Photo: Curtis Taylor Jr.
This Is SHAVONE.: Creative Renaissance Woman, Tech Titan, Artistic Force & Proud Advocate
SHAVONE. has presence. Not just the online type of presence so many chase these days, but real, tangible presence. She's warm and engaging in the way you want your friends to be, yet commanding and articulate in the way you'd expect from someone with her track record as a creative Renaissance woman. Everywhere she's been, she became a star, leaving a path of meaningful progress, inspired innovation and lasting relationships in her wake. That's presence.
SHAVONE.'s story started in a familiar way, as a child wild about music. But her path took a turn toward tech, where she blazed trails and broke molds, launching her career at Google before creating her own role at Twitter as the first Head of Global Music and Culture. She went on to become Instagram's Head of Global Music and Youth Culture, developed and refined her own personal fashion style Elle dubbed "Instagram Cozy Queen" and was a shoo-in on Forbes' coveted "30 Under 30" list earlier this year.
Most important, she's become an ardent advocate for women of color, especially in the tech and creative spaces, traveling the country to inspire and advise. Recently, she's appeared at BET Experience and—fitting as SHAVONE. has spent the majority of her career in the Bay Area—at the San Francisco Women's Summit. When she was at Twitter, she created BlackBirds, a resource group for African-American employees. Forever ahead of the curve, SHAVONE. knew what to do to support and empower her colleagues before anyone else.
"I joke around with my friends and mentees about like being black in tech before it was cool to be black in tech," says SHAVONE. "When it wasn't like, 'Yes, we need you here to check a box,' when it was, 'What are you doing here?'"
But now SHAVONE., the artist, has her sights set on new creative horizons. After leaving Instagram earlier this year, she shifted her focus to developing both her own artistry and an artistic community around her. In March she dropped the empowering single "4C" with a striking video, showcasing the beauty of inclusivity.
She's also launching Magic In Her Melanin, her very own creative collective and in-house agency to serve as creative HQ for all her art and music projects. With music, fashion and tech overlapping more than ever before, it's hard to imagine someone better positioned to lead the way for creatives into whatever is coming next, which is exactly what she's doing.
SHAVONE. let us into her world for a conversation with Recording Academy, discussing the twist and turns of her inspirational, one-of-a-kind career and how her transition from tech change agent to authentic artist came "right on time." Jump into a portion of our conversation with her below, and follow her on social so you aren't left behind.
[this conversation has been edited down from the original for length]
I read that your family's also very musical—how did you spend your childhood and how did you get into tech?
As a younger person, I think my parents quickly figured out I'd need an outlet. I had a lot of energy, a lot of sh*t to say, and needed some sort outlet and, early on, I was already very intrigued by music.
My grandfather is from Trinidad, and so I've always been attracted to the Caribbean West Indies. And my grandfather's son, my uncle Terry, he's classically trained in classical and jazz across pretty much any woodwind instrument… He'd pick up the sax, he'd pick up the clarinet, he put down the sax, picked up the flute. This guy was just jamming out. He'd have a piccolo, so that already piqued my interest.
My brother JJ started off playing the flute. He switched over to sax because he thought that was a more masculine instrument, whatever JJ. [Laughs.] But I got attracted then, took piano lessons early on… I ended up shifting over to flute just because it was something that was familiar to me. My uncle told me "You're a bull in a china factory. When you play the flute, handling this instruments very delicate. It's very difficult. Are you sure you want to do this? This is going to take a lot of time a lot of hard work." I was like, "I'm sure I want to do this. Now that you said all that, I definitely want to do it! You know it's a challenge. Let's do it." So in second and third grade, I started on the recorder. That's what you start on.
Oh yeah, I remember. I think every young adult of a certain age had to play the recorder in grade school.
And I was like, "this is cute but like I'm trying to upgrade to that really shiny, blinged out thing that you have, Uncle Terry." So I started taking lessons. Then like upgraded to a beginner flute, and then kept playing.
