The Root Cities: Who’s Got the Money in La La Land?

As part of The Root's city series, we take a look at who's really holding the purse strings in the entertainment capital. Hint: They don't necessarily work in Tinseltown.

Getty Images
Getty Images

When Oprah Winfrey decided to throw her billionaire celebrity behind a presidential candidate for the very first time, it was no coincidence that she did it in Los Angeles. Nor was it surprising that while her home is in Chicago, the world’s richest black woman decided to host the 2007 fundraiser for then-Democratic contender Barack Obama at her $50 million, 42-acre estate nestled between the ocean and mountains, about 90 minutes north of Los Angeles. For where else could the world’s most famous media magnate assemble a guest list of 1,500 donors able to afford the $2,300 admission ticket — or raise enough from friends and relatives to pay the $25,000 entrée to a special VIP reception or the $50,000 for a seat at the VIP dinner?

While the spectacular event was by no means a black affair, it was one of the greatest exhibitions of African-American wealth and power ever seen, raising some $3 million in one night. Los Angeles music legend Quincy Jones and former L.A. Lakers superstar Magic Johnson co-sponsored the gala, which attracted a who’s who of black Hollywood icons, including Halle Berry, Whoopi Goldberg, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, Forest Whitaker, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Morgan Freeman and Holly Robinson Peete. Stevie Wonder and BeBe Winans performed.

As impressive as Oprah’s party was for a city with a black population that has never been higher than 8 percent — even when the late Tom Bradley was mayor — African-American wealth and power in Los Angeles is not confined to well-known sports and entertainment figures. Through the years, the City of Angels has been home to some of the richest black businessmen and entrepreneurs in the country. Music-industry tycoons Berry Gordy Jr. and Clarence Avant both live in L.A. Paul Williams, the renowned African-American architect who designed Los Angeles International Airport and more than 2,000 other major buildings and homes throughout Los Angeles, including many in Hollywood and Beverly Hills, was a resident of Los Angeles.

Today, real estate developers Danny J. Bakewell Sr. and Quintin Primo III are powerful and influential players in the shaping of L.A.’s physical landscape. (Primo is actually based primarily in Chicago but spends a good deal of time in Los Angeles, wheeling and dealing on the development scene.) The Bakewell Co., established in the late 1970s, is one of the largest and oldest privately owned African-American real estate and media companies in the U.S. And Bakewell is also owner and publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel, the largest African-American newspaper west of the Mississippi River, and a radio station in New Orleans. He was recently elected president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents the nation’s black newspapers.

Primo, a 1979 Harvard M.B.A. who perennially makes the Forbes list of the richest African Americans in the U.S., founded Capri Capital with a childhood friend in 1992. The company now manages $4.3 billion in assets. Three years ago, Primo bought the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza shopping mall in south Los Angeles for $136 million. A year and half ago, he announced a $2 billion venture to build hotels, office towers and condos in Saudi Arabia, and says he plans to invest $1 billion in distressed properties and half-built construction projects around the country with financing from the U.S. Treasury.

The public-radio and television talk-show host and activist Tavis Smiley lives in L.A. and has his company and foundation based there on Crenshaw Boulevard, in the heart of the black community.