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Nile Rodgers says he learned his business acumen from Black Panthers

Guitarist, composer, producer and music teacher Nile Rodgers is one of the world’s most respected musical mentors, but his lesser-known philanthropic work with young entrepreneurs is something he learned as a young member of the Black Panther Party

Talking to delegates at the 2021 CogX Festival in London in mid June, Rodgers introduced some of the global beneficiaries of his We Are Family Foundation, named after the Sister Sledge hit he wrote with Bernard Edwards, and which helps young activists and entrepreneurs tackle issues of race discrimination in their communities.

While the Black Panthers were portrayed as domestic terrorists across America, much as Black Lives Matter has been in recent months, he says none of that touched him as a young man. Instead, he helped run the movement’s Breakfasts For Children programme, and learned to persuade local grocers to provide free food.

‘It made me financially literate,’ he said. ‘Negotiating with vendors by telling them that if they didn’t return food that had passed its due date but gave it to us they would get a tax deduction was instantly rewarding. Kids who were fed did so much better in school. For me as a young teen wanting to change the world, I could see I was changing the world just like that.’

It is that motivation to change the world, and the understanding of finance and business, that inspired Nile Rodgers to run what he calls a very robust fund with an ambitious mission, ‘We Are Family Foundation (WAFF) is a non-profit organisation that’s dedicated to the vision of a global family by creating and supporting programs that promote cultural diversity while nurturing and mentoring the vision, talents, and ideas of young people who are positively changing the world.’

At the CogX event, Nile shared the virtual stage with Farai Mubaiwa, the South African founder of Africa Matters, Riana Shah, CEO of EthixAI at Harvard University and MIT, and Arthur Lima, Founding Partner and CEO of AfroSaúde in Brazil, all of whom are funded and mentored by WAFF.

Each is addressing community issues on a grand scale, from empowering young African women to become community leaders, to unravelling the inherent bias in machine learning algorithms created largely by white, western, middle-class men, to providing access to high-speed broadband as a human right, and to finding healthcare professionals trained in the needs of the Black community.

Rodgers, who is also now a music production educator with the Abbey Road Studios education programme, is clear that, contrary to the rhetoric against the Black Panther Party in the 1960s, the movement had a strong, positive impact that he sees as his legacy as a successful, influential and wealthy musician. ‘The Black Panthers built lots of little community programmes. It worked. And it threatened the powers that be. That’s why they were shut down. They were terrified of the explosive growth of that community movement.’

The session’s moderator, angel investor and CEO of Black Girls Fest, Nicole Crentsil, asked Rodgers what would be the first thing he would do if he were Prime Minister, he answered, ‘I’d like to implement a system that rewarded people for doing good.’

View the whole discussion here