The Corner Office: Kei Henderson, President of Sincethe80s
Words: Julian Mitchell
Images: Ja Tecson
Images: Ja Tecson
Some of the most successful people in the game refused to follow the rules to make it happen, they did it their own way. Welcome to the Corner Office.
Kei Henderson is the Founder and President of Sincethe80s, a boutique record label, music management, and publishing company. Launching the venture alongside partners Barry John and Zekeil Nicholson, the full-service imprint specializes in discovering, developing and breaking artists at every scale. Henderson currently boasts a growing client roster of rap standouts that includes 21 Savage among others.
Before breaking into the management business, Henderson spent several years sharpening her skill set and developing relationships through valuable roles at an influential media and a leading streetwear label. She picked up the blueprint for crafting smart campaigns, gaining access to top talent and mastered the formula of capturing the attention of prominent platforms. After further elevating her profile as a writer and acquiring an extensive network of contacts within the industry, Kei quickly became a go-to source for securing talent across the network’s many verticals. She also learned the fundamental mechanics of retail, product development and strategic partnerships. Now back in her hometown of Atlanta, Kei has leveraged the full scope of her expertise to create a widely respected and highly regarded music movement.
I spoke with Kei about her journey to managing major acts, the vision behind her company and the value of taking an unconventional path to her dream job.
You have a very diverse work history having worked in media and streetwear before managing artists -- Where did your passion for music management and launching a label develop?
Kei: As a teenager, I used to collect every music magazine that existed. I would obsess over hip-hop moguls studying their moves and how they built their empires. I would keep a one-inch thick three-ring binder that was full of press clippings about them; I had five or six of those. I studied everything they did as entrepreneurs and influential figures in the culture. But, at the time, I wanted to be a writer, because I fell in love with magazines. I studied Print Journalism in college, interned and later pursued it seriously as a career. There wasn't a clear path in which I could make a lot of money, and unlike the music industry, writers weren't very hands-on with artists. After graduating college, instead of continuing on the journalism route, I went back home and got into throwing parties and events. Eventually, in 2008, an artist asked me to manage them, which is where my management career ultimately started.
You mentioned keeping binders of press clippings and obsessively studying cultural entrepreneurs– What was it about their hustle or the way they built their businesses that inspired you most and made you believe you could create that for yourself?
Kei: What I admired about most cultural entrepreneurs is that they are creating their own paths. Most successful people have crazy belief in themselves and trust their instincts. They often build careers from the ground up. You can look at an artist and say, “Yes, they are cool and make great music,” but who took each artist from point A to Z – from unknown to superstars. It’s kind of like having a child; you’re putting someone else entirely before yourself and making sure they get to where they need to be. I thought that was a very selfless career, and I’ve always been the kind of person who plays in the background. Funny enough, I used to write raps like every other kid. I also tried producing at one point. No matter how much I experimented in those areas, being behind the scenes always felt like more of a good fit with my passion and personality.
What advantage did taking the media route first give you and what were some of the tools you picked up that have carried over into your career as a manager?
Kei: Taking the media route first mainly provided me with resources and contacts. At the time, bloggers were the tastemakers and blogs were the authority. If you didn’t get a premiere on a popular site, then your music wasn’t moving the needle. For me, having connections in the blog world was extremely vital. That’s where I developed a lot of relationships. I started charging people to handle PR for them, helping them get their music placed on every blog and that allowed me to gain a lot of contacts. More importantly, that’s how I got to know a lot of major artists before they were huge. It helped to expand my contacts which is one of the reasons I decided to move to New York and work as an assistant at a media company in 2010.
Eventually, I became an asset to the media company because I knew everybody. I knew all of the rappers because I was managing on the side. That gave me leverage in the building. It was valuable because it was that benefit that connected me to so many different parts of the company. The editorial team knew I could get them in touch with whoever was popping at the time. Outside of expanding my network and gaining access to resources, that experience also helped me with my artists because I knew how to market them to get on the blogs. I knew how to write a press release, how to write a bio and how to craft a catchy email that somebody would open.
"It’s kind of like having a child; you’re putting someone else entirely before yourself and making sure they get to where they need to be. I thought that was a very selfless career, and I’ve always been the kind of person who plays in the background."
You keep speaking to the idea of taking very calculated and strategic steps, and many talented people can spot opportunity but may not honestly see how to maximize it -- How important is having a vision and being able to see or plan steps ahead?
