Put Your Dreams First

Handle Your [entertainment] Business


By Thembisa S. Mshaka

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There is a great mystique about the entertainment industry and a fervent desire in many to be part of it. But what many women don’t realize is that most entertainment career guides are written from the point of view of the male executive, or are filled with industry and legal jargon-making them difficult to read and understand.

Now, in Put Your Dreams First, Thembisa Mshaka uses her 15 years of experience in the music industry to expose the hidden truths that women need to know as they aspire toward entertainment careers, such as how to avoid compromising one’s self-respect and the little-known fact that women run a large part of the business. This highly informative guide is for every woman wanting to know how to navigate the entertainment superhighway and find that job of a lifetime.


Copyright © 2009 by Thembisa S. Mshaka

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the US Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Excerpt on page 20 from All About Eve © 1950 Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

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First eBook Edition: April 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-54467-2


With eternal gratitude to the Creator, the Beneficent, the Merciful, through Whom all things are possible.

With everlasting gratitude and love for my mother. My first and most influential mentor, Fulani Mshaka, MSW. A woman of faith. A woman of service. A woman of late nights with a movie and lazy afternoons with a book. I am a writer as a direct result of being my mother's first daughter. She sat and smiled with the muses every night I showed up to the page. She taught the author every secret she should know. Umi, you are deeply missed and eternally appreciated.

To my incredibly supportive and loving family: My very closest friend, husband, Consigliere, Renaissance Man, and Real Estate Gangsta, Anthony Tmor Morris, thank you for being my rock and my soul mate, I am truly blessed. You are deeply loved.

My son and Fearless Cheerleader, Mecca J. Mshaka-Morris, for your light and your hugs. Love you, Noop!

My father, Daoud Mshaka, for showing me how to love and respect music.

My aunt Elena Bell and sister Sumiyah Mshaka for the ongoing counseling and emotional support that only the best social workers can provide!

My brothers Ahmed Mshaka and Jabril Nasrullahi and sister Daisha Mshaka, just for being you.

My grandma Edna Mae Greene Bell, for pushing me toward my dream by making me her Chief Correspondent.

My grandpa Dr. James Bell, the most progressive patriarch ever and model local and global citizen.

My paternal grandfather Leroy A. Dandridge and grandmother Blanche W. Dandridge, for spoiling me with an endless supply of laughter and love.

My incredible uncle James Bell for showing me you can't sweat the small stuff while you're changing the world. Go, Burns Institute!

To my best friend of thirty-seven-plus years, Dr. Maliika Chambers, I thank God for you every day, my Seasons of Life Summer Soul Sista!

My extended families, the Greenes, Bells, Allens, Bests, Dandridges, Gibsons, Morrises, and Joneses, along with family born of life not blood: Chris Metcalfe, Stephanie Rutherford, Mykah Gant, Johnny Richardson, Mark Liddell, Michelle "Jigga" Joyce, Angela Bailey, the Montgomerys, Longs, Duncans, and Lees, Adrienne Herd, Rabia Rodriguez and Posse, Abdur-Rahmans and Shareefs.

To all my Mills Women, especially Evette Brandon, Kymberly Miller, Tonda Case, Agbanyero Chukwudebe, Elizabeth Carter, Rachel Noerdlinger, Maggie Gabel, Lelalois Hudson, Laura Dickerson, Rashawn Gilmer, Donelda Smith, Artricia Moore, Onika McGriff, Algera Tucker, Kathleen Cleaver, Elaine Brown, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee: You've all shown me that fighting the power can be fun and fruitful.

To all my Westridge Girls, especially Dr. Maya Alvarez-Galvan, Susan Harrison, Lisa Everett, Jennifer Bradbury, Dr. Maie Abdul-Rahman, the late Dondi Johnson, and Inger Miller, thanks for showing me how to stand out and rock out instead of hiding out.

