The tattered stretch of West Slauson Avenue just off Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles isn’t the first place you’d expect to see a Cadillac Escalade roll up and deliver a Grammy-nominated musician. At the tiny strip mall on the south side of the street, storefronts include an off-brand taco joint, a Boost Mobile outlet and an accountant’s office advertising same-day tax refund advances up to $6,000.
This is where Nipsey Hussle decided to spend a recent Friday morning, and for good reason. His Marathon Clothing store, which peddles Crenshaw hoodies alongside his own music, occupies the corner of the L-shaped plaza. His history here goes back even further—in fact, it’s where he got his name.
“Before we was renting here, I was hustling in this parking lot,” says Nipsey, 33, born Ermias Asghedom. “It’s just always been a hub for local entrepreneurs.”
Change is coming to Crenshaw, and Nipsey is aiming to be on its bleeding edge: This month, Nipsey and business partner Dave Gross swooped in to pay “a couple million” for the plaza. Within 18 months or so, they’ll knock everything down and rebuild it as a six-story residential building atop a commercial plaza where a revamped Marathon store will be the anchor tenant.
In the meantime, a light rail line is rising to link Crenshaw—which, crucially, qualifies as a tax-advantaged Opportunity Zone—to Los Angeles International Airport and other key nodes of sprawling Southern California. The plaza will be among the first to benefit: There’s a brand-new train station under construction just steps away.
Nipsey may not be hip-hop’s biggest name, but he’s certainly among the genre’s most entrepreneurial. His slow-burn career started to catch fire six years ago when Nipsey offered 1,000 copies of his mixtape Crenshaw for $100 apiece—Jay-Z bought 100 copies—and rolled the profits into his label, All Money In. He released just 100 copies of a subsequent offering, Mailbox Money, with a price tag of $1,000.
“[Nipsey] was not trying to be independent just for the sake of it, but thinking about the benefits of being an independent artist,” says Chris Lyons, who has known Nipsey for several years and runs Andreessen Horowitz’s Cultural Leadership Fund, which counts Nas and Diddy as investors. “The most important thing is his ability to just see where future trends are going and not being afraid to pioneer.”
For Nipsey, the hustle started at home. He grew up down the road from the plaza, in what he calls “the worst house on the best block,” cutting grass and shining shoes to make extra cash as a kid before falling in with local gangs. Fortunately, his musical role models were entrepreneurs as well, offering a way out of a dead-end path.
Dr. Dre, from nearby Compton, built Death Row Records into one of the most influential labels in hip-hop history before eventually shifting focus to his namesake headphone line. Watching Dre from up close and moguls like Jay-Z and Diddy from afar gave Nipsey “the blueprint of what could be done with the platform of being a successful rap artist,” he says.
Nipsey started putting out mixtapes in 2005; on one of his early songs, Hussle In The House, he made sure to include a few financial lessons of his own. “Straight off the block, I sold dope to buy groceries,” he rapped. “Now it’s rap money, no advance, it’s all royalties.” Nipsey also prophetically flicked at his future Opportunity Zone gambit: “Pay taxes to these corners and put in work, it’s a policy.”
For his first music video, he wanted to do something that both represented his hometown and offered a path to earnings beyond music. Leafing through an old yearbook, he noticed a picture of local legend Darryl Strawberry in a vintage Crenshaw High School baseball jersey. Nipsey ordered a batch of throwback blue-and-yellow shirts with “Crenshaw” scripted across the front to wear in the shoot.
When the video ended up on MTV, scores of people started asking about “Crenshaw Clothing.” Nipsey had other ideas. A friend had given him a book called The 22 Immutable Laws Of Marketing, packed with Procter & Gamble case studies. As Nipsey ruminated on these lessons in the context of his own journey, the word “Marathon” came to him—it had more potential, he thought, than Crenshaw, a location most people couldn’t place on a map.
Nipsey flirted with major labels, signing with Epic but leaving in 2010—with his catalog intact—after a management change left his official debut album in limbo. While continuing his prolific mixtape output, he became obsessed with the notion of social currency, prompting the release of his $100 mixtape in 2013.
“I believe that economics is based on scarcity of markets,” he told Forbes at the time. “And it’s possible to monetize your art without compromising the integrity of it for commerce.”
Meanwhile, Nipsey continued to give away other mixtapes to satiate his fans, who in turn supported him by buying concert tickets and merchandise. He turned down new record deals because the labels all seemed to want a piece of his burgeoning broader business.
He didn’t need the cash, thanks to his ancillary income and his TuneCore catalog, which was earning him monthly royalty checks in the low six figures. After a couple of years, though, Nipsey had built up a good amount of leverage. He decided to cut a deal with Atlantic that enabled him to make Victory Lap, his official major label debut.
“It’s a partnership. … I shook hands and said I wouldn’t give full details, but we’re sharing everything: profit, masters,” he says. “I was holding out for a long time for these terms.”
