Saturday Night Live May Not be Able to Find Black Female Comics, But Black Female Comics Are Finding Larger Audiences

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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.tweet comic

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.

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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.

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Charly & Margaux: Contemporary Faces In Classical Places

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.

The Rich and Ruthless: Black Creatives Stake Claim to Soap Opera Content

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.

Mad Black Men: A Recasting of Revisionist History

Since it first debuted in mid 2007, Mad Men has grown to become one of the most popular and decorated shows on television.  Set in 1960’s Manhattan, the series follows Don Draper, a fictional advertising executive, as he navigates the high stakes world of the Madison Avenue advertising industry. Taking place during what was a turning point for both the nation and the advertising industry, Mad Men attempts to take viewers into the world of the men whose work shaped an era of pop culture communication.

Now while Mad Men has received numerous awards for the performances of its cast and quality of its writing, it is it’s perceived authenticity that has garnered the show it’s highest praise. From the visual design of sets and the meticulous selection of the wardrobe donned by the cast, to the portrayal of such overarching themes as sexism, alcoholism and office promiscuity, Mad Men has prided itself on attention to detail. Viewed by some as the catalyst for a new wave of primetime period centric dramas (Boardwalk Empire,  for example) the show has become for many the definitive media representation for this industry during this particular period.

And that my friends is the problem. Despite what is certainly an impressive dedication to detail, Mad Men is far from definitive. Like virtually all forms of historically based media, Mad Men possesses a number of inaccuracies and omissions that both shape the show’s narrative and define the manner in which it’s audience responds. Take for example the show’s portrayal of African Americans in advertising. In the 6 seasons Mad Men has been on the air there has been a grand total of ZERO black characters with roles actually responsible for creating ADVERTISING. No creative directors, no accountants, nothing. And while the general absence of black characters in the show has been discussed at length in a variety of forums (See the Root’s Black People Counter) it is a criticism that has often been written off by the shows creators as a fact of the times. When speaking about why there are so few black characters in Mad Men, show creator Matthew Weiner simply explained it as a fact of the time opining, “There are still no black people in advertising,”.

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*Le Sigh*

If only Matthew Weiner and team paid as much attention to history as they did to wardrobe. George Olden, Roy Eaton and Caroline Robinson Jones not only represent three African American icons of Advertising, but also speak to a small but significant contingent of blacks in advertising during the 60s and beyond. Yes advertising has had well publicized issues with a lack of diversity, but to say that the 1960’s ad industry was devoid of any significant African American figures is not only inaccurate but revisionist in nature.

It is seemingly in direct response to the revisionist qualities of Mad Men that MAD Black Men was born.

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A new project by writer and designer Xavier Ruffin, Mad Black Men is a satire that looks at the 1960’s AD industry through the eyes of black advertising agency employees.  An independently funded endeavor , Ruffin looks to capture the a perspective that has been either overlooked or simply disregarded by the original Mad Men series.  While it remains to be seen what the final product of Mad Black Men will look like, its presence highlights the important role that independent content can play in countering popular yet inaccurate media narratives.

And the Emmy for Diversity Goes To…

As you may or may not know, yesterday (September 22, 2013) was the 65th edition of the Primetime Emmy Awards. A night dedicated to honoring “the best” in American primetime television, the Emmy’s has become must see T.V. for those who simply must see T.V..  And as is the case  now with all major awards shows, the day following the event is dedicated to recapping the night’s biggest winners and losers. Now while I lack both the style and expertise to comment on who wore what better, and the time to touch on every nominated show at length, I can tell you with complete certainty that one clear loser on the night was diversity.

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An issue that becomes more glaring with each year that passes, a lack of diversity is nothing new for the Emmys or Hollywood. Despite the growing number of actors and media professionals emerging from a variety of cultural, social and economic backgrounds , the diversification of talent has not translated to the awards show stage. And lets just say the apparent lack of diversity is not going unnoticed.

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But for all of the frustration that was voiced about this year’s Emmy’s, a look at the new Fall television lineup doesn’t inspire much hope for anything different come next years awards. With Kerry Washington and her Emmy nominated performances in Scandal, not a single new show for the fall centers around black or minority protagonist. Simply put, you can’t expect an awards show to be diverse when primetime isn’t.

Now while it is difficult to see the Emmys drastically changing any time soon, that does not mean that change is not coming. The reluctance of Hollywood to diversify not only presents a direct opportunity for digital and independent content creators but also for audiences to redefine what type of work deserves recognition. If the most watched content ceases to be produced by major studios and is no longer found on television both Hollywood and the Emmys cease to be the primary forces for determining quality in mass media.  And while this may seem like a fanciful notion, one only has to look at the success of content creators like Issa Rae and the investments that companies like Netflix and Google have made in original digital content to see Hollywood’s loss will most certainly be the internet’s gain.

But until this change occurs, we all better pray that Scandal and Kerry Washington get renewed for season 3.