I was in band in elementary school and middle school. Then I started playing competitively in high school, I was flute section leader in band and in marching band wind symphony. I basically went crazy with it.
But, in between me doing flute, writing had always been a huge piece of my self-expression, and I wrote a lot of poetry in middle school and elementary school, and then my brothers started rapping. And my dad, seeing that they were interested, he had a friend who had a studio space in San Diego and Downtown so he helped pay for their studio time, just to kind of more so support again positive outlet for them.
So then, I seen them rapping and I was like, "That's tight." I'm definitely really into music and rap so I'm like, "maybe I could do that was like my poetry?" So I started rapping. I didn't start seriously rapping until about end of middle school, going into high school, that's when I actually was like good enough to actually be heard publicly. So I kind of mixed it together but I always kept my flute musicianship separate, because flute is all about structure.
Now I'm working to break down all the structure that I've built up in my mind around flute. Because I'm now learning Ableton to basically make my set fully electronic and be able to improv DIY style in the moment. It's not structured, it's just feeling versus structure. So I'm tearing these walls down to bring the two worlds together now.
Excited to announce I’ll be speaking at the @Forbes #Under30Summit in Detroit this fall, alongside a group of extraordinary minds. Register here and pull up on us in the D: https://t.co/UkRVjhC3Eq pic.twitter.com/ZyXFOPTlCZ
— SHAVONE. ® (@Shavone) April 24, 2019
You held prominent roles at Twitter and Instagram... You're a self-proclaimed Data Queen. How did you end up getting into these hugely prominent roles in the tech world?
I interned at Google my junior year of college, and I had interned at BET. I did a talent relations PR internship there, and I also did a bunch of internships in public service. I interned on the Hill. I interned at the DOJ. I was actually kind of thinking more of a governmental route. Just because I'm a huge supporter of public service and community and civic engagement. I had to wear these stockings and these clothes and I've got to worry about my hair.
Yeah. I interned there two of the years the Republicans took over the House. I was like, "you know what, this is getting kind of crazy."
But, I went to Google anyways, interned there at the Googleplex in Mountain View. I interned on the Global Communications and Public Affairs team, and I worked on Google Play when it started. I worked on the launch of Google Plus, which was very interesting at the time. I worked on Google Apps for education, that's how I got exposed to traditional tech world, but in a non-traditional way. I got to work on consumery topics, and I interned on their PR team but it was consumer PR. So I got a chance to scratch all my itches, but also still be in the epicenter of tech.
And I think at that time I just realized just how central tech was going to be to music and the industry. Even with Google Play and I saw all arrows pointing in that direction.
I knew, tech was the marriage of all these different, eclectic things that were stimulating for me. That's how I got into tech.
It's crazy, because right after college I had a job offer from MTV that, that was a real job, but I turned it down to go intern at Twitter. Because it was paid, number one, and it's like they're a startup but they're going IPO at some point, I just felt it was a good opportunity that I can try to mold. I'd have to work hard as hell, but maybe...
I think the numbers would support your decision.
So that's how I kind of got over there. I started out on the PR team covering everything. Fashion, music, culture, politics. Pretty much any cultural zeitgeist moments.
"I still need to learn. As a woman in music, you have to protect yourself with knowledge and knowing." -SHAVONE.
As a woman of color working in tech, how did you navigate that kind of stereotypically homogenous environment?
Yeah, it's tough. It's still tough, honestly, it's still hard. I joke around with my friends and mentees about being black in tech before it was cool to be black in tech. When it wasn't like "Yes, we need you here to check a box," when it was "What are you doing here?"
And it was hard. I definitely believe in God and like, higher powers in the universe and I feel like the universe has always showed up to show support through people around me and mentors when I need them the most. I don't have a ton of mentors, but I feel like people move into the right place at the right time for me.
