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The front lines of various movements can be filled with not only the physical presence of people but also the creative spaces that support the way. Visual artist Hebru Brantley is adding to the Black Lives Matter Chicago organization with the help of spirits brand Bombay Sapphire. Brantley, a Chicago native, is world-renowned for his artistry. His images and symbolism of blackness gives colorful scenes of spirited aviation and flash worthy stylishness with his young Fly Boy and Lil Mama characters.
For his link up with the Gin brand, Brantley drew on more universal themes as stated in the press release for the union, it's "an extension of Stir Creativity, the global platform from Bombay Sapphire, the Hebru Brantley Limited Edition embodies the brand’s mission to inspire and awaken the creative potential within everyone." The 750 ML bottle went on sale on July 1st and retails for $26.99. A portion of the proceeds will help BLM Chicago in their efforts against racism.
Brantley spoke to VIBE on the collaboration, raising Black children and his place of inspiration. To purchase the collab bottle click here at Reserve Bar.
VIBE: How did this Bombay collaboration come about?
Hebru Brantley: It all started with me being a part of the Artisan Series back in the day. I had a very successful Miami Art Week experience as a result, which was a turning point in my career. Since then, the brand has been a big supporter of my various creative ventures, like sponsoring the opening night of Nevermore Park, immersive art experience, and one of my most ambitious projects to date. Meanwhile, Bombay Sapphire approached me about doing a very special project, which was designing their first-ever artist-designed limited-edition bottle. I want it to inspire hope for a better future and shine a light on the courage and resilience of Black people in America. It felt only right that Bombay Sapphire and I were able to do this together to benefit Black Lives Matter Chicago, to support the critical work they do in fighting for racial justice in my hometown.
Despite COVID-19 and the country confronting systemic racial injustices, where you are drawing your inspiration from these days?
I've always drawn inspiration from film, TV, comic books, my culture, and history, so not much has changed there. What feels different is my motivation to get out what I create, there is an even greater sense of urgency for me now then there was before. I am grateful for the opportunity to uplift and inspire and I feel that my message really resonates with people now more than ever.
Speaking of racial injustice, we saw your Harper’s Bazaar editorial and as a father raising Black children, what are some conversations you're having with them that you didn't have growing up?
A lot of the conversations are the same or similar to the ones I had with my parents growing up. The only difference is that I was taught to be aware of racism and certain incidents felt historic. For my kids they're living in a racial justice movement, we are living part of history. The conversations and relevance to those conversations are true and current. They're on TV, on social media for my kids to see and experience firsthand.
Besides Bombay, what other projects are you working on?
I'm working towards a few exhibitions in 2021, brand collaborations, etc. We have some exciting things coming up, so stay tuned.
Netflix looks to answer the Oscars debacle from earlier this year with an exciting new four-part limited series, Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Starring Octavia Spencer in the title role, Self Made utilizes the research of Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, who wrote a New York Times bestseller about her family’s legacy in Black hair care. A’Lelia, a former network television news executive and award-winning producer for 30 years at NBC and ABC News, authored On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker to inform a new generation about the importance of America’s first successful Black entrepreneur.
Madam Walker was the daughter of slaves, and a widow at the age of 20. Seeing a need for healthy hair alternatives that catered to the Black woman, Madam C.J. Walker and her family built a business empire that focused on cosmetic and hair care products for women of color. Many of her company’s employees were women, including Marjorie Joyner (co-founder of the National Council of Negro Women) and Alice Kelly (the first forewoman and manager of the Walker factory). Through hard work and effort, Madam Walker turned her wealth into philanthropy and made friends with “talented tenth” MVPs: W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.
A’Lelia Bundles is also the president of the Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives, making her the oracle behind her famous ancestors’ speeches, publications, documents, photographs and past public initiatives. VIBE was fortunate enough to get the engaging public speaker and lover of history to talk about her great-great-grandmother’s impact on the Black entrepreneurial spirit, discovering her own revolutionary acts through her Black hair growth, and shares why she celebrates today’s stars for championing Black self-expression.
