AKA sits dead centre. He keeps his shades on, but it seems he has a clear vision for his life. The self-proclaimed pop star and co-owner of the Beam Group is under the spotlight that specific evening because he’s just announced his own flavoured vodka, in partnership with Cruz.
That’s just a slice of the watermelon, though. The big deal is that he will earn money from each bottle sold.
He is flanked by David de Mardt, the managing director of Blue Sky Brands, as well as AKA’s business partner, Prince Costinyo. But he looks behind De Mardt, into the audience gathered to look for Da L.E.S.
Once the North God has been located, AKA says: “I have to send a shout-out to him for also giving me that understanding that it’s more than just music. Not everything is about the music. As a brand, as somebody pushing the lifestyle, as somebody pushing the culture, this Cruz Watermelon really is for all of us.”
It’s a touching moment. The bromance has been around forever. But part of what AKA says makes me a little uneasy. Not everything is about the music? Ouch. I get what Mega is saying. It’s the same reason why the rest of us non-creatives throw some money into retirement plans every month. But it sounds dismissive of the art that puts many in positions to negotiate with brands.
During this announcement, AKA was proud that he actually had equity and wasn’t merely asked to design a bottle (ha!) or sent overseas to appear to be doing something significant (shots fired). AKA says the De Mardt family “allowed us to take the lead and take their brand and run with it and give them the ideas and inspiration. So today is a very special day because even the deal we did the first time was ground-breaking and very special, (but) this is ground-breaking on a whole new level.”
“I think me and Diddy (are) probably the only people getting money by the bottle, baby,” he exclaims, then laughs. “That just speaks to us as Beam Group in that we understand that the brands are the people we want to keep most happy in our careers. Cruz has supported shows, tours, videos. Anything we’ve ever needed from them, they’ve always come to the party.”
The most happy? Woah.
The sentiment feels as though prizing visibility through brand association is becoming more important than the work we have come to appreciate from artists. And it’s disconcerting to know that liquor brands are pouring more money into SA music than brands that actually have to do with music.
There’s Black Motion with Ballantines. There’s Khuli and Absolut. There’s Black Coffee and Hunters. There’s just about every rapper and a spirit. But brands like Bang and Olufsen or TOMS or even the Department of Arts and Culture are not quite visible when it comes to financially supporting artists of colour the way liquor brands use them to sell bottles.
Touch My Blood, AKA’s next album, which is due for release in May, is one he says is his best and possibly last. AKA says he believes “you have to prepare for your life after music” and the idea for the watermelon flavour came to him while he was shooting The World Is Yours music video in Thailand.
He says: “Maybe it’s me getting older (or maybe it’s) as a father, I’ve realised everything I’m doing is not just for me. It’s so that other artists can get the same type of deals. Whether it’s Reebok or Cruz, we want to be remembered for what we did for the culture, for the industry and not just for ourselves.”
AKA is very good at playing to the crowd, whether through song or not. So it’s no wonder that just before he allows questions from the media, he tells us: “People say, ‘I wish I could bottle that feeling and sell it. I would be a millionaire.’ Well…”
He smiles, shrugs, and everyone laughs.