May 4th, 2021 | By: Sarah Lacy | Tags: Stories
Jennifer Justice is as much of a bad-ass as her Marvel Superhero name implies. She’s the current President of Corporate Development at Superfly, producers of festivals like Bonnaroo and Outside Lands. Before that, she spent 17 years as the personal entertainment lawyer for Jay Z. She’s also a single mom of twins, who has been outspoken about the power she gained after becoming a mother.
Her journey is all the more impressive when you understood where she came from: The daughter of a single mom who didn’t even finish high school, raised in poverty. Her story of clawing her way into the inner circles of superstardom and how her children made her even more ambitious is one of my favorites.
Sarah Lacy: You’re a lawyer. Now, did you feel like, with a name like Jennifer Justice, you just had to be a lawyer? Or, did you want to be a lawyer?
Jennifer Justice: The only other thing I could be was a superhero. That seemed to be taken by men.
No, I didn’t actually even put it together, to be completely honest. I became a lawyer solely because I was the first person of my entire extended family to go to college. My mom didn’t even graduate from high school. When I went to college, I was like, “Oh, this is going to be amazing. I’m going to write my ticket anywhere.” Then, I got out of college, and I was like, “I don’t know anybody. I don’t know what I can do or can’t do.”
I’d been working the prosecutor’s office as my part-time job for years and, then, my full-time job in the summer. I was like, “I know. I’ll be a lawyer.” Otherwise, the only interviews I was getting for wine salesmen and insurance. I was like, “No, thank you.”
SL: Why was it important to you to go to college? Was it important to your family? What was the real driving force behind being the first one?
JJ: Just to not be stuck in the same position that they were. I wanted to see everything. Having money is not only a luxury physically in what you can do with it, but personally, in your head space, when you’re poor and you have no money, all you’re thinking about is eating and where you’re going to pay your rent.
You’re not thinking about, “Do I really like this person? Do I really want this job? Where should I vacation?” You’re thinking, “How can I get gas in my car? How can I keep my car working? How can I eat? How can I feed my family?” I didn’t want those issues. I wanted to be able to live life.
SL: I saw last week, on Twitter, I can’t remember who it was, one of the billionaires was saying, “The real currency in life isn’t money. It’s time.” Spoken like a billionaire. I find that rich people in the Valley who’ve made it always have to opine about the unimportance of money. It’s like, “That’s because you don’t have to think about it every day.”
JJ: Go give it all away, then. Give it away. Stop talking about what’s so important.
SL: So, you wanted to have options in life. You wanted to have some agency of where you’re going. You went to college and, then, went to law school. Did you have any thoughts about what kind of law you wanted to do?
JJ: Not in the beginning. I’d been working a prosecutor’s office, so I definitely knew I didn’t want to be a prosecutor or defense attorney. They barely get paid more than my assistant gets paid.
What they do is amazing. In Seattle, in particular, it’s one of the best prosecutor’s offices in the country. They have great conviction rates for sexual assaults.
But I was like, I can’t pay out my student loans. Granted, I got almost a full ride to university at Washington, mostly financial grants. When I got into Cornell I also got a scholarship there.
Right before I went, I was just hanging out in a grunge scene in general. It was when Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, Sublime would be playing at clubs…not even the size of our office right now. I knew them all. They were like, “You should be a music attorney. Our attorneys are women.” I was like, “What!?”
I looked them up, it was Michelle Anthony and Rosemary Carol. Rosemary became my first boss in the music industry. Michelle is not only a great friend but been a mentor of mine for years.
SL: Why was that? That musicians had female attorneys? Was it a coincidence?
JJ: I think it was coincidence. A lot of musicians, if they are from a poor background, and that used to be the case, they are usually raised by single moms.
Female lawyers are very efficient because we can multitask, our egos don’t get involved in our arguing things. It’s like we usually get a lot of things done very quickly. I just think it really resonated with the bands.
