The industry maven reflects on a 2010 conference call serenade from then-16-year-old Justin Bieber, which led her to sign the fresh talent to Universal Music Publishing Group.
As one of the most powerful black women at music labels today, Motown Records president Ethiopia Habtemariam landed a Billboard cover last June with Epic Records’ Syl Rhone and Atlantic’s Juliette Jones. “I was like, ‘Damn, is this really happening?’” she recalls of the photo shoot. “That was the first time I was like okay…. shit I think I did a good job! I’m the kind of person who likes to just put my head down and do the work, but I felt very proud. I love helping to grow and identify talent and it’s been a big part of my journey. I’m walking in my purpose.”
It was a full-circle moment for the label head, who remembers reading Billboard, aka the “industry bible,” during internships at LaFace Records and Elektra in Atlanta before joining Universal Music Publishing Group. There, she signed artist-songwriters like Keri Hilson, Ludacris and J. Cole. But it was taking a chance on an unknown Justin Bieber that earned her praise from her Universal bosses, after the then-16-year-old’s surprise hit, “Baby,” reached No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2010.
Habtemariam, who toasts Motown’s 60th birthday this year, reflects on the Bieber conference call that started it all.
I knew [Bieber’s manager] Scooter Braun through Atlanta. He went to Emory [University] and was part of the music community there. Prior to Bieber, I signed Asher Roth with Scooter. He had the “I Love College” record and it exploded, so we had had a relationship since then. When he discovered Bieber, I was one of the people that he called. He had Bieber sing over the phone to me. It was a cover -- either an Usher or Boyz II Men record -- and then I looked at his videos. I just remember he could really sing, and he was so young!
At the time, I had a relationship with the *NSYNC crew and Scooter asked to help connect him, but those young pop acts were not happening in the music industry at all then. Island Def Jam signed Bieber and were kind of breaking him, but it hadn’t happened at radio yet. He came to us looking to do a publishing deal, and I remember having to convince the head of the company because they did not see that kind of pop music taking off. I fought for months to get it across the line to do the deal.
“Baby” was huge. Of course, then your company thinks, “Oh, you were really smart to sign him!” (Laughs.) Look, I can’t take credit for it. Knowing the talent is there and the team is in place, you make your bets. He exploded more than anyone ever really thought possible. For me, I knew that teen-pop phenomenon would come back. It’s the natural cycle of life -- you have to feed the kids. And I knew that Scooter was relentless and completely committed to making it happen.
It’s incredible to watch his growth. His last album -- 2015’s Purpose -- I thought was absolutely amazing. It’s been a natural ascension for him. I remember when he started working with producer Poo Bear a lot, and he had done that one project Journals, which was definitely more of an R&B project. His natural sensibilities were kind of in that R&B space, when I think about the covers he was singing back then. They’ve done a really great job at surrounding him with other collaborators that enhance that growth. It’s tough to do when you come from being so young and people only see you and expect one thing from you. For me to be a fan of his music just shows the growth. That’s what you want. It’s fantastic that he’s taking time for his mental health now. That level of self-awareness is really important, especially when you’re at that level of celebrity, you’ve gotta do what feels right and take care of yourself, whatever that is.
Growing up in Atlanta, I went to middle school with Kris Kross, and the music scene there at the time was just exploding. You had TLC, Usher, Outkast. It was really dope to have those major superstars in the city and I remember the momentum it created. It became normalized to have these local celebrities. There’s still so much incredible talent here, so I’m heavily invested in the city that helped invest in me. The dope thing about Motown is that Berry Gordy -- coming out of Detroit in the ‘60s -- was able to create this iconic brand that had great talent and songs that went on to touch the world. The label also grew with the times: from Marvin [Gaye], Diana and the Supremes to The Commodores and Lionel Richie and DeBarge, Rick James and Teena Marie. They transcended with every decade.
It’s important to identify that this black company out of Detroit was able to do that, and really plant seeds to show that it was possible for people of color to do things that people thought would never be possible. It’s been important for me here to tell that story, but to also use Motown to help support other entrepreneurs that are doing a ton of living and breathing in the same spirit of what was created with the brand. That was the approach and thought process behind joint ventures with Quality Control (Migos), Since The ‘80s (21 Savage), and more -- being intentional and deliberate in amplifying their brands. We just did a deal with [Blacksmith Records CEO] Corey Smyth, who has Vince Staples and manages Dave Chappelle. The ripple effect of that is inspirational.
A version of this article originally appeared in the April 20 issue of Billboard.