My day consists of lots of meetings,” Nandy Mason said with a light sigh, but her smile said she wasn’t tired. Mason, a talent booker at Spotify, has also founded her own booking, management and production company – Nandy Mason Enterprises – under which she books talent for Shaun King’s weekly podcast as well.
Her skin was glowing – and not just from her computer screen we conducted our zoom call through.
“Lots of talent outreach, lots of creating, making formats, and ‘whatever curveball God wants to throw in there today.”
Mason, 32, is also chief operating officer and co-founder of Culture Shock Studios – a global content-production company. She’s been managing multiple roles for as long as she can remember, recalling herself as a “super inner-city kid” who always had a job. “Since I was 13, I was working, working…”
Her first job was at the Freedom Cafe in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a small neighborhood in Boston where she’s from. They paid her under the table because she wasn’t of age. Mason’s childhood activities were diverse: from dance to a brief stint of basketball, playing soccer and being captain of her cheerleading squad, leading them to win multiple competitions.
Raised in a single-parent household, she was used to long days away from home. “I was the girl who went from school, to the YMCA after-school program, to a friends’ house…”
Her mother studied nursing but ended up getting certified as an ironworker and welder. She also started her own business working as a carpenter and a contractor. “She did everything… Not waiting for anyone to give anything to her; she created her tables and that was it,” Mason said. “We worked our ways through everything. In the midst of trauma, in the midst of anything.”
Roxbury is a vibrant neighborhood, with deeply rooted culture and a strong sense of community. Roxbury also has a reputation for gun -violence.
AreaVibes, an online neighborhood safety tool, compiles data from the yearly FBI Uniform Crime Report. They found that Roxbury’s crime rate in 2019 was 93% higher than the national average. “Growing up in Roxbury, a lot of my friends,” Mason redirected her statement. “I dealt with a lot of loss.”
“We used to stand over bodies in Boston. Running from the Freedom House – like that was the thing,” she said. “So, I was always driven and I always wanted to leave.”
In the eighth grade, Mason sat down with one of her friends on Fayston Street and made a declaration. “When I get out of school, I’m moving to New York.” The thought of that made them both cry. They still laugh about that moment to this day, and she did leave.
First, to UMASS Amherst to study journalism and legal studies. Then, to Louisiana State University for an exchange, and where she graduated a year early with her bachelors.
Her plan was always to go to law school, but since she’d bought herself a gap year, she opted to make New York a reality instead.
“Definitely grinded it out. Like ‘homeless’ grinded it out. Like ‘with your bags sitting on 34th Street’ grinding it out.”
She decided to milk her connections from her 2009 internship at BET, which was just the year prior and also in New York. “Internships were a little different back then. Not to take away from anyone now,” Mason said. “But they didn’t even call us by our names. They were like ‘Go ahead and pick up that tripod. We need you down here. Over there. Touch your toes.” She was coined as “the Intern,” so when she called everyone she’d met looking for a job, they remembered her.
Mason’s persistence led her to officially be hired to BET. Her first gig was working on the pilot for the Ed Gordon show.
When the pilot ended, Mason worked her way into other temporary entertainment opportunities until she made her way back to BET – again. She was production assistant on the very first ‘Black Girls Rock’ show in 2010. From that moment, she stayed for almost 10 years.
After the show’s production, Mason became a development coordinator. “I was always excited about working on something from inception to completion. Development really allowed me to do that,” she said. “It helped me understand TV as a machine.” Shortly after, the head of development at the time, Donna Michelle Anderson, who Mason calls “genius, and the dopest woman you’ll ever meet” decided it was time to give Mason space to grow into her potential. DMA introduced Mason to the new vice president of talent/music programming at BET, Tracy Cloherty. “We’re all having a casual conversation. I had no idea I was interviewing,” Mason said.
“By the end of the conversation, Tracy Cloherty offered me a job, and I started to cry.”
Mason loved DMA. In her role as development coordinator, DMA challenged her in ways she’d never been challenged. “We came from two completely different worlds,” she said. “Me coming from the inner-city, [an] underprivileged girl, and here’s this woman who’s putting me in places that I’d never thought I’d even walk into.” Mason recalled interviewing EPs and show-runners in the Beverly Hills Country Club.“She would just require me to stretch in ways I didn’t even know I could.”
At that moment, Tracy was almost invisible to Mason who was crying and questioning if DMA was firing her. But she told her, “You have to go to grow … You should not be sitting in the same seat for more than six months. You have to trust me.”
Mason moved into the talent department, and that’s where she flourished.
She was a talent coordinator. In less than a year, she was promoted to manager. Two years after that, she moved to talent executive.
“God has always ordered my steps,” Mason said. “I used to do scrapbooks, and I went to 106 & Park when I was 16.” 106 & Park, a music-video countdown show similar to MTV’s TRL, was the network’s highest-rated show before its final episode in 2014. “I taped in one of my scrapbooks my wristband [from the show]. I said, “One day, I’m gonna work for BET.”
She’d completely forgotten about that moment when she had started booking talent there – generally for network, and specifically for 106 & Park.
