Afiya Cunningham knew little about the business of artiste management when she made a bold move and reached out to an international gospel artiste for a fundraising concert for her band, the Port of Spain Pathfinder.
What started as a one-off event would become a very successful gospel artiste management business, Aspire Agency. It was founded and registered in 2014.
Recounting its start, Cunningham said the band had to raise funds to go on a mission trip to St Martin and, at the time, she was its secretary. She suggested the band hold a concert to raise the funds.
“It was something new that we were venturing into."
Then she had another stroke of inspiration, when she heard a song she liked on a gospel radio station...when I did my research I recognised it was a new and upcoming artiste from the US and his name is (American gospel musician) Jonathan McReynolds,” she said.
Cummings sent the band’s director a message, suggesting McReynolds headline the concert.
“It was really far-fetched, because they never did it before...I sent the information for (the director). I messaged the booking agent for Jonathan – and to my surprise she responded.
"Long story short...we were approved and went through with the concert at the University of the West Indies’ Sports and Physical Education Centre (UWI Spec) and it was a grand success.” The band even had to print more tickets on the day of the concert.
During that process, Cunningham’s contact information was given out to those who wanted to learn more about the event, and people began calling to ask who had hosted it.
“All of a sudden I started getting calls from promoters in the Pentecostal industry to help assist them in planning their event. So I was like, 'Okay, cool, no problem.'”
She found planning and organising the events came naturally to her.
One day she saw local gospel singer Curtis Jordan was looking for volunteers for his Caribbean gospel music tour, and decided to help out. She collected tickets and helped those attending the concert.
“Before Jordan left the event he said, ‘I have been watching your work ethic and I would call you on tour because I need to speak to you,’” she said.
A week after his concert here and on his way to complete his tour in the UK, he contacted Cunningham to say he really admired her work ethic and: "I would really want to know if you’d be interested in being my booking agent."
She had never done anything like that, but took a chance, since her strength is in administration
"That is what I do as a career in the ministry where I work. The business operations assistant at the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services researched the websites of international booking companies and read through them.
“I also had the contact information for Jonathan Mc Reynolds' booking agent and manager and I even got some advice from her. Then I started doing bookings for Curtis and people started recognising that.”
After a year and a half, Jordan asked Cunningham to be his manager. Then, speaking to her supervisor at work, after discussing the need for extra money to help take care of her younger siblings, Cunningham came up with the concept of Aspire Agency.
Her supervisor told her to turn the company’s name into a mnemonic (a reminder). And so each letter of Aspire's name represents a service the company offers.
“A is artiste management; s was social media liaison, because I would do so much promotions online, and then it changed to stage management; p is promotions; i is image consultancy; r is reservations and bookings of venues; and e is event management.”
Fast forward to 2019 and Aspire Agency has worked with local, regional and international gospel artistes. Some of the local artistes Cunningham and her team have worked with are Positive, Blessed Messenger, Jaron Nurse and Sherwin Gardener.
As a Seventh-Day Adventist, Cunningham believes her natural ability to manage and promote gospel music is “something that came from God, and I said I’d like to use this gift to forward the gospel.”
The agency has received accolades for its work, having been nominated twice and being the second runner-up for gospel manager of the year.
Cunningham believes the gospel music industry is strong in TT and has seen growth, but it's unfortunate that a lot of private people do not invest and sponsor gospel events.
She's doing her part to develop and promote the growth of the industry by hosting music workshops as well as pairing seasoned artistes and musicians with younger ones to educate them.
Now 28 and having started the agency at 24, Cunningham employs six people.
In June she launched Aspire Apparel merchandise.
“On the 'merch' (T-shirts, hoodies and caps) there are gentle reminders of God’s promises to us.”
Cunningham wants to see Aspire Agency have its own hall one day and its own building, so it can be a one-stop, go-to-shop for an artiste. At present she runs it from her St Augustine home and Jordan’s St Augustine vocal school.
The agency will celebrate its fifth anniversary this year with its own event, Take the Stage, on November 3.