Thursday, December 9, 2021

How Ethiopia Habtemariam Became One of the Most Powerful Black Women in Music

Credit: Shot by Sami Drasin exclusively for Billboard

*This week’s Billboard cover story features a trio of the most powerful black women at the three major-label groups, Motown Records President Ethiopia Habtemariam, Epic Records President Sylvia Rhone, and Atlantic Executive VP Juliette Jones.

These women are redefining leadership in a music business that – with label revenue strong, Spotify stock rising and startups proliferating – requires a wider talent pool than ever, from blockchain engineers to bilingual vocal coaches.

Says Epic president Sylvia Rhone: “Aspiring female executives will be able to find their place in this music ecosystem – and change the world.”

At age 16, Habtemariam wrote her first fan letter and it wasn’t to one of her favorite artists.

via Billboard:

She was trying to connect with Sylvia Rhone, then Elektra Entertainment Group chairman/CEO.

“I wanted to introduce myself because it was incredible to hear that the label’s chairman was a black woman. I’d never heard of anything like that before,” recalls Habtemariam.

Back then, she was interning at Elektra’s Atlanta office. Today, as president of Motown Records, she recently received a fan letter of her own. It was written by a female student attending Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., and participating in the inaugural Bonus Tracks program this spring. Designed to introduce students to career opportunities in the music industry, the after-school program is a partnership among Capitol Music Group, Dominguez and the Compton Unified School District.

“I was in awe of how much you are a boss,” the student wrote to Habtemariam  — who also recently served as president of urban and creative affairs for Universal Music Publishing Group (UMPG) — after meeting her at a Bonus Tracks session. “It was exciting to be in the presence of a BLACK WOMAN of your status. Coming from where I come from, I rarely get to see that.”

That’s something Habtemariam is intent on changing from her Capitol Tower office. “It’s on [music executives] to be vocal and active in creating opportunities,” she says. “Real initiatives need to be put in place. If the people working on a project don’t look like the people you’re trying to touch with your records, there’s a problem.”

OTHER NEWS YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED: Kendrick Lamar on White People Saying the ’N-word’ and Kanye’s ‘Slavery’ Controversy

Ethiopia Habtemariam on others trying to negate her success: “I heard people say, ‘Oh, she got the job just because she’s a black woman and they’re just trying to cover their asses,’ ” she says. “OK, cool. Even if that was the case, it’s on me. What am I going to do to make an impact and assure that other people get these kinds of opportunities in the future? Plus, I love proving people wrong.”

Epic Records President Sylvia Rhone on being a woman running a label: “As a woman, you have to come from a position of confidence,” she says. “There’s a certain gift that women have in their management style that’s more inclusive than a male counterpart’s. One of the keys is to always be your best self. There’s no secret formula to it. You just have to understand that you’re managing a team of people, whether it’s two or 100, that is far more important than you.”

Sylvia Rhone on the long-term effect of the #MeToo movement: “No one can adequately convey the trauma of a woman who has been harassed. In the past, so many women have felt compelled to keep silent for fear of losing their jobs. The toll that kind of secret takes on their lives is immeasurable. Everybody should be made to feel safe in their work environment. This movement has allowed women to speak their truths and reclaim their power. It’s given women a voice and hopefully stops the institutionalization of discrimination and sexual harassment.”

Atlantic Executive VP Juliette Jones on the frustration of being a female exec often mistaken for a groupie at shows: “Consistently in my career, when I’m with artists, I’ve been harassed because it’s assumed the woman is a groupie,” says Jones. “Ten men with no credentials will walk ahead of me, but security will stop me. ‘Oh, that’s right,’ ” she says, laughing. “ ‘I’m here to try to sleep with Young Thug.’ ”

Juliette Jones on gender disparity in the music industry: “It’s important, as women, that we learn to use our power to support each other, plus be comfortable in asking questions and voicing our career desires,” says Jones. “We need more [Atlantic chairman/CEO] Julie Greenwalds and Sylvia Rhones in the top seats — someone who sees the potential in women. I don’t think men are up there systematically keeping us out. It’s just not top of mind for them.”

Read each of their featured stories via the links below:

How Ethiopia Habtemariam Became Universal Music Group’s Most Powerful African-American Woman: ‘I Love Proving People Wrong 

How Sylvia Rhone Became Sony Music’s Most Powerful African-American Woman: ‘Many Questioned My Ability’

How Juliette Jones Became Warner Music Group’s Most Powerful African-American Woman: ‘It’s Important We Use Our Power to Support Each Other’

Ny MaGee
Ny MaGee is an entertainment reporter with over 15 years of experience working in the film industry in areas including production and post-production, marketing, distribution, and acquisitions. She has worked for legendary film producer Roger Corman, Quentin Tarantino's production team at Miramax, the late Larry Flynt, MTV/ VH1, Hallmark Channel, Paramount, Jim Henson Co., Parade Magazine, and various LA-based companies representing above-the-line talent.

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