It was in 1966 in Dahomey, old Benin. A little girl is standing under the glare of heavy spotlights at the Palais des Congrès de Cotonou, the majestic parliament building in the heart of the tiny West African country’s largest city.
She is only six and her slender legs sway and shake. Moments earlier, her mother, the theatre company director, had hurried her on to the stage. Her daughter was the only one who could fit into the sick soloist’s costume.
On stage, still shaking, the little girl forces the audience into laughter – they think it’s part of the program. She reads this as approval, she is the comedienne at home, and finds the courage to begin the song Atcha Houn. Her audience responds with shock and awe, the first of many apt reactions Angélique Kidjo’s voice would receive in her long and illustrious career.
Today, the 54-year-old songstress is radiant with confidence. After the death of her father, a photographer with progressive ideas, she began to return to her memories of the days before her award-winning music career. The memories, put to paper, became her seminal autobiography, Spirit Rising, released early last year. She remembers her childhood as particularly happy and adventurous.
“I was a little girl, always running and jumping around our courtyard on skinny legs,” she says.
Kidjo grew up with music all around her. Her mother’s first love, traditional Beninoise musical theatre, ended when she was nine. However, soon after, the family took on another musical project investing in a number of Western style musical instruments in an ambitious plan to groom their seven sons into a homegrown version of the Jackson 5.
She, brimming with curiosity, wanted to be a part of this new sound.
“After school instead of homework, I would stand in front of the kick-drum with my arms crossed and listen in awe as they rehearsed Get Ready by the Temptations in our little lounge.”
Soon, she was joining her brothers performing at a little bungalow bar on the Cotonou lagoon while still a schoolgirl. Her father would only let her perform two songs but it was something Kidjo looked forward to each time.
“Around midnight, my father would come to my bedroom I shared with my sister Mireille, to wake me. I was too excited to sleep, but I would pretend, holding my songbook and lying very still so I wouldn’t wrinkle my dress. I wore the same purple dress every time. My mother made it from fabric she used to sell…my father put his hand on my shoulder and gently shook me, telling me it was time to go.”
Decades passed, and Kidjo’s passion for music and performance did not wane. Instead, it took her to the bustling streets of Paris. Speaking to FORBES WOMAN AFRICA on the phone from London, Kidjo says that she was unwilling to compromise as an artist if she chose to stay in her country.
“In Benin, before the coup d’etat, it was a very easy-going country…and then the communist regime arrived and everything changed. The good teachers fled the country and education began decaying and music was hit because it was not possible to write your own music if you weren’t talking about the communist regime and the people in power. It was one thing I didn’t want to do. So the only option I had was to leave, otherwise I was going to end up in jail.”
On September 11, 1983, a 23-year-old Kidjo arrived in France. It was a chilly introduction to the odd European climate.
“I learned very quickly that when the sun is shining in Europe, it doesn’t mean heat like in Africa, sometimes the sun is out and you freeze your butt, for real!” she laughs about those early days in Paris.
Those days, unlike her childhood, were a challenge. She was living with her older brother, who was also a student in the city. Both of them had very little to survive and she often did odd jobs to make ends meet. But Kidjo says her mind was made up, she was going to be the musician she wanted to be on her own terms at all costs.
“It was not easy…my parents were not rich enough to send us money. It was very hard, I had to find work. I did babysitting, I did hotel room cleaning, I did hair-braiding, I was a back-up singer in a band. It was a matter of survival but I was free and that freedom had no price for me. As long as the work didn’t compromise my body or my brain, I didn’t mind working endless hours…”
The life of a musician came easily to her. She worked endless hours to make tuition to the prestigious Parisian jazz school, CIM. It was 1985 and she had just left a fledgling singing school in a hilly suburb of the city. The jazz school was in the 18th arrondissement and home to a burgeoning immigrant population. She took to learning, in earnest, the genre that would form the basis of the sound she is now famous for.
“I loved jazz because it helped me understand the connections between classical music, pop and African rhythms. I studied the way the musical notes flowed together,” she says.
Through a series of connections, Kidjo was introduced to Jasper van’t Hof, a celebrated Dutch pianist who was experimenting with traditional African beats. She joined his band Pili Pili soon after as a vocalist.
