The Daring 25: Ingenious Entertainers

Produced with  Vanity Fair

Cadillac is passionate about innovations that drive us forward, so we partnered with five Conde Nast publications to discover individuals who use their talents to do the same. We asked the editors of Vanity Fair, Wired, Architectural Digest, Bon Appétit and GQ who they found most daring in 2016.

The Daring 25 are innovators, creators and pioneers who are trailblazing in their fields. These impressive individuals and companies stand out in the industries of entertainment, technology, design, food, and style, and represent the best of those who challenge the status quo.

These five storytellers are leading the charge into a new realm of entertainment.

 

ONE: KAMASI WASHINGTON

SAXOPHONIST/REDEFINING JAZZ FOR A NEW GENERATION WITH A GROUNDBREAKING ALBUM “THE EPIC” 

Kamasi Washington’s father, accomplished saxophone player Rickey Washington, didn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. For Rickey, who played sessions with soul legends The Temptations and Diana Ross, playing the sax was about mastering other instruments. “In the ’70s, if you were a saxophonist, you had to be a ‘doubler.’ You had to know how to play sax, flute, clarinet, or oboe,” says Kamasi. “Sax was the easiest of all the woodwind instruments. He wanted me to have a better handle on the clarinet before I played the saxophone.”

But Kamasi had already studied many of Wayne Shorter’s compositions by the time he was 11, and one day, when Rickey left his saxophone unpacked, the son swooped in. His father, Kamasi says, “was surprised I was able to figure it out without even knowing what the notes were.”

Washington, now 35, has not only mastered the sax, he has redefined jazz and in the process reintroduced the musical form to a younger generation. He’s worked with greats from Chaka Khan to Quincy Jones to Lauryn Hill, and he garnered critical acclaim from his collaboration with Kendrick Lamar on the latter’s Grammy-winning album, To Pimp A Butterfly.

“Listeners are looking for something that gives them a ray of light, that connection. Music is that guiding light. ”
Kamasi Washington

Last year, Washington’s own three-part album, The Epic, a soul-stirring composition of nearly three hours of jazz, solidified his reputation as one of the most daring artists of this generation. The album was described by Pitchfork as an “extravagant love letter to … soul jazz, John Coltrane, and 1970s fusion leaders like Miles Davis and Weather Report.” The Guardian named it one of the best albums of 2015, calling it a “record that looked beyond genre limits and tried to push things further.”

Washington studied ethnomusicology at UCLA and was booking gigs for Snoop Dogg and Gerald Wilson while an undergrad. “I used school to study music that wasn’t so practical,” says Washington. “To actually start working and gigging, there’s certain things that open up to you. Jazz, R&B, gospel. But then there’s North Indian classical music, four-part species counterpoint, the stuff you couldn’t get playing gigs. It helped me. It gave me a depth to my playing that certain people didn’t have because they weren’t in school.”

The Epic was composed with the longtime childhood friends and bandmates that call themselves the West Coast Get Down, backed by a 22-piece orchestra and a 16-person choir. Since Washington knew most of his bandmates since elementary school, “there’s a certain comfortability. We know each other through and through in a way that we have no doubt as far as what we can and can’t do.”

 

Washington has mastered the sax, redefined jazz, and in the process reintroduced the musical form to a younger generation.

The music itself took Washington out of any comfort zone. The album’s long format “doesn’t fit into most formats for radio or even iTunes,” he says. “So I definitely went back and forth in my own head as to whether or not I was okay with those things.”

Working with Lamar on Pimp required less self-editing. “He was hands off and hands on at the same time,” says Washington. “He had a vision, explained that vision to you, then let you do whatever you wanted to do. As you did what you did, he’d make it fit into what he was trying to do in the first place. A credit to his genius, in that you can’t stop Kendrick.”

Washington is in the middle of a European tour—on which his father, Rickey, plays with him and his longtime bandmates. In between tour dates, the younger saxophonist is working on a graphic novel to accompany The Epic, illustrating the vision the musician had while recording each track. “Every song I started working on, each one has a little dream to go with it. Eventually, they all come into one,” Washington says, “So I made it into one story.”

Besides comic books and rave reviews, the long-term impact of his work is to encourage more unique expressions in music across all genres. “Listeners are looking for something that gives them a ray of light, that connection. Music is that guiding light. I hope my music is fuel to that movement.”

