- Words Notion Staff
Fresh from becoming a Women in Music Role of Honour 2023 inductee, Esta Rae talks about defying the odds, her passion for independent artists and more.
The power of independent music is alive and well. By the day, more success stories are breeding infinite possibilities for up-and-coming artists, who now needn’t rely on the slog of a record deal to achieve mainstream success. From Raye reaching number one in the album charts with My 21st Centruy Blues, to Little Simz’s Brit Award win for Sometimes I Might Be Introvert, a welcomed amount of musicians are making records completely on their own terms.
Esta Rae‘s career for many years has been in and around the budding independent music scene. Spending her youth immersed in the subversive wonders of pirate radio, she watched grime legends like Kano and Lethal Bizzle break from the illegal airwaves and into mainstream consciences all off their own back. Being both dyslexic and dyspraxic, the Londoner struggled at school but knew her deeper calling lied elsewhere; music became something she could seek refuge in. Esta didn’t see her involvement in London’s scene coming from conventional roots like emceeing or singing. Instead, she started out at an agency called Face For Music, casting models for music videos, like Giggs’ ‘Look What the Cat Dragged in’.
Working closely with GRM Daily for the GRM Gala, GRM Rated Awards and their podcast, Esta has offered her strategic vision for the independent community across a variety of platforms. In 2022, she became AIM’s (Association of Independent Music) Senior Events Manager, to curate their yearly program of award ceremonies and shows. Esta’s neurodivergence has allowed her to see the world differently; she’s learnt to appreciate the ‘disabilities’ as gifts instead of seeing them as a hindrance. This is unquestionably why she’s been so successful in the music industry, adding to her unwavering self-belief and sheer determination to push culture forward.
Founding the platform @life_with_dyslexia, to increase the visibility of neurodivergent people in the music industry, Esta was recently named one of the top 50 most influential neurodiverse women, by Women Beyond the Box. Adding to the accolades, this week, she became a Women in Music Role of Honour inductee, highlighting her as a game changer in the music industry.
For Esta, it’s only ever been about the music. She knew success would follow her passion for events management and independent artists. This year at the AIM Awards, she created a segment celebrating 50 years of hip-hop, putting together a track listing that encapsulates five decades of musical evolution, supported by BBC Radio 1Xtra. DJ Cable performed a live set, scratching through the selection of songs, while Avelino made a potent performance.
With plenty more in the pipeline, here, Esta reflects on her illustrious career: from defying the odds to her passion for independent music and what more is to come.
How was the AIM Awards ceremony for you this year? Did you get any time to enjoy it?
It’s weird because I never do but I don’t expect to either. The show was great. Even though I didn’t get to enjoy it, people said such kind words. Seeing people when you see people enjoying themselves is always a bonus. Even though you don’t get to enjoy it there, you do afterwards when you see the AIM team’s hardwork.
Can you tell us a bit about your role in the AIM Independent Music Awards?
I’m the Senior Events Manager at AIM. My role is to curate AIM’s events throughout the year. The AIM Awards is our penultimate event, where we celebrate the independent community through various awards. My role is mainly making sure that the events are curated. It’s basically taking one room and transforming it into an awards show.
Björk was at the show to accept her fan voted Best Live Performer award. How was it hosting such a globally recognised artist like her at the awards ceremony?
Björk won Best Live Performer and it was absolutely amazing because her fans voted for her. She came and really enjoyed herself. She did an amazing speech too and hasn’t been to an award show for around 10 or 12 years. That’s why it was really big for AIM because Björk clearly held this win close to her heart, and attended to collect that award and give a full speech about the community and how her record label (1 little independent) played a part in this. It was absolutely priceless. It was such a moment for us and we are so grateful.
Why do you dedicate your life to independent music? And what are your affiliations with the scene more broadly?
I’ve worked on events such as the GRM Gala, and the GRM, Rated Awards, I’ve worked on a festival called The Originals, which is an independent festival founded by three DJs Feva, Supa D and Kismet. I used to attend Rinse FM, with the Kano’s and the Lethal Bizzle’s. The first event I ever did was for Giggs and his ‘Look What the Cat Dragged In’ video. That was one of the first things I did in the music industry.
There are so many successful independent artists out there and a lot of their journeys start from independence, whether that be in America where you have people selling CDs from car boots, or here in the UK with pirate radio stations. All of this is independent. AIM being about the independent community was perfect for me, they’re doing amazing things. Dave has won an AIM award. Stormzy has won an AIM award. Little Simz has won an AIM award. My love comes from me knowing that even though you’re independent, being independent is part of the success story.
Can you tell me a bit about when you were at Rinse FM?