The Motown Sound: A Classic Blueprint For Contemporary Media Entrepreneurship

When asked about his success as an entrepreneur and music mogul, Motown founder and former CEO, Berry Gordy once said, “Success starts with a dream”. A dream that built a music empire and shaped a generation, the Motown success story has been chronicled, and studied by countless scholars and critics alike. The subject of college level courses, Motown has been examined both for it’s artistic contribution to the tapestry of poplar music  as well as it’s role as a vehicle for social change through the transition of what had previously been viewed as exclusively African American music into “mainstream” American music channels.   Now while both areas of investigation reveal distinct aspects of Motown’s legacy, it is the creation of the Motown business model and its subsequent inroads into an heretofore closed industry that holds incredibly interesting implications for a new generation of diverse media creators.

Now in order to appreciate the significance that Motown holds for black creators of media today, one must first understand the social setting in which Motown was formed.  Though the challenge of minority content creators attempting to break through institutional barriers in order to reach “mainstream audiences” is far from a new issue.  The social backdrop during the 1960’s certainly posed a set of challenges few could relate to at any other time in history.  Segregation during the sixties in America was not just limited to institutions like schools, housing and transportation. Music and virtually all forms of media were at the mercy of Jim Crow based policies.  White stations didn’t play “colored music” and vice versa.  Black artists were consistently relegated to small clubs and “juke joints” to perform and often received no national or even regional exposure outside of channels which specifically targeted black audiences. Even in the event that black artists would create work deemed acceptable for white audiences by the  dominate music executive hierarchy, it was common practice for record labels to have popular white recording artists take the original creative piece, remake it and release it without any form of financial or creative compensation to the original artist.

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It is with all of these factors in mind that Berry Gordy still set out to build his own record label. Collecting $800 of seed capital from family and friends in 1959, Gordy founded the two record labels (Tamla Records & Motown Records) that would become  responsible for the “Motown Sound”, a sound  that  in many ways would  challenge the racial status quo of a nation through music.

One of the keys to the success of Motown was the fact that Gordy had direct ownership of all of the elements connected with the production of the Motown sound. Gordy hired the writers, musicians, singers and what they produced belonged to Motown. Even the decision to initially establish Motown as two separate labels was done in order to make sure that Motown had some element of control over how often their records could be played on air. A model of creative efficiency, Motown’s production process was modeled to take after the most prominent Detroit company, General Motors.  Though each creative work had a look and feel that was uniquely its own, Gordy controlled how that work would be integrated to compliment the overarching Motown creative vision and enterprise.  Sure there were stars, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, but in many ways they were Motown’s Cadillac, Chevrolet and Buick.  Gordy controlled the style and the rhythm that made each artist both unique and the same.  People grew to depend on the Motown sound and in doing so helped Gordy become the empire builder.

Another key element to consider when analyzing the success of Motown is the manner in which the Motown brand was able to transcend longstanding cultural barriers. Though Motown was a  black owned and operated record label it was far from the first of its kind. Motown was however able to go places where similar creative groups had not. While the importance of ownership of the creative product and the means of production was highlighted earlier, Gordy’s ability to recognize and strategically approach existing social barriers through branding is equally noteworthy. From stressing the universal qualities of the lyrical content of Motown artists to the creation “talent development programs” to prepare his acts for non traditional media and performance opportunities (and the forms of discrimination that may come with), Gordy looked to brand Motown as an entity that was connected to all communities.  It was from this universal platform and the success that followed it  that a number of Motown artists were able to share messages of social change that were particularly pertinent to their African American audience.

Now it is important to note that while Motown proved to be a massive success both creatively and financially,  the tactics utilized by Gordy have not gone without some level or criticism. One criticism of Gordy and Motown is that in achieving initial commercial success the label perpetuated a representation of black talent that least disturbed the sensibilities of  white audiences.  From publishing album covers without pictures of the artists, to the styling and development of artist performances, one can see how Gordy’s tactics may have raised concerns.  It is with these criticisms in mind though that one must again look at the full body of work of Motown as an institution to appreciate the ability of the label to push for standards for the acceptance of black artists in media. It is with the growth of Motown that we see not only increased opportunity for  black artists, but for the exposure of their work.

Media entrepreneurs today should take notice of the plan behind the music.  Gordy patterned his rise not just on making quality records.  Gordy understood and put into practice the concept of ownership and  quality control.  He marketed to an under-served group that was both black and white but he found a way to make mainstream America see the potential and profit of his product. and while the media landscape has changed in a number of ways since Gordy took that fateful loan in 1959, the Motown story still provides valuable lessons for aspiring creators of media from minority communities today.

Exploring A Diverse Lens

One of the goals of Blackoutlets is to provide a foundation for in-depth conversation surrounding the issues impacting black content creatives. Part of that goal involves listening to the thoughts and opinions of those who are currently facing these issues on a daily basis. With that in mind, I invite you to take a listen to this recent University of Southern California Round-table discussion focusing on the issues of race and ethnicity in Hollywood.  A panel composed of  a variety of scholars and content creators, pay attention to the fact that though many of the panelists represent different communities in their work there are consistent moments where access is critically denied.