First-generation Liberian American sisters Massah David and Miatta Johnson founded the boutique PR agency MVD Inc. with the goal to amplify Black storytelling.
With clients such as Universal Pictures, Netflix, Kanye West’s Donda, Essence Magazine and many more, the agency is at the intersection of television, film and music — with a strong focus on community building. MVD Inc. has specialized in movie premieres, album listening experiences and their most recent initiative, the events-based entertainment collective Dope Africans.
After working as a financial reporter at Dow Jones for many years, Johnson left the financial world to make an impact in entertainment. So she connected with sister David — a longtime music strategist and executive — to found MVD Inc. Inspired by their journey as political asylum seekers and first-generation immigrants, they have strived to execute “the impossible” and push for innovation.
Most recently, MVD worked in partnership with the Recording Academy to relaunch and oversee the Black Music Collective — a program that is dedicated to the inclusion, recognition and advancements of Black music within the industry. The duo is also responsible for executing Kanye West’s ambitious 2018 Wyoming album listening experience with minimal production time. The pair continue to produce exclusive events across entertainment tentpole weekends such as the Grammys, Paris Fashion Week, the Oscars and more.
David and Johnson spoke to Variety about their journey to the United States, their start in the entertainment industry and how they are pushing for innovation in the PR and marketing industry.
When did you leave Liberia, and what did moving to America represent for you two?
Miatta David: Massah was a month old when we left Liberia, I was bit older. We moved to the States because our family was in government during the [1980 Liberian] coup. Our father was the mayor of Monrovia, and it was such a progressive time in Liberia. We had a lot of people from around the world coming to West Africa and seeing Liberia as a beacon of hope. Liberia was the first African republic to gain its independence. Our Uncle was the president and after the coup, he was assassinated. Our father was also jailed as they wanted to remove anyone who was progressive. It was a traumatic time; we lost a lot of family during the coup. That led to us seeking political asylum and moving to America. So, there was a lot of hope.
What did those initial years in America look like for two young children?
David: Initially we moved to New York, then we moved to Maryland and it was a culture shock. We learned very early on to adjust. We saw first-hand what resilience looks like — especially from our dad. He went from being the mayor of one of the most progressive cities in the continent of Africa to selling shoes in America. He did what he needed to do build himself up and eventually own a business. We witnessed and experienced that entrepreneurial spirit. It was challenging but laid the foundation for who we are.
With that entrepreneurial spirit in mind, how did you navigate entering the entertainment industry?
Massah: I went to Howard University, and I dropped out and moved to New York because I wanted to be in the music business and could not find anything that taught me what I was looking to learn about at the time. I’m more hands-on, so I wanted to experience it for myself. I dropped out and I said OK, I’m going to go intern and work my way up, which is what I did. I started working at a management company as a roadie for [R&B singer] Donell Jones. I was just an assistant. I was doing all the things he needed and it was the best experience. I got access to different parts of the business.
Miatta: I went to NYU and after graduating, I got a job at Dow Jones and I loved it for a year, but I didn’t feel that passion. I was a reporter during the day but also following what was happening in the music industry at night. My cousin was working for a management company, and I saw what they were trying to do as far as getting their artist press. The record labels were very much like, “Oh we’ll get these clients in XXL, in The Source.” The record label didn’t see how big [the artists] could be. One of my gifts is understanding the bigger vision and always seeing the strategy. I was literally serving as their freelance publicist and pitching their clients to various publications at night. I saw that it was something that I really loved, and I basically left the full-time job and decided I was a publicist. I used the money from my 401K to live off, and I was working for free for a year and a half, but I don’t suggest anybody do that.
When did you realize MVD was positioned to truly make an impact?
Massah: We decided if we were going to do events, why can’t we do an event on Fifth Avenue? Why can’t you have a bunch of beautiful Black creatives doing this? We did an event at the Bvlgari store when it wasn’t as common to see as that many people in [hip-hop] within high-fashion spaces. We took over the store on Fifth Ave., which was unheard of at the time.
I think one of the first [experiential events] we produced was with Big Sean. We shifted the way that people would do listening events. Traditionally, a listening event would have press, the label would set it up, press would come to the studio, listen to the album and that’s it. We really wanted people to see who he was and to introduce him as an artist. We went to the Standard Hotel and used one of their raw spaces. We had art installations on the wall and an amazing presentation. I will never forget it.
[DJ and radio personality] Miss Info pulled us over and said, “Y’all just changed the game.” Her and Angie Martinez were like, “This was crazy, like I’ve never been to anything like this.” Ever since then, it’s now become a listening experience versus an event.
What was the approach behind producing Kanye West’s 2018 Wyoming sessions?
Massah: It was really hard to wrap our head around the concept because he decided that he wanted to do this during Memorial Day weekend, when typically everything’s closed. We found the location, which was a ranch, and it was gorgeous. But then we had these huge speakers in the middle of nowhere. We had horses riding around. And it was so unique and different, and that’s something that had never been done before. Wyoming is known for having these rain showers that are very unpredictable. It just started raining randomly a few hours before the event, and the entire event was outside. I said, “God, this is literally in your hands and we surrender the entire thing.” After that, the skies opened up, people landed and you would have never known that it had been pouring. It just turned into the most amazing experience, and people didn’t know what to expect at first. It was unpredictable. It was unexpected.
Miatta: What’s so brilliant in regards to our partnership and collaboration with Donda is that we both see the impossible and think without limits. It forces you and it stretches you, and I think that Wyoming was one of those events where everyone was stretched. It was such a great collective environment where we came together and did something that was never done before. And we actually accomplished that. Now when you say “Wyoming” in a music sense — people instantly know what you’re referring to.
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