Jeanine McLean-Williams on H.E.R.’s Stunning Emmys Performance

Nothing Compares 2 Her:
– Nothing Compares 2 Her:
H.E.R. performs during the 2020 Emmys’ In Memoriam segment.

On Sept. 20, H.E.R. gave a breakout performance at this year’s Emmys Awards when covering Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” during the ceremony’s In Memoriam tribute. While images of prominent figures we recently lost scrolled by, including Chadwick Boseman, Kirk Douglas, Adam Schlesinger, Diahann Carroll, Carl Reiner, Jerry Stiller, Lynn Shelton, Robert Conrad, Fred Willard, Buck Henry and others, H.E.R. (an acronym for Having Everything Revealed and whose real name is Gabriella Wilson) delivered a poignant and powerful performance. Pollstar caught up with H.E.R.’s co-manager Jeanine McLean-Williams, president of MBK Entertainment, to find out how it came together. 

Pollstar: How long have you worked with H.E.R.? 
Jeanine McLean-Williams: Since she was 12.

She burned fire at the Emmys.
Yes, she did and it was so exciting. She was excited. We were all excited. Now the only thing she hasn’t done on a huge stage would be the Super Bowl and the Oscars.

Is that on the list?
We hope so. (laughs). We think we’ll get something with the Super Bowl soon, so we’re hoping.  
It felt like she won an Emmy, did you know at the end of her performance that she nailed it?
Yeah, we did. You get a couple of takes and you get to do it a few times but it just felt right. 

How did it go with the song selection? 
They went back and forth a little bit. It was between “Nothing Compares 2 U” or “Stairway to Heaven.” She said, “You know what? I’m going to take the Prince version and the Sinead O’Connor version of this song, and I’m going to make it my own version.” 

And she did. I didn’t realize she’s such a good piano player.
She also plays drums, the harp, she’s good on a lot of a stringed instruments.

And bass and guitar, she’s a virtuoso, like Prince who could play anything. He’s one of her inspirations.  
Prince, oh my gosh, absolutely. He is one of the hugest for her. She feels he was the ultimate performer. She aspires to excellence and feels he embodies excellence from his performance to his musical talent to the way he totally owned the guitar, like it was an extension of his body almost. And that’s how she has built her own style making the guitar truly a part of her when she’s performing.

The In Memoriam part of the Emmys was so touching in a such a difficult year with so many lives lost; musically she matched that with melancholy and triumph. Did you work with her to make it so emotional and cathartic?
That was all very intentional and very natural. For an In Memoriam it’s obviously to honor those folks, it’s not a happy moment, unfortunately. She knows how to truly be in the moment and  to feel the sadness for all of those that passed. She was especially moved, of course, by Chadwick [Boseman], she was a huge fan of his and many others and Ruth Bader Ginsburg had just passed the day before. She was very in the moment of feeling melancholy and sad for those who had passed. When she was putting the performance together, we were all thinking of just how troublesome the year has been as a whole. So when you embody all of that and wrap it into the performance you’re going to get what you saw H.E.R. do on that stage.

Were there other musicians playing? 
Yes, they were offstage.

It was really stark with just her and the piano and the large Emmy statue and showing the person who passed and what they worked on – was that intentional? 
Yes, that was very intentional. The producers, Byron Phillips and Reggie Hudlin, we all talked about that in the creative conversation and they came up with that aesthetic and it was executed beautifully. In case you didn’t remember what that person who had passed was known for, you were able to be gently reminded and then to have H.E.R. in a setting that wasn’t going to distract from that. 

Where was it filmed?
That was the Staples Center.

Was it taped? 
It was taped the day before, but some parts were taped and some parts were live. That’s the beauty of being virtual is you can put it all together.

You mentioned “Stairway to Heaven” was a possibility, was that rehearsed? 
No, it didn’t go farther than an idea. There were a few song choices. You want to do whatever is most befitting the event, it was an option. But for what she was able to create and do something new with “Nothing Compares 2 U” was the perfect choice.

Were you there? 
Oh, absolutely, it was a great experience.

What was the feeling afterwards?
It’s an In Memoriam, so you’re not elated, but we were all very, very happy with the way it all came out and came together visually, the sound and the look and the feel of it, we were all very happy with it.

Are there plans for that song? Will it be released or show up on a record? 
Since that performance many fans have called out for it. Many have said. “Hey, that should be a single,” so it’s a conversation. Nothing has been settled on yet. 

Were there other moments in H.E.R.’s career that have had this kind of performance impact?
Absolutely, her performance at the Grammys. 

It Takes An Army:
– It Takes An Army:
RCA’s Norjon Hedman, UMPG’s Walter Jones, RCA’s Carolyn Williams, MBK’s Jeff Robinson, H.E.R., MBK’s Jeanine McLean-Williams, vocal coach Conrad Robinson, RCA’s Theola Borden, MBK’s Misha Mayes.

