PHYLICIA FANT:
THE HITS INTERVIEW


As head of music industry & culture collaborations at Amazon Music, Phylicia Fant has played an instrumental role in expanding not only the tech giant’s standing in the music world but also its leadership with respect to culture and representation. Her approach to this is informed by both a deep understanding of the biz—thanks to an impressively diverse résumé—and a profound awareness of the opportunities and challenges of this moment.

Tell us about your role at Amazon.

Head of Music Industry & Culture Collaborations wasn’t a role until I arrived at Amazon, so it has been quite an incredible experience building this team from scratch and watching it flourish. In a nutshell, our mission is to bridge the gaps among community, culture and Amazon Music. Our team is not necessarily genre-specific, but we aim to touch Latin, urban and youth culture.

My role has been to link arms with the different teams, make sure we’re going places we haven’t gone before, figure out how to create new relationships and experiences and collaborate with people who move the culture.

The world is changing, becoming faster and more connected than we could’ve imagined even a decade ago. Amazon Music realized that if they maintained the status quo, they wouldn’t keep up, so they created this team. This, to me, shows how proactive and committed Amazon is when it comes to music.

Tell me more about linking arms with different teams.

It’s connecting dots throughout the Amazon universe. Once I was inside Amazon, it struck me that having direct access to so many verticals is an incredible superpower; this is an advantage over any other player in the market and I could see how it could benefit artists and partners. These verticals can connect to tell a story and build a brand. We have so many tools in our toolbox.

We can say to any artist, “Describe your adventure,” and we can build it. The partnership with Beyoncé and Parkwood is a perfect example. We sponsored the Wearable Art Gala [co-founded by Beyoncé’s mother] with our Black Business Accelerator. And Beyoncé had the BeyGOOD charity. We knew she wanted to keep giving back to HBCUs, so our community and policy teams went to work—when she was ready to put her album out, we said, “Great! How do you want to connect with Black youth and the queer community? What about an underground Club RENAISSANCE experience for fans? We’ve got your exclusive custom merch covered.”

And what about those tools in your toolbox?

There’s Prime Video, Audible, Twitch and Amazon Studios. We also have Amazon Music Live and Wondery, where stories can be told through podcasts and livestreaming. Do you want to design with Amazon Fashion? Do you want to have your own lipstick as part of your merch drop? Let’s figure it out. What about independent artists who want their own merch capabilities? That’s possible, too. What Amazon did with Kendrick Lamar and Drake is a good example of that—it was streaming, but it was merch, too.

So those tools go beyond music to the cultural mission of the artist.

Exactly. What is the cultural mission? How do you want to be part of the zeitgeist? What can we do to get you there?

There are so many moving parts.

If an artist is going to be something, they’re going to be more than one thing. It’s beyond the song.

Is it fair to say you’re using all the levers at this giant corporation to re-engineer the perception of its connection to the music community?

We want you to know that we’re real people. We’re taking a step back to look at individuals who move the culture and ask, “What do you need?” We’ll take a back seat to what the artist needs so they understand that we’re not here for a logo slap; we’re here to collaborate and show what partnership should feel like.

Let’s take a step back and get into your backstory. You grew up in Georgia, correct?

Yes. I grew up in Marietta, Georgia, and went to Spelman College.

When did you first feel a connection to music?

The connection started at home. Marietta was a predominantly white area, but I had Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sugarhill Gang and Tone-Loc vinyl from my dad. One day I just started playing it. The other connection came when I went off to Spelman.

What was the music scene like there?

It was 1996 and the Olympics were in Atlanta, which brought money, influence and gentrification to the city. Outside the gates of Spelman College, there was gentrification—but within the college you’re still connected to the inner city, and we saw that juxtaposition every day. At night we were in a club scene seeing Jermaine Dupri, Dallas Austin, YoungBloodZ, Ludacris and Chaka Zulu… And you’d hear about LaFace Records, Goodie Mob, Outkast and TLC.

What did you study?

