American University alum Nick Lee has spent the past seven months uplifting the voices of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists through his organization, The Cultural Reset. Aside from the site’s usual artist interviews and album reviews, Lee has a mission for Black History Month — “all Black everything.”
TCR is a platform dedicated to highlighting the work of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists in the music industry. Lee, who graduated from AU in 2019 with a bachelor's degree in business administration, started the organization this past July. Months later, he and his team are moving into new content for Black History Month, featuring exclusively Black artists and Black queer artists on their social media and website.
A performer himself, Lee was inspired to create TCR not just for artists, but anyone involved in consuming or producing music. According to Lee, it is a space where underrepresented artists can share their stories, music lovers can come to explore new content and people in the industry can discover new talent.
“The big problem that exists with inclusion in the music industry is the business not thinking that POC and LGBTQ+ artists are as marketable as other cookie-cutter mainstream artists,” Lee said. “We’re trying to rectify that by featuring artists that don’t fit in those [stereotypical] boxes.”
They’re called “cultural resetters,” artists who are creating music against the grain. Lee gave the example of Black female artists making indie and alternative music, straying from “what the music business will try to force her to do, which is create R&B music.”
It’s a necessary change for the music business, an industry that hasn’t yet had a great enough reckoning with racism and inclusion, Lee said.
Though Lee’s background is primarily in TV and journalism, looking back on his time at AU and his love of music gives context for his activism today. Lee was in gospel choir and, as a singer/songwriter, he even performed at a few venues. But as a Black performer, Lee acknowledged that his experience was unlike many others.
“I’ve had the luxury of working in places where inclusion is considered very, very good,” he said.
Lee recalled an internship at "The Daily Show" that required him to live in New York City for the summer, which he said he was lucky enough to afford.
“But, at the same time, there are barriers to entry to the places I’ve gotten to,” Lee said. “I do have a measure of privilege that so many other deserving creators don’t have.”
It’s a similar story with the music industry, he said. Many LGBTQ+ artists or artists of color lack the resources or the “image” that big music executives are looking for.
“These artists are here, their art is valid,” Lee said. “They deserve to be represented, they deserve to have their music listened to, they deserve to have their stories listened to and their negative experiences in the industry rectified.”
He’s not a music business professional, but Lee said that is what makes him and his co-founder, Shannon Ervin, unique — a testament to the fact that their passions, not their career aspirations, guide the mission of TCR. The platform launched as a new project out of the Color of Music Collective, focusing on diversity and inclusion on the creative side of music, rather than COMC’s general focus on the business of music. It recently became its own independent organization and is undergoing a nonprofit status application process.
After sifting through resumes, conducting interviews and gathering volunteers from the COMC team, Lee and Ervin assembled a dedicated volunteer team of researchers, graphic design specialists, public relations volunteers, writers and video editors. The team reaches out to underrepresented artists, but gets a lot of its content from public relations teams who pitch their artists or artists who pitch themselves. The research team then sifts through potential features, making sure that the artist fits with their mission.
The finished products are intimate interviews in audio and Q&A format about the artist’s experience making music and in the industry. They also publish album reviews — diving into the production, lyricism and identity of an artist and their sound. TCR also features playlists to fit a general mood or feeling, or more specific playlists like “Queermas,” “VOTE 2020” and “Indigenous People’s Day.”
Some of their recent endeavors include interviews with MDL CHLD, a rapper and ASL interpreter working to make the music scene more inclusive for Deaf audiences; Mel Semé, a former contestant on The Voice Spain; and a review of Japanese musician Rina Sawayama’s debut album “SAWAYAMA,” Elton John’s self-professed “favorite album of the year.”
No matter the genre or style of the artist featured on TCR, Lee’s criteria is that they must align with the group's mission: “We are a platform that does not endorse any sort of negative language against marginalized communities,” he said. He added, “We don’t allow any artists on our platform that call women the ‘B-word,’ and we don’t allow any artists that are discriminatory against LGBTQ+ people.”
Much of the feedback Lee said he has received is from people visiting the group’s social media pages. TCR’s Instagram page is filled with colorful graphics and series, like “Movements in Music,” which share historical facts and “Cultural Resetters,” which highlights “changemakers who paved the way to make music a more inclusive place for all, including POC and LGBTQ+ artists.”
“We get a lot of feedback saying that there’s nothing else like this that exists, which is probably one of the most unique things about our platform,” Lee said. “There’s not really many platforms that are specifically designed to elevate these voices, especially these voices together.”
Though TCR is taking its own steps to diversify the music business, Lee said he is seeing the beginnings of an industry-wide change. He calls it a “decentralized shift” from typical label-signing practices to a “more authentic way” of promoting on streaming platforms and social media. According to Lee, this shift would allow more space for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists who don’t fit into a certain industry image.
“There’s less and less need for these big-time gatekeepers that have guarded the industry for literally hundreds of years,” Lee said. “We’re moving into this time where artists have more control and artists have more power.”