Despite What You Might Think, Ebro Darden Doesn't Want to Be an Authority
To critics, he is a troll. To fans, he is a trusted authority. To peers, he’s a savvy media executive. None of these titles are complex enough to describe what Hot 97 and Beats 1 personality Ebro has molded his public persona into.
Ebro Darden is ready to go live. Sitting in the newly launched Apple Music Beats 1 studio in downtown Manhattan, he mutes the mic and begins scrolling through his phone. He’s tweeting — something he tends to do several times an hour.
It’s January 2019 and he’s just weeks into his new role as Global Editorial Head of Hip-Hop and R&B at Apple Music. Nine months later, he’ll be honored for that role. Last month Billboard named Darden one of its 2019 power players amongst hip-hop and R&B’s most influential industry executives, media figures, and moguls “whose influence over art and commerce is everlasting.”
To critics, he is a shock-jock radio personality. To fans, he is a trusted authority. To peers, he’s a savvy media executive. To him, he’s “just a fan of music.” An alternate descriptor he and others have also settled with is “troll.” But these titles aren’t complex enough for what Ebro has — both deliberately and unintentionally — molded his public persona into.
At 44-years-old, Ebro — who also still hosts Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning show alongside Peter Rosenberg and Laura Stylez — has risen to become one of the premier provocateurs of our time and one of the most prominent voices in media. His nearly 30-year-long career in radio was partially inspired by a high school DJ he once praised named Count Mixala whom he’d admired when he was in the eighth grade. Before he was suspended for playing N.W.A.’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood” on the school’s airwaves, Count Mixala would spin at dances, donning a cape.
“Back then you needed to have a gimmick to get the gigs,” Ebro said. “Even now, mothafuckas gotta have a gimmick.”
Ebro’s style of discourse is reactionary, in person, in interviews, and online. He’s rivaled by the likes of Power 105’s The Breakfast Club’s Charlamagne tha God, who is considered the louder voice, posturing as an authority in multiple spaces, branching out of music and radio across realms — TV, books, podcasts, film, and even music. Ebro takes the contrary route: limiting the places he occupies — fine-tuning his voice to ring the loudest on-air and online. Charlamagne attempts to present himself as a public intellectual thought leader; Ebro, the intellectual, plays it down and talks to his audience for the sake of what seems like mass effective communication.
Ebro launched his career in 1990, working in radio at KSFM in Sacramento, California. There, he worked in research and as a sales runner until moving into programming as an intern. He was doing background work — conducting radio research and calling listeners to find out what songs they enjoyed. In radio, he notes, people who work in research rarely ever end up becoming on-air talent. For him, then, the scope of his current career was not foreseeable.
His run at Hot 97 would begin in 2003, after stints at KSFM rival KBMB 103.5 and KXJM in Portland. Over a 16 year span, Ebro would go from music director to programming director to on-air host, becoming the lead mic on Ebro in the Morning — the morning show that regularly goes back-and-forth in a ratings war with The Breakfast Club.
His years on the research end of radio endowed Ebro with an understanding of systems — namely how songs become movements. His experience on-air and on the ground granted him access to the formula of an organic groundswell for a new artist or sound, the time it takes, the packaging it needs.
In a digital world that sees exaggerated versions of reality and identity for the sake of relatability representation, and sometimes exploitation, Ebro, like virtually everyone else, has created a caricature of himself: “Old Man Ebro.”
As his generational peers struggle in the social media era, he has it figured out. He has amassed a hefty following— more than 250K followers on Twitter and more than 650K followers on Instagram — by sharing news, music, memes, interviews, insight, and opinions. And his engagement metrics speak louder than follower counts. It’s clear that he has forged a semblance of his public persona online, but the bulk of Ebro’s identity had been formed long before social media’s existence.
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Born to a Black American father and a white, Jewish mother in Berkeley, California, the now recognized on a singular-name-basis public figure admits he changed what he thought was “too ethnic” of a name to work in radio. Ibrahim Jamil Darden became “Ebro.”
