By Nazanine Nouri
The Weeknd, the Grammy-award winning R&B singer, stunned as many as 91 million Super Bowl viewers earlier this month with his halftime performance. It was a feather in the cap of Weeknd’s co-manager Amir “Cash” Esmailian, a.k.a. Cash XO, the Canadian-Iranian producer who co-founded XO Records.
Even before the game, the Weeknd’s album and its lead single Blinding Lights (released in March) were already topping the charts. The day after the Super Bowl , on Feb. 8, ‘Blinding Lights’ became the biggest chart hit of the century, according to Complex Music.
Making history 🌟 @theweeknd
— Complex Music (@ComplexMusic) February 8, 2021
“Still buzzing from last night,” Esmailian cheered in a tweet. “I couldn’t stop smiling the whole performance. Thank you @pepsi @NFL @RocNation for believing in me to bring a fresh new take on the halftime show. XO we did it!”
— The Weeknd (@theweeknd) February 8, 2021
XO is a Canadian record label with four co-founders: The Weeknd, the label’s CEO Wassim “Sal” Slaiby, manager Cash XO, and creative director La Mar Taylor.
As Billboard magazine wrote last month, “In a year when a pandemic brought much of the industry to a halt, these four men – all immigrants or sons of immigrants to Canada – not only pushed forward but thrived.” As Billboard pointed out, singer Abel Tesfaye is Ethiopian, Sal is Lebanese, Cash is Iranian, and La Mar is Jamaican.
Esmailian was born in Tehran in 1983. He grew up during the Iran-Iraq War before his family emigrated to Ottawa, Canada in 1988, where his father became a taxi driver. He was old enough to realize his father’s sacrifice, which allowed him and his brother to “be in a space where we can make our own decisions, be what we want to be,” he told Complex Music in an interview in 2017. He became grateful to his father for teaching him to follow his instincts no matter what, and to take pride in his work.
As Cash recalled, he always knew how to “turn one into two,” and got his nickname, Cash XO, as a teenager from his friend Hawk Marley, who later joined the record label.
Cash was living in Miami in 2011 when Marley sent him a few tracks by an up-and-coming Toronto artist going named The Weeknd. Cash dropped everything and went to Toronto the next day to be near the guy who “he knew would change the sound, change the world of music,” according to Complex Music.
After befriending Tesfaye, Cash went on to become his manager, road manager, security, fitness trainer and driver. It was one of the greatest moments of their lives, he said, running around Toronto with The Weeknd’s debut mixtape, House of Balloons. After putting out two more mixtapes in late 2011, Cash joined forces with Sal. They became the singer’s co-managers and founded the XO record label.
In 2012, the label entered a distribution and strategic partnership with Republic and its parent company, Universal Music Group which paid off within six months: The Weeknd headlined venues like London’s 20,000-seat O2 Arena.
In 2015 and 2016, two albums — Beauty Behind the Madness and Starboy — both went to No. 1, and had tours averaging $1.1 million a night. (The Weeknd would take home two Grammys in 2016 for Beauty Behind the Madness.)
In November 2019, The Weeknd appeared in a Mercedes-Benz commercial behind the wheel of an electric SUV, and the world heard snippets of Blinding Lights for the first time.
To Billboard, XO’s “tight, familial bond is the foundation for their success, not the other way around.”