Blackoutlets Podcast EP5: Caille Millner

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From a very early age, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Caille Millner, has been a prolific writer whose primary source of inspiration has been her personal experience at the conflicting intersection of class, race, and gender here in America and abroad.

Growing up in Northern California, Millner consciously recognized the impact of racism and classism on her day-to-day life even as she struggled mightily to form a personal identity that balanced her fierce individuality and disdain for conformity with a pragmatic realization that race indelibly shapes the personal narrative of all Americans.

That tension is apparent even in Millner’s first published article, where, at the age of 16, Millner described in uncompromising detail the subtly pervasive racism and classism at her elite Catholic high school in the Bay Area.  After attending Harvard and becoming an award winning journalist, biographer, and world traveler, Millner wrote an autobiography at the age of 27.  The title of her autobiography, The Golden Road: Notes of My Gentrification, itself confirms Millner’s success at creating a voice that is simultaneously cognizant of the deeply pervasive influence of race while at the same time critical of those who assume that the experience of race is uniform and without space for personal agency.

In that respect, from her current position as a columnist and member of the editorial board for the San Francisco Chronicle,  Millner exemplifies the purpose of the Blackoutlets concept. In episode 5 of the Blackoutlets Podcast  Caille recounts how the profession of writing has changed and the opportunities and challenges associated with said change.

Blackoutlets Podcast EP4: Lincoln Stephens

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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.

The Black Bruins: Spoken Word For Those Who Have Gone Unheard

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.

uclaThough 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.

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.

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.