Luvvie does more than make us laugh, though. She’s incredibly insightful, too, as seen in her essay that put into words the anger we all felt after Ferguson. A digital strategist almost as long as she’s been a blogger (12 years), Luvvie recently launched Awesomely Techie to share her insights on all things digital for freelancers, entrepreneurs, or anyone who wants to step their tech game up. She’s also dedicated herself to HIV/AIDS education through her nonprofit Red Pump Project, now in its sixth year, and has plans to write a book and do more public speaking.
Since the 29-year-old has such a way with words, you may be surprised that she didn’t set out to be a humor writer. “I’ve always gotten positive reinforcement about my writing,” she tells mater mea, “but I didn’t even consider it as a career.”
Luvvie tells us how she went from being a psych major on her way to grad school to becoming the voice behind the “best humor blog EVER,” and shares the lessons she’s learned along the way.
Photo credit: Antonio Thompson
DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE IN
ONLINE MEDIA AND SOCIAL MEDIA OR WAS THAT
SOMETHING THAT YOU FELL INTO?
I fell into it. My college degree is in psychology, so this is all kind of by accident. I started blogging in 2003. This was out of peer pressure to do it because my friends all had blogs. They were like, “You should get one, too.”
When I graduated from college, I basically started writing less about myself and my boring college life in undergrad and just started talking about my opinions on pop culture and randomness. My blog took off from there.
YOU STARTED YOUR BLOG IN 2003. WHAT TOOK YOU
OFF OF THE PATH TO LUVVIE AJAYI, PSYCHOLOGIST?
I graduated from college; I had a marketing internship and I loved it. I was doing that and blogging at the same time. I think I just went with the flow of the universe.
My marketing work has always focused around digital. I’ve typically been the person that introduces the organizations that I work for to social media. When I ended up getting laid off in 2010 from my job in the nonprofit space, I basically just moved what I was doing for our clients to doing it for myself [and] for personal clients. I was already doing and teaching social media strategies professionally, so I [thought], I can actually do this as a consulting business.
HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT GETTING YOUR FIRST
I was my first client. Everything that I’ve done—everything that I teach—I’ve done for myself first. People understand that I come with receipts.
I was helping friends out, then they would tell somebody else, and word of mouth really got around for me. My clients would [say], “Oh, I know somebody that can help you with that.”
HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR BLOGGING VOICE?
My blogging voice is me. It’s my voice in real life. It’s how I speak. One of the best things people tell me is, “When I read your blog, I hear your voice.” I basically approach blogging as if I’m speaking to thousands of my best friends. It’s more conversational. I don’t want it to be something that sounds like I’m speaking at them instead of with them. Yeah, it’s my personality. It’s the way I approach life in general.
HOW HAVE YOU GONE ABOUT BUILDING YOUR
My blog really started taking off around 2008, and for sure 2009 was the turning point. I started paying more attention; before I wasn’t really into checking my traffic and I just thought people I actually knew were reading my blog. But people would comment—people I’ve never heard of—and I was like, Wow, I’m actually reaching other people.
Then in 2009 I won the Black Web Blog award [for] most popular humor blog, which really shocked me. I was nominated, but I didn’t think my blog was popular. I started paying more attention. That’s when I started writing more and people started responding.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE FOR SOMEONE
WHO LOOKS TO YOU AND WANTS TO HAVE SIMILAR
SUCCESS WITH THEIR BLOG?
I am not necessarily the best writer. I don’t necessarily think I am the funniest. I think I am where I am today because I was the one that stuck with it. I’ve been very consistent. A lot of people [who] started at the same time I did stopped blogging. So that consistency… It’s just seen results for me.
My integrity has always been a top value for me. If it doesn’t fit well with me or if it doesn’t align with my beliefs, I’m not doing it. People notice that; I’m not the person who’s willing to do anything just because money comes with it. My audience trusts me because of that.
IN THAT VEIN, WHAT ARE SOME PERSONAL BRANDING
TIPS YOU THINK EVERY WOMAN SHOULD KNOW?
Your brand is basically what people expect of you. It’s what they are saying when you are not in the room. Whatever it is you want people to know you [for], whatever it is you want them to consider your signature, you just have to do it regularly. It needs to be done enough to where people can then learn to associate you with it.
So for example, I love the color red. That’s my favorite color, it’s my signature color. People associate me with the color red now. Not only do I have a nonprofit called the Red Pump Project, but red is on every one of my online properties. I wear a lot of red, too. So even something as simple as, say, a color can still be tied socially to you if people can associate that with you enough.
Photo credit: ChuckStr Photo
WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE FOR ANYONE WHO WANTS
TO BE A SELF-EMPLOYED ENTREPRENEUR?
One month you might get a big check, [but] you might be waiting another three months to get your next one. So making sure that you as a business person always operate as a business; that you are not overspending [but] saving the money that you have so when the tide is low and [you’re] still waiting on invoices to be paid, you’re not starving and eating ramen noodles.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN HIV/AIDS
When I was in college I did a project on HIV/AIDS. I was doing research on it and I starting seeing the stats. I didn’t know it was that bad because people didn’t put it out front. People didn’t talk about HIV/AIDS. So when I started doing more research and finding out how it was affecting [our] communities, I was shocked.
So I decided to do the project and make it like an awareness show [to] talk about HIV/AIDS. In the process I met somebody who told me she had 20 cousins who were living with her grandmother in Malawi, Africa because they were orphaned by HIV/AIDS. That, for me, put a personal touch on it. Since then its been at my forefront.
