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Why Beyonce Matters

February 13, 2017, 6:03 PM UTC

As we enjoy the post-Grammy Beyonce discussions that will heat up the thinkpiece ecosystem over the next few days, I’m reminded of a story that re-affirmed for me why successful black artists are so vitally important.

A few years ago, I was visiting a much buzzed-about creative talent who worked at a global ad agency. He’d invited me in for a routine meet and greet, to talk about the future of advertising and pitch some ideas my way. We were interrupted when a panicked young associate burst in needing immediate guidance. A focus group for an upcoming body spray campaign starring a hip hop “personality” (the future of advertising suddenly seemed overpowering and musky) had gone off the rails. The “urban youth” they’d invited in to review the work were utterly uninterested in the images of sexual prowess that had been part of the campaign’s collateral materials– pictures of said personality surrounded by jewels, furs, and women draped and lounging. Instead, the teens were interested in images of business success. This came as a surprise to the all white, award-winning agency staffers. “One of them wants to get into licensing,” the young associate said, sounding alarmed.

And, the kids brought receipts. One had torn out pictures of suits and briefcases he liked from magazines. Another had sort of a hazy business plan for something involving China. And one of them brought a Fortune magazine with him. (I’m not kidding.) “What kid reads Fortune?” she asked, mentally updating her resume.

I was not allowed to observe the now fascinating-sounding focus group, though Lord knows I tried. (I only have permission to tell an anonymized version of this story.) But the story stuck with me for many reasons, and not just because it was hilarious. It was an important, up-close reminder that white marketers get audiences of color wrong all the time and that those mistakes have real consequences for entire demographics. But just as importantly, it became clear to me that black artists—think Jay Z and Sean Combs, back then—had offered a workable blueprint for black, male business success to younger men looking up the ladder that other people had failed to provide.

That Beyonce has emerged as a mature, artistic force is inspiring and important. But the emergence of Beyonce, CEO, a multi-faceted leader and investor, has a chance to be equally as significant. She even seems to be able to share power with her husband, a mogul who comfortably sits in her audience holding their child while she works. These are optics we don’t get to see very often. She’s not a businesswoman, she’s a business, woman.

I’d like to believe that there’s an “urban girl” out there absorbing these messages and working on her licensing portfolio right now. If so, then Beyonce will have done her job. What’s ours?

On Point

The Grammys delivered spectacle, art, politics and BeyonceHere’s what we saw: A resplendent Beyonce who celebrated black lineage and maternal power; an overtly political Tribe Called Quest who inspired the audience to resist, resist, resist; the presence of God via Chance the Rapper; and an Adele who knew how to share the spotlight with grace and humility. If, as Time’s Daniel D’Addario suggests, that “all television events in the post-election era, are perceived to be responsible for an anti-Trump message,” then this one delivered in a very personal, human and slightly chaotic way.Time

A cluster map of the culture divide in the U.S.
Although it may not surprise you to learn that people who watch Empire tend not to watch Duck Dynasty, it may surprise you to learn that television viewing preferences are a bigger predictor of political behavior than previous votes. The New York Times has a fascinating interactive map that shows which shows are more popular in rural, urban and a new area they’re calling “The Black Belt,” a swath of land from the Mississippi along the Eastern Seaboard. But the divide is real: When we’re not watching the same shows, we don’t speak the same cultural language. “In the 1960s and ’70s, even if you didn’t watch a show, you at least probably would have heard of it. Now television, once the great unifier, amplifies our divisions.”
New York Times

IBM is training millions of African workers in digital jobs
Africa is on track to be home to the largest workforce in the world by 2040, and IBM is spending close to $70 million to launch training programs in South Africa that could reach as many as 25 million young Africans. The programs are currently expected to expand to Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, and Nigeria. The need is real: some 31% of 15-24 year olds are unemployed in South Africa.
The Times of Oman

Ernst & Young has a simple strategy for increasing diversity
It’s a simple tool that gets people thinking about the status quo, says E&Y’s global diversity and inclusiveness officer, Karyn Twaronite. Called PTR—for preference, tradition, and requirement—it asks managers to hit the pause button before any talent decision. From the story: “It challenges leaders to examine their preferences toward candidates similar to themselves, consider whether their decision is being influenced by the traditional characteristics of a certain role.” The manager’s role is to make a hiring or advancement decision on the requirements of the job, once they’ve considered any biases they may have.

