically the lack of financial, intellectual, and organization capital that organizing can mitigate.
In addition to Universal, Kenny Gamble founded a new model to organize the Black community “The Philadelphia Community of Leaders” (PCOL). This model is being implemented in Milwaukee and will soon expand to Newark, New Jersey. PCOL’s mission is to develop and support the implementation of a consensus political and economic agenda for real change and progress in the Black community (the “Agenda”). The change envisioned will produce effective strategic relationships among Black leaders and organizations and will dramatically impact poverty, education, and economic opportunity for the Black community.
PCOL is intended to be a private sector power center by working in the best interests of the Black community (defend the Black community against interest that negatively impact us); and be an umbrella organization where competing interests, ideas and priorities can be debated, aligned and acted upon. In addition, PCOL is committed to creating a partnership with Black elected officials that will better leverage our resources and focus public attention on our agenda and will work to change the perception of our issues from a social one to an economic one, and restore public confidence in Black leadership in the process.
Needless to say, Kenny Gamble is a great man, great leader and extremely busy. At the young age of 72, when many men of his caliber “officially” retire – he holds court with those that are 40 and 50 years younger with the chant “to the grave, to the grave.” There is no such thing as retirement, and rest will come when we can no longer wake up.
Kenny Gamble is a champion for our people and wakes up every day leading Universal, PCOL, and the expansion of PCOL in other cities. I can honestly say that he keeps me youthful with his tenacity, workload, and attention to detail. He sweats the small things and he leads us with his vision. The models that both Universal and PCOL use are paradigm shifts, and these models and strategies are the culmination of the work and experiences of all of our previous leaders (i.e. Malcom, Marcus, Muhammad, Martin, Sullivan, etc.).
Kenny Gamble remains a local and national resource for every movement in the Black community including his efforts to lead the Pennsylvania Regional Planning Committee for Justice of Else, which encompasses the states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. It’s one thing to talk about our problems and it’s another thing to do something about our problems. Kenny Gamble has started to build the infrastructure that will address our problems and he is to be applauded and followed. I do both and most of all, I follow his leadership without any reservations. There is a message in the music and that message is sacrifice. We must begin to sacrifice on behalf of our community if we are to save the future of our Black race.