Veteran Def Jam Exec Nicki Farag On Breaking Hits For Alessia Cara, Rihanna & More

ISSUE 18 2019 - NOT OUT YET
Martha Galvan
Nicki Farag photographed on July 15, 2019 at Def Jam Records in Santa Monica, Calif.

The Def Jam executive vp promotion looks back at getting Alessia Cara’s “Here” on radio, her first Women In Music honor, and more.

In April 2015, Canadian R&B singer Alessia Cara released her anti-partying anthem “Here” on Def Jam Recordings. The track connected “instantaneously,” says executive vp promotion Nicki Farag, whose team leveraged its popularity on Shazam to guide it to the No. 1 spots on Billboard’s Mainstream Top 40 and Rhythmic Songs charts during a nine-month push. Cara’s debut album, Know-It-All, followed, earning her the Rule Breaker award at Billboard’s annual Women in Music event in 2016. Farag attended with Cara, who that fall also graced the cover of Billboard’s Grammy Preview issue alongside Maren Morris and Chance the Rapper

“That’s every record exec’s dream: to have an unknown artist reach the mainstream,” says Farag, who the following year appeared for the first time as one of the 100 Women in Music honorees. In 2018, she became the label’s first female head of promotion on the heels of Cara’s four Grammy nominations, including one win for Best New Artist.

During her more than 15 years at the iconic hip-hop label -- whose rosters boasts acts like Big Sean, Fabolous, YG, Teyana Taylor and Desiigner as well as fresh voices YK Osiris, 070 Shake, Danileigh, and more -- Farag and her team have scored numerous promotional coups through the years, including three No. 1s on the Mainstream Top 40 chart for Cara (“Here,” “Scars To Your Beautiful,” and “Stay” alongside Zedd), the first-ever Hot 100 No. 1 for Justin Bieber (2015’s “What Do You Mean?”) and a whopping fourteen No. 1s on the Hot 100 for Rihanna -- from 2006’s “SOS” to 2016’s “Work.” 

“Nicki has believed in me since quite literally day one,” Alessia Cara tells Billboard. “She told me on the very first day we started working together that she would have my back no matter what and she’s stood by her word. She’s a force who loves what she does and it radiates through every project she gets behind. She’s really one of the great ones. I call her Mom!”

Below, Farag explains how she got “Here” on radios everywhere.

 


 

For any label, signing a singer-songwriter is a challenge because there are multiple artists in that genre who don’t have the prolific lyrics or the songs, and it’s just not enough. When you reach that milestone with an Ed Sheeran or a Taylor Swift, it’s like a diamond in the rough. Alessia was a major feather in Def Jam’s cap. [CEO] Paul Rosenberg’s vision was about us once again becoming the No. 1 hip-hop and rap label in the world -- and to do that, you have to take chances on new artists.

To be there at Women in Music with Alessia, I felt proud. She was so humble and appreciative of being on that stage. It was a “holy shit” moment. When we dropped “Here,” radio was like, “Who is this girl?” We had markets with no airplay, but we would be in Shazam’s top 15. First we worked the record at Triple A, then at urban, but with its crossover potential, we decided to set an impact date at top 40 and rhythm.

For whatever it’s worth, being a woman in this role in this day and age has motivated and inspired so many other women I didn’t even realize. I had so many people that I either knew or didn’t know reach out to me as a beacon of hope. It was very overwhelming. You’re in your job and you’re just doing your work, you don’t think that one day you’re going to become a role model, but it gives them hope. 

Even though I’m at the executive level and am the only female executive vp at the company, there are still moments when the boys club mentality comes into play. I’ve been navigating through that my whole career but it’s just easier now because of experience. It is what is, right? You just have to find a way to feel comfortable in your position, and do your job better than anyone else. It’s that simple. I got passed on promotions time and time again, and I just kept thinking, “I’m going to run circles around these guys, and they’ll have no choice but to deal with me.” At the end of the day, it’s all about your relationships in this business. As well as investing in Def Jam, I was investing in Nicki Farag.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 27 issue of Billboard.


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