When Apple’s Bozoma Saint John took the stage at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June, grooving along to “Rapper’s Delight” while demonstrating the new functions of Apple Music, the couple of thousand gathered at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium strained their necks to take in the 6-foot-1 “badass,” as Twitter declared when her name started trending. Within minutes, BuzzFeed blasted a post titled “Bozoma Saint John Is the Coolest Person to Ever Go Onstage at an Apple Event,” while The Verge proclaimed “Apple’s Bozoma Saint John Is My Hero.” Both noted the significance of the first black woman to present at an Apple event.
To hear Saint John, 39, describe the moment, history wasn’t on her mind. In fact, the head of global consumer marketing for iTunes and Apple Music finds the constant preface of “black” and “woman” in articles about her “annoying.” “I am one of the best at what I do,” she says, “regardless of being a woman and being black — those are benefits!” Thinking back, the engineers stirring in their seats weren’t of much concern to her, either. “The strategy was to talk to the people outside — those who are going to be watching in their office or on the phone, the people on social media,” she says. “They need to feel like their best girlfriend just told them about this cool new thing. It needed to feel fun because that’s what the experience of music is. So when no one [in the room] was really going along with the lyrics, it wasn’t scary because I could hear the roar of the crowd outside. I know they’re jamming.”
That Saint John was chosen to represent the streaming service, undergoing days of script doctoring and intense run-throughs under the watchful eye of Apple CEO Tim Cook, is a testament to her influence on the $596 billion tech giant. She joined the company through Beats, which Apple acquired three months after she started working there in 2014. Says Jimmy Iovine, who hired her: “She’s a force of nature. She walks it. She talks it. She knows what’s going on, whether it’s fashion, music, sports… That’s what attracted me to her. I didn’t need a technology person; I needed someone to sell a streaming service. And if she could sell me, she could sell anybody.”
Quickly upstreamed to head up music marketing efforts, Saint John was soon stewarding such buzzy campaigns as the ad featuring Taylor Swift’s workout wipeout to Drake and Future’s “Jumpman” (followed six months later with a commercial showing Drake pumping iron to Swift’s “Bad Blood”), and another starring Mary J. Blige, Kerry Washington and Taraji P. Henson and directed by Ava DuVernay, which premiered on Emmys night in 2015. In the latter, the ladies played themselves, trading music notes through which consumers could be introduced to the playlist concept. The clip became a social media sensation, prompting conversations about race and gender and helping drive subscribers to Apple Music — 17 million of them, as last reported by the company in September.
“Talk about black girl magic,” says Saint John. “Marketers sometimes get caught in this lie that you must talk to people only in the voice that they recognize. So if you’re a 35-year-old white woman, I must speak to you as a 35-year-old white woman. And that is not true. Mary J. Blige can talk to you, and we’ve proved it. This wasn’t just about music, or even about Apple Music, it was about the greater conversation in our world. All of this divisiveness is not real. You have a bunch of girlfriends that you hang out with. You listen to music and talk about the good old days. That is a universal truth.”
A native of Ghana who moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., at 13, Saint John has been an observer of pop culture for as long as she can remember. “I consumed it like I was getting a Ph.D. — it was survival,” she says of her teenage years. “No one would talk to me. I was the outsider, so it was born out of necessity, to see what people were doing, thinking, saying — anything that would give me clues as to how to behave or engage.”
Saint John first entered the marketing and advertising world through Spike Lee’s firm, Spike DDB. It was there that her relationship with Beyoncé was forged (through a 2002 Pepsi commercial), eventually developing into a decade of collaborations that hit its apex during Super Bowl XLVII in 2013, when, as head of music and entertainment marketing for Pepsi, Saint John played a key role in securing the singer for the halftime show.
But Saint John’s career high came with a personal low that same year, when her husband, Peter Saint John, an advertising producer, died of cancer. She relocated from New York to Los Angeles with her daughter, now 7, to join Beats. “It was a time for reinvention,” she says. “There was all kinds of trepidation and things that could go wrong, but there was no better place to be.”
Indeed, seeing Saint John sass late-night host James Corden alongside Apple senior vp Internet software and services Eddy Cue in a September ad for Apple Music (watch below), you get the sense that this is a woman who feels at home not just in the Culver City complex that serves as Apple’s Los Angeles headquarters, but in the male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley. “Boz doesn’t get intimidated,” says Iovine. “She wants to learn. If there’s something she doesn’t know, she’ll say, ‘I don’t understand that, but this is what you want it to feel like.’ ”
Saint John, who confesses that she’s still easily marketed to — “I’m single-handedly responsible for keeping the nail polish business alive — Sally Hansen owes me something,” she cracks — considers the collective’s role as “pioneers. We’re cutting down forests and trying to look through the trees,” she says of the Apple Music executive team, which also includes Larry Jackson and Robert Kondrk (Saint John reports to head of marketing Jon Gieselman). “We’re trying to transform something that seems complex and scary into the most exciting and inviting party you’ve ever been to, and you’d be a fool to miss out.”
Her role in the greater Apple universe also ties into that sense of inclusion. “This a matrix organization, and everyone depends on the other in order to make it successful,” Saint John explains. “It’s not necessarily about who you report to but what it is that you do to contribute. And that’s the way that we really look at it. Everyone has a core responsibility [and a] core strength.”
Still, the tech industry is behind the curve when it comes to diversity (some 71 percent of Silicon Valley is male and 60 percent white), and it’s a burden that Saint John feels she must carry personally. “When I meet with Tim Cook, I don’t say, ‘How are you making diversity happen here?’ I’m responsible for who I hire and who I partner with, be it agencies, media companies or artists,” says Saint John, who oversees some 50 staffers. “When bringing on new employees, I challenge people to look for someone who is nothing like them.”
And of other powerful women in the tech industry and beyond, Saint John calls Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, whom she has never met, “awesome,” telling Billboard, “No one is perfect, but hell she made it and I cheer her on.” Her description of Michelle Obama, with whom she has spent time: “Home girl is straight-up gracious and an amazing woman.” Queen Bey, meanwhile, is her guiding light when it comes to the board room. Says Saint John with a laugh: “I walk in with my Beyoncé warrior face on.”
Watch Bozoma Saint John talk about her move from Pepsi to Beats 1 to Apple Music: “I run toward danger.”
?This article originally appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of Billboard. Billboard’s Women In Music event takes place on Dec. 9 in New York City and airs on Lifetime Dec. 12.