Photograph by Phoebe Jones ’18
Binta Niambi Brown ’95 ’s first real job, at 19, was in the chambers of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In her early 30s, she was the only African-American partner in the New York office of the law firm Kirkland & Ellis. Today, she’s gone full circle politically. Brown is informally helping the first female presidential candidate for a major political party, building on a relationship with Hillary Clinton that goes back nearly two decades.
But Brown’s true love—and the spark that turned a successful corporate lawyer into an entrepreneur—is music, which she has studied since childhood, culminating in a performance at 17 with a youth symphony at Carnegie Hall. Her passion for music—she plays 11 instruments—led her to found a record label, Big Mouth Records, as well as an artist management company that works with musical artists.
The record label, which she started last year, specializes in soul, R&B, gospel, and hip hop. She plans to release three albums a year as well as acquire unreleased music from well-known artists who have died. Her management firm, Fermata Entertainment, helps set up tours, record music, and negotiate deals. “We do not believe in artists giving up all of their rights, so we tend to look for different kinds of deals with major industry than what is typical,” Brown says.
Brown comes to the music business with a wealth of experiences in other fields. In addition to her career as a corporate lawyer, when she advised companies such as Time Warner, Universal, and HBO, she has been a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and has helped human rights activists in Cambodia. Since 2010, she has been a trustee at Barnard and has mentored dozens of alumnae. In 2011, she received a Woman of Power and Influence Award from the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. In addition, she was named one of 2017 Top 100 Ethnic Minority Executives by the Financial Times and serves as a member of the President's Task Force on Diversity & Inclusion.
Brown first advised Clinton when she was a senator, meeting her for the first time in an elevator at a fundraising event. Soon, Brown says, she was waking up at 4:30 a.m. to write memos for Clinton on human rights and other issues before she went to work. For the current presidential campaign, Brown is a surrogate who addresses supporters on behalf of Clinton. “I’ve known her now for almost 20 years, and she’s been like a mom to me at times,” Brown says.
But music has become the central focus of Brown’s life. Despite her devotion to Clinton, Brown didn’t attend the Democratic convention because she was in the middle of work on an album. (“But I rushed home from the studio to watch her on television!” she points out.)
Leaving behind a successful career as a lawyer meant sacrificing the financial stability Brown had achieved. “It was really hard to give up the income and prestige of being a lawyer, which was a lot of my identity. But you have to not be afraid to move forward,” she says. The trade-off is worth it. Working in the music business, she says, “I get to combine every single aspect of my brain, my training, and my heart.”