From the moment one meets Lincoln Stephens it becomes immediately clear that not only is Lincoln a man with a vision for the future, but he is a man who possesses the conviction and faith to transform that vision into reality. A graduate of the University of Missouri and a veteran of the advertising and communication industry, Lincoln has dedicated his career to transforming his vision of a culturally and intellectually diverse advertising industry into a reality. A process that has taken him across the country and into the board rooms of some of the most respected brands in the world, Lincoln’s journey has resulted in the creation of a transformative non-profit organization known as The Marcus Graham Project.
Co-founded by Lincoln and a group of like minded communication professionals in 2007, the Marcus Graham Project is a multi-functional network that looks to cultivate a new generation of diverse media and marketing leaders through mentoring, education and interdisciplinary training initiatives. Based out of Dallas, Texas and named after the fictional advertising executive played by Eddie Murphy in the 1992 film Boomerang, the Marcus Graham Project looks to not only prepare individuals from diverse backgrounds for success in advertising, but also in a manner similar to Murphy, present advertising as a viable career path to a new generation.
In episode 4 of the Blackoutlets’ Podcast, Lincoln describes his Journey into advertising, his work as an Executive Director and Co-founder of the Marcus Graham Project and he shares how faith, dedication and determination have helped lead him to a career of achievement.
There are those who consume media, those who create media, and those who critique media. Jessica Simien does all of the above. A public relations professional and digital media entrepreneur, Jessica Simien has set out to build a career that is not only reflective of the media landscape but also helps shape the media landscape.
The founder of the self titled entertainment news and lifestyle website JessicaSimien.com, Jessica has turned her passion for pop culture and communication into a platform for audience engagement and creative professional development. A venture that started out as Jessica’s personal pastime, JessicaSimien.com now hosts a staff of young writers and interns each looking to develop their skills as communication professionals. A website which covers a wide range of topics, Jessica pride’s herself on providing content that is reflective of the social, cultural and intellectual diversity of her growing audience.
Now while there is no shortage of entertainment focused websites on the internet, Jessica’s site and her work at large is truly significant in that at the core of her work is a desire to provide access to those who have traditionally not had a voice within the existing media framework. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, Jessica has taken the challenges of living in a small media market and used them as motivation to create opportunities where there previously were none. Whether it is through her marketing partnerships with independently owned business or through her Hometown Heroes series which highlights the work of often overlooked advocates for social change, Jessica looks to challenge the perception that communities are beholden to media perceptions but are in fact architects of the media itself.
In the 3rd episode of the Blackoutlets Podcasts Jessica Simien shares how she has turned a lack of opportunity into what she believes will become an emerging media movement.
There are times when a message can transcend it’s intended audience. Though inspired by specific events and designed to evoke a response from a targeted audience, a well crafted message has the ability to allow seemingly disparate communities to find common ground and unite behind a shared cause. On November 4th such a message was delivered by a group of UCLA students known as The Black Bruins.
A spoken word piece that was performed by third year UCLA student Sy Stokes and published via youtube, the self titled “Black Bruins” not only highlights the lack of African American representation in the UCLA student body but fundamentally challenges the reputation of UCLA as a diverse institution. An impassioned presentation of a variety of UCLA admissions, graduation, financial aid and university administrative spending statistics, Stokes makes what was by far the most buzzworthy revelation when he explains that UCLA has more NCAA national championships (109) than black male freshman (48). It is from this damning statistic that Stokes goes on to assert that the make up UCLA’s student body is both reflective of the of the value that the institution places on black students, and detrimental in shaping the priorities and aspirations of future generations of black male students.
Though it is clear that the Black Bruins message was intended for the immediate UCLA community (administrators, faculty, students etc), the words of Sy Stokes and the Black Bruins have struck a cord with individuals far beyond the grassy knolls of the UCLA campus. Since the initial release of the “Black Bruins” video, hundreds of thousands of individuals have viewed the video on youtube. From this large group of viewers, a smaller subset have gone on to sign an accompanying change.org petition urging UCLA to adopt new diversity initiatives. Extending beyond digital activism, the message of the Black Bruins has been covered by numerous news agencies and has become the catalyst for renewed national debate surrounding the state of higher education admission practices and the social ramifications said practices hold not only for particular minority communities but for the quality of education for all Americans.
