The radio legend and Black Music Month co-founder tells GRAMMY.com about the plight to make the month official and who she admires in music’s new generation
Black music is the foundation of the music industry, and Dyana Williams isn’t going to let you forget it. Born in the Motown era, the music journalist and veteran radio personality’s musical love affair began by listening to predominantly Black, New York-based radio stations like WABC and WWRL. The Bronx native started building the blocks of her legend status in the early ‘70s, beginning with her first radio gig at Washington D.C.’s 96.3 WHUR in 1973, where she fused her love for jazz with R&B and reggae. When she moved to WRQX-FM in 1978, she made history by becoming the first Black woman rock DJ.
At that time, radio personalities were non-existent, and Williams had to program music she did not feel belonged to her. “I distinctly remember my first show at WRQX: five hours of playing music that was not culturally mine,” she tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. “I knew some of it, like James Taylor and Carly Simon, because obviously, I listened to the radio growing up.”
The job, Williams says, made her more well-rounded as a DJ in the industry, but she wanted to do something to amplify Black music. Williams’ yearning led to the birth of Black Music Month in 1979. Co-founded with radio DJ Ed Wright and her former husband, Philadelphia soul legend Kenny Gamble, the month is meant to be a vibrant celebration of all the genres that thread America’s cultural fabric. But the month also educates and provides resources for those wanting to learn more about Black people’s impact on the industry, which has led to Williams serving on the board of Nashville’s National Museum of African American Music.
“Black music should be celebrated every single day, but it’s a concentrated period of time for us to observe the legacy, and mothers and fathers, many of whom never got paid properly or recognized or credited for their contributions,” Williams continues, noting that Black music educators, writers and journalists should be celebrated, too. “It is an economic engine for America to the tune of not a million or several million, but billions of dollars.”
At the end of the day, Williams just wants credit where it’s due. “[Music] is one of our greatest exports. That’s how we need to look at it,” she says. “I want us to be celebrated. I want us to be respected. I want us to get what we rightfully deserve.”
GRAMMY.com spoke to Dyana Williams about the origins of Black Music Month and why Black creators still deserve a big chunk of the industry’s money pie.
What are your thoughts on how the new generation, including myself, are interpreting Black Music Month?
I love them. My core business is artist development and media coaching. So I work with a lot of young artists. That’s how I saw your Saweetie article in Harper’s Bazaar. I was working with her around that time. I have great regard for artists like Elaine, Joyce Wrice, Masego, Giveon, Lucky Daye, who I worked with as well. Jazmine Sullivan, one of my clients from Philly. I met her when she was a little girl and now she is all grown up and she is bringing it, okay?
We missed her voice so much.
She needed a break. Sometimes it can be daunting, the industry and the expectations and all of that stuff. I’m a huge H.E.R. lover, I was listening to “Damage” last night. H.E.R. to me, [is] very important because she’s a musician as well. She’s a songwriter, producer, just [won] an Oscar. She’s going to be a GOAT probably before it’s all over. But she represents the finest of what young people are doing and [how they are] paying homage. I love the artists of this time that recognize what transpired before them. Now there’s some artists who have no reference. They have no foundation. And probably we’ll just hear about them for a quick flash and then they’re gone. I’m interested in the artists that are going to have —like with H.E.R.—a legacy that they will be able to leave for the next generation.
What was it like being on the radio in the ‘70s? It’s not as prevalent anymore because of streaming.
Well, my experience in the ’70s was heavenly. To have the opportunity to program music was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn matching sounds and vibes and energy. Plus, I interviewed everybody, and I was on the radio in the nation’s capital when it was Chocolate City—so any and everybody that came in to perform at Howard [University] and at the Capital Centre. One of the big first concerts I MC’ed was in the Capital Centre, it was Curtis Mayfield. I mean, major acts. I MC’ed Earth, Wind & Fire. Richard Pryor was their opening act. It was wonderful because I got an opportunity to not just play the music, but to speak with the people who were creating all of this innovation. At that time in the ’70s, we had a lot of bands: the Ohio Players, Parliament-Funkadelic. It was exciting for me. I was a young girl. I was 19.
I know you went to Philly in 1980. Was it just a next career move?
No, actually I fell in love with Kenny Gamble. [Laughs.] Initially, when I left BLS to go on maternity leave with our first son Caliph Gamble, I moved back to DC for a period of time and then moved to Philadelphia full time in 1980. At that time, I was blessed to hold down a spot at WDAS, which is the heritage station and very similar to WBLS in New York in terms of the adult contemporary format. Not only did we play the current music of the day, but we were entrenched in the community. And for me, that’s everything. I’m the radio personality who’d go to the senior citizens’ home, the daycare center, the church, wherever I was invited in the community to talk about music. I would always do and still do to this day.
Even before Black Music Month was formed, I read that you initially co-founded the Black Music Association chapter in Philadelphia, is that correct?
Well, here we go. The Black Music Association was founded by my ex, Kenny Gamble. We were a couple, we lived together so I became a member of the local chapter and I was in the leadership. However, it is Gamble’s conception. We went to the White House for the first Black Music Month event on June 7th 1979. We sat with President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.
But years later, I was producing a celebration[ for] Black Music Month [in June]. I wrote to Bill Clinton: “Can you hold some similar events?” The White House said, “Well, we see that President Carter hosted the Black Music Association. We know that you were his guests.” But he unintentionally did not write a presidential proclamation, which would’ve meant that every president following him would have done similarly.
What was your reaction when you heard that news?
It was official to us because we were the creators. For all those years, there were activities around the country. We celebrated it in Philly. So, when I got that piece of information from the White House, I was blown away and shocked. But as far as the American government and American presidents are concerned, it did not become official until I was asked by the White House to go get legislation. I remember I called Gamble: “Can you believe this?” It just gave a higher level of official recognition or celebration. It’s just like Juneteenth. Black folks have been celebrating Juneteenth for a long time, but now it’s becoming more in vogue and more well known.
So 2000 was when the bill passed?
To be recognized by Congress and the American people is right, but I had been petitioning for several years. I had even written an op-ed, in Billboard, about why it was significant for us to celebrate it. So yeah, several years of me knocking on congressmen and senators’ doors. I knew nothing about the process of lobbying. So I became a natural lobbyist, just passionate about the music and the cause. And at that point, it was significant for me to get the president to acknowledge us. Not just because of the cultural dynamics, but the economic value and potency of our music. We don’t tend to think of it in those terms, but the reality is Black music is big business.
It’s still the No. 1 genre and is literally keeping the industry afloat.
Girl, the No. 1 genre in the world. As you know, Bianca, Black music is hip-hop. It’s the music that they thought would go away, and we are about to celebrate 50 years of hip-hop.