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Black Music Month Co-Founder Dyana Williams Remembers The Creation Of The National Commemoration

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BLACK MUSIC MONTH DYANA WILLIAMS
In 2000, more than two decades after Black Music Month was first observed, music producer and radio host Dyana Williams spearheaded the effort to make it an official national celebration. | Whitney Thomas

What is Black Music Month? Why do we celebrate it? And at this point, with rap and R&B now the dominant genres on the pop charts, couldn't every month be Black Music Month?

Such questions tend to come up every June, when Americans celebrate the rich history and multibillion-dollar cultural influence of black music. The monthlong observance was first declared in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, with the encouragement of legendary songwriter-producer Kenny Gamble. In the years since, Dyana Williams, Gamble's ex-wife and the protégée of respected music industry pioneer Frankie Crocker, has worked to honor the contributions of pioneers such as Chuck Berry, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and countless others who helped shape the American musical landscape.

However, years after Carter declared the first Black Music Month, Williams learned that a presidential proclamation had never been signed, meaning that the celebration was not officially on the books. Williams decided to take it upon herself to lay the groundwork for the passing of the African-American Music Bill, which formally established Black Music Month as a national observance.

In celebration of Black Music Month, the self-proclaimed music activist and celebrity strategist, who celebrated 40 years working in radio this past November, opened up to The Huffington Post about her landmark efforts to bring about the passing of the African-American Music Bill, as well as her thoughts on former clients Chris Brown and Justin Bieber and their recent legal troubles.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton invited you to the White House to celebrate the passing of the African-American Music Bill. How did you go about getting the bill approved for Black Music Month?

Well, my ex-husband, Kenny Gamble, is one of the architects of the sound of Philadelphia. And when we were together in the '70s, Gamble turned over in bed one day and said that he wanted to establish a month, much like Black History Month in February, but a time period that focused on the contributions [of those] past, present and those coming up in the music industry. And so, because we were a couple, we did a lot together. But fast-forward to many years after the demise of the Black Music Association, which is the organization that Gamble did Black Music Month with Ed Wright, I started the International Association of African-American Music Foundation in an effort to perpetuate, promote and preserve black music. And so, we were doing our annual June Black Music Month celebration in D.C. [...] and I wrote President Clinton, asking could he host a reception very much like Jimmy Carter did [in 1979] where he declared June as Black Music Month.

So the White House comes back and says, "Well, we see where Jimmy Carter hosted this event. However, he did not sign a presidential proclamation." And I said, "Ok, what does that mean?" They said, "We want to encourage you to get legislation and come back to us and we will definitely do something with you." And well, being the animated and ambitious woman I am, I was like, "All right!" I'm a girl from the Bronx and Harlem, what did I know about getting legislation enacted? Absolutely zero minus nothing. But I put on comfortable shoes and went to Capitol Hill. I said, "This is my right as an American citizen to visit my Congressmen and -women and senators." And that's what I started doing -- going office to office, talking to them about why Black Music Month was important. That the African-American contribution, per music in the industry and outside, the wrapped-up value of it was in the billions of dollars. This was one of our greatest exports around the world. It's indigenous American culture.

Then I reached out to [Democrat] Chaka Fattah, who is the representative in Philadelphia where I reside, and also state Senator Arlen Specter, who was the Republican senator, because I wanted bilateral support on both sides [...] Specter agreed to do letters and contact other senators on my behalf, and Congressman Fattah agreed to introduce the legislation. I wrote the actual draft that became the language for the bill that ultimately in 2000 was passed in Congress and recognized June as Black Music Month.

As a celebrity coach/strategist for the past 20 years, what are your thoughts on some of today's troubled artists, including Justin Bieber and Chris Brown?

I have worked with both of these gentlemen on their very first projects. I met them both when they were 16. It's heart-wrenching for me to see them when they're having their issues. However, imagine being 17, 18 and becoming a multi-millionaire, and everywhere you go, you're being photographed, you're being observed, people are talking about you all the time. Even with the mangers, the publicists, and the team of people that they have around them, I think that level of wealth and fame, and especially now with the Internet, it becomes very difficult [...] So with Chris and Justin, what would I say to them now? I would say to them both to go sit quietly someplace by yourself, look at your media, look at what the public are saying, read your social media feeds, take it all in. Hurt. Because you're going to see a lot of negative things that are not feel-good stuff. And work on flipping it. Because you've been blessed and given an opportunity that most would like, and you have it. And so you have a choice of winning it, completely destroying it, or rebuilding it and asking for forgiveness for your transgressions.

Have you ever considered starring in a reality show focused on fixing the careers of troubled/fallen artists?

That's an interesting question. I was actually approached by the head of VH1, who did some of the reality shows. A couple of years ago I went in for a meeting and my man was like, "Don't do reality TV. It will dilute your brand." And so much of what I do with my clients is private. I've had clients break down, cry, talk about their drug habits, side chicks, baby mama drama. All kinds of things. I know it's a wild wild west scenario on reality TV these days, but I wouldn't want to expose stuff, because I really want to help these people.

In the age of social media, Kim Kardashian, Solange and Rihanna, do you feel celebrities are supposed to be more accessible now than before?

I believe that artists have an obligation to be accessible to the public, because they are coming to the public thing. "Buy my record, buy my concert ticket, buy my merchandise, see me on TV," or whatever they're doing. So they do have a responsibility and an onus to return that much they're asking for, which is admiration, love and appreciation, and give it back to them as well. But if a person is disrespectful, call them out [...] But yes, they do have a responsibility. However, I am a big advocate of all of my celebrity clients that they have a right to privacy in this era where privacy seems to be dissipating faster than ever before.

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