TeaMarrr and Kareem James Aren't Your Typical Artist-Manager Pairing

By 
Bryan Parys
September 30, 2020

The visiting artists shared with students about their alchemical business relationship at a recent virtual clinic.

Singer and songwriter TeaMarrr
Manager and songwriter Kareem James
TeaMarrr
Kareem James
Image courtesy of Atlantic Records
Image by Hallo Smith

In many ways, the artist-manager relationship between TeaMarrr and Kareem James is as you’d expect. James has developed her from an unsigned artist to someone who has a publishing deal and a spot on major label Atlantic Records' roster. But that doesn’t tell their whole story. In fact, it was their unique vibe that got TeaMarrr her first deal, after a meeting with Emmy Award–winning actress Issa Rae. Rae was already a fan of TeaMarrr’s music, but after seeing the authentic way James and TeaMarrr worked together, she was compelled to sign TeaMarrr as the first artist on her new label, Raedio. As James said, “What we originally wanted was just a placement in the show [HBO's Insecure]. Never in my wildest imagination did I know that she’d be launching a label and want her to be the first artist.”

In a recent interview as part of this fall’s Visiting Artist Series, students got to see firsthand what a special connection James and TeaMarrr have, and why their goals are not just about advancing their careers. “We’re tapped in to each other,” James said. “We’ve inspired each other, not just for a career path or musically. It’s like literally I become more myself and she becomes more herself.”

The discussion was moderated by Tonya Butler, chair of the Music Business/Management Department, with students chiming in with their own questions. To get a true sense of the dynamic rapport between TeaMarrr and James, you really need to hear how they talk with each other—ecstatically interrupting or playing off each other’s words. To that end, the following excerpts from the conversation have been edited for clarity, organized around the interview’s main topics, and at times formatted as a dialogue.

On Artist-Manager Relationships and Building Your Team

James: Your manager can’t see you as disposable. They have to really, really want it for you…. We’re building something together and we’re very passionate about what we’re building. And I think that’s kind of the key.

TeaMarrr: A lot of my core team [such as choreographers, hair and makeup stylist] have been with me since the beginning. Kareem has blessed me with a lot of talented people that have helped me develop the inner artist.

"Other songwriters are trying to write a song. We’re trying to tell a story that’s organic to [TeaMarrr] because she’s the artist who has to live with it and sing it."

—Kareem James

On Songwriting and Collaboration

In addition to being a manager, James is also an Emmy-nominated songwriter, and as such, is the only person that TeaMarrr trusts as a cowriter. So, when Butler asked if there were ever any points of friction during their collaborations, the duo immediately launched into a recent debate over a vocal production choice.

James: Last night, we literally got into a fight about a song.

TeaMarr: And it was, like, a word. The word “distorted.” The engineer put in an effect to make me saying “distorted” sound distorted—

James: —I liked the way you sounded without the effect!

James went on to point out they have an understanding that his songwriting input is secondary, so there’s a built-in method for dealing with any disagreements. Their mutual trust in each other, however, is apparent.

James: I’m the only one she trusts as a cowriter. We’re so tapped in to each other that [I’m] not going to force anything.... Other songwriters are trying to write a song. We’re trying to tell a story that’s organic to her because she’s the artist who has to live with it and sing it.

TeaMarrr: Kareem has been such an inspiration. Even when he’s not in the studio, I hear his voice in my head, saying things like, “do this part louder, do this part softer.”

On What It Takes to Make It in the Industry

James: If you want it, be prepared for major sacrifices. Sometimes knowing your worth gets confused with missing out on opportunities [his Emmy nomination came through an unpaid writing gig].… Weigh out the situation because you never know what something will lead you to.

TeaMarrr: Really get to know yourself. It’s such a cliché, but if you don’t, you’re gonna be in a deal singing songs, wearing stuff that you know is uncomfortable, and you’re going to look back at the footage and say “yikes, who is she?” And we all have a “yikes, who is she,” but you gotta pay that back, and it wasn’t even you…. Because people are going to try and tell you who you are.

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