Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston will, in my mind, always be linked for all eternity. They shared a life that was as intriguing as it was volatile. Beyond sharing an appetite for deviant behavior, as well as an amazing ability to perform, Bobby and Whitney also experienced the penalties that come with not understanding the business side of your industry.
Back in the 1980s, when New Edition was the hottest group in America, Brown learned first-hand what it might feel like to be sexually assaulted by an elephant. After going on a world tour with sold-out venues and having several No. 1 hits on their first album, the group arrived back home to their housing project to receive a “whopping” royalty check of $1.87. Apparently, their families were so excited about getting their big break that they forgot to actually read the fine print on the contract.
The deal would last 20 years and make everyone else rich except for the men who actually went on stage to perform. The NCAA and prison system could not have done a better job of exploiting Black men for their talents. Still, many victims are also volunteers, and capitalism shows no mercy.
Whitney’s family will also be eating away at massive debt for many years, since she was always the singer and never the publisher of many of her biggest hits. “I Will Always Love You,” arguably her greatest song ever, is going to put millions into the pocket of Dolly Parton, who wrote the song, while Whitney’s estate will receive chump change. Dolly was more than happy to let Whitney soak up all the “shine” because she soaks up all the cash every time the song is played on the radio.
The Bobby-Whitney experience teaches quite a few lessons, starting with the reason we should all say “no” to drugs. But one of the broader lessons being taught from Whitney’s legacy is the importance of education and ownership. Far too many Black athletes and entertainers are so caught up in the performance of their craft that they learn nothing about the management of it. Artists like Fantasia, who was illiterate for years and skipped high school to practice her singing, are sitting ducks for managers who got their MBAs at Harvard.
The point is that education is king when it comes to finding resources. The worst thing that Black people can do is walk away from education, because when we do that, we are signing up for slavery. It’s time for entertainers to consider a new paradigm that goes deeper than sitting around waiting to be discovered. There’s a difference between a wealthy, fully empowered entertainer and a well-paid prostitute. All of us must learn the difference.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.