He attended a Pentecostal Black church and Hebrew school, where he was taught by a Black Ethiopian Jew. The Bay Area’s cultural and historical legacy influenced his interests and investment in African and African-American history. The time he spent reading, traveling, working, and living fortified them.
“In my home, my dad was very into Africa,” he said. His Black Panther-affiliate father went on to teach in schools and hustle on the streets. But he didn’t live a double-life as much as he lived a multidimensional one. Before this, Ebro’s father attended San Francisco State University studying radio and television on a football scholarship. Ebro said his family told a story of how his father caught an assault charge after beating up a white coach who had yelled a racial epithet at him during a game.
It was a relative from his father’s side who’d introduce him to the world that would become his work and life. Ebro’s earliest hip-hop memories date back to 1980, when the then five-year-old’s older cousin would listen to The Sugar Hill Gang. He had grown up with rap as it grew from a fad to a force.
For someone who has spent a considerable amount of time working both in the background and in the frontlines, Ebro doesn’t consider himself an authority. Some see his dominance in the industry as a litmus test for its adherence to the old rather than its investment in the new. At times, he presents as unaware of the magnitude of his position and career. Then there are moments when he’s well aware — using it as a tool to reinforce his presence. It amplifies when he confronts questioning, like the time Joey Badass appeared on his morning show in 2017. The 24-year-old Brooklyn rapper called for more young voices in radio.
“We need the new young Ebro,” he said. “Y’all holding their seats. Let them at least grow.”
Ebro responded brashly: “Come take my fucking job if you want it,” he said. “I done put so many people up here. Most of ya get up here and flub.”
Ebro has both antagonized and defended everyone — rappers, listeners, watchers, women, “woke people,” transgressors — with a smirk. And he doesn’t back down in public. He can be seen sparking or joining dialogue on a range of current events and cultural touchstones from politics to music. It’s this mental athleticism that seems to keep him stimulated on and off-air. It’s his sometimes blinkered opinions and incendiary hot takes that garner vitriol aimed his way on a day-to-day basis, from internet intellectuals poking holes in his logic to artists he’s criticized to contemporaries he rivals.
Back on-air, he plays “Roll In Peace” before cutting the song. “Kodak Black hates my guts,” he said leaning into the mic. “I don’t care.”
He alludes to the now infamous moment when, in December of last year, Kodak Black walked out of an interview with him. Ebro attempted to discuss the topic of sexual assault with the controversial Florida rapper, and the conversation surrounding the allegations made against him. Kodak fans took it as an ambush. But it was also perceived as journalism 101, and a valiant effort to push back against the fluff of music coverage that has evaded examination of artists’ lives and careers in a balanced way. More people took it as a stunt for views.
“I was responding as a man,” Ebro said. “He’s been charged, but he hasn’t been convicted [of the sexual assault charges.] But based on his social media behavior you could definitely see that it’s plausible that the allegations are true.” (Kodak Black is currently incarcerated on unrelated weapons charges.)
At one point, he turns to the mic to go live again. “Happy birthday and RIP to XXX,” he said on air in between mixes, shouting out the slain Florida rapper XXXTentacion who was shot and killed in 2018. The then 20-year-old has racked up a Rolodex of transgressions including the alleged physical abuse and torture of his pregnant girlfriend.
“He was talented,” he said off the air. “But I thought he was a piece of shit… I was open about the fact that this dude played with death. He was antagonistic to women, antagonistic to other rappers. He got shot up and robbed and it was terrible. He was young… Sometimes the universe don’t give you a chance to change… His fans probably still hate me.”
Ebro attests to changes that he’s made in his own life as culture has shifted into new language and new awareness. “I’ve always had these conversations about race, culture, religion on radio throughout the years,” he said. “I’m sure I’ve changed and become more aware of the nuances of sexism.”
When Ebro was 17 and working at KSFM, there was a sexual harassment case involving two other employees. He remembers the uneasiness of being called in and questioned back then. “It was a big scandal,” he said. “I got a firsthand view of [how] dudes be out here wildin.’ I never knew people behaved like that in the workplace.”
