Kevin Liles is not a household name. He’s not an American Idol judge, he didn’t transfer a national sports franchise to his hometown, and he doesn’t show up in videos or self-promote relentlessly. “I’m not trying to sell a product,” he says offhandedly. “I’m not trying to sell anybody anything. I don’t just want to talk about what I’m doing. I want to talk about how, through my actions, we change the world. I’m doing this out of love for our culture. I’m not doing it for people to know what the fuck I’m doing,” he laughs.
He’s in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, making his way to the office space that’s becoming the headquarters for most of his business. MWW—the powerhouse independent PR firm he’s partnered with to form MWW Entertainment—is located on the eighth floor, and Liles was set up there temporarily, before taking over the ninth floor. The space is barely furnished. “Probably two months from now, this whole office will be full with people, things will be going on,” he informs.
He leads into an office, which serves as the headquarters of his media and beverage company, Go N’Syde. On the table are exotic tea blends like pistachio and cherry, plum blueberry, cinnamon apple and pineapple pomegranate clove. “It’s not a nutrition-oriented brand, but we don’t want to be contributing to the obesity of America here,” says Russell Hackmann, the company’s CFO. “The calories in it are about a third of what a Coke would have.” The price point will be about $2 per bottle, and they are working to get the drink in big box stores like Target and Walmart, as well as chains such as Walgreens. “There’s no minority-owned beverage company that’s distributed over 10,000 stores,” says Liles. “People might have pieces of different businesses, but there’s not a minority-owned beverage company that’s distributed to the masses.”
There’s also a 40/40 blend that they’re making for Jay-Z’s clubs as a cocktail mixer. They’re also exploring partnerships with various liquor companies for signature cocktails and looking to make lip balms and candles based on the blends. The trademark details for the company not only list it as “non-alcoholic tea beverages, namely, tea, iced teas, herbal teas and tea-based beverages with fruit flavoring” but also “audio, video and multimedia broadcasting via the Internet and other communications networks” along with a host of other electronic media more aligned with an app than a drink. The reasoning becomes clear as Liles explains the concept behind the beverage flavors. The blends are based around celebrities and icons—one inspired by The Trip To Bountiful— the Broadway play he’s produced that has been nominated for four Tony Awards, including one for Cicely Tyson for Best Performance By An Actress In A Leading Role—will be a cinnamon-spiced strawberry lemonade called Joy that can only be purchased during the play’s run; others will be based on the lives and locales and memories of their collaborators, say, Go N’Syde Passion by Trey Songz. But the real mind-bender is their focus on creating cutting-edge, smartphone-based, augmented reality games that interact with the drink. “When you go into our bottles, you’re actually gonna have The Trip To Bountiful come to life or maybe show a trailer or Trey Songz comes on top of the bottle and says, ‘Hey, welcome to Passion,’” says Liles. “The technology we have is crazy.” He cackles like a mad scientist, and if you’re inclined to think he’s off his rocker, you’d need to know that he predicted that mobile phones would become “the remote control to your life” at a keynote address over 10 years ago.