Monthly Archives: May 2011

Swag as a Commodity

Nothing like the beginning of consistent warm weather to bring out my favorite things; basketball shorts and wife beaters on a well defined man. This season has already been off to a great start; with the summer blockbusters on the big screen, the NBA Playoffs on cable, and the brothas on the block, there is an abundance of sheer masculinity everywhere I turn. I’m not complaining… So of course, I couldn’t help but notice the increased presence of men of color; a trend that personally brings nothing but smiles.

What began with the popularity of actors like Will Smith and peaked with the presidential election of Barack Obama, the public perception of the black man has made a great shift in recent years. Gone are the days of the sidekick, the laughable coon, and the magical negro… usher in the HERO. It was a trajectory that can be easily identified in movies; which led to a lot of the commentary following the opening of Fast Five last month, being less about the movie and more about the skin tone of the cast and its lack of the blonde haired, blue eyed action stars people are used to seeing.

One of these things is not like the others....

Where I have noticed the biggest surprise shift was in advertising. I consider myself an astute tv watcher and lover of pop culture my whole life, so commercials and print ads are always something I notice. Just this year alone, the number of black men I’ve seen in ads portrayed in a positive light has been amazing. Even during the NBA playoffs, with a sport that has long been dominated by men of color, the number of brothers getting endorsement deals and major commercial time has increased. I remember growing up when ads simply featured  MJ or Magic, and we were happy.  Now every popular black figure can be found filling commercial time slots.

Today I wanted to share my observations with you and take a walk down memory lane to celebrate the positive acknowledgment of the strength, power, and beauty of the black man. It’s great to see them get their chance to shine.

In the beginning, there was the Cream of Wheat Man, Rastus. I know we all shudder when we see the old ads depicting black men featured in a position of subordination, often talking with the pidgin more akin to African American Vernacular English (that’s the new name for Ebonics in case you missed the its political correction). The black man as the butler, attending to his superiors, who were generally depicted by a white person, even worse when it was a young girl or animal, followed this.

As time progressed and the black population garnered more social status, people started protesting the media portrayal. The new answer became the black man everyone liked to laugh with; the loveable sidekick. Recently this has been revisited with the Bacardi and Cola ads. It sent the message, that they were acceptable in moderation paired with a more dominant Caucasian counterpart if we could be funny.

After the rise of rap and the evolution of the black sports figure as a public figure, the hyper masculinity of black men became the standard. Fulfilling every belief about the Angry Black Male and reinforcing the idea that they should be feared. Depictions of black men as thugs or hardened became the norm. During this period, ads tended to highlight this phenomenon by using popular hip- hop artists as models. The more thugnificent, the better, extra points for hard time and/or bullet wounds. As the urban style, slang, and lifestyle took flight and became more popular, the hypersexual black male became the media darling. Similar to King Kong, they were depicted as a threat to their female counterpart or as oversexed, playboy lotharios. This undermined ideas that they could be faithful, trusted, loving partners.

Amongst all this came Will and MJ, representations our community welcomed with open arms. They were safe, adored, and accepted. Most importantly, they changed the game. While each faced their own media identity struggles, what they overcame was even greater. Will managed to get parts that were not written for blacks and own them. Thus began the movement of the racially ambiguous male model. Mike became a brand on his own and made the lucrative endorsement the norm for black athletes. Athletes were expected to use their personality and physicality to market products based on their athletic prowess. After them, the power balance shifted. We began to see black males making the decision to have some control over how they were depicted. It also became more desired to see them portrayed in a positive light.

With “post- racial” America or the Age of Obama, the black man has been elevated once again. Following our leader, the many traits that were previously countered or downplayed are idolized. Swagger is a commodity. Now, black men are depicted as the cool guy you want to be. He’s got the great job, the impeccable style, and the girl you wish you had.  Mass media has bought into it and it is spreading everywhere.

Gone are the days of the servant, bad boy, and the player and for that I thank black Jesus #seewhatIdidthere. I am happy to pick up a magazine or change a channel and see a depiction more akin to the people I know in my life and I look forward to seeing what is coming next.

Progress has been made.

Hennesey's new ad campaign gets it right.

I’d like to leave you with a few of my favs… just to bring it home of course ;).


