Just departed Ebony Editor-in-Chief Amy DuBois Barnett wanted to “put some hot sauce” on her final issue of the magazine. So she spiced up June’s tribute to Black Music Month with four iconic covers featuring Beyoncé, Jay Z, Kanye West and Rihanna.
Barnett spoke with The Root about what went into the cover choices, the ways Ebony evolved during her four-year tenure and how she’s feeling about closing this chapter in her professional life.
The Root: We’re getting a first look at your final cover for Ebony—it’s actually four covers. What was the concept?
Amy DuBois Barnett: June is Black Music Month and so every June we try to feature an artist on the cover that speaks to black music. This year it wasn’t really enough to find one artist. We made the decision to honor the four black artists who are dominating the music industry. I don’t think anyone can argue that Beyoncé and Kanye and Jay and Rihanna are the powerhouses of the summer airwaves.
So we thought it was fitting to just make a big splash. And do a large package that paid homage to them as the dominant artists of their time. But we also wanted to make sure that we included something about our history and the variety of artists that exist. Not just the super commercial ones, but the ones that are up-and-coming. So on the inside of the magazine we have a package that pairs eight modern-day icons with eight game changers of the past and talks about their similarities. And talks about how they’ve effected the music industry.
For Beyoncé we did a piece talking about her similarity with Tina Turner. And for Kanye he gives us some Tupac. And for Rihanna we thought it was Donna Summer all day. That kind of club dominance with the mainstream and black audiences.
Jay has expanded the definition of what an artist is. So he has become not only a stadium-seller—and Roc Nation (they just got Rihanna) has major artists on their label—and he’s got a sports management business; he owned part of the Nets at one point. You know he’s diversified his holdings to the point where he really is a business. He’s a businessman.
TR: So there isn’t anyone to compare him to in a historical context?
ADB: He was the one artist of the four on the cover that we didn’t have anyone to compare with in a historical context. We just thought that he stood alone.
TR: How do you feel about the statement that you left with this issue?
ADB: I think the covers are emblematic of what I tried to bring to Ebony over the past four years. I was tasked with making it interesting and relevant to a new generation of readers and that’s what I set about to do. So the fact that I was able to leave it with this kind of artistic statement, I just don’t think anyone can argue that Ebony is your grandmother’s magazine anymore.
But then on the inside, I think the past-present tribute is something else that’s very distinctive with Ebony. And I always made sure that we honored our roots. We were very careful to include content that was relevant to the entirety of our audience.
TR: How are you feeling about the decision to leave?
ADB: It was just the right decision. Four years is a long time for an editor in chief to be at any one magazine. For me I was just really excited because I came here with a specific mandate. I came here with an idea of exactly what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it, and I did it. And that’s amazing. It’s so rare in your career that you get to have a goal and achieve that goal and look back and think, wow, I actually did that.
You know, 2013 was a banner year for Ebony. Our newsstand numbers were up in the middle of an industry in which almost everybody’s newsstand numbers were down. We executed several newsworthy packages, including Saving Our Sons that garnered the attention of the White House. And now Ebony is doing a series of town halls in 2014 in partnership with the White House on black boys and men in America today.
TR: Do you see yourself at the helm of another magazine?
ADB: I don’t think so. I’m a three-time editor in chief. I’m not sure I have another magazine in me. And that’s not what I left to do. I need another challenge. I’ve been an editor in chief for 14 years. I wanted to take the skill and the experience and the knowledge and the energy and excitement and put it in a different area. I really believe that you have to keep pushing yourself, you can’t stay still. So I’m pushing myself to learn new things and explore.