While only time will tell if the Black Bruins’ message will have a lasting impact on UCLA as an institution, there is no doubt that the “Black Bruins” is already a socially significant media object. More than simply challenging specific policies of UCLA, the “Black Bruins” elucidates the misleading qualities of the institution’s communication narrative and brand. Though the lack of black students may be something that is felt by the members of the student body on a daily basis, there is certainly no shortage of black representation across the UCLA website and literature. This is not to say that UCLA should not showcase the black students they have, but as Sy Stokes so eloquently explains, “this school is not diverse just because you put it on a pamphlet.” The fact that the “Black Bruins” acts as both a local call to action as well as a digital artifact means that one does not have to be physically on campus to understand there is a disconnect between the UCLA message and the UCLA reality when it comes to diversity.
Film maker, producer, entrepreneur and television network executive, Maurice James has held many titles over his career. But for all of his different roles, there is one that embodies Maurice best, storyteller. Whether behind the camera or on the ground floor of numerous emerging media ventures, Maurice has spent much of his life dedicated to finding the stories that need to be told and bringing them to audiences around the world.
A native of Jackson Mississippi, Maurice’s journey in media creation has been reflective of the independent approach he brings to every facet of his life. A graduate of both Columbia University and The University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, Maurice has used early experiences working for some of the entertainment industry’s largest studios as a platform to create his own independent production company, mojo pictures. With credits that range from awards shows and theatrical productions to the critically acclaimed documentary Tropicália, Maurice now finds himself working on one of his most daring projects, launching an independent black owned television network known as Soul Of The South.
A guest of the Blackoutlets podcast series, listen to Maurice explain how his passion for storytelling has shaped his career and how he looks to reshape the media industry.
While Blackoutlets looks to focus on the issues that face black content creators of media, it is important to remember that many of these issues have an impact that extend far beyond the production and consumption of media. Issues of framing, access, ownership, gender and race (especially race) permeate through every facet of the American experience. It is in understanding the broad intersectionality of these issues that we can gain a better perspective of how these issues shape distinct areas such as media.
One institution that is dedicated to holistically understanding and addressing the impact of race across society is Race Forward. Founded in 1981 and formerly known as the Applied Research Center, Race Forward is an organization which forwards the discussion of race through a combination of analytical and social measures. Utilizing a variety of research methodologies, Race Forward looks to quantify and contextualize the impact of racial inequality on large-scale institutions. In addition to research, Race Forward publishes a daily investigative reporting website called Colorlines which provides a community focused approach to daily headline stories.
Organizations like Race Forward are significant in that they not only provide resources for understanding how social structures interact with race, but they also provide an independent lens for framing issues of race. While many media organizations struggle to tackle race in a way that will not upset the sensibilities of the majority of their audience, Race Forward, as a non-profit organization is not tied to maintaining the same racial status quo brand of coverage. This diversity of perspective is critical as common analysis often focuses on the legitimacy of even considering race as a factor in the social phenomena that occur.
It is because of organizations like Race Forward that sites like Blackoutlets can exist.
For some it takes years of trial and error to find their passion in life. For writer and media professional Desa Larkin-Boutté, it only took her one elementary school class project at age 8 to know that writing for television was her passion. Building on what began as a childhood dream, Desa has gone on to develop her skills not only as a writer but also as someone well versed in the various production functions necessary for creating large-scale media projects.
A graduate of the Boston University’s College of Communication, Desa’s career has been far from typical. While many aspiring television writers look to book the first flight straight to Hollywood, Desa’s journey out west was less direct. Desa was determined to explore and gain her writing experience in less traditional locations such as Boston, Madrid and Atlanta before finally settling in Los Angeles, CA. With credits that include such popular shows as The Walking Dead, and Single Ladies, as well as a host of independent projects, the uniqueness of Desa’s experiences has translated into an equally diverse resume.
