MNEK & Warner Chappell Music exec Paul Smith on ‘life giving’ power of PROUD SOUND

Launched in 2019 by award-winning artist, songwriter, and producer MNEK, in association with Warner Chappell Music, PROUD SOUND is a four-day songwriting camp aimed at supporting LGBTQIA+ talent. MNEK and Warner Chappell also partnered with YouTube Songwriters for this year’s edition. Those who have participated in the camp have hailed it as a safe and supportive environment in which they can freely flex their artistry and collaborate with an assortment of creatives across a variety of styles and genres. Headliner was granted an exclusive invite to this year’s camp for a chat with MNEK, Warner Chappell Music VP of A&R and Global Creative Paul Smith, and a number of those taking part to find about the impact of PROUD SOUND on the next generation of queer talent and what needs to be done to create a more inclusive music industry.

Tucked away in one of the control rooms at London’s Miloco Studios, the home of this year’s PROUD SOUND songwriting camp, we await the arrival of Uzo Emenike, aka MNEK, and Paul Smith. It’s the penultimate day of the camp and we are informed that they are still in session with a group of artists, producers, and songwriters at the time of our arrival but should be joining us shortly. 

Set up by MNEK in 2019, the initiative has garnered rave reviews from its participants, many of whom have returned for the 2024 instalment. Its aim is simple: to uncover and champion the most exciting new queer talent in a space that is safe, supportive, and nurturing. Long-established, hugely successful professionals boasting credits with some of the biggest artists on the planet mix with those seeking their big break. It’s a unique networking opportunity, as well as a chance for the emerging generation to learn from more experienced heads, and for those already dining at the top table to reconnect with the grassroots.

As promised, we are soon joined by our hosts, with MNEK and Smith each greeting us with a warm embrace, evidently in high spirits. There is an easy rapport between the pair, each happy to discuss not only their aims and ambitions for PROUD SOUND, but also their respective routes into the industry.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” MNEK smiles, summing up how the camp has been so far. “I guess it’s all about continuing what we want to be a recurring thing in our industry, where we can bring in established queer writers and producers alongside up-and-coming talent. It’s been great to have some international people here as well. We’ve had Nemo who won Eurovision and they have written some incredible stuff. What a talent! And we’ve had a host of other talents from last year. It’s just been great. I love doing this and doing it with Paul has been brilliant.”

I want PROUD SOUND to grow and continue to lift the culture. MNEK

Among those in attendance this year – some of whom we speak to after our conversation with MNEK and Smith – are Lauren Aquilina (Rina Sawayama / Ava Max / Little Mix / IVE), Ryan Ashley (Anne-Marie / Sigala / Becky Hill / Mahalia), Jon Shave (Charli XCX / Joel Corry / Madison Beer / Zara Larsson), and Fanny Hultman, to name a mere few.

Each of those we meet during our visit are unequivocal in their praise not only for the initiative, but the spirit in which the camp is conducted. The mood in the room is simultaneously relaxed and crackling with creativity.

“It’s been really affirming,” Jordan Mackampa, a songwriter and vocalist taking part in his first PROUD SOUND, will tell us later. “From the first day, just being surrounded by so many talented artists has been great. We share a common ground, we have this shared goal, shared joy, and shared struggles within our queer journeys. They are not necessarily at the forefront of who we are as musicians, but they are so important to our artistry. We can just exist and create freely without any expectation for it to be ‘super gay’ or ‘super queer’, it’s just music that happens to have been created by queer artists. That has been super important and really affirming for me.”

It is precisely this kind of environment that MNEK sought to foster when founding PROUD SOUND back in 2019.

“Me and Warner Chappell held a camp in association with Pride in London and that was the embryonic stage of what would become PROUD SOUND,” MNEK says, explaining the origins of the initiative. “By the time 2023 came around we started up again and opened up the floor to up-and-coming songwriters, as opposed to just those who were published or in deals. That’s great and all, but what about the people who might not be able to have these same experiences? Where you can just freeball and make friends with the sole intention of making music, whoever it is for? So that was the origin, and these past couple of years has been the real bread and butter of it.”

“Uzo always said he wanted to make a safe space for queer songwriters,” Smith adds. “You have situations where sometimes queer songwriters walk into a room and don’t feel like they can be their authentic selves, so creating that space where people can be proudly and unequivocally queer without hiding who they are when writing songs is really important. And we’ve developed it to where it is now, which is a bit of a flagship for the rest of the year.”

The first camp, we discover, was largely centred around friends of MNEK, before the decision was taken to open its doors to a wider pool of talent.

“People like Rina Sawayama, Olly Alexander, Leo Kalyan, Ryan Ashley, who I thought would be good pillars, were involved in that first camp,” MNEK recalls. “Then I wanted to do a writing camp again, but bringing in people like Jon Shave - who has produced for copious people like Charli XCX, Iggy Azalea - as well as people who are very new to it.”

“It’s people who might not otherwise be in each other’s orbits,” Smith adds. “Worst case, they’ve met someone they might want to work with in the future. And best case, they write a great song that we can help them find a home for. One thing we’ve always said is that we’d like this to be the genesis of great working relationships moving forwards. So, if we can help people meet in these rooms and go on to work with each other that’s great.”

Having been working with MNEK for the best part of a decade, Smith was keen to involve Warner Chappell with PROUD SOUND from the very beginning. As he puts it, the camp offered something new and vital to the programme of songwriting camps the publisher organises every year.

“Obviously we are a major publisher, so we run camps of different varieties for different reasons,” Smith elaborates. “Sometimes it’s for artists, sometimes for sync - we are well known for our camps around the world. I’m Uzo’s publisher, and when he came with this idea it felt very important to me to make sure we could support it in any way we could, and create an environment where you can create value around what these people are doing.