I worked for a black AIDS nonprofit in Chicago. I wanted to do something around HIV/AIDS and red shoes. I approached a friend of mine who had a friend who had just told her that she was HIV positive. From this conversation we decided we should do something. National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day was coming up; that’s March 10 every year. So [in 2009] we sent emails to our blogger friends [saying], “No matter what it is you typically talk about, can you dedicate your blog post to talk about HIV and post a picture of yourself?” And on March 10, 135 bloggers ended up doing this.
Red Pumps became a national nonprofit organization. We still do the Rock the Red Pump campaign, [which encourages women around the world to wear red shoes to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS]. But we also do events in five different communities around the country. Throughout the year we do workshops [and] education. We bring people into spaces that feel comfortable to them, and then we talk about HIV there. We have a fashion show; that’s one of our biggest shows of the year. And we honor a woman who is committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS. So, the red shoes are a great conversation starter and once we get people’s attention we talk about this issue.
WHERE DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU FIT INTO THIS
RENAISSANCE OF BLACK WOMEN’S VOICES IN MEDIA?
Oh my goodness! I love all the black women who are creating such dope art right now, like dope TV, dope books. I’m loving it. I stand on their shoulders. They’re inspiring. They are leading by example. So, like Issa Rae. She inspired me because she created what she did not see. She literally became the change that she wanted to see. That pushes me forward. And I’m like, “Okay. If I don’t see it, I got to write it.”
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR BIGGEST MOMENT AS AN
Maybe when Shonda Rhimes followed me on Twitter. I was like, “Oh my God, Shonda followed me!”
WHAT DO YOU LOVE MOST ABOUT YOUR WORK?
I love that I’m reaching people. That pushes me forward because sometimes you’re working in a vacuum [and] sometimes you might not feel like your work is getting anywhere. But I love the feedback I’ve been getting, when people tell me that I made their day or I made them smile while they are in the waiting room with their mom who has cancer. So, you know, just bringing joy and making people laugh.
A Nairobi-based arts collective has turned testimonials from LGBTQ Kenyans into a film. And with the movie showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmakers have decided to reveal their identities, a move that puts their safety at risk.
Before the civil rights movement, African Americans were largely barred from white-dominated institutions of higher education. And so black Americans, and their white supporters, founded their own schools, which came to be known as Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCU graduates helped launch the civil rights movement, built the black middle class, and staffed the pulpits of black churches and the halls of almost every black primary school before the 1960s. But after desegregation, some people began to ask whether HBCUs had outlived their purpose. Yet for the students who attend them, HBCUs still play a crucial — and unique — role. In this documentary, we hear first-person testimony from students about why they chose an HBCU; and we travel to an HBCU that’s in the process of reinventing itself wholesale.
Zach Hubert came out of slavery with an adage that he would pass on to his children, and his children’s children, and their children down the line.
“Get your education,” he would always say to them when his family gathered together in later years. “It’s the one thing they can’t take away from you.”
Zach Hubert after emancipation, standing with the son of the owner of the plantation where he was enslaved. (Photo courtesy of Leola Hubbard)
Zach grew up a slave on the Hubert plantation in Georgia’s Warren County. Most slaves on the plantation were forbidden to have books, but Zach was the same age as the plantation owner’s son, and the boy taught Zach how to read.
When freedom came to Georgia, Zach and his wife rented a farm and worked until they saved enough money to buy some land. They had 12 children, seven boys and five girls, and Zach set up a school and hired a teacher to educate them.
When they came of age, those children did something that would have been unthinkable for Zach and his peers.
They went to college.
Zach Hubert was born into slavery, but his 12 children all went to college. (Photo courtesy Leola Hubbard)
A paltry handful of traditionally white colleges accepted black applicants in the first part of the 19th century. And three colleges, two in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio, educated mostly black students in the mid-1800s.
But after the Civil War, African American education blossomed. Black ministers and white philanthropists established schools all across the South to educate freed slaves. These schools, more than 100 of which are still open today, became known as historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
“They started in church basements, they started in old schoolhouses, they started in people’s homes,” says Marybeth Gasman, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania who studies HBCUs. “[Former slaves] were hungry for learning … because of course, education had been kept from them.”
Initially, many schools were designed to provide just basic primary and secondary education.
“The prospect was for there to be more teachers, preachers and farmers,” says Jarrett Carter, an HBCU graduate and journalist, who covers black colleges on his website HBCU Digest. “In the years since their establishment, you saw schools that evolved by their own hard work to now you can go be an engineer, a physician, a lawyer, a legislator, a college president.”
In the 1890s the second Morrill Land-Grant Act specified that states using federal higher education funds must provide an education to black students, either by opening the doors of their public universities to African Americans, or by establishing schools specifically to serve them.
Rather than integrate their public institutions, many Southern states created a completely separate set of institutions serving African Americans. Thus were born many of the South’s public black colleges.
“Get your education. It’s the one thing they can’t take away from you.” –Zach Hubert, former slave
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, black colleges thrived. They attracted top black students — the best and the brightest. Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Tuskegee — these schools and others like them trained the lion’s share of the nation’s black doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers and other professionals. “The golden age,” Howard archivist Clifford Muse calls it, because “when segregation was rampant some of the most brilliant black educators had to come to [black colleges] in order to have an opportunity to teach. They couldn’t go any place else.”
Even today, HBCUs may be over-performing in producing certain kinds of graduates. Though black schools represent a tiny percentage of American colleges — around 3 percent of schools – they produce 24 percent of black STEM grads and confer almost 35 percent of all bachelor’s degrees earned by black graduates in astronomy, biology, chemistry, math, and physics. According to a report from the National Science Foundation, eight of the top 10 institutions producing black undergrads who went on to earn science and engineering doctorates were HBCUs.