I was basically there as a schoolgirl that shouldn’t have been. She should have been at home doing homework but she was out there with the Tinchy Stryders. We didn’t have the internet. We didn’t have Instagram. We didn’t have all of that. We went and bought magazines. I was at Rinse because I was friends and grew up around the people there. The Maxwell D’s, the Ghetts’, Lethal B’s, that entire era. So that’s where my independence journey started, without knowing it. I was just there enjoying the vibe, taking it in and they were my friends. Did I know what destiny held for them in the music industry? No, I didn’t. But look what it’s done from independence.
The AIM Independent Music Awards is now in it’s 24th year. How do you think the landscape of independent music has changed since it started?
I think that the landscape has changed in a very positive way; independence is now being respected. Beforehand, it was like, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that, you are not going to be able to do that as an independent artist.’ Now it’s become the norm. The landscape has changed because of technology. People are now able to be seen and heard and independence is on the rise because of it. Independent labels are bringing out music from massive stars. Whereas before, you wouldn’t hear much about boutique labels.
Notion has been a brand partner with AIM for a number of years now. Why do you think it’s important for companies with a similar message to get behind the same cause?
I feel like it adds more value when you have independent brands behind things like the AIM Independent Music Awards because it shows that independence takes many different forms and that, as an artist, you can be apart of the community in lots of different ways. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t just have independent brands, we’ve got massive platinum partners that play a key part in making sure that the AIM Awards can happen. But when you look at Notion and the other brands that are independent, it’s welcoming, it’s important to have that so we can show balance, so that we can show we welcome people from all different walks [of life]. It’s about ensuring that there’s unity amongst the independent community.
What more could be done to ensure the safety of independent artists and the independent music community in the future?
More investment is needed in the sector in regard to finances, artist development and more. independent artists need confidence that there are initiatives and ways to support and develop their careers if they don’t have the major backing that others do. Transparency over more in-depth data would be good too, it would help artists to know who is listening to their music, how they are consuming it and where they are from audience-wise.
What advice would you have for an artist operating independently and looking to make it in the music industry?
The first piece of advice I will give sounds very cliché, but believe in yourself. Work, work and work; content and visibility are so important. You may only have 100 followers but there may be 100 people or even 50, that buy into your music and help to start your journey.
Focus on your craft, a lot of people don’t do that. They’re more interested in numbers. Align with people, collaborations are important. Reach out to people. Do what you can to navigate your own career and tap into organisations like AIM to see what they offer.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve personally had, as someone in the music industry?
Being neurodiverse, with my own organisation called ‘Life With Dyslexia’, I think the greatest piece of advice that I’ve been given is that you can’t allow any situation, any disability, or anyone’s opinion to get in the way of what it is that you’re setting out to do. To give context, managing events for me is very difficult because of the way my brain works. No matter how hard what you’re trying to do is, you’ve got to picture where you’re trying to get to. The music industry is a very tough space to be in. Know your ‘why’, that is the best advice I’ve been given. Once I understood my ‘why’, for doing what I was doing, everything else became secondary, no matter how tough it gets being neurodivergent.
It can be tiring and easy to think you’re not getting anywhere as an artist. Look at the other people who have surpassed you at that time. Read their stories. Understand Stormzy’s ‘why’, understand Dave’s ‘why’. Once you can start thinking in your head, ‘Why am I doing this?’, it changes how you work and how you look at the obstacles that you’re faced with on that journey.
Do you have any favourite music moments from the year so far?
It has to be Raye. She is a phenomenal young woman, as well as being a phenomenal artist. Watching her develop, coming from her major [label] situation to where she is now is absolutely amazing to watch. She won Best Independent Track For ‘Escapism’ at the AIM Awards.
Avelino, as well. It goes without saying. He won Best Independent Album. That record, called GOD SAVE THE STREETS, had a lot of depth to it. I think that was a really good release this year. ENNY won Best Independent EP/Mixtape, which is another amazing piece of work. Shygirl has done some sick bits this year as well. I don’t think I can have a favourite.
What’s next for the AIM awards? Is there anything that you’re trying to navigate in 2023/2024?
I love producing shows for AIM and raising more awareness about the organisation, its membership community, and its purpose. We want to let people know it’s here and always celebrating independence; the AIM Awards is the place for that recognition. We want people to submit [music] and engage when we open submissions so that we can continue to represent and highlight the importance that the independent sector has within the music industry as a whole. We will continue to champion and bring to the forefront independent creatives, boutique labels, entrepreneurs, and more. I would love to see the continuous growth and recognition of neurodiverse people and talent across all award shows.