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TRIBUTE TO GLEN YEARWOOD: A PEERLESS MEDIA PIONEER by Richard Adeshiyan

Glen Yearwood will be remembered as a pioneering media operator who contributed significantly to Black British cultural industry.

Prior to embarking on an entrepreneurial career, Glen had cut his teeth as head of new media at UK’s leading internet consultancy firm. He stepped away in the late nineties and co-founded with Everton Wright the ground-breaking black lifestyle site darkerthanblue.com (taken from the Curtis Mayfield track We The People Who are Darker Than Blue). Notably, the website was ground-breaking and would prove a trailblazing platform, live streaming rap and hip hop sessions from New York, and providing music and book reviews and lifestyle commentaries. The website helped promote a young Craig David and Jill Scott and provided a platform for Estelle who made her foray into journalism before pursuing a music career. 

As CEO, Glen and the business reflected the new breed of entrepreneur rising to the e-commerce challenge. An exciting addition to the dot.com explosion, DarkerthanBlue made the business pages of mainstream media including The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Times. Trade media were equally enamoured and Marketing Week, Campaign and New Business profiled the site and First Tuesday, the UK’s foremost internet working group listed DarkerthanBlue in their list of the UK’s 30 hottest internet start-ups. In 2000, the website received a £3m cash injection in first round funding from Chrysalis Media, with the focus on expanding the brand on the high street.

Unfortunately, DarkerthanBlue, failed to realise its early promise, although the enterprise would leave a lasting legacy as a breakthrough commercial black business. Glen went on to set up his own specialist communication consultancy in urban and ethnic minority audiences, The Glen Yearwood Group (GYG). He also took on the role of champion and activist, pushing for more equity in the distribution of marketing budgets to black-owned businesses operating in the creative sector.

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However, while lending his considerable eloquence to campaigning on media industry matters, Glen never strayed too far from his first love – music. While soul legends Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield featured in a long list of favoured artists, it was reggae music that occupied a special place in his heart. His knowledge of the music was almost encyclopaedic, especially around roots and culture.

Music constantly nourished his spirituality and it added true meaning on his journey. Whether it was strumming his acoustic guitar or singing in the Curtis Mayfield tradition, music was a constant in his life. Not surprisingly, Bob Marley was high on his reggae pantheon, but it was the music of Burning Spear that would imbue his philosophical approach. In fact, it was the thread that ran throughout his life and entrepreneurial career. He was a versatile and skilled operator with a sharp mind who could be the consummate corporate man when he needed to be, but never lost sight of the influence of Garvey and the importance of self pride and self-determination. This philosophy would play an important part in supporting many aspiring black creative thinkers who he took on the journey with him. And not unlike the revered Garvey, Glen was also blessed with an empowering oratory and he was capable of mesmerising audiences in the UK, as well as in the US.

In fact, many years later entrepreneur Yana Johnson, who pioneered the UK’s first black cosmetic line, recalls shedding a tear when Glen delivered an impassioned keynote speech to an audience at a North Carolina University event. Johnson, who was part of the UK business delegation, which also included Apprentice winner Tim Campbell, declared afterwards:  ‘Glen connected with the audience and brought a unity in the room which is very rare, but he was able to bridge that gap.’

In 2003, he realised a long held dream of producing a reggae album. Through his company Melanin People, he teamed up with Trojan Records producing Blessed Love – Jamaican Producers 1960-69. The seminal offering paid homage to producing giants Duke Reid, Clement Coxsone Dodd, Sonia Pottinger, Joe Gibbs, Bunny Lee, Leslie Kong and Lee Scratch Perry.

This experience proved so rewarding that in 2004, Yearwood came up with the idea of staging an annual reggae music festival as a tribute to the legendary reggae producer Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd who died that year. The first Reggae in the Park would be held at east London’s Victoria Park and the line-up would include legends Marcia Griffiths, Freddie McGregor and Barrington Levy, with Vybz Kartel and Sizzla representing the new guard.

Although the announcement of the event was greeted with widespread excitement from fans and music media alike, the inclusion of rising young dance hall acts, Vybz Kartel and Sizzla, upset campaigners protesting against reggae lyrics inciting violence against gay men and lesbians.

As a result of the negative publicity the event was eventually cancelled. However, Yearwood respectful of the opposing view, refused to walk away. He believed this impasse would have huge ramifications for the future of reggae music promotions in the UK. After particularly bruising encounter with Peter Tatchell on Radio 4’s Today Programme, he knew this was an issue that would not go away.

