A verbal contract, the old joke goes, isn't worth the paper it's written on. Even Bronze Age tradesmen had the foresight to write down the terms of their agreements. Yet Dallas creatives in the 21st century are still struggling to learn this lesson.
In Texas, oral contracts can be binding, as the success of Jordan Kahn’s suit against Emerald City illustrates. But as the art and culture scene of Dallas continues to blossom, while relying heavily on collaborative groundwork, Dallas creatives can no longer depend on an old-fashioned “gentleman’s agreement.”
When those agreements turn sour, artists who cannot afford a lawyer can take their case to social media for something like justice, or at least a hearing. Just last month, a feud between publicist Sarah Badran and rapper Raw Elementz found its way to the internet's jurist.
On Jan. 26, Raw Elementz finally saw his fashion line, 4EverFly, find a spotlight he’d been seeking for more than a year. His collection was showcased in an event called Hype Society, billed as an “underground fashion experience,” along with the works of 11 other streetwear designers. He and event organizers Creative Currency, a public relations company owned by Badran, pooled their resources, and the event sold hundreds of tickets and caught the attention of the social media “influencers” that they’d meant to summon.
But a few days after the show, the tension between Badran and “Raw” (whose real name is Nick Whitener) erupted in an argument at a Starbucks meeting that was heated enough to prompt a call to security. A dispute over the ownership of the event’s concept, and particularly its name, ended with a public spat between Badran and Whitener. Now, Badran says she’s received online threats as a result of their conflict.
After their face-to-face altercation, Whitener wrote a Facebook post on Feb. 4, which he has since removed, saying that he had hired Badran’s company to get press and sponsors for his upcoming fashion show for 4EverFly, and that afterward Badran took his concept and its name, created a company for Hype Society, as he wrote, “behind my back,” and locked him out of the event’s social media pages.
Badran denies Whitener’s claims, saying she was merely protecting a concept and business name that she had come up with.
“I’ve been a prominent voice and face in Dallas hip-hop for seven years now,” Whitener says on the phone, describing the open mics and music events he’s been involved with, including an annual show where he headlines the Deep Ellum venue Trees.
He says that when he got the idea to showcase his collection, he called upon Badran, whom he’d known socially, to plan the event’s PR, and that she volunteered her further involvement in the event’s operations.
“That was the whole point of us combining forces. You bring the press, and I bring the people," he says.
Whitener says that as Badran took on more responsibilities, including cooking for the event when their caterer fell through, he was happy to renegotiate her fee to 40 percent of profits, as opposed to their original agreement for 30. He says he was shocked when, a few days after the fashion show, Badran filed documents staking her claim on the name Hype Society, locked him out of its social media pages, and offered him the lower percentage, at 10 to 15 percent of profits, in any joint future events.
Badran says she wouldn’t have taken on a PR job without a contract in place, but they had established themselves as a partnership from the beginning.
“Once I realized that it was gonna be a bigger event and I was gonna have to put more of my resources behind it,” Badran says, “I said I'd be willing to do it if it was a partnership, and he said, ‘OK, let's do it.’”
Badran says she’s been working in event planning for close to seven years and she’s never been accused of stealing anybody’s concept or name.
“You can check my record,” she says. “I’ve never stolen anyone's ideas like he’s claiming I am right now.”
Badran says that Whitener approached her about helping him promote a fashion show solely to showcase his line and wanted a turnout of 300 or 400 people, which she deemed unrealistic.
“He was just like ‘I want press,’” she recalls of their original meeting, “and I was like, ‘OK, I can get you press, but when you can make this situation newsworthy. I don’t think your brand is strong enough to do that.'”
Badran says she instead suggested a model she had worked on many times, a shared event in which each designer paid a vendor fee.
“His concept was to show his line and that was it; that’s all he contributed to the concept,” she says.
Whitener says he planned a collective showcase from the beginning, as he took inspiration from friends’ shows, including Josh Swanson’s, who participated as a designer in Hype Society with his line, Windfall.
“So when I approached Sarah about it,” Whitener says, “I said I want a fashion runway show, I want multiple brands, I wanted a DJ, I wanted a party, social networking, everything.”
