From writer, director and content producer Nnegest Likké.
Nnegest Likké / Photo Credit: Nnegest Likké
Dear Fellow Black Artists,
What does “Black lives matter” mean to you?
Beyond wanting an immediate and final end to the years of police brutality and systemic racism we’ve faced, what other areas of our lives does that powerful slogan apply?
We all know our painful, 400 plus year history in America. And despite progress, won in the ‘60s by our fearless Civil Rights heroes, we are still not free. We gained the right to integrate, but we lost something much more valuable.
Forced segregation was wrong and immoral, but it necessitated us doing business with each other. To buy our own brands, patronize our own stores, invest in our own banks and build our own communal wealth. Before they were destroyed by acts of violent and vicious racism, we had Black-run oasis towns such as Tulsa, Jackson Ward and Rosewood, among others around the country.
Though oppressed and segregated and barely up from slavery, we had a number of thriving Black communities and were striving to build more economic power bases for ourselves.
Our 93 year-young elder, activist Harry Belafonte, said that midway through the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King realized that the struggle for integration would ultimately become a struggle for economic rights. To Dr. King’s statement that he had “integrated Black people into a burning house,” Mr. Belafonte asked what we should do. And King replied, “Become the firemen.”
Five decades later, in 2020, the house is still burning and Black people need a way out.
Dr. King acknowledged even back then that reparations is what is needed and what is owed.
But this letter is about what we can do now to empower ourselves as we continue forward in the fight for social justice, economic equality and freedom from systemic oppression in this country.
I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. King that we must become the firemen and save ourselves.
We can no longer (and never could) rely on an institutionally racist system, run by the very perpetrators of our enslavement and oppression, to “save us” and give us justice and equality. Our survival and livelihood must now, and always did, depend on us.
After slavery, we had to start from scratch. We never got our promised 40 acres and a mule. And instead of inheriting generational wealth like many whites did, we inherited generational poverty and trauma that we are still struggling with because we’ve never been made whole.
But our spirits remain strong! So strong that our oppressor has found ways to capitalize on it and become rich off our amazing talents, gifts, skills and abilities — while we stay poor. We gifted the world our culture and soul, music and art. We excel at and master every activity we participate in, not to mention sports.
We are the salt of the earth. Without us, this world would be bland and colorless. (No pun intended.)
If America was ever “great,” it is we who made it great. #Facts!
So, in the spirit of “Black lives matter,” I would like to propose that all of us Black artists, celebrities, actors, writers, directors, filmmakers, musicians, content producers, influencers, etc., build a network of mutual support among each other.
Too many of us find ourselves isolated, alienated and alone, and fall through the cracks, working in an institutionally racist industry that we don't control and have zero decision making power in.
Some of us have “made it” and become rich as individuals, but collectively we are in poverty. We have no communal or collective wealth.
The word “Black Hollywood” has no economic meaning whatsoever. We can’t go to each other and be like, “such-and-such studios or record company didn’t put me on, so can you put me on?” The answer is no.
If one of us is blackballed in the industry, we can’t even help each other out for fear of being blackballed ourselves. So there isn’t a “Black Hollywood.” There are only Black people *working in Hollywood.
Tyler Perry is the exception. He is a genius businessman and an example of what can be accomplished when we support our own. But as a group, we don't have any greenlight power or run any major studios or theater chains or distribution companies. And until that changes, we will always be in the inferior position of receiving a paycheck rather than issuing one.
It’s the same in the music and sports industries. We dominate those industries as the players and performers, but we don’t own any of it.
While our Black celebrities and athletes make millions off endorsement deals, the non- black companies they lend their names to make billions off of them. Certainly, those celebrities can be making those billions for themselves, and for our communities if they owned the products they were endorsing.
I don’t need to mention any brand names — they are famous enough. But well-known clothing lines, athletic shoe companies, coffee shops and designer handbags all have made a killing by using our celebrities’ names to sell their products.
Rappers alone have made alcohol brands and fashion designers famous by mentioning them in their songs. Meanwhile, the companies who own those alcohol brands and fashion lines make billions from the free advertising.
In total, our talents, skills and services are making racist and non-Black owned companies trillions, while we are going deeper and deeper into poverty as a people.
Meanwhile, the industries we work in are intentionally set up to pit us against each other as we compete to get the one or two chosen spots set aside for us.
Since the time our kidnapped ancestors arrived here in 1619 and were forced into slavery, they divided us. A select few of us were chosen by "master" as lucky house-slaves, while the rest of us, the majority, were the unlucky field slaves.
It's the same scenario today. Only a lucky few of us “get picked” and "make it" into the big house, achieving a measure of success compared to the masses of others.
But we must not allow divide-and-conquer to separate us like it did back then. Those of us who have “made it” and those who haven’t may have different economic statuses, but we are all still slaves on the plantation of racial oppression, and will remain so until we come together and build our own.
There are many ways we can help support each other and build communal wealth. We may not all be in a position to help each other financially, but we can “buy Black” when possible and do many other things, even if it's just something as simple as sharing a fellow artist’s social media post or helping promote an up-and-comer’s work.
Speaking on behalf of Black filmmakers, our projects especially need a lot of support. Because if our first film isn’t a “hit,” the industry doesn’t give us a second chance to make another movie. It’s up to us to promote our positive movies, or we can’t complain when Hollywood puts out some crap that doesn’t represent us or paints us in a negative light.
We can also refer each other for jobs and share information and opportunities amongst ourselves, because when one of us gets ahead, we all get ahead, as a race.
Let us build a giant network like other groups have done so successfully. It doesn’t cost money. It just takes unity of mind, mission and purpose.
If things are going to change for us as a group, we must act as a group to free ourselves. We must promote each other's businesses and products and projects as if they were our own. If we don't do this for each other, we can't get mad when others don't do it for us.
There are enough Black artists in our respective industries that if we all supported and lifted each other up, we could all be successful and wealthy for generations to come!
From today forward, let’s all begin supporting as many fellow Black artists as we can and prove to the world, and most importantly to ourselves, that black careers matter, too.
P.S. To any white people reading this who are “shocked and outraged” by the worldwide, mass protests and statue-breaking going on, and are inclined to call them “riots,” I leave you with more words from the peaceful protester Dr. King:
“Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena,” King suggested during his ‘Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement’ dissertation at the American Psychology Associations’ annual convention in Washington, DC, on Sept. 1, 1967.
“They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the [caucasian] community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting, which is their principal feature, serves many functions.”
He added, “Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the [caucasian] man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the [caucasian] man. These are often difficult things to say, but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.”
Nnegest Likké is a writer, director and content producer. Her films include Fox Searchlight's ‘Phat Girlz’ and two award-winning indie features, ‘Ben & Ara,’ and ‘Everything But A Man.’
You can follow her on Twitter at @Nnegest.