Are there plans to bring back H.E.R.’s Lights On Festival? 
We’re definitely going to do it next year. This year we were trying to make it happen, but it just didn’t happen. We were looking to use the same venue and have it with no fans and just livestream it. 

At the Concord Pavilion in Concord, Calif.?

What about the light blue Fender she used?
That’s her design, that’s the official H.E.R. Fender Stratocaster that went on sale last week and it sold out in one week.

Even in the best of times, that’s a really hard thing to pull off – having a performance like that and a deal with Fender in place. 
It’s just a matter of things coming together. I started the conversation with Fender about her own line one year ago. And then H.E.R. met with the Fender design team and she personally designed the guitar. It took a year to fine-tune a design and get all the pieces right the way that she wanted it, aesthetically and the sound. It could’ve come out a little bit sooner, but obviously, with COVID, we decided to wait, that was strategic, and necessary, but the timing could not have been more perfect, use it at the Emmys and then release it the week after.

That’s managing your ass off.
Yes, it is, (laughs) thank you for recognizing that. 

I don’t think people often understand what a manager does. Well, how about everything? 

Obviously  H.E.R. has an enormous amount of talent and skills and charisma and she’s amazing, but none of that happens without management helping to find the platforms and make the synergies, and that’s an art form itself. 
We bring the light. Many people – not many people have her talent, let’s just be real – but many folks with talent unfortunately never see the light. It does take the team, a great team like our MBK team that has been with her for over 10 years and taking the time with the development of her and figuring out the marketing and direction. It was everybody, the label and everyone working together to craft her talent to be what you see now and all the synergies, all the pieces coming together.

What other artists are you managing?
There’s an Epic Records artist Lonr., he is amazing. He has a song with H.E.R, “Make the Most” that’s top three right now. He’s an incredible talent, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter.

Where did you scout him?
Actually, he’s the brother of one of the other artists that we represented, Elle Varner. At the time he was just a little baby brother, and then you look around and, “Hey, little baby brother got a voice there. Hey, little baby brother got a pen name that’s kind of sick. Okay, now little baby brother’s a rising star of his own. The others are Tone Stith on RCA and Maeta on Roc Nation.

It’s a difficult time to even practice the art of management, given all the circumstances. Are you able to keep the balls rolling with all these artists?
Yes, for sure. Lonr., his song has gone up to No. 3 on the charts. We keep everybody busy. If it’s in the studio working on new music, finding opportunities to partner with brands, create online content and do things that are going to keep them visible. Lonr. did a campaign with The Gap, and Maeta has some things coming up as well. It’s just a matter of keeping them encouraged, that’s important, don’t let anyone feel that they cannot practice their craft during these times. New music always needs to be created. And letting them just really, really be ready to hit that live stage when the world opens back up.

Are you doing much by streaming?
A little bit. H.E.R. had this very successful Girls With Guitar series. We did eight episodes of that on Instagram Live. We’ve had Sheryl Crow, Chloe x Halle, Melissa Etheridge, Alessia Cara, UMI, Orianthi and on and on. It wsa a very successful series. All the chicks that could blaze out on guitar.

When was that?
We went from April into July. We had a variety of artists and one special episode. We partnered with Sony, our label, and had Miguel, ASAP Ferg and Koffee. All just having fun with H.E.R. going on with her peers and playing music, talking, playing guitar. Each episode we gave away money to charity. We gave away $30,000 to MusicCares , over $30,000 in PPE to different medical facilities and we gave free guitars, free Beats Pills, free gift certificates for Revolve and makeup from Yves St. Laurent, things that keep people encouraged during COVID times.

That’s important. Do you have big things up your sleeve the next coming months?
Yes, we do. We’re going to go out there and we’re find artists who right now obviously are limited with their ability to get into record labels and present their craft so we’re going to start going out there to find artists to sign the record deals.

With H.E.R. or that’s just your company?
The company, we’re going to find talent and get a few people signed.

How big is the company?
We’re called the little giants. It’s just a few of us. It’s Jeff Robinson, the chairman, it’s myself, who’s the president, Misha Mayes, who’s the general manager, then we have Jason Hobdy, who’s one of the junior managers, and then we have Jordan Chatman, who’s one of our A&R persons. And we have Shanese Dixon who is our assistant and Walter Jones who is our publisher. 

How many artists? 
Well, right now, it’s H.E.R., Tone Stith, Maeta, Tiara Thomas and Lonr. 

How long have you been in the business?
I’ve been with MBK for 18 years, all of us have been rocking together for that long. I had my own touring company prior to here. I have experience on the international touring side. And then on the management side, working with Jeff Robinson, my partner, who started MBK Entertainment, with Alicia Keys.

That’s a good artist to start with.
He discovered her and developed her when she was 16.

And that’s really part of the A&R process, spotting talent when they’re young and being able to boost their careers.
Yes, and develop them.