Swanson remembers Whitener’s interest in doing a multiple-designer showcase but couldn't say whether this was before or after Whitener teamed with Badran. Swanson says pop-ups featuring several designers are a common model in DFW, where local designers don’t have massive draws on their own.
“Pop-ups are most effective,” Swanson says. “When you have all those people coming together, they all get cross-exposed to these bigger brands.
“The event itself was definitely a success,” Swanson says of Hype Society. “I’ve been in the Dallas fashion scene for a while now, and we’ve put on several events and that one, I think by far, was the most turnout that I’ve seen. To me it definitely showed the potential we have in Dallas for fashion to really rally together and do something big here and make the third coast big.”
The Hype Society show took place at a space called Place at Tyler, where Whitener says he paid for “100 percent of everything in the show.” Including, he says, “marketing, the food side of it, the DJ.”
He sent the Observer his contract with the venue in his name, in addition to press releases, which he says Badran typed up, that stated “Raw Elementz created the concept ...”
Badran says the venue was paid mostly through the vendor’s fees and in part by her, and she additionally secured sponsors, models and renegotiated fees, saving the event thousands of dollars.
“I did over 30 events last year, and I have seen thousands of people at my shows,” she says. “I know what I’m doing.
“The first mistake I made was agreeing to a lower percentage,” Badran says of their deal, “because in the end I ended up handling the whole event.”
Whitener counters with an analogy.
“If I came to you with a car and said I want you to trick this engine out for me,” he says, “if I come back and you've slapped a spoiler and interior design on the car, that doesn’t mean that the car belongs to you now. It just means you souped the car out; you made it better, but it’s still my car.”
Whitener says that from the beginning he wanted a name for the event to include the word “Hype,” and they riffed on a name together. He sent the Observer a document with a list of titles he sent her that included the word. Badran suggested Hype Society, which he initially found “a little corny,” but he asked his followers on Instagram to pick a name, and they voted for Hype Society.
“That’s her whole reasoning behind stealing the idea for the brand,” he says. “‘I came up with the name.’ You really didn’t. It was 50/50.
“Once you seen the buzz of the show becoming something,” he says of Badran, “which I knew it would become, marketable and profitable, you say, ‘Hey, I want to be more hands-on with this.’ Once you started doing more work, which I didn’t require your help for, you started asking for more money.
“I’m inclined to give you that. That doesn’t mean that it’s your show now.”
Whitener says that after the show proved profitable, they made plans to team up for a series of events using the name Hype Society. He thinks a tipping point came when he made a post after the show, expressing gratitude for the support he received.
Badran was upset, he says, when he thanked Creative Currency and referred to the agency as “my team.”
“Which I thought she was,” Whitener says, “and second because I said ‘my show and vision’ and that’s just facts. Just because I enlisted you to help me with the vision and you made the vision greater and sprinkled some stuff on the vision doesn’t mean I can’t say it’s my vision.”
Whitener says he first heard from his hired marketing team that they couldn’t log into Hype Society’s Instagram and soon realized he too was locked out of the accounts and Badran had taken his name out of the page’s bio, which originally said “presented by Raw Elementz and Creative Currency.”
He says Badran told him he’d no longer have control of the page and they needed to discuss their agreement moving forward. At their meeting, Whitener says, he was expecting Badran to lay out her case as to why their partnership should be a 50/50 split.
“I was willing to do that,” he says. "She did a great job on everything I asked her to do.”
Badran laid out different terms and showed him lists of the work her company had put into the event versus his, plus a list of all his mistakes. She says she felt 15 percent for Whitener was more than fair, as that would’ve covered his promotion work and a commission for finding designers.
“We were asking him what he can contribute moving forward,” she says, “because his line was featured in this event, and it wouldn't make sense in another one moving forward, and I think he agreed in that same sense, too.”
“Her whole reasoning behind it is that she felt she did more work and she came up with the name,” Whitener says of Badran’s ownership of the Hype Society brand, “which she didn’t. She changed the last part of it.
