Spotify’s Sub-Saharan Africa Head of Music Phiona Okumu — Future 25
This story appears in Rolling Stone‘s 2021 Future of Music issue, a special project delving into the next era of the multibillion-dollar hitmaking business. Read the other stories here.
In her long career as a tastemaker, Phiona Okumu has made it her personal mission to elevate emerging African acts. “We have these great, established veterans like Burna Boy, Wizkid, and Davido, [but] it is important that we do not fixate on them,” she says. “We must continue to keep the wheels turning and investing in the new Burna Boys.”
Okumu jumped into the intersection of music and technology in 2016, following 14 years in music journalism and public relations across Africa and its diaspora. “Apple Music was my baptism into the streaming economy,” she says of her first role of this kind; she handled editorial work and managed artist-label relations for the platform right at the onset of the service’s 2015 launch. In the job, her advocacy led to a billboard of Nigerian singer Mr Eazi on L.A.’s Hollywood Boulevard.
After three years at Apple Music, Okumu moved next to Spotify, seeking to amplify the music of the continent throughout the diaspora. For her first two years there, the only sub-Saharan country served by Spotify was South Africa. Earlier this year, in February, the platform rolled out access to nearly 40 more African countries, and Okumu was promoted from marketing lead to head of music for the whole sub-Saharan region. She oversees the regional teams that will help determine the tenor of Spotify’s presence in Africa, including brand and creative departments, marketing teams, as well as artist and label partnership managers. “On a good day, I’m speaking to every single corner of the world, making sure that everybody understands that [Africa] is not a trend for us,” she says.
Okumu’s recent work includes a campaign for the platform’s African Heat playlist, which is meant to illustrate the global nature of African music. The project put Okumo in close contact with Spotify executives across the U.S. and U.K. around R&B and hip-hop, and the team put its heads together to think about how to best spotlight African musicians to music fans all over the place.
In the resulting promo video, South African artist Focalistic — an up-and-comer in the country’s scorching-hot Amapiano scene — watches dancers in New York, London, Lagos, Accra, and Johannesburg perform liquid choreography to his hit “Ke Star.” Okumu is hopeful that Focalistic will achieve success similar to other alums of Spotify’s Radar program she had a hand in guiding, like South African R&B singer Elaine, who went on to sign to Columbia, and Nigerian singer Tems, who recently collaborated with Wizkid. “Not only are we championing an artist,” Okumu says, “but we are also carrying an entire culture.”