“If we didn’t have black colleges, we would have almost no African Americans in the sciences,” Gasman says. “We wouldn’t have any in technology. We’d have very, very few black doctors. We’d have very few black dentists, almost no black people in computer science …. We would take a hit in terms of African Americans in all of these different fields. I think that’s not a hit I want to see.”
Which would you rather have: a diploma from St. Paul’s or UVA?
St. Paul’s president Millard “Pete” Stith. The portrait in the background is school founder James Solomon Russell. (Photo: Samara Freemark)
The last president of St. Paul’s College sits down heavily behind his burnished desk. His knee has been acting up; getting in and out of chairs is difficult.
“Each day I walk into this office, I sit behind a desk and I look at stuff,” he says. “I see no reason for it to close. Absolutely no reason.”
Millard “Pete” Stith has a curious job for a college president: not to build his school up, but to dismantle it gently, with as much order and as little destruction as possible.
St. Paul’s College founder James Solomon Russell was born three years before slavery ended. He became an Episcopal priest and came to this rural region of southern Virginia in 1882 to start churches and a school to educate newly freed blacks. Locals warned him that the Ku Klux Klan had torched a similar school in North Carolina and so Russell waited until 1888 to establish St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School.
St. Paul’s trained black students in the trades: brick making and welding for the men, tailoring and home economics for the women. Later it branched into liberal arts education.
But while St. Paul’s survived the ravages of the Ku Klux Klan and rampant discrimination, it couldn’t survive integration.
As traditionally white schools in the area opened their doors to black students, enrollment at St. Paul’s dwindled.
“What diploma do you want hanging on your wall?” Stith asks. “UVA or St. Paul’s?”
St. Paul’s administrators tried to keep up. They built a 500-seat auditorium with a baby grand piano, and a student union with a three-lane bowling alley.
But it wasn’t enough. Enrollment kept falling; debts piled up. The school lost its accreditation, which meant that it was no longer eligible for state or federal financial aid.
St. Paul’s president Millard “Pete” Stith in the school’s Saul building. The building’s power has been cut off. (Photo: Samara Freemark)
In 2013 St. Paul’s graduated about 55 students, and shut its doors. Now the whole campus — 135 acres, 31 buildings, all the furniture, and even the baby grand piano — is up for sale for $2.8 million.
“In 1888 there probably were pockets of slavery still going on and [Russell] founded this school in the midst of all of that,” Stith says. He shakes his head. “He had real threats. And he kept it open. And that’s a shame to bring this great experience to an end. It’s almost criminal.”
In the past three decades, five HBCUs have closed their doors. Many more are on academic probation or have lost their accreditation.
“I would say out of 105, there’s about 15 of them that are in pretty bad trouble,” says Marybeth Gasman. “They’re having a very difficult time.”
Gasman does not like the narrative that HBCUs are doomed. She says, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, that she’s used to people calling her up to ask if “black colleges are at the crossroads.” And she notes that colleges of all kinds are struggling to stay afloat. Higher education can be a brutal marketplace.
But Gasman does think that the headwinds that batter HBCUs are uniquely fierce.
“It’s more volatile for black colleges,” she says. “I think it’s more volatile because they have to deal with racism, people don’t think that they should exist. People start to say, “Why do we need these institutions [when] black people can go to majority institutions?””
Before higher education was desegregated in the 1950s and 60s, almost all black college students enrolled at HBCUs. Today, only about 8 percent of black college students do. It’s important to note, says Gasman, that the number of students at black colleges in the aggregate isn’t dropping. In fact, HBCU enrollment has actually increased slightly since 2000, by about 10 percent.
But in the same time period, African American enrollment across the higher education landscape as a whole increased 80 percent.
A sign announces the auction of St. Paul’s campus. (Photo: Samara Freemark)
“The numbers are still up [at HBCUs], but the type of student is changing,” Gasman says. “Historically black colleges used to have overwhelming numbers of middle class students, highly prepared students, and then their makeup changed. Now you have a big mix. You have affluent students, highly prepared students, you have middle income students, mid range preparation, and you have low income and you have very little preparation.”
Earl Richardson presided over this trend firsthand over the 25 years he served as president of Morgan State University. As historically white institutions came under pressure to enroll black students, “they began to cream off our better students,” he says. “There’s been slippage in the preparedness level of our students on average.”
Lower preparedness levels hurt graduation rates, and graduation rates at historically black colleges are low, averaging just 30 percent. That number is troubling, on its face. But Jarrett Carter says it reflects the type of student that HBCUs often educate: low income, first generation, underprepared.
“You have to give some credit for colleges which are willing to do what secondary schools and systems won’t do,” he says. “Isn’t it interesting that schools that are designed to reverse engineer everything you don’t do from pre-K through 12 and fix that situation are now being regarded as failures?”
It’s a vicious cycle: Poorly prepared students lead to low graduation rates; low graduation rates make state governments and other investors reluctant to inject money into the schools; cash-strapped HBCUs have inferior facilities and underpaid faculty; this gives the impression that they are dysfunctional institutions, and makes lawmakers and alumni more reluctant to invest.
Marybeth Gasman’s research points to a consistent underfunding of public HBCUs by states, which prioritize flagship universities and other traditionally white schools in public systems. In recent years public HBCUs in Maryland, Mississippi and Alabama have sued their states for more equitable funding. And at both public and private HBCUs, donations are much lower than at their traditionally white counterparts. In 2009 the average endowment for public HBCUs was $49.3 million, compared to $87.7 million at public schools in general. For private colleges, the average HBCU endowment was $38 million, compared to $223 million for the sector as a whole.
