At Work is a weekly Rolling Stone series exploring how decision-makers in the fast-changing music business spend their hectic days — as well as what burgeoning ideas they’re keen to explore, what advice they’d give to industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
When attorney Dina LaPolt called Tammy Brook early in the morning on Super Bowl Sunday last year to tell her that her client, rapper 21 Savage, had been detained by the ICE, Brook sprung into action. Within minutes, major news outlets were calling. By the second quarter of that football game, Brook had gotten the head of immigration group FWD Alida Garcia, the founder of Black Lives Matter Patrisse Cullors, and reps from four other organizations all on the phone to create the #Free21Savage Coalition; by the next morning, Black Lives Matter had gotten 450,000 people to sign a petition to free the musician.
The 21 Savage campaign — which also involved artwork, merchandise, public announcements involving 21 celebrities, and a rally, all produced during the hectic Grammy week, no less — is one of many initiatives led by Brook, who runs FYI Brand Group, a “360-degree brand-strategy firm” that prides itself on being nimble and hands-on. She founded the boutique company in 2001 as a traditional PR agency. Within five years, the eight-person team was diving headfirst into marketing and brand partnerships with esteemed contemporary artists, fashion designers, and recording artists.
FYI, which has offices in Los Angeles and New York, has represented everyone from Apple Music, Adidas, and MTV to Travis Scott, Chris Brown, DJ Khaled, Bret Michaels, and Kelly Osbourne. Though PR is still a component of its work, the team serves as “thought partners for our clients,” Brook tells Rolling Stone.
What does your job entail?
We build out artists’ brands and intersect in fashion, art, sports, social impact, and all other areas outside of their music. We call ourselves story creators, not just storytellers. We want to be part of the whole process. We’re thought partners for our clients — whether they’re interested in creating a toy, getting a fashion collab, becoming an art collector, or building out a real business outside of their core music. We pave the way and make that a reality for them. We call ourselves culture disruptors.
There’s a certain DNA we pretty much require to be a client of ours. The clients we represent are not only culture disrupters, but they’re also social good-doers. We don’t work with anyone that doesn’t want to make the world a better place and use their platform to create a call to action. So, when they’re big enough to go into a brand deal, we always recommend to, in that deal, have our brand partner support our initiatives as part of our program together. It’s been very successful. We’ve been able to get a lot of support from our brand partners.
What are some examples of “cultural disruption” exhibited by your clients?
Travis Scott did a Hot Wheels deal for a car-themed album called JACKBOYS. Most recently, for [Afrobeats megastar] Davido’s song, “Dolce & Gabbana,” we partnered with the brand Dolce & Gabbana. That was a momentous example of intersecting fashion and music for COVID relief and creating content around it in the form of a fashion film.
“21 Savage is an example of someone we completely went after. We knew that he was going to capture a critical mass. We were obsessed with him early on and just kept courting and courting management until we finally cracked and were able to sign him.”
When you work with a signed artist, does the artist typically seek you out? Do you seek the artist out? Does the label approach you? How do you form that relationship?
We have passion clients that we watch — as we pay close attention to who and what’s emerging. It’s critical for us to find an artist early. We handle our clients with kid gloves, we handle them holistically, so it’s really important and exciting for us when we can grow within a label or a management infrastructure.
Anderson .Paak, for example, became our client because he was someone that ArtClub had newly signed. We were already working with Jhené Aiko, so they brought us to him super early — when there was just one story in Rolling Stone, like “10 Artists You Need to Know.” We made that decision and went, “let’s do this.” We were an integral part of the entire buildout of Anderson, his first Grammy-nom run for Best New Artist, and what he’s now known for.
