In 2018, black culture seems to be simultaneously progressing and regressing.
As a Lincoln University alum, I couldn’t be more appreciative of Beyoncé’s Coachella performance, which has been justly recognized as an overdue, loud acknowledgment of the influence our nation’s historically black colleges and universities maintain. Then, while listening to his Black Panther soundtrack, a score for a film that completely obliterated previously-held records by surpassing $1.3 billion at the box office, I found out Kendrick Lamar went and won a DAMN. Pulitzer Prize.
At moments like these, it feels good to be black and have our heroes openly and proudly wearing their capes. For us, for the culture. Then I’m reminded, much to my chagrin, how for every step forward the culture takes, an unequivocal step back is taken by those “speaking on our behalf.”
This step back is filled with embarrassment and disappointment, like the Heineken “Sometimes, Lighter Is Better” campaign that was pulled from circulation and the inescapable H&M “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” gaffe. Even most recently at the vortex of this cultural tug-of-war is Kanye West who mused that slavery was a “choice.” This is the same Kanye who has received 21 Grammys and 68 nominations and helped breathe new life into the adidas Originals brand. He is both a notable African American advancing the culture and a holder of seemingly retrograde views about his own race.
We push forward and get pulled back every day.
This is a complex topic. But at the risk of oversimplifying things, here’s how it stands: Just as African Americans continue to break new artistic and commercial ground, there is an undertow of hate and ignorance that is pushing the other way. The solution for this is both universal and personal.
Diversity needs to be prioritized in the spheres of highest influence
Campaigns like those from Heineken et al. occur when there is no diversity among people who are creating work for a diverse audience. Who are the decision-makers, the people in the driving seats of these campaigns? Do they look like me? Do they sound like me? Do they spend time in my barbershop, participate in my group chats? Do they shoot with me in the gym? Do they understand that reference I just made? They fundamentally don’t understand the nuances that I and those like me are likely to call out a mile away when we see an ad that so obviously misses the mark.
The way to fix that is to bring the right people to the table. If you need copy, you get a copywriter. If you need art, then get an art director. If you need to speak to us and there’s no one around who can truly help, then get a translator who knows how to communicate with a diverse audience or can at minimum keep you and your brand honest before an idea goes from presentation to production.
We need to be the loudest, best versions of ourselves
We should do everything in our power to make even the small steps feel huge and the already huge steps feel like moments of epic proportion. See Black Panther. We tweeted. We rallied. We pre-ordered. We put on our uniforms. And then we shamed those who didn’t see it within seven days. The support was genuine; the will to help win was unrivaled.
Let’s always do that on every scale imaginable. Beychella and Kendrick’s DAMN. accomplishments are impressive and absolutely necessary, but we can incite meaningful, culturally charged moments on a smaller scale. Let’s get as passionate, as vocal and as enthusiastic about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” Atlantic piece, D’Ussé directly endorsing The TNTH’s D’usséPalooza and Diddy dropping over $21 million on Kerry James Marshall’s “Past Times” painting. Those are moments that deserve Black Panther-level ratification.
Your voice, no matter the size, is still a voice. One that has the power to influence and move the masses in the right direction. Let’s all accept that responsibility, leverage the collective and overshadow the mishaps of the H&Ms, Heinekens and Doves so they learn to know better than to even try it. Let’s work together to make a big deal out of greatness, no matter how big or small, so it becomes the standard and so those cases become not just dashing instances but real cultural barometers.