Ethiopia Habtemariam is the current president of Motown Records and a 2018 EBONY Power 100 Women Up honoree.
Before having the responsibility of modernizing the storied label, the record executive’s career path began in 1994 when she was a 14-year-old intern at LaFace Records, founded by Antonio “L.A.” Reid and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds. Through more than 20 years of dedication and determination, Habtemariam was able to break the glass ceiling in an industry that is male-dominated. Not only did she fight for a seat at the table, but she also became the head of it.
“Ethiopia is an African-American woman heading a predominately African-American label, and she’s going to take it to the next level,” asserts Linda Johnson-Rice, Chairman Emeritus of EBONY Media Operations. “She moves the brand in ways that are contemporary but still grounded in the heritage and history of Motown.”
Her tenacity and inclusion of the woman’s voice allowed her to become Universal Music Group’s most powerful African-American woman, according to Billboard.
Habtemariam spoke with EBONY.com about making this year’s Power 100 list, her history in the music industry and working at Motown Records, which will be honored with the Icon Award at the 2018 EBONY Power 100 Gala.
EBONY: Motown is being honored with the Icon Award. As the president of the label, what is one part of the legacy you want to preserve moving forward?
Habtemariam: Being the voice of today and tomorrow. Motown has a history of nurturing and supporting artists who have a vision for their careers, signing acts that are reflective of the times and artists who speak for and to culture around the world. That is a part of the legacy I want to preserve, and I feel that our current roster is evidence of that.
What has been a challenge in undertaking a lead role at such a storied company?
It’s an honor and a privilege to represent the brand and legacy that Berry Gordy built. Motown has accomplished the unimaginable in 60 years and means so much to people everywhere. Similarly, we also want to provide a platform for today’s artists and talent who have a voice, have something to say and are cultural influencers. I consider it a great responsibility to foster the path of future icons at Motown.
How does it feel to be recognized in the Women Up category in the same year that Motown is receiving the Icon Award?
I’m humbled, period, but in the same year makes it that much sweeter. I remember growing up in Atlanta and grinding to accomplish my dreams. It feels like such a long time ago but still so very recent. This is just surreal!
Billboard called you Universal Music Group’s Most Powerful African-American Woman. In a society where both women and African-Americans are oppressed, what does power look like to you?
Determination, integrity, confidence and a strong work ethic. Power also includes not being afraid to be yourself because your strength comes from what makes you uniquely different and, finally, recognizing the power in others that propels your collective dreams to the next level.
You’ve worked in the music industry since your internship at LaFace Records as a teen. How has the industry changed for women throughout the decades?
When I interned at LaFace, there were a lot of women of color I looked up to who held key positions as head of creative, head of the label and powerful A&Rs. It was great for me because I had these incredible examples! I never felt that I couldn’t achieve because I saw these role models daily. That’s why I think it’s so important to support young women who are coming up and provide bridges for them. I’ve seen it change since then, and that’s been disturbing to me. I’ve always supported not just women but also people who are great and have an incredible work ethic and love and respect for music. My hope is that the landscape will continue to change.
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Christina Santi is a news and culture writer for EBONY.com. Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, she considers herself a well-read, not so traditional feminist with a heavy interest in music, fashion and pop culture. Christina currently lives in New York City, where she refers to her Cuban & Jamaican descent often while writing about her experiences as a first-generation Afro-Latinx in America. She also devotes time writing personalized reading material for her tutees and turning ideas into words for streetwear brand, PUER By Noel Bronson.