When I went to Twitter, there's a gentleman, whose name is Scott T, shout out to you. He was at Facebook, he left Facebook, and he's doing some other amazing work now. But he was a huge mentor of mine at Twitter... Scott is African, and there were not many faces of color there, but he was there when I needed him.
I also had allies, and people who I had actually met at Google. Because all the people from the tech company they go, "I'm with this company, I was at that company, I was at that company." So I had a lot of familiar faces. Having that support system really did help me stay grounded and confident about who I was and my skill sets. Because it's easy to go into those places and shrink. Number one you kind of just want to be invisible to avoid confrontation. And then the other piece is figuring out how to tap into your skill sets and who you are in a way that doesn't compromise what you stand for.
— BET (@BET) June 17, 2019
So as a person of color, having a role that's culture oriented, it's like, "okay, that's great. But how are you enlightening without like self-exploitation?" And enlightening in a way that's going to somehow help increase access, hopefully, and leave the door open for more... Beyond just bringing the company money, how are you kind of shifting what's normalized and normalizing your blackness and your diversity in the space. And this is a lot to carry around for anybody in a workspace.
Especially somebody that hasn't been in the workforce for that long.
Yeah, it was like my first job.
What was the impetus for you to make the transition from tech to music? And how did you find a way to professionally integrate all of your passions?
Yeah, I'd say it was a long time coming. When I left Twitter, I still felt like there was a little bit more to learn. I kept kind of stepping along in the background of music, making music when I could in the Bay Area. I recorded when I could, I wrote, I always kept writing. I have so many songs written, and kept recording where I could. And I was always around music, so I never felt so starved because I was always behind the scenes. I was working in the music industry.
Part of me, it was torturing, right? When you feel like you have your story, or a voice that you want to create. Then another part of it was so amazing because I got to be around my people. I was around you guys, I was around my people, I got to talk about cool things, tell cool stories. I was learning still.
You have got to say, "enough is enough." How much is enough? When is your thirst going to be quenched? When do you step up into your own purpose? And for me, it came down to me, figuring out that it's either now or never. And thinking a lot about trajectory for me long-term. I set out to do certain things in tech, and I felt like I gave it my all. A lot of me being motivated to have one foot in, one foot out as more of a multi-hyphenate creative was, I noticed that, even from within you can only do so much to increase access. Because you work for the company, no matter what, you got to stick to their agenda, their roles, their bottom line. If they say something's not important, you can't come back and say "Yes it is and forget you, here's what I'm going to do." You can't.
You're working as a full-time musician now, and you're launching a creative collective and in-house agency. I'd love to learn a little bit about that and any other initiatives that you're spearheading.
Yeah, so for Magic In Her Melanin, it's been a long time coming. I got Magic in Her Melanin trademarked a of couple years ago. It was sort of another one of those projects after work that I was like this needs to be done. Again, with just seeing the gaps up front, and like going out in the Tenderloin, working at Twitter in San Francisco, walking outside and seeing, feeling the gaps. Working with the Boys and Girls Club and literally feeling the gaps. I was able to take notes, go home and figure out, how can I be accountable outside of my tech job, right? What can I do outside of showing up like, "Hey kids, here's where you can be. All right, bye."
Well it's so easy to stay cloistered in your little comfy bubble.
Yeah, it's so easy. I mean it's normalized. It's like not actually frowned upon if you do do that, actually the opposite, right? So that allowed me to really notice the gaps and I couldn't just sit by, and I've been indexing the gaps, basically.
Magic is a result of me indexing the gaps and figuring out, "How do I show up in a way that's really valuable and true to me? And how can I make myself a resource for other people?" And I found that a lot of my network, even a lot of my friends and colleagues, contemporaries, even mentees, mentors are all these people of color who were amazingly creative who work in these different functions and tech, and music too. Just because my role was culture and youth and these new topics, I got exposed to people who covered similar realms at Spotify or Beats or Apple or wherever.