Can start-ups help people manage mental health?
Technology start-ups take a lot of well-deserved heat for building solutions nobody really needs to problems nobody really has, and even then, somewhat insensitively. But a growing number of technology start-ups are overcoming the skepticism to address unmet mental health needs—think, anxiety, depression, on-demand therapy and eating disorders, for starters. Overall, some 300 mental health start-ups have launched in the past two years, and even the American Psychiatric Association is getting into the mix, with pitch contests at conferences. “Proponents hope these new companies might democratize mental health care, making it cheap, anonymous, and easy to access,” says writer Diana Kapp.
California Sunday Magazine

Teens who vandalized a historic black schoolhouse are given the wokest punishment
All credit to Avelina Jacob and Alejandra Rueda, a judge and attorney for the Commonwealth of Virginia, respectively, who turned a case of vandalism into a teaching opportunity. After a group of teens spraypainted swastikas, sexual images, and “white power” and “brown power” on a one-room school house used during Jim Crow, Rueda decided that a history lesson was in order. The teens must read and report on books from a list which includes Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Elie Wiesel’s Night. They also must take a trip to the Holocaust Museum among other things. The group of vandals were of more than one race; one teen admitted that they didn’t know what a swastika was. “[Maybe] it will make an impression on them, and they will stand up for people who are being oppressed,” said Rueda.
New York Times

The Woke Leader

Behold: An Afro Sheen commercial starring Frederick Douglass
Better yet, it was featured on Soul Train, back in the 1970s. I don’t want to give too much away, but it's amazing. Douglass’s tribute to the dignity of natural black hair may not rank among his among his most powerful speeches, but he stayed firmly on message. The commercial is also a poignant look back at a time of tremendous cultural transformation. It’s a hair product! It’s a revolution! It’s a hair product and a revolution! Even then Douglass was doing an amazing job.

W.E.B. Du Bois is back in the news, and deserves to be
Yesterday, the Department of Education misspelled the NAACP co-founder’s name in an African American History tribute tweet gone awry, and folks on social media had plenty to say about it. But other tributes emerged in response that might have otherwise been overlooked. In this essay, Lavelle Porter, an English professor and African-American literature scholar, shares his discovery that the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. had figured prominently in one of Du Bois’s little known novels. In fact, the main character in The Black Flame trilogy was named Manuel, after the church. It was a moving revelation in light of the recent terror attack in which nine members were killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof. “Mother Emmanuel, a bastion of independent, educated, free black people since 1816, has always been an institution of refuge in that violently racist state,” he writes. 

To have empathy with the devil, start with yourself
Wendy Chin-Tanner, worried about the uptick in hate crimes and rhetoric, has written a lengthy essay that might come in handy when faced with a friend, neighbor, or loved one who on the other side of an increasing fractious divide. Find a way to honor your own point of view without demonizing others. “What I propose is a two-step plan for radical empathy where step one is self empathy and step two is strategic empathy,” she writes. “We can use strategic empathy to help us maintain our own points of view while understanding the context and reasoning of someone else’s even if we don’t agree with them, even if we’re angry at them, and even if we can’t find it within ourselves to love them.”


There is always a certain glamour about the idea of a nation rising up to crush an evil simply because it is wrong. Unfortunately, this can seldom be realized in real life; for the very existence of the evil usually argues a moral weakness in the very place where extraordinary moral strength is called for.
—W.E.B Du Bois