Why you should care

Because at 21 she was editor-in-chief of a national magazine. How ’bout you?

It was the summer of 1976, and Cynthia Horner was in a near panic. At only 21, the Anderson, Indiana, native had just taken the reins of Right On!, making her one of the youngest editors-in-chief of a national publication in the U.S. The landmark Black fanzine had been founded four years earlier as a much-needed platform for African-American teen idols who were being all but ignored by white mainstream books like Tiger Beat. During its first years, Right On! was conspicuous for serving as a publicity machine for bubblegum pop darlings the Jackson 5, generating cutesy headlines like “Michael Tells All: His Secret Love!” and “Jermaine’s Pillow Case — You Can Have One!” But Horner was about to up the game.

“My first Right On! interview was with Bootsy Collins,” she marvels from her New Jersey office, recalling her career-shifting encounter with the animated bassist and member of the legendary Afrofuturistic collective Parliament Funkadelic. “I just remember thinking, Can I do a good job covering a serious musician? Luckily, Bootsy got me to calm down and feel good about what we were about to do.”

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A 1997 gathering in London of prominent radio program directors with Michael Jackson (Horner, wearing a black and orange print dress, stands between MJ and the man in the white jacket).

Source Courtesy of Cynthia Horner

Horner would soon do even more as the undisputed queen of the urban celebrity world. If you were an African-American teenager in the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, chances are you were obsessed with Right On! You sampled the PG version of life on the road with punk-funk king Rick James. You pined for The White Shadow’s Stoney Jackson in all his Jheri-curled, shirtless glory. You imitated Janet Jackson’s Control-era fashions. You witnessed hip-hop’s takeover when Right On! featured Run-D.M.C. on its cover and declared: “Rap Rules.” And at the center of this exclusive party was the perpetually smiling star-maker Cynthia Horner.

“She had a real talent for helping to develop young Black artists,” says Michael Bivins of the influential R&B group New Edition, whose Right On! posters became treasured keepsakes for teen girls across the country. “It was almost like we had our own Rolling Stone magazine going on,” he adds. Danyel Smith, culture lead for ESPN’s The Undefeated, calls Horner an influential change agent at a time when Black women rarely occupied high-profile journalistic positions. “She wrote about the music and culture with such knowledge and enthusiasm. … It was intoxicating,” the former VIBE Magazine editor-in-chief tells OZY.

Hanging out at the Jackson family mansion in Encino, California, and being pranked by the future King of Pop …

But celebrity news and entertainment had never been Horner’s endgame. After her parents moved the family to Southern California in 1960, she became obsessed with hard-news journalism. “I was always working on some kind of project, whether it was the elementary school newspaper at 11, the yearbook or writing for our local newspaper,” recalls Horner. At 17 she gained early admission to Pepperdine University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Then, after a chance meeting between her mother and Charles Laufer — the owner of Right On!’s parent company — Laufer asked to interview Horner and offered her the top editor’s job. “I fell into entertainment writing, but once I was in it, I found out it was in my blood,” Horner says.

Under Horner’s leadership, Right On! expanded with the spin-offs Black Beat and Word Up! The Horner brand even earned a shout-out from Notorious BIG on his signature 1994 debut single, “Juicy.” “It was all a dream / I used to read Word Up! Magazine / Salt-n-Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine,” the late hip-hop giant reminisced. “That was an actual photo that Biggie was talking about,” Horner says proudly.

More fabulous stories: hanging out at the Jackson family mansion in Encino, California, and being pranked by the future King of Pop. “I was sleeping in a room across from Michael, so he would always get up in the middle of the night and try to scare me,” she laughs. And the time in late 1977, when Horner reluctantly agreed to meet with a newly signed artist by the name of Prince (who’d been calling the Right On! offices demanding coverage). “I went down to a rehearsal studio in Hollywood to meet him,” she says, “and Prince started just picking up different instruments and playing them exceptionally well. I knew he was a goldmine.”

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A photo from 1997: Horner with Aaliyah (left), a singer turned actress who died in a plane crash in 2001, and singer-songwriter Billy Lawrence (right).

Source Courtesy of Cynthia Horner

There were revealing moments, like those she shared with pop diva Whitney Houston. “On rare occasions, Whitney and I would have lunch together,” Horner spills. “She would tell me how she wanted more of a relationship with Right On! and Black Beat. But Whitney’s record label kept her isolated from the Black press.”

Still, the high-flying times couldn’t last forever. By the mid-’90s, fans were hungry for more than glowy write-ups and glossy pics of chart-topping artists. The emergence of in-depth, critical pieces in hip-hop publications like The Source, VIBE, Rap Pages and XXL diminished Horner’s influence as magazine sales steadily declined. “I had a problem dealing with the [dominance] of gangsta rap and all the changes that were happening,” she freely admits.

After parting ways with Right On! in 2005 — “It was just time,” she says — Horner taught journalism at New Jersey’s Essex County College and launched celebrity gossip magazine Hip Hop Weekly. But the power of nostalgia soon asserted itself: There were calls from book publishers and appearances on TV shows such as the music documentary series Unsung. Horner responded to the renewed interest by securing the publishing rights to the Right On! magazine print family and is planning to reproduce classic issues (publication ceased in 2011) in both print and digital formats later this year.

“I’m also working on my memoirs,” Horner adds. “We are trying to get something out at the end of 2018. It’s a never-ending story.”

Perhaps, but there’s only one person who can tell it.

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