After that broadcast, he invited Peter Tatchell of Outrage! to a meeting to hammer out a solution. With the blessing of VP Records, who promoted the cream of Jamaica’s reggae acts, and several other major dancehall labels and promoters, he took on the role of peacemaker. Glen remarked at the time in The Independent newspaper.  ‘Forty years of equity was under threat. I tried to illustrate to Peter (Tatchell) that reggae music was like The Last Supper, with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh at the head of the table and these young artists right at the other end’.

Amazingly, after three months of negotiation, using all his guile and mediation skills, Glen helped brokered an agreement that leading record labels and promoters agreed not to promote homophobic songs. Tatchell acknowledged at the time that the agreement may not have happened ‘without Glen’s facilitation and perseverance’.

In 2005, he fine-tuned his business establishing Soul Marketing, a communication consultancy, to take advantage of future international clients and unlock the growth potential of the UK’s ethnic consumer groups.  That year he secured an impressive string of new business within the cultural sector working with Africa 05 programme director Gus Casely-Hayford, in attracting diverse audiences to the expansive Africa 05 exhibition. The exhibition aimed to dispel the notions of a ‘troubled continent’ and this opportunity really helped define Glen’s cultural journey. He later shared that one of his highlights was working with so many talented  African artists featured in the Hayward Gallery’s Africa Remix, the largest ever exhibition of contemporary African art in Europe. He also advised the BBC and the museum in the run-up to the Africa Live event, a day of free activities celebrating African life and culture with special guests Bob Geldof and Gordon Brown.

During that year he also marketed a series of exhibitions including Back To Black (Whitechapel Gallery), Michael McMillan’s hugely successful West Indian Front Room (Geffrye Museum) Roots to Reckoning, showcasing the work of three Jamaican-born photographers, Neil Kenlock, Armet Francis and Charlie Phillips (Museum of London) and Amazon to Caribbean (Horniman Museum).

Throughout the year his skilled marketing helped increase diverse footfall across the prospective venues. He always had his finger in the pulse and was very street smart. This was no better illustrated when he decided to bring in his local south east London Caribbean caterers to add some additional authenticity to the hugely popular The West Indian Front Room exhibition.  Every Sunday was truly a joyous affair with museum visitors served up Jerk Chicken, Curry Goat and Rice!  

Towards the end of 2005, and with a growing reputation, he was invited to assist with marketing and publicity for Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall’s debut solo exhibition ‘Along the Way’ at Camden Arts Centre in north London. Little did he realise at the time that Marshall would go on to become one the most influential American artists of his generation and in the process make history. In 2018 and 2019 two of Marshall’s pieces sold at auction for $21m and $18.8m respectively, and the two highest figures ever paid for a living African American artist.

Standing six-foot plus tall and shaven headed, his distinctive loping walk was unmistakeable and was a match for the famous ‘Denzel’ walk.  Sartorially, he had a penchant for natty linen suits, the odd pinstripe of teamed up with cravats, bow ties and Panama hats.  He was also partial to the occasional African Dashiki outfit, although his beloved Spurs’ home strip occupied a special place in his heart, and you couldn’t stop him smiling when they registered a win.

At his core, he was a straight-shooting marketer who always saw the bigger picture. He recognised that he had to create an organisation to lobby for improved marketing and advertising budgets.  In 2006, he established the first ever trade body Multi-Ethnic Media Owners Association (MEMOA). He reached out to Tottenham MP and then Culture Minister David Lammy, who agreed to launch the organisation at the House of Commons and securing Chancellor Gordon Brown as a guest speaker. Although, MEMOA eventually failed to realise Glen’s lofty ambitions, the event attended by media owners from Caribbean, Africa, Asian, Turkish and Cypriot organisations, did help create a new found awareness.

In 2006, Glen recognised the need to empower the wider black business community masterminding the sold-out Winners: The Rise and Rise of the Black British Entrepreneurs event at The British Library.  Chaired by broadcaster Dotun Adebayo the panel included guests Tim Campbell, the first ever winner of BBC’s Apprentice, Skincare businesswoman Yana Johnson and Charles Egogo who invented the Umbrolly.

Two years later a speculative call to American cable channel BET, when his business was struggling to secure new clients, proved a real turning point when Michael Armstrong,  SVP and BET International’s General Manager, was impressed enough to give him the prestigious  account. The channel was launched on February 27, 2008 at Odeon West End Cinema, in the presence of BET Chairman and CEO Debra Lee, generating much excitement and media fanfare.  The official launch party at the Cafe De Paris was star-studded affair and featured a live performance from US singer Alicia Keys. That the channel boasted over 95 million subscribers worldwide, inadvertently catapulted him into the big league.