To Regina "Agent" Brooks of Serendipity Literary Agency, thank you so very much for taking this journey with me, because only someone who truly believes in her client would hang in there for a six-year sojourn! To my editor, Karen Thomas, thank you for seeing the vision. To Latoya Smith, editorial assistant to Karen, you are deeply appreciated.

To my Gavin assistants Ayoka Medlock and Jackie Jones and my author's assistant Mara Spiegel: My career simply would not be without the gentle stalking, gatekeeping, laughter, and support you've given me over the years. Mara, I am most grateful to you for taking on the mission of this book with me. Thank you for your part in its creation. Every author should be so lucky. Special thanks to Chris Nolan, my legal eye, and Trinh Dang at Fox Clearances. To Deborah Karpatkin, thank you for helping me make a clean break to this, my new chapter.

To every woman in this book: an eternal thank-you for embracing and kick-starting the Handle Your [entertainment] Business movement for empowering and enriching women in our business. I am humbled by your generosity and trust. If I have served as a secure vessel for your testimony, then I have met my goal. You have moved and strengthened me in ways beyond expression. It is truly an honor to be the author with whom you shared your story. For all the women who are not in this book due to scheduling, personal, and/or legal constraints, thank you for your interest, commitment, and contribution to our industries. It was my honor to make the request and my pleasure to meet those of you who are now new connections. And to the women I interviewed, surveyed, and heard from, your names may not appear, but your words helped make this book a reality. Thank you all.

I cannot thank Vanessa Williams enough for contributing the foreword for this book. She would not hear of anything less than writing it herself. Her voice sings on the page, soaring as it has everywhere from the steps of Pasadena City Hall to the Super Bowl. As a true star of every entertainment medium, she has risen like the proverbial phoenix. My admiration and respect for her have only deepened after meeting her. Thank you for your generosity of spirit and for being a woman of your word, Vanessa. You are the truth!

To Miss Johnnie Walker and the women of NABFEME: I literally carried the manuscript in my Charlotte conference bag while I crafted each chapter and searched through each interview, so you have all been with me every step of this journey as shoulders to cry on, stand on, lean on. Thank you. May God return the grace you have extended to me tenfold.

Special thanks to my art director and logo designer Charnelle Anderson of Creative Elevation, LLC, for wonderful presentation, and many thanks to my own personal Glam Squad as credited for my author photo: Andrew, Nancy, Guidone, Miss Ollie, and Nicole. You rock!

I would not be the writer I am today without the guiding, critical, and encouraging hands of my hugely influential teachers and professors: Juanita Mizuno, Mr. Kaplan, Mr. Fallon, Mr. Moran, Mrs. Connor, Mr. Lowe, Dorothy Tsuruta, Fred Lawson, and Linda Goodrich; my editorial mother Beverly Mire and editorial father Ben Fong-Torres; my Sony Music copywriter predecessors, the phenomenal Kim Green, Chris Wilder, and Deneen Wade; and the amazing editors for whom I have had the pleasure of writing: Kofy Brown and Nzinga Hatch for Grits 'N' Gravy (I ain't forgot my Oakland roots, y'all), Nicole Moore of theHotness.com, Billy Johnson Jr. of Yahoo! Music, Kenya Byrd of Essence.com and Jewel, Jesse Washington of BLAZE Magazine, Big Ced of TheIndustryCosign.com, and the original Honey brain trust, Kierna Mayo and Joicelyn Dingle.

To the Abundance Group, Echo Allen, Lana Garland, Lynette Gitonga, and Lenora Zenzalai Helm: You have lifted me from the depths of sadness and self-doubt to endless power as a writer, mother, and wife. I cannot thank you enough!

To the 191 Madison Wolfpack, Anika Burt and Esther Alix of Spiritguide Films, Lana Garland of Insibah Films, and Tmor of AM Luxe, thank you for putting your creative foot up my you-know-what when I had no idea how this book would look! See you when we sweep awards season, y'all!

