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.

Race Forward: A Resource for Understanding Race in Media, In Principal & In Practice

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.

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.

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.

Spike Lee Does The Right Thing for Advertising

“You turn on TV today, watch films today, the diversity of this country is not reflected on our tv screen or on our movie screens because the gate keepers do not reflect the diversity of this country.” – Spike Lee,

For many years the advertising industry has struggled with the under-representation of African Americans in its workforce. In a 2009 study entitled, “Research Perspective on Race and Employment In The Advertising Industry”, the advertising industry was  shown to be woefully behind the diverse communities they serve as well as other industries of comparable size. As a result of this and other studies the advertising industry has come under increased pressure to become “more diverse”.  But what does diversity mean for an industry like advertising? Is it simply hiring more  minorities or is it something more?

At its most basic level, advertising is a conversation. A dialogue between brands and consumers, advertising is the transformative vehicle by which commercials become dramas, logos become icons and the products you never heard of, become the partners you couldn’t live without. Yet like any conversation, truly effective, advertising must speak the same language as the consumer. A balance between the artistically excessive and economically pragmatic, advertising must speak to an audience that is defined not by broad labels but by unique experiences.

Today’s global market demands advertisers possess a form of diversity of thought that is on par with the consumer’s. In an age of shrinking budgets and constant competition, diversity of thought will not only set agencies apart but also create work that brings people together. This is the type of diversity that film maker and advertising executive Spike Lee speaks of in his 2009 lecture at The One Club. More than filling quotas or  trying to pander to specific communities, Lee speaks of a diversity that respects the unique qualities of different communities while simultaneously speaking to the common themes that unite us all. This is a process that will not only require change at the ground level but also change at the executive level. So while the makeup of the advertising workforce must better reflect the minority communities they wish to serve,  we must also look for diversity at the highest levels of the institutions as well.