He goes on to recount being a teen working in media in the ’90s — the entanglement of work and nightlife, where he says clubs, drinking, strippers, wet t-shirt contests, and on-air antics defined that period. “I came up in that era. But that taught me ain’t none of it cool,” he said.
As often as he’s checked and as often as he does the checking himself, he doesn’t believe in the pervasiveness and perceived efficacy of cancel culture.
“That’s just addressing the runny nose; that’s not actually addressing the reason you’re sick,” he said. “Are people prepared to address the sickness that is deep within us? I don’t think people are prepared to do the work. I don’t think people want to do the work on themselves because… it starts with the man in the mirror.”
His pun alluded to Michael Jackson’s legacy post-Leaving Neverland, the explosive HBO documentary chronicling the lives, experiences, and sexual abuse allegations of two men who knew the late singer. It left Ebro to ponder having a set protocol for what music he plays on air as it pertains to the artists who have made heinous documented or alleged transgressions.
“It wasn’t hard for me to be like, ‘we’re not playing R. Kelly,’” he said. “I was never for R. Kelly’s music the same way I was with Michael Jackson’s music. After Leaving Neverland happened, I wasn’t going on the radio antagonizing people playing Michael Jackson…We’re not going to act like Off The Wall and Thriller wasn’t magic.”
“I think Mike did it,” he adds. “People are mad at me about that.” His stance to believe victims almost diametrically opposes his stance in separating the art from the artist— one of the many points of view he’s been derided for.
He goes on to dissect the common, conveniently-used conspiracy theory that emerges when powerful men like Jackson or Kelly fall from grace: that the powers that be were somehow set on taking them down. He believes there is a slither of truth to invisible industry figures wanting to siphon Jackson’s money and legacy through his discography and catalog.
“The music and the sound… someone wants to own that history,” he said.
Ebro goes back to his post and goes live. He starts playing “Bleed It” by Los Angeles rapper Blueface, then goes into Brooklyn rapper Leikeli47’s “Girl Blunt,” before transitioning into “Gbona” by Burna Boy. “This is one of my favorite records,” he says smiling into the mic. “He not breaking in Africa, but we breaking him in the US,” he said on air. Earlier this year, he interviewed Nigerian star Burna Boy. He gushed over him again in a later interview. When asked about landing the then-difficult interview, he replied, “I was lucky.”
It wasn’t luck. In July, Apple Music launched Rap Life — a rebrand of its popular The A-List: Hip-Hop playlist — as a new weekly show with daily segments helmed by Ebro. American hip-hop acts will be featured but what sets this apart from competitors like Spotify’s Rap Caviar is Ebro’s vision to take things global — with the music and the conversations. We see his new role in how he shows a vested effort in highlighting and amplifying African artists, like Burna Boy.
As Africa is reintroduced to the world and as the world is reintroduced itself to Africa, Ebro’s presence — as a seasoned music industry insider, a black American man, a biracial man, a product of the diaspora, an appointed bridge to mainstream Western media and the continent’s new music— holds a position in the power plays at bay.
Earlier in October, Spotify abruptly disbanded their cultural division that included popular playlists like Afro Hub. That same week, Ebro and Beats 1 premiered a new song from Afropop superstar Wizkid. Again, not luck, but an opportunity to fill a void that gives space for African artists trying to crossover into the American mainstream. But Ebro isn’t driven by what many view as a place of scarcity; he’s more compelled by what he sees as a goldmine— less for the music industry, and more for personal discovery of identity.
He shares the same fervor for finding out more about his individual and the collective black experiences as other artists joining the wave of rediscovery. In an interview with Brooklyn rapper Casanova earlier this year, Ebro asked about his trip to Nigeria. Casanova spoke on both going to Shitta, known as a notorious hood in Lagos, and partying with Afropop star Davido.
