Addressing a Time of Tumult and Change With Motown Chief
and UMG Task Force Co-Head Ethiopia Habtemariam

Interview by Simon Glickman

Motown chief/Capitol Music Group EVP Ethiopia Habtemariam has a very full plate. In addition to her label-running duties, she was tapped by UMG supremo Sir Lucian Grainge to co-head the label group’s Task Force for Meaningful Change (TFMC) alongside UMG EVP/General Counsel and interim Def Jam head Jeff Harleston. The TFMC is charged with devising and implementing the company’s response to the racial and social upheaval of recent weeks and its approach to improving institutional diversity and other pressing issues. On top of all that, she agreed to take some time to answer a few of our questions.

What’s your take on what the task force has done and what you’ve accomplished in this very short space of time?
We’re being thoughtful about everything that we're doing. It’s been just a couple of weeks since we've hit the tipping point and there has been an opportunity for change, but the issues have been here—within and without our industry. But it's not something that we're just trying to throw out as a headline and say, “We handled it.”

I’m mindful of that, our influence and that there is a lot of work to be done. We know the power of UMG and that we can make significant change. So this task force is important. There are multiple subcommittees within the task force and there have been a lot of conversations—internally and externally. We're talking to our artists, our partners, community leaders… people at every level.

From an internal standpoint, the question of how to have greater diversity at the top is paramount.
There are levels to it, in my opinion. Music is a core of what we do, and A&R is at the center of it. Every music company should be A&R-driven. How do you make sure, as A&Rs grow in their careers, that their executive growth is happening at the same time? It’s vital to make sure that, in addition to making great records, they're also learning the business side of things—and as they’re promoted to VPs, SVPs, EVPs, their business acumen is also improving. You need that executive leadership dynamic happening. At every level you need mentorship, guidance and so forth. I don't think the music business has had much of that kind of development, though it’s standard practice in some other industries.

There certainly seems to be a consensus at this moment that mentorship is essential.
I think it's important at every level. I’ve discussed this with people who work in film and TV, and they’re continuously challenged at every level to grow. I think it's important that we put those sorts of things in place. We need to be a modern-day industry, and that requires a little more forward thinking about how we grow our executives.

My conversations with friends and colleagues have also gotten into how we become more well-rounded with support—not only for our employees but also for our artists. In these times, mental health is an issue. For artists, we know that drug abuse is an issue. We're seeing suicide rates go up. How do we really become well-rounded and provide support across the board? We need to understand our responsibility around that. That was my biggest concern, with everything that has taken place.

It's traumatizing to see the images of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks being killed and the news of hangings in California and Texas. To know that the cops who killed Breonna Taylor are still free. I'm a black woman experiencing it myself, but I was also extremely concerned about the black employees at our company and the trauma of everything that’s happening, including the pandemic. My immediate reaction was: How do we provide support for them as they’re living through this? These young, black men and women are seeing those images and some of them are living by themselves—in Hollywood, in the midst of everything. I was really concerned about that. And for everyone, just as human beings, living through and seeing all of it, seeing police brutality, the reality of what's happening.

We're seeing the effect of protest bringing about change and we're seeing a diverse group of young people coming together, leading the change. I've been talking to my elders who lived through the sixties; even they say they've never seen a moment like this.

It certainly bears some resemblance to this kind of mass uprisings of the last century, but the composition of the protestors is different.
And it's not stopping, that's the interesting thing. I have a goddaughter who's 17—she and kids like her want change. They know that they can make significant changes happen, and they're going to go out there and do it. They're willing to bet on themselves rather than waiting on an adult to tell them what to do. I think there's something really powerful about that.

"You can't act like it's normal to be experiencing this.
We haven't lived through this before."

Agreed. I guess the real question is whether they now are able to take that energy and turn it into political mobilization.
That's a part of our responsibility now. I think about our power within the music business. We know that this is an election year and we have so much influence. We do the best job when it comes to marketing our records. How do we educate and galvanize an audience to really show up and vote? How do we educate our artists to galvanize their audiences to vote? It’s a youth-driven audience that's out there. So there's education that has to happen.