TWO: FELIX & PAUL STUDIOS

VIRTUAL REALITY DIRECTORS/ CREATING BOUNDARY-BREAKING STORYTELLING EXPERIENCES THAT SET A HIGHER BAR FOR FILMMAKING

Getting in touch with reality means something very different to Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël. Both 35, they are the founders of the Emmy Award–winning Felix & Paul Studios, which focuses on the creation of virtual reality experiences. Since joining forces in 2006 and officially founding their Montreal-based firm in 2014, they have created and conceived a plethora of original content that has reshaped mainstream media and helped fuel the rapid growth of a burgeoning new film industry.

Their projects have included the Nomads series, LeBron James—Striving for Greatness, Strangers with Patrick Wilson, and collaborations with Jurassic World, Cirque du Soleil, Wild, and the Clinton Global Initiative.

“Early on in the process, we both discovered we had a very strong interest in creating more immersive cinematic experiences,” explains Lajeunesse, who added that they both admired filmmakers like Terrence Malick because of “the way he respects the viewer’s intelligence and creates an experience for the viewer to be a part of, and doesn’t give all the answers.”

Lajeunesse and Raphaël’s own interest in virtual reality was piqued a couple years before the nascent medium came to public attention. The duo started to plot out the type of storytelling, subjects, and technology needed to create those experiences. “We started surrounding ourselves with a team of engineers who could help us deliver the type of vision we had,” Lajeunesse says.

“We personally want to see our studio in five years like a Pixar or a Dreamworks of virtual reality.”
Félix Lajeunesse

In late 2012, they knew it was the right move. The next step, however, was getting subjects on board with this experimental format. The directors filmed Strangers with Patrick Wilson in mid-2013, “at a time when if you typed virtual reality on Google, there were no hits. When we went to [Wilson], he said, ‘Where are the eyeballs going to be?’” Lajeunesse says. “But he was enamored with the medium and he decided to go for it, so we created that first piece.”

Lajeunesse and Raphaël credit a number of other well-known individuals for helping them further propel virtual reality into the public eye. “You could say the same with LeBron James. You could say the same with President Clinton who decided to be involved and give his own time, even if it wasn’t going to reach millions of people. He felt it was the right medium and a true expression of his organization.”

Same goes for Reese Witherspoon: “We and Fox Searchlight approached her to do a virtual reality component for Wild in mid-2014,” says Lajeunesse. “In the history of virtual reality, that was like the Renaissance or medieval times. But she had a lot of courage to dive into that project and committed to do it in a big way.”

Similarly, Lajeunesse and Raphaël’s commitment to the world of virtual reality has their studio growing at exponential speed. While Felix & Paul Studios is working on over 30 upcoming original projects and virtual reality series, both fiction and nonfiction, perhaps their most exciting upcoming project is with President Obama, who will be the first sitting president to participate in a virtual reality experience. According to Lajeunesse, it’s a project that “focuses on the tradition of conservation and preservation of the natural world in the United States and opens up the question of climate change.”

In June 2015, Felix & Paul Studios announced the largest live-action deal to date with Facebook’s Oculus VR division, which is a non-exclusive overall content deal. In September 2015, they announced the creation of Headspace Studio, the first studio to focus solely on 3-D sound for VR content. While their main production and post-production team is based in Montreal, in July 2016, they opened an office in Los Angeles as well. “Virtual reality is going to become a major industry, and we’re going to be a serious part of it,” Lajeunesse says. “We personally want to see our studio in five years like a Pixar or a Dreamworks of virtual reality.”

In fact, Raphaël says they have gone far and beyond their own expectations when it comes to where they predicted virtual reality would be today. “When we think back to every projection we’ve imagined or made in the past couple years, things have been going so much faster than we’ve ever hoped when we started three years ago. Where we are today is where we thought we’d be at least five years from now.”

THREE: W. KAMAU BELL

COMEDIAN/USING SOCIO-POLITICAL HUMOR TO COMBAT DISCRIMINATION AND RACIAL TENSION 

On an episode of W. Kamau Bell’s CNN show United Shades of America, the comedian goes to a Ku Klux Klan rally in Arkansas to get some perspective on the white supremacist organization’s long-standing racist views. It was the last place that a black man would be welcome, so Bell took precautions. The show’s producers hired a security guard to escort him to a cross burning, but when he met his protection, Bell was shocked to see a Latino ex-LAPD officer. “I thought, ‘So now I need extra security for my security. Great,’” says Bell.