To the wise and dynamic women who mentor me: Kelly Armstrong, Sylvia Montgomery, Terrie Williams, Sharon Heyward, and Isisara Bey: Thank you for nurturing my power, determination, and inner beauty with your own. To Sylvia Rhone, Maria Davis, Helen Little, Cobi Narita, Violet Brown, Julie Greenwald, Lisa Ellis, Sonja Bates-Norwood, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Kathy Nelson, Suzanne DePasse, Sherri Lansing, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Mary Datcher, Janet Jackson, Tina Knowles, Melissa Etheridge, Marlo Martin-Jackson, Carmelita Sanchez, The Poetess, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Dr. Roxanne Shante, Jill Scott, Susan L. Taylor, Tina Turner, Toni Basil, Barbra Streisand, Whoopi Goldberg, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Celine Dion, Bonnie Raitt, and Oprah Winfrey, thank you for mentoring and inspiring me without you even realizing it. Your presence in our business matters a great deal.

To the village that helps to raise my child Mecca, your love and care for him made this project possible.

Special shout to my Health Squad: Thank you to everyone at Max Health of New York: Dr. Ruth Fernandez, Dr. Tany Sutera, Dale, Gloria, Blanca, Melissa for literally keeping me in alignment so I could withstand innumerable hours in the chair at the laptop. Thanks as well to Dr. Carmen Bosch, Dr. Ketly Michel, Dr. Bhagat, Nails NY II, and Equinox Fitness. A big kiss to Fatima and Jane of the J Sisters for making the introduction to Ms. Williams, and hugs to her entire staff for their tender loving care.

Special acknowledgment goes to Aliesh Pierce, Alexa Pagonas, Nefertiti Strong, Erika Conner, Abra Potkin, Gwen Quinn, Nomi Roher, Marjorie Clarke, and Monique Martin, whose passion for the book exceeded sharing their testimony and extended into helping me find more women to join them in these pages. Thank your for your championship!

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the men who have lifted me up as I walked the path of my career. I didn't realize how fortunate I was to have you in my life and in my ear until I spoke to all the women who wished they had male mentors and confidants they could rely on for something more than a tired come-on. The industry would have women think that secure men like you are a myth. The world needs to know you for who you really are by name. God Bless The Bishop of Hip-Hop Adisa Banjoko, Jonathan "Sway" Calloway & King Tech, JC Ricks, Troy Shelton, Russell Gatewood, Diallobe Johnson, Bruce Solar, Lupe DeLeon, Ibrahim "Ebro" Darden, Quincy McCoy, Shelly Tatum, Kashif, Hakim Green, Melvin Bacon, Rene McLean, Warren Peace, KRS-One, Crazy Legs, Corey Action, EA Ski, Rick Rock, Chaka Zulu, Chuck D, Lenny Berry, Jay Wright, Julio G, Masta Ace, Tony Draper, Eightball & MJG, Rich Nice, Davey D, Tim Hunter, Rodd Houston, Professor Pablo Whaley, Kevin Mitchell, Will Strickland, Martin Luther, David Belgrave, Kawan "KP" Prather, Erwin Gorostiza, Chris "Awstopsocks" Austopchuk, Brian "Brain" Freeman, Chris Feldmann, Derek Dudley, Pharoahe Monch and Prince Poetry, Rashied "Common" Lynn, Trevor "Busta Rhymes" Smith, Sam Sneed, Glen "G" Wallace, Brad "Scarface" Jordan, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Mutulu M-1 of Dead Prez, Nasir "Nas" Jones, Sha Money XL, Colin Gayle, James Cruz, Eric Skinner, Kevin Black, Sean Taylor, Kevin Liles, Blue Williams, Paul Stewart, Michael Mauldin, Mike Kyser, Chris Nagy, Cornell "Nelly" Haynes Jr., Daryle Lockhart, Dan Charnas, Savalas Holloway, Marlynn Snyder, Steve and John Rifkind, James Andrews, Big Jon Platt, Terrence Chin, Barry Simons, Elan Masliyah, Michael London, Ron "DJ G-Wiz" Butts, Demmette Guidry, Michael "MC Serch" Berrin, Michael Tipton, Taylor Tosh, Zurek (fka Rick Party), Terrence Hannah, and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. Special acknowledgment to my Hip-Hop Bo$$ Ola Kudu for signing off on my leave of absence and supporting my dream 110 percent, along with Yves Erwin Salomon who served as my leading "write" hand while I was away. Help your fellow men and put them up on this book, then give it to the women in your lives.