“Pili Pili was modern jazz with African lyrics and rhythms, and Jasper was a genius at improvisation…later on this music also had a great influence on my own jazz rhythms…the sound can be so complex and entrancing. It was my first glimpse of how to create something new out of the magic of traditional African music.”
Her time with van’t Hof’s band was a crucial step in her career. With them, she performed at the renowned Montreux Jazz Festival and often spent winters touring Germany where the band had a prominent following.
While still at CIM, Kidjo met her husband, jazz bassist Jean Hébrail. Together they composed a majority of her repertoire. As she grew more popular in the Parisian jazz circles, she met another key character in her history, a blue-eyed man named Chris Blackwell. She met him at the Island Records office in Paris.
“He was dressed very simply, just in a casual shirt, jeans, and sandals. If you passed him on the street, you would have no idea how rich and powerful he was.”
Blackwell gave Kidjo her big break in 1991, the record deal she had been working towards since she had landed, young and naive, from her home in Benin. She remembers having one stern condition.
“I told him, ‘I need to have the artistic freedom to sing what I want to sing and make the music I want to make’.”
Blackwell was true to his word. In 1992, her first mainstream album Logozo went to number one on the Billboard World Music Charts. She headlined at the Olympia Hall in Paris that year to rave reviews.
She recorded four more albums with Island Records, gaining her first Grammy award nomination in 1995 for the hit single, Agolo.
Two decades later, the determined girl from Benin has made her dreams happen and more. The Grammy award-winner is mother to a daughter currently at Yale University in Connecticut. At the same time, she is a UN Goodwill Ambassador, fighting for the rights of women of her continent.
Her heart remains rooted on African soil as her latest release, Eve, dedicated to the women of Africa, shows. Outside her music, Kidjo is also known for her cooking. Her book was initially imagined as a cookbook and she shares a few of her favorite recipes in the epilogue of her memoirs.
Despite her success, she still holds her beliefs on making it in the music business dear. Compromising on her artistic freedom is something she cannot fathom.
“One thing I learned as a young girl singing was always to be true to my inspiration, never ever give that up in order to please other people. If you cannot sing your song alone without instrumentation and be happy, don’t put it out there! You cannot be an artist thinking that you want to be somebody else. You need to know what kind of artist you want to be and why you want to be that,” she says.
Judging from the sheer scope and success of her career, these are words from the truly wise.
Can Diddy’s Ciroc Recipe Work On Alkaline Water?
The first time Sean “Diddy” Combs took a sip of Aquahydrate alkaline water—given to him by pal Mark Wahlberg at a Las Vegas boxing match in the early 2010s—he found it to be an ideal antidote for evenings spent consuming adult beverages.
“I went out that night and had a Vegas night, and I woke up and had a Vegas morning,” Diddy told me in 2015. “I drank two of the [Aquahydrate] bottles and it was, like, the best tasting water that I’ve tasted. And it really, honestly helped me recover.”
Diddy became the face of the company alongside Wahlberg shortly thereafter, and the pair invested $20 million in Aquahydrate over the years while billionaire Ron Burkle’s Yucaipa added another $27 million.
They aren’t the only ones with lofty ambitions for the brand: last week the Alkaline Water Co., the publicly-traded purveyor of competitor Alkaline88, bought Aquahydrate in an all-stock deal that valued the latter at about $50 million.
For Diddy, who ranks No. 4 on our recently-released list of hip-hop’s top earners and boasts a net worth of $740 million, alkaline water holdings are just a drop in his financial bucket. His Diageo-backed Ciroc vodka—and its myriad flavors, from Red Berry to Summer Watermelon—is responsible for the lion’s share of his wealth. But it’s clear he thinks alkaline water, flavored variants included, could swell his portfolio. So do his new partners.
“You put both these brands under one public company, it makes a ton of sense,” says Aaron Keay, Alkaline’s chairman, of the Aquahydrate deal. “We see synergies on distribution, we see cost-savings on cost of goods. On production, on logistics, on staffing. … And we don’t see both brands actually then competing for the same target market.”
In the past, flavored water has enriched investors including some of Diddy’s hip-hop world comrades. A little over a decade ago, 50 Cent famously took Vitaminwater equity in lieu of stock as payment for his endorsement—and walked away with some $100 million when Coca-Cola bought its parent company for $4.1 billion in 2007.
