Emil Wilbekin served as editor in chief of the immensely successful Vibe magazine for four years between 1999 and 2003, and helped bring the publication to a wider audience who were seeking more in-depth coverage of African-American music and culture than was available in other magazines. Wilbekin had been with Vibe since its launch in the early 1990s, and later moved on to a position with Ecko, the urban apparel brand. One of a few openly gay black men who are also trendsetters in the realm where rap and hip-hop music intersect with fashion, Wilbekin notes that his sexual orientation was seldom an issue. "There's this philosophy in hip-hop about keeping it real, whatever you are," he explained to New York Times journalist Lynda Richardson, "that you represent that, and that you are honest about that. Being honest about being openly gay is not a problem."
Wilbekin was born in 1968 in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, Harvey, had just left his first career as a structural engineer with the city to attend law school and enter private practice, and his mother, Cleota, was also an attorney. Wilbekin and his brother Erik were often teased by classmates when they were teens for their household's resemblance to the fictional family portrayed on the hit NBC sitcom of the era, The Cosby Show. In high school, Wilbekin served as president of the local Jack and Jill chapter, a nationwide social organization for African-American teens. His relatively prosperous and safe upbringing did not place him that far out of the orbit of most rap and hip-hop music movers and shakers, he told Richardson in the New York Times. "The thing that is interesting about hip-hop is that a lot of hard-core rappers are from very middle-class households," he noted.
Wilbekin graduated from Hampton University, his father's alma mater, in 1989, and went on to Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. Following his second degree, he remained in Manhattan and worked for a number of publications in a short span of years either as an in-house editorial associate or freelancer, including Metropolitan Home and the Associated Press. He began at Vibe magazine in 1992, just a few months before its debut issue arrived on newsstands the following year. The respected music-oriented magazine was founded with the help of legendary record producer Quincy Jones, and quickly became a must-read for its solid coverage of entertainment-industry figures such as Michael Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Snoop Dogg, and Run DMC. Though it focused on African-American urban music and culture, Vibe lured readers from all ethnic groups.
Wilbekin held various editorial positions at Vibe as its circulation numbers climbed, and was named fashion editorial director in 1995. Over the next four years, under his direction, Vibe increased its fashion coverage with a focus on African-American trendsetters and black-owned companies, such as Sean Jean, the label founded by musician and label-owner Sean "Diddy" Combs, and Baby Phat, a similar venture launched by Kimora Lee Simmons and her music-mogul husband Russell Simmons. Vibe's new emphasis on fashion lured additional readers and boosted the number of advertisers on its pages.
Wilbekin was named editor in chief of Vibe in 1999, and the publication continued to be a revenue source for its parent company, Miller Publishing, with him at the helm. In 2002 Vibe won a National Magazine Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors in the General Excellence category for magazines with circulation between 500,000 and 1 million readers. It beat out stiff competition for the industry honor, including Wired and the New Yorker, and the win also marked the first time that a publication aimed at an African-American readership had won in the General Excellence category. It remained, however, a magazine focused on music, with Wilbekin explaining in the May 2002 interview with the New York Times that "Vibe is like what Rolling Stone was to rock ‘n’ roll in the 70's. In Vibe, most of our coverage is urban or black, but we also look at the world broadly from a global perspective. We really consider the magazine multicultural."
There were a few critics of Vibe, however, who found the magazine's editorial voice just not as politically aware as some thought it could be for an African-American publication with such wide influence in the community. A Village Voice article titled "Fronting for the Enemy: Gay Men Who Make Homophobic Rappers Look Good," examined the dichotomy presented by the fact that rap lyrics from some artists were blatantly homophobic, though music-industry executives and the stylists who made them look good for the album covers and magazine features in Vibe and other publications were often gay. The writer, Chris Nutter, even singled out Wilbekin for being an openly gay man running a magazine that regularly placed some of the most homophobic recording artists on its cover. "I have the power to raise questions about it, but it's not my job to police every album and tell every rapper they're doing something wrong," Wilbekin said in his defense.
In 2003, Wilbekin left his position as Vibe's editor in chief to become editorial director and vice president for brand development with Vibe Ventures, the magazine's branding division. He left a year later to work for the Marc Ecko Collection as a vice president for development, but continued to be invited onto media outlets as an expert commenter on the subjects of African-American culture, music, and fashion. He remains best remembered in the industry, however, for his long tenure at Vibe at a time when African-American pop music was playing an increasingly prominent role in mainstream American life. Asked if he objected to being hailed as a "urban visionary," he replied, "I actually think it's very appropriate," he told Kerrie Frisinger in an interview for the Daily Press of Newport News, Virginia. "I saw something greater for urban life and culture than the artists and producers saw for themselves."
At a Glance …
Born in 1968, in Cincinnati, OH; son of Harvey E. (a lawyer government official) and Cleota (a lawyer; maiden name, Proctor) Wilbekin. Education: Earned degrees from Hampton University, 1989, and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Career: Freelance writer, editorial associate, or stringer for Metropolitan Home, Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, and People magazine, early 1990s; Vibe magazine, writer, 1992-95, fashion editorial director, 1995-97, and editor in chief, 1999-2003; Vibe Ventures, editorial director and vice president for brand development, 2003-2004; Marc Ecko Collection, vice president for development, and member of editorial board for Complex magazine, July 2004-. Contributor to the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Emerge.
Memberships: American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME), board member; Design Industries Fighting AIDS (DIFFA), board member; 24 Hours for Life, board member; Brotherhood SisterSol, board member.
Addresses: Office—Ecko, 40 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010.
Daily Press (Newport News, VA), November 13, 2004.
Mediaweek, May 20, 2002, p. 41; July 14, 2003, p. 32.
New York Observer, August 16, 1999, p. 6.
New York Times, May 17, 2002; May 20, 2003; June 17, 2004.
Village Voice, June 20, 2001.
WWD, August 10, 2000, p. 4B; September 30, 2003, p. 12.
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