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Talking African Writing in London

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Africa Writes, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival, dwelt on Afrofuturism and where black British artists see themselves in the burgeoning new aesthetic.

June fries itself to an end; London is sticky with the combustible residue of unseasonable heat, lager, and irrational, tabloid-whipped World Cup optimism. It’s too absurd to be an African summer; temperatures above 30 degrees are tearfully embraced, red-raw and half-naked, by the English, with a stunned but gleeful alacrity at the entrance of a jolly, party-starting relative believed long-dead.

A hundred and fourteen years earlier, the Sierra Leonean writer A.B.C. Merriman-Labor, astonished to discover the religious void in the heart of the greatest metropolis on earth, sends a letter home from London in which he decides, with horror and affection, that “the Britons are barbarians and heathens”.

This motif of seeing – by Africans of the British and of British Africans of themselves – is one of the more urgent themes of 2018’s Africa Writes event, the Royal African Society’s annual literature festival. Merriman-Labor’s biographer for An African in Imperial London, Danell Jones, is discussing ‘African Literary Figures in Georgian & Edwardian London’ at the British Library with Ade Solanke, author of the play Phillis in London (about the visit to London in 1773 of the “prodigy, poet, celebrity and slave” Phillis Wheatley), and the writer S.I. Martin, who “works with museums, archives and the education sector to bring diverse histories to wider audiences”.

It’s a crackling and challenging panel, with evocative and haunting subjects as its focus. “Forgotten voices have important things to teach us,” says Jones, echoing Solanke’s entreaty for writers to “exhume these stories” and Martin’s to “not enshrine, but internalize”.

Now no longer forgotten, these are ardent tales, tragic and cautionary. Merriman-Labor’s dazzling deconstruction of the contradictions of Edwardian London – its wretched penury cowering at the feet of its titanic opulence – was published in 1909, for which he achieved a degree of literary eminence, but he was to die in poverty at the age of 41, in a state-run hospital for the poor, his legal and artistic careers eviscerated by racism.

“Forgotten voices have important things to teach us,” – Danell Jones

Wheatley’s patron in Boston – her ‘owner’ (Wheatley had been abducted in Senegambia at the age of seven) – orchestrates the publication of her poetry in London, and she is “plunged into English high society”, but Wheatley dies shortly after her emancipation, at just 31, too poor to publish the second volume of poems that may have saved her. Both Merriman-Labor and Wheatley have vexing facets to their personalities. Is the former an arriviste, as starry-eyed as any narcissistic creative, with fame and adoration beckoning on the horizon of his mind’s eye? Is the latter a malleable apologist, in her poetry, for cultural and religious imperialism? These human beings are complicated; they are impressive. But they are not always likeable.

Which begs the question: how does a writer ‘exhume these stories’ with both compassion and honesty? How can these voices be reanimated, without committing further violations upon their memory, since we can never know how they ever really felt? Even if, as Solanke quotes from William Faulkner, “the past is never dead – it’s not even past”?

Read more: An Awesome, Awkward, African Night

“You know, I’m against that whole redemptive arc of black literature,” says Martin. “Yes, there has to be redemption, but that comes from the reader, through self-examination, rather than the character.”

Solanke agrees. “I don’t want simple people,” she says. “Phillis is problematic. I came close several times to abandoning her story. She wasn’t the Phillis I expected. But it’s actually been transformative for me as a writer. It’s the drama of facts – and then the drama of imagination.”

In An African in Imperial London, Jones places Merriman-Labor at a political march in London which he may or may not have attended – she has no supporting evidence either way, but argues that the artist is at liberty to fabricate experiences if they support a rational truth. “I can’t prove that he was there,” she says. “But to me, it made sense in the larger story.”

Merriman-Labor is mesmerized by London’s transport technology – “Overhead and Underfoot, Overground and Underground, Terrestrial and Celestial” – which shuttles me across the city for a second Africa Writes event at Rich Mix in East London. What would Merriman-Labor – or Wheatley – have made of the phone-scrolling throngs queuing for a salt-beef bagel on nearby Brick Lane, or the homeless man outside the restaurant gifting his incredulous dog a polystyrene tray overflowing with chips and ketchup? This is the gristle of the city, the marrow of poetry.

