Photo credit: Yaw Asiedu
MUSIC EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS

Fueled by Love: The Rise of Amber Grimes

Grimes explores her journey to becoming executive VP/GM of record label Love Renaissance and partner in LVRN Management in her hometown of Atlanta.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Amber Grimes hated that question. A tired cliché posed to kids everywhere who often respond overly enthusiastically without thinking twice.

An astronaut, a doctor, a firefighter!

Not her. Young Amber wouldn’t give a quickfire answer because she already held tightly to two convictions: she didn’t want to limit her future self to one specific thing, and no matter which rooms she would one day occupy, she was going to be the one telling people what to do.

“I never considered anything I wanted to do as a pipe dream,” Grimes told Boardroom by phone from Los Angeles. “I think a lot of people think a dream is supposed to happen to you — like a gift, or some blessing that will be bestowed on this lucky person that it’s written in the stars for. I’ve never been hanging off a prayer. I was like, ‘If I keep working, something will work out.'”

In January, that lifetime of work came to an apex: Grimes was appointed Executive Vice President and General Manager of record label Love Renaissance (also known as LVRN) as well as a partner in LVRN Management.

A Black-owned company housing the likes of multi-Platinum hip-hop stars 6LACK and Summer Walker, LVRN is based in Grimes’ hometown of Atlanta and was founded in 2012 by Junia Abaidoo, Justice Baiden, Tunde Balogun, Sean “Famoso” McNichol, and Carlon Ramong — some of Grimes’ oldest friends.

After three years as the senior VP of Global Creative at Capitol Music Group, it was a “no-brainer” to join their mission to refine artist development.

“Certain things you can’t make up,” said Baiden, LVRN’s Head of A&R. “I feel like our story, through God’s grace, has been like a love story. This is just another chapter of a fairytale.”

It sounds like something written in the stars.

In reality, Grimes has been the architect of her own constellation.

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Adolescence in Atlanta

Grimes is a fearless woman because she was raised by a fearless woman.

Some of her earliest memories are set in Atlanta hair salon Van Michael, where her mother, Tracy Grimes, was a hairstylist. After daycare or school, she went and watched Tracy work.

Tracy eventually quit Van Michael to pursue her ultimate goal of styling on the sets of music videos, and Amber quickly understood that it wasn’t enough to want better for yourself; you had to earn it. She watched as Tracy did hair out of their home in order to pay the bills — all while putting together a professional reel to catch the attention on the inside — and Amber witnessed the payoff.

Tracy’s first shoot was the music video for Creed’s 1999 top-10 hit “Higher,” where she met the acclaimed director Dave Meyers.

“After that, she worked on everything with Dave,” Grimes recalled, citing OutKast’s 2000 “So Fresh, So Clean” as an example of the countless iconic visuals directed by Meyer and featuring hairstyles by her mom.

Lil’ Bow Wow’s video for 2001’s “Puppy Love,” co-starring Jagged Edge and Solange, marked the first time Grimes and her sister accompanied their mom to work because Grimes was “obsessed” with him as a then-middle schooler. Her excitement to get to meet the young rapper stands out in hindsight due to the fact that big names were simply part of Grimes’ day-to-day.

“I was never really starstruck because I had always been around [celebrities],” she said. “Too $hort babysat me a couple times. And I remember my mom did Chilli’s hair for a while and letting me leisurely talk to her on the phone when I was like, six. I just respected what my mom did and respected these people as people because it was normalized.

“To me, everybody was a regular person, so if someone got to do something cool or special, I didn’t feel like you had to be this huge, special person. You just had to work for it.”

Outside of music video sets, Grimes watched a lot of television. Whether it was Tupac and Janet Jackson in John Singleton’s 1993 romantic drama Poetic Justice or Brandy in the late-’90s sitcom Moesha, Grimes noticed that music could open doors to other creative avenues.

“I had no limitations on TV,” Grimes said. “My mom never censored what I watched. I was glued to TRL every day, and106 & Park. I developed an eye and learned how to identify the qualities of a superstar, just by accident. I accredit a lot of knowing how to do my job today to having the exposure.”

And from her front-row seat, she thought to herself: All I have to figure out is the little steps in between, and then I’ll get the big thing, but don’t think that you can just jump over to the big thing. Don’t skip steps.

Her self-discipline was put to the test on the Alpharetta High School track team under the watchful eye of another powerful Black woman.

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Right On Track

Tracy found so much success on music videos with Meyers that she was able to move her family to Alpharetta — one of Georgia’s most affluent suburbs — and tour with Dave Matthews Band for 14 years.

The move granted Amber the chance to attend Alpharetta High School. Her coming-of-age demystified chart-toppers, but she idolized Allen Iverson — she may or may not have owned the MySpace username “SixersHypeChick3” at one point — and tried out for the basketball team in ninth grade in part because The Answer made her fall in love with hoops.

After the first day of practice, Grimes was approached by the school’s track coach, “the skinniest little woman” whose no-nonsense demeanor projected a towering presence.