HBCU Digest founder Jarrett Carter says that HBCUs themselves, founded as they were to provide options to people barred from other schools, were a symptom of racism; their funding situation today is another symptom of the same.
“The only way you cure [the problem] is to make black institutions look like white institutions, and that’s totally uncomfortable for people,” he says. “That’s the fight we’re now having in 2015, and I’m hoping it’s not too late.”
One note of disclosure: Historian Marybeth Gasman, who appears in this story, receives funding from the Lumina Foundation. And so does American Radioworks.
When we envision a cowboy, we think of a Caucasian male figure. Usually the image of Roy Rogers pops up in your head. But what the world fails to recognize is that there were and still are African American cowboys that deserve recognition.
This brief video clip shows how Black and Hispanic culture created the cowboy life. Did you know the word “cowboy” comes from white men calling Black and Hispanic men “boy?”
Coval, Kevin, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall, eds. The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetryin the Age of Hip Hop. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn and Lauri Ramey, eds. Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: An Anthology of InnovativePoetry. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn and Lauri Ramey, eds. What I Say: Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015.
Send us on a mission of tackling difficult w(hole)s by way of revisiting the frames established by Stephen Henderson ( Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, 1972) and Eugene B. Redmond (Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry: A Critical History, 1976).
Forty years ago, Henderson could assume that African Americans shared something in common regarding how they did something in language and listened to music, the language and the music being shaped by profound shared experiences of life in the United States of America ; Redmond could assume, quite legitimately, that a folk spirit hovered “over the whole of Afro-American literary and cultural life —sometimes calling it to its tasks, other times providing it with just the needed lift and magic (16). Forty years later, the frames —mission, speech, music —remain valid as abstractions. It is our use of the frames that has changed dramatically over time; our uses of these frames will always specify our allegiances both ideological and aesthetic. How we deal with the concrete totality of poetry, or with the slippery labels we attach to its manifest fragments, throws violent light on what human beings do not assume in common. If poetry matters in 2015, it matters in concert with “@#life matters.”
In the interim between 1976 and 2001, the first year of a new century, the positioning of new black poetry was admirably represented by
Powell, Kevin and Ras Baraka, eds. In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers. New York: Harlem River Press, 1992.
A Sankofa book, acknowledging fidelity to mission as well as inevitable change in speech and music. To be sure, one could find innovation in this anthology, but innovation was not its primal feature. Historicized unity within diversity was the major concern. A decade later, increased attention to the experimental as a mark of diversity and personal freedom exploded. More overt attention to the individual talent and less to tradition seasoned poetry in the performance spaces of page and stage. New assumptions, quite unlike those of Henderson and Redmond, came into play. Innovation assumed urgency in gestures to promote inclusion in the making of American poetry.
The question “What is innovation?” is not trivial, even if it is asked in our Age of Implacable Terrorisms, but the better question under such conditions is a forking one: “How and why does innovation occur?” Considered as parts of ongoing projects to discover what is “representative,” Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone and What I Say (two units of a whole) complement The BreakBeat Poets. At the same time, the three anthologies prompt our asking why the profound innovation of Asili Ya Nadhiri’s “tonal drawings written in poetic form” is such an interesting absence. Literature, especially poetry, is like light; it is at once wave and particles, artifact (what a poet creates) and event (an unpredictable process involving materiality and sensation for a poet’s audiences). In order to be innovative, it is essential that a work effect conceptual or epistemological difference rather than superficial visual or/and auditory difference. This is how innovation occurs. Why do they occur? Innovations happen because human beings abhor stasis, the boredom of aural or visual static.
The absence of Nadhiri’s tonal drawings, and work by a few other poets who refuse to be properly unorthodox, allows one to suspect that the counter-establishment also has tacit rules of exclusion. Even if that is not the case, the absence does serve to emphasize, yet once again, that any anthology is a limited representation, a sampling that creates grounds for broader explorations.
In the instance of What I Say, the subtitle ” Innovative Poetry by Black Writers in America” places the contributors in a national matrix, whereas the subtitle “An Anthology of Innovative Poetry by African Americans” assigned to Every Goodbye Ain’tGone associates poets with genre, special interest groups among American poets, and technique. Thus, in 2006, Nielsen and Ramey justified their enterprise as “a break from the established disciplinary modes, a break from regnant pecking orders, and a breakthrough”( xxi) for the period 1945 to approximately 1977. What is emphasized is both inter- and intra- dynamics of ignoring and excluding. The justification for What I Say as a continuation of the original project in 2015 is of quite a different order. “One of the crucial contributions of this volume, then,” according to Nielsen and Ramey, “will be to provide a much broader context for understanding the poetic innovations of the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, permitting readers to map the independent routes by which various poets reached their particular modes of aesthetic experimentation “(xiv). It is most strategic that they did not write the introduction about independent routes but gave that task to C. S. Giscombe, who fulfilled it with “Making Book: Winners, Losers, Poetry, Anthologies, and the Color Line,” his 2007 MLA presentation for a panel on “Poetry, Race, Aesthetics.” I urge readers to scrutinize Giscombe’s introduction to discover what is currently the price of inclusion.
It is noteworthy that The BreakBeat Poets anthology represents a bolder taking of risks than does What ISay, primarily because it seems to return with maximum energy to the mapping of cultural utterances made in the Powell and Baraka anthology; one might have discovered follow-though mappings in
Medina, Tony and Louis Reyes Rivera, eds. Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
Medina, Tony, Samiya A. Bashir, and Quraysh Ali Lansana, eds. Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.