Other comedians touch on race in their acts, but no one is as fearless as Bell when it comes to flexing his funny bone to champion for racial and civil equality. He gained critical acclaim for his former FX series, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, and two podcasts, “Politically Re-Active” and “Denzel Washington Is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period”. He’s also an ACLU Ambassador for Racial Justice and sits on the board of racial justice think tank Race Forward’s news site, Colorlines, and Hollaback!, a nonprofit to end harassment.

Now the comedian is exposing the people, traditions, and beliefs of certain subcultures of America on his popular CNN program. He’s described the locations included on the show as places you wouldn’t expect an African-American man to go, or to put it bluntly, “places where he absolutely shouldn’t go.” It also includes, “places that I, myself, wouldn’t normally go,” says Bell.

“One of the most daring things I’ve done is talked about the lack of diversity on my own show.”
W. Kamau Bell

Those places include spring break in Daytona Beach. “It’s about seeing things and learning through my lens,” Bell says. “We went to spring break in Daytona. There were black people there, but it’s not my experience. I don’t like going outside, and I don’t like dance music. I don’t like screaming, ‘Woooooooooo!’ for no reason.”

Influenced by comedians Dick Gregory, Bill Hicks, and Chris Rock—“His Bring the Pain was like my moon landing; I didn’t know that a person could do that,” he says—Bell conquered the stand-up scene on the West Coast and released two comedy albums before bringing his talents to TV.

United Shades of America is closing its first season, and Bell says he’s determined to push the envelope even more in a potential season two, particularly when Hollywood is under fire for its lack of inclusion of minorities both behind the scenes and on camera. “One of the most daring things I’ve done is talked about the lack of diversity on my own show,” he says. “I can’t not talk about it. I’m talking about my job and people around my job, and I have to call myself out. If I don’t step into the next season and do something about it, then I’m an asshole.”

He points to television producer Shonda Rhimes, who has created hit shows for ABC including Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, as an example of diversity done right.

“The reason why ABC Thursday night is so big, brown, and gay, is because Shonda is behind the scenes making it happen. She’s like, ‘I demand it be this way,’” he says. “It makes sense. But it also has to make dollars for people to make it this way.”

As for the future, Bell hopes his two young mixed-race daughters—Bell’s wife is white—have a more welcoming world to grow up in than he did. “They’ll be better prepared than I was, because I was better prepared than my mom and my mom was better than her mom was,” he says. “I come from a long line of people who said, ‘You have to be faster, stronger, and funnier.’ When the world comes at you, you’d better be prepared for it.”

FOUR: ANA LILY AMIRPOUR

DIRECTOR/TELLING UNORTHODOX STORIES WITH COMPLEX CHARACTERS THAT ATTRACT MAINSTREAM AUDIENCES

In the 2014 film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a 187-year-old nameless skateboarding vampire waif stalks a ghost town and falls in love with an Iranian James Dean type with a heroin-addicted father. The black-and-white movie, written in Farsi, contains drugs, hookers, pimps, and subtitles, and it has been described as the first Iranian vampire spaghetti Western. Even amid the indie fare at Sundance, Ana Lily Amirpour’s directorial debut stood out for its audaciously unconventional approach.

Despite its niche subject matter, Girl received rave reviews. Amirpour’s already been compared by critics to directors Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino. Her next film, The Bad Batch, which has been described as a psychedelic Western romance, will be produced by Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures and VICE Media.

“I’m constantly looking for whatever weirdness is fascinating me.”
Ana Lily Amirpour

Clearly, Amirpour isn’t afraid to tackle complex subjects. Nor is she afraid that her abstract stories won’t find an audience. “I don’t make film for the masses,” she says. “I don’t know who it’s for, but what happens, [the film] finds its true friend. I don’t need to be friends with everyone.”

British-born Amirpour, the daughter of an Iranian doctor and nurse, emigrated to the U.S. via Miami and later moved to California. She quickly immersed herself into American culture. “I was a brown Iranian kid with an English accent, a complete hodgepodge of human stew,” she says. “I was completely swept off my feet by American pop culture and American movies.”

Amirpour devoured 1980s films by John Hughes and Robert Zemeckis, the director of Forrest Gump, Cast Away, and, her favorite, the Back to the Future series. An MTV video classic was also influential. “I saw the making of “Thriller” with John Landis, and I just loved it,” she says. “I watched it every day after I came home from school. If you watch Landis’s behavior on set and how he directs, it reminds me of myself. He’s goofy and has a lot of fun. This must have plugged into my subconscious.”

