Q’s With MBK Entertainment’s Jeanine McLean-Williams: H.E.R. Co-Manager On Bicoastal Lights On Festival, R&B’s Enduring Power

Best BET
Bennett Raglin / Getty Images for BET
– Best BET
H.E.R. performs at the BET Awards in Los Angeles on June 27, where she won Best Female R&B/Pop Artist

When the pandemic hit, H.E.R. was riding high. Between 2019 and 2020, she won two Grammys and was nominated for eight more, including consecutive noms for Album of the Year. On the live side, she brought together Jhené Aiko, Daniel Caesar, Summer Walker and more for the inaugural Lights On Festival, which sold 12,694 tickets and grossed $925,813 at Concord Pavilion in Concord, Calif., on Sept. 14, 2019.

In the last year and a half, H.E.R.’s star has continued to rise. She took home two more Grammys in March, and the next month, she added “Oscar-winner” to her resumé, winning Best Original Song for her contribution to “Judas And The Black Messiah.” She’s collaborated with everyone from Chris Stapleton (at the CMT Music Awards in June) to DJ Khaled (the Migos-featuring “We Going Crazy”), and even worked with the Obamas on their new educational Netflix series “We The People.”

But all that’s prelude to H.E.R. getting back on the road – which she’ll do in style with two two-day iterations of Lights On this fall. The first, booked for Sept. 18-19 in her native Bay Area, will feature Erykah Badu, Ty Dolla $ign and more, while the second, booked for Oct. 21-22 in her current home of Brooklyn, will include Maxwell, 6lack, Bryson Tiller and others. Beyond the music, the events will feature carnival rides, festival-style attractions and brand activations from the likes of Fender, Cîroc and plant-based food company Daring.

Courtesy Lights On Festival
– Coast to Coast
The lineups for this fall’s Lights On festivals, which will be held in the Bay Area and Brooklyn.

It’s all in a day’s work for MBK Entertainment president and managing partner Jeanine McLean-Williams, who along with her colleagues at MBK manages H.E.R. Pollstar connected with McLean-Williams to discuss Lights On, the musician’s fall tour and what’s next for the ascendant star.

Pollstar: Tell me about the success of the inaugural Lights On Festival in 2019 and how it informed these 2021 events.
Jeanine McLean-Williams: We were thrilled at it being so well-received and so successful that first time around. When you delve into anything new, even though you’re excited and you know that you’ll be well prepared, you’re still always a little anxious that it’s going to turn out great. We did all of the hard work of making sure the lineup was great, making sure that there were fun activations and lots of brand partners, and it was just such a great success. We thought we were going to be able to come again last year, but for obvious reasons we couldn’t. So we were like, “You know what? We’re going to make it even doubly special.” We decided to come with the two days in Concord [at Concord Pavilion] and then the two days at Barclays [Center in Brooklyn].

How did you decide to take this from a one-day event to two two-day events on either coast?
It was easy, because she’s bicoastal. She’s from the Bay Area, she does have a place in California, and she has her permanent residence in Brooklyn, so that’s like home. And, obviously, both are very music-centric locations.

How did Barclays specifically come together?
It’s centrally located. It’s definitely the new cool venue. The Garden is still a cachet play, but Barclays is the cool spot – the cool kids are of course going to want to be there. And the lineup is nice and diverse and it’s multiple generations, which is what we feel is important. With all music – not just R&B, all music – it’s cool for multiple generations to know that they have something in common, which is good music.

It’s been a crazy time to plan concerts. How did you go about planning these shows, given the uncertainty surrounding the live industry’s comeback and the lead time required for these types of events?
Everyone is excited to be back out. We’ve all seen a mad rush of a lot of tours going up on sale as soon as there was a green light from health officials saying, “OK, you know, you guys can congregate again.” A lot of artists just had a lot of energy that they just couldn’t wait to get back out. They’re like, “Yes, I can hit the road again!” That energy from the fans is something that drives their creativity, it drives their ability to just keep loving what they do. Of course, we’re always thinking of everyone’s health and safety, and we’re abiding by all of the local mandates.

H.E.R. curates this. What’s the booking process like? How does she select artists?
Everybody has their favorite artists that they listen to or that they’ve grown up listening to or that they have a good relationship with or they just feel very moved by their music. These are her personal choices of a variety of those categories. She’s a musician’s musician. She loves the classics and she loves what people are doing currently. You see that opportunity that she’s extended to some of the newer artists; of course they have their own platform, but this is a bigger platform. Then you have more established artists like Maxwell, who she totally loves, his music and everything he’s stood for throughout his career. Then, of course, SWV and just so many others. Erykah Badu, that’s like her big sister. They hang out and talk and they have a great musical connection. And Keyshia Cole, being from the Bay. She has a great relationship with Ty Dolla $ign and Ari Lennox and Kiana Ledé. You can go down the entire list and say, “Oh, there was a feature with that person. Oh, this person’s her big sis. Oh, this person’s her big bro. Oh, this is her hangout partner.” It’s all very, very personal to her in one way or another.

