Ahead of the second-ever intake of the Support – Arts Leaders program, we spoke with several BIPOC arts & cultural professionals making an impact in Manitoba and across the country to hear their stories and learn from their wisdom.
Our third and final guest is Alex Sannie, the Industry Development Coordinator for Manitoba Music. Alex is an accomplished and award-winning music producer, performer, and presenter with 20 years of experience creating music. He’s most well known as the producer and member of the hip hop group The Lytics. Performing all over the world, The Lytics have played major music festivals and countless concerts. As the producer of The Lytics, his music has been featured in major Hollywood films, television shows, and ad campaigns. Along with the other members of the group, Alex has worked in the studio or shared the stage with industry heavyweights like Nas, Jurassic 5, Sam Kuti, Childish Gambino, A Tribe Called Red, Shad, Kevin Hearn (of The Barenaked Ladies), and Mike D of the Beastie Boys. Alex was also recently the education program coordinator and head instructor at The Indigenous Family Centre.
MAC: When did you first fall in love with the arts?
ALEX: I remember my mom had bought me a Fisher-Price record player. They’re like these hilarious, super easy-to-use, genuine record player that actually played records, but it was sturdy enough that kids could use it. My mom and I would go to the library and pick up Rafi albums or Fred Penner albums, and there was this thing called Letter People, sometimes there were even Sesame Street ones.
I was probably about 4 or 5 years old and sitting down all day listening to songs and getting up and skipping the needle back, trying to figure it out how to play that one song over and over again. I didn’t want to colour, I don’t want to draw, I’d find time to play with my friends, but quiet time, I was in my room playing my little records. Even when I got older – I don’t even know how long I held on to that record player, probably until maybe grade 4 – just anything I could find, I’d thrown it on and play it.
My whole life from 4 or 5 on, I knew I loved music. I loved people with different voices, I liked how different songs made me feel.
You’ve been making music for about 20 years as a producer and performer. How has your music career informed your new role as an arts professional in the music industry?
It’s that firsthand experience, which is so special. When I’m working with some of the artists in our organization or the province, you can kind of laser-point in on some different things that just don’t get as much weight when they’re talked about [with professionals who don’t have a music background].
For example, if you go to an industry conference or a panel and you hear people talk, questions are asked and there’s answers given, but there’s something very different about listening to those answers when you’ve been through it and you understand what they’re talking about. Sometimes it’s like, “whoa, I know you gave the information, which is the same information that I’d give, but you didn’t necessarily put the same weight behind it.” You can tell when someone has the experience because some things are almost highlighted or underlined.
If you’re coming at it straight from an industry professional side: you read about it, you learn about it, you have those firsthand experience stories that are told back to you. But the extra gear for me, I’ve felt, is having a lot of [those experiences] myself as well. I feel really comfortable in this role, giving advice, because it’s not just from my point of view. There are those industry resources that I can tap into, but I can also parse it with my own experiences. It doesn’t necessarily change the information that I might give you, but it definitely has changed the weight that I put behind certain aspects.
Quick example: I could sit down with somebody and tell them they don’t really realize how important it is to be nice in this industry when you’re trying to build connections and move ahead in your business. You can have a great business plan, but a little bit of humility, a little bit of patience and understanding and genuine concern for someone else… that’s the type of stuff that someone [who doesn’t have the firsthand artistic experience] might tell you “Hey, remember to be friendly” and then gloss on to the next thing. Then you’ll talk to an artist who has everything in place and they should be killing it, and they just can’t figure out why, and you’re like “Hey. We need to talk for 25 minutes about how you need to act and treat people; that’s what you’re missing.”
That weight, knowing it firsthand, can really inform how you’ll tailor your advice to people coming in.
“Set your mind to it and look for all the opportunities that you can to prepare yourself and get where you want to go.”
As Manitoba Music’s Industry Development coordinate, part of your job is to connect musicians with resources to help grow their career and provide career advice. How does it feel to take on that role?
It feels amazing. Most of the consults so far that I’ve been doing have been really eye-opening, because I can remember being in that position and going into Manitoba Music at some point and going “I need to do this and I need to do that, help me!”
I’m trying to find a really nice medium-point where I want [artist] to get exactly what they’re hoping for and want to keep their dreams alive, but I also want to ground it a little bit. “Because I want you to be successful, I’m going to pay more attention to these five steps before the thing that you want to do that you haven’t really done yet,” and I feel like I can do it in a responsible fashion that’s actually going to benefit them.
It feels nice to be kind of like the music Santa Claus, you know? Give the presents of resources and things you need when you’re growing in music.
When and how did you make the decision to start working as an arts professional?
I didn’t necessary plan to ever be doing this. Manitoba Music actually put me in so many different rooms all over the world [as a member, before working as the Industry Development Coordinator], in different seminars, connected me with so many people I’d work with musically, and built this database of connections and resources over the years.
When this job opened up, I started looking at the requirements and what they were hoping to get from the Industry Coordinator, and I was like, “hey! That’s literally me!” I love making music and I love being around music, so why don’t I take a shot and try to make it my full-time? Obviously, it’d be great to work on your own music all day, but at the same time there’s something really refreshing and inspiring to help other people work on their projects too.
Manitoba Music, Manitoba Film and Music, putting us in all these different rooms and hooking us up with different people and different mentors… you do that long enough, you start to pick up really interesting bits of information and training along the way.
It’s just really cool to be around the thing that you love all day, but not having that pressure of it being your creation.
What advice do you have for aspiring or up-and-coming arts and cultural professionals?
Plan for what it is you want to do. I’ve talked about being in those positions over the years, and it just so happened that I was conditioned into somebody who could do this. I’m sure if I spent the time, I would’ve known that I wanted to work in music – well, I’ve always known I wanted to work in music, I just didn’t know I’d want to do it on this end. If I’d been a bit more conscious of it and decided earlier, I wonder how much more I would’ve taken in from all those experiences.
When I started making music, I told everyone “I want to make music,” and they just told me “No, that’s not an option, say something real, stop goofing around.” That forced me to move around and try and figure out where it was, and it ended up being here.
I think nowadays, because the landscape is so different, if you know you want to be an industry professional, do it. Start focusing on it, start living like that. If you see a good show, write an article about it and find someone to publish it. Start a blog and start reviewing music or working with artist friends and helping them move along their careers. Whatever you can do, create your own internships; start working now, start planning for it, and taking in every opportunity you can.
Like I told you, all these random places, I’ve been able to pick up enough information to form into a career for myself. How much crazier would it have been if I’d planned for that, if I had really focused and said “Hey, I want to do this”? Set your mind to it and look for all the opportunities that you can to prepare yourself and get where you want to go.
Apply to the Arts Leaders program
The Manitoba Arts Council’s Arts Leaders program supports building the capacity for leadership by individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Colour (BIPOC) in Manitoba’s arts and cultural sector. The program has the goal of seeing more BIPOC professionals in senior leadership positions in the arts.
This program is supported through a partnership agreement between Manitoba Arts Council and The Winnipeg Foundation.
The next deadline to apply is February 15, 2022! For more information on how to apply, visit https://artscouncil.mb.ca/support-arts-leaders/.