We have incredible relationships with the labels and management companies. They’re very aware of our wheelhouse, how we’re growing, and the type of artist that we make sense for. Take French Montana. We have a very close relationship with [management company] Sal & Co. Sal [Slaiby, who also manages The Weeknd] knew French had a major story to tell with all the social good he was doing and the desire he had to do something substantial in education and healthcare for the song “Unforgettable.” That was a massive hit, and we created a partnership with Global Citizen. When he decided to really embrace the fact that he was a Dreamer who became a legal citizen — we were able to help him build out a platform to story-tell and create a community around the narrative of immigration.
21 Savage is an example of someone we completely went after. We knew that he was going to capture a critical mass. We were obsessed with him early on and just kept courting and courting management until we finally cracked and were able to sign him.
At FYI, does everyone do a little bit of everything? Do your employees collaborate or have distinct roles with specific clients?
In the digital age of COVID, we’re working together better than ever. These weekly calls that we’ve been trying to do agency-wide for years have now become a mandatory Zoom call. Every morning at 9 a.m. PT for an hour, we share information on fashion, social responsibility, sports, music, branding, and the business of COVID, and we all talk about how we’re going to intersect our clients as an agency. We share what’s happening with individual clients so that other representatives of the agency can go pick it up for a Steve Aoki or a SAINt JHN.
And we have a separate division for social-impact programming and for brand partnerships. We’re very proactive in seeking new opportunities for our clients through brand alliances, org alliances, and institution alliances.
What does that mean?
If a client is interested in the arts, for example, we’re gonna have conversations with Frieze Fair, MOMA, or MOCA to see if there are any sort of collaborative opportunities in the art space. There’s such an interesting intersection between music and contemporary art. We started in that space in 2010 with Chris Brown when we created a partnership with him and Ron English, which became the F.A.M.E. album cover. And we launched two art exhibits and a toy-collectible art collection out of that.
Same goes for fashion. Especially now, there’s a resurgence of so many design houses that are doing digital content and partnering with artists. You saw Alicia Keys and Valentino launch their program. Next week, we’re launching two fashion partnerships with artists of ours and major designers because of COVID. We’re creating fashion films and virtual-performance content.
21 Savage has a financial literacy program. In finding the partners to help reach a vaster audience, we program and create that campaign. Now that we’re going digital with everything, because people can no longer be in school — we’re partnering with a leading digital solution for making financial literacy accessible for kids at home.
That division is focused on finding those partners. With Tory Lanez and the Dream City Fund, it’s the same thing. We knew that during [his Instagram Live show] Quarantine Radio, we needed to create a meaningful call to action around the massive audience of 380,000 viewers in real time, so we launched the Dream City Fund. In our outreach, we were able to discover that Amazon Music was supporting artists in these initiatives, so they matched our fund and we were able to launch with Amazon Music.
Who was your first client?
Our first client was Ice-T — and we were hired to represent a hip-hop ice cream company that one of the heads of Ben & Jerry’s had invested in. From there, I went, “Oh, wait. We’re booking SNL, Newsweek, TIME, and Vanity Fair.” Because Ice-T was such an icon, I realized we were onto something. We went on to represent everyone from Sean Kingston — from the first moment he decided to come out on Epic Records in 2007 — to Jason Derulo. We launched his career. We did Danity Kane. We represented a lot of stars in the R&B/pop space in our first decade, and then in 2010, we landed Mike Tyson as our first sports client and launched FYI Sports. The athletes that we represent are huge household names. Russell Westbrook and Odell Beckham are former clients of ours. And now we have people like Damien Lillard, who’s also a rapper, so we’re perfect for him.
What are your favorite success stories?
I’m so proud of 21 Savage’s “Bank Account” campaign. We were able to work with him on his passion to create a financial literacy platform, which did not exist. No rapper has ever created a program like that.