A ten-figure valuation for an alkaline water company seems an outlandish target even for the notoriously bombastic Diddy. But Keay notes Alkaline clocked $33 million in revenues over the past fiscal year and had been expecting $48 million in 2020; now, with Aquahydrate on board, he projects closer to $60-$65 million. That compares favorably to Core Water, which was doing some $80 million as of last year before getting acquired.
“For two or three years, Core Water was just another clear water,” says Keay. “Then they added about a half dozen flavors. Sales doubled. They got bought for $500 million. I mean, for us, $500 million would be a big number off of where our market cap is right now.”
Diddy appears to be an ideal ally in achieving that goal. With Ciroc, once a middling vodka in Diageo’s roster, he was able to articulate importance of the brand’s defining trait: it was made from grapes, not grains (never mind that this might technically disqualify it from being considered a vodka). His contention, according to Stephen Rust, Diageo’s president of new business and reserve brands, is that grapes are simply sexier than potatoes.
“One of his favorite things [to say] is, ‘If you can have a vodka that comes from a history of winemaking, why would you do that versus the history of coming from potatoes?’” Rust explained in an interview for my book, 3 Kings: Diddy, Dr. Dre, Jay-Z, And Hip-Hop’s Multibillion-Dollar Rise. “That’s Sean.”
With alkaline water, Diddy has demonstrated a similar knack for sizing up a product and extracting an elemental notion that passes muster with consumers (if not necessarily scientists). If “you’re full of acid,” Diddy once explained to me, you need to “get your body leveled out.”
Vodka and water, of course, are two very different products, and the same tactics won’t necessarily translate from one business to another. Flavored water itself seems to have been over-carbonated of late, as the recent struggles of brands like La Croix show; Alkaline’s shares have slumped this year as well.
Perhaps that’s why Alkaline is looking beyond its flagship bottled water business. Future plans call for a move towards cans in a nod to environmentally-conscious customers, as well as expansion into the nascent CBD-infused beverage space. Keay figures Diddy and Wahlberg, along with fellow celebrity investor Jillian Michaels, should provide a boost across the board.
“Once the FDA makes a ruling about how CBD is going to be distributed through those chains and channels, those guys are going to want trusted brands, brands that they know already have a consumer following,” says Keay. “And that was another big reason why it made sense to bring [Diddy, Wahlberg and Michaels] in, because it’s only going to help.”
–Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes
The Highest-Paid Actors 2019: Dwayne Johnson, Bradley Cooper And Chris Hemsworth
A bankable leading man is still one of Hollywood’s surest bets, even if your name isn’t Leonardo DiCaprio. While the lucrative twenty-twenty deal ($20 million upfront and 20% of gross profit) doled out to the likes of Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise may be more or less gone, Hollywood still has its big-money brands, those actors who can promise an audience so big that they command not only an eight-figure salary to show up on set but also a decent chunk of a film’s nebulous “pool”—or the money left over after some but not all of the bills are paid.
Dwayne Johnson, also known as the Rock, tops the Forbes list of the world’s ten highest-paid actors, collecting $89.4 million between June 1, 2018, and June 1, 2019.
“It has to be audience first. What does the audience want, and what is the best scenario that we can create that will send them home happy?” Johnson told Forbes in 2018.
It seems he makes the audience happy. Johnson has landed a pay formula as close to the famed twenty-twenty deal of yore as any star can get these days. He’ll collect an upfront salary of up to $23.5 million—his highest quote yet—for the forthcoming Jumanji: The Next Level.
He also commands up to 15% of the pool from high-grossing franchise movies, including Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, which had a worldwide box office of $962.1 million. And he is paid $700,000 per episode for HBO’s Ballers and seven figures in royalties for his line of clothing, shoes and headphones with Under Armour.
While Johnson’s deal is the biggest in the business right now, he’s not the only one with a lucrative deal. Robert Downey Jr. gets $20 million upfront and nearly 8% of the pool for his role as Iron Man, and that amounted to about $55 million for his work in Avengers: Endgame, which grossed $2.796 billion at the box office.