Rivera, Louis Reyes and Bruce George, eds. The Bandana Republic: A Literary Anthology by GangMembers and Their Affiliates. Brooklyn, NY: Soft Skull Press, 2008.
Given that Douglas Kearney has work on pages 86-92 of What I Say and pages 117-126 of The BreakBeatPoets, it seems apparent that innovation as innovation simply ignores the artificial boundaries that literary discourses have not completely abandoned and re-valorizes William Melvin Kelley’s message that Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970). One expects nothing more and nothing less from a book which represents “New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop.” Although neo-capitalism has co-opted and reductively “objectified” many aspects of hip-hop, it has failed to eradicate the ancient collective spirit Eugene B. Redmond alluded to in Drumvoices or the referential power of speech and music Henderson evoked in Understanding the New Black Poetry. The work collected in this anthology is nothing short of mind-blasting; it is an arsenal of aesthetic weaponry for the creation of new verbal and visual orders in this world. It does not disappoint in effecting Kevin Coval’s hope that the book is “a piece of the growing discourse on how art can be used to create a fresher world, a useful tool to further and extend and generate conversations in classrooms and ciphers, on the corner, in living rooms, in institutions, and in the renegade spaces young people carve out for themselves despite state control….This is a prayer book and a shank, concrete realism and abstracted futurism” (xxii).
Through the conduit of innovations,ashé complementsamen! If poetry matters in 2015, it matters in concert with “@#life matters.”
In 2012, Issa Rae, the American actress and writer, debuted her web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl (also known as ABG), equal satire and romantic comedy. Over two seasons, Rae almost single-handedly built her army of 200,000 loyal Youtube followers (using cunning grass-roots social media strategies) and millions of viewers in a relatively short space of time. Part of ABG’s appeal, was that the show was a breath of fresh air in an era that offered very little in terms of African American television; it revolved around “a quirky, misanthropic main character, like Liz Lemon but with more melanin.” ABG struck a chord with viewers around the world (Rae’s global appeal may also be sourced to her own background: Her father is Senegalese—her mother is African American—and she spent part of her childhood in Dakar.)
In a recent profile in The New York Times Magazine, Issa Rae expressed her frustration with the snail-pace of television. Two years ago HBO hired her to create a pilot. That pilot, Insecure, finally wrapped shooting last week after what seemed like an eternity of development. Luckily she hadn’t slowed down and has continued to put out a steady stream of content, mostly made by others, out on her Youtube platform (she’s sorta morphed into a Shonda Rhimes of web series). She also wrote a memoir, also called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, that became a hit and made the New York Times’ bestseller list.
From mid-2013 to mid-2014, I lived in Los Angeles and shot this short documentary as my University of Southern California thesis project, Awkward is the New Black, about Rae. In the film, I explore the journey of Rae’s web series, highlighting in particular how ABG (which started as a zero-budget exercise amongst friends)remedied the lack of complex representation of black characters on screen; and eventually became appointment viewing with the backing of Pharrell Williams. Without the gatekeepers of traditional TV, Rae was able to let her true voice flourish, and walked right into the gap that the big broadcast networks had left wide open. The documentary is a celebration of the series, and also a challenge to indie filmmakers to fully use the digital tools literally at their fingertips, so often taken for granted.
++++++++++++ Dylan Valley – My DVDs weigh a ton. Capetonian in Johannesburg. Also Film and Video Editor at Africa is a Country.
Grace Jones performs at the On Blackheath festival in London last year. Photograph: Warren King/Rex Features
Grace Jones is not a diva. She says so in her new memoir, entitled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs, drawling to her friend Kate Moss, “I am not a diva, I am a Jones,” and tells me that she loathes the word. “Diva is so overused. Diva, icons, the whole thing, legends… To be a diva, what is that?”
Jones is happy to own her past misbehaviour, such as her infamous chatshow slapping of Russell Harty in 1981. “I still laugh about that, but I was seriously upset by him ignoring me. What I really wanted to do was tilt him over in his chair. But I thought, you’re gonna end up in jail, you’re gonna break his neck, you’re gonna kill him on air!” At the same time, Jones doesn’t want to be defined by such incidents, turned into some kind of avant garde pantomime dame. “I don’t want to be a cartoon. I hate that.”
We meet to talk at a London riverside restaurant. I’m resigned to the high probability of Jones being incredibly late (lateness is one of her “things”), but (hallelujah!) she’s on time-ish (less than an hour late) and apologises profusely for this minor tardiness. A secluded table is adorned with a white tablecloth and wine in an ice bucket, and there’s that expectant bustle you only get with really famous people. Jones is dressed in a black flying suit and airman’s hat, and there are no signs of diva behaviour, unless you count the occasional coquettish eye-slide or languorous drawl. She’s friendly and warm, chatting easily in her hybrid Jamaican/ transatlantic/ Eurotrash accent, frequently letting rip with her extraordinary full-throated laugh.
Grace Jones performs at the British Summertime festival in Hyde Park last summer. Photograph: Neil Lupin/Redferns via Getty Images
Makeup free, with those signature geometric cheekbones, she looks astonishingly youthful for the 67 years she refuses to definitively confirm in the book (her age slides around all over the place). She puts her youthful looks down to the fact that she “doesn’t believe in time”. “People stress too much about ageing and that makes them age.” She has an anti-plastic surgery rant in the book and insists that she hasn’t had anything done. “Jerry [Hall, a friend from her early modelling days in Paris] looks at me and says, ‘How come you haven’t got no lines?’ And sometimes I go on TV and notice the camera is going back behind my ear!” They’re trying to spot scars? “Yes. I can’t even stand needles – can you imagine a knife?”
