How J Erving’s Human Re Sources is betting on Global stories

“Our approach is to try to do it authentically.”

What does it take for a talented artist to achieve superstardom? In recent times, we have seen several artists make this graduation from locally-respected musician, to internationally-acclaimed star. 

From Asake’s meteoric rise which has led to headline shows across the globe, to Uncle Waffle’s steady incline which started from an online community, it’s been made abundantly clear that the continent has a wealth of diverse talent who are ready to present African music and culture to the rest of the world. Acts like Ghana’s SuperJazzClub, a collective of multidisciplinary artists, encapsulate this sentiment. Pushing the envelope through a combination of eclectic soundscapes, authentic chemistry and creative charisma, the group have earned the hearts of supporters both locally and globally as seen by festival placements across the globe. 

As expected, the music industry itself has also had to pay attention to the dynamic scene on the continent and one company seeking to do things differently when it comes to partnering with African talent is Human Re Sources. Founded in 2017, Human Re Sources is a digital distribution company driven by a desire to support and develop artists that move culture. In the murky waters of the music industry, it is the commitment to this ethos which has allowed the company – run by music industry veteran J Erving – to stand out clearly. Boasting success with artists such as the oft-imitated Brent Faiyaz and more recently, turbo-charging the comeback of Raye which culminated in a record-setting night of wins for her at the BRIT Awards, Human Re Sources have a proven track record of taking an artist from cult hero to global success. 

With the backdrop of the first uNder Live – NATIVE Magazine’s bi-monthly live music showcase for emerging artists – we sat down with Founder J Erving and VP Sydney Lopes to talk about the success that Human Re Sources have found and how that informs their desire to develop artists in the hotbed of talent that is the African continent.

Image of Ghanaian collective SuperJazzClub at Native's uNder Live
Ghanaian collective SuperJazzClub performing at uNder Live, hosted by Native and Human Re Sources

Seni Saraki: You guys are having an incredible moment right now. Tell us what’s going on.

J Erving: Yeah, we’re having a moment with Raye, who represents the next phase in this journey of Human Re Sources. I think the goal for us is to continue to have, and work with artists that move culture and move the needle, while breaking some barriers. Take Raye, who’s essentially turning into a global superstar as an independent female artist; it really hasn’t been done before. We want to be connected to people that are really authentically in the culture and care about the art and the artists. We don’t want to misappropriate culture in any way, we want it to always feel very authentic and very real. So I think our points of entry, and how we navigate all of this stuff, we have to be shoulder to shoulder with the real players, and the real people that are doing it and care about it.

SS: 100%. Obviously, Raye’s been this incredible success story, but she’s a British artist and you guys built your company in the States. In the context of coming to Nigeria, and to Africa as a whole, how do you see that strategy of being able to go through a region to break someone globally out here as well?

JE: Again, I think it’s moving into the market in a real way, with real people. I’ve seen some of the ways that other people have done it. And I’m not here to be judge and jury but our approach is to try to do it authentically. We have some teammates that are from there, we have genuine interest and love for the music and the culture. There’s nobody that understands the culture better than [Native] do and we’d like to figure out how do we shed more light on what’s happening there? How do we work these other markets to expand and build something, and take the things that are special and that are deserving? For the artists that are working hard, how do we give them a little more light, to grow and expand their audience? There’s no way that we’re going to come there and set up shop and be “the guy” there; we’re going to lean on people that we trust, and that we know have similar vision. 

Ezra Olaoya: Across different markets, what are the universal things that you’re looking for which tell you that an artist will be able to move culture?

JE: I think it’s authenticity. Like when I met Brent, he was a hood nigga from Baltimore who sang songs about relationships and gave us a point of view of a guy who comes from the streets and didn’t really have the manual for relationships, how to deal with women and how to deal with certain situations in life. He spoke for a lot of us who didn’t know how to put the words together, and certainly not the melodies and the voice to carry it. With Raye, she played me an album that was introspective, that talked a lot about things that she had experienced as a young biracial woman. She showed that she had a wild side and did some fun things, and also had some demons that she was dealing with, and also had some predatory men that were around her and mistreating her and she made an album about it, and it was an amazing group of songs. SuperJazzClub is a collective and I grew up on collectives like Wu Tang and NWA which were collectives of artists that did very different things but it was a movement where the music was kind of like a cherry on top but I would have bought my Wu-Tang apparel regardless. SuperJazzClub is reminiscent of how I grew up. The diversity there, the fact that they’ve cliqued up and the way that they have all of the individuals representing different things, I can sign up for that and it feels very real. 

SS: On that, in America there’s almost an idea of what music from the continent should sound like and you kind of have proven already by who you’ve signed that you don’t believe in that. However entering into this new market do you feel like you have to have certain kinds of artists in order to be successful? Are you looking for your [version of] Tyla’s “Water” or Rema’s “Calm down”?

JE: I want hits, I’m not gonna lie to you. I respect what Tyla’s done. I’ve got a tonne of respect for the folks that are involved in the Tyla project. That old school artist development is a lost art. A lot of labels would have sat over there and waited until something jumped off on TikTok but they got to work. Rema, I think he’s dope, this is what I’d listen to in my free time. I would love to have artists that have that level of success, especially if it’s done as credibly as those guys you mentioned. I would love to have that level of success with any artists that we sign from the continent.

