When Tunji Balogun was young, a series of black superstars soared through mainstream pop music — Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston. “I remember growing up with tons of black faces on my screen,” he says. “But then something changed in the late 1990s, early 2000s: It just kind of stopped. I have young nieces that haven’t grown up with a Beyonce or a Janet [Jackson] or a Rihanna [of their own].”
Balogun is now EVP of A&R — “artist and repertoire,” which involves signing new acts and sometimes serving as a fifth Beatle during the creative process — for RCA Records, where part of his mission is to help create “the new black pop star.” “You look at the pop charts and you see R&B songs sung by white artists that get added,” he says, “and the black artists are not getting those same opportunities.” Balogun is helping to lay the foundation for a more equitable pop by playing a role in some of the most acclaimed and commercially successful albums of the 2010s: Bryson Tiller’s Trapsoul (double platinum), SZA’s CTRL (platinum), and Khalid’s American Teen (double platinum).
Balogun has been at it for over a decade. As a college hip-hop-head with a radio show and dreams of a rap career, he landed a summer post at Warner Records that eventually led to a job as a marketing assistant. While at Warner, Balogun met a rapper on the roster named Jay Rock, and Rock had a young hypeman whose music Balogun fell in love with: Kendrick Lamar.
During a subsequent stint at Interscope, Balogun was a major booster for Lamar as the rapper sought his first major-label deal. “Never underestimate the people around you and working with people, because you never know where people are going to end up,” he says. When RCA was in a competitive race to sign Brockhampton, it turned out that the group’s managers were former Interscope employees. They “remember[ed] me being a scrappy young kid that was hungry and super on it,” Balogun recalls, and that helped give RCA the edge.
That “on it” quality has earned Balogun fans around the music industry. Before he came to RCA, “any quality artist we were interested in, Tunji was always there first,” says Keith Naftaly, RCA’s President of A&R. “Or he was always our main competition for anything of substance we were going after.”
Part of Balogun’s skill is seeing opportunity where his peers see deadweight. “My rise in the industry coincided with a dip in R&B,” Balogun notes. “I remember being in meetings and people telling me that R&B was not going to get played on the radio or that R&B artists couldn’t make money.” While many in the music industry wrote the genre off, Balogun thought the space was being undervalued. His faith was borne out by the success of Trapsoul, CTRL, and American Teen, all of which spawned multiple hits — and even got played on the radio.
This willingness to swim upstream is common for Balogun. The music industry is intensely hierarchical, but at Balogun’s new label, Keep Cool, he lets any employee function as an A&R by flagging potential artists to sign. “Greatness can come from any direction,” Balogun says. “I’m not precious about the discovery process.”
He keeps chipping away at the narrow-minded construction of pop with a recent Keep Cool/RCA signing, the singer Normani. Historically, most black singers have been required to “cross over” to achieve pop success — to win over gatekeepers in R&B or rap before they get to play in the big pool next to artists like Shawn Mendes or the Jonas Brothers. Balogun is hoping Normani can dismantle that system. “She has the ability to inspire a whole new generation of young black girls who haven’t seen someone who looks like them that was around their age,” he says. Normani has now scored two Number One hits in a row at pop radio, and her latest single, “Motivation,” has moved quickly into the Top 20. “My sister has two daughters, and she texted me over the weekend, ‘oh my God, they love this Normani video, they can’t stop watching it,'” Balogun says. “I’m like, that’s the payoff.”