Jumping Bigger Hurdles Than Brooms

As a cinephile, I am always excited when a big blockbuster comes out. I take pride in being one of those people that flocks to theaters with the droves of others who take part in the excitement of opening weekend. So on Mother’s Day weekend this year, I got my best friend and made sure to go see Jumping the Broom at the Magic Johnson movie theater. Seeing a black movie at a black theater on a holiday weekend is an experience that goes far beyond the screen, with all the celebration and camaraderie of racial unity and excitement over the shared experience. The theater was packed, I actually had to wait for the next showing, and there were a wide cross-section of people from various age and socio-economic groups. For that moment, I could step back and feel the black pride building in the room.

Two hours later I left the theater satisfied. Jumping the Broom gave me everything I desire from a good movie: it made me laugh, cry, think, and swoon. I thought the casting was great, combining veteran actors known for more serious roles with popular characters who are often there for laughs or eye candy. The script was light and entertaining, but managed to touch on some important themes without trivializing or cartooning the issues that are common within the black community. It addressed the mother-son dynamic of many single parents, interactions between different social classes, love and marriage, and maintaining religious faith in a relationship as best it could with the limits of a two hour running length. To state it simply, it was a movie experience I enjoyed.

Many people I spoke with in the next few days also confessed their satisfaction at the movie for a variety of reasons: the attractiveness of the stars, strength of the message, and performances by the actors. A common theme was an appreciation by many people that T.D. Jakes had executive produced a film that was endearing, funny, and entertaining without resorting to the crass, lowbrow stereotypical humor that tends to be expected of most African American family films. While I was pleased to see a story and situations that depicted a more diverse version of blacks, I expected as much from a Jakes’ production as I had enjoyed his first two films, Woman Thou Art Loosed and Not Easily Broken.

As with most black films, I had never thought to check the movie reviews that Friday to determine if I would make it a priority. I had been sold from the trailers and the ensemble cast of some of my favorite black talent, so earlier this week after hearing such positive buzz all weekend from many of my friends and family, I was shocked to see its slamming by some critics. Especially since I find myself  to be very critical of movies, generally. I stopped and pondered… did the race of the characters and the typically black jokes and interactions become lost in translation?

While I understand that the movie was not a festival hit or in line to be a contender for the next major awards show, it was also not intended for that purpose. In fact, most movies are not; case in point any romantic comedy or summer blockbuster action movie. Every week, many films are released and only a select few are equipped to even anticipate that kind of run. Most moviegoers return each week for one simple reason, to be entertained. So when I read Jumping the Broom’s EOnline Review with a grade of F, not only was I surprised, I was immediately infuriated.

The review went on to label it the worst movie of the year (shocking… they must have missed The Roommate, Big Momma 3, and Red Riding Hood) while totally missing the nuance of the cultural themes and moral undertones about family and relationships. They go ahead to label the family from the upper class as snobs for simply speaking French, declare Mike Epps as always unfunny, and go onto to suggest that such excitement as the addition of Madea would have greatly improved the quality of the film. While I would never expect someone outside the race to fully understand the idiosyncrasies of the black experience, I found this review to be downright appalling and racist. I am disappointed in E! for their failure at promoting diversity and their ethnic insensitivity.

Nothing like a gun toting, cross dressing, mammy to class up a wedding movie... right?

While many other well-known critics gave the movie more favorable reviews, including the unofficial last say, Roger Ebert; what really hurt was the lack of outcry from within the community. Across the Internet, some people were actually agreeing with the review. While constructive critique is always healthy, what shocked me was the lack of pride,4 history and support from within the community for a movie by our own. If we cannot appreciate the work of our own, we cannot expect the same from outside our race.

For so long we have allowed artist and designers of color to fail before they even had a chance to try because we were so harsh on them out the gate. To build a great record takes time and we have to appreciate the positive steps we take forward. Jumping the Broom was one of the steps, so I would like to salute T.D. Jakes and Salim Akil for going against the typical mode and trying to make a film that celebrate and highlights a not so often viewed perspective of the black experience. They are working hard to create quality black films in the harsh Hollywood Environment. After coming in 3rd in the country during opening weekendit stayed in the Top Ten during the second week. That is something we can all be proud to see.