Rachel Long, Theresa Lola and Hibaq Osman, three members of Octavia, “a poetry collective for women of color founded in response to the lack of inclusivity and representation in literature and academia,” are sparing a few minutes to chat before rushing back to rehearsals for the evening’s show. It’s a credit to the Africa Writes programming that the events pull the festival’s central threads long and taught through centuries, across genres. And it’s striking that this collective of young female artists eschews the use of social media to promote its shows. Long, Octavia’s founder member, calls these platforms “unsafe spaces for women of color,” after a successful past event attracted a batch of abusive comments on its Facebook page.

“For me it was just like, how dare you?” she says. “How could you dampen something that was that beautiful?” The event later that evening is indeed exquisite and irresistible, both in execution and atmosphere – the boundaries of performance poetry are stretched and explored across several sets of poems which are by turns funny, tragic and uplifting.

“I feel like because so much of what we do is almost in secret,” says Osman, “that when we’re on stage, it becomes more intimate than other things I’ve been a part of. Everyone’s a bit more likely to take in the words in a way that maybe they weren’t expecting.”

It’s a night about woke female power, and the vibranium-hard Afrofuturism of the black creative economy – a widening path to artistic and financial success that was so cruelly curtailed for trailblazers like Wheatley and Merriman-Labor. Where do these black British artists see themselves in this burgeoning new aesthetic?

“What I think is so beautiful about Afrofuturism is this merging of different cultures,” says Lola. “I feel like before there used to be isolated identities. Afrofuturism will be this space where everything is embraced.”

‘An African in Imperial London’ is out now and published by Hurst Publishers. Ade Solanke’s new play ‘The Court Must Have a Queen’ runs through to September 2 at Hampton Court Palace in the UK.

– By Alastair Hagger

Arts

The Baskets Holding Them Together

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The female basket-weavers of Rwanda. When destiny failed them, they saw hope, in gentle strands of sisal and grass. The art helped them heal, reconcile and live again.

‘Art As A Reconciliatory Tool’

As dusk descends on the verdant valleys of Kigali, the green of the city’s rolling hills and its red terraced homes relinquish their arresting appeal to the most sparkling jewel of the night – the landmark Kigali Convention Centre (KCC), easily one of Africa’s brightest spots, with its multi-tiered colors and unique architectural aesthetic.

The Kigali Convention Centre’s design inspired by the traditional Rwandan baskets

It is striking in contrast to the landscape around and occupies center-stage, both in the city as well as the psyche of the proud Rwandan. Resembling the traditional, intricate, hand-woven Agaseke basket, the KCC stands atop the hills as a symbol of hope in Rwanda, and as a beacon of a new Africa.

It’s a sight most reassuring for the plethora of female artisans and entrepreneurs in the country. In villages and districts far from this dome in the city center, women sit huddled together in tiny cooperatives weaving with nimble fingers beautiful Agaseke baskets, in all forms, shapes and sizes, oblivious to the impact their creations have on the tourism economy – and more so, in their own lives.

Bella Rukwavu of the Agaseke Project

Bella Rukwavu, Project Coordinator of the Agaseke Project, which was initiated by the City of Kigali in 2007, recounts the beginnings of some of these cooperatives, after the new government took over, post the horrific genocide against the Tutsi that left a million dead across the country.

“When the city was trying to reorganize itself, part of the problem was the streets were filled with women hawkers, prostitutes, the disabled and the sexually-abused,” says Rukwavu.

There had to be a sustainable, lasting solution that gave the destitute women, most of them widows and survivors of the genocide, a viable alternative, and the idea for cooperatives training them with the art of basket-weaving was born.

The women had a natural flair for it, as basket-weaving was an inherent part of their upbringing and culture, so they could be easily skilled. The women were a mix of both ethnic groups, Tutsis and Hutus, and slowly, surely, through their collective efforts sewing sisal fiber and grass to make and sell objects of beauty, put their ugly past behind them.

The City of Kigali now oversees the Agaseke Project with 2,000 women, distributed among 50 cooperatives in three districts across Kigali.