Think about it. Most of them didn’t go to college. They [are] like, “How am I making money? What does this contract even say?” They’ve never hired lawyers. Their parents have never hired lawyers before.
It’s daunting to be like, “Wait, I have a lawyer now? What does that even mean?”
Rosemary represented Nirvana and Michelle represented Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Sublime, too. It’s like this motherly thing. “Let me walk you through this. What this really means.”
SL: How did you start first working?
JJ: When you go to Cornell you have these job fairs between your first and second years of school, where all big Wall Street firms try to hire you as a summer associate for a ridiculous amount of money. All you do is really end up going out to parties and great lunches.
When I went to that job fair, my very first interview was with a law firm called Hughes Hubbard and Reed. The guy who interviewed me had long hair and a ponytail, and asked if he could smoke during the interview. I was like, “OK. I love this place.”
He was like, “You’re from Seattle. You probably want to be a music attorney. I’ll tell you what, come here, work at Hughes Hubbard for a couple of years, learn how to be a real attorney. I do know some people in the music business. I can hook you up.”
I got accepted to be a summer associate there between my second and third year. Right before I started he called me and he said, “I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I am leaving Hughes Hubbard to go start work at PolyGram Records.”
By the time I then graduated from law school, became an attorney at Hughes Hubbard for like a year. I was like, “OK, I’m ready.” I don’t want to get in too deep here because you get the golden handcuffs, because they were paying you a lot of money back then.
I was like, I want to start working in the music industry. He introduced me to two or three people, and the third one was the one where I got the job. It was the end of the 90s and they were going through their whole litany of artists.
They were like, “Here’s our artist list. It’s Dave Matthews and Blues Traveler. Marilyn Manson, and Sugar Ray. We have this young hip hop artist named Jay Z.” I was like, “I love his album “Reasonable Doubt”.”
They were like, “Wait, how do you know who he is?” I was like, “I got this job.”
It’s one of those, what is that definition of luck? When inner preparation meets opportunity, all of that. It’s one of those stories that I fell into it with the right guy at the right time.
SL: Obviously you worked with a lot of different artists and knew a lot of different artists. What was different about you and Jay-Z’s relationship? Why did that click the way that it did?
JJ: I had watched the Seattle grunge guys come in and their album debuts, and they’re number one. Then the next one, and it’s number one. And the next one. You’re like, “Oh, that’s just what happens.” You think you release an album, and it’s number one.
I had this weird, skewed vision of the music industry of, “That’s just what happens.” In the meantime there are a million other bands trying to get there and never succeed. Jay was the first one where I worked on “The Hard Knock Life” a little bit. Then it came out and he was number one.
It was this connection in that watching him grow as I grew in the business. In hip-hop you release an album every year. It was a ton of work. It wasn’t like a Pearl Jam album — when you put out an album you go tour the entire world for two years and then you start recording your next album. Hip-hop was really a US thing. There was no going on world tours.
He was just keeping us constantly busy and I was the main associate on it. It was just a connection in that I was getting to know the business through him. I came in with these fresh set of eyes. When ignorance is bliss kind of thing.
We just started creating a lot of different ways to do things in the business together, because the thing about Jay is he’s fearless. He will do things based on his instinct. He doesn’t care what everybody thinks. It was a great way to learn.
SL: Was a lot of your job really trying to be an advocate for him and protect him and break some of the traditional rules of music publishing?
JJ: Yes, it was. He easily took up 50% to 60% of my time throughout my entire career until I worked for him full-time, which was then a hundred percent. I started getting my own artists pretty quickly, because I knew Mark Ronson, so I brought him in. I knew the guys from Neverstop, which is also the guys who owned the Ace Hotels, so I brought them in as a little mini label.
I slowly started building up my roster of artists, but regardless…he was always a consistent 50% to 60% of my time.