Grammy Gold
Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images
– Grammy Gold
H.E.R. plays the 2019 Grammys, where she took home trophies for Best R&B Performance and Best R&B Album. In 2021, she won Grammys for Song of the Year and Best R&B Song.

Observing her career over the last few years, it truly seems like she’s a uniter, bringing together all sorts of different artists who want to work with her. You don’t always see that.
And it’s genuine. This young lady, she is the real-deal talent, and she is the real deal as far as being pure in heart. It seems that the brighter her star shines, the bigger her humanitarian light shines as well, and her heart gets bigger, and she just seems to be more welcoming and inviting. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

Was there an overarching theme or goal with booking this lineup?
The hashtag is #RNBIsNotDead. That is the true theme of the Lights On Festival: shining the light on the fact that no matter what may come and go as a musical fad, R&B has been around forever. That is definitely the overarching goal and continues to be as this festival continues to grow even bigger each year.

Why was an artist-curated festival a good match for H.E.R.?
[She has a] desire to kind of be that one that pulls up others, to be that uniter, to create the type of festival that she would want to be on. Outside of the music, there are activations that are really important to her – making sure that it’s an experience. The first year, there was a film tent for aspiring filmmakers.

Tell me a little bit more about the non-musical aspects of these events. Carnival rides, festival-style attractions – obviously the music is the focus, but it sounds like there’s a lot of other really fun stuff that’ll be going on.
You want to obviously offer the opportunity for brands to come and have a footprint there and offer their services or have an activation. This year we have Fender again. They’ve expanded out the Fender house where they’re going to actually have acoustic performances there, which is really cool. We have Sony Music, our label partner, and they built out a really cool photo station and there’ll be some some music there, like a DJ. Then Ciroc, you know, you gotta have your liquor partner. That’s a personal relationship with Puffy, which is really, really cool. They’re going to have a nice footprint there. We have Daring Foods, which is a plant-based [vegan chicken] product. … The carnival rides, so many different food trucks – it’ll be like international food truck central – and supporting local businesses, local vendors. You know, just cool.

Coming Through
Jerritt Clark / Getty Images for Culture Creators
– Coming Through
MBK Entertainment president and managing partner Jeanine McLean-Williams (left) and MBK Entertainment CEO and founder Jeff Robinson (right) appear with H.E.R. at the Culture Creators Innovators & Leaders Awards on June 26.

How did your partners at Live Nation help to bring Lights On to fruition?
The festival is owned by H.E.R. [Live Nation Urban president] Shawn Gee came to us a couple years ago and said, “I think that H.E.R. should have her own festival.” It was Shawn Gee, H.E.R., [MBK Entertainment CEO and founder] Jeff Robinson and myself. We sat down, we heard him out and we were like, “That’s a damn cool idea.” … Live Nation Urban, they’re great partners. They obviously have a number of festivals that they’ve built from the ground. They have been our guiding light in putting a lot of things together. And we’re rocking now!

Outside of these events, H.E.R. has shows lined up at D.C.’s Anthem, Chicago’s Aragon, Philly’s Met, huge plays for somebody who, as recently as 2018, was opening for Chris Brown. Tell me about her live ascent.
The “Back Of My Mind Tour” is to support the new project [Back Of My Mind] that came out in June. With the world in the state that it was when we were putting everything together, we said, “Let’s just be smart about this.” She’s obviously able to do big numbers, as you can see from what was done at the Hollywood Bowl, where she sold out two nights [in August, backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic], which was huge and amazing. We kind of consider this run a bit of an underplay, but it’s the right way to come back out into getting your show legs back. … We just picked a few key markets. Of course, everyone’s like, “Hey, why don’t you come here!” It was like, “OK, then that would be a 60-city tour. Too much. Let’s just hit a few markets and, you know, get some new music out there.”

I’m sure you can’t say too much, but I have a feeling that 60-city tour is coming.
Well, you’re right. I can’t say too much, but it’s coming! [laughs]

Some artists faded during the pandemic, but not H.E.R. Duetting with Chris Stapleton, singing “America The Beautiful” at the Super Bowl, contributing to “Judas And The Black Messiah,” even working on the Obamas’ Netflix series. How did all those accomplishments continue to feed her popularity?
What you just mentioned, it’s so varied! She’s definitely one of those types of human beings that can be many things to many people.

Getting the Barack and Michelle Obama seal of approval is about as big an endorsement as you can get.
Yes, she’s very, very excited about that. Whenever they mention her name, she gets so giddy, which is very cute.

She has four Grammys, an Oscar, her own bicoastal festival. What’s next?
There are some bigger things coming! … She’s truly that quintessential just good human being that good things are happening for. She works really, really hard. She has that young energy; she can go for hours and hours. … There are many things that we turn down – things that some people would say, “Oh, well, I’m going to take the check.” We don’t do things for the check. We do things for the integrity of it all and for the overarching big picture.