The very first guest of the Blackoutlets Podcast, Desa sits down with us to share her passion for writing, her journey into the entertainment industry and her thoughts on the challenges facing aspiring content creators from diverse backgrounds
Despite being over a decade removed from his breakthrough television performance as the bathtub bound French translator Pierre Escargot, comedian Kenan Thompson still has a knack for making big statements that make little sense. No longer a fresh face to the sketch comedy scene, the Saturday Night Live veteran made headlines recently when he attempted to answer questions regarding the continuing lack of women of color on SNL’s cast. In a scene reminiscent of Thompson’s Nickelodeon prime, Thompson explained,
“It’s just a tough part of the business,” Thompson says. “Like in auditions, they (SNL) just never find ones (black female comedians) that are ready.”
Needless to say, Thompson didn’t need to be speaking French for the comedy community to respond with a collective, “WHAT?” The thought of one of the most well-known comedy brands in the world being unable to find diverse female talent that is “ready” didn’t sit well with a number of comedians. While some took it upon themselves to show SNL that quality black female comedians were not as rare as they would have the public believe, others took the opportunity to do what they do best; tell jokes.
But for all the discussion that emerged from Thompson’s comments, it is important to understand that SNL’s diversity issue is not new and far from unique. In the 38 years that SNL has been on air only 4 out of a total 137 cast members have been African American females. That is fewer black female cast members in 38 years than black female characters Kenan Thompson has played in his 11 years on the show. These numbers are compounded by the fact that over the same time period there were only 15 black cast members in total. When comparing the diversity of SNL to the comedy programs they often recruit from it becomes even more apparent that a lack of diversity is not isolated to SNL but prevalent throughout many of the field’s dominant institutions. In a study conducted by Splitsider.com, many of the renowned comedy theaters suffer from the same disparities in terms of gender and racial makeup as SNL.
Yet despite the long-standing systemic challenges preventing black female comedians from finding an audience with SNL, that has not stopped these talented women from finding an audience through other avenues. The failure of SNL to capitalize on diverse female talent has long been to the benefit of a variety of sketch comedy and stand up comedy institutions. Successful sketch comedy shows like, In Living Color, Mad TV and The Chris Rock Show seemingly thrived on showcasing black female comedians who were more than “ready” for mass audiences. Wanda Sykes, Kim Wayans, Kim Coles, and Debra Wilson are all established comedians who made their national debuts on diverse sketch comedy programs. Shows like Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam, Showtime at the Apollo and BET Comic View also exposed the nation to variety of female standup comedians including such well-known names as, MoNique, Sheryl Underwood and Sommore.
Now while the success of the perviously mentioned shows and the subsequent success their female cast members speaks to the fact that diverse casting can succeed on television, it is the work being done by a new generation of black female comedians online that speaks to the sustainability of diverse comedic perspectives with large audiences. While select comedy clubs and institutions like SNL have long acted as a gate keepers of comedy, websites like youtube, twitter and most recently vine are providing comedians with a platform for directly reaching mass audiences and building their own following. From the critically acclaimed work of comedian and Awkward Black Girl Series creator Issa Rae, to the skits and productions by fellow rising stars Simone Shepard and Darmirra Brunson, black female comedians are using digital avenues to do what they have always done, make a path when others have been blocked.
When I look back on my childhood, one of my biggest regrets is that I never learned to play a musical instrument.
Now while some of you will reason that my failure to learn to play an instrument was a direct result of having something frivolous like a Gameboy glued to my hands (you may have a point), I like to think that it was partly due to the lack of proper musical inspiration. Sure I listened to music and yes, my early grade school education contained some rudimentary elements of music education, but as a child I never saw myself or to a greater extent, people who looked like me playing the instruments that my parents so desperately wanted me to pick up.
I share my personal tale of childhood regret not to generate any level of sympathy, but to introduce a reality of representation (or lack there of) that impacts more individuals than we may realize. While history is certainly littered with a number of immensely talented musical artists from a variety of cultural and social backgrounds, there are specific genres of music where the visibility of said diversity is less prevalent than others. An issue that can be compounded by popular media narratives, particular forms of music can seemingly be preordained for particular groups. One striking example of this is in the branding of classical music. Now while it is certainly not news that various social and economic barriers have contributed in keeping the makeup of classical music stagnant over the years, dominant media portrayals of the genre ignore the existence let alone the contributions minority artists have made in moving the genre into the 21st century. As a result, classical music not only becomes limited in its sound, it becomes limited in the composition of its artists.