 

Amirpour is not afraid that her abstract stories won't find an audience.

Amirpour studied screenwriting at UCLA, and Girl was the 12th script she ever wrote. The research included storyboarding the entire life of the main character, the Iranian vampire, back to the 1800s. Of her unorthodox subjects, Amirpour says she chooses stories that arouse her. “I’m constantly looking for whatever weirdness is fascinating me,” she says. “I find prostitution extremely interesting and fascinating, then I end up spending time in strip clubs and talking to porn stars and reading their memoirs because I’m interested. Vampires are interesting because it gives you a glimpse into history.”

Amirpour will follow up her daring Iranian Western with The Bad Batch, a dystopian love story set in a cannibal community starring Jim Carrey, Suki Waterhouse, and Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa. “It’s an epic adventure movie, violent and romantic, with a next-level soundtrack,” she says. “I can’t wait to unleash it on audiences.” The cast alone will be enough to draw crowds, though broad appeal has never been Amirpour’s goal. “I’m able to pay the rent right now,” she says. “I don’t need to be sitting in a tub of diamonds.”

FIVE: MARLON JAMES

NOVELIST/WRITING A NEW CHAPTER IN BOOK PUBLISHING BY COMBINING COMPLEX CHARACTERS AND SETTINGS WITH ADRENALINE-PUMPING ACTION

For author Marlon James, 45, crime pays. The Jamaican-born son of a cop and a judge, he used the attempted 1976 assassination of Bob Marley as the inspiration for his third novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings. The 700-page tour de force, told through dozens of characters, from journalists to CIA agents to local gangsters, is a page-turning compilation of stories peppered with violence, musical shout-outs, and Jamaican patois. James was rewarded with the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, the literary equivalent of an Oscar.

The honor was unexpected given the book’s uncompromising subject matter and approach. “I thought people would be thrown off by its stream of consciousness,” James says. “But I thought the subject—Bob Marley—would save the book. People would think, ‘Bob Marley! Let me read it!’”

Among the unconventional elements: There’s a six-page-long sentence in one chapter, and one of the 70 characters is a ghost. “The violence, the sex, the politics, the sometimes thinly veiled real people. I said, ‘I’ll just leave this all in until my editor takes this out.’ It was kind of scary, but being scared never stopped me before.”

While both his parents were in law enforcement, James brings his own take to the subject of violence. “When writing about things like crime, I’m always writing from the street level,” he says, “Not just how these things start from the channels of power.”

A Brief History is set in an era that brought a unique intersection of characters flocking to Jamaica. “The things about 1976, in good and in bad, is Kingston was the world’s playground,” James says. “Henry Kissinger and Mick Jagger were in the same place. You have spies and counterspies taking over a territory, guns, drugs, corruption, music, military, and this playground of the real rich and famous and dangerous and obscure all at the same time.”

“When writing about things like crime, I’m always writing from the street level...not just how these things start from the channels of power.”
Marlon James

Before he became a literary success, the author’s early influences were comic books, particularly X–Men and Batman, and detective series featuring the likes of the The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Salman Rushdie, whose book The Satanic Verses resulted in Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa for his death, was also inspirational. “Rushdie risked his life and safety for the art he wanted to pursue, and that was a big influence on me,” says James.

James left sunny Jamaica for chilly Minnesota in 2005, right when he published his first novel, John Crow’s Devil. The book was rejected 78 times by publishers, and James would have given up on it had it not been for fellow author Kaylie Jones. “I destroyed the manuscript and erased all traces of it and went to friends and told them to erase it from their computers,” he says. “I thought, ‘So many people thought it wasn’t good, how could they be wrong?’”

The author followed John Crow’s Devil with his second book, The Book of Night Women, about a woman born into the Jamaican slave trade, before breaking through to a wider public with the award-winning A Brief History.

Up next for James: He’ll return to teaching at Minnesota’s Macalester College next semester after a yearlong sabbatical, and he’s developing a British TV show and another novel that he describes as “an African Game of Thrones.” He’s also shopping the television version of A Brief History to networks. He’s already thought about his ideal cast. “I have thought about Idris Elba,” says James. “But I don’t know if he wants to be a crime lord again.”

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