(Thembisa S. Mshaka is a 5-time Telly winning creative executive, copy editor, on-air and off-air producer, and author of business mentoring guide Put Your Dreams First. Her impressive resume includes working on the '08 Emmy-winning BET Rap-It-Up HIV/AIDS awareness campaign, The BET Awards and American Gangster. At Sony Music, Thembisa created global ad campaigns for Lauryn Hill and Beyonce' among other world-class stars, totaling 170M units sold.
I had an opportunity to read her book, Put Your Dreams First and recently went one on one with her to discuss her purposeful work, the motivation behind her book, the state of women in the entertainment industry and more.)
Part 1 of 2
Jesse Muhammad (JM): I am honored to be interviewing you Thembisa. Thank you for the time.
Thembisa Mshaka (TM): Thank you for interviewing me, Brother Jesse!
JM: Tell my readers about your world growing up.
TM: My world growing up was full of faith (I am a Muslim), soul (everything our family did was set to music, from driving around Los Angeles to household chores), books and movies (my mother was a voracious reader and film buff and taught me to become one as well). I grew up cheering for the Lakers, making up words and phrases, writing in my journal, and roller skating.
JM: When did you decide that this career path you have taken was for you? Do feel that you’re fulfilling your purpose in life?
TM: I realized entertainment was meant for me when I became an intern at a small booking agency in Oakland during my sophomore year in college. I loved the pace and the variety of the work supporting artists on tour. Prior to working with artists like Etta James, Gil Scott-Heron and Willie Colon at DeLeon Artists, I wanted a career in diplomacy. My politics didn’t align with those of Reagan-Bush so the timing was wrong for that career! Had President Obama been elected in 1992, I’d probably be an ambassador!
JM: After reading your extensive biography, I know we would be here literally for months talking about your impact on the entertainment industry. I was so blown away and I am going to post it for my readers. Can you just share a few of your most memorable experiences and accomplishments working on projects for so many big time celebrities and making waves for major networks?
TM: I have truly been blessed with an amazing career. The highlights for me are numerous. I am grateful to have been in a position to break and befriend some world-class artists, and winning awards for my work with Bow Wow, Nas and Queen Latifah was incredible. My Top 3 would be:
1. Coining the phrase Generation NeXt during my time as Gavin’ Rap Editor. I had no idea it would take off the way it did and stand the test of time. Very flattering to get ‘swagger-jacked’ by Rolling Stone and Pepsi!
2. Creating the advertising campaign for The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. What an honor to work on such a seminal recorded work by a young woman of color emcee and vocalist!
3. Being on the creative team whose promos helped BET score the 2008 Emmy for Public Service for the network’s Rap-It-Up HIV/AIDS awareness initiative. In our business it’s not often that you actually see your work making a positive impact, and that is definitely a great feeling.
JM: Now, let’s shift the conversation to your new book, Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business. After reading this phenomenal work, I have a lot of questions!
TM: Wow, thank you! Okay let’s get to it!
JM: First, what was the motivation behind putting this book out and why did you choose to highlight these particular women?
TM: I just got tired of seeing all the men get the credit for making the stars, shows, and movies; men may dominate entertainment but women truly drive it, and rarely ask for the acknowledgement—so I offered it to them. Additionally, after over a decade of producing seminars and breaking artists, speaking to schools and contributing to hip-hop, urban and pop culture, I saw the need to give young people and professionals in transition the mentorship they were missing in the form of a comprehensive book on the business from new, dynamic points of view. My preliminary research showed me that 80% of women I surveyed cited mentorship as the missing link in their careers. I learned that young women in particular needed to be shown that we can succeed in this business without compromising our bodies or our values.
JM: Out of all of the celebrities you’ve worked with, why did Vanessa Williams get to do the foreword? Not that I have anything against her because she’s amazing!
TM: I had stringent criteria for the woman who would write the foreword: they had to excel in multiple areas of entertainment, had to believe in the mission of the book, and had to be willing to share honestly about adversity overcome, regardless of how famous they were.
As it happens, Vanessa and I go to the same beauty salon in New York, The J Sisters (www.jsisters.com). The owner made the introduction. I shared my story and three chapters of the book. Since she was soaking her feet for a pedicure, Vanessa was a captive audience! She agreed to do it. Then I thought, ‘what if she doesn’t wind up having time?’ Before I could stress about it, she emailed me the foreword she wrote from her Blackberry while on set for Hannah Montana The Movie. She said, “I was in a cornfield in Tennessee, there wasn’t much else to do!” I was so honored that she actually wrote it herself and was so open with her story. Her story of triumph in the face of scandal was perfect for this book. Plus, she went on to conquer music, film, theater and TV. I have great respect for Vanessa!
JM: What sets this book apart from other entertainment guides on the book shelves of America?
TM: It’s the first book to tackle ALL aspects of the entertainment industry from the points of view of over 90 dynamic, successful women across age, race, class, and sexual orientation. Most books are written for artists by producers or attorneys and only focus on music; or written by screenwriters or directors and only focus on TV or film. Put Your Dreams First touches on those disciplines along with new media, image and beauty, radio, production, and marketing without the legalese.
JM: What are you bringing to the table that sets you apart from others?
TM: The perspective of a young woman of color who has worked with everyone from Bootsy Collins to 50 Cent, Jagged Edge to Jamie Foxx without sleeping with any of them! But seriously, I’ve been fortunate to have a sustained career across advertising, magazine publishing, film, and TV and I bring that expertise to the writing.
JM: I first noticed on your blog the use of the term “Sister Swan” and then I read the introduction to the book. Please explain why you use the swan when discussing women in the entertainment industry?
TM: Swans glide across water and make it look like the easiest thing in the world to do. But when one looks at their webbed feet beneath the surface, they are paddling fiercely to maintain that graceful forward movement. This is exactly what women of integrity who work in entertainment face. It’s grueling work, but we make it look easy. I wanted to illuminate that work for my readers. And I call these women Sister Swans because I feel a kinship with their struggle and I celebrate their success.
JM: In the book you discuss your seven top big industry clichés. Let’s dig into one of them which is ‘Don’t Mix Business With Pleasure’. Please expound on that and the statement you made in the book “Reputation is the ultimate currency in life.”
TM: In entertainment, a lot of people fail up and still get paid; a lot of people sleep their way to the top and achieve fame (or notoriety). I am an advocate of the often longer, harder road of becoming successful in business without the use of kneepads. No groveling, no sexual favors, no bending over to get screwed. It is tougher, but you’ll be able to sleep at night and not regret who you see in the mirror the morning after.
JM: In chapter four, you say that the biggest lie that women buy in the industry is that they are not beautiful. What do you mean?
TM: The programming about a narrow, unattainable beauty standard is so pervasive, that we start to believe we are not good enough on the inside or the outside. This is very corrosive to women’s self-esteem and can affect the choices we make in the workplace. I say, “stop buying the lie!”
JM: In another chapter about being a superstar you said “Being seen is not the same as shining.” Please break that down for the attention hungry individuals. What is your definition of a true superstar?
TM: You are cracking me up with ‘attention hungry’, Brother Jesse! Essentially, I urge readers not to confuse visibility or popularity with star quality. As the current music and reality TV landscape demonstrates, you can be a celebrity and not be a star. This answer could go on for a while so I’m gonna leave that one alone to make sure folks pick up the book!
Look out for Part 2 as Thembisa discusses more aspects of her phenomenal book, the overlooked contributions of women in entertainment, and her present projects such as Passion to Action. Until then please see her extensive work (such as the ones below) at http://www.krop.com/portfoliothembisa/portfolio