 “The project acted as a reconciliatory tool and promoted peace,” says Rukwavu, in the car as we drive from the City Council to Gatsata sector in Gasabo district to meet with some of the artisans at the cooperative located there. “In some cases, both the victims of the genocide and the wives of the perpetrators worked together, and the art unified them. They have forgotten their differences. Today, they all live as Rwandans.”

Past the thatched homes on the hillside, and up a muddy road, the red earth leads to a one-storied edifice with yellowing walls and blue windows. Here, a group of 25 women sit on the hard cement floor, indulging in light banter and expertly weaving dyed sisal, grass and papyrus reeds to create a raft of colorful basket containers. These are arranged on a wooden shelf and on frayed floor mats.

On the shelf are two wooden boxes with locks. This is where the women store their money as part of their self-styled loan-and-savings scheme; the boxes a repository of their collective earnings – and trust.

The cooperative receives orders from clients in the United States (US), Europe and Japan. The baskets have given the women economic security and a social network. Says Rukwavu: “Some of these women are doing so well and have become so successful they have come out of these cooperatives to start businesses of their own, making diversified products and selling them elsewhere.”

The Agaseke Project is but one snapshot of the larger community of female basket-weavers in Rwanda. In the pages that follow, FORBES AFRICA visits more social enterprises, profiling the artists, artisans and entrepreneurs this industry has spawned. In a country where drones are delivering medical supplies and innovation is a daily buzzword, these women are keeping alive a traditional art form that has found its way into the snazzy department stores and boutiques of the world. To them, fortune is not dollar figures, but mere survival. Their future is in their own hands.

The Single Survivor

Catherine Uwimana, 48

In Gikondo, about a 30-minute drive from the city, a dirt road with a morass of overhead power and telephone cables leads to an unassuming grey gate with colors bursting within. These are the premises of Talking Through Art, a not-for-profit focused on art-related employment opportunities for people with physical disabilities. It was started by Petr Kočnar, from the Czech Republic, who initially came to Rwanda from Kenya to learn French. He encountered destitute people with disabilities on the street and decided to start the center in 2015 with his own savings, to rehabilitate them with art therapy and traditional basket-weaving.

Each of the 25 women, young and old, at this center make about $5 for each of the medium baskets they craft. Placide Ndacyayisenga, the manager, offers a cup of steaming Rwandan coffee, and pointing to the dainty handcrafted bowls on the walls, says: “The baskets we make are inspired by nature, such as the sun, the birds and the baobab trees. Foreign tourists buy from here and our products are also available in premium boutiques and gift shops in Kigali. The artisans here were wandering the streets before, now they can sustain their families, and even have bank accounts.”

One such is Catherine Uwimana. She lost her right leg during the genocide, hit by a grenade when in hiding at her home in Kacyiru.

Save for her older sister, all her family died around her. Having never married, Uwimana lives alone and is grateful she makes enough money weaving baskets to feed herself and pay her rent. “I have been here four years now and this is my family,” she says in Kinyarwanda, her eyes not concealing the pain of her past. “These baskets give me hope for the future.”

Baskets To Theater

Emilienne Muhawenimana, 35

Muhawenimana arrives at the Talking Through Art center in Gikondo riding a scooter. It’s hard to tell she is polio-afflicted and needs crutches to walk. Muhawenimana’s nature-inspired paintings light up the walls here just as she does. She leans against one of them, posing genially for pictures. One of the most prolific basket-weavers at the center, she is today into stage plays, and even traveling outside of Rwanda as part of theater groups. “She was one of our best basket-weavers and is a good actress today,” beams Placide Ndacyayisenga, the center’s manager. The multi-talented Muhawenimana also recites poems and mentions her work with the British Council; one of the many empowered at the center to make a living through art.    

The 8-To-5 Weaver

Vestine Nyiravesabimana, 49

A mother of nine children, Nyiravesabimana has been weaving baskets at the Agaseke Project cooperative in Gazabo district for the last 12 years. Making an average of $5 per fruit bowl that she handcrafts, over time, she has been able to send her children to school. She makes a minimum of $100 a month, working 8AM to 5PM through the week.

