There’s a new face around the bustling hallways of Empire Enterprises these days — brassy, outspoken, and unforgettable. And just weeks ago, she was released from federal prison. Oh, and she’s the ex-wife of the company’s founder and CEO, Lucious Lyon. Ever since she gained her freedom, Cookie Lyon has reinvented herself as a music impresario — and in the process, she’s become one of the most dynamic and sought-after managers in the business.
Stepping into Cookie’s office on the 14th Floor of Empire Enterprises is like entering a cross between a zoo and a spa. A zen fountain in this corner, a leopard print couch in that corner. But the overall effect is actually quite chic. The same can be said for the ex-Mrs. Lyon herself, who strikes an alluring figure seated behind her large desk. But she doesn’t stay seated for long. A call comes in. Songwriters are on their way up to the studio to pitch songs for Cookie’s clients. “Try to keep up now,” Cookie says as she springs up and heads for the studio. “I don’t slow down for nobody.”
The Empire that Cookie founded with Lucious — arguably during happier times — is a far cry from the Empire to which she’s returned after serving her sentence. But Cookie swears she hasn’t missed a beat. “Yeah, we’re a long way from the garage in Philly, but good music is good music. That won’t ever change,” Cookie says, referring to the row house in West Philadelphia where she and Lucious made musical magic happen.
When she thinks back to those early days, a wistful twinkle hits her eye. “Lucious always had something special. His rhymes were like nothing I’d ever heard before. I was drawn to him like a moth to the flame.” That flame would eventually produce three sons and Lucious’s debut album, which music critics and fans alike credit with changing the hip-hop game forever. But soon after that album dropped, Cookie was nabbed on federal drug charges — and spent the next seventeen years behind bars.
“I wouldn’t wish that on anybody,” says Cookie as she walks past the line of eager songwriters ready to play their demos for her. “But if either of us was gonna go down, I’d rather it be me. Lucious had too much going for him. He couldn’t spend his best years rotting in jail.” When I ask if that’s what she did — spend her best years in prison — she tosses off my question with a scoff. “Women age like fine wine. My best years are ahead of me, baby.”
And as Cookie builds her own piece of her family’s musical Empire, it’s hard to argue with her. When asked what she looks for in a potential client, Cookie smiles. “I can’t define it, but I know it when I hear it. I wait for the ‘click.’ Something in my gut that tells me I’m listening to a real artist and not some fake wannabe.”
Cookie’s obvious natural musical expertise and ability to spot talent have many wondering if she ever harbored a desire to be an artist herself. “I can carry a tune, and if it ain’t too heavy I can carry it pretty far,” Cookie says with a laugh. “But I know my calling is to develop the ones who truly have a gift from God. Where would Whitney have been without Clive to bring her gift to the world?”
Though, like her famous ex-husband, Cookie has no formal business training, she relies on her sharp instincts and golden ear to guide her. And in the process, she takes no prisoners. No one knows that better than Cookie’s assistant, Porsha Taylor. “When Cookie first hired me, she said it was probationary,” Taylor says. “I keep trying to tell her my probation for that shoplifting thing ended a year ago, but she won’t listen.” Porsha is rarely more than a couple of steps behind Cookie in the halls, their sky-high heels clicking in unison. Even now, Porsha buzzes around the studio like a worker bee, setting up speakers and rearranging furniture.
Some in the business wonder if Cookie’s doing too much too soon. She’s come under fire for not focusing on being a mother to her sons after missing so much of their lives. But Cookie is defiant when confronted with this criticism. “I don’t have to choose between being a mother and being a manager. The company is my family and my family is the company. There’s no line between the two.”
“I wouldn’t trade her for anything”
- Jamal Lyon
No one knows that better than her closest client — her middle son, Jamal, whose sophomore album is currently in the works. “I call Cookie my ‘mom-ager.’ She lights a fire under my butt, but that’s what I need. I wouldn’t trade her for anything,” Jamal says. (Cookie’s youngest son, Hakeem, declined to be interviewed for this article. He instead released a “statement” on his Twitter feed citing an event he refers to as “the broom incident.”)
Soon, the first songwriter is ushered in, and it’s time to get to work. Cookie doesn’t let any outsiders listen in — for her, this is a sacred space. “But don’t worry,” she says. “Soon enough, you’ll hear it on the radio. I got the magic touch.”