I was an English major. At some point I heard CNN was looking for English and journalism majors to intern in public relations. I’d never even heard of public relations, which goes back to traditional schooling; as a young Black woman, lawyer, doctor, teacher are the jobs you know and understand, because you want to be better.

So my first internship was at CNN, where I saw the first Black woman I ever saw in an office, Xernona Clayton, who worked with Ted Turner. She was the first Black woman at Turner Broadcasting. She’s a civil rights advocate now.

Did your experience there confirm that you belonged in PR?

I thought about journalism and got an internship at MTV, thinking maybe I’d be the next Kurt Loder. I was also invited to join the Midnight Marauders, a street team on the Spelman campus; we passed out flyers and got kids into clubs. That’s how I got my internship at Hot 97.5, where I worked under Chaka Zulu, Poon Daddy and Chris Lova Lova—before he was Ludacris. I loved the nightlife world and the interconnectivity of people my age making music.

In Atlanta I was also hearing Goodie Mob talk about gentrification: “Can the people from Atlanta succeed in Atlanta? Are we taking care of them?” I felt there was something else out there for me, so I moved to New York, hoping something would happen. And it did.

Which was?

I was living with a friend’s parents, riding the Metro into town every day, temping and sending out resumes. That’s when I heard about this woman named Terrie Williams, who was a Black publicist working for Eddie Murphy, Miles Davis and Essence magazine. Essence was on my parents’ coffee table, along with Ebony and Jet. I figured if this woman was connected to Essence, maybe she could help me. She let me intern with her for two weeks and gave me a letter of recommendation. But I still didn’t have a job. I was back to temping when I got a call from Universal Music Group. When HR called, I had to laugh, because they didn’t have a job for me either—they were looking for a temp, too. I ended up temping in Monte Lipman’s office as his second assistant. I’m sitting in another office, answering the phone and transferring the calls to Monte’s first assistant. I never saw the man, but I kept temping.

So when did you land at Motown?

Eventually, a PR position opened at Motown, working under Serena Gallagher. I didn’t know what Serena looked like; I just assumed she was Black because it was Motown. When I met her, she was a white woman in a black suit. Meanwhile, I’m super-colorful; I had eyeliner to match every outfit and Rasheeda and Outkast posters—because you’re going to know I’m from Atlanta and I’m in the culture. Serena told me she needed to make sure I took the job seriously. I told her I’d moved from Atlanta to be a publicist; I was taking it seriously. So she gave me a shot and put me through what it meant to be a publicist.

The next pivot happened when Serena got an offer at Universal Republic Motown Group and asked me to come with her. I wasn’t sure because at the time, Republic was Godsmack, 3 Doors Down, Amy Winehouse and Lindsay Lohan. This is when Serena became my mentor; she said, “I know you’re a Black woman and I’m a white woman, but I don’t want you to be boxed into one genre. This is a chance for you to expand your portfolio and let people see that you’re not just an urban publicist—you’re a great publicist.” I took that to heart.

Serena saw me as someone who connected to artists differently, so she introduced me to JoJo. JoJo was only 13, but she was breaking records. We had her on the cover of all the teen magazines and booked her on TRL, Ryan Seacrest and Regis and Kelly. Name a show—she was on it.

Working with JoJo I learned that artists want more than just music; they want to be connected to things in the cultural zeitgeist like fashion and sports. Occasionally, there were uncomfortable moments, because she’d be doing something like singing at a NASCAR race and people would ask me if I was her assistant or her stylist, but she’d say, “That’s my publicist!” She treated me in a way that created a sisterhood. As a woman of color, this was the start of my seeing the other end of publicity with someone who didn’t look like me. It was also the first glimpse of the 360 version of me you see today at Amazon.

When did you begin working with Sylvia Rhone?

