By Monica Staton
Zakiya Powell is rooted as part of Chicago’s jazz landscape. Her influence expands as the artists she manages gain national and international acclaim. She manages vibraphonist Joel Ross, who has become a breakout jazz star, and Junius Paul, who has established himself as a first-call electric and acoustic bassist on the Chicago music scene, among other artists.
Both Paul and Ross performed at this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival. Powell extolled the accomplishments and projects of the artists. “Keep a lookout for Junius Paul’s project, he’ll be releasing his first album Ism on November 22, [and] Joel’s album is still doing well right now. Kingmaker has been out for six months officially, he has almost a million streams on Spotify and I’m excited about that, he’s working on recording his sophomore album,” said Powell. In 2018, Ross appeared as a sideman on some of the most exciting records in jazz, including the drummer Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings and the pianist James Francies’ Flight. Ross’ Blue Note debut, Kingmaker, is his first as a leader.
Zakiya Fola Powell grew up on Chicago’s South Side and began her music career as a trombonist. That is when she really began to understand how the music business worked. She found that she loved how both creative arts and business allowed her to move between the two worlds—the marriage of art and commerce . . .
During her career she has had the opportunity to participate in some of the top music programs in the city. “While in college I was invited to join the Jazz Institute of Chicago team as an Education Associate. During my tenure at the Jazz Institute, I coached young artists as well as furthered their familiarity with the Black American oral tradition called jazz,” said Powell. She moved to New York, in the fall of 2014, to work for Musiq Haus Management as a booking agent under the tutelage of Tiffany Ente.
Presently, Powell manages the artists’ newsletters, emails, social media presence, tours, endorsement deals, and appearances. “Fola is my middle name. It means honor and it’s an honor for me to work with musicians, it helps with my life source. I’m helping people and I’m working with people who enjoy music, so it’s a win-win.”
Do you still play trombone?
No, not lately. I really miss it because it was a form of meditation for me. Lately I’ve been thinking of picking my trombone back up. At the end of the day I’m a manager, but a musician first. That was how I was introduced to music, I played jazz trombone for years.
Being such an integral part of the music industry do you still enjoy music in its purest form? Who are you listening to for pleasure currently?
I do sometimes struggle with listening to music for pleasure as of late because I have so many projects going on right now. I listen to my artists’ records many times by the time they’re released; I’m like, Oh we’ve been listening to this record for about a year.
How did you get started as an artist manager?
I got started as an artist manager because I was working at the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a non-profit in the city. I knew my time there wasn’t going to be long. I wanted to stay involved with the music scene, but I didn’t particularly want to put on shows so much.
I wanted to work with the artists directly because I’d had experiences when we were putting on shows for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. I felt that the artists I worked with needed managers to work out logistics. In 2014 I decided to move to New York and started mentoring under Tiffany Ente, she’s also a music manager and booking agent. I was her mentee about six months. Then I started Fola Management in 2015.
Please tell me a little about your business professional work experience.
I began my career as a music major at Columbia College. After two years of studying at Columbia College I transferred to DePaul University and majored in business administration. I gained professional experience when I moved to New York and I started booking for Musiq Haus.
After starting Fola Management, I started off managing and booking but over time it just changed over to just strictly managing artists, because booking is its own hat. I just wanted to focus more on managing the artists and making sure the business is together with the performance side of things.
What are some ways you and the artists you manage attract new jazz audiences?
Through social media, the platform that gets the best response is Instagram. Artists can attract people through their Instagram Stories, Instagram main page and also through IGTV. I try to see if my artists feel comfortable with social media promotion—artists don’t always feel comfortable in the forefront in social media when it comes to promotion.
Fans really like the engagement and exclusive, behind the scenes footage. I encourage my artists to show behind the scenes exclusives on social media, and also I encourage them to branch out into performing at different venues (venues that don’t cater to jazz audiences), although there are jazz venues we like to touch, but some venues out here sometimes are on the borderline between new-age jazz, straightahead jazz, and crossover—so we like to contact those venues as well when we’re doing certain tours.
Do you consider yourself a tastemaker within the industry?
I think in certain areas my opinion matters, but I don’t think I create trends, that’s not my intention, if it does become that then cool, but for the most part no.
I’m sure you’re pretty well schooled about how the music business works . . . what are important aspects about the industry you have learned since starting Fola Management?
One major thing I’ve learned is, I have to be clear with communication. Things can be perceived differently, way out of context. Asking questions (regardless of) if I don’t feel too confident. I’m just trying to get understanding, that’s just one thing I’m trying to get through to my artists when we’re trying to figure out routing for a tour, when we’re trying to figure out projects, its breaking the project down or any goal we’re trying to attain, it’s that communication.
How do you know when to engage professionally with artists?
I’m all about making sure it feels right and that I like to be clear about what the artists are trying to get out of the partnership. What’s their end goal?
Can you explain what you need in terms of an artist’s intention?
Is it a positive one? Sometimes people have bad intentions, we’re all trying to make it especially when it comes to finances, but over time that’s not going to last because music is all about feel for me. If I don’t feel like your intentions are good I may find that it may not be good if we work together. I may give advice and that’s why I give artists the options of maybe not management right now but consulting. It depends on what package you want—once a month, check in twice a month . . . depending on the package and how much guidance you want to accept.
How do you typically source your talent, is chemistry key?
I go the old-school route, I like to have a friendship or relationship. Most of the artists I’ve worked with are artists that I’ve played with or have known over the years—I’ve seen their drive. I want to see the best for all the artists that I work with, when I see they have drive and an understanding of how the business works, then I want to do whatever I can to get them to wherever they’re trying to be.
You have a passion and conviction as it pertains to your artists and Fola Management. What qualities are required of the artists you decide to work with?
It depends on where they’re at. I do have a policy regarding how I accept artists onto my roster but they don’t have to be on a particular level, my thing is what is their intention, what is their end goal, what have they done to try and create a legacy of their own before me getting involved. Sometimes artists feel like when they hire a manager their work is done. Yes, a manager is going to take over 99% of the work but the artists have to put in a good one percent to make it gel and to make this train move.
How many jazz artists are you currently managing?
I’m currently managing three: Joel Ross, Junius Paul and [trumpeter] Pharez Whitted—Pharez is coming out with a project in 2020, we don’t have a release date for that. I also do consultant work for artists throughout the city.
If an artist would like to become a part of your roster, what’s the next step?
If an artist would like to come on the roster of Fola Management they have to break down what they want to do and what are they trying to accomplish—not just in a one-year or five-year time plan, I want to know what’s your end-goal—do you want to own a building or extend your goal to having endorsement deals or sponsorships or even creating your own clothing line.
I want to know that so we’re not just stuck in the performance end of things. Touring is fun but fees associated with touring are tough financially, especially in jazz. So you definitely need to create a residual income and I’m really big on getting that started for my artists or if they already have that started to keep building on it.
How many people are a part of your team?
I have two team members.
If someone is interested in your services how can they contact you?
They can find me at www.folamanagement.com—complete the questionnaire, or contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.