The release of paused RNA polymerase II into productive elongation is highly regulated, especially at genes that affect human development and disease. To exert control over this rate-limiting step, we designed sequence-specific synthetic transcription elongation factors (Syn-TEFs). These molecules are composed of programmable DNA-binding ligands flexibly tethered to a small molecule that engages the transcription elongation machinery. By limiting activity to targeted loci, Syn-TEFs convert constituent modules from broad-spectrum inhibitors of transcription into gene-specific stimulators. Here we present Syn-TEF1, a molecule that actively enables transcription across repressive GAA repeats that silence frataxin expression in Friedreich’s ataxia, a terminal neurodegenerative disease with no effective therapy. The modular design of Syn-TEF1 defines a general framework for developing a class of molecules that license transcription elongation at targeted genomic loci.