I feel that responsibility now and this is all being discussed. I also feel, now more than ever, that artists will want to do those things. We don't want anyone to feel embarrassed if they don't understand something; let's make it easy for them and educate them, bring people in to help them better understand. We have to be the bridge in informing them. I think there's always been a disconnect when it comes to meeting them where they are and making it a little more palpable. But if we can make those connections happen, we can really make significant change and to have people really show up.

Habtemariam and Harleston celebrate legendary honoree Berry Gordy at 2019's Capitol Congress, alongside Motown GM Marc Byers, CMG chief Steve Barnett, COO Michelle Jubelirer and UMe boss Bruce Resnikoff.

I was having a conversation with somebody recently about where today’s protest songs are. I've seen some really powerful new music and video that really addresses the moment, but I expected to see more.
Well, we just released a powerful new song from Lil Baby, “The Bigger Picture.” I'm in Atlanta, I've been quarantined out here to be closer to my father. The protests started here, and there was some looting that took place as well. Pee and Coach were telling me the mayor was trying to get in touch with Lil Baby, because clearly, he’s the sound of this young generation. And he didn't really want to engage. He had a lot of thoughts about everything that was happening and he understands his influence.

He took it upon himself to reach out to this young City Councilman and to with Morehouse College students who were protesting. He recorded a few records, which were really powerful, and shot a video with them. But the upshot is he really listened to these kids. So we've rushed to put this song out. It is so incredible. This young man is really stepping into his responsibility as an artist, knowing that these kids really listen to him and are influenced by him. He did a song that's really about understanding the bigger picture. It's not about fuck all cops. It's not about “I hate white people,” or anything like that. Because it's about so much more.

Human connection.
Yes, exactly. And I’m really proud of that, because there has to be a higher level of awareness and understanding. It's been amazing to see the response. This shift is happening. And I feel I should take a minute to mention the two women who came up with the idea of Blackout Tuesday, Jamila Thomas and Brianna Agyemang. What they created has been so impactful and those young women deserve to be acknowledged, supported and protected. The seed of that idea is going to grow into something very big.

My immediate team is a diverse group executives and the majority of them are black. We recently had a staff meeting where I said, listen, I know it’s tough to go on with business as usual. I am in this with you. I'm a black woman experiencing the same thing you’re experiencing. A part of my activism is showing up and operating at a level of excellence. But I'm compassionate and I understand everyone deals with things differently.

I said, if you're having a hard day, let us know, and there will be someone to support you through it. So we'll cover for each other. I think they appreciated that, and everyone did everything they could to make sure we got Baby’s project set up properly.

I’ve found, especially lately, that there's an additional motivation when you can help spread the word about something substantial and meaningful. There’s more energy than you feel just doing the daily grind.
Yes. It’s also just recognizing that everything is not okay in the world, you know what I mean? We know that we're in it, but we're all in it together, no matter what.

The pandemic and violence and injustice—it just presses down on people. But I think the more you give people an opportunity to be part of a team that's answering it in some way…
Acknowledging it. You can't act like it's normal to be experiencing this. We haven't lived through this before. We haven’t.

Jeff Harleston has been great. We just had a great town hall; he brought [Congressman] Hakeem Jeffries [D-NY] in to speak to the company. It was really informative. The conversations that we've been having, the committees that we put in place, the chairs of those committees, everyone is being very thoughtful, but also taking action. This is about long-term change, but we also know that we have to be disruptive and move immediately—and we have Lucian’s full support. And that means the world. He understands, he gets it and he's fully empowered us. We’re the largest music group in the world and we understand what that means.

What you guys have gotten rolling in this short period of time is pretty impressive.
Right? It’s not about a headline, and Monday was just the rollout of the first phase. We’re talking to our partners who have strong feelings about how they're giving their money, how they want us to partner with them, what we can be doing in communities together. We know there's a lot that we have to do to educate the younger audience that listens to our music. How do we provide more job opportunities? We're putting a lot of thought into this.

It's got to feel overwhelming at times.
We’re three weeks in.

What’s giving you solace right now?
It’s helpful being close to my family. I'm in touch with my friends, working out to keep myself in balance. I go on walks in the morning; luckily, I'm on the East Coast, so before all the Zoom meetings start, I get some time to myself.

Well, stay balanced. We need you.
It’s a lot, but I’m energized in a lot of ways around all of this, There’s a real opportunity for major change.