“We have a lot of queer talent signed to us, both on the record side and the publishing side. On the publishing side, I work with Uzo, we work with Jon Shave, all the way through to Tayla Parx and Justin Tranter in America, and we are really blessed to represent the George Michael estate - he was signed to us for his publishing when he was alive. We feel very blessed to work with so much queer talent. It’s our responsibility to push that forward and make spaces available and represent people who need representation.”

This need for greater queer representation in the studio is also mirrored at corporate level. As Smith and MNEK note, there is a distinct dearth of LGBTQIA+ talent across the industry’s boardrooms, which in turn can deny creators the opportunities they deserve.

“There is not enough queer representation in the industry,” Smith affirms. “I can think of a few of us but there’s not enough. With any minority, if you can see someone who is in a position of influence and they are in front of you, and they give you something to work towards then that’s massive.”

“Also, I’ve been a creative half my life, and I’m entering this as an aspiring executive myself,” notes MNEK. “This event is held in collaboration with my label MUZO BY UZO, and that is something where I am trying to develop talent of all persuasions.

“I’m very blessed to do what I do, to start companies and launch initiatives like this. I’m not here to put a spotlight on me as an example of someone in that realm, but there are other things to do than just making the music. There is having the brain for the music, understanding how it’s supposed to come out. Me and Paul, as two black, queer men, are right here at the intersection. That’s two minorities in one. To see any type of understanding of our experiences or the way we view the world would be ideal. We just hope it’s more balanced and that there is now room for anyone who feels ostracised or counted out in this industry, because there is such a broad persuasion of people out there.”

Our conversation shifts to MNEK’s formative years as a songwriter and his experience of navigating the music business for the first time. Having started writing almost 15 years ago, songwriting camps like this would likely not have existed, or at the very least been fewer and farther between. As to whether or not he personally would have benefited from a PROUD SOUND all those years ago, he is considered and philosophical in his response.

“Well, I was 14 when I got into the industry, and a lot of that time wasn’t spent fixating on my sexuality,” he says. “I wondered about it, but I was quite sheltered. I found music from a really young age and was making it in my parents’ garage, putting it on Myspace and doing sessions, while my friends were discovering their sexuality quite early on. I didn’t really have any idea about that stuff.

“By the time I turned 18 I was like, ‘Oh, so I like boys [laughs]! I don’t know if the two were ever linked, but once I realised that, I knew I wanted to be able to write songs about being queer and about my experience. But I felt limited as far as the type of rooms I could feel comfortable doing that in was concerned. I was almost undercover.

“I did a song with Gorgon City called Ready For Your Love and that was about me coming out as a young man. But it was done in a way where you didn’t realise that right away. I was very mindful of my environment then, and maybe if I was in a different situation I would have written it differently. I’m still proud of it – that’s not the point – but you think about how comfortable you feel for even daring to make the suggestion. I have no regrets as to what it could have been like for me getting into the industry, I just know that if I can have any part in improving things today and giving room for another experience that’s great. And there are 18 people downstairs right now making great music and friendships.”

Which brings us back to the present. As MNEK rightly states, it’s not just music being made in the rooms at Miloco Studios, but friendships, working relationships, and opportunities. And crucially, MNEK points out, each is designed to extend far beyond the confines of these walls.

“Sometimes there will be an idea that needs some finishing so more work is necessary,” he tells us. “And I’ve definitely spun the block on a few people in here separately, and I will do that every year. I want to invite people who are great by themselves but who I can also work with beyond a meek Pride Week [laughs]. There are 365 days in the year.”

This has been life affirming for me. Jordan Mackampa

Before we part ways, Smith introduces us to some of this year’s participants. Without exception, they are emphatic in their passion for all that PROUD SOUND represents.

“I met Uzo when he was 17, so I’ve known him quite a while, and this is my third time,” says Jon Shave. “And for me, when he came up with the idea it just seemed necessary. I don’t love a lot of writing camps, but to know there is one that is a completely safe space felt like a really special and important thing to support.

“I find that, without realising it, when you go into rooms day in, day out, with people you don’t know, there is this low-level stress of knowing you have to come out to a set of new people. With some people it’s really easy and with others it can feel more complicated, or I can feel more shy. But here the dynamic is different as that is completely eradicated. It creates a much freer atmosphere.”

Likewise, Fanny Hultman is effusive when describing the importance of the camp, as well as the impression it would have made upon her when she was trying to break through in the industry.

“This is everything,” she beams. “Everything. If I’d have heard about this when I was younger - I’m 31 now - to have this representation would be giving me life. That’s how it feels. I get emotional thinking about all the songs coming out of this camp that younger generations will hear; they will represent something that those young songwriters don’t yet know how to phrase.”

For now, MNEK and Smith are focused squarely on the artists and sessions at hand. Before conversations about the future of PROUD SOUND can take place, there is still another day and half of sessions to complete before this year’s outing can draw to a close. They are, however, sure that they want to continue to expand and diversify.

“There are certain genres that are still quite rampant with homophobia, like R&B, hip-hop and country,” says Smith. “But I read something last week that said music by queer artists is up year-on-year and that the two biggest genres pushing it forward were hip-hop and country. And if we can be in a situation where we can put different genres to the fore that would be great.”

“I definitely want it to be an ongoing thing where we do more than one a year, maybe outside of London,” adds MNEK before the pair return to the studio. “There is something to be said about this format where it’s a 9-5, well, 12-7 shift. But with some residential camps you are there in the studio from first thing in the morning to last thing at night, and you are really stuck in on a project. And I want to continue to partner with people on this and build awareness of PROUD SOUND. I want it to evolve with Warner Chappell. And I want it to just grow and grow and continue to lift the culture. That is the most important thing.”