EO: In an industry that’s so data driven, how do you communicate intangible things like “authenticity” especially when you may not have numbers to back it up?

JE: This is very simple for me and it goes back to my grandmother. She used to have a saying that I didn’t really understand until I got older. She would say, “at some point the bill’s gonna come due.” And I’ve applied that to our business. That is a knife that cuts both ways. If you are doing dope shit, and you are authentically serving the art, at some point that bill is going to come due and that bill is going to be in your favour. The numbers are going to work out and you’re going to have success, you’re gonna turn the corner with something like we’ve had with Raye and Brent and others. At some point you’re gonna get paid off of it, the bill’s gonna come through. The same thing works on the other side – if you’re doing shit, that’s fluff, at some point, somebody’s gonna lift up the hood and realise that this is not real. And there might be some numbers that felt good for a second but at some point that bill is gonna come due. We’re cooking soul food and it fills you up a little differently. It takes longer to cook but it fills you up differently. The satisfaction is different and you’re gonna be kept full for the whole day. It’s not microwave food that’s gonna keep you full for 40 minutes then you gotta go eat again. We’re not playing the numbers game, the numbers are going to come out in the wash.

SS: Artists will be seeing the successes that you’ve had and I’m sure many will be wondering what you are looking for in an artist. What is that?

JE: It’s when you and Sydney and the team and everyone says, “this is the one.” When the music gives me goosebumps, and we all are feeling collectively like this is one of them ones. I do things by committee. I don’t know it all and I’m certainly not going to hear every artist. I trust the people around me and the people that are in it. How do I look telling you what’s hot or not in your own backyard? You can’t tell me the best golf balls to play with, because I’m 50 years old and I’m playing golf. In the same way, I can’t tell you the hot artists in your backyard, I would look nuts doing it.

Sydney Lopes: I started going to West Africa five years ago and I was quickly humbled because as Americans, we do this coloniser thing where we go somewhere like ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ Meanwhile locally they’ve always known that they’ve had superstars, they’ve always known they’ve had the Remas and Amaaraes and many more in their backyard. Now the music industry here in the US is finally recognising that. We think we’ve “found” these stars when they’ve always been there. So just piggybacking off you J to say we can’t go to your backyard and tell you “they’re a new star,” when you know better than us.


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SS: One of the biggest issues at home that artists find with music distribution companies is that there’s still no transparency so they may as well sign for a major label. How does Human Re Sources provide artists with the sense that they have an idea of what’s going on?

JE: It’s as simple as a dashboard, right? Like we have a dashboard where you can see where every dollar is spent, where every dollar is earned, where your audience is. So you have complete transparency and insight to your financial world there. It’s all about transparency for us. In our space it’s easier to keep an eye on spend and all those things compared to front line labels.

SS: Speaking of frontline labels, you guys are in the Sony system. For African artists who may look at a Wizkid or a Tems and think they need to sign to a major label, do you feel like you have a system in place that allows you to support an artist at the global level like you’re doing with Raye, across different regions and different continents?

JE: All we can do is put in the work. The beauty of where we set up is having boots on the ground outside of the US and being able to act quickly on things that are catching heat. We are absolutely set up to do that. I think it’s having artists that have international appeal and continuing to push market to market. It’s also about artists being willing to do the work. Raye is coming to the US and it’s SNL, Coachella, it’s touring, there’s a lot of building. There’s a lot of work to make it resonate globally in the way that it should.

SL: There’s also so many digital tools that have really opened the market for global growth. Platforms like Tiktok along with AI tools are allowing a lot more creatives to break through in different ways than we’ve seen before. So I think we’re all kind of learning the trends as they come.

SS: Moving forward, looking at where Human Re Sources is at, what are you most excited about?

JE: Growth and expansion. This is part of it. Taking the first step into the continent, finding those other artists that we can break globally and doing it in a very real, cool, authentic way, and have some fun doing it. To me, that is the best thing about what we do. We’re able to do shit that we actually love and care about. And we’re able to have some fun with it.

EO: Having worked in music for some time in established markets in the US, is there anything you’ve learned in your experience that you’d apply to the Nigerian context?

JE: The tough part is vetting the good guys. It’s about trying to get close to people who authentically care and aren’t trying to take advantage of artists. The good guys [have] got to support the good guys if that makes sense, which is why we wanted to work with you. We’ve got to see the good guys collaborating and cosigning one another in a real way and saying if you’re going to do something, do it here, because these are some of the good guys.

SL: I’m a big proponent of the fact that you can’t ideate in a new territory if you haven’t experienced it. I’ve never been to Nigeria before and of course we want to do more there. But I don’t think we can do that until we actually see the market and see how people react to the music. We see how people party, the energy, like that’s wildly important to me. So my hope is that this along with things we do in the future, that we get to see things firsthand, and then we get to J’s point. Meeting with people like you all is the only way we’re going to make our best judgment call –  seeing things first hand, saying how we feel, having open discussions. And I know it’s tricky and we’re new coming in, so we have to be ready to learn lessons, as well.