Thank you to Debra L. Lee, Kelli Lawson, Janet Rollé, BET Creative Services (the best team I've ever worked with), and the entire BET Networks family for making me feel welcome and appreciated. It is truly my honor to be the network's first copy director. Special thanks to Jeanine Liburd and Bobette Gillette for your stewardship with Debi's participation.

To each and every DJ, DJ crew and advocacy organization, record pool, independent retailer, and music or content programmer I have had the pleasure of working with and dancing to, from the stations and clubs around the world to my Gavin reporters: Great music lives because you keep it alive. Thank you for all the work you put in, which goes unrecognized far too often. I challenge one of you retail vets to change that and write the book on music sales.

And may God grant Lesley Pitts, Angela D. Pittman, Aaliyah Dana Haughton, Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, Donna Moore, Dr. Donda West, Justo Faison, Hesten Hosten, Mike Futagaki, DJ Pinkhouse, DJ Screw, Bigga B, Randy Parker, Ronnie Johnson, Lou Galliani, Timothy White, Don LaFontaine, Johnny J, Shakir Stewart, Ron Archer, and all our fallen hip-hop soldiers peace as we carry their legacies forward.

To Tylibah and Peia, you two are next to make your mark with SEEIT Live. I'm inspired by you both.

To every reader—from the women this movement seeks to engage and support to the men who see the value and the vision for themselves and the girls or women in their lives: a thousand thank-yous!

To the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area, love and gratitude.

To the Obama family, thank you for the sacrifices you've made for our nation and for a new shared history.

This project has literally been in the making since 2001, so there are many I needed to acknowledge who have helped me to fulfill this dream. Maybe the list will be shorter for the second book…

Ashé. And so it is… like that.

One Love


Getting In

Stephanie Abdullah Jennifer Coles Nefertiti Strong Nzingha Alexa Pagonas Tylibah aka Leebah Baby Vanessa Turman Yvette Noel-Schure

There you go thinking the grass is greener, but you don't realize it's Astroturf. You want my job, but you don't know what I had to deal with.


The burning question that fueled the creation of this book—and indeed, that fueled a movement for the enrichment of women in entertainment—is one that follows me to every seminar, panel discussion, roundtable, school visit, and media appearance of my life. "How do you get in?!"

People on the outside of our industry ask this of those of us on the inside as if there is one pat answer that fits all. I got in via an internship at a booking agency while freelance writing for indie music and lifestyle magazines. Some go to school for it and actually wind up earning a living in the same field in which they earned their diploma or degree. Others are born into it or grow up in it, with the benevolent hand of nepotism to guide their every step. Others still claw their way into it as a way out of a life of illicit activity. Some were discovered in music videos, talent shows, the Internet. There is no one way to enter the entertainment industry. There is, however, a wrong way: Using your self-esteem as your calling card because you left it in the heap along with your clothes, or set it down to get out your knee pads for that blow job. Women don't get the luxury of sleeping around to climb the ladder without painfully damaging consequences. It's a double standard as old as sexism itself. More important, you have options that don't involve abusing your body.

This book is full of testimony from women who are successful because they used their minds first. They honored themselves with basic operating principles grounded in personal integrity, then established boundaries for others to respect, whether those others shared their principles or not. This is not to say that their careers never suffered for it, that their lives were free of setbacks as a result, or that the boundaries were always honored. It simply means they took and kept a stand for themselves, something I see fewer and fewer women doing as I spend more time in the business. It's no wonder the song lyrics are so disrespectful. It's no shock that being an exotic dancer is the new career aspiration. It's no surprise teenagers want boob jobs and butt implants. We've allowed the boundary to be set by someone other than ourselves. The sooner we get back to the drawing board on parameters for r-e-s-p-e-c-t, the sooner we'll get it, and it'll be more than "just a little bit."