She got to work with people she adored ever since she was a young girl in Roxbury. “I loved the ‘Bow Wow’s. I used to have Lil’ Bow Wow jerseys, all of that.” she said. Next thing you know, he’s coming into my office like ‘ NanNan, what you doing?’
While the fruition was beautiful, making it out of Boston caused Mason to struggle with her own form of survivor’s remorse, feeling undeserving. “It was heavy having to leave home, leaving all the memories,” she said. “Feeling like ‘why me?’A lot of my friends aren’t here to celebrate with me.”
“It was heavy. It’s been heavy.”
Mason worked through that weight and the traumas that came along the best way she knew how. She mustered up the strength to do so when her best friend died in 2013.
“He was murdered.”
Odin Lloyd and Mason were not speaking because he hadn’t made it out to New York to celebrate her 25th birthday. “And so I called myself not speaking to him.”
In her tone, she made fun of herself for that “20-something-year-old” decision. Her eyes though, showed simultaneous pain and acceptance.
She went to Boston the weekend of Father’s Day that year. Usually, she’d call him as she was en route to the train station downtown, but even though he kept coming to mind, she didn’t. “When I got back to New York, his sister called me. I missed the call the first time she called. She called again.” That’s when Mason learned.
“She’s like ‘Odin’s dead.’ And I hung up on her. I’m like she trippin’.” His sister called again, and Mason couldn’t hear anything. Couldn’t hear any words. She couldn’t hear anything at that moment.
Lloyd taught Mason how to drive. He would sit with her at the school table when she had a following out with any of her girlfriends. “He was my guy. That was my best friend,” she said. ‘That moment, it just felt like another shattering. And while I feel like I’ve been experiencing deaths since I was very young, that one knocked me. Rocked me to my core.”
The BET Awards that year were scheduled for the same weekend as Odin’s funeral. Mason’s supervisor, who was supportive during her time of grief, also made it known that they needed her there for the awards show. “I told her ‘it’s my best friend’s funeral and she was like ‘… we can’t afford to not have you.’” So Mason went to LA for the week where the show was being held. She flew back home Friday night, attended the funeral Saturday and flew back to LA in time for the award show on Sunday.
At his funeral, she was the last person standing over him. “I could not believe it, and my mom was tapping me [like] ‘You gotta go. You gotta get on the plane.’ I worked the BET Awards the next day …”
In 2018, Mason went back to school. She was 30 and had already switched coasts – moving to LA a year after Lloyd’s passing and excelling at the BET’s offices there.
A mentor who was also an executive told her going back to school could be career suicide. “You know how this industry goes – kind of like out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “And you’re in your bag right now. Why now?”
Mason attended University of West London and in 2019, acquired her Masters of Arts in Music Industry Business & Artist Development. On the path to her degree, she experienced more personal loss and a struggle with identity. “When you go from working everyday of your life, it’s hard to adjust to not working. And then kind of feeling like you’re missing,” she said. “People would refer to me as ‘Nandy from BET’ – that had become a part of my identity. Without it, I was kind of like ‘oh my gosh’… God needed to strip me,” she said.
When Mason walked across the graduation stage, said she “felt nothing but God’s grace.”
“I felt like I was literally walking out of one season into another.”
The season looks like weekly zoom meetings at odd hours with the other two founding members of Culture Shock Studios, Marion “Fred Frenchy” Madzimba, CEO, and Nirojan Yamunarajan, chief creative officer. Mason is now back in the US; Madzimba and Yamunarajan are in Australia.
The trifecta have been in business conversations for over two years. They officially launched CSS at the top of 2020 and have developed 27 shows, some of which are already in production, such as We Got Next documentary and Mike Tyson’s Hot Boxin’ podcast.
Madzimba encountered bad business relationships in the past, but always feels assured by Mason. “She texted me again not long ago [about something] like ‘don’t worry, I got you. We’re gonna’ make it happen.’ Those things are very necessary for someone like me who has the pressures of the big companies,” he said. “You can feel like your partner has your back.”
Mason’s support isn’t reserved for the founding team either. “[We were] dealing with an EP/a writer we’re working with on one of our shows.” said Yamunarajan. “He had a lot of questions, doubts, with how other people involved in the project might’ve been perceiving what he was saying.” Yamunarajan remembers that Mason “very directly stopped him,” helped him realize the value of his work and empowered him. “She’s done that on a lot of different calls with different people.” Yamunarajan said. And he knows that’s a rarity. “I’ve worked in varying levels, private and public companies … and there is a shortage of people that are not just willing to be great at what they do, but to pass the torch along the way.”
Since that day on Fayston street with her friend, Mason has been able to be a conduit professionally for some of her other friends back home. Some she employed personally, others who’ve moved on to major companies like Spotify. “I have friends everywhere that I was able to kinda reach back and pull forward,” she said. “I value how much God used me in those moments.”
This feature was submitted by Yasmine Julmisse
Yasmine Julmisse is a graduate student at the Harvard Extension School. Raised in Florida but a Bostonian at heart, Julmisse is deeply passionate about feature stories and learning people’s journeys. You can read more of her feature writing work in the book Journalists of Today, available on Amazon.
Featured Image by Ndubuisi Adigwe