That gross was so big that it secured spots on this year’s top-earner list for Chris Hemsworth, Bradley Cooper and Paul Rudd, in addition to Downey; together, they earned $284 million, with most of that coming from the franchise.
“Celebrities such as Downey and (Scarlett) Johansson currently have extreme leverage to demand enormous compensation packages from studios investing hundreds of millions of dollars in making tent-pole films, such as The Avengers series,” entertainment lawyer David Chidekel of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae told Forbes.
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Cooper is the rare actor who can thank a bet on himself for his 2019 ranking. The actor earned only about 10% of his $57 million payday for voicing Rocket Raccoon in Avengers.
Seventy percent came from A Star Is Born, the smaller musical drama that he directed, produced, cowrote and starred in with Lady Gaga. The movie was a passion project for Cooper, and he forfeited any upfront salary to go into the film and Gaga’s salary. It paid off—the movie, which had a production budget of only $36 million, grossed $435 million worldwide, leaving Cooper with an estimated $40 million.
The full list is below. Earnings estimates are based on data from Nielsen, ComScore, Box Office Mojo and IMDB, as well as interviews with industry insiders. All figures are pretax; fees for agents, managers and lawyers (generally 10%, 15% and 5%, respectively) are not deducted.
The World’s Highest-Paid Actors Of 2019
10. Will Smith
Earnings: $35 million
9. Paul Rudd
Earnings: $41 million
8. Chris Evans
Earnings: $43.5 million
6. Adam Sandler (tie)
Earnings: $57 million
6. Bradley Cooper (tie)
Earnings: $57 million
5. Jackie Chan
Earnings: $58 million
4. Akshay Kumar
Earnings: $65 million
3. Robert Downey Jr.
Earnings: $66 million
2. Chris Hemsworth
Earnings: $76.4 million
1. Dwayne Johnson
-Madeline Berg; Forbes
Comedian Jim Gaffigan Rakes In $30 Million By Ditching Netflix And Betting On Himself
Gripping a lukewarm Heineken, Jim Gaffigan hunches his six-foot-one frame over a peeling table in the green room of the An Grianán Theatre in Letterkenny, Ireland. Summer nights are never terribly hot in these parts, but this one is warm enough to need some air conditioning, which the theater almost never uses. It’s hardly a glamorous moment. But then again, glamour isn’t really his thing.
“There’s nothing sexy about Jim Gaffigan,” he says, sweat dotting his brow. “I’m not young. I don’t have a full head of hair. I’m out of shape. I don’t talk about having dinner with Kanye.”
Fortunately for him, he is funny. Just ask the more than 300,000 people in 15 countries who’ve paid an average of $56 to see his latest routine. For the 53-year-old father of five, it’s been a grueling schedule: more than 75 cities in the past year, including whistle-stops like Letterkenny, a northern community of 20,000 that was once lauded as the Republic’s “tidiest town.”
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They may not offer much sizzle, but places like this are the lifeblood of Gaffigan’s business. He has raked in $30 million this year, putting him at No. 3 on Forbes’ list of the highest-earning stand-up comedians. Half of that was earned by putting “butts in seats.”
The rest comes from spreading his punch lines far and wide. And in this business, if those jokes are funny enough—and your reach wide enough—you can fill a lot of seats with a lot of butts. With the right distribution deal, those jokes can deliver exponential returns. But that’s where it gets a bit tricky.
“In the entertainment industry, every house is made of ice and it’s melting,” Gaffigan says. “So you’d better be building a new house.”
Gaffigan’s been building. In 2016, he agreed to partner with Netflix, the industry’s dominant force and home to original specials from all but one of the comedians on Forbes’ ranking. Last year he cut loose from the kingmaker and placed a bigger bet on himself, pairing up with Comedy Dynamics, an independent producer, to release his next special everywhere but Netflix.
Gaffigan will star in the first original stand-up special on Amazon, which is going after the streaming giant with a push into comedy. Quality Time goes live today, and it can be shopped on the open streaming market when its exclusive run with Amazon Prime Video is up in two years. And that market is only expanding.
Gaffigan has learned a bit about home building in the entertainment industry. He cut his teeth on the club circuit in the early 1990s, when HBO was the primary destination for stand-up specials and Comedy Central was a fledgling cable network.
