Voices Of Live: Courtney Stewart On Finding His Place In The Music Biz – ‘This Is My Calling’

Courtney Stewart
Julia Lofstrand
– Courtney Stewart
(right) and his client Khalid (center) in conversation with Billboard senior editor Gail Mitchell at Pollstar Live! in February 2019.

While attending a performing arts high school, Courtney Stewart began rapping and making beats, and then put out mixtapes in college. He and friend/fellow musician Bobby Wilson (now known as Bobby V and formerly Bobby Valentino) made a pact that whoever made it first would “pull the other up,” so after Wilson’s music took off, Stewart became his manager. 

With the help of mentors like Chaka Zulu and Jeff Dixon, Stewart learned the business and found his calling in the industry. Stewart is the founder of Right Hand Music Group, which offers artist management, artist development and marketing, with clients including Khalid, Sinead Harnett, Wynne and Spencer Barnett. He’s also the co-founder of Keep Cool Records and the founder of The Right Hand Foundation, a non-profit that provides single mothers with housing and support. 

Pollstar checked in with Stewart following the announcement of the formation of the Black Music Action Coalition, which features an executive committee including Stewart, Ashaunna Ayars, Binta Brown, Jamil Davis, Shawn Holiday, Prophet, Damien Smith and Caron Veazey.

The BMAC was launched in alliance with #TheShowMustBePaused initiative with an open letter June 22 explaining that artists, producers, songwriters and industry professionals had come together to “address long standing racial inequities in the business, the financial impact of those inequities for both Black artists and executives, and ways we can work with you urgently to solve these problems.”

Pollstar: You were just on a set of a music video shoot. What was the experience like during the pandemic?
Courtney Stewart: Khalid has a collaboration with Kane Brown and Swae Lee. It was my first time actually being physically on the video set [during the pandemic]. They handled it really well. Everyone got tested, they had someone on site doing temperature checks, everyone was required to wear masks. And then the crew was a lot smaller than other shoots that I’ve been on in the past. The production company did a really good job of managing everything and making sure everyone was safe.   

At the top of the year none of us thought this would last this long, so naturally we all have to adjust; we’re blessed to have jobs and careers and we have to do what we have to do to keep things moving. 

You got your start in the music industry managing Bobby Valentino in 2005. Did you have any other roles in the business before that?

Bobby Valentino and I are childhood friends. He was in a group called Mista. They were signed to Elektra Records and they were associated with Organized Noize, which is responsible for Outkast and all those groups. So I was able to be a fly on the wall when I was a teenager because I would be in the studio with Mista and I would be around Outkast and Organized Noize. I was able to see things first hand and just kind of soak up the energy.
I went to a performing arts high school in Atlanta and I was always into the arts. I scraped up money to buy musical equipments, a beat machine and keyboards, just trying to mimic my favorite producers, who were Timbaland and Kanye and Pharrell. I actually started off rapping and making beats. When I went to college, I went to Alabama State University. I would sell beats on campus, put mixtapes out. …. When I got in the position to manage Bobby, I built relationships. I interned places even as I was managing him. I was his manager but I interned at the Hot 97 radio station in Atlanta. 
I worked closely with a couple of my mentors, Chaka Zulu and Jeff Dixon, they were very influential in helping me learn the business. …. Another highlight was Bobby was signed to Def Jam for Disturbing Tha Peace. That’s when two of my idols ran Def Jam together: LA Reid and Jay-Z. We used to fly out to New York whether he was doing a promo or whether we had meetings with the label. 

Courtney Stewart
Anthony Campusano
– Courtney Stewart
Was it natural to get into the business side of things after starting out making music yourself?
I was really keen on my artistry, as far as being in front of the camera. I really wasn’t thinking about being behind the scenes.

But Bobby already was well-known because of the group he was in and then when he started working on his solo project he actually let me rap on his songs. And we just kind of made a pact: look, whoever gets on first we will pull the other up. He was the one that was able to get on first as an artist and then it was a natural progression for me to learn the business and to become his manager. 

And I think from that point on, I was like “Wow, this is my calling.”  I actually love this because I’m still able to be creative – have input on marketing, on videos, have input on songs, be in the studio. So it’s kind of like the best of both worlds. … I’m still executive producing and still doing A&R even though my title isn’t A&R. I’m still doing all the things I love to do. So I think it worked out the way it was supposed to. 
Can you talk about forming Right Hand Music Group?
After Bobby and I kind of naturally parted ways – no bad blood or anything – I just had some other things I wanted to tackle and so did he – one of the first opportunities I had was to run Ludacris’ publishing company and that got me into managing songwriters and producers.
I met Khalid when he was in high school and I was really impressed by his songwriting. That was the first thing that stuck out about Khalid – he was a phenomenal songwriter and his approach and storytelling ability was amazing. And on top of that, he had this unique voice that was so powerful, it was just soulful and something I’d never heard before. 
Khalid was the first artist under Right Hand Music Group and I’ve been able to expand and develop more acts. It’s been a blessing.
And then I also am a co-founder in a label called Keep Cool … As a manager you’re always kind of holding the label accountable. That’s what makes a good manager – holding everybody accountable and making sure that there is organization and structure and that your artist is flourishing. Now that I’m a partner [at Keep Cool] I get managers holding me accountable (laughs) so it keeps me on my toes. 
The Black Music Action Coalition was announced in June.  What inspired the coalition to come together?
I’ll start with what inspired me to be a part of it. I have a foundation called the Right Hand Foundation, which is something I’m super duper passionate about. We provide housing in Atlanta for single mothers and children who have experienced a life situation that has turned their life upside down, whether it’s a loss of a job or the death of a family member. … And once we choose our candidates we put them in a property for a year and they don’t have to pay rent and we have classes on financial literacy, mental health and things like that.  
When George Floyd’s murder happened, that was kind of the tipping point for me personally and and I was like, look, I know what I’m doing with the Right Hand Foundation is fulfilling, and I can see firsthand the people that I’m helping, but I have to do more. 
A group of executives got together and some of our conversations were about our own industry and talking about racism within the music business. For me personally, I’m an advocate of empowering women, like with Right Hand it’s all women who are on my team (Sonia Kiejliches, Mame Diagne and Nikki Cruz). I love to empower women and I feel like within the business women don’t get a chance to advance to the levels that they should – and also people of color.

In our group there are a lot of managers, people that are dealing directly with their artists, and we’re hearing the frustration and anger from our own artists and our job as managers is to steer their career. So it’s like, OK, instead of being so competitive, let’s come together and work with the record labels, the publishing companies, the agencies and let’s listen to what our partners have to say … let’s have real conversations and try to implement change because the one thing about music is it’s so powerful. Music brings people together in the midst of turmoil.
Our goal is to help bring change within our own business and that will spill over to change within our own community for social justice; everything will be a domino effect because of the power of music.
What has been your experience in the music industry as far as how the business addresses diversity and inclusion?
Black music has been the culture and the forefront of record labels and all these different companies so I feel like Black artists and Black executives shouldn’t be overlooked. Specifically, internally, there needs to be more diversity within companies, there needs to be more women. I can’t harp on that enough. … I feel like these companies have succeeded off the backs of Black artists and the backs of women, but when you look at the top of these companies you see very few women, you see very few people of color.
Are you hopeful looking toward the future?
I’m very hopeful but what everyone has to understand is it just can’t happen this year. It has to be a long-term commitment. … There needs to be a commitment to investing in low-income communities, investing into women, into Black executives and continuing to make that investment. BMAC’s goal is consistency; keeping this going.