How Def Jam’s Nicki Farag Navigated the Boys’ Club to Become Head of Promotion

She is the first female to hold the position at the label.

© Meredith Truax
Meredith Truax

Ask newly promoted Def Jam executive VP Nicki Farag what it means to be the label’s first female head of promotion and she shrugs off the designation — of being a woman. Farag, a 15-year veteran of Def Jam, prefers to acknowledge the position on its own. After all, she says, “Def Jam is an iconic label. It stands out. It’s a cultural label not just a record [company]. So for other labels and people in the industry to see…” She trails off for a second, but it’s clear the thought of gender has resurfaced. “Yeah,” Farag concedes, “it’s a big f—in’ deal. And a huge milestone for me personally.”

Her appointment also marks one of Paul Rosenberg’s first moves as the label’s new chairman and CEO. The manager of Eminem took charge of the company at the top of the year, replacing Steve Bartels. “Paul really believes that the people at this label can redefine Def Jam as a boutique label that will eventually be the leader in crossing over urban music to the mainstream,” says Farag. “To really hone in and bring it back to what Rick [Rubin] and Lyor [Cohen] did back in the day. He has a vision for this company and I want to be a part of it.”

Said Rosenberg in announcing Farag’s promotion: “We are especially proud of Nicki’s new title and its historic significance to the label.”

Farag has certainly proven her value to the company in recent years, launching such multi-platinum smashes as Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful” and Logic’s “1-800-273-8255.” The latter, she says, took eight months to break at Top 40, while the former, which garnered a Grammy nomination, was at first sidelined to Urban AC. “It was a constant battle,” she says. But what the Def Jam staffers saw in streaming and Shazam metrics told a different story. “It confirmed what we already knew,” adds Farag. “That was the best part.”

Similar successes can be credited to Farag’s efforts, including songs by Kanye West, Desiigner, Ne-Yo and Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” another satisfying but difficult record to break. “The best thing we do at Def Jam is really believe in artist development,” she says. “We stick with something until we really don’t see other option. I love that about this label.”

So how did Farag navigate the notoriously male-dominated field of radio promotion? Starting out at age 22, she says, was “difficult at first,” but as she rose through the ranks at Def Jam, she gained confidence. Says Farag: “I knew I was really good a my job, and I just kept telling myself: ‘Stick to your job and don’t get involved in the politics.'” When it came to the “boys’ club,” she adds, “I wanted to be like a guest speaker at that club – walk in, do my thing, and leave, but also leave an impression, which eventually I did. … I played the long game. I wasn’t short-sighted. I had a lot of guidance. I was very fortunate, I had ‘some phenomenal men,’ as Oprah would say, who really helped guide me through this.”

One of those men was Def Jam’s previous EVP and promotion head Rick Sackheim, who left for Epic Records in January. Sackheim was a mentor to Farag, who started out as an assistant in 1998  and she now has his job. “Rick put everything together for me,” says Farag. “He would say, ‘Don’t doubt yourself, just go!’ And I did. I was fortunate to have his leadership and guidance.” Ditto for Greg Thompson, now president of Maverick, who, Farag recalls, “Told me to follow my gut and stop questioning my instincts.” Ultimately, she adds: “You gotta be true to yourself.”