Emmy-winning television producer Lena Waithe (“Twenties,” “Boomerang,” “The Chi”) is taking a big step into the music sphere, partnering with Def Jam Recordings to start up a new label, Hillman Grad Records, with the goal of what Def Jam describes as “leveraging opportunities across music, TV and film… to capitalize on the cultural significance generated when these worlds meaningfully intersect.”
Although no artists signings were announced as part of the public launch Wednesday, some key executives are already in place for Hillman Grad. Albert Cooke, the imprint’s general manager, was formerly in the artist relations department at Soundcloud — and before that, at Def Jam. Tebs Maqubela joins the new label as head of A&R, moving over from an A&R post at Columbia Records. These two execs will report to the two chiefs of the label’s parent company, Hillman Grad Productions: Waithe, who is CEO, and Rishi Rajani, president of film and TV.
Waithe wasted no time in laying out plans for synergy between the music and film/TV divisions of Hillman Grad.
“Music and storytelling have always gone hand in hand,” she said in a statement. “And I think that’s because musicians are the storytellers we love the most. They can take complex emotions and simplify it in four minutes, the same artist can sing about the revolution and falling in love. Music is a part of us. It’s so often connected to our fondest and sometimes our darkest memories. Musicians tell our story.
“At Hillman Grad Productions we believe in identifying and amplifying new talent,” Waithe continued, “and we want to continue to do that in the music industry. Jeff Harleston (Def Jam’s interim CEO) and his phenomenal team at Def Jam have given us their trust and their resources to help develop artists that not only have potential, but staying power. We look forward to the journey ahead.”
Harleston said that Waithe “has established herself as one of the most artistically and commercially successful creators and storytellers at work today. Lena has a profound understanding of and appreciation for music. After making her mark on television as an actor and writer, then smoothly shifting gears into her role as a film producer and CEO, it follows that she would now spread her wings at the helm of this exciting new record label. Def Jam is the perfect partner for Lena Waithe’s new Hillman Grad venture, and we look forward to bringing her musical vision to life.”
Hillman Grad Productions’ recent credits in other media include the 2020 Sundance Film Festival breakout ”The 40-Year-Old Version,” released last fall on Netflix, and the 2019 feature “Queen & Slim.” The company’s comedy series ”Twenties” is looking at a second season on BET.
Upcoming Hillman Grad projects in the film world include a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic, based on his daughter’s memoir; “Talent Show,” a Universal feature to star Cynthia Erivo, with Waithe scripting and acting as executive producer; A.V. Rockwell’s feature directorial debut, “A Thousand and One,” for Focus; and HBO’s “Untitled Kid Fury Project” and Amazon’s “Them” and “Reawakening.”
Waithe’s honors include being named one of Time’s 100 most influential people, a 2017 Emmy for writing on the “Thanksgiving” series, a 2019 Black Film Critics Circle trophy for her “Queen & Slim” screenplay, and multiple nods from the Independent Spirit Awards, MTV Movie Awards, NAACP Awards and Gotham Awards dating back to 2014’s “Dear White People,” on which she served as a producer. Besides creating the still-airing “The Chi,” “Boomerang” and “Twenties,” she’s also been seen on screen in a recurring role in “Westworld.”