Kei: Having a vision and making strategic moves is incredibly important. Every job I took on was about taking another step toward building my company. I’ve never really been a person that wanted to work for somebody else, but I did it because I had to. I didn’t have funding, and I have to pay my bills. I also don’t come from a well-off family, so if I’m going to pour my time and energy into something, it has to be self-serving. I’m sure everybody knew that while I was working at the media company, I was also working on building my own company. I never gave any less to the job, and I always took my role seriously, but it was a known fact that Kei is not going to be here forever. Strategic moves are really important, but most kids want to skip the process and jump straight to being the CEO. If you don’t want to work a regular job, at least do a job that is going to help push you towards what you want to do.
You talked about being behind the scenes and investing your time and energy into this process -- Speak to that the value of not aiming for the title or accolades and instead focusing on doing great work and appreciating the process?
Kei: Embracing the process is invaluable. You can’t skip steps. For me, this has been like a ten-year internship. I didn’t make money in management for the first seven years. Everything that I did was building my reputation, building my name and building my artists along the way. When that moment hit, and it was time to reap the rewards, I was prepared. Timing and preparation work hand-in-hand. By the time I started managing 21 Savage, I knew exactly what to do with him. I knew all the contacts, and I knew how to work him through the system because of the seven years I worked not making any money.
I’m sure that was a definitive turning point for you when it shifted from being something you always saw for yourself to bringing that vision to reality – How would you describe that moment when everything clicked?
Kei: It clicked for me in 2014. I was working with an artist who was gaining a lot of popularity, and everybody wanted to work with him. We were touring a few dates with another artist that was huge at the time. That’s when I was starting to see real money. I saw more money in management than I was making at my full-time job and that’s when I turned my seven-year internship into a full-time job, and my full-time just became side money.
Managers are forced to wear many different hats and develop unique or dynamic relationships with their artists – How would you describe the work that you do and how have the responsibilities evolved from when you first started?
Kei: My job is to create streams of income for the artist that includes branding, marketing and building out their platforms to develop a viable product that's successful in the market. As a manager, you’re essentially building a business from the ground up. What does their brand look like? What does it sound like? Where can I get the product? Knowing the audience is also very important, and being able to identify that is part of a manager’s job. When you know who’s going to listen for the music, then you know how to market it, and you know who to talk to in order to get it out to the masses. That’s also how you know who to contact to get booked in a particular city. All of those things are important. I’ve handled everything from booking my artists myself to creative directing our merchandise. I’ve even built 21 Savage’s website. I’ve dealt with every aspect, mostly because I never had any money, so I’ve had to figure out things on my own. I don’t think the traditional manager does everything that I do. That extends to brand partnerships, endorsements, touring and products. I do have business partners now, which makes it easier and more effective to manage.
Looking at 21 Savage who is clearly a star now -- When he was first introduced to the public, it was easy to write him off or label him another street artist out of Atlanta, but he’s evolved and crossed over in the most authentic way -- What was your strategy or the thinking behind building his brand from the ground up?
Kei: When I first met him, he only had one song, but that one song was incredibly hard. You could hear the rawness and pain in his voice. Then, when I looked at him, I instantly recognized that he was real street, not internet street, which naturally made him intriguing. I always thought he was handsome and marketable, but his tattoos aren’t necessarily safe. That didn’t mean anything to me because kids today like and want unsafe. They want rebellious -- they want the complete opposite of what their parents want for them, so I never looked at that as a hurdle. When I heard the rest of his music, I knew he was a star. When we took him on a short 10-day tour, and every time he performed he captured the audience's attention, which was unmatched for someone that had never performed on that kind of stage before. I knew that he had something special. He is probably the only person I’ve ever seen evolve so quickly. From the way that he interviews and the way that he dresses – everything is an evolution of where he used to be. I can’t take all of the credit, a lot of that is him naturally progressing. He said that he’s outgrown jewelry and is no longer buying chains. I didn’t tell him to do that, that’s just him. We’ve always worked hand-in-hand. I identified that there was something in him; there was potential, and he just evolved into it.
"Strategic moves are really important but most kids want to skip the process and jump straight to being the CEO. If you don’t want to work a regular job, at least do a job that is going to help push you towards what you want to do."
As a manager, what are your keys to really developing an artist and what are the primary things you have to look for?
Kei: First, it’s about the product, which is single-handedly the most important thing. If I’m working with a new artist, I’m looking at the music, and I’m looking at marketability. By marketability, I mean physically; their look, their voice and so forth. Then, it’s about taking those things and accentuating them, while making sure that people are aware of that. With  Savage, early on, we wouldn’t do every interview, we focused on doing the right interviews. We would make sure that the platform made sense and spoke to a specific story or aspect of his brand we wanted to share. We just set the bar very high. With a new artist, it’s the same thing. You want to identify the audience you’re going after. Next, you want to identify the platform to put them through. From there, everything else is a stepping stone to build on. It goes back to my experience in media. I always knew the right platforms for  Savage. After product and marketability, it’s about actually creating the brand from there. For example, I built everything from Savage’s logo, his first cover and first photo shoot – purposely. Instead of hiring someone random with a camera, I decided to go work with someone I trust in Atlanta. Let’s work with all the right people because those people also have a platform. Those people are influencers, so it’s a little bit of strategic influencer marketing too, which is another thing I learned at the media company. You have to utilize people who move the needle. To recap -- product, marketability, branding, influencer marketing, social media and from there it all comes to you.