Nominated for Best Rap Album at this year’s Grammy Awards, the record paired his rapidly improving socioeconomic status with a career-long message of fiscal responsibility. In one verse, he blustered about Benzes and Bentleys—and touted his trust accounts alongside the “million-dollar life insurance on my flesh.”
At the same time, Nipsey was looking for other ways to expand his empire. He met Gross, a private-equity and real-estate investor, courtside at a Lakers game several years ago. (“We started drinking tequila,” says Nipsey. “By the third quarter, we was more friendly.”) They bonded over Gross’s idea for an inner-city co-working space now known as Vector90.
They eventually teamed up to buy the plaza on West Slauson, currently zoned for buildings that max out at 40 units. Nipsey and Gross are aiming for 100 units, which requires a lengthy entitlement process, so they’ve been working with the city and local council members on the details—hence the long timeline. And they’re building smart.
Buried in the tax overhaul of 2017 is a provision to encourage investment in state-designated low-income enclaves known as Opportunity Zones. Under the law, investors can shift capital gains into institutions located in these areas, where the capital is taxed at a reduced rate; new opportunity investments can grow tax-free.
There are basically no limits on the amount of money that can be plowed into an Opportunity Zone or the amount of tax that can be avoided. Is it possible the program is excessively business-friendly? Not for its ambitious goals, backers say.
“The incentive needs to be powerful enough that it can unlock large amounts of capital, aggregate that capital into funds and force the funds to invest in distressed areas,” billionaire Sean Parker told Forbes last year. “Instead of having government hand out pools of taxpayer dollars, you have savvy investors directing money into projects they think will succeed.”
Parker was part of a diverse group of Opportunity Zone proponents that included Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Republican, and Cory Booker of New Jersey, a Democrat. Like Parker, they argue that bold moves are necessary to fix entrenched ills: To qualify for the program, an area must have a median household income 80% less than nearby neighborhoods’ or a poverty rate of at least 20%.
Gross and Nipsey saw a perfect fit for Crenshaw.
“This is the quintessential Opportunity Zone investment,” says Gross. “The law is supposed to support ground-up entrepreneurship, giving opportunities and jobs to all communities and improving the neighborhood.”
The purchase of the plaza also marks the beginning of a coalition called Our Opportunity—led by Gross, with Nipsey as a founding partner—that will aim to team with local legends in 10 cities as part of a broader Opportunity Zone-based fund. From there, Nipsey envisions building a tax-advantaged lifestyle empire, all linking back to his music.
“The vision is to launch franchises,” says Nipsey, imagining a line of The Marathon Clothing stores, barbershops, fish markets, restaurants. “There’s such a narrative to this parking lot—that’s a part of my story as an artist.”
-Zack O’Malley Greenburg; Forbes Staff
The Art Of Survival: The Art Of Adire Gave This Textile Artist Global Fame, She Now Educates Generations Of Women In Nigeria
Textile artist Nike Davies-Okundaye worked as a construction laborer and carried water and firewood to survive. The art of adire gave her global fame and she is now educating generations of women in Nigeria.
There was no way Nike Davies-Okundaye could look the other way. For after all, she too had been a victim in her early teens.
Too many women were being pushed down the traditional path of marriage and child-rearing in her country.
Born in 1951 in Ogidi-Ijumu, a small village in western Nigeria known for its spectacular rock formations and traditional art industry, Davies-Okundaye resolved to fight this practice four decades ago.
“By the age of 13, they wanted to marry me off because my father had no money. I had to run away from home and join a traveling theater. I said I didn’t want to marry and wanted to pursue art,” recalls the internationally-renowned Lagos-based artist.
Not wanting to become one of six wives to a minister, Davies-Okundaye found her escape through adire, the name given to the Yoruba craft of tie-and-dye where indigo-dyed cloth is made using a variety of resist-dyeing techniques. Growing up in a predominantly art and craft household, Davies-Okundaye is a fifth-generation artist who decided to take the craft seriously due to poverty.
“I had no money to go to school and the first education parents give you is to teach you what they do. So, when I finished primary six and I had no support to go to secondary school, I said to myself, ‘let me master art so I can teach other women to also use their hand to make a living through their own artwork’.”
Davies-Okundaye was forced to work in the male-dominated construction sector, carrying concrete in pans to builders in order to save one shilling, just enough to buy a yard of fabric to create what she called wall-hanging art.
Her goal was to use the traditional wax-resist methods to design patterned fabric in a dazzling array of tints and hues. The adire design is the result of hand-painted work carried out mostly by women and through that, Davies-Okundaye saw a way to help women to become economically empowered. After all, her first break in life came as a result of that.
“There was no other job I was doing apart from adire. I was lucky the American government came to Nigeria to recruit an African who will teach African Americans how to make traditional textiles or crafts in the state. That is how I was lucky and got picked.”
Davies-Okundaye was the only woman in a class of 10 men who were flown to Maine in northeastern United States in 1974. That is where her whole outlook on life changed.