There are infinite answers to the question of how to enter this business successfuly. In this chapter, I am going to zero in on how getting in looks for the first-timers who are complete entertainment virgins, then explore how it can look for women who are moving to another area within the entertainment field. I'll round out the chapter with what's generally okay and what's generally a no-no. Just keep in mind that every instance differs. Honestly, the ways to enter the industry are illuminated throughout the book; the opening chapter is simply going to broadly outline the essentials. My objective is to relieve you of reinventing the wheel, wasting time, or straight-up playing yourself. I'll start out by taking you through my Top Seven List of Biggest Industry Clichés. The stars of the chapter weigh in on them, too.


1. It's Who You Know

Alexa Pagonas—manager of actors, models, stunt people, and fight choreographers for Michael Black Management—confirms that nepotism is alive and well. Being "grandfathered in" is more than just a euphemism. "The grandchildren don't necessarily see that the doors open easier for them," Alexa says with a laugh. "Hollywood is at this point multiple generations of nepotism," she continues. "It isn't to say [outsiders] can't get in, but it's a lot easier for those who are already in it. It's a built-in safety mechanism of dealing with people they know. An actor can break through, but the greenlighters don't change."

The who-you-know principle works at every altitude, even the lower ones. Alexa saw this at work while she was attempting to break in. Her example shows that sometimes, those outside the industry are connected to people of influence inside; the key is to always seek out and respectfully use those connections. Check out how this newcomer from San Francisco got a coveted internship spot at ICM: "Throughout college and law school and even in high school, I temped and got the basic secretarial skills—everything from answering phones to using the copy machine. I moved to Los Angeles wanting to get in the business. I kept submitting my résumé, but got no return calls. A woman who also went to Hastings that I didn't really know wanted to work for [politician] Jerry Brown. My mom grew up with him [and referred her]. She got the job and wanted to return the favor." Alexa smiles in hindsight at how fortune had smiled on her. "Her brother worked at ICM. He got me into the training program at ICM as an agent assistant for a great agent, Joe Funicello, who is one of the most stand-up, stellar agents in the business; he taught me a lot. It's not a formalized program, and it's over when you either leave or become an agent. Being someone who has working skills gave me the ability to focus my learning curve on what [I was] really there to learn. [Some interns] couldn't get the basic work done, so they had trouble learning the work of being an agent. Agents have a very specialized skill set. On one hand, they are stockbrokers selling a commodity at a fast pace. They have to have the ability to wine and dine clients and industry people and are spending eighty to a hundred hours a week at that high pace." Add to that consuming work schedule a very rigid and archaic workplace culture, and spending so much time at the office starts to make less and less sense, especially if you want a life outside the agency.

"On a wider frame, agencies are very patriarchal with a hedonistic attitude toward business relationships: Get what you can now and get out," Alexa continues. "Not necessarily that they don't want girls to play, but the skills and attitudes they use are based on the male model with no enlightenment toward family issues. No child care, no flex time for caregiving. It just didn't fit me." I submit that's not going to fit many women, which is why so many agents are male. Alexa will talk in depth about working with men (among other things) in chapter 8, where I focus on television and film production.

2. You Only Get One Chance to Make a First Impression

Fanzine journalist turned über-publicist Yvette Noel-Schure has a great anecdote for women out there who think the route to a job is showing skin instead of skills. That may have worked when men did all the hiring, and there may be some pockets of Girl Friday fantasy lingering at independent companies run by chauvinist dinosaurs, but overall, Ladies free before 11 attire is your enemy. Yvette describes an internship interview gone wrong for a scantily clad candidate. "It's not about being down, it's about business. The first impression is everything. And as a publicist you've gotta be dressed to close the pitch. You never know where you'll have to go, because a pitch may come up if a story falls out. I had an intern come in whose skirt was so short that I had to give her a scarf so she could sit down. When my male counterpart left [the room], I closed the door and spoke to her. I said, 'You're brilliant and ready to even be an assistant, but what were you thinking? I think you have the wrong idea about what we do here.' She didn't get the job."