Yet despite the one dimensional representation of classical music and it’s contributors, there are artists who stand to push the preconceived notions of the genre to the side. Two of these artists make up the musical group known as Charly and Margaux. Playing Violin and Viola respectively, Charly and Margaux are the perfect mix of classical skill and contemporary style. Based out of New York, these two masters of the strings add a level of depth and personality to any piece they touch. Initially making a name for themselves through live performances across New York, Charly and Margaux gained internet acclaim through a series of instrumental remixes of popular rap and pop songs. It was from their initial success that the duo has gone on to be featured on a number of projects, working with emerging artists like Nemo Achida to critically acclaimed musicians like Kendrick Lamar. Skilled composers in their own right, the duo utilized their growing online following to crowdfund and independently release their first album of original music entitled Laced followed by their most recent release entitled The Gallerina Suites.
The work of Charly and Margaux is significant not only for the technical contributions they make to the genre, but also for their ability to make a historically restricted genre attainable for a what has been a largely ignored audience. Their ability to collaborate with contemporary artists while remaining uncompromisingly dedicated their classical roots, helps expand the notion of what type of music can be created and by whom. So while my musical talent may never extend beyond 5th grade recorder lessons, Charly and Margaux and artists like them will ensure that a new generation has the opportunity to see themselves across the spectrum of creative spaces.
I have a confession to make. Despite being a relatively active consumer of media, I have never watched a single soap opera episode in its entirety. It is not that I have anything against soaps per se, it is just that I rarely have the opportunity to watch daytime television. And even on the rare occasions that I do find myself in front of a television at say 1 p.m. on a weekday, it is very difficult for me to not give my Nielsen ratings to such riveting programming as The Price is Right or Judge Joe Brown.
Now while my personal lack of interest in the suspense filled, plot twisting adventures of such shows as Days of our Lives, and The Young and the Restless is certainly nothing to give network executives cold sweats in the middle of the night, the overall decline that the soap opera genre has experienced over the last decade is. Once the undisputed leader of daytime television, soap operas are now struggling to keep pace with the ratings of unscripted daytime talk shows like Dr. Phil and court dramas like the aforementioned Judge Joe Brown. With virtually no new series in production and the list of running soap titles getting smaller and smaller, the genre now finds itself not only struggling for rating but for survival.
For a genre that is characterized by the longevity of its creative work and the fierce loyalty of its audience, how did we get to this point? A convergence of a variety of factors, from shifts in the makeup of the modern workforce, to the rise of online content alternatives, the decline of soap operas can really be explained by one simple fact. While the American audience has changed, soap operas have not. More than just a reliance on decade old themes and cinematography techniques, soap operas have failed to appreciate the shifts in the cultural make up of their existing audience and of the American population as a whole. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the longstanding lack of African American representation both in front of and behind the Soap opera camera. Despite statistical evidence collected by organizations such as Conde Nast stating that African Americans make up nearly 40% of the audience for such marquee soap operas as The Young and the Restless, the portrayal of black characters in leading roles remains slim at best.
It is with the issue of soap opera diversity in mind that actress, author and soap opera veteran, Victoria Rowell looks to create her own solution with her new project, The Rich and the Ruthless. An independently produced soap opera, The Rich and The Ruthless looks to provide the diversity in talent and content that Rowell believes audiences have been craving. A longtime diversity advocate, Rowell has spoken on numerous occasions about the importance of soap operas being reflective of the changing audience they serve and audiences being critical of the soap operas they support. Having launched an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund her new show on August 29th, Rowell is literally putting that what she preaches into practice.
Now while it is unclear if Rowell will succeed in raising enough funds online to launch The Rich and the Ruthless in the immediate future, it is still a significant venture in that it once again highlights the ability of marginalized communities to take ownership of the creative content they enjoy. This is an issue that is not limited to African American audiences or to soap operas as a genre, the lack of diverse representation in media is something which can be changed if it is continually challenged through ventures like Rowell’s.