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Soweto Gospel Choir: Three Heavy Grammys And A World Singing Their Praise

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Songs of the struggle and music steeped in South Africa’s apartheid past. The story of how the Soweto Gospel Choir  captivated the world


Three Grammys in 12 years. And more global awards in their 17 years of existence.

In February this year, at the 61st annual Grammy awards in Los Angeles, South Africa’s child and Africa’s pride, the Soweto Gospel Choir (SGC) walked up to the stage to a rousing ovation.  

They had won the Best World Music Album for Freedom. More than an album dedicated to Nelson Mandela, that word stood for triumph, it stood for the freedom where it all started – Soweto.   

Since its inception, the gospel choir, hailing from South Africa’s biggest township, Soweto (short for South West Townships), has been on more international stages than they can keep count of. 

Its founders, Australian promoter Beverly Bryer and the late David Mulovhedzi, created something so monumental that the world had to sit up and listen. Bryer was born in South Africa, and lived and worked in the Australian music scene for a few years before moving back to South Africa in 1995.

During her stint in Australia, she connected with a number of music promoters who took talent from all over the world to Down Under.

Her love was always music but pop and rock rather than African gospel.

In 2001, Bryer received a call from one of the promoters she had met in Australia asking if there were any interesting South African artists he could showcase in Australia. She suggested Umoja, a South African theater production. Bryer knew the producer and the production was a huge global success.

After watching the cast on stage, the promoter was blown away and backed the production all the way to Australia.

In 2002, Bryer received another call saying the gospel aspect of Umoja was extremely popular and everyone loved it.

“I was asked to form a choir with Mulovhedzi and we had about three months to form  one because they didn’t want an existing choir but a new one. I asked Mulovhedzi to bring his choir director expertise and I learned very quickly about gospel music,” she recalls.

That was the birth of the Soweto Gospel Choir.

“The name was a very important decision and it came quite naturally because most of the members were from Soweto, so that was giving the artists their location.

“We thought a lot of the languages the choir is going to be singing in, people around the world were not going to know or understand, but the only thing they knew was Soweto, Nelson Mandela and the struggle. So, we marked it with something that people knew, the name,” Bryer says.

Through word-of-mouth, within the three months given to them, they had auditions, and went into studio and recorded their first album, Voices From Heaven, which shot up to number one on the Billboards World Music Chart within three weeks of release in 2002. Three months after that, the choir went on to tour Australia.

The six-week tour sold out and the milestones have not stopped since.

Bryer recalls promoters coming out for a show and one saying to the choir that they had something special.

“We said to her that ‘we don’t know how it’s going to go, so if you want to take a chance with us, sure. If it doesn’t work, everyone goes home’.” 

Bryer was advised the Edinburgh International Festival was where musicians cut their teeth and that was where promoters from around the world looked for talent. 

There were thousands of acts and the SGC were ultimately among the most popular at the festival, and that’s when other international promoters wanted to work with them.

Edinburgh got the ball rolling.

At the end of 2003, the choir was presented with a big local event in the form of the first 46664 concert; an AIDS benefit concert in honor of the late South Africa president Nelson Mandela.

That concert still gives Mandlenkosi Modawu the jitters when he thinks of its scale and magnitude. One of the older members in the choir, Modawu is the bass singer and drummer from Witbank, Mpumalanga, but moved to Mofolo, Soweto, shortly after joining the choir. He has been with the choir for over 15 years now.

“The drummer prior to me was troublesome, so it was easier for me to get into the choir after my auditions; fortunately, I am also a singer and that was a bonus for me,” he says.

He speaks of the Edinburgh International Festival as though the performance was yesterday and keeps reiterating that among the 2,000 acts, they were the best.

READ MORE | African Music Platforms Soar As Spotify And Apple Snooze

In the ocean of experiences, Modawu has moments he will always treasure.

“I think our break came after Scotland (Edinburgh International Festival), and when I think about the 46664 concert in 2003, I get shivers even today, mainly because we were considered one of the smallest acts in that concert but we ended up backing a whole lot of artists like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, U2 and other big names,” he says.

In 2007, SGC won their first Grammy.

South African gospel was recognized globally and their mantel was filling up.

“The second Grammy came as a surprise, I think it’s because of the collaborations we did with big name artists around the world. They got us recognized in the global music fraternity.

“While working on the album that got us our third Grammy, we drew from the experiences we had from the struggle, stories told by our parents during apartheid and those songs really touched the world because of the emotions, and it moved people,” Modawu says.

Sadly, Mulovhedzi could not share the excitement of their third Grammy.