“Before I went to America, I used to carry three drums of water every day and carry firewood to be able to survive. It was like a breakthrough in my life when I reached America. I said ‘is this heaven?’ I was the only woman in the class and all the men were learning women’s looms and I kept telling them ‘this is for women’ and they said ‘yes, in America, what a man can do, a woman can also do’.”
This was in stark contrast to what she knew to be true in Nigeria at the time.
“If your husband is an artist, you are not allowed to do art. In the 1960s, if your husband has a PhD, you are not allowed to also have a PhD. You had to give room for your husband to be your boss.”
She decided to beat those age-old stereotypes.
As one of 15 wives to her then-husband at the time, Davies-Okundaye, with her newfound knowledge gained in America, started a revolution at home. She encouraged the other wives to create their own art business using adire.
“I said ‘if you learn this, you can earn a living by yourself and get your power because your money is your power’ and that is how they also started learning it. I didn’t stop sharing the knowledge there. I gathered girls on the streets who were selling kola nuts and peanuts and started training them. I said ‘if this textile can take me to America, let me teach other people’,” says Davies-Okundaye.
And that has been her calling ever since. Davies-Okundaye is the founder and director of four art centers, which offer free training to 150 young artists in Nigeria in visual, musical and performing arts.
One of the centers is the largest art gallery in West Africa comprising over 7,000 art works.
“They used to get the police to arrest me because they said I was trying to teach feminism in Nigeria because I went to America. They said I was going to corrupt our Nigerian women but I believe God sent me to liberate a lot of women who have the passion for what makes them happy but are afraid to do it because of what people will say. I say do what makes you happy always!”
Why This Photographer Looked Up During The Lockdown
Steven Benjamin chose to focus on the bird life in his garden in Cape Town to escape the confines of the lockdown.
During South Africa’s five-week shutdown (the country is still on Level 4 restrictions), Cape Town-born underwater photographer Steven Benjamin more used to sharks, whales and dolphins, used the period to look up instead – and indulge in bird-watching, another passion of his.
“Ever since the age of five or six, I have been interested in birds. I was dyslexic as a young child and I still have my first bird book where I ‘ticked’ backwards. I was trying to identify the birds that flew into my pre-school class and begged my mom to let me mark off what I’d seen, so birding has always been a passion,” says Benjamin, who also runs a seal-snorkeling business.
He has spent his life capturing South Africa’s marine world, and now, Benjamin had to redirect his focus to his Kalk Bay garden during the lockdown to photograph Cape Town’s resident birdlife.
He says photographing these feathered beauties is a way to bring joy during these uncertain times.
“They are so beautiful but incredibly difficult to photograph because they are shy and extremely fast. Photographing birds is a challenge but it creates a mental space to observe and admire nature.”
Soon after the lockdown started, Benjamin put white sugar in his bird feeder every morning and enjoyed the sight of local birds and documented them. He posted the images on Instagram and that garnered some online attention.
“The lockdown has made me relax and take the time to do things I would never have gotten around to doing. I settled on this project, which I work on every day. I’m always adding something new to the scene and there are always new birds and interactions happening. It’s made the days fly by,” he says.
During the lockdown, there was only one male Cape Sugar Bird that landed in his garden. This spectacular bird is unique to South Africa and mostly only found in the Western Cape. All of this will go into an exhibition Benjamin is working towards in Cape Town.
‘Our Home Became The Film Set, Blankets Became Props, Windows Became Locations’
A poem exclusively penned and performed in lockdown in the US for the readers of FORBES AFRICA, by Rwandan artist Malaika Uwamahoro.
Malaika Uwamahoro, an artist born in Rwanda, and a Theatre Studies BA graduate from Fordham University in New York City, has performed her own poetry on stages around the world including at the United Nations headquarters in New York, and at the African Union summits in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) and Kigali (Rwanda).
In 2014, she made her Off-Broadway debut at Signature Theatre in the world premiere of Katori Hall’s Our Lady of Kibeho.
Currently resident in Portland, Maine, in the United States, she speaks to FORBES AFRICA about her life in lockdown, and about a poem she penned exclusively for the readers of the magazine: “To fight this pandemic, essential workers and medical doctors are doing their best on the frontlines to ensure everyone in need gets the necessary support and best care possible… Before we are all choked and out of breath just by thinking about this, I extend this poetry piece as an invitation to look inward.”
How did she come up with the poem, titled I Don’t Mind!, and its accompanying video?
“It was late in the night, my fiancé was fast asleep, and I thought to myself, ‘how do I really feel about all this, what are my true thoughts about this pandemic, what can I do’? I opened my notes and the words began to flow.”
A few days later, she shared the poem with her fiancé, Christian Kayiteshonga, a filmmaker.
“We had previously been pondering ways to make art in our home. This poem seemed like the perfect push to set us in our new path. Our home became the film set, using blankets and cake mix as props, windows and office space as locations, myself as the talent, him as the crew, and now you as the audience,” says Uwamahoro, who also performed for the ‘In the Spotlight’ segment at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA Leading Women Summit in Durban, South Africa, on March 6.
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