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In 2000, he landed what was then the holy grail of comedy success—a broadcast sitcom—which was the source of the fortunes the creators of Seinfeld and Roseanne minted once they had enough seasons on the air and could sell the series into syndication.
Gaffigan’s shot proved to be short-lived, but six years later he scored a second chance and headlined a Comedy Central special called Beyond the Pale. This time it paid dividends, landing him his first theater show a month later. The butts were now coming to the seats, and while his rise was live, in person, with microphone in hand, his breakout was digital.
At the time, YouTube was changing the rules of the game, providing comedians a global platform with unprecedented distribution. Then Twitter emerged, giving comedy bookers a real-time assessment of who was attracting audiences.
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Then came the debut of streaming on Netflix, which latched onto comedy as a cheap and effective way to lure subscribers, while some, notably the now disgraced Louis C.K., used streaming to control their own distribution, making their shows available for fans to purchase directly.
“It was a technological wave that crashed over the stand-up world,” says Wayne Federman, a comedian and professor of the history of stand-up at the University of Southern California. “And we’re still all trying to figure out what’s going on.”
Gaffigan’s first original Netflix special aired in 2017, long after the company had reshaped the industry. It was a promising place to be: Aziz Ansari and Ali Wong were propelled into superstar status through their Netflix specials, while household names like Dave Chappelle and Jerry Seinfeld reportedly cashed in with $60 million (Chappelle) and $100 million (Seinfeld) paydays in exchange for long-term, multi-program deals. Gaffigan’s first special, Cinco, sold for a more modest seven-figure sum.
It was more than just a check; it was access to a potential audience of nearly 94 million. Although Netflix’s subscriber base has grown since then, so has its stand-up library. The platform now shops nearly four times the number of original stand-up specials than when Cinco debuted.
That makes it harder to stand out in the scroll. Plus, the streamer often holds onto specials in perpetuity, including Cinco. The up-front money is nice, but there is no ability to earn on the back end.
Gaffigan used his next special, 2018’s Noble Ape, which was directed and cowritten by his wife, Jeannie Gaffigan, to test the waters. Comedy Dynamics bought the rights and made it available everywhere Netflix wasn’t. It had a theatrical release and could be purchased and rented on multiple services, including iTunes, YouTube and Walmart’s VUDU.
Later, there were short streaming windows on Comedy Central and Amazon Prime. According to Comedy Dynamics CEO Brian Volk-Weiss, it was even syndicated to planes and cruise ships. The up-front payment to Gaffigan from Comedy Dynamics was lower than at Netflix, but the wide distribution allowed him to earn on the back end, bringing in a total of $10 million, according to Forbes estimates.
And new services are on the way from Apple, WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal and Disney, any one of which could choose to pursue cheap-to-produce and popular stand-up specials.
Because of this widening field, stand-up specials may have more life (and revenue) in them, and that could be good for comedians looking to gamble on their success with deals that offer back-end participation. “We have titles in our library that are making more in year 12 than they made in year one,” says Volk-Weiss, whose company also owns specials by Bob Saget, Iliza Shlesinger and Janeane Garofalo.
Still, leaving Netflix means walking away from a partner that has now established itself as a formidable entertainment company. Netflix has some 180 original hour-long stand-up specials and is singularly focused on exploiting content around the world. Gaffigan, though, is content to keep the bet on himself.
“In the entertainment industry, every house is made of ice and it’s melting. So you’d better be building a new house.”
In the stuffy backstage room in Letterkenny, Gaffigan reviews some of the new material he tried out on stage. A joke about Ireland’s nonsensical roads killed it. He stumbled with a bit about the English. The classics played well—“My dad never went to a parent-teacher conference; my dad didn’t know I went to school.”
And he’s well aware that Amazon’s core mission is to sell stuff, even though it has won critical acclaim for shows like The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Transparent. With plans to deliver three more specials over the next five years, he’s got time to see just how good a partner the retailer might be. Along the way, he may decide it’s time to find a new neighborhood.
“The reason I went to Amazon is to expand my audience,” he says. “I don’t know what they’re gonna do and I don’t fully understand their marketing might. I might be pleasantly surprised. I mean, it’s a huge corporation. They could probably make more selling socks.”
-Ariel Shapiro; Forbes
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