Bobby Carter is slowly changing the music industry, one genre-bending performance at a time. As the Senior Producer for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concerts, he’s brought on an increasingly-growing roster of emerging artists, big names, and icons to the company’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to perform not only for the building’s employees, but for an audience of millions worldwide.
The St. Louis native’s journey has been long and arduous, but fulfilling, to say the least. “I’ve been at NPR for 23 years,” Carter tells ESSENCE. “But my route to where I am now was a bit unconventional; I started out as an intern in the summer of 2000. I was in the digital media space at the time, my job was to edit our content for the web stream. I spearheaded or managed our live streams – and this predated Tiny Desk.”
“I knew at some point I wanted to get involved with music at NPR, but that opportunity wasn’t there yet until NPR Music came along,” he continues. “I slowly started to drift over into the music space by writing pieces here and there, and contributing to our year-end content. In 2014, that’s when I produced my very first Tiny Desk concert, and three years later I was officially over with Tiny Desk in a formal role.”
Since his full transition to Tiny Desk in 2017, Carter has developed partnerships with Complexcon, and HBO’s Insecure, along with creating new initiatives to grow and diversify the program’s reach. He’s also known for further innovating the Tiny Desk Concert Series with artists such as Usher, H.E.R., Anderson.Paak, Jazmine Sullivan, Kirk Franklin, and more. The process of choosing musicians for the now-iconic performance platform has shifted from the time of its inception, but for Carter, he’s more hands on than ever.
“Well, early on it was a lot of us pursuing artists from our end and selling artists on what the concept is and getting them to come and play,” describes the Jackson State University graduate. “Fast-forward to now, it’s pretty much a two-way street. Tiny Desk, as you’re aware of, has become a phenomenon of sorts, where artists and labels know at this point that it’s a vehicle for promoting music and selling music.”
While many musicians feel that Tiny Desk is critical to promoting their music, Carter has found that the promotion of Black music has been equally as important. “I’m really passionate about helping to tell the story of Black music, because the story of Black music is the story of American music, if you ask me,” he says. With the month of June being Black Music Month, NPR has observed it by honoring Black music’s influence through various mediums, and highlighting its impact so that the story is told properly.
“You can’t tell the history of music without black people,” the veteran DJ says. “What we’re trying to do here at the Tiny Desk with Black Music Month is to really present that in a way that shows us in different lights. You have R&B, gospel, etc.; there’s just so many layers to black music that have made American music what it is today. It’s a story that isn’t told enough, it can never be told enough.”
Outside of jazz the only other true artform produced in the country is hip-hop, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. During his earlier days at the platform, Carter speaks about the “internal conflict” that he has dealt with to get people to recognize that hip-hop and artists like Gucci Mane also need to be heard in a space like NPR.
“I think that there is a struggle to be sure that every single perspective is heard, and understand that whether or not a they’re a street MC or a trap artist or a neo soul artist, that they all belong, their perspective deserves to be heard at the Tiny Desk, as long as the performance is right,” he says. There were people who were uncomfortable with a Gucci Mane at the Tiny Desk, given his history and whatnot. But he served his time for his wrongs, and he has been the ultimate redemption story.”
The Atlanta rapper’s appearance on Tiny Desk altered the trajectory of what the concert series was, helping to catapult it to the successful platform that it ultimately became. “I think that Gucci Mane, that Tiny Desk was a big, big game changer for the Tiny Desk in terms of hip hop, because it showed other artists in his lane that, ‘We can come and we can do our thing here too,’” Carter states, before pausing briefly.
He continues by saying, “There is an internal fight, because a lot of times people want to feel comfortable, they don’t want to feel threatened by hip hop. But if you’re a little uncomfortable, that’s okay – maybe it’s just not for you, but it is for somebody.” After Gucci’s performance in 2016, Tiny Desk featured Chance the Rapper, Big K.R.I.T., Rakim, Lizzo, Megan Thee Stallion, and Trina, among others; bolstering the fact that the genre is still strong, and is here to stay.
Throughout the years, many legendary performances have taken place behind the desk of the All Songs Considered’s host Bob Boilen. Tiny Desk has risen to the heights of popularity, and is now a staple in today’s culture. Carter, who helped build it to what it is today, understands the task at hand, and knows how special this platform is. “I feel like it’s part of my duty to continue to do this,” he says. Not only continuing to push current stars and rising artists to the forefront, but also giving flowers to legends like El Debarge, Patti LaBelle, Charlie Wilson, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and more.
“I think that it helps to bridge that gap and it helps to bring the youth over to these legendary legacy artists, and to remind them of their greatness,” Carter explains. “I think a lot of times when I bring some of the artists that I bring to the Tiny Desk, this should serve as a reminder of their status in music.”
“So, I feel the ultimate responsibility, from a cultural standpoint, is to show people and use our huge audience to spread awareness about these artists,” he continues. “To grow and continue to be a voice for black culture, and for diversity as a whole.”