In January of 2020, months before he would become a central figure in the music industry’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement—and shortly before he was appointed interim head of the Def Jam label—Jeff Harleston was honored by the legal community for consistently going above and beyond his role as a label lawyer. He became the first Black attorney acknowledged with the Entertainment Law Initiative Service Award, an annual citation handed out during Grammy Week.

In the time since he received this recognition, the man who began his career investigating government misdeeds has returned to advocacy, fighting to make the industry more just as co-head, with Motown boss Ethiopia Habtemariam, of UMG’s Task Force for Meaningful Change.

The demanding Task Force duties and the leadership of Def Jam supplemented Harleston’s already robust corporate role—alongside CFO/EVP Boyd Muir—which he performs in bringing Universal’s myriad deals to fruition. As UMG boss Sir Lucian Grainge’s General Counsel and EVP of Business & Legal, Harleston has played a fundamental part in the negotiation and codification of everything from artist and executive pacts to major partnerships with the likes of Spotify, Apple, TikTok and Tencent, not to mention all litigation. Yet he has consistently found the time and energy to take on additional responsibilities.

Harleston’s steady professionalism, strategic smarts, dedication and ethic of service have been a through line in his career. And long before he was given oversight of the label group’s Task Force, he was celebrated by his colleagues as a persistent, persuasive voice for diversity and inclusion.

The ELI honor for the industrious multitasker, closing in on 30 years at UMG, was primarily for his work outside the office. It’s an extraordinary CV. For starters, he has chaired the T.J. Martell Foundation and sat on the boards of MusiCares, the RIAA, SoundExchange and the nascent National Museum of African American Music.

Furthermore, in what he has called one of his proudest moments, he was a founder of the Universal/Motown Fund, a $2 million endowment dedicated to providing financial assistance to artists active from the ’50s to the ’70s. Beyond his work with those organizations, he mentors UMG employees from around the world, emphasizing the cultivation of diversity and inclusion.

In presenting the ELI award, Grainge declared, “UMG would not be the company it is today without Jeff’s insights, instincts and expertise. Jeff is so much more than just a brilliant attorney with an ear for talent and a mind for business: He’s also a man who never forgets that—beyond any transaction—it’s ultimately the artists who matter most.”

“Jeff has always been a champion of emerging voices,” Grainge added. “It’s why he always invests in building long-term relationships. And it’s why, even in the toughest negotiations, he always seeks to find a win-win for everyone. But Jeff’s contributions extend far beyond UMG. He mentors. He volunteers. Of course, Jeff does all this very quietly, which makes [the] award for distinguished service all the more meaningful.”

Five months after the award presentation, Harleston would take that ethic of service to the next level. With Motown head Habtemariam, he was put in charge of the Task Force for Meaningful Change, a group assembled in response to the crisis that erupted after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May. In addition to grappling with the biz’s response to such horrors and the systemic racism that drives them, the Task Force also sought to address and change the industry’s own structural inequality.

“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,” Harleston told HITS after the task force was formed. “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.”

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