Director Salim Akil on Location

Cast and Crew of Jumping the Broom

Designer Spotlight: Bunmi Koko

Bunmi Olaye is a Nigerian born fashion designer living in the United Kingdom. Her designs caught my attention one day as I was doing my daily runway searches. Being Nigerian myself, I was immediately enraptured by the ‘Ekpo’ that opened her Spring/Summer 2011 show above, but the impeccable clothing and styling that followed are what made me want to share her fashion story with you.

Bunmi Koko was founded in March of 2009 with zeal for innovation in art and fashion. Each piece is handmade with pristine detailing and clean lines. Named Emerging Designer of the Year-International at Africa Fashion Week in 2010,  Bunmi Koko proceeds to be a successful multi-faceted luxury lifestyle company with specialties in women’s fashion and a sister company in artistic illustration. The name, meaning “God gave me my other half”, was inspired by the designer’s first name ‘Bunmi’ (meaning ‘God gave me’ in Yoruba) and the affectionate nickname given by her partner, Francis Udom; “Koko” (meaning ‘my other half’ in Efik), another Nigerian dialect. The distinctive designs of Bunmi Koko are influenced by the Nigerian and Scottish heritage of the two co-creators (Udom’s ancestors are from Scotland).

Francis Udom & Bunmi Olaye of Bunmi Koko, Ltd.

Included in the company’s repertoire is women’s ready-to-wear, couture, bridal & evening wear; with a growing portfolio of products ranging from menswear, kidswear, lingerie, accessories, eyewear, swimwear and footwear and beauty products. The illustration side of the business continues to grow as well creating hand drawn gift cards, book covers, CD covers, movie posters, editorials, advertising, and special projects. Most recently, the designer was asked to offer expert commentary on the royal wedding dress in conjunction with the launch of her new mini-capsule Bridal couture collection. Watch it now below!

Of the many accolades Bunmi Koko has acquired, one in particular stands out for the pair. In July 2010 Bunmi Olaye and Francis Udom received a personal invitation from Nelson Mandela to come to his private home and receive his blessings. “Just talking to him was an awesome and very humbling experience,” Olaye says.

Bunmi Koko pictured with Nelson Mandela at his private home in South Africa

Mel B wearing Bunmi Koko on multiple occasions

First Lady Michelle Obama wearing Bunmi Koko

In just a short time, Bunmi Koko has garnered international press and remains a leading force in African couture fashion. To learn more about Bunmi Koko be sure to visit the website, shop the bridal and couture collections online, become a fan on Facebook, and follow on Twitter @BunmiKoko.

…and please leave a comment below!

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless

The artist in 1976.

In my attempts to experience culture, and be like Stella and get my design groove back, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Target Free Day. In my silent reflection I sat and pondered over many of the pieces and paintings that I bring me back time and time again. What most excited me was the  relatively new Modern Wing. Because it was constructed while I was away for college, I haven’t had many experiences perusing it’s galleries and previously had been more occupied by Renzo Piano’s design execution than the pieces it was created to house. This visit was a whole new experience. I wandered from room to room devouring the Rothko’s and Kandinsky’s.

Then I unexpectedly came upon something that stopped me in my tracks. Mentally… I was speechless… which with me is something of a feat. I was taken aback by a black and white photograph of a black woman sitting at her kitchen table looking as it she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. It struck me a symbolic and iconic. It was just one piece of a series that I spent the better part of the next hour, but the most important thing was the three words on the placard announcing the artist: Carrie Mae Weems.

Feel free to stop and stare as I did.

I came home excited about my art museum discovery and wondering why the name sounded so familiar. Then a few days later a I perused old news blasts from my alma mater I discovered the same name in connection with the arts initiative I had been reading headlines and snippets about for months. This connection excited me to take a second look at the efforts Ms. Weems had been exerting in Syracuse, because its hard to not be curious about a place that was so integral in the last few years of my life. The project, Operation: Activate, seems to have brought a much-needed poignant look at life beyond the hill, as we referred to it when I was there.