The memoir (as told to Paul Morley) took almost two years to produce. The title was taken from a lyric from a song, Art Groupie, which Jones wrote after a fight with her then lover, French artist Jean-Paul Goude (the father of her only child, son Paulo), with whom she collaborated on some of her most famous images (including her face shattered into elongated pieces, her eyes blazing alien-yellow, her leg tilted back at an impossible angle). Jones has a sense of humour about changing her mind about doing a memoir. (The acknowledgements section is titled I’ll Never Write My Acknowledgements). “I thought if I didn’t write the book, somebody else would. And if I’m going to do it, I’m going to give them one hell of a book.”
The memoir is a blast – a candid, funny, occasionally surreal antidote to the tediously safe and neutered modern autobiographies we are used to. It encompasses Jones’s traumatic Jamaican childhood; emigration to America; early days of modelling (with Hall and Jessica Lange); being a fashion muse for everyone from Issey Miyake to Jean Paul Gaultier; music (the early disco years, the renowned Compass Point sessions, Slave to the Rhythm, Hurricane, and more); visual art collaborations (Goude, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, and others); and the somewhat patchy Hollywood career, including the James Bond film, A View to a Kill (Jones blames Goude for talking her out of doing Blade Runner). There is also some quite magnificent socialising, including being part of the inner circle at the Factory, and fabled New York nightclub Studio 54 (Jones was a close confidante of Warhol, and drops celebrity names as nonchalantly as sweet wrappers).
Along the way there are meditations on art, ambition, motherhood, love, sex, drugs, racism, sexism, money, decadence, success, failure, cruelty, fear and grief (when Aids devastated Jones’s social circle). There’s also an “open letter” chapter directed at younger female stars (the likes of Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj), with Jones giving them the benefit of her wisdom (this is putting it politely – it’s a bit of a ticking off). More of which anon.
Well, I say, your memoir certainly has a lot in it. “Yes, and there’s still lots NOT in it!” says Jones. She didn’t want the book to explain her fully. “I like the mystery of me.”
Beverly Grace Jones was born into a large religious/political family in Spanish Town, Jamaica. Before she and her sundry siblings joined their parents emigrating to Syracuse, New York, they stayed with her grandmother and step-grandfather, Mas P (Mas – short for “Master”), who meted out ferocious religious discipline, psychological and physical. It’s a harrowing story – Mas P obliterated their childhood. “I had no childhood, I’m having it now.” Does she view herself as an abuse survivor? “Absolutely.”
One of her brothers, Noel, became a bishop, but Jones does not follow religion conventionally. “I believe in God, everything I see is part of God, but not in that way.” Still, even during the riotous hedonism of the Studio 54 era, Mas P’s fear of God remained hammered into her. “And all the guilt about sex, that whole thing,” says Jones. Her eyes narrow playfully: “I’m a hard woman to come, know what I’m saying? A very hard woman to come… and I’m not going to pretend.” She lets out one of her great roars of laughter. “I’m going to write a song about it. ‘Come, already, just come!’”
There’s a lot of sex in the memoir (awakenings, “love-ins”, disastrous threesomes). “They were different times, people just loving each other – pouring out love.” Jones thinks that society is repressed. “People would rather do violence than talk about sex. You see it everywhere in the world.” But she refused to go down the casting couch route. “I’m my own sugar daddy,” she says. “A lot of women were put into that situation, but I was a tiger. GRRRAAAAH!” She does a clawing growling motion. “I was just not into selling my soul. I couldn’t have lived with myself, I’d be so unhappy. I probably would have killed myself.”
Then there were the drugs. You’re barely a few pages into the memoir before she’s puffing on something strong in the grounds of the Jamaican villa belonging to her friend, and the Island Records founder, Chris Blackwell. At her hedonistic peak, Jones threw wild parties with different drugs and moods for each room.
You say in the book – you didn’t care what your guests did so long as they didn’t die? “Exactly. You do hear about that – can you imagine? It would be just awful karma to throw a party and have somebody die there.”
Grace Jones at New York’s Studio 54 nightclub in 1978. Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage
Jones might be too frank about drugs for some people, though she makes a distinction between her kind of experimental/mind-expanding drug use, and drug abuse. She took acid (“A super trip pill”) for three days under medical supervision in a commune. She did ecstasy for the first time with, among others, psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. “It was unbelievable for sex. And not just for sex, just for touching yourself.” She grabs her arms. “You know, ‘Oooh, that feels nice, ooooh, love, love.’”
She also experimented with heroin, but wouldn’t inject because of her hatred of needles. “So you chase the dragon, smoke a little bit, but I couldn’t move! I saw what all the fuss was about – it makes you go all warm and super lazy. If I was a lazy person, I’d probably go, yeah, this is the way to go. But I’m too active. And I was throwing up all the time and I hate throwing up.”
Jones says she was never really into cocaine and couldn’t understand how she ended up with a “coke fiend” reputation. “As soon as I went to the toilet in Paris, there would be a line of people following me!”
In the memoir, you say that you’d rather put cocaine up your bum than your nose. “Yeah, totally. It just made the whole area very sensual.” Did you do that quite often? “No, I don’t think one could do that quite often. Obviously there is something in there that would eat away…” She does scrunching actions with her hand. You mean, the same as when people rot their septums? “Yeah, absolutely. So you do it that way once or twice to try it, and that’s it.”
