New York Lab, a label launched in 2018 by Samori Coates and six of his closest friends, creates space for Black creatives to express themselves however they like in an unforgiving music industry. Along with their four artists—Mavi, Gosha Guppy, OPB, and Lundon Avery—New York Lab exists in a unique space: they make their money off tours and merch, and they aren’t money-hungry. Recently inking a partnership with United Masters, New York Lab takes all the necessary steps forward to establish themselves within the music industry on their terms.
As the sun set on another chilly November day, Samori Coates called me up to talk all things New York Lab. We broke down the highs and lows of starting a label, COVID-19’s impact on their business, and the all-important task of creating space for Black creatives to be themselves.
What inspired you and your friends to start New York Lab in 2018?
New York Lab grew from this need to have a place for like-minded Black kids to connect, create, and grow together. At first, we were more focused on the physical aspect of this need. We threw events that combined a concert with a pop-up shop, party, and art gallery, and we topped it off with a tattoo artist. It was just gratifying to see we could collect so many people in one space. More importantly, it was terrific to feel everybody’s jubilee and excitement every time we threw an event. We did collaborations with various art collectives, artists, and zines to throw parties around the city. As opposed to the typical party, we did not simply want to throw a party; we wanted to create an experience.
New York Lab evolved into a label in a short amount of time. We expanded to include more artists, and our abilities developed rapidly as well. The root of our expansion was always the desire to aid the artists around us. We have a deliberate and burning desire to support those artists in every way possible. The core of our inspiration is our aspirations. There are so many roadblocks whether you want to throw parties or run a label; we’re here to tell you it is possible regardless of the difficulty. We want to realize our wildest dreams and help others realize theirs as well.
What’s been the biggest challenge of starting a label?
Personally, the most challenging thing at first was navigating this adult world while in high school and transitioning into college. It was a bit frightening because I’d see many people my age in the business on social media and blogs. It wasn’t until Lab formed and we were contacting venues, planning rollouts, and learning to read contracts that I realized not many people were learning how to do business. I’m thankful for auntie (Alicia Gelernt) for that; she is integral in making sure we learned concrete skills. Auntie has been supportive of this mission, so shout out to her! I appreciate her for everything.
What’s been the biggest reward?
There are two big rewards. The first is being able to do something new every day. I think one of the reasons this has been so enjoyable is because I fear the cycle of monotony. New York Lab has allowed me to wear many hats and learn a variety of crucial skills. I can be discussing SEO with Nate [Antoine] on Monday and then design merch with Mavi on Tuesday.
The second reward is being able to create something with some of my closest friends. I’ve known Zuri [Campbell] and Isaiah [Shimkin] since middle school, and Muhummad [E.] and Kenza [Ikli] were my very first high school friends. Nate has been one of my favorite creative minds to be around, and Guppy is practically a brother to me. I live with a combination of artists and staff, so Lab is quite literally my family.
Am I right to understand the label as a means of creating space for Black creatives?
That is correct. We believe in creating a space for Black creatives to express their ideas, feelings, and dreams. We want to amplify the Black art around us and inspire the world with it.
I believe there is a range of Black art. There is space for a Black pop star to stand next to the best lyricist or most eccentric rapper. I do not think the aesthetic of the space has to exclude any type of artist. As long as we lead with respect, then there is space for us all. I think that space can be made for Black creatives, while not exploiting them. That’s what we’re doing here. We fundamentally believe in the representation of the artist. They’re not products. They are people.
What issues did you see in the music industry that you wanted to remedy with New York Lab?
I think we just fundamentally wanted to create a supportive environment. You hear so many stories of artists feeling shelved, ignored, neglected, and used; and environments in which teams are just tools to be used as well. They’re voiceless, and their ideas are not valued. We did not want to have that be the case here.
We’ve ensured from the start that the mission is a collective mission. We’re all able to support each other, and our success depends on each other. We are a tight-knit team. Fundamentally, we wanted to see what an artist-first space looks like in this industry.
Do you feel the industry boxes in Black artists? How do we beat that and allow for multi-faceted Black expression?
I think the industry finds all sorts of ways to box in Black artists. The first and most apparent weapon is information.
Inherently we must move away from gatekeeping and into democratizing the industry. Gatekeeping, as a whole, is a façade. Gatekeepers tell the world they are the necessary arbiters of great-sounding music and that they get to decide who is worthy of insider knowledge and support.
The truth is, taste is subjective. I don’t have to sign you to help you out and show you how to get paid, and if that’s the only reason I’m helping you, then am I helping you at all? The relationship between Black people and institutions tends to be one of exploitation. At the base, that has to change.
In our early correspondence, you mentioned your label prefers to make money off merch and touring. How has COVID-19 impacted those revenue streams?
COVID-19 has unfortunately prevented us from being able to throw our second flagship event, NEW YORK LAB 02. That would’ve been an excellent opportunity to generate revenue for ourselves, independent clothing brands, and various music artists from New York and the surrounding areas. Of course, this was disappointing, but the most significant impact has been watching the people around us deal with COVID-19. It has impacted the physical, financial, and mental wellbeing of families all around us. It’s a shame that this country’s views on public health and the welfare state have made it difficult to contain the various impacts of COVID-19.
What is your ultimate dream for New York Lab?
As a group, we all just want to create a label for the future. We’re trying to solve a lot of the problems we see artists going through so the next generation can push the envelope further. This is also a multi-layered question that each Lab member can answer. The culmination of these answers is the ultimate dream.
We also want to expand into other industries such as sports and film, eventually. Ultimately, we would support these directors’ and athletes’ careers in similar ways to our artists. However, on an even larger scale, our dream is to support and inspire the dream of any Black kid growing up in this country.
Photos by Nate Antoine.