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An Appreciation

Clarence Avant was the guy who made sure Black stars got paid

For six decades, Avant, who died at age 92, was a peerless dealmaker in entertainment and politics

I didn’t know who Clarence Avant was until I found myself at a premiere for a documentary about his life.

The event was hosted by Netflix on the Paramount lot in June 2019, and some of the biggest figures in politics, sports, Hollywood and music were splashed across the invitation. I knew I needed to be there.

With The Black Godfather, Nicole Avant produced a love story to her father, who was an influential music executive inside a tight-knit music and entertainment fraternity for six decades. The film directed by one of my favorite filmmakers, Reggie Hudlin, showed how Avant, who died Sunday evening at his Los Angeles home at age 92, was the man behind the scenes at some of the biggest moments in U.S. cultural history.

Avant, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was a manager, the founder of two record labels and an occasional concert organizer and event producer. But his real influence came from advocating for Black artists and athletes and advising them on how to get paid what they were worth.

He showed Black folks how to dream bigger — and then he delivered the dream.

In the Netflix film, we learned about stories that had been whispered about in Hollywood for nearly 60 years, but never documented in one succinct story. The film tells that story and more about how Avant connected people, closed deals and made sure that Black creatives and athletes moving on from sports were getting their due.

The night of the premiere, I chatted with baseball legend Henry “Hank” Aaron. The record-shattering baseball player — who died about a year and a half after this night — was the hero of my dad’s boyhood dreams. That night, he was older, to be sure, but his presence was powerful and his brightest accessory was his smile. He was excited to share how Avant had changed his life.

In the documentary, Aaron tells how he was closing in on Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career home runs when the death threats started coming. Thousands of letters, many of them racist, poured in weekly. Those folks didn’t want to see a Black man break a record that had stood since 1935. But there was also a call Aaron got before April 8, 1974, the day that he hit his 715th home run off Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Al Downing — a call from the Black Godfather.

From left to right, top row: Jacqueline Avant, Billye Aaron, Ted Sarandos, Nicole Avant, Clarence Avant and Carolyn Young. From left to right, bottom row: Hank Aaron and Andrew Young attend the Netflix world premiere of The Black Godfather at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles on June 3, 2019.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Netflix

In many cases, Avant would reach out to people he saw making moves and help them make better ones. When he saw what was happening with Aaron, he called then-U.S. Rep. Andrew Young of Georgia, whose political career he helped launch, and told him that he’d be calling Aaron to help formulate a plan for endorsements. The deals needed to be in motion before Aaron broke the record, Avant said.

And Avant got it done. How? He walked into the office of the president of Coca-Cola, which was based in Atlanta, home of Aaron’s Atlanta Braves, and, without any small talk, announced that “n—–s drink Coke, too.”

“He is the godfather,” Aaron told me that night before the premiere. “He’s mine. I love him. He played [a role in] almost 90% of my career. He broke down doors to get [me] in to do certain things. I always say I am who I am because of Clarence Avant.”

It was a stunning statement from one of the most groundbreaking sports figures of all time. But that sentiment was echoed throughout the entire night.

In The Black Godfather, we see interviews with former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton (whom Avant raised money for), Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, music mogul Sean (Diddy) Combs, singer Bill Withers, composer Quincy Jones, record producer Babyface, Vice President Kamala Harris and others.

At the event that night, record producer Pharrell Williams, Foxx, film director Ava DuVernay, rapper Snoop Dogg, actors Chadwick Boseman and Leonardo DiCaprio feted the man who helped shape pop culture. They also worried about who would fill his important shoes when the inevitable happened.

Nicole Avant told me that night she’d been thinking of telling her father’s story since she was 8 years old. She and her father were at a Los Angeles Dodgers game with enviable dugout seats, a gift from Aaron.

“I was like, ‘How did you do business with Hank Aaron? Why did you do business with Hank Aaron?’ And he told me the story … of how he got him endorsement deals and why it was a big deal at the time. I knew when I left that day, something clicked in my brain and said there’s something different here. These stories need to be told,” she said.

“What’s so amazing,” Hudlin shared with me, “is that he did deals for Jim Brown, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, three of the greatest athletes ever in three different sports. … Here is this guy there at the crucial moment of them transforming their careers. He took Jim Brown from being a professional athlete to being an actor. At the time when Hank Aaron is worried about whether someone is going to shoot him on the field if he breaks Babe Ruth’s record, here’s this guy who got him endorsement deals when no one would touch him. With Muhammad Ali, here he is nearing the end of his career, he steps in and makes sure that Muhammad makes a transition into being a personality beyond simply being an athlete. Really important for all three of these great athletes in that really challenging time in their careers. Can you transition? Can you go to that next place? In all three cases, Clarence was there for them.”

We spend so much time talking about making sure we give people their flowers, especially those who work tirelessly behind the scenes for the betterment of our worlds.

Avant got his flowers that night in June. His story ultimately was shared with millions on Netflix, who got to see some of the most powerful people in the world champion the work he did to cement their places in history.

His legacy is written. And televised. And we all get to benefit because he cared enough about Black folks to get us a seat at the table and have the confidence and the manpower to tell power brokers exactly what our worth is.

I didn’t know who Clarence Avant was before that June premiere in 2019. But I’m glad I do now. Rest well, sir.

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.