I’m also proud of the Suubi center — the hospital we built with French Montana and Global Citizen. It was very much hearing what Sal and French wanted to do. He was on his way to Uganda. We were pulling our resources in the middle of the night. I called Global Citizen and said, “We gotta do something in Uganda. He’s landing in 18 hours.” And they connected us with an on-the-ground, vetted organization in Uganda called Mama Hope. One of the directors met him at the airport and took him to a hospital that only housed a few women at a time in a birthing center. And there were hundreds of thousands of women that were having babies unsafely, so we built a hospital. We renovated it and we got to help 51 villages — over 300,000 women. We were saving lives.
What I realized is that I’m definitely a philanthropist. I’m an activist. When DJ Khaled went viral and he was like, “I wanna do something with this platform,” it was so easy to work with Barack Obama and say, “What do we do? Let’s lift affordable healthcare. Let’s have Khaled just go do this in his house, because he’s so viral and creates these hysterical videos.”
I’m very proud of the work I’ve done in prison reform with Pusha T. Being able to help him, work with Obama and so many prison-reform leaders to amplify messaging. He was the first mover in prison reform, back in 2015, 2016.
But the #Free21Savage ICE Coalition was probably one of the biggest moments of my career. We didn’t sleep for nine days — the most rewarding nine days of my career. He made it okay to be a Dreamer.
What’s the first thing you do every day?
Well, I thank God for being awake. The first thing I do is say a few mantras — for example, “Life’s rejection is God’s protection” and “I love you, I’m sorry, forgive me, and thank you.” I make sure my phone is not right there. My phone goes into another room an hour before bedtime. I have my little rituals, like lighting sage and candles. I work out a lot too. I do Pilates, and I’ll do them at 10:30 at night if I don’t have time during the day. It’s great. There’s nothing like working out to Travis Scott’s “Astroworld.” “HIGHEST IN THE ROOM” too.
Ariana Huffington is my mentor, and her whole mission is to create work-life balance to be mindful. I tap into her, Deepak Chopra, and Jay Shetty.
“I’m Mary Poppins, Martha Stewart, and Jane Fonda meets Elon Musk on repeat all day. I’m a maid, chef, and fitness instructor, while trying to build a company. I’m so connected now more than ever.”
How has your routine shifted since the crisis?
Right now, FYI is thriving — knock on wood. The need for ideation and strategy on how to pivot from the perspective of an artist is more necessary than ever. We can learn what’s successful and make it better. This is a digital cultural renaissance.
I’m Mary Poppins, Martha Stewart, and Jane Fonda meets Elon Musk on repeat all day. I’m a maid, chef, and fitness instructor, while trying to build a company. I’m so connected now more than ever. I cook with my girlfriends on Zoom constantly. I have two girlfriends that are professional chefs. We go on Instagram Live sometimes and make, like, fried chicken.
I’ve also become an incredibly present mother. I haven’t been able to connect this consistently with my 17-year-old daughter in years. I’ve put a lot of attention on making my house a home.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to start her own company in the music business?
I’m challenged all the time being an entrepreneur and a woman in business. I don’t have a corporation behind me that’s pushing me and getting what we do out there. I have to remind myself that I’m bigger than my mistakes and we’re all human. We need to celebrate our wins, forgive ourselves, and keep pushing forward. If I didn’t have that attitude, I would not be in business right now. Business is a process and an evolution, and we are never not learning.
Don’t limit yourself. Don’t be afraid to change your narrative as you grow. I labeled myself and I put myself in boxes for the first decade of my career. After I started to do the work and realize that I’m so much more than that publicist title, FYI was able to become a driving, brand-management agency.
Don’t be afraid to claim what you do and rebrand yourself. Especially as a woman, you have to be the first to tell yourself every day that you want to grow and continuously be bigger than whatever labels you create. I’m a single mom. I’ve supported my child since she was born. I’m a single-parent household. I’m living proof that any single mother that’s trying to start a company can raise a child, and grow a business if you stay focused, be true to yourself, and give yourself gratitude and appreciation.
You’re here to tell your story. Every chance that you have to talk to another human being — another business partner, another client — that’s your chance to share your purpose.