She is vaguely aware her creations sell well locally, to NGOs and at retail shops, but also “far, far away”, in America and Japan, lands she will perhaps never see.

Some of the women working with her face immense hurdles to come to work. But the project has helped Nyiravesabimana attain economic independence. Her husband, who works as a plumber, respects her more now, she says; they have fewer quarrels.      

“She also knows how to bank,” says Agaseke’s project coordinator Rukwavu. “She has an independent bank account.” Nyiravesabimana is also a part of the loan-and-savings scheme at the cooperative with her fellow female weavers. Working collaboratively in a group with the other women has helped her speed on the time-intensive art, as the more baskets she crafts, the more money she makes.

Dressed in a cheerful red chitenge outfit, her megawatt smile fills the small room she is in, as she gives the finishing touches to yet another signature fiber container that will make its way out of Africa to the world beyond.

The peace-maker

Farida Umuhoza, 43

A bored housewife for a long time until she discovered her skill crafting baskets, Umuhoza was with the Agaseke Project cooperative in Nyarugenge district for seven fruitful years from 2010.

A self-made entrepreneur today retailing her own range of handmade products, she is thankful for that epiphany, as today, she is the sole bread-winner for her family, supporting a sick husband and two children – a son aged 23 and a daughter aged 21.

We meet Umuhoza at her make-shift shop at the far-end of the car-free exhibition zone, by the towering citadels of capitalism in the heart of Kigali.         

At the Agaseke cooperative, she shone with her expertise weaving baskets, quickly moving on to open her own permanent shop, named Chic, in a shopping mall in downtown Kigali. Umuhoza has been expanding her business since.     

She also designs chitenge clothing, but her specialty is “the peace-maker, a sort of an oven made of fabric, sponge and cotton wool that saves energy and time and keeps food warm”. She sells it from $20 to $40 a piece, depending on the size.

As we speak, she pauses to “hello and welcome” curious shoppers, mainly international tourists, who walk in to look at her collection of baskets, clothes, and African bric-à-brac. Her attentive son hovers around her, as she settles the deal with a woman bargaining for a wooden stool.

Her finances have been stable, she says, as she has been able to meet her husband’s medical expenses, educate her children and re-stock her shop. She has traveled across East Africa, invited to showcase her baskets, and even once to the Netherlands for further training.

She has come a long way from her 18-year-old self when she lost her entire family in 1994, during the genocide against the Tutsi. 

As the sun dips on this August evening, her shop gets busier with office commuters and government workers, her largest clientele.

She is grateful for every sunrise and sunset. “Back then, sitting under the hot sun, weaving them, the baskets taught me about life. I knew they would take me out of poverty. Dare to start, don’t ever quit!” she says, before attending to yet another paying client.

The community builder

Mukeshimana Grace, 52 

Mukeshimana Grace

The Nyamirambo Women’s Center, an NGO on a bustling street in Nyamirambo, is a hive of activity the afternoon we visit. The cooperative doubles as a charming shop retailing all kinds of delectable African print clothing, accessories, home decor and trinkets, and buzzes with dollar-waving foreign tourists. Grace is about to give a presentation on the art of basket-weaving to them when we meet her. She has been mastering the craft for over six years now and says she has had a life-long connection with weaving, having learned it at her mother’s knee.

In an ante-room at the center, women are hard at work at their sewing machines. There are 55 seamstresses here turning cloth into craft.

“I enjoy being a part of a community, and building it.

– Mukeshimana Grace

The shop offers a sense of community and camaraderie as visitors stop by to chat to the staff. Launched in 2007 by 18 Rwandese women to address gender-based violence and inequality, today, the center provides skills and training to women so they can better their chances for employment. It’s a self-sustaining model, also offering tours into the neighborhood. The profits from the tours go back into paying the seamstresses and funding more community engagement initiatives.

Mary Nyangoma

Mary Nyangoma, Project Manager at the center, who has been a part of it from inception, finds time to break away from the unending stream of clients. She says: “Sewing is very popular in this neighborhood. Some of the women with us never got a chance to go to school, so we also taught them to read and write. And we came up with the idea of the neighborhood tours. Six years ago, we also started selling the in-house products we make.”

