By Aaron Gell
In his role as a powerhouse music executive — he’s been the chairman and CEO of, at various times, Capitol Music Group, Virgin Records, and Atlantic Records — Jason Flom has traveled the world. But the closest he’d ever come to going on an African safari was signing hard rock bands like Zebra and White Lion.
That changed last year, when he found himself in a nature sanctuary in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, kicking it with a pair of orphaned rhinos named Warren and Sheba (an advenutre documented on Flom's highly-active Instagram). Flom had come as a guest of an organization called VETPAW (Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife), which enlists former U.S. Special Forces operators in the fight against poaching. Flom, a VETPAW board member, wanted a firsthand look at its work. “Getting to spend time with rhinos was one of the most profound experiences of my life,” he recalls. “They haven’t evolved in 50 million years—because they haven’t needed to—and now they’re being slaughtered into extinction because of this profoundly stupid and demonstrably false notion that their horns have some magical medicinal powers.”
Flom is sitting in the living room of his light-filled apartment 67 floors above Midtown Manhattan, while his grown kids — Allison, 23, and Michael, 18 — chatter in the kitchen, and his beloved English bulldog, Lulu, looks on placidly. Massive windows offer breathtaking views of the Hudson River, and the walls are covered with mementos of Flom’s four-decade career in the music industry, along with vibrant pieces by street-art stars like Kaws, Marc Ecko, and Mr. Brainwash, as well as by museum regulars like Tom Sachs and Andy Warhol.
Flom’s love for rhinos inspired his latest project, the forthcoming children’s book Lulu Is a Rhinoceros, cowritten with Allison (and blurbed by everyone from Moby and Michael Strahan to world-renowned dog whisperer Cesar Milan). Illustrated by Sophie Corrigan, the book tells the story of a young bulldog who yearns to convince the world that she is, in fact, a mighty rhino. “She knows who she is,” says Allison, who is working on an MFA in dramatic writing, “and that, in itself, is a triumph.” She and her dad hatched the plot together over a series of writing sessions, inventing a number of additional characters, from some pigeons who mock Lulu to a tickbird who affirms her.
The book is also a lesson about the pernicious effects of bullying, notes Flom, who recoils at the memory of watching his older brother get taunted as a child. “Now more than ever, when bullying is being endorsed at the highest levels, and people are being made to feel less and less like they matter, hopefully this will be a little piece of the response to that,” he says. “Done right, children’s books are little works of art, and they can have an outsize impact.”
Allison wishes there had been a picture book like Lulu when she was little. The bedtime ritual that really sticks with her was a made-up game her dad used to play with her — and that his father used to play with him — called “empty head.” The idea is for the child to express whatever is on their mind, good or bad, without fear of judgment or advice. “I remember saying my anxieties out loud and suddenly they felt less scary,” she says, throwing her father a grateful look.
Flom’s years as a brand-new dad coincided with an extraordinary period in his work life. His career in the music business was catching fire. Having discovered massive acts like Skid Row, Stone Temple Pilots, Tori Amos, and Collective Soul as an A&R man, he launched his own label, Lava Records, which proceeded to bring the world Matchbox Twenty, Kid Rock, Sugar Ray, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. That incredible knack for talent spotting — for meeting music’s unknown bulldogs and perceiving the chart-topping rhinos within — made him “one of the most successful record men of the past twenty years,” as the New Yorker put it in 2003. And that was before he signed Katy Perry, Lorde, Jessie J and Greta Van Fleet.
The first live show Allison went to was Matchbox Twenty at Jones Beach. “I was really little,” she says. “I watched the whole concert on my dad’s shoulders.” These days, she’s less impressed by her father’s industry clout (unless she needs a pair of tickets to an Ed Sheeran show) than by his philanthropic work in the area of criminal-justice reform. “I am really moved that my dad helps people on such a personal level,” she says. “He connects with humans whose lives have been stolen from them by this system.”
Flom’s interest in the issue dates to the early ’90s, when he read the story of a man sentenced to 15 years to life on a nonviolent first offense cocaine possession charge. “That’s the equivalent to being sentenced for a murder,” Flom says incredulously. He enlisted the help of an attorney, and a few months later a judge agreed to reduce the charges and set him free. “That’s what set me off on this lifelong mission,” Flom explains.
Since then, he has dedicated himself to the cause, becoming a founding board member of the Innocence Project and going on to serve on the boards of numerous criminal-justice-reform organizations. He also has his own podcast, Wrongful Conviction (now in its sixth season), which features innocent men and women who have been locked up for decades, some even sentenced to death. And of course there’s VETPAW. “I drink a ton of espresso,” he says with a smile when asked how he does it all.
Flom’s philanthropic streak runs in the family. His late mother, Claire Flom, founded The Gateway School to help kids with learning differences, and his late father, superstar mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer Joseph Flom, donated most of his fortune to charities that were promoting racial tolerance and supporting gifted disadvantaged youths. Allison, too, follows in her grandparents’ footsteps. “If you have something in abundance and you can share it with ease,” she says, “there is no question.”
It turns out even Lulu has done her part. “She’s trained as a hospital dog,” Flom says. “She actually worked in the intensive care ward of a children’s hospital for about a year.”
That was years ago, of course, before Lulu the English bulldog came out to the world as a majestic rhino. LuLu scratches her sturdy neck and wheezes contentedly. “We’ve been on some wonderful adventures together."
To purchase a copy of Lulu Is a Rhinoceros, click here.