“I hired you to do what you did. My influence is what got people there,” he says. “She’s moving as a snake business owner. I enlisted your help, and now (Hype Society) is yours. It’s crazy.”
Badran says she got involved partly because she wanted to “pass the ball” to her sister, a stylist and fashion designer who organized the event as part of Creative Currency, and she tried to include Whitener in the operations, but he was uninterested.
“He was just too busy focusing on his line,” she says, “which is fine because this is how I step up when I handle business with artists; a lot of the business side is too much for them to comprehend.”
She depicts Whitener as what can only be described as a Kanye West sort, a rapper-designer with an inflated sense of self-importance.
“The whole process, he was just being very arrogant about everything,” Badran says. “He was constantly bragging about how it was his vision and his idea, and how he was an inspiration to the whole city, and I was just like, whatever, I don’t really do this for the credit.”
Badran liked the name Hype Society, she says, and wanted to keep it, even though she was hesitant to continue working with Whitener.
“It was a very successful concept, and we just didn’t really want to work with Raw again,” she says. “He didn’t really like it in the first place, so we felt ownership in that way to the name.”
She sent text message screenshots to the Observer that she says she received from Whitener after the Hype Society show. In them, he tells her that people were getting in touch with him to help them with their own shows.
“You should send them my way if they got a budget and I’ll throw you a commission,” Badran appears to have texted back, to which Whitener responded: “They don’t know you, they wanna work wit the god.”
“I may have gone about it a little bit of a wrong way,” Badran admits, in retrospect, “but he would talk about being a visionary and was essentially taking credit for all of the event when he doesn't put in the work.”
She took away his access to social media, she says, because Creative Currency opened the accounts.
“We felt like it was in better hands with us,” she says. “We started the social media page, so that’s why we took it back. And to be honest he was using the page to holler at girls. This isn’t how a business is run. We wanted to essentially disassociate ourselves from him.”
Whitener says he did send a few messages from the Hype Society page by accident, but that all comments were directed to his friends.
“She posted it to make it seem like I was sending inappropriate things to random people, lol, shock value,” he wrote to the Observer in response.
Badran’s main regret, she says, was not laying out the financial terms from the beginning.
“I think it’s important to put contracts in place,” she says. “We kind of did a verbal agreement, and now it’s kind of open to interpretation on both ends on what that really was.”
DJ Mike Barbee calculates that he’s worked approximately 30 events each with Badran and Whitener without any incident. He was hired to DJ for Hype Society but had to attend a commitment at Sundance.
“I know both of their greatness,” Barbee says of his colleagues. “Not one time have I maliciously seen her snake everybody.”
Barbee believes the dispute would’ve been avoided if Whitener had hired Creative Currency’s services up front.
“If he would have hired Sarah,” Barbee says, “anything after that, even if she came up with the idea, would belong to him, but since they partnered, that’s a different situation. Once the partnership is no longer valid, that’s her intellectual property, and she can take that and do what she will with it.”
The jabs exchanged between Badran and Whitener were straight out of the The Apprentice’s war room. She says she never intended to air their dirty laundry on social media but felt compelled to respond to Whitener’s post, in which several of his followers’ comments ranged from suggestions they slash her tires or have her killed.
“I’m just frustrated that he’s trying to tarnish my reputation and say I stole his brand,” Badran says. “I feel like he presented a lot of false facts.”
She makes the case that whether she took the name or not, it wouldn’t prevent Whitener from partaking in a similar business model.
“The concept is still there,” she says. “It’s available for anybody to do. We’re really essentially fighting over a name. It’s not like we’re stopping him from being able to do this type of event ever again.”
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Now the very name they’re fighting over has been tarnished in controversy, she says, even prompting the hashtag #fuckhypesociety. So no one will get to use it.
“I don’t even know if it’s worth it now,” Badran says of continuing to throw events under the name Hype Society. “It was supposed to be us teaching him a little bit of a lesson, and it backfired because of the way he painted it out to be. Is it even worth it to move forward with the name still?”
Whitener says he learned an age-old lesson, about always laying down terms in writing.
“I guess we just can’t really see the good in everybody,” he says. “Whenever you go into business with somebody, it’s a whole other story.”