In the “unmerging” of Universal Republic Motown Group, I chose to go with Sylvia to Universal Motown, where I was assigned Kid Cudi. Hip-hop didn’t understand Kid Cudi. He wasn’t Cash Money Records. He wasn’t No Limit or Nelly. He was skinny jeans; he was downtown. Working with Nigil Mack, Plain Pat and Emile Haynie, I was looking at how to take this young Black man and demonstrate his star quality. So we started working through these different lenses—maybe his first cover wouldn’t be Vibe or XXL; maybe it’s a lifestyle publication like Urb. That’s where I started expanding my vocabulary. There’s publicity, marketing and lifestyle. I’m pitching a lifestyle.

The next pivot came when I met Lyor Cohen. We were doing a listening party for Kid Cudi in New York and the fire marshal threatened to shut us down if we let anyone underage in. Lyor’s son was outside. I told Lyor I was sorry, but we couldn’t let his son inside and offered him tickets to Jimmy Fallon to make up for it. When I called Lyor about the tickets, he told me he wanted me to call Todd Moscowitz. I didn’t know who Todd was, but I called him. We met for drinks at Soho Grand, and that’s when he asked me to come to Asylum and head up urban PR.

That was a big move.

I wasn’t sure about it, but I wanted the chance to be the head of something. So I took the job and went to Los Angeles. At the time, Waka Flocka, Gucci Mane and MMG were on the roster, and we were getting them the covers of Vibe, SPIN and The Source. They were everywhere.

Then Lyor leaves, next Todd leaves and then Joie Manda leaves. I’m working with Livia Tortella. Then she leaves, and it’s Cameron Strang. Then Cameron leaves and here come Tom Corson and Aaron Bay-Schuck. Every time there’s a change in leadership, you’re reintroducing yourself and trying to show your worth. Meanwhile, I’m still not getting to the head of the team.

That’s when I got a call about Columbia. At this point, I was doing a fusion of publicity and lifestyle marketing. I was part of the conversation and I wanted to know if I would be part of the conversation at Columbia, too. I met Ron Perry, and he said, “I like your energy—you’re hired.”

I’m partners with Shawn Holiday; Shawn is the A&R operation and I’m the marketing arm. We have this artist Lil Nas X. I’m in L.A. with him and Ron is in New York. He’s, like, “Stay close to this kid. You’re going to be with him every day.” I’m taking him to breakfast. I’m helping him meet management teams. We land on Adam Leber and Gee Roberson because it goes back to who I am—I understand the hybrid, the importance of the culture and of pop but also of authenticity.

When did you launch The Purple Agency?

When I met Kwamé. He asked if I did independent PR and I thought to myself, “Do I?” In the label structure, everybody has a side hustle; you could work at one label but manage an artist on another. So I took on Kwamé. Then I met Swizz Beatz, who asked me to be his publicist, and next was Sean Garrett. It wasn’t always full-time, but The Purple Agency kept me cultural.

In a system, sometimes you’re so busy working on what’s in front of you that you forget to see what’s around you. I didn’t want to give up my job, but I didn’t want to give up Purple—which I own but don’t run—because it connects me to nightlife and fashion. It allows me to see how the culture is connected. And it kept my connections alive.

It gave you a chance to tap into things you might not have known about otherwise, then?

Absolutely. Working with artists like Timbaland and organizations like Culture Creators allows me to connect the dots among fashion, music, sports and finance. Culture Creators is now in its seventh year, and we’ve honored Busta Rhymes, Karl Kani, Earn Your Leisure and Rashaun Williams, one of the first Black VCs.

No artist is built without a village. To have that village, you have to stay connected to it. I see Purple as my village plug. I see Purple as the foundation, my soul, my gut check.

What do you see in your future?

I plan to keep growing at Amazon Music, broadening our business and giving artists a place to grow and thrive while continuing to move Amazon Music closer to the culture.

I also look forward to getting back to my roots—from my Spelman days—immersing myself in street culture and music, finding new artists who need direction and then providing the support they need.

Because of my parents, I see everything as a legacy. And what an exciting legacy to have: a career that drives the culture and changes lives. I can’t wait for what the future holds.

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