Magic is basically a collective, and it's literally a network of all the people I know who have a passion to give back in some way but will never have the time to start their own org. I basically want to leverage those relationships to do good out in the world, to create more access for underrepresented voices in the corporate space.
There's a gentleman named Quil Lemons who is a photographer. He's super young, Gen-Z photographer who does partnerships and is making a living off of just partnering and having value. Whether you're Pharrell, or whether you're me or you guys and you want to work for the company, you should be able to do both. You should be able to choose what you want to do, there should be accessibility.
Then with Magic, I also have basically kind of made it, I guess what I Am Other is to Pharrell, or what Saint Heron is to Solange, it's sort of my in-house creative suite.
So my friends who are passionate about like the music and the art I'm creating, and incubating the videos that you see, the visuals, and sort of everything SHAVONE. does as a creative, I want to continue incubating with that group. And keep reading with other people, but really keeping Magic as the nucleus of everything I put out into the world.
Earlier we were talking about your video for "4C," which you said you recorded late last year in Brooklyn. Correct me if I'm wrong, but you recorded it at a salon owned by a woman who works with Solange?
Yeah, she blew up mainstream-wise from her doing a number of Solange's tribal inspired, like American-inspired braid looks, and Beyoncé's braid looks. She's incredible. She's a Nigerian hairstylist.
— SHAVONE. ® (@Shavone) May 27, 2019
It looks like you got together a lot of your contacts, friends and familiars and that video serves as symbol for almost everything you're trying to achieve, the diversity of people's interests, and it all coming together. What are you trying to do next in terms of your music?
Right now I'm super focused on really honing in on my sound. I'm working with new producers. I'm also getting my like show set tight and together. That's the thing I'm most excited about. I'm actually, like holding off on performances until I get it right where I want it with me adding the flute instrumentation into it, in a way that, again, is authentic to me. And even tech kind of continuing to be this huge part of who I am and what I do. And really, I kind of more so envision an electronic vibe for my set like more of a kind of EDM energy just because of my tie to software and hardware as a person. I'm a tech person still at heart. So keeping that visible in my instrumentation, I'm excited about.
But I'm also working on,I don't know if it's going to be EP or a mixtape, I'm still kind of deciding. But, I'm basically working on a project which I maybe by the summer or fall. I'm collaborating with folks also who have reached out. I played a set for GRAMMY week at Soho House with 1500 or Nothin'. They're amazing. Larrance [Dopson], and my guy Mars, they're just incredible. They did Nipsy Hussle's Victory Lap. There are pillars of L.A. and the community.
So, yeah, they're amazing. I'm excited to just take it one day at a time and really put in the work. I think a lot of my experience and my knowledge, even with PR and music, only it goes so far. It's different from the scope of an artist. You can't skip putting in the rest of the work. And I feel like a lot of my work has been foundational with being able to read and write music, being able to write music and I feel like there's a new challenge now for me with writing music for consumption versus as a hobby. Writing music as a business is different, so I'm up for the challenge.
Someone once told me, "if something scares you, you should probably do it." But in many ways as an artist, stepping out on your own, you're the most qualified to navigate tech from the artist side. Do you feel that way?
Yeah, I do. I feel like where I have a leg up, I feel like, in a conversation with, even with some of the artists that I know, friends that I know, I'm learning from them and they're learning from me.
It's sort of like this: You realize you're so good at this, or you're so good at that, like, the sort of midway point. But it has been interesting to apply what I've learned in a sort of a different dimension to my artistry and getting the word out. And I think Instagram was truly the cherry on top of my experiences, because I really got a chance to see how important community is, and community online. Not just community in terms of fandom, but community for a cause, community behind topics that matter, body positivity, mental wellness, mental health, latte art. I mean, anything you care about, it's online. Even at Twitter, all the data stuff, I feel like my whole life is sort of this moment. So I do feel good in that sense. You start to think, "Oh, did I wait too long? Should I have like left earlier?" But I feel like no, I feel like I'm right on time.