SL: How were you regarded by a lot of the people you were pushing back on — the producers, the labels, whoever it may be? Because you talked about the artists having this affinity for having this almost maternal figure, badass single-mom lawyer taking care of them, but how did the labels feel? Did you encounter much sexism? Was it that whole thing of calling you a bitch versus aggressive or whatever?
JJ: I don’t know. Jay was just such an anomaly. As he grew in the business, we were always fighting the fair fight. I’m sure there was some bitch-calling behind my back and there was definitely a lot of “Honeys” and “Sweeties” and “Isn’t that sweet?” and “Cuties” and that kind of stuff. And “kiddos” and all of that kind of thing.
But yeah, I was known as being very tough and probably bitchy. All those things. I started wearing it as a badge of honor. If bitch means being good, then great. I’m a bitch.
SL: What was the conversation like where he convinced you to come work for him full-time?
JJ: I had already was thinking about leaving [the firm I was at] because I’d been there 11 years. Should I go do something on my own? I’d made partner in three years. I don’t know. I was just ready for a change. He just called me one day and said, “Look, I want you to come work for me solely.”
I remember it so well. I was with all my friends. We’d just started a vacation, a short mini-vacation around a three-day weekend in Malibu. First-class of rose, sitting out on the balcony watching the beach. It was a text from him saying, “Can you call me?” I was like, “Oh shit, what did I do?”
He was like, “Look, I’d really like you to come work solely for me.”
Literally I got off the phone with him and I went out to all my friends and they were all in the movie business. I was like, “Oh my God, Jay-Z just offered me a full-time job working solely for him.” They literally…this is the exact quote. “Bitch, please — you’re doing it. Can you pass me that rose?” I was like, “OK.”
He was like, “You have the weekend to think about it.” We both started laughing and I was like, “OK, I’ll get back to you.”
SL: Did you like that more, dealing with just one person whose interests you had at heart, and taking on the world for them? And oh, by the way, their career was hitting the stratosphere and the industry that they had helped make was getting more global?
JJ: It was a little bit of both. Yes, I just stepped into a very familiar role of “This is what I’ve been doing already. I am just doing it a hundred percent of the time,” but also building up Roc Nation, which was a little bit foreign to me because then I was on the other side of the table against the artist. If we managed them we were on the same side of the table, but if we were signing them I was on the opposite side.
That was a little bit uncomfortable because still in my heart I’m an artist’s advocate, for life. I’m always fighting for the underdog no matter what. No matter how much money they get somebody’s trying to take advantage of them.
SL: During this period, what was your average week like in terms of work-life balance? Were you getting calls at 2:00 AM to go solve some hip-hop crisis or was it fairly 9:00 to 5:00? What did that job look like?
JJ: No, we were a startup at Roc Nation. There was only six of us at the time. We were doing everything from doing Jay’s legal and business affairs to figuring out if we should take Columbus Day or President’s Day off to, “Hey, we need to order some letterhead.” Just all of the above, and “Who should we sign for our publishing company?”
It all varied. I was working all day, every day, Saturday, Sunday, it didn’t matter. Jay’s on tour, and he’s not around and he’s not signing contracts or doing deals, it was a little different, depending on what was going on at Roc Nation.
SL: During this whole time that your career is on this rocket ship, what’s going on in your personal life?
JJ: I’m having a great time, because you’re in the music business, and you’re out there. You’re exposed to people that people dream about meeting. They’re being written up in “People” magazine, and you’re hanging out with them on a daily basis.
SL: You never got married, right?
SL: You and I were at this “Marie Claire” event, and I feel like I met 15 super powerful career women in New York who just were like, “No, I just decided I was going to have kids, and so I just got a donor and did it six months ago.” It’s sort of an amazing trend. When I was young, there was the Murphy Brown scandal of, “How could a woman have a baby on her own?”
It’s an amazing change.
What was that transition like? You’re in this amazing, exciting, sexy career, you’re flying all over the world and going to parties, and then you’re like, “Yeah, I want to be a mom.”
