Interview by Simon Glickman

UMG General Counsel/EVP of Business & Legal Affairs and interim Def Jam chief Jeffrey Harleston already had a full plate when he was tapped, alongside Motown head Ethiopia Habtemariam, to lead Universal’s Task Force for Meaningful Change in response to the crisis that erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. He was kind enough to answer a few of our questions about systemic change in the industry and the wider world.

The killing of George Floyd by police obviously galvanized this moment.
That is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. The point is, we feel like we don’t matter. Here’s one man murdering another in broad daylight, with witnesses who were standing, biding their time. There’s no greater illustration of, “Does my life really matter?” It’s the power of that moment, combined with three months locked in the house, combined with leadership in this country that has done everything it can to reinforce the message that black lives don’t matter.

This anguish is something that many people haven’t felt before. The younger generation probably hasn’t felt this angry, hopeless and frustrated before. And that’s what’s pouring them into the streets.

Maybe that sort of disillusionment is necessary before young people can really be mobilized.
Yes. It’s a sad commentary on the human condition, but I think that’s right. We’re in a virtual world right now. We’re not in the office; we’re not bumping into people, but even now you have that dynamic where someone’s hurting so badly in a work context, and others seem to not even notice. I’ve said to a lot of white people, the most important thing you can do is say something. To say nothing is the worst thing you can do, because what black people want to know, at a minimum, is that you understand, that you acknowledge these atrocities. It’d be great if you’d also say, “I’m with you; I’m in the fight. Let’s go.” But at least acknowledge the pain that they’re in.

It’s certainly an opportunity to have some uncomfortable conversations about race and cultural awareness. Here’s an analogy I use: I’m watching the news tonight, and I see a story about a house that burned down in, say, Encino. Then they interview the people who own the house, and I notice, “Oh my God, that’s my coworker, Jean. Her house burned down.” And when I go to the office the next day and see Jean in the break room, I don’t say anything. What we’re talking about is a hundred times worse, because it’s not a house burning down; it’s the loss of a life—the life of someone who looks a lot like me. That’s the level of trauma. So someone acknowledging that, saying, “I’m so sorry,” goes a long way.

When you raise these issues within the industry, do you find that the level of understanding and compassion is different from what you might encounter outside?
No, I think it’s about comparable. I’m working in the music business, but there are other aspects of my professional life, on different boards and things, that have nothing to do with the industry. I’ve had some meetings in the last week and we’ve had to have some of these conversations similar to what we’ve had to have in town halls in the music business. I don’t think it’s obvious to some people, the unique relationship between the music business and this issue.

A lot of record companies in America have a long legacy with black music—and frankly, it’s not a positive one. But it was the foundation of a lot of the powerhouse labels, including Atlantic and Interscope, which is sitting on the catalogs of A&M, MCA and Chess Records, and on and on. There’s a deeply ingrained history of the music business and race, going back to the days of the late ’50s and early ’60s with “race records” and the inability for black artists to chart or to perform in certain venues.

Then there are the issues around black artists and the contracts that they signed, or in some instances probably didn’t even sign, and the way that they were treated on the business side. The importance of that legacy may not be readily apparent to someone in 2020. But it’s very important that the record industry understand and appreciate the connection.

All this is part of why our artists are looking at us to see what we’re going to do to make it better. We have two constituencies that matter the most to us: our artists and our employees. And these are the issues that have to be addressed.

Discussion has heated up over the last couple of weeks about how to address those past imbalances, particularly how legacy artists were compensated and how their contracts were structured—and how to address those issues now. What are your thoughts on that?
I’ve talked with some artists about that. I’m talking with contemporary artists about issues from the past, which is always a challenge. Over time, a lot of companies have undertaken various degrees of royalty reform, such as improving royalties for catalog artists; several years ago, Universal created the Universal Motown Fund, a $2 million endowment that provides aid to any R&B artist that recorded for a label that is now owned by UMG. We provide grants throughout the year to various artists.

How do we address these things? The first step is having conversations to determine the most productive way to deal with this.

Let’s talk about what you, Ethiopia and the rest of the task force have begun to roll out as regards the company’s response to these social issues on the macro level, and how you got to this point.
As the task force was coming together and there was a call for Blackout Tuesday, Ethiopia and I realized that we’re very clear that the issues here have to live on beyond Tuesday. We need to address these issues in hopes of playing a role in long-term, systemic change on social and racial injustice and related issues. But we recognize—and we’ve discussed this a lot—that there’s also a burning desire to do something right now.

Obviously, protesting is immediate and has a big impact, raises awareness and has led to change. I know there were some protests at [L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s] house regarding police funding and he’s agreed to reduce some of that funding.

We asked ourselves what we could do to support the protesters, whether it’s aid for legal services, bail or getting funds to organizations on the ground. Then we worked on balancing that with some longer-term initiatives.

We divided up the workstreams; aid was a big part of it. We were set on identifying organizations to get funds flowing immediately, which we did last week. Also, because this is a global issue, our response as a company should be global. I immediately asked for the head of our African company, Sipho Dlamini, to be on the task force; I reached out to our people in the U.K., Canada, Australia, Germany, France, Southeast Asia; they all want to be a part of this.

