Why you should care
Because she’s discovering the next big thing off the court.
Clarity came at a young age for Phoenix Mercury wing Essence Carson, who realized as a teenager she could not choose between music and basketball.
So she took the extraordinary step of shuttling between two different high schools near her hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. At the Rosa L. Parks School of Fine and Performing Arts, Carson took general education courses but also played piano, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone and acoustic bass. A mile down the road, Carson played basketball at Eastside High School.
“Both are a part of me,” Carson says. “A lot of people would try to make me choose whether I was going to be an athlete or a musician. I just wouldn’t choose. I felt like there was a void.”
If I have the opportunity to learn it, why wouldn’t I?
But her first star turn came not from her music or her jump shot. In 2007, after radio host Don Imus called Carson and her teammates on the Final Four Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hoes,” Carson became the outspoken leader of that team and its poised face in a national news media firestorm, helping to organize a meeting with Imus after he was suspended.
With the benefit of hindsight, Carson says it was her first experience with bigotry up close and undeniable. “To be that young and stand for something, it really did a lot as far as shaping [my] mind and [my] character.”
Since then, she’s had a successful 12-year WNBA career — an All-Star appearance in 2011, a title with Los Angeles in 2016 — as she blossomed into a defensive specialist with a deadly three-point shot. But it was an injury that set her on her most fulfilling course at last.
Throughout her time in the league, Carson, 32, has released music as the recording artist Pr3pe (pronounced “Preppy”). But elbow surgery in 2017 left Carson unable to play professionally overseas — as most WNBA players do to supplement their income — and looking for a way to fill her time during recovery. A program put on by the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) helped her find a gig as an intern for Capitol Music Group under the ARTium Records label.
The WNBA and union staff identify three-month internship opportunities that are “meaningful and match their post-playing career interests,” says Jayne Appel-Marinelli, the WNBPA director of player relations. Carson, who interned alongside six-time WNBA All-Star Cappie Pondexter, dove into the thick of business operations, as her mentor, Lisa Smith-Craig, believed Carson’s music degree from Rutgers and abilities in recording would be a nice gateway into front-end production.
So she started working with streaming services such as Apple, Spotify and Tidal to deliver the elements they need, while she also managed relationships with video platforms for artists seeking to release music videos. It was heady stuff for an intern, but Smith-Craig says she saw in Carson a hunger for information and an overachieving nature.
“I hate to not be in the know or ignorance itself, just not knowing something because you don’t want to know,” Carson says. “If I have the opportunity to learn it, why wouldn’t I?”
After her three-month internship, “word got around that I was pretty good at what I was doing there,” Carson says, and she ultimately was chosen for a full-time position as manager of the distribution company Priority Records, a label that was instrumental to the launch of West Coast hip-hop starting with N.W.A. and has since been relaunched under Capitol. That meant in 2018, Carson was playing in the WNBA and working full time. She is doing the same this season from Phoenix.
Nneka Ogwumike, a teammate of Carson’s the past three seasons in Los Angeles, remembers enjoying the Pr3pe sound before her new teammate arrived. Ogwumike gained even more respect for Carson when the two would head out for parties thrown by the label and mingle with Carson’s colleagues in the industry, then she’d see Carson tapping away at her computer waiting for the drills to begin the next day at practice.
As president of the executive committee of the Players Association — which has been in a standoff with ownership that could lead to a strike at season’s end — Ogwumike recognizes that “because of the lack of financial opportunity in the league, we delve outside the ‘W’ to maximize our potential.”
Smith-Craig, now the senior director of Motown Records, saw the same hustle from Carson. The executive tried to make a point to congratulate Carson via text message after Sparks wins, but Carson consistently would beat Smith-Craig to the punch, sending out emails and fixing mistakes in production materials from the seat in front of her locker immediately after the final buzzer. Folks at the Capitol offices in Los Angeles got used to seeing Carson first thing in the morning on game days and then again between shootaround and tipoff. “She puts in 100 percent for the WNBA and the teams that she’s on and she puts in 100 percent for the job, so she’s giving 200 percent,” Smith-Craig says.
Yet learning to navigate music industry bureaucracy seemed to frustrate Carson early on, says Smith-Craig. And it required putting out less music as an artist herself, as she put more time into pressing professional commitments.
Carson decided not to join many of her colleagues to play overseas this past offseason. The opportunity to support up-and-coming artists (such as BJ the Chicago Kid or the Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra) help develop their careers and work in a business she loves has become bigger than basketball.
“There are many athletes that know that they are not only an athlete, they’re a human being that happens to play sports,” Carson says. “Now it’s about how are you going to make an impact on the world? You can’t do that just by sitting back and letting everything happen in front of you.”
OZY’s 5 Questions with Essence Carson
- What’s the last book you read? Rich Dad Poor Dad, by Robert T. Kiyosaki.
- What do you worry about? Worry? That’s not in my vocabulary.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? That’s not fair. I didn’t even choose one career, how are you gonna ask me to choose one thing I can’t live without? I can’t live without basketball or music.
- Who’s your hero? My mom and my grandparents. They made so many sacrifices for me. My mom is a breast cancer survivor, and my grandparents just put everything that they had into raising me in the inner city in Paterson, New Jersey, where many people in that city don’t have much. But they made me feel like I had everything. They’re my heroes because they didn’t let me see them struggle.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To fix my eyes [Carson is known for her signature goggles on the court]. Technically they say I’m legally blind without my contacts or glasses.
Read more: She survived cancer to thrive in the WNBA. Now she owns a spa.