How Sylvia Rhone’s Pioneering Career Broke Barriers And Shaped The Music Industry Landscape

She went on to manage the careers of artists like En Vogue, Brandy, Miki Howard, Busta Rhymes, Tracy Chapman, and MC Lyte.

There are few people more accomplished in the music business than Sylvia Rhone, whose 40-year career in the industry has seen her launch the careers of MC Lyte, Missy Elliott, and Nicki Minaj, and revitalize many others.

Rhone began as a secretary for the now-defunct Buddha Records in 1974, eventually parlaying that into positions at ABC Records and Ariola Records before being promoted to northeast regional promotion manager for special markets with Electra (now Electra Entertainment) in 1980.

This eventually led to Atlantic Records promoting her to the position of director of national Black music marketing, where she would manage the careers of artists like En Vogue, Brandy, Miki Howard, Busta Rhymes, Tracy Chapman, and MC Lyte.

MC Lyte became the first woman rapper to release a full-length album under the direction of Rhone in 1988. Upon being named the chairperson and CEO of Epic Records in 2019, Rhone simultaneously became the first woman CEO of a major record label owned by a Fortune 500 company, as well as the first Black woman to be both chairperson and CEO of a major label. 

In a 2023 profile, Billboard Magazine spoke to Rhone, one of the few women in the music business—and the only Black woman—to lead multiple major labels. Rhone, according to the magazine, was “a role model for women seeking their own seats at the table.” That year, Billboard named her its Women in Music Executive of the Year, but one could argue that it was really more of a lifetime achievement award.

“Since the beginning of her career, Sylvia has been an industry trailblazer, breaking down immeasurable barriers and paving the way to expand music’s influence across every genre,” said Sony Music Group chairman Rob Stringer. “She has shaped the career of countless artists, supporting them at all points in their journey, and she has opened doors for so many people in our industry.”

Despite her groundbreaking success, Rhone remained clear-eyed about the music business landscape and told Billboard that there is no magic pill for her success.

“When I was first appointed chairman in 1994, I was very focused on opening doors for people like me whether they were women or people of color by giving them an opportunity they may not have received before,” she said. 

Rhone continued, “Now that we have better representation—Epic’s staff is close to 54% female and 57% people of color—I am focused on creating power by creating a culture where the creativity of artists on our roster can flourish and there is an exchange of ideas, culture and information from a diverse group of creatives and executives.”

Rhone’s career has shaped and in many ways reshaped the music business, which led to the Black Music Collective, a branch of the Recording Academy, naming her in its initial group of Global Impact Award winners. Rhone, the only Black woman to have held the title of CEO at two record labels, was instrumental in making sure hip-hop received its seat at the table, and on the night she was honored, she spoke to the enduring power of the art form. 

“This is a whole room filled of leaders of hip-hop, and I appreciate more than you could ever know to be recognized with these cultural icons,” Rhone said. “But it’s nights like these that keep me revitalized. They serve as a powerful reminder that hip-hop was a calling. As we celebrate its 50th anniversary, it’s gratifying to see how far we actually have come….We have made history. We have changed lives. We are mighty. And we are worldwide.” 

Rhone is still fighting for hip-hop, and she sees a clear and present danger in the push from legal teams to use rap lyrics as the basis for prosecuting artists. She signed a petition created by Electra Entertainment CEO Kevin Liles because she sees the art form of hip-hop, one she helped elevate to its current position, as one that should be protected. 

“We’ve seen this cultural backlash before and we have to remind ourselves that rappers are storytellers. Their lyrics are stories, not reality, and their First Amendment rights must be protected,” she explained. “It feels like a continuous political attack on a genre of music that has been singularly enduring these attacks for years…Using the art of young Black men to imprison them is just one example of the latest attacks on our freedoms.”

Rhone’s legacy in the music business is unparalleled and embodies the spirit of hip-hop, an embrace of change and the determination to keep going in the face of obstacles.

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