How did Jones avoid becoming a drug casualty? “I was lucky. I always say, God was watching me, someone up there was looking after me.” And you’re not an addictive personality? “No. The only thing I love is really good wine.” Should drugs be legalised? “Certain drugs should be. But for the addictive personality, they’re going to find it anyway, right?”
The memoir describes the racism Jones encountered as a young model in New York and Paris. She had a heated row with the late John Casablancas (founder of the Elite model agency) about the idea (still shamefully prevalent today) that there was only room for one big black model at a time – and that was Beverly Johnson, during this period. Dating white men (including Goude, actor Dolph Lundgren, and Hurricane producer Ivor Guest) also brought Jones criticism from sections of the black community. A female editor at Essence magazine told her that if she hadn’t starred in A View to a Kill, she would never have appeared on the cover because of her white partners. “Now she is with a white guy. It’s almost like someone has to break that door down for everyone else to go through.”
Jones says that one of her grandmothers was half-Scottish and looked white, and her own granddaughter is a blue-eyed redhead. “You see something like that and you realise that the world is pretty fucked up to put so much importance on that.” Obviously it’s a fraught, complex subject – I suppose very simplistically the feeling was that black people should stick together for solidarity? “Human beings should stick together,” retorts Jones. “Honestly, if I see a red-haired person with blue eyes now, I say, is your granny black?”
Right now, her personal life sounds complicated. There’s a new “man in Jamaica” that Jones is uncharacteristically coy about. She says it’s untrue that she married the late music producer Chris Stanley (who she claims was murdered in Jamaica). And she can’t find her actual husband (former bodyguard Atila Altaunbay, who she married in 1996) to divorce him. “Although we are divorced in our view.”
Jones seems to have remained on good terms with Goude, even though their relationship sounded extremely fiery and mutually dysfunctional – at times both of them provoking each other to violence. Jones couldn’t care less about political correctness. When I try to be delicate, and say I’m sure she didn’t provoke Goude as such, and that it wouldn’t have mattered even if she had, as it was up to him to control his reaction – she says cheerfully: “Oh, I did provoke him. Absolutely! I provoked him to get his attention.” In the memoir, Jones says that she felt that she had to be “perfect” for Goude – wasn’t that a burden? “I took it on as a burden because I loved him so much – I should have just said ‘Fuck you!’”
I tell Jones that I flinched reading about her doing pushups straight after birth to prove a point to Goude (she also went water-skiing with Blackwell). “I’m an athlete. I didn’t want to be the stereotype of when a woman has a child and it’s an excuse to get out of shape.” But she’d just given birth – if ever there was a time for a woman not to have to prove that she’s some “hot superwoman”. Jones says that pressure came mainly from herself – not least because she had a tour to do. “I wanted to be a ‘jungle mom’, where you’re giving birth and getting up and doing things straightaway.” In the memoir, she’s honest about being relieved to have a son because of how women were treated as inferior. Does she worry about her granddaughter now? Jones’s eyes glint: “No, I’m teaching her to be tough.”
Jones addresses sexism in the book, particularly regarding an incident in the mid-1980s, where she says that Capitol Records sabotaged her first-time directing of the video for the song I’m Not Perfect, pronouncing her unstable. Jones claims they even tried to get her sectioned. “The same old caveman shit,” writes Jones. She believes that all men should be penetrated at least once to know how it feels. What does she think they’d learn from it? “How to be vulnerable in a situation. I think you learn to be more gentle.” Not a sex thing, a power thing? “Exactly!”
Anyone reading the memoir hoping for confirmation that Jones’s song Pull Up To The Bumper relates to anal sex is going to be disappointed (“If you think the song is not about parking a car, shame on you,” writes Jones, teasingly). She’s one of those artists that seem deeply, organically bonded with the LGBT community. “Absolutely,” she smiles. “But they can probably turn on a dime too – I could easily piss them off.”
Jones has frequently adopted an androgynous image, and often refers to “feeling male” – what does she make of transgender reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner? “I can totally understand it. Sometimes I wish I had a dick too – just to know what it felt like. But I don’t have these awful crises.” Jones says, for her, feeling male was more a combination of growing up among brothers and rebelling against Mas P’s domination. Does she feel sympathy for Jenner? “No, I feel – finally you did what you wanted to do, and that’s great.”
She was less impressed when Goude photographed Kim Kardashian last year in a recreation of a celebrated image he took of model Carolina Beaumont in 1976, of her balancing a champagne glass on her posterior: “I understood his reasons. Kanye [West] was obsessed with Jean-Paul’s work, and would have done it anyway, so Jean-Paul might as well copy himself, and get it right.” But? “Personally, I would not have done it.”
At heart, Jones still seems to be a diehard “art groupie”, and follows her own code of integrity. For her, there’s a difference between straightforward commercial paydays and “selling out”. On the one hand, she has a steely reputation for refusing to turn up for any job (festival/gig/endorsement/appearance) until she’s been paid. (“Why are they holding on to your money?” she exclaims, not unreasonably. “I’m like, No that’s my money!”). On the other, she didn’t think twice about turning down The X Factor. “My agents get very frustrated with me. But there are certain things I’ll watch, and think, ‘Oh God, I really don’t like that, so why would I do it for money?’”
In the memoir, this manifests in Jones’s recurring fear of “Vegas” – not so much the place as the concept, being forced to behave and conform, in a demure wig and long sparkling gown. It’s her vision of creative death. These days of course the opposite happens in the music industry – females are generally called upon to “misbehave”/“act up”/“sex up”, whether they like it or not.