Nyangoma is effusive in her praise for Grace, who is too shy to speak. She was the first basket-weaver that joined the center and is now working full-time with them, making the baskets at home, and earning about RWF300,000 ($330) a month. A widow, she has four children to feed. Yet, there is no where she would rather be.

“I prefer working here, in a group,” Grace opens up, “as when I am alone, I tend to think of my worries. I enjoy being a part of a community, and building it.”

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Forbes Africa’s Best Photographs In 2019

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[Compiled by Motlabana Monnakgotla, Gypseenia Lion and Karen Mwendera]

Image 1:

Kabelo Mpofu, an entrepreneur, took over his mother’s shop in Meadowlands, in the South African township of Soweto. He is hopeful of making the family business a success despite big retail stores opening up in the townships and swallowing up the corner groceries.

Image 2:

Africa is the youngest continent in the world. Every year, South Africa observes June as Youth Month, honoring the anniversary of the Soweto Uprising on June 16. In this image, the country’s sprawling township of Soweto comes alive with youth dancing in the winter weather to local and international music at the Soweto International Jazz Festival, an annual confluence of history, art and culture.

Image 3:

Women hold up placards against gender-based violence during a ‘Shutdown Sandton’ campaign; this after a spate of brutal rape and killings in South Africa.

Image 4:

Car dealerships were among the businesses set alight in Johannesburg’s Jules Street, during the spate of xenophobia attacks in South Africa in August this year. The spark that fueled the raging fire began in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district.

Image 5:

Sibusiso Dlamini, the co-founder of Soweto Ink, works on one of his regular clients at his tattoo parlor founded in 2014 with his long-time friend, Ndumiso Ramate. In 2019, Soweto Ink held the fourth annual tattoo convention, and for the first time in partnership with BET Africa, to break tattoo taboos in Africa.

Image 6:

Mmusi Maimane, the former leader of South Africa’s opposition party, Democratic Alliance, is about to cast his vote in front of local and international media houses who had wrestled to get the perfect shot in his hometown in Dobsonville, Soweto, during the elections in South Africa in 2019.

Image 7:

The brother of South African journalist, Shiraaz Mohamed, begs for government intervention after Mohamed was kidnapped in Syria on January 2017 by a group of armed men. The group demanded more than $500,000 for his freedom.

Image 8:

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa with his body guards at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the three-day South Africa Investment Conference was held in November.

Image 9:

In a world that’s embracing new technology, inspiration is being found in bug behavior. The hard-bodied dung beetle is now key to robotics research, in Africa too. Astounded by this discovery early this year is Marcus Byrne, a researcher at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg who has been studying dung beetles for over 20 years. He holds up a metallic replica of a dung beetle in his hand in his office at the university.

Image 10: 

Mzimhlophe Hostel, a hostel among many others in Soweto, erupted with service delivery protests prior to the elections in South Africa. In the same vicinity, an informal settlement was also allegedly set on fire. Brothers Mduduzi (32) and Kwenzi Gwala (22), pictured, had arrived in Johannesburg looking for employment. They sold African beer, but their shack was set alight while they were still at church. They lost all their stock and possessions.

Image 11: 

A thrift market in the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, not too far from a busy taxi rank, known for its pavement robberies. Despite the crimes, thousands of small entrepreneurs trade in this raucous market every day.

Image 12:

ANC, DA and EFF supporters dancing and chanting outside the Hitekani Primary School in Chiawelo, Soweto, South Africa, as they await South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to cast his vote in his former primary school. 

Image 13:

Tenants in the discarded Vannin Court in Johannesburg look on from their balconies as jubilation erupts on the ground floor.

Image 14:

Vestine Nyiravesabimana makes money weaving intricate baskets made of grass to feed her nine children in Kigali, Rwanda.

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Can Diddy’s Ciroc Recipe Work On Alkaline Water?

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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.

READ MORE | Hip-Hop’s Next Billionaires: Richest Rappers 2019

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.

Diddy
CRAIG BARRITT AND ALEXANDER TAMARGO/GETTY IMAGES. DESIGN: NICK DESANTIS/FORBES

“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

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