JJ: Yes, basically. Here I came from a single mom who didn’t graduate from high school. We definitely depended on welfare a lot throughout. She’d been married and divorced, at that time, maybe three times, four times. Obviously not the relationships that you aspire to have where you’re equals.
I was just like, “This, to me, looks like prison. I want nothing to do with it, unless I can find somebody who is that equal and lets me do whatever I want to do,” because that had not been my experience in my dating life.
Then, I was like, “I’ve come this far. I’ve flown all over the world. I’ve had all this great life. How many more bags and shoes can I get? It’s not going to make me happy.
It was this thing like, “How did I get this far? Why am I here, versus anybody else in my family? There’s got to be more to it.” I was like, “The only thing is really children and passing whatever knowledge that I’ve learned on,” instead of having children because that’s just what you’re supposed to do.
It was a very calculated thing, like there’s more to this, my life and how I got here, than just me. I really wanted kids.
SL: You seem like such a fearless person, the way you talk and describe your career. Were you scared about taking that step?
JJ: The odd thing was I was never scared about doing it by myself. That never scared me, because everybody I knew growing up had done it by themselves. Most of the women I knew, even if they worked or didn’t, even in my adult life and career here, were still doing it by themselves, whether they were married or not. That never scared me at all.
I used to get more scared of when you have been really poor, as poor as we have been in our life, where food is an issue…I still have a poverty mentality, and I constantly think I am poor. It’s really about being able to provide my kids the life that I want to and that I didn’t have.
Ultimately, we all know it’s all about love. Babies are born in ditches and have nothing, and they’re fine. Which I point out to my other friends who aren’t as financially viable as me, that you can still do this, but that, no. Doing it by myself never scared me.
SL: What about what becoming a mother would do to your career? Did you have any fear about that?
JJ: One thing I did not even contemplate is how guilty I would feel leaving them when I went to work. I was like, “It’s like you leave and work and you see them and…” Daily, I feel guilty for leaving them.
I know you have to check the guilt at the door, and it’s actually better for them to see your parents thriving and following their dreams and being passionate about what they do and stuff, but still, when my daughter cries in the morning because I go to work, it kills me, or when my son gets really mad because I’m gone for five days at Bonnaroo and won’t talk to me for the first 30 minutes when I come back, it kills me.
[I did IVF] and when I found out I had twins and a boy and a girl, they’re very like, “Look, don’t get too attached to having two, because you never know.” I was just so obsessed with making sure both would stick. I’m glad I have both of them. It’s hard, obviously, but I don’t know any different.
SL: Did it change you at all?
JJ: Yeah, very much so. The time I was away from them needed to be spent in very valuable ways. I used to get my hair blown out every week. Barely do that anymore, except when Glam Squad comes to my house.
The amount of time I would spend just going out and doing things, no matter what, with different people or whatever, I wouldn’t even think about. It had to be my core group of friends or a core business situation, at night. I would make sure I was home every night between 6:30, 7:00, to at least 8:30, to see them go to bed, and then I could go out after that.
Doing a breakfast or a lunch made a lot more sense now than doing a dinner or drinks. What I was doing with work and how I was doing work was much more streamlined.
The thing that suffers really the most are my nails.
SL: Did you take maternity leave?
JJ: I did. I took probably about a full, where I didn’t go in at all, like two months, but I would still do some stuff from home. I was the only general counsel. It’s one of those things where I think everyone’s trying to figure out.
[Jay] gave me a great maternity leave and wanted me to spend time with the kids, but ultimately, there was no one else there that had been with him for 15 years that knew the ins and outs of every single deal he had done and things that are timely and sensitive. We were a small company. He couldn’t just hire somebody that then was exposed to all the privacy and secret deals.
That was a little tough to balance. A lot of small companies and independent contractors have this issue. No one’s really figured it out. But as a company, they were super supportive of that. Then, I did a part-time reentry for another month. Let’s see, I had the kids March 12th. I didn’t go back full-time until June.
