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”?
“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
Forbes Africa’s Best Photographs In 2019
[Compiled by Motlabana Monnakgotla, Gypseenia Lion and Karen Mwendera]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tenants in the discarded Vannin Court in Johannesburg look on from their balconies as jubilation erupts on the ground floor.
Vestine Nyiravesabimana makes money weaving intricate baskets made of grass to feed her nine children in Kigali, Rwanda.
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.
READ MORE | Worldwide Box Office, The Best It’s Ever Been
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
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