“You’re always the first one down the court, but you suck at this sport,” Coach Nicole Hudson said to Grimes that day. “You should run track.”

Grimes felt special, as if this stranger saw greatness in her that she didn’t know she possessed. She took Coach Hudson up on her offer. Her reward? Grueling practices — “the most extreme training I’ve ever had in my life” — and an irreplaceable mentor.

“She was the first real positive Black female role model, outside of my mom,” Grimes said of Coach Hudson, now an assistant track coach for the North Carolina Tar Heels. “I almost had to quit my first year because my mom was always out of town, traveling with the band. I couldn’t get home from practice. I had to tell [Coach Hudson] that one day. After that, she started driving me home from school every day. If she was staying to grade papers, I would have to study and do my homework right in front of her. I had not experienced something like that before. It wasn’t just about the track or making sure I won for her because she was the coach of the team; she made sure I excelled literally from all angles.”

To Coach Hudson’s pleasure, Grimes did win a lot. She became obsessed with excellence — painting “WITH GREAT POWER COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY” on her bedroom wall, crafting a shrine to her medals and newspaper articles and qualifying for the state championships (twice).

Grimes’ pursuit of perfection wasn’t exclusive to the track. She had been Junior Beta since elementary school. She was the president of her class for three years. She participated in talent shows, with her sophomore talent show especially upsetting Coach Hudson, who reminded Amber at every turn that she came in second place with her Missy Elliott routine.

“I think it’s [Coach Hudson’s] own fault [that I was ready to quit] because I felt like I had learned every life lesson that I was supposed to learn from running track,” Grimes said, explaining why she left a potential scholarship to Alabama on the table. “I didn’t need to do it anymore. That wasn’t my life goal. It got me to the next thing I was gonna do.”

Opportunity Cost

The internet myth is that Amber Grimes dropped out of Kennesaw State University to work as a senior manager at Spotify.

Amber Grimes attends Billboard Women in Music at YouTube Theater on March 02, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

“It burns my soul for all of the young girls who look up to me to think that I, in some way, took this elevator to the top when I literally took the stairs, and then on the 10th floor, somebody was like, ‘The elevator is back in service,'” Grimes said.

For Grimes, the ground floor was organically building a reputation for herself in Atlanta by hosting open mic nights and promoting parties at the ripe age of 15 years old. In the process, she rubbed elbows with peers who have since become power players.

It was during her two-year stint at Kennesaw that she met now-LVRN colleagues Justice Baiden and Tunde Balogun.

“[Amber has] always been very focused,” Baiden said. “She’s always found a way to create a space for her when there’s no space. She finds a way to create a lane when there is no lane. That level of thinking outside of the box, being acrobatic, and creating room for yourself when it doesn’t seem so obvious, that’s a skill and a talent. That’s what I always saw in her.”

“I’ve been knowing Amber since we were teenagers, before any of us had anything going on. We were just all on the come-up,” acclaimed artist and producer Mike WiLL Made-It told Boardroom. (They hung out at the same clubs in Marietta, Georgia, and specifically at Mariachi’s open mic night.)

“I knew she worked hard, though,” he said. “I knew that much. She’s been a businesswoman since I met her.”

Mike WiLL Made-It at the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018, in New York City. (Dan MacMedan/WireImage)

Grimes had been managing a local artist who was subsequently signed to Def Jam by then-VP of A&R Bu Thiam. The artist’s record deal fell through, but Thiam and his team turned their attentions toward Grimes.

She was in an economics class at Kennesaw, fittingly learning about opportunity costs, when she got a call from a member of Thiam’s A&R team, Leopold Diaw. She was offered an internship at Def Jam.

Suddenly, she had real-life homework on the concept she was learning in class.

“I am not an intern,” she told Diaw. “I can’t do it, but I’ll find y’all someone who will.”

She hung up the phone and worried she made a mistake, considering her ethos up to that point had been to all about first saying yes and then figuring out how to leverage an opportunity to her advantage.

The next day, Diaw called again —during the same economics class, naturally — and instead offered Grimes a paying job as Thiam’s executive assistant in Def Jam’s Atlanta office.

Cutting Corporate Chops

Grimes assisted Thiam for four years. She managed Thiam’s Music Box studio. She supported him as he served as A&R on Rihanna’s Unapologetic album and Kanye West’s juggernaut 2011 collaboration albumWatch the Throne with Jay-Z, managed Chris Brown, and worked closely with Bu’s brother, Akon.

“[Bu] was very tough on me but just wanted me to be great at whatever I was doing for him, with him, and after him,” Grimes said. “He always let me try things, gave me grace when I failed, and then empowered me to rise to the occasion. And this is the same way I empower anyone who works with me today.”

While keeping Thiam’s business in check, Grimes also produced music videos and managed the now-acclaimed director child., the only Black woman to produce a Super Bowl commercial this year.

