As the country music community continues to grapple with ways to increase diversity and inclusion, the Black Music Action Coalition (BMAC) and Academy of Country Music have come together to launch OnRamp, a program set to empower the next generation of Black leaders.
The OnRamp partnership will take 20 young, Black artists and music industry professionals in Nashville through a year-long program that includes access to top leaders, community mentorship and professional development. Vitally, the program comes with a guaranteed $1,000 monthly stipend for the 12 months.
Applications will be available starting in late Spring with the program kicking off in June during Black Music Month. Candidates can sign up for email notifications now at acmcountry.com/onramp to learn more.
This inaugural program will be funded by BMAC, the Academy and industry partners, and aided by social impact agency BreatheWithMe. The hope is that Nashville companies will make financial contributions to fund future years.
“The Academy has a rich history of fostering diversity and inclusion in the country music industry both on stage and behind-the-scenes, and we see this partnership as a particularly impactful way to continue our committed work to making the statement ‘Country Music is for Everyone’ a true reality,” said ACM CEO Damon Whiteside in a statement. “We’re excited to work with BMAC on this pivotal and transformative work for our Nashville community by increasing opportunities for young professionals from diverse backgrounds in our industry.”
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The Academy relocated from its longtime home in Southern California to Nashville last year.
The guaranteed income component was critical, BMAC co-founder/co-chair Willie “Prophet” Stiggers tells Billboard. He studied such initiatives including a program started by former Stockton, Calif., mayor Michael Tubbs a few years ago that guaranteed $500 a month to 125 residents for 18 months and has now spread to more than 50 cities.
“All the data showed how people were lifting themselves out of poverty and realizing their dreams, not just from the cash relief, but the mentorship and wrap-around programs,” Stiggers says. “I said to myself and the BMAC team, with the billions of dollars the entertainment industry generates, we can, without government support, have these programs happen across the country and really begin to close the wealth gap that is targeting Black and Brown people.”
OnRamp comes several months after BMAC released its Three Chords and the Actual Truth report last June. The report called for the country music community and the city of Nashville to commit to change and equity through partnering with BMAC. The Academy was among the first companies to come aboard.
“They were really the first to raise their hand and says, ‘we’re prepared to stand with you and launch this program in Nashville and then call on the other companies up and down Music Row to partner with us.’ So this initiative can grow and become a sustainable part of the Nashville community,” Stiggers says.
The Academy’s LEVel Up: Lift Every Voice program will help facilitate OnRamp. LEVel Up is a two-year professional development program, originally launched last year and fully funded by the Academy, for rising leaders in country music. The members of the current LEVel Up cohort will play a hands-on role in the application review process and drive the candidate selection work, proposing a recommended slate of candidates to the Academy and BMAC teams.
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Each of the 20 members of the inaugural OnRamp cohort will have a program designed specifically for them with their own facilitating team with the help of LEVel Up members and the Academy’s DEI task force. “For instance, if you’re a young person trying to become a manager, we’ll pair you with a manager who is killing it in that space and allow you to shadow them,” Stiggers says.
“It’s my pleasure to stand alongside other industry leaders to support this important program,” said ACM DEI Task Force chair/ACM board member and BMI executive Shannon Sanders, in a statement. “The Academy continues to play a pivotal role in ushering in a new era in country music by truly supporting and lifting up those underrepresented in the industry.”
Additionally, there will be money management and mental health components activated on a weekly or monthly basis. “The idea is to build the communities around each of these individuals that they need to help them realize their dreams,” Stiggers says.
Ultimately, the idea is to transform the country music industry across the board. “Five years from now when you’re able to have a few hundred young people who have been provided access in the training, resources and connections they need in the country music space I think we see a more diverse pool of artists and executives,” Stiggers says. “I think we see more Black women faces showing up on the executive side and I think we’ve opened this up to allow the charts to be reflective of the community that enjoys the genre, which isn’t the cast today.”
Earlier this year, the Country Music Association launched a diversity and inclusion fellowship program to provide an immersive experience in the country music industry initially through the CMA’s communications team in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of CMA Fest this June. Fellows will then work for six weeks with a country music publicity firm. Set to launch this Spring, the program is open to all students from underrepresented communities through Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations and the University of Alabama, with additional collegiate partners including the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and Nashville’s Belmont University.
Such programs, as well as The Hubb, a professional development summit started by CAA in 2018, have Stiggers feeling optimistic. “I am encouraged to see people actually moving past the hashtags and trying to implement sustainable programs that are really going to create a more level playing field.”
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