Spotlight: Manager Ebonie Ward on Elevating the Vision Behind Hip-Hop Acts Like Future & Gunna
"When it comes to managers ... we have the client’s ear and there’s nothing more important than that."
Considering music manager Ebonie Ward was up past 4 a.m. last night on a tour bus traveling with rapper Gunna New York City to Philadelphia on his Drip or Drown 2 Tour, she sounds unexpectedly chipper when answering the phone.
Roughing it on the road is not something every manager is expected to endure (or would put up with), but Ward says she doesn't want to act in any way above her clients -- who also include Future, Turbo and Yung Bans, Young Scooter and producers Ghetto Guitar and Jet. "I allow myself to be uncomfortable [with them]," she says. "I want to struggle [with them]."
Working alongside CEO Anthony Saleh at artist management firm Emagen Entertainment Group, where Ward was made partner last March, the 32-year-old taps her longtime passion for hip-hop as fuel to lift her clients to the top of their games; not to mention the Billboard charts. Earlier this year, Future’s seventh studio album Future Hndrxx Presents: The Wizrd, quickly became the rapper's sixth No. 1 effort on the Billboard 200 when it debuted with 126,000 equivalent album units earned in the week ending Jan. 24, according to Nielsen Music. The album was his sixth chart-topper in just over three years, making history as the fastest accumulation of Billboard 200 chart-toppers since Elton John in the early '70s. Almost just a month later, Gunna's debut album Drip or Drown 2 bowed at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and marked the Georgia rapper’s first No. 1 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, earning 90,000 equivalent album units in the week ending Feb. 28.
“When it comes to managers, I don’t think people really understand what we do or the power that we have. We facilitate every single thing in relation to the artist,” Ward explains. “It’s beyond picking up the phone to book a show. We have the client’s ear and there’s nothing more important than that. That’s not even something their record label possesses. Management teams are the heart of an artist’s business.”
Born in Boston, Ward moved to Atlanta with her mother when she was 6 years old; it was there she found her love for hip-hop. She later studied mass communications and broadcast journalism at Georgia’s Albany State University and made a name for herself around campus throwing parties featuring guests like fellow alumnus Rick Ross. After receiving her Master’s degree at Troy University in Alabama, Ward returned to Atlanta to open a men’s boutique called Fly Kix ATL. Little did she know that the store would start her down an entirely different career path.
Ward was introduced to Future in 2011 while attending some underground rap listening sessions throughout the city. The then-rising artist went on to perform at the grand opening for Ward's Fly Kix ATL storefront and an early friendship was formed. "I was so young and super green and had so much ambition in life. I told Future, 'You're going to be the next Michael Jackson,'" Ward recalls with a laugh. "He's like, This girl is fucking crazy!' But literally after that, we've been together every single day."
The men’s boutique also brought her in contact with Gunna, who she’s known for a decade when he was just 15. But she didn’t officially hop on his team until his Drip Season 3 mixtape that was released February 2018. “I was assisting [video director] Spike Jordan with basic production on set of a Spotify shoot and Gunna pulled up,” Ward says. “I hadn't seen him in six months and his face lit up. He was telling me everything that's been going on with his career [and said], 'Can you just come help me? I don't have a manager, I don't have a team right now.'"
Over the past eight years, Ward has transitioned from being Future’s assistant to creative director and now part of his management team. “He has these massive songs but there's still room for him to grow and evolve,” she says. “That's the beauty of a real talent -- when they still feel that they have another level to achieve.”
In recounting her own behind-the-scenes successes, Ward names spearheading Apple Music's documentary for The Wizrd and the Drip or Drown 2 campaign as highlights. “The beautiful thing about [Drip or Drown 2] was that [Gunna] did it with [executive producers] Turbo and Wheezy, who are his best friends. I felt like it was my job to deliver a No. 1 for them because I’ve watched them devote their lives to each other and this project. I felt obligated to make them win.”
But she is also willing to acknowledsge more disappointing moments, like last October’s Future-Juice WRLD collaborative Wrld on Drugs mixtape. “The mindset behind that was [to show] that people are addicted to everything: social media, food, money. It wasn’t just about drugs,” she explains. “It was supposed to be perceived as something positive, but we got so much negative feedback from it that people didn’t even listen to the music. Maybe the timing wasn’t best or we could’ve approached it differently. But not everything is going to be a win. If you know your client did their best, that’s all that matters. Don’t allow the numbers to consume you.”
Last June Ward also began consulting for Columbia Record’s urban division and as her workload grows she also looks forward to some of life's more simple joys -- like dating and rest. “I sleep with my laptop right underneath my body. I mean it's so nuts because my friends are just like, ‘Maybe this is why you're single!’” she jokes. “But literally, I'm anticipating a phone call at any second. Of course, it gives you crazy anxiety and stress, but it's like a nurturing thing at this point -- I don't want to ever feel like I'm not reachable.”
For now, Ward notes she still has to make sacrifices for her own career with hopes of inspiring other young women who want to work in the industry: “Happiness for me is knowing that an idea that I thought of came into fruition and people received it well. Every night that I didn’t sleep was worth it -- that’s success for me. It has zero to do with money.”
The best advice I've received is something that Future told me: "It gets better, so don’t get too comfortable." The moment you become satisfied with anything in life, that’s all you’ll ever have. Always strive for more, because ego is a killer!
I knew I was committed to music when I gave everything up. I left my store and sacrificed everything for something that I knew was going to be bigger than me.
Dealing with musicians you have to have a certain level of patience. Their minds deal with art first, not emotion. That will always come first.
Something most people don't understand is that this is not as easy as it looks! When people see someone doing something [successful], they think they can do the same. But do it in your own way.
A good idea is something that you created -- not from what you stole from someone else. There aren’t any dumb ideas, just people dumb enough to think their ideas aren’t good enough. Don’t be afraid to do things your own way and allow people to follow. Another quote that I love from Oprah is, “In order to be a queen, you have to be a leader. You have to be a wolf, not a sheep.” That’s one of the biggest things I live by.
I never had a problem, I always had a resolution. I’ve never been afraid to stay an extra hour to get the work done. I can handle anything, and that’s what any strong manager should possess.
Spotlight is a Billboard.biz series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.