The public arts campaign addresses the issues of gun violence plaguing inner cities, focusing on bringing change to Syracuse, NY.  In my research I learned that 98% of the victims of gun violence in the city are ethnic minorities.  It resonated with me both for the countless news stories I witnessed as a college student as well as the violence that is currently afflicting my hometown and many other locales nationally. The initiative uses billboards, signs, placards, and online pictorial campaigns to encapsulate the anguish and terror of those affected by these horrible situations. Like so many of her pieces, Weems’ work in this project personify the expressions and emotions of these experiences offering pointed cultural criticism of the piece of the black experience. Carrie always seems to find the strength or guile to say what no wants to actually say but we were all thinking.  Her in your face pieces make you stop and question the situation at hand.

Weems is no stranger to using her art as a vessel for political messages and this one takes it directly to the streets and away from the high culture walls of world-renowned art museums. Her strength is in  the narrative, telling a story in a still frame and taking you inside the emotions of her subject. This seems to be a great tactic to address issues of violence publicly, because the heart wrenching images force their way into the public realm, creating a community conversation and focusing people on the issues at hand.  In interviews, Ms. Weems has said that her purpose was to have a conversation with the perpetrators as well as encourage members of the community to take action and responsibility for preventing the senseless acts of violence. Part of her goal was to address this national issue, while attempting to stir the waters towards social change in the Syracuse community. For now she has given a voice to many in this city who have yet to be heard and delivered a difficult message that needed desperately to be said.

The artist’s other works can be enjoyed on her website and in her monographs, . For more information on Operation: Activate you can view the Initiative’s Facebook Page: Social Change. Carrie Mae Weems has been a noted photographer and artist for over 25 years and is known for tackling issues of race, gender, politics and class in a variety of mediums. Her projects have been exhibited in many noteworthy galleries like the Whitney Museum of Art, MOMA, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Hues of Gray

While browsing the internet a few weeks ago, I stumbled across an interesting little design blog, A Design State of Mind. It’s most outstanding feature was a post called ‘Hue of the Month’, which highlighted African American Interior Designers and Interior Design Students. I continued to read and become engulfed in my new discovery, but as I started to get carried away, it stopped! SO, after a slight melt down, a quick recovery and a bit more research, I found that this particular blogger has not only continued to give readers ‘Hue of the Month’ BUT has expanded her concept to bring us so much more…

Danielle Gray, received her Bachelors Degree in History as well as Political Science, accompanied by a Masters Degree in Urban Studies, but found herself  in a bit of a dilemma. Danielle knew she no longer wanted to pursue a law degree , as originally intended, but was unsure of what her next move should be. Along a journey to rediscover who she wanted to be when she grew up, Danielle developed an interest in Interior Design; recalling a time in her childhood enjoying drawing and sketching. Interior Design has helped Danielle explore her creativity through the creation of spaces that tell a story. Miss Gray has worked her way through design school, done her fair share of internships and found her way in the industry. This year has brought new beginnings for Danielle with a new blog & the launch of her own design company Gray Living, designing reflections of her clients style, personality and culture.

But the reason I introduce Miss Danielle Gray to you today is to shine a light on her relentless efforts to bring more diversity to the field of Interior Design. In the US, of 850,000 “designers” documented in the census, 4% are African American, of all professional Interior Designers 4.8%; and 4.2% of 40,000 students that enrolled into an Interior Design program, in a span of 2 years, many of these students leaving after only one year. Granted, those figures are considerably better than those of some other design fields, but discouraging none the less.

Earlier I told you about one of Danielle’s efforts to counteract that distressing ratio and charter the awareness of African American Interior Designers with ‘Hue of the Month’, and since it’s debut in May of 2010 it has expanded into Hues In Design. Hues In Design started as a way to give African American Interior Designers and Decorators the opportunity to network and share resources. Based in Washington, DC  Hues In Design is a group that meets once a month to discuss topics associated with Interior Design, such as- client & vendor relations, design associations and trade shows, just to name a few.

The spin off from her blog feature has since established a presence on Facebook, as well as Twitter. As Hues In Design continues to grow Danielle proceeds to bring awareness of Interior Design to the African American, as well as other minority communities; giving them a voice and changing the face of the Interior Design industry, associations and main stream trade publications along the way.

On the first Wednesday of every month at 7pm ET Hues In Design will be hosting a chat on Twitter #huesindesign. Join in on their next Twitter hosted chat on June 1, 2011.