Why you should care
Because this 29-year-old you’ve never heard of is behind some of the biggest names + brands in entertainment, from Lil Wayne to Beats by Dre. And she started as a geek.
Cigars, tequila, rappers and music bloggers go well together.
At least that’s what entertainment insider, influencer, and innovative social media and marketing darling Karen Civil has planned to mix and mingle tonight.
Civil’s job is unconventional, to say the least; she’s been a professional hitmaker since 2008, when she first started getting noticed by some of the hottest stars in one of the hottest industries around. Since then, she’s cashed in on those relationships—particularly with Beats by Dre, the epic headphone brand you’ve certainly seen everywhere (even if you’ve never heard of Civil). Today, she runs a booming website in the hip-hop world, owns her own marketing consulting company (Always Civil Enterprise), and continues to help brand Beats. More specifically: she knows some of the biggest celebs around. She knows what they need, want and like, and she helps them make their work and their brand a hit.
The night I’m witnessing her at work, she and her company, Always Civil Enterprise, are the gracious hosts for Def Jam recording artist Young Jeezy’s mixtape release for his Boss Yo Life Up Gang project. Civil reins while Jeezy unveils the new signees (solo act YG and foursome group DoughBoyZ Cash Out) to his label, Corporate Thugz Entertainment. She’s the queen, but she keeps the atmosphere manly and exclusive—like an exclusive clubhouse with a slightly boys-only tinge to it.
The woman who was once a geeky, gothy teenager is at the heart of it all, connecting the dots between some of the most important voices behind urban fashion, music and style.
But she’s not even 30 yet, and she’s got plenty still to do—including a book and more. Knowing Civil, this hitmaker’s next big hit may be, well, herself.
There are people that look at the glass half full and some half empty. I don’t look at it as either. I’m just trying to sell the cup.
— Karen Civil
As for the questions about being a woman in a man’s world? Civil’s answer: “There are people that look at the glass half full and some half empty. I don’t look at it as either. I’m just trying to sell the cup.”
A good answer from the woman who might just be the best-connected 29-year-old around.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey, by hard-working Haitian parents, Civil is the go-to media planner for some of the music world’s biggest names. DJ Funk Master Flex, The Diplomats, Wale and Lil Wayne have all benefited from her marketing prowess, as do current clients: fashion/publishing giant Marc Ecko, rapper on the rise Nipsey Hussle and R&B icon Mary J. Blige.
That resumé reads like the work of any in-demand publicist. But Civil, who once dreamed of being an MTV VJ, has managed to blur industry lines in an industry already known for more gray areas than black-and-white ones. Civil has managed to blend the connections of a PR superstar, the packaging skills of a seasoned marketer, and the creative nose of a content specialist in order to create a professional mix that’s all her own. She’s been plenty recognized for it —in 2012, Civil was named one of Ebony magazine’s Power 100 influencers among the ranks of Cornell West, Lebron James and Oprah Winfrey. (XXL magazine said it first, but we’d agree: she might be the biggest cross-industry brand-maker since, well, Oprah.)
So how do you end up as a dinner guest on that list—with James, West, and Winfrey?
Step one: Don’t mind your nerdy past.
Civil’s confidence was chiseled by some trying times during high school days in New Jersey. The former Marilyn Manson fan endured some serious haterade from other students for her self-described “Wednesday Addams” style. [For the goth uninitiated, that means this was not the girl you invited to sit at the cool-kids table. In fact, you might have been a little scared of her edgy style.] “I was very antisocial. I wore the big, baggy clothes, the all-black. I realized: As much as I wanted to, I did not fit in with my peers,” she says. “I accepted my fate: That I was going to be somebody that was not going to be understood.”
Step two: Recognize that your nerdy past might, in fact, make you.
Silicon Valley might be full of geeks who built websites at age 11. Most of them don’t look like Karen Civil, who started building Backstreet Boys fanpages as a preteen. Which all meant that when it came time for Civil to build the website that made her famous—Weezythanxyou.com, the website that helped then-incarcerated Lil Wayne stay in touch with his fans while in prison—well, she was better prepared than most.
The former radio intern and Union County College dropout was, at the time, working in online marketing. But the brilliance of that site soon shot her onto the radars of the big-timers. A tastemaker was born. Screw the old bullies.
Step three: Be a tastemaker.
For Civil, that’s meant using social media obsessively. As an early doer in the PR world, Civil got onboard with a big brand like Beats by way of a gifting suite—a stand run by PR pros that is meant to distribute luxury goods to celebrities. She grabbed the headphones and aggressively got them out to ”a diverse group of celebs,” she says—from athletes to DJs.
Celeb product placement is an art that, in some cases, can make or break a brand. Civil, for her part, saved Beats by Dre millions in advertising money by getting Lil Wayne to rock the sparkling million-dollar diamond Beats headphones courtside at an NBA All-Star game, and by having Chad ”Ocho Cinco” Johnson “buy” his whole New England Patriots teammates Beats headphones before a game.
Step four: Build your own brand.
The clearest thing Civil has done right is build her own personal stock, even while she works whatever happens to be her regular job at the time (which has changed plenty, from interning in radio to doing online marketing in the music industry to working on Wall Street). Even while she was busy becoming a spokesmodel for the popular Carol’s Daughter hair care and beauty line and establishing Always Civil Enterprise, she still maintained her relationships with brands like Beats by Dre (which, after close to three years as her employer, is now her business ally). Also in the works: an upcoming self-help book, engagements with motivational speaker Tony Gaskins and hitting shows with rapper Nipsey Hussle.
For the girl who once wanted to be an MTV VJ — and who was passed over for her dream gig as Angie Martinez’s intern on NYC radio—the Web is a boon. Who needs a radio station or a TV channel to hire you when you can run your own interviews on YouTube? Civil runs a casual studio with low-key talk show interviews; everyone from Kendrick to Schoolboy Q to A$AP Rocky grace her couch.
Step Five: Don’t just lean in — smack them with the book.
Early in her career in radio, Civil learned to deal with rowdy rappers and lots of dudes. She developed thick skin.
“I make sure I don’t make the small gestures that can be mistaken for something else … not to confuse,” she says, her tone shifting slightly. ”Today, Nipsey posted this picture on Instagram and I was in the background. This guys comments and goes, ’Karen Civil slept with the whole industry!’ It’s so legitimately funny to me and sad at the same time.” After a brief sigh, she continues: ”God forbid that a man and woman can have a respectable [business] relationship. I’m going to start smacking people in the forehead with that Lean In book on how to be better as a society.”
Maybe not something Oprah would have said. But soon she settles back into her composed manner. Civility at its finest.