Across a career spanning over a decade, music executive and creative entrepreneur, Debbie Romeo, has distinguished herself as one of the most prominent actors operating in the Nigerian entertainment ecosystem. The true story of Romeo’s career has been about skilled adaptation and an undeniable instinct for the pulse of culture and what drives it. From her active introduction to the Nigerian music scene as a contestant on the popular music TV show, Nigerian Idol, to her work as an A&R for legacy record label, Chocolate City, to steering the ship of creative agency, TASCK, Debbie Romeo has made providing opportunities for creatives her mission. Excerpts by SEYI JOHN SALAU:
Starting in 2022, you worked with the British Council on the Creative Economy Showcase programmer; what was that like?
The programme was put together by the British Council and was to run in four different states in Nigeria but TASCK pitched to be the curator in Lagos and we got it. It was a six-month program and we were required to provide the programming for those six months as well as reach out to the people that applied to the British Council to participate, schedule them into those months of activities and then execute those months of activities. We’ve been very active with regards to pulling creatives into the space, giving them opportunities, and them telling the stories they consider impactful. With this program, for example, we created a fusion of activations for all events. What this means is that we would bring fashion, art, and music together as opposed to doing standalone events for each one because we wanted people to see all these creative endeavours intertwined.
African music and culture has gotten incredibly bigger, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned in your time working as a part of it?
One of the major lessons that I imbibe in my day-to-day life is that my instincts are usually right. I learned to trust my instincts and gut feeling because all of the people that I heard first and noted that they’d go on to do great things ended up being stars. When I heard YCee and Simi for the first time, I knew they’d be stars. When I heard Ladipoe, I was working to sign him because I knew he’d be huge. Same thing with Johnny Drille. A lot of things have happened down the line that made me trust my ear for music. The other lesson I’ve learned is that no music is ever going to waste. No matter what stage an artist is at in their journey or career, the music that you made is a part of your catalogue and will be helpful for you when you’re trying to sign a major deal or make connections with people. They want to be able to see the volume of work you’ve done, whether you thought it was valuable or not. The third thing I learned is that it’s very important to make friends and build relationships with people in the industry because at the end of the day, that’s the foundation on which you stand. A lot of the things that I’ve done have come from how I treat people, being open to hearing what everyone has to say and learning to accept that regardless of where a person is, things can change dynamically and they can be in a position to open doors that you never knew you could walk through.
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What was the motivation for creating TASCK and what was it like getting that agency up and running?
It started as an idea M.I had. At the time, he was trying to figure out what new things he wanted to do and he called me up one day and told me about the idea he had. I agreed with him and told him we should do it. For the first couple of months, it was just both of us trying to get the vision going and nail down what we wanted to achieve, what the logo would look like, what the targets would look like, office space, and all of that. Once we did the foundational work, M.I was able to talk to other people to come on board. When we had new people come on board, we quickly realized that what we wanted to do was to give creatives the best value they can get at whatever point they were in their journey. We wanted to help them figure out where they were, what the next steps should be, and help with a move to that next level. We wanted to do all that without having them feel like they were exploited. We started in 2019 and, by 2020, we were doing social impact work that was so beneficial. One of the first campaigns that we did was on the social media bill and what we were tasked to do was to get the word out there about what the social media bill was going to do to creatives and people working in the entertainment industry. We put together a conference and got creatives to talk about the impact it would have on comedians, musicians, and skit-makers and how it would affect their work. When people began to talk about it, the next thing we did was to encourage people to reach out to their representatives in the different areas where they live and tell them that they didn’t want that bill passed. It was active work for us and it’s a joyful thing when I see all the staff that works for us. We’ve been able to do two festivals successfully in Lagos and one in Lagos as well as all the smaller festivals that we did in partnership with people in Enugu and Port Harcourt. Seeing the impact makes me proud and in 2022 alone we ran 19 active projects with multiple partners and we gave over 300 creatives the opportunity to make money off these different projects.
How did you get into the entertainment industry?
My background didn’t really have anything to do with what I became. I grew up in Gambia, that’s where my family lives, and I studied business management. As I was finishing my course, I started writing my thesis about the influence of mobile phones as they were just being introduced (in Gambia) and the company I was doing the research on was called AfriCell. I used to go and interview staff about some things and one day I had to meet their boss. We had a chat about my thesis and at the end of that conversation, he asked if I wanted a job. I got the job before I finished school and started work as a commercial coordinator. So, I studied business management in school but I never even got the opportunity to do that because I went straight into entertainment and activations. My role required me to go on the radio to talk about the business as well as put together events to promote sales. So it had elements of what I studied but it wasn’t strictly limited to that and it was more entertaining than it was corporate.
How did you make the full translation to working in music?
While working with AfriCell, I worked on a lot of jingles and adverts. So, I was in music but I wasn’t in the music business. While I was doing that, people started asking me to do songs for them and I decided to come back to Nigeria. When I was coming back, I took the route of Nigerian Idol because my parents didn’t want me to come back considering I hadn’t really lived here by myself and I was 24. I made it to the top 12 of the Nigerian Idol that year and that was my introduction to music. Right after I got off Nigerian Idol, I started doing songs and voice-overs for people. Luckily for me, I met M.I through some friends and that was the beginning of my working in the music business because M.I and I became friends and we kept in touch from time to time. Also, while I was in Gambia, I hosted a show where I was playing Nigerian music and connected with Nigerian musicians. So, before I moved here, I already had a talking relationship with Banky W and he told me to let him know when I was in the country. There were a few other people I knew as well and I was able to come into the music business off the friendship I had with these people. My first role in the music business was at Chocolate City and I got it through M.I Abaga a few years after we met. I worked there as an A&R and did some PR roles and from there it just continued to the point I am at today.
What are some of the challenges you faced in your earliest days in the music business side of things?
The challenges I faced at that time mostly had to do with the fact that there was no structure. When I started working at Chocolate City in these different roles, music was changing rapidly and it was challenging to deal with those changes but it was also exciting. The other challenge I would say was that we didn’t have adequate funding. The way I see it, to make mistakes with money, you need to have more money to spend but we didn’t have that because there was a very little budget and it’s amazing that we were able to do the things that we did at the time. I was A&R for Dice Ailes, Victoria Konami, DJ Case, and DJ Lambo. I also did some work with CKay when he just came in, just talking with him and figuring out what his sound should be and things like that.
What is your vision for TASCK moving forward and yourself personally?
Going forward, I want to be able to help artists who need direction and guidance about what the music industry is like and help them navigate it. I want to have real conversations with them and create opportunities for them to earn because earning is a huge factor in all of this. I’m happy to say that during this process with the British Council, we started doing free A&R sessions and I hope to continue doing a lot of that throughout the year. Outside of that, I’m working on bringing back something called incredible sessions which we started in 2021. I want to bring that back so we can give opportunities to artists so they can perform, grow their audience, become more confident, and have a chance to make money. All these dreams reflect the ethos of TASCK as a company because that’s what we stand for. In 2023 we’re going to do more festivals but they’ll be tied specifically to artists and creatives. They’ll be the owners of the festival and we’ll work with them to find the funding they need to execute at whatever level they choose.