“His passing was devastating because he was our founding father. It shocked us, but we had to accept and keep the legacy. One of his sons is the choir manager now,” says Modawu.

“The first Grammy just came out of nowhere. It started with someone contacting us and asking what we think of this idea, we carried the idea and, sadly, in 2009, he (Mulovhedzi) passed.”

 And now 17 years later, they are the most successful choir in the world.

“I have watched my children grow up for 17 years, from the start, especially those coming from disadvantaged communities, very few had ever been on a plane.

“We had tried getting people who had never sung professionally before and we never thought they would be on stage with Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder or John Legend and through the years, artists wanted to collaborate with the choir.

“So, for them, it would be coming from Soweto and now on the stage in New York City with Aretha Franklin or recording with Peter Gabriel or doing shows with Johnny Clegg. To this day, it is an unreality for all of us.”

Bryers still remembers Mulovhedzi as the most important man she had ever met in her dealings.

“He was absolutely super-special,” she says, and that he was the kindest gentleman with an absolute love for music and a great knowledge of gospel.

He helped her with the knowledge of gospel and working with him was the most enriching experience, she adds.

“Regarding our latest Grammy, the album called Freedom was recorded in 2018. One group toured Europe and the other one did America. It was recorded for that tour, which was called Songs of the Free to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s centenary. So, it was concentrating on freedom songs, and songs that come from the struggle, with a little bit of gospel in between…

“It was special because it’s an album that included their (choir members’) history; it was an extra special feel for them.” 

Bryer recalls previous accolades with fondness. 

“The first Grammy had more attention because it came out of nowhere. I remember in 2007 looking at my email that we were nominated for a Grammy. It was special and we were there with David [Mulovhedzi].

“The second one was like, ‘been there, done that’.  The third one is as important as the first because of the history, it’s more personal and dedicated to Madiba, and it also shows that even after 17 years, the Soweto Gospel Choir is on top of the music game.”

At the beginning of their journey in 2002, the choir started with 24 members, but because of  international travel, they had to form a second choir about 18 months later to stay and perform locally.

Last year, the choir formed a third group because both groups were traveling; now the choir has grown to 50 members. 

Alto singer Cecelia Manyama from Diepkloof, Soweto, joined the group in 2016. She was spotted by Bryer at a charity event playing the violin for a classical group. She is one of the newer members.

“I met Beverly in the line to the loo. She had just heard me singing on stage and she called me aside and introduced herself and invited me for auditions that took place two weeks later. I was excited and couldn’t sleep, the two weeks felt like two years,” Manyama remembers.

READ MORE | Remembering Hugh Masekela: the horn player with a shrewd ear for music of the day

A week after the auditions, she received a message with details of where the next rehearsals would be. She was in disbelief and told everyone.

This was a choir that she admired and a choir she used to watch on television.

“I was told to lead a song I did at the charity event; I was terrified. I remember the late Portia Skosana when I froze, and she came next to me and sung the lead and let me continue.

“When I started singing, I immediately felt the connection and we were in sync and it didn’t feel new. With just that rehearsal, I was blown away,” she recalls.

Three months later, it was her first concert and performance in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, for the Clap N Tap concert with the choir. 

“I will never forget that experience, I led with Avulekile Amasango (The Gates Have Opened). That was the first song I was given. I then felt there is no stranger there in the choir,” she says, taking a deep breath.

“Being with a Grammy award-winning choir and performing with them for the first time, you have fear and excitement at the same time. We are in sync and I realized I was not alone.

“The backing behind me was speaking in volumes, it drove me, it pushed me and from that day onwards, I never looked back and wanted to learn more. It was an amazing experience.”

 For each new member who joins the group, the awards reawaken something within.

“I remember with my first Grammy with the group, we went to the airport to get it. I had never held a Grammy in my hand, but with Soweto Gospel Choir, I held it,” laughs Manyama.

“It was amazing. At first, I didn’t understand the kind of impact it has on the nation but now I realize this is huge; being called everywhere to perform, and being in the same room with the president holding the Grammy. That Grammy is heavy and after taking a picture with it, you just want to pass it on or put it down.”

Although many have come and gone over the years, the choir have prioritized succession, as they make it a point to gradually hand over management to the younger generation, who no doubt have big shoes to fill – and the legacy of three very heavy gramophone trophies to uphold. 

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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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The Highest-Paid Actors 2019: Dwayne Johnson, Bradley Cooper And Chris Hemsworth

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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.

READ MORE | Marvel Money: How Six Avengers Made $340 Million Last Year

“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.

READ MORE | ‘Black Panther’: All The Box Office Records It Broke (And Almost Broke) In Its $235M Debut

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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