We want to turn the spotlight on ourselves in terms of institutional change. How can we be more responsive not only in terms of diversity, but equity and inclusion in the workforce, with a real focus on opportunities for black leadership? This is something I’ve been very passionate about for quite some time and have spoken about extensively.

So that work is ongoing, with a new energy and focus. I think there’s an opportunity to really do some things now. We’ll be working with our artists and some black entrepreneurs we’re in business with. We’re working with a number of black-owned labels to drive initiatives in their communities. And we really want to bring the artist community along.

And then there’s programming and curation, which is really another way of saying education. We had a town hall last week; over a thousand people attended via Zoom, which is fascinating. Several more are in the works.

And then finally, and nearest and dearest to my heart, is legislation and public policy. Some of the millennials look at me a little funny when I say it, but I think the most important thing we can do is vote. We have to work on voter registration. We have to work on voter education, and we have to work on voter participation, meaning we’ve got to get people out to the polls.

And fight voter suppression as well.
Right. That’s a very important point. I’m glad you brought that up. We’re looking to partner with some voter organizations on that as well.

Can artists help overcome the resistance that many younger people have to getting involved at the electoral level?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. Some younger people have either never voted, or they’ve only voted once, and their candidate didn’t win. I remember it took a long time before a person I voted for was elected.

Hand in hand with voting are different legislative initiatives at the federal, state and local level. When you talk about real change, you’re talking about police oversight, prosecutorial oversight and discretion, issues like that.

These may not be the sexiest issues, but they’re incredibly important. Even with George Floyd, once the state [of Minnesota] took over the prosecution, you saw the other officers charged and the charges moved from third degree to second degree. This stuff really matters. We are getting involved in numerous state and local reform issues for this reason. There’s a major police reform act being introduced at the federal level, with a big rally planned at the end of August. We’re deeply involved in that too.

Our task force is just a week and a day old, but we wanted to really show that we’ve put some thought behind this. We assembled quickly, we put together a good group. There are about 35 of us and we’ve mobilized in a short period of time.

UMG is a very thoughtful company. So we’ve tried to be thoughtful about our approach and build something that can have near-term goals, like helping to get charges brought against the officers who shot Breonna Taylor. We’re fired up. I’ve been with the company 27 years, and this is a moment of activism and support that I’ve never seen here before.

I wonder if we can return to the question of how the business fulfills that promise of more diversity at the top level.
The problem is long past the point of needing to be addressed. One of the fundamental issues is that people hire people like themselves. And if you don’t know anybody who’s not like you, you’re not going to find anybody who’s not like you to hire. It sounds fairly simple. But it’s not much more complicated than that. It’s about who’s in the pool and providing opportunities, particularly for black individuals, to be considered in the pool.

The music industry is a relatively insular business; oftentimes jobs are filled before anyone even knows they’re open. I’m desperate to get people into the pool.

A reporter once asked me, “What about black entrepreneurs who have built their businesses outside, because they didn’t want to come inside?” And I said, “What makes you think they didn’t want to? I bet if you asked them, they’d tell you they’ve never been invited.” It’s not an issue of talent; the talent pool is large and plentiful. It’s about getting to know these incredibly talented executives and giving them a shot.

Along with that, we have an obligation to provide better training and mentorship opportunities. I’ve had some terrific mentors in my career, and I know I wouldn’t be where I am now without those opportunities. I mentor several people; I think that’s part of our responsibility as managers and leaders.

It’s surprising that there haven’t been more opportunities, particularly when we’re coming out of a period over the last several years when black music, particularly hip-hop, has been one of the most dominant genres. It’s driven the streaming revolution. Despite that, executives who have worked in the areas of black music or hip-hop have not seen the same growth during that period of time. To me, that’s quite an indictment.

Can you say a bit more about the dominance of hip-hop, which has been the genre most responsible for the return of a flourishing industry? It’s particularly fascinating to those of us who’ve watched its whole history unfold.
Yes. I remember when Russell Simmons moved Def Jam from Columbia to PolyGram, and they let him take all of his catalog with him. I thought that was extraordinary. I remember somebody saying, “It’s rap catalog. How valuable could it be?” People thought it was a fad. Now, you look at these incredible catalogs, like Def Jam, Priority and Interscope. Here’s a genre that, in a 35-40-year span, has become a driver. It’s pretty amazing.

And a cultural driver too.
Completely And yet the culture has not been allowed to advance within the corporation. It has musically, but that’s as far as it goes.

And now we’re dealing with all this violence in the culture where the creators of our industry’s vast wealth are perhaps the most vulnerable.
Yeah. That’s heavy. Simon, bring me back!

Well, what’s heartening is to see how there’s a certain clarity in the conversation about these issues, suggesting that there has been a cultural shift. And that cultural shift is in part driven by music.
I could not agree more. What gives me the greatest hope is that I’ve felt the cultural shift as well. And I’ve watched this unfold, and the more people I talk to, the more it feels like this time is different. I hope this will be a real opportunity to get some sustained change.

I grew up in Boston, and I went to high school there in the mid-to-late-’70s. It was tough, man. But to think that I’m sitting here 40-plus years later, and we’re still dealing with this nonsense? It’s shocking. But I salute the activism. The response across the world has been phenomenal. And I think it’s good for everyone.

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