Her controversial chapter on younger female stars serves as a kind of “perils of fame” workshop. Jones positions herself as a sage elder counselling Gaga, Cyrus, Rihanna, Minaj, and others, about not overdoing sexuality and controversy, but she takes a few other swipes as well. She seems particularly infuriated about being copied by those who profess to revere her.
You end up feeling a bit sorry for Gaga (rebranded in the memoir as “Doris”), whose appeal to work with Jones was publicly rebuffed. Jones appears to be basically saying that Gaga isn’t up to scratch. “I’m basically saying, show me something that wows me – that makes me go, this is amazing, I’d love to work with you.” Jones also became upset with Gaga when milliner Philip Treacy made her the same hat that Jones was using on tour, only in a different colour. It felt disrespectful, vampire-like? “Yeah, I mean, come on, how can you do that? I’m still on tour with this, do something else!’’
“I’m disappointed in them,” she says of the young female performers she addresses. “I would like to see some originality. You listen to a record and you can’t tell who is singing, because they’re all the same, in the same key. It annoys me, but I still don’t give up on them. I think, well, maybe you’re going to find yourself, maybe not now, maybe not in 10 years, but maybe later. I like to believe that.
“I had to find my own voice. When I started out, they had me singing too high, so I had to find my real voice, and I have a DEEP voice. So I dropped it, and everybody thought I was a man.” You have that in common with Gaga – she was accused of being a man too. “Oh really? She doesn’t sing as deeply as I do, darling!”
What about Taylor Swift, who took on iTunes for their unfair treatment of artists, and Minaj who addressed racial bias in the music industry? On the latter issue, Jones shakes her head sadly: “That’s never going to go away – there are just demons there.” Her advice is to put your message into your music. “Normally I stay away from politics – unless I’m going to run for president.”
Would any of the current crop of female artists have appealed to Andy Warhol? Jones smiles fondly. “Absolutely. He’d have been, ‘Gaga, she’s great, Rihanna is great!’ Andy would have loved everybody! That’s what I loved about Andy.”
Suddenly, Jones’s phone goes off. “Leave me alone!” she yells at it, but in good humour. Her people are starting to hover now; the interview time is nearly up. So far as the future is concerned, Jones is involved with several intriguing-sounding projects, including Bjorn Tagemose’s silent movie projectGutterdämmerung (involving Iggy Pop, Lemmy, and Henry Rollins), a film with Sophie Fiennes (featuring Jones’s bishop brother, Noel), a longstanding venture with acclaimed video artist Chris Cunningham, and a new album with Guest (that may be her last).
If Jones gets time to relax, she’ll be watching tennis (she adores Rafael Nadal), doing complicated jigsaw puzzles, or unwinding in Jamaica, with which she reconnected after her devastating childhood. Her main priority is just to keep moving forward. “I like new challenges. If I don’t have that, I’m bored. I’d rather go and learn how to build a house!”
Before she leaves, I ask her – what does she think helped her survive all those years in worlds that have chewed other people up? “Again, it’s that thing of selling your soul – that would chew you up. I can’t be bought and people hate that. Everybody has their price – but not me.”
1948 Born in Spanish Town, Jamaica. The daughter of a politician-cum-Pentecostal cleric, she attends church three times a week and is raised mainly by her grandmother and (allegedly abusive) step-grandfather, Mas P.
1961 Jones and her siblings leave Jamaica to join their parents in Syracuse, New York. She graduates high school and enrols at a local college as a Spanish major, but is persuaded by a drama professor “who thought I had a voice” into dropping out of university to work with him on a play in Philadelphia.
1966 Moves back to New York and is signed to Wilhelmina Models, but continues to audition for acting parts. Finding she doesn’t have the “black American sound” sought by casting directors, she tires of New York and moves to Paris after three months. Teased at school for her “skinny frame”, her angular androgyny is well received in the modelling world, and she appears on the covers of Vogue and Stern. She befriends fellow models Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.
1977 Signs with Island Records. Her first album, Portfolio, is not a hit in the US (reaching 109 on the Billboard album chart), but climbs to No 10 in Italy and the Netherlands.
1981Nightclubbing, widely considered her best studio album, is released. The album moves the singer away from increasingly unfashionable disco towards new wave, reggae and pop.
1982 Jones selects tracks for One Man Show, a 47-minute performance artwork devised with her lover, the photographer Jean-Paul Goude. Starring Jones alongside a cast of lookalikes, the video is nominated for a Grammy.
1984 Stars with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Destroyer and is nominated for a Saturn award. She is nominated again the following year for her “scene stealing relish” in James Bond film A View to a Kill.
1985Island Life, her first compilation, is released. Its famous cover photo is manipulated to depict Jones in an anatomically impossible position. Nicki Minaj will mimic the pose in her 2011 video for Stupid Hoe.
2008 Jones releases Hurricane, her first studio album in 19 years, after having claimed she would “never do an album again”. She releases a dub version of the album three years later, to critical acclaim.
2015 Collaborates on the contrarily titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs (a promise she made in the 1981 song Art Groupie), saying if she didn’t write it “someone else would”. —Rivkah Brown
Dzanc Books is pleased to announce submissions are open for our second annual Non-Fiction Award. All authors with a non-fiction manuscript are eligible. Subjects may include but are not limited to memoir, political, historical, biographical, and will be vetted by our Dzanc Books editors.
The contest deadline is December 31, 2015
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The winning manuscript will be selected by February 2016 and the title will be published in 2017. It will go through our full editing process and the author will receive a $1000 advance.
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