“He wasn’t there, but he was right there.”
That’s the consensus of Clarence Avant, the legendary music executive known for his behind-the-scenes accomplishments and influence in black entertainment. Avant is also the subject of The Black Godfather, the new Netflix documentary that premiered June 7.
Through interviews with the icons he helped shape—including former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, Snoop Dogg, P. Diddy, Jamie Foxx, and Lionel Richie—the film chronicles the cultural impact of the man deemed the “Godfather of Black Music.” This includes his experience in the Jim Crow south, which he left to become a powerhouse negotiator who redefined the industry for people of color.
“Clarence is the bridge from a time when there was no opportunity to a time when doors began to open,” Obama says.
Clarence Avant mastered pimping out Black identity to normalize the functioning of a nation premised on the oppression of his fellow Black citizens.
“The Black Misleadership Class clearly has a division in the entertainment industry.”
According to the documentary, during a time when over 70 percent of Black entertainers were directly controlled by organized crime figures, Clarence Avant was recognized for his ability to play hardball with Black talent. Avant was able to keep Black performers in line for the benefit of the White “Goodfellas” who had a stronghold on the entertainment industry. Early in his career Avant was recruited by the famed manager of Louis Armstrong, the mob connected Joe Glaser. Glaser recognized Clarence Avant’s potential skill as a kind of “Black Overseer” keeping the Black entertainers in check while extracting the highest value for their syndicate paymasters.
Clarence Avant, having only a ninth grade education, unimpressive stature, and no remote level of verbal dexterity or eloquence, parlayed his early role as the “Black Overseer” of entertainers and musicians into becoming “The Black Godfather.” Avant wielded so much power in the media and entertainment industry that even White corporate executives known for showing Blacks little regard or respect surrendered to Avant’s demands, even sometimes to their own economic disadvantage.
What makesClarence Avant such an important person is that he was the key figure assisting in depicting Black popular culture as the embodiment of the American dream. This was done to the benefit of the American ruling class over a 50 year period when black life in America was becoming more politically and economically precarious. Though the Black Middle class has grown since Jim Crow, Black home ownership and unemployment are now at the level they were in 1968. Under the presidential management of Barack Obama, who states in the documentary that, “Clarence Avant is one of my favorite people,” 50 percent of Black wealth evaporated in the subprime mortgage crisis with no remedy from the first Black president.
Clarence Avant prides himself on having a role in the political elevation of every Democratic Party president this country has seen in the post Civil Rights era. He states in the documentary, “I believe in politics.” Early in the documentary he says, “The only thing that matters to me is numbers.” Meaning money is his primary motivation.
It is amazing to watch Bill Clinton wax on about the power and importance of Clarence Avant. Avant was an early contributor to Bill Clinton’s political campaign in 1992, and raised over one million dollars for Clinton’s efforts. Clinton went on to implement one of the most draconian crime bills in American history while overseeing the incarceration of more Blacks than all three prior presidents combined. Clarence Avant’s political activism illustrates a very important fact to students of Black politics: The Black Misleadership Class clearly has a division in the entertainment industry.