Responsible for an impressive roster of black American talent, his job was to introduce established and new names to UK audiences.  From the outset, the names came thick and fast; Academy Award-winner Mo’Nique’s new show, hit gospel talent show Sunday Best with hit gospel singing duo Mary, Mary, Laurieann Gibson’s Born To Dance, reality television series Baldwin Hills and number one rated talk show 106 & Park.

Glen and his team ensured that the television channel’s impressive programming calendar featuring the BET Awards, BET Honors, BET Hip Hop Awards, Beverly Bond’s inspiring  Black Girls Rock, and the iconic  Soul Train Awards, became required viewing for black audiences and the wider public. He was instrumental, along with colleague Roy Francis, in creating history for Muyiwa and Riversongz, who became the first international gospel act to perform at BET’s annual flagship Celebration of Gospel in Los Angeles in 2009. That show featured gospel royalty in Pastor Shirley Caesar, Kirk Franklin, Donnie McClurkin, Fred Hammond, Marvin Sapp, as well as brother and sister pairing BeBe and CeCe Winans.

The hard work would pay off in 2011, when Soul Marketing was rewarded for its unique understanding of cross-cultural marketing producing successful events and campaigns for BET International. Soul Marketing were not only the first UK company to win America’s prestigious NAMIC’s Excellence in Multicultural Marketing Awards (EMMA), they were treble winners in three separate categories.

The London team secured awards for A Inspirational Evening of Youth Engagement with Trey Songz held in collaboration with the Damilola Taylor Trust at London’s City Hall.  The hugely successful Getting to Know Wendy Williams London event, held in front of an invited celebrity audience. While their UK marketing campaign for the empowering Black Girls Rock! Awards  picked-up another award,

He also staged a second Getting to Know with Tracee Ellis Ross at London’s Mayfair Hotel in 2011, which created a roadblock outside the venue.  Ellis-Ross’ three-day promotion of BET’s family-based sitcom Reed Between the Lines proved a resounding success.

Stories still abound of his mentoring of young rising entrepreneurs and recognising this was opportunity to create opportunities for those coming up behind him. He regularly responded to accreditation requests from aspiring black talent keen to travel to the US to sample the heady atmosphere of marquee BET event. He would make regular visits to New York to thrash out deals and was a hugely respected part of the global BET family.

Securing the BET International account proved invaluable to Glen in gaining a better understanding of how to unlock the consumer power of the UK’s black and ethnic audiences. In 2009, he joined forces with leading global ad agency UM and became MD of their newly created Diversity Unit, working out of their London HQ in St John’s Square in Clerkenwell. 

Glen was never one to let the grass grow under his feet and his generosity of spirit stretched well beyond the marketing world and regularly used his influence to support and showcase budding entrepreneurs. With a particular interest in health and addressing the growing demand for black products among UK’s black consumers, he created Beauty Within Me in 2012. The two-day natural beauty, health and wellbeing seminar event held at The School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) provided an opportunity for black-owned businesses to promote and sell their products.

Facing his own health issues, Glen went exploring pastures new. In 2014, he travelled to Malawi and Ethiopia in search of the history of coffee and developed synergies with several East African coffee co-operatives. During this trip he turned storyteller and his regularly emailed musings from Malawi and Ethiopia made for entertaining reading.  His journey also took in Lusaka, Zambia, Nairobi, Kenya, and Addis Ababa.

He continued his travels a year later finding his way to Australia where he sought out an old school friend who had relocated there. The trip also provided him with an opportunity to better understand Australia’s Aboriginal story. During that period, he was adopted by the Luritja Pintupi people Aboriginal community in the Australian central western desert and was also awarded the Aboriginal skin name Jungarri.  He moved to Alice Springs where storyteller and music teacher in the 200- strong community.  He was also a business manager for Aboriginal radio station CAAMA, Australia’s largest Aboriginal media organisation. While in Australia he developed his Storyteller persona and his popular podcast, 12 Apostles of Black Music was required listening.  He recorded his first album, Life and Times of a Storyteller in 2015.

In December 2020, he was filmed for the Hidden Figures video interview series presented by Black Cultural Archives and WARC, the global authority on marketing effectiveness.  The series created in collaboration with Niche On Demand, showcased the contribution, influence and impact Black British marketers and creatives have had on the marketing and communications industry. In that interview, Glen shared his business achievements as a UK entrepreneur and shared eloquently the importance of storytelling to success. As the one of our most important   cultural storytellers, his legacy is story that must be told.

Glenron ‘Storyteller’ Yearwood (1st Sep 1963 – 14th May 2021) was born in Georgetown, St Vincent came to the UK as a young boy and grew up in Luton, Bedfordshire. He was a graduate of Economics from Manchester Metropolitan University.

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