Ethiopia Habtemariam photographed on June 1, 2018 at Line 204 in Los Angeles. 
Ethiopia Habtemariam photographed on June 1, 2018 at Line 204 in Los Angeles. 
Sami Drasin

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

by Gail Mitchell
June 28, 2018, 10:03am EDT

The highest-ranking African-American women at Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group are, respectively, Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam, Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone and Atlantic executive vp Juliette Jones. Here's how Habtemariam got to where she is today. (Find links to the other women's stories below.)

When, at age 16, Ethiopia Habtemariam wrote her first fan letter, it wasn't to one of her favorite artists. 

She was trying to connect with Sylvia Rhone, then Elektra Entertainment Group chairman/CEO (and today, president of Epic Records). “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, she’s president of Motown Records, and 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.”

Ironically, leading a record label wasn't high on Habtemariam’s childhood list of career priorities. But in 1991, after relocating with her family from Tuskegee, Ala., to Atlanta, the sixth grader found herself front row for the ATL’s bursting-at-the-seams music scene. “Being there is what introduced me to music,” she remembers. “I was friends in middle school with [hip-hop duo] Kris Kross before they got discovered.”

But getting the chance, as a high school freshman, to meet LaFace Records head of promotion Shanti Das at a career-planning class and then shadow her for a day inspired her to take a label internship. “There were incredible black women in every department, including A&R, creative and marketing,” says Habtemariam. “I look back at pictures from that time and ask, ‘Yo, who was I?,’ because you see how someone can be so determined.”

After interning at Elektra -- the result of an industry program then called Yes to Jobs -- Habtemariam skipped college to become a part-time assistant in LaFace’s production department. When LaRonda Sutton, GM at affiliated company Hitco Publishing, left to join Los Angeles-based Edmonds Publishing, she helped Habtemariam land her first full-time industry job as a creative manager at Edmonds. Thus began Habtemariam’s ascent within the publishing ranks. She segued to UMPG under the mentorship of head of creative Tom Sturges, working first in New York (where she reconnected with Rhone, who was Motown president) and then in Los Angeles, signing such artist-songwriters as Keri Hilson, Ludacris, Justin Bieber, J. Cole and Chris Brown.


Offered the opportunity to rebuild the iconic Motown in the wake of her publishing success, Habtemariam was appointed senior vp in 2011 and president three years later. At the same time, she made industry history as a woman and person of color holding down two high-profile gigs. “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.”

Over the last two years, Motown has been rejuvenated, due in part to Habtemariam shepherding the label’s joint venture with Quality Control (Migos, Lil Yachty and up-and-comers Lil Baby and City Girls). She has also landed a series of new artist and joint venture agreements, including with Grammy-winning producer Zaytoven and his Familiar Territory Records, rapper Chaz French and his 368 Music Group, and Atlanta creative collective Since The ’80s.

Over time, Habtemariam has learned an eye-opening lesson about mentorship that she’s intent on rectifying. “You don’t always come across women that will be supportive,” she says. “But we need to be even more supportive and collaborative. I probably could have done more outreach myself; people don’t fully understand what you’re going through unless you do. I’m making a real effort to be the polar opposite of what some of my experiences have been.”

Habtemariam hopes to see more women of color recruited for A&R departments. She also feels that more doors are opening for cross-branding. “So much of black culture is about lifestyle, and it’s exciting to think about the opportunities,” says Habtemariam. “While we have this light on our culture, my big focus is on understanding how to take the R&B/hip-hop business to another level.”



POST SCRIPT: WHERE ARE THE LABELS FALLING SHORT?

“When I was coming into the game, there were a lot of women of color running A&R departments, but now there aren't. I don’t know why that is, but it’s putting everyone at a disadvantage. At UMPG, my whole urban team was all women: one white, and the rest black. It wasn't because I purposely sought out women; it was about having the best people.” -- Habtemariam​

This article originally appeared in the June 30 issue of Billboard.