3. You Never Know Who's Watching

Jennifer Coles wound up an agent after being disenchanted with radio, the field she thought she was destined to pursue after majoring in rhetoric and communications studies at the University of Richmond. Following an internship at a radio station, she accepted a sales job at a media company and spent a year there before she got her big break. And it came from a guy who didn't even have a job to offer her, only a referral to another position at an agency.

"Being at the station and working in every department from sales and promotions to dealing with the personalities, it became clear to me that as much as I loved it, everything was based around money. Talent had so many restrictions on them they were becoming machines. One of the station managers linked me up to a cable sales media company in New York. That opened my eyes to the different aspects of TV: how they find actors, researching the shows, learning the relationship between ad sales and programming. I was there for a year and though I didn't love the job, I learned a lot from it," she reflects. Though dissatisfied, Jennifer did not leave her job, she just kept hunting for her next one, which came from an unlikely source. "I applied for everything entertainment, be it PR or promotions. I got a call from a [senior staffer at] one of New York's larger stations, and he told me to sit tight. Then a week later he called me with an assistant job for a talent agency. It was so weird, but the guy was nice enough to refer me. We have champions and sometimes we don't know who they are. They see things in you that you don't think they see; our interview led to something better for me, and he must have picked up on that. You just never know who's looking, who needs you."

4. Gotta Pay Your Dues

Lyricist, Alvin Ailey–trained dancer, and self-published author Tylibah has been working to create and record her first album since she was a child putting on shows for her family in the living room. Once she finished high school, she began to meet established emcees, producers, and B-level managers, all of whom had sexual conditions they wanted her to meet in order to get any work done. Though it delayed her timetable considerably, those were the kinds of dues Tylibah was raised not to pay. "Words can't describe the level of resistance I encountered," she says, sighing. "I was surprised at these male celebrities who were already on but were standing in my way. Most people only want to help themselves." In Tylibah's case, they wanted to help themselves to a beautiful, naive twenty-year-old in bed with them. "My mother was the test. If I brought her around, would you still be down to help me? She brought out the fact that people's intentions weren't right to begin with. One of my mistakes was being too hungry and anxious. People would manipulate that energy and desire to be famous."

Tylibah's definition of paying dues is a powerful one. It takes all the perceived drudgery out of it, making it an opportunity for development. "Paying dues is acknowledging that you are a baby that wants to grow up. It's paying homage, not being diminished. It is sitting at the elders' feet and asking intelligent questions and showing appreciation for who they are. Paying dues is not disrespecting myself for you."

Stephanie Abdullah, personal publicist to Bobby Brown as well as US Army Entertainment Division liaison, makes a salient point about the whole dues-paying thing. "The higher up the ladder you get, the more you want, so the more dues you end up having to pay to get where you're trying to go. As you ascend and achieve, the doors won't go away; you'll just [have] the keys to open them from the dues you've paid. Just like membership dues, the dues we pay create access." Speaking of access…

5. Honor the Keeper of the Gate


On Sale
Apr 23, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Business Plus

Thembisa S. Mshaka

About the Author

A cornerstone of integrity and stability in a highly competitive business, Thembisa Mshaka has worked for over 17 years in service to the entertainment industry, spanning the areas of touring and management, magazine publishing, recorded music and technology, advertising, music supervision for film, voice over and most recently, television in her role as the Telly Award-winning Copy Director for BET Networks. The former GAVIN rap editor has also written for Honey, essence.com, LAUNCH, and served as contributing editor for The Hotness.com and BLAZE. A native of Los Angeles, Thembisa is an alumna of Mills College in Oakland, California. She now resides in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with her husband and son.

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