Being a self-identified lesbian while navigating the male-dominated music business and running your own company, have you faced any challenges? In what ways does your awareness of these challenges play a role in how you approach the industry?
Kei: I don’t think I’ve faced a lot of challenges. I came out to my parents when I was 10-years-old, and I grew up in an environment that forced me to be adaptive. I grew up in all-white schools, being the only black girl on the soccer team, or the only black kid in the band. Sometimes I was the only black kid in the classroom, so I’ve always been in an environment where I didn’t necessarily fit in or see others who were like me. But, I’ve always known how to relate to people and communicate with people from different walks of life and had a diverse set of friends. I've been able to be myself in different spaces. As a result, I’ve never really faced issues or problems related to my race or sexuality. Regarding the music industry and being openly lesbian, it’s male-dominated, but both gay and straight men love gay women, especially white men. It’s never been a hurdle for me, personally. I know that a lot of straight women face several challenges because they have men trying to sleep with them all day, which is an issue that’s been ongoing forever.
For members of the LGBTQ community who aspire to break into the industry and feel like there are barriers or real challenges, they will face – Explain the importance of fully embracing who you are and staying true to yourself?
Kei: It’s easier to be successful when you're true to yourself because you’re living your truth. A guy who works at a popular streaming platform said that he didn’t feel like he was thriving in his career until he came out of the closet. I thought his "coming out" was empowering because for so long he was pretending to be someone else, and he could finally be himself. It’s also easier for him to relate to people now. When you’re living a lie, you don’t easily connect to anyone because you’re just floating.
When it comes to the power and value of representation for you as a successful young black lesbian making power moves as a manager in Hip-Hop – Explain the importance of showing that example and what it means for those following in your footsteps?
Kei: Funny enough, I didn’t realize how important it was until I started to see some level of success with  Savage. Now, I have women that reach out to me all the time for advice or giving me words of encouragement. Some women tell me that they’ve been following me for years and my journey inspires them. I didn’t realize it was important until I became successful. Now that I’m in this space, I make it a point to open the lines of communication for other young black women and young black lesbians that aspire to be like me. One of those mistakes that I made early in my career was not having a mentor. Music is just one of those industries where you have to be able to pick up the phone and ask somebody questions or for help so that you don’t make a dumb mistake. Not having a mentor is part of the reason why my seven-year internship was seven years, versus four or five years. It’s vital that you have somebody you can call on. Now that I’m in this position, I have a platform, so I’m making it a point to let girls know they can email me or text me and I will respond – 80% of the time [Laughs]. Even when people ask me about recommendations for interns, assistants or staff, I’m always thinking about what women I can help. I tell them to hit me up and send me a resume. That’s not to be an a**hole, but guys get enough opportunities.
With the streak of success that you’ve had, and you’re continuing to grow your company, how are you continuing to push yourself and expand even beyond artists like 21 Savage?
Kei: Part of the growth is merging my company with my friends, who also manage a roster of artists. Part of me growing is knowing that I needed a team. We merged our companies, and now we have a more expansive roster. I have other artists that we’re developing, and we also have a joint venture. The ink dried in December and we’re officially launching this summer. I continually push myself trying to get on that mogul level. I don’t have days off. Even when we do have days off, I’m not taking a day off. I’m focused on building my company every day. I see our company being a fair competitor to the power players. We’re a management company that also has a viable, successful label where artists are getting quality hands-on experience.
In a time of streaming, we’re seeing the growing convergence of music, media and technology -- What is that business model for artists now and how would you describe the new model for labels in the digital age?
Kei: Honestly, the artist and the artist’s manager have to become the label. If you build all of this leverage on your own, you don’t need the label. You don’t need them or even distribution. When I look at some of these new artists and how they go through these bidding wars, I think -- when you’re offered $6 million, then you’re worth at least $10-$15 million. If you have the money, build out your team; hiring your marketing team, digital team and your content team to do it yourself. The problem is that most people are lazy and don’t want to do the work. Additionally, some artists don’t think that their career is going to last that long, so they want to take that big check right now. But the label can be the artist and the managers because that’s what we do anyway. When you build an artist from the ground up, you do everything that the label does.