SL: You’d had this amazing 17-year relationship and they were so supportive of you becoming a mom, but then you decided to leave. Why?
JJ: I’d been with Jay forever, and he’s such a great and loyal person to work with, and I just got this sense and feeling, because of my kids. I was doing a lot of stuff in the female empowerment world. In the meantime, they were really moving a lot into boxing and sports, and that wasn’t my passion.
I had been promoted a couple years and doing a lot of strategy and branding work. I liked it, but I felt like I needed to see if I was good outside of Jay and if I could have that career without having that safety net. It was difficult. He and I had a couple of heart-to-hearts about it, and I just made the decision that I was going to go. I worked basically 40 hours a week since I’m 14 years old. I have never, ever had time off in my life, except when I was studying for the bar, and that’s not exactly having time off.
I was like, “I need three months to decompress, figure out what I want to do, etc.” In the meantime, I’d gotten back in touch with the Superfly guys I met when Jay-Z had headlined. Because they had a done a deal with LiveNation, I emailed and congratulated them, and they were like, “Let’s have dinner or whatever.”
It was the exact same time I had given notice. They were like, “Maybe we should talk. We’re thinking about growing the business and building up the company and stuff.” I was like, “Great, but I’m not talking to anybody for reals until like October.” I took August, September off, and then I started having more conversations, started having more conversations with them.
I just kept coming back to them, because I just really wanted something where I could continue to use all the contacts and network and experience I had and build on that. I really liked them. I liked their passion, their real…they’re very passionate, not only about what they do, but also about the culture of the company and how people grow in the company.
It just resonated with me, and they were always the one I kept coming back to and being the most interested in.
SL: You’ve done a lot of work around different female empowerment causes. What does feminism mean to you?
JJ: I literally believe that feminism is equality between men and women. It’s that simple. That’s all it is. When people are like, “I’m not a feminist,” I’m like, “Oh, so you don’t think women should be equal to men? Do you know how asinine you sound right now? And, by the way, uneducated on the entire topic? That’s all it is.”
I love Ann Richards’s quote. It’s like, “Ginger Rogers did the same thing as Fred Astaire. She just did it backwards and in heels.” I love that.
SL: Do you think the music industry, particularly the hip-hop industry, has been good or bad for women?
JJ: Ironically, I think it’s been good for women. Again, all my clients that I had in hip-hop were super respectful of me. The most respectful of any genre of music. They treated me with respect, respected my opinion, always took care of me if I was at a show or whatever. By far.
SL: What do you think of Tidal?
JJ: I told you this. I would defend it to the death. Jay came up with concepts. Jay’s always been the guy that never needed the middleman necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with a middleman in music, but he just did it the other way.
The concept of Tidal was to create a safe platform where artists who weren’t being served by the middleman, or didn’t really need it anymore because they were so big, to come for their music. That’s it. He was never like, “I’m not trying to take on Apple or Spotify.” Literally, [he was like] “You guys be McDonald’s. I’m Shake Shack.”
It was a bunch of artists. The reason why the artists that were chosen had to be those artists is because they’re the only artists with leverage in the business. They had to be multi-platinum artists that have leverage with the label, if they’re on a label, or leverage with their fans when they didn’t have a label.
None of them thought, “I’m going to start this Tidal, become a billionaire like Mark Zuckerberg, and just retire.” It’s crazy to me, the negative press it gets, because it’s a bunch of famous people.
Sarah Lacy is the Founder and CEO of Chairman Mom and Pando Media. She's been covering technology for nearly 20 years, previously for BusinessWeek, TechCrunch and many other publications. She's the author of "Once You're Lucky; Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0" (Gotham, 2008); "Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos" (Wiley, 2011) and the forthcoming "A Uterus Is a Feature Not a Bug" (Harper Business, 2017). She lives in San Francisco.