Music fans have their own entry point to one of Motown’s many eras. For Ethiopia Habtemariam, a seasoned industry veteran who became president of the label in 2014, that experience came when she was growing up in Atlanta, where her immigrant parents played Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder around the house. But it’s also rooted in her own exploration of one of the iconic label’s later periods, soaking up the sounds of Rick James, Boyz II Men and Teena Marie through the ’80s and ’90s.
“It’s important to highlight how Motown continued to put out incredible music and talent that was reflective of the times during whatever decade that was,” says Habtemariam, 39. “Yes, there was a classic Motown sound from the ‘60s, but then they were able to grow and that’s what artists do. That’s what creators do. You don’t want to feel like it ever ends, and that hasn’t stopped.”
One of the few black female executives occupying a top position at a record label, she sought early on to try something different with the imprint: to carry her experience in artist development from the music publishing world, where she served as president of urban and creative affairs for Universal Music Publishing Group and signed artists including Justin Bieber and Chris Brown, and capitalize on the flourishing streaming market.
Under her guidance, Motown, which has rebranded as “the new definition of soul,” has once again become one of the foremost leaders in contemporary urban music. In 2015, Habtemariam partnered with Atlanta-based label Quality Control Music, bringing then-upstarts such as Migos and Lil Yachty to the company — the former lodged two No. 1 albums in a year’s time, and the latter scored three top 15 entries.
She also focused on nurturing existing talent on the roster including BJ the Chicago Kid, putting out his breakthrough album “In My Mind” in 2016 and earning three Grammy nominations for it the following year. A quick scan of the roster reveals a finger on the pulse of what’s relevant in today’s marketplace, with such buzzing talent as City Girls and Stefflon Don sidling up to established acts like Erykah Badu and Ne-Yo.
“I came in at a time when the label had been — what’s the best way to put it — there wasn’t as much focus on it and there hadn’t been in a while,” says Habtemariam. “Motown was able to do so many different things, so we want to continue to connect those dots [and create] a platform for great talent to operate with integrity.”
Her branding initiatives and focus on artist development have led some Motown artists to spaces they typically wouldn’t occupy. Much of the success has been with Migos, the Atlanta-based rap trio that has accrued several hit singles including “Bad and Boujee” and “Stir Fry.” They’ve also thrived outside the music space, partnering with athletic apparel retailer Finish Line in 2017 and soundtracking commercials for the NBA last year. It’s in bringing artists to places they wouldn’t typically occupy and harnessing their creative vision that Habtemariam underlines as the foundation of Motown today. “People understand that we’re committed to culture,” she says. “I’ve never been someone who goes after something once it’s already hot and popping. It’s about seeing things early and helping to develop or nurture it.”
Sitting at the helm of the house that Berry Gordy built is a culmination in Habtemariam’s decades-long career. She traces her desire to be in the music industry to when an employee of LaFace Records’ radio department came to speak at her school. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. I can be just like her,’” she says. “It literally changed the course of my life.” She interned at Elektra Records at 16, and skipped college to become a part-time assistant at LaFace. She soon entered the world of publishing as a creative manager at Edmonds, and then UMPG, before transitioning to Motown in 2011 as senior VP.
Habtemariam’s determination rings clear, particularly in an industry in which there are few female executives of color in the top ranks. “I was so committed to accomplishing my goals, I never thought about the obstacles that would come or may have been there because I was a black woman,” she says. “It’s important for music companies to be reflective of the audiences that their music touches. There are so many different opportunities to grow our business and it’s a beautiful time because of that. It’s important if you want to scale your business, and if you want to grow, to have a diverse group of employees who can speak to the people you want to touch.”
As Motown celebrates its 60-year anniversary in 2019, Habtemariam recognizes the unique position she’s in to push the brand forward without isolating its past.
“Part of the vision for the label was to tell the story of the brand through strategic partnerships, and also going back to the core foundation, which is artist relation and great talent — and doing things that aren’t expected,” she says. “You just have to have the level of resilience and quality of music and talent and work ethic to be committed to that. I want to tell that story as well.”