At the same time, she worked for Reebok — Iverson’s chosen apparel and sneakers brand, as fate decreed— in what is now known as influencer marketing and launched the Cardi Brand Agency, making her personal brand into an official business.

After leaving Def Jam and Thiam to spread her wings, she joined the management team for Atlanta rapper K Camp for 2015 and ’16. She also came to be Nick Cannon’s right hand, co-starring with him in Oxygen’s Like a Boss and co-launching his label, Ncredible South.

And before she actually landed at Spotify as a senior manager, she had one more stop in Atlanta: Mike WiLL’s Ear Drummer Records.

“You can’t really look at Amber like, ‘Oh, she does good for a female,” Mike WiLL said. “She’s outworking anybody. She’s outworking a female, a male, whatever. There’s no excuses with her. She just goes hard. That’s all you can ask for as a friend, an employer, or a business partner is for a person to go hard — to either outdo you or match your energy.”

Grimes began at Spotify in Atlanta — “I was always proud that I didn’t have to move to make something big like that happen” — and traveled to LA or New York every other week. But at some point, she had to commit to the relocation. She spent the last six months of her two-year Spotify stint living in LA, where she maintains a residence.

Grimes climbed the stairs to the top of the industry, prompting Capitol to create the position of senior VP of Global Creative just for her. She only needed three years to sense that “the thing that made me special was starting to die out,” and it was time to go home to serve her community.

“I sacrificed some time away from Atlanta so that I can bridge the gap, lifting the veil of this mystifying industry that doesn’t position itself where we’re from,” she said of her corporate years in LA. “The mystery is that there is no mystery; [Atlanta’s] mystery is actually better. Just growing up with great musical taste because you’re from a city where people do their own thing. A city that has produced music legends, a city that hasn’t been tainted by stuffy corporate men in suits that claim they know hits. The real secret sauce is there.

“I was always doing something with my friends, whether it was working with K Camp or being a part of Mike WiLL’s team,” she added. “Those people are fancy people to somebody, but to me, they were my friends. And they gave me an opportunity to come into their space, learn and grow, and that growth turned into being like, ‘Oh, I wanna do real business [together] — not family business.’ I went and did corporate and realized, ‘Yo, the family business feels so much better.'”

She wanted most to be accessible and visible. She wanted kids in Atlanta — and kids everywhere — to see her and believe, If she can do it, I can do it because I’m from where she’s from

Love Renaissance

Grimes’ pivot from Capitol to LVRN is the executive’s version of an artist wanting out of a major-label deal to go independent and get back to making authentic music.

“It’s like somebody told me, ‘If you give up a little, you can have all your masters back, and you’re gonna be happy,'” she said.

“It’s easy to say, ‘I trust myself,’ and then jump when you’re super low to the ground,” she noted. “When I can get to the very, very top of the mountain — what I thought was my dream — and still jump off the cliff because I’m like, ‘My parachute is gonna open for me, and I trust myself,’ I’ve never felt more empowered than I do now because I gave up everything that I thought was important to go back and depend on me.” 

At LVRN, she has free rein to channel the totality of 12 years’ experience into seven artists: 6LACK, Summer Walker, Eli Derby, Alex Vaughn, BRS Kash, Noonievseverybody, and North Ave Jax.

“I want to work with artists that I love,” she said of LVRN’s growing roster. “I want to work with artists who want to be artists. All of our artists, they want to be stars. We believe in artists from ground zero, and then we all put in the work to make sure they see the highest level of potential of superstardom. We’re not chasing research.”

The priority at LVRN is to put the artist over the money, and then put the humanity of the artist above all — which is why LVRN teamed with psychotherapist Syreeta Butler to originate a mental health division. As a lifelong self-starter, Grimes has never been shy to push outside of her comfort zone. As she develops emerging artists now, she is devoted to simultaneously act as their safety net and their driving force.

“In the music industry — shit, in life! — women that have an assertive attitude and know what they want, it’s threatening to male egos in male-dominated spaces,” Baiden said. “The ability for Amber to always maintain ground and never be taken advantage of is a skill. It stems from a pure belief in self.”

“There’s no balance in just five men [running LVRN],” he continued. “For me, in an ideal world, in 10 years, the music industry will be run by women. That’s just how I feel would be optimal for these artists because there’s a certain level of care and thoughtfulness. That will allow artists to thrive in ways that they didn’t even know that they could. Amber will be our beacon for that.”

Grimes intends to reach out her hand to the young girls who know they want to be in the music industry when they grow up. That starts with more representation — adding more woman artists to LVRN’s roster to match its 40%-women staff.

But for whomever she takes under her wing, the message is clear:

Lead with love.

“I only work well around love,” she said. “You can say whatever you want to say. Don’t mix business and pleasure! Friends and business don’t mix! That’s not my ministry. I only work at my highest in the most loving environments. To be around people that I not only personally love, but I have love for what they do, I have love for what they know, I have love for their process, and they feel the same about me because we know where each other comes from. That is the best thing in the world.”

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