During the inaugural REVOLT WORLD in Atlanta, Georgia, a power-packed trio of media executives spoke about the importance of funding and supporting Black media.
On Sunday (Sept. 24), REVOLT CEO Detavio Samuels hosted a fireside chat with Caroline Wanga, chief executive ofﬁcer (CEO) of ESSENCE, and Jason Lee, founder of Hollywood Unlocked, to discuss the reason Black voices need to be at the forefront of storytelling when it comes to sharing the many facets of Black culture.
As Forbes reported in April, the majority of media companies in America are still white-owned and they control the news that is broadcasted. What society watches and reads heavily shapes people’s perspectives. Lee kicked off the conversation by sharing how he’s able to challenge the C-suite execs at major corporations that leech off the culture for an agenda that only benefits them.
“The reason why Black-owned media and Black voices in media are important is because a lot of the culture’s been co-opted by whiteness and it’s driven by people who want to use the hot sauce to sell s**t that we don’t really need,” “The Jason Lee Show” host said. “So, when you have people like me who’s a free thinker, who’s not bound or obligated to the ecosystem of bulls**t, I can come in and say, ‘Nah, that ain’t right. You just want Black people who are cool to wear your s**t. We not doing that,’ or ‘You’re not doing this or not doing that,’ or ‘Why aren’t investing in Black?’”
He continued, “And I think when you look at models like ESSENCE or you see what Detavio and Puff have done with REVOLT, you know that it’s possible for people like me to come up and start a company from Instagram and then be able to do it in a way that gets to a $50 million evaluation without selling the keys to the people that really don’t care about the culture.”
To dive more into the economic side of the media business, Wanga talked about the importance of Black media companies ensuring that they’re engaging in mutually beneficial partnerships that invest in Black consumers.
“This isn’t about only Black people can partake in Black media; Can participate in Black culture…it can be for all. But, you need to return the full value to the group that creates it. The problem with Black-targeted versus Black-owned is Black-targeted doesn’t return back to Black,” she explained. “Every dollar you give VH1, BET…all of those dollars that go to non-Black-owned media companies do not come back to our community, do not create Black generational wealth, do not create a reality where economic inclusion is a human right. Those dollars go back to someone else.”
“Everybody can participate in Black culture, but you must pay for it at its full value and you must pay the culture that develops it. We have a saying at ESSENCE that was started by one of our partners that is very simple, ‘The revolution must be financed at full value, not discounts,'” Wanga added.
To nail the point on the head, Samuels asked the McDonald’s diversity marketing advisory council member to disclose how much ESSENCE Ventures has made and been able to reinvest back into the culture.
“ESSENCE Festival of Culture has existed. It will be its 30th year next year. The total economic impact, not even just to Black, back to New Orleans since its beginning, $4.4 billion. $4.4 billion of economic impact back to the state of Louisiana for the largest festival in the country by per day attendance,” she answered.
Lee chimed in: “And you know what’s amazing about that number [is] when you think about the fact that if you go all the way back to our history, how did they keep slaves enslaved? By not giving them books, by not educating, by not giving them access to information. When you think about how all of you out here are consumers, you’re the people that every single brand you know is targeting to spend your money.”
This led Lee to tell a story about the time he worked with rapper and fashion mogul Kanye West when he had a partnership with Adidas. The show host revealed that although the Yeezy creator made $3 billion, the fashion brand hadn’t done much to invest in the community that it was profiting the most from because Lee felt “anybody that looks like me that makes you that much money you should be returning. Pouring back into our community.”
Wanga added context to this by giving an inside look at how ESSENCE handles their partnerships for their annual festival.
“Our role is not just to bring money in via that festival and give it back to the community. What we also do with our presenting sponsors and others, something that rhymes with oh, oh, oh-la, is we not only have a sponsorship level with them, but within most of the contracts we have with our highest-level sponsors, we require that they hire Black businesses for how they show up at the festival ‘cause if all they do is sponsor but the people that come and do their activation, the talent that they bring in…if all of that is not Black-owned, then the Black dollar stops at the point that it comes to ESSENCE,” she told the audience.
“But when we say, ‘If you’re going to build an activation, you need to use a Black agency. If you’re gonna create any sort of creative, you need to use a Black agency.’ We don’t tell them which agency to use, we tell them what dollar amount. So, if you want to put your name on the highest, biggest festival in the country, then you gotta also commit to a certain amount of money of your activations going to additional Black business or you can’t have this slot. And so it’s bigger than just the moment of the company.”
In addition to this, the power of alliance was a key component of Samuels, Wanga and Lee’s conversation when speaking about ensuring businesses that want to team up with Black media companies diversify their investment because there is enough money to go around.
“That’s the thing I always try to do when I create a space is make sure I share it with everybody. The Shade Room, Baller Alert… I’m not competing with none of them. Baller Alert doing their thing, The Shade Room doing their thing, Hollywood Unlocked is doing their thing,” Lee said to the crowd. “But ultimately, if I’m the only one getting it, I’m just as much a part of the problem as the people that aren’t giving it to us that don’t look like us. And so, I think to much whom is given, much is required.”
Wanga added in agreement: “This is really critical point y’all because we’ve all been in this situation whether we’ve discussed it or not. There is a belief with those organizations that want to be a part of our culture based on what we offer and they tell us we gotta pick one of us. So, if we pick REVOLT, we can’t do Hollywood Unlocked. If you do ESSENCE, you can’t do the one that rhymes with uh-bony…there can only be one. That’s a lie from the pit of hell, y’all. And that is a way we watch the capital industrial complex continue to keep us separated by lying to us to tell us there’s only enough for one Black check.”
The Black dollar is powerful as the community has the most spending power, so another topic was the Black community’s ability support Black media with its spending. Wanga gave a prime example when detailing how Richelieu Dennis acquired ESSENCE from Time Warner because of the consumers who purchased Shea Moisture.
“Let me tell you a story about what your dollar does. ESSENCE is currently owned by Rich Lou Dennis and the Dennis family. They are a family who bought ESSENCE back from Time Warner so that it goes back into Black ownership. Do you know how they were able to do that? Raise your hand if you know the Shea Moisture brand. Raise your hand if you’ve been buying Shea Moisture products for more than five years,” she requested of the people listening to the panel. “So, let me tell you why you created the moment that Rich Lou Dennis could buy ESSENCE. Because your purchase of Shea Moisture product created a humongous body care company that was big enough to be sold to an even bigger general market company, Unilever, that created a return to a Black man that turned around and put a Black media company back into Black ownership. You did that.”
Closing out the conversation, Samuels touched on the media being a reflection of people’s stories and the objective of the Black media, along with the Black community, being to put out and keep positive narratives on display.
“Media is simply mirrors and windows. It is a mirror for those people who the story is about. It is a mirror that shows them who they are. It tells them what they’re capable of, it tells them where they come from, and it tells them who they get to be. Imagine that you’ve been living in a world from the entire time that you were born where the mirrors are funky,” the REVOLT CEO said. “You know those circus mirrors, that when you stand in front of them, it looks all weird and funky? That’s what y’all have been getting because the people that have been feeding you content don’t care about your community, aren’t pouring into your community and…don’t understand your community.”
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