The 1199 apartment complex in East Harlem has a star-studded history. Located on 109th Street and First Avenue, the high-rise was once referred to by fellow resident, entrepreneur, record executive, and Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash as the “best building in a bad neighborhood.”
A hub for musical talent, 1199 served as a home for musical heavyweights Dash and Roc Nation co-president Shari Bryant, but also Dipset rapper Cam’ron—though he may refute the claim, Bryant joked in a recent interview with Fortune.
Bryant says she and Dash grew up next to each other while Dash was spearheading Roc-A-Fella Records, which he founded in 1996 alongside hip hop legend Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and entrepreneur Kareem “Biggs” Burke. The label served as the launch pad for Carter’s illustrative career by producing his debut album, “Reasonable Doubt.”
In 1999, a 16-year-old Bryant was focused on securing an internship to launch her own career, and asked Dash, her neighbor, if she could shadow him.
When she arrived at Roc Nation’s downtown Manhattan office: “Nobody knew I was there, no one was expecting me. They were like, ‘who are you?’” Bryant, now 39-years-old, tells Fortune. “He finally comes in maybe like an hour later and he’s like, ‘Oh, yes, this is Shari. She’s from my building, and make sure that she learns everything that’s going on.’”
The aspiring intern walked into Roc-A-Fella’s office determined to learn more about the music industry, only to become the co-president of one of the biggest and most influential music labels in the country 20 years later: Roc Nation. Founded by Jay-Z in 2008, the full-service management, music publishing, and entertainment company boasts some of the most notable names in music on its roster, including Grammy Award-winners Rihanna, Buju Banton, and J. Cole.
“When I walked into that company in 1999, I never looked back because I was able to see women that look like me and it made me feel a sense of belonging,” Bryant said. “I saw my mother, I saw my aunt. Not literally, but that’s what the representations stood for me at that time.”
She’s conquering the role with Omar Grant, who has been serving as Roc Nation’s co-president with Bryant since 2019. Both executives spoke with Fortune about how they navigated their way up from being an intern for some of the most popular names in music.
From Roc-A-Fella to Roc Nation
After getting her start as a Roc-A-Fella intern, Bryant has never left the industry that she loves. She’s had stints at prominent record labels like Warner Bros. Records, Atlantic Records, and Alamo Records with titles like vice president of marketing, senior vice president of marketing, and partner.
As a well seasoned music executive, Bryant solidified her position as Roc Nation’s co-president years later when Jay-Z appointed both Bryant and Grant into the role. They both report to Roc Nation CEO Deisree Perez and co-founders Jay Brown and Jay- Z.
“We were given the autonomy to reshape it for what we felt like it should look and feel like and with that clean slate, it was a lot of just signing really early, emerging talent,” Bryant told Essence Magazine in 2023.
Despite Roc Nation’s expansion into subdivisions of the entertainment sector, like sports and film, Bryant has been focused on defining one thing and one thing only since the ‘90s: the music. “I was listening to Roc-A-Fella stuff in the very beginning of my life,” she says.
Jay-Z has always been her favorite artist due to his wordplay and musical gravitas—“not because I work at Roc Nation now,” she jokes. “Anytime I need a pick-me-up, or if I need to just feel extra motivated, I go to Jay–he’s always been one of my key artists.”
Making the most of a Beyoncé connection
Meanwhile, Grant also jump-started his career with the help of his community. Born and raised in the Bronx, the 42-year-old exec got his start through Yes2Jobs, an organization dedicated to giving internships for inner city youth in the music industry. In his first and most “impactful” job after college, Grant interned for Yvette Noel-Schure, Beyoncé’s longtime publicist.
“I treated that internship like it was a real job because I fell in love with just everything about it,” Grant said. “I fell in love with the artists coming through, the way people move, the way they wrote.”
Noel-Schure introduced Grant to Mathew Knowles, Beyoncé’s father and former manager, a connection that helped him secure a gig as an assistant tour manager on Beyoncé’s “Dangerously in Love” tour for her first-ever solo album.
Grant went on to nab a position as tour manager for each of Destiny’s Child’s members, including Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams, before adding a number of artists and repertoire (A&R) jobs for other record labels to his résumé. The music aficionado credits his desire to build connections and inspiration from the industry’s influential figures, such as Steve Stoute and Chris Lighty, with ultimately landing him future roles. He later met music powerhouses like Jay-Z, Jay Brown, and Ty Ty Smith who served as mentors in his career.
“When they started Roc Nation, probably like the first year in, they were looking for A&Rs and building their team,” he says. “They remembered me because I always kept in contact, I always saw them around, and it just kind of came full circle.”
‘Because we’re a smaller label, a boutique label, it kind of feels like family‘
Grant says there is nothing he and Bryant don’t go through together. As seasoned veterans in the music industry, they complement each other’s strengths; Bryant has had years-long experience in marketing, while Grant’s background and career has always been centered around A&R.
Bryant credits the pair’s individual journeys and years of personalized expertise as the reason for their dichotomous role. “We feel like those two points are like the nucleus of any core label development,” she explained. “Having us at the helm and being strong in those two areas, we felt like we would do the company and the artists the most justice.”
The pair say they are in the business of finding and developing the next generation of “legacy artists.” Grant says the work they put in on a day-to-day basis and building artists from the ground up will help them create long-term success. “We can’t forget that there is a journey, there are steps to getting to where we want to be and to be great.”
Bryant’s one piece of advice for artists and aspiring executives: Find your own lane and be the master of it before you decide to branch out. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” she says. “You gotta be hustling as hard as us because we are working 24/7.”
Grant’s one piece of advice? Study your craft.
“It still boils down to being authentic to what you want and who you are,” he says. “Actually studying and perfecting and obsessing over what it is that you want to do in your career and how, and just perfecting the art.”