Musicians dip into the movie industry all the time; the opposite is more of a rarity, for whatever reason. But for filmmaker Lena Waithe, who grew up on Nineties R&B and counts Erykah Badu, Brandy, and Prince among her idols, the two businesses have always been an obvious pairing. Waithe — an Emmy-winning screenwriter, actor, and co-creator of shows including Master of None, The Chi, and Them, all of which have been noticed for their thoughtful music choices — just announced a record label, Hillman Grad Records, which will be run under a joint venture with Def Jam; the industry-hopping star can now add “label boss” to her belt of titles.
“As I got older and more into my career, I think people really started to pick up on the music choices in the film or TV that I was doing, and that really spoke to me,” says Waithe, who counts Erykah Baydu, Brandy, and Prince as those among her early idols, from when she used to park herself in front of the family TV and inhale hours of music videos on VH1.
Now in her thirties, and helming a label of her own, Waithe wants to revive the curated aesthetics and bold images of artists from her teenagehood. “I don’t want to do the typical thing,” she says. “We are not going to come out with 10 albums a year. It’s about finding really interesting artists who have a real drive and sense of wanting to figure out who they are over time. We really want artists that can grow. Yes, it includes albums and singles, but to me it’s about personality and moments.”
It’s “important for artist storytelling to be brought back,” she adds — an element of the music business that has ceded some way in recent years to virality and data-driven dealmaking. “That’s going to take time, energy, and trials. But we’re willing to stumble and fall and get back up again.” Hillman Grad Records will be an offshoot of Waithe’s production company, which is also named Hillman Grad.
Waithe brokered the deal with Def Jam — which is known for its shepherding of artists like Kanye West, Logic, and Nas — during the pandemic lockdown, after the label pointed out to her that she was “already in the space without being in it.” She wants to act as a creative director for artists, without impinging on their own visions: “My brain also thinks visually, so I go, ‘Oh, what if we do this for the video, the performance?’ I would approach the music like I would a TV show — ‘What can we do to make sure it hits in a different way?’”
The fledgling label is “circling some people” but isn’t ready to announce signings yet, Waithe says. She points to Lil Nas X, Jazmine Sullivan, Summer Walker, H.E.R., and Miguel as examples of the type of artist she might be going for — artists who’ve mastered their personal storytelling and seduced audiences with their life as well as their music, and who strive for growth.
“I think there is this desire to have artists do the same thing again and again,” Waithe says. “I really miss watching an artist and their albums shift and change with each one. But I want to bring back some of that old vibe and nostalgia and rollout of actual singles.”
As a newcomer to the music business, Waithe will work with artists to develop their film and aesthetic strategies while learning the ropes of the record industry itself. But there’s already one conspicuous point of similarity between film and music: Both industries are grappling with long-held racial and gender imbalances, and Waithe wants Hillman Grad Records to help topple the status quo. “There are ways the movie and TV businesses tend to pat themselves on the back for things they should’ve been doing a long time ago,” she says. “Everybody has a lot of work to do. White guys are in charge on both sides and there needs to be a lot more inclusion. The artists, the people in the front, are often those people who are othered. It’s about who’s in the back office, or cutting checks, or having the green-light power. There’s a lot of us that need to be in those rooms.”
Mental health is also a priority for the label, which wants to approach its relationships to budding artists as less transactional and more community-building. “It’s a tricky time right now to go through things everybody else goes through, publicly, while making art. It can create anxiety, depression, and when it goes unchecked, it can be very tragic. I think we shouldn’t have to lose any more of these amazing artists,” Waithe says. “I’m a person who knows what it’s like to not always feel like everyone’s on your side, but you have to keep going, and I think that is something I also bring to the table: I know what it’s like when it gets weird or dark.”