“We don’t see that side. We’re not marketed that, I believe,” Ebro said during the interview. “If Africa gets respect, then black people get respect. And if black people start getting respected on earth then it changes the dynamic of everything we’re accustomed to.”
It’s a sense of both wonder and familiarity that drives his interest in African music and culture. Of all his years in the industry, this is what excites him the most; the chance to grasp at what was once stolen from him and a whole people; the right to know who you are and where you come from. The normalcy of being black.
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Kwanzaa Day 5 — NIA/Purpose… today we returned through the same door, now called the “Door Of Return”, that our ancestors left Africa through. It was called “The Door of NO Return” for hundreds of years. And here we are. NEVER FORGET BLACK PEOPLE SURVIVED THE MOST INHUMANE & LARGEST HUMAN ATROCITY IN HISTORY….. In many ways we are broken, but many of us are working to rebuild spiritually & mentally & culturally. #fullcirclefestival2018 #capecoastcastle … 🇬🇭 Ghana the Black Star has brought us home!! 🙏🏿🙏🏾🙏🏼
Late last year, Ebro embarked on a trip to Ghana. He reminisces about what was then the recent past, detailing the moment he stepped off the plane onto African ground, saying, “It [felt] familiar.”
This is how Ebro approaches music. He aims to make formerly ignored or misunderstood people, places, and cultures feel celebrated. “I’m trying to just continue to make the concept more comfortable and more regular of going to Africa and knowing Africa — the nations, the countries, the tribes. That way, over an extended period of time, it just feels regular. It doesn’t feel far. It doesn’t feel foreign.”
With industry workings and hip-hop, he acts like a concerned, critical dad. With African music, he’s a curious child, seeking more knowledge. But Afropop and all of the other genres coming out of the continent isn’t just a shiny new object that looks nice to play with. To Ebro, it’s a new tool he finds useful in the development of Black America’s connection to the continent.
“I’m always learning,” he said. “I read articles probably more than I read actual books. I read The Economist and The Atlantic. [I was] reading about Kwame Nkrumah before I went to Ghana.”
Nkrumah led the Gold Coast’s movement toward independence from Britain during the 1940s and ’50s, spearheading the birth of a new nation — Ghana. He became the country’s first president, leading a nationalist and socialist administration guided by pan-Africanism and a lasting vision of African unity and independence, once saying, “Freedom is not something that one people can bestow on another as a gift. They claim it as their own and none can keep it from them.”
That same vision, Ebro says, defined and informed his mission of being “culturally free.” Ebro was present for every part of hip-hop and black sounds of the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century and the digital era that followed, from radio, to reality TV, to the advent of social media. Ebro is still here, and something new is happening. As the music, fashion, and other cultural productions become popular, a new interest in Africa comes along with it.
On an episode of Ebro in The Morning, Ebro received his African ancestry results on-air. He discovered that the black side of his family shares DNA with people from the Tikar ethnic group that inhabit parts of modern-day Cameroon, the people whom Quincy Jones was also found to be descendants of. What he shares with other Black Americans is the journey to self-discovery and the daunting yet fulfilling task of connecting their past with their present. He’s still in the process of finding out who he is.
In Barack Obama’s 1994 memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, he writes about choosing not to assume the presumed “tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds” story. He writes, “I understood that I had spent much of my life trying to rewrite these stories, plugging up holes in the narrative, accommodating unwelcome details, projecting individual choices against the blind sweep of history, all in the hope of extracting some granite slab of truth upon which my unborn children can firmly stand.”
Ebro sees this same legacy in his own child, his four-year-old daughter, Isa. He envisions it in all of his interactions as well.
“I want people to feel free and accepted and loved,” he said. “But I also want people to work hard, which is why I challenge artists and I challenge status-quo or go against things that I feel are just unhealthy in some way, shape or form.”
It’s the reason why he challenges himself, he admits, trailing off before uttering, “I’m the worst.”
Ivie Ani is a journalist who has written for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Village Voice, Teen Vogue, and more. She is also Okayplayer’s former music editor. You can follow her @ivieani