VIBE: Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker hits Netflix on March 20, during Women’s History Month. With those events in mind, I wanted to ask you about your involvement with the series and what message do you hope the show can convey to Black audiences?
A’Lelia Bundles: My book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker was optioned a few years ago by Mark Holder of Wonder Street [Productions]. Mark then approached Warner Bros. and then Netflix about turning it into a series. Once that went through, Octavia Spencer came on board, and we went through the process from then on. I’m considered a consulting producer, which means that I had some script review, but I really hope that what comes from this is that more people will know Madam C.J. Walker’s name, and that their curiosity will be pricked a bit so they’ll want to learn even more about her.
Obviously, with the show being a limited series, you can only scratch the surface of her legacy and impact. Add to that that I’ve done almost 50 years’ worth of research on Madam Walker and her life, and so I am renaming my book into Self Made with Octavia Spencer’s picture on the cover, as well as an audiobook that I just recorded a few weeks ago.
It is an interesting time in the world of content creation where people of color are able to inform others through the visual medium. Earlier this year, we had Who Killed Malcolm X, and When They See Us in 2019 had a new generation learning about the Central Park Five. You say Self Made only scratches the surface, but what do you hope people take away from this show when it compares to the rise of the Black haircare industry?
There is a core of people who know and love Madam C.J. Walker, but there’s a much larger audience who don’t really know about her. I think Self Made will give people a window into her life. Octavia Spencer is the right person to play this role. She has an understanding of the obstacles that Black women face and, in her own personal life, she has certainly overcome obstacles and dealt successfully with challenges.
The message I hope people get from this series is that a Black woman in the early 20th century not only started a business, but empowered other women, and went on to become the first self-made Black millionaire. By helping those women become economically independent, she created jobs and generational wealth for thousands within the Black community.
Switching braids a bit, I wanted to ask you about your own hair care journey. When did you learn that Black hair could be politicized?
I learned that my hair could be politicized when I was a senior in high school. Both my parents worked at the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, with my dad eventually being hired by another company called Summit Laboratories that made chemical hair straighteners.
At that time, I’d see Angela Davis and Cicely Tyson with the big afro, plus the Black Power Movement was in full swing. People were getting rid of their processed and straightened hair, which awakened my political consciousness. I knew to have an afro was a sign of rebellion, much like how the white kids were growing their hair long, Black kids like me were using our hair to make a statement against the issues of the time.
To relate that to what’s going on with today’s youth, I wanted to get your thoughts on the struggles that kids like Deandre Arnold and others experience when trying to express themselves…
Companies like Sundial Brands and people like Matthew Cherry are making a statement by supporting young people while saying to the rest of the world that you will not shame our babies. It’s very hard to be a kid, especially in a predominantly white school or white town where other people want to police your body and hair. It is angering to me that anybody can be expelled from school because of the hair that grows out of their head. Our hair is beautiful the way it grows and the judgments that other people make need to evolve.
Speaking of evolution, I must ask what your own favorite hairstyles of today are that you’d rock if you could?
I love people who have really long locs. I love how they can go in different directions or pile it up into a big crown on the head. I love just really full hairstyles that have structure. My hair is pretty limp [laughs] and I’m not able to do that, but if I could, I would. At this stage of my life, though, it would take so much work and product and maintenance that I am really all about that easy life.
How do you feel about media places like Huffington Post’s Black Hair Defined project spotlighting stories about Black hair and the Black hair care industry?
It is really important that places like this make statements that our hair is beautiful and that there’s nothing wrong with our hair. People like Richelieu Dennis, founding CEO of Sundial Brands and now owns Essence Magazine, has created a $100 million VC fund called the New Voices Fund for women entrepreneurs of color. Support from companies and media places like these are uplifting Black hair, hair care, and cosmetic companies that make it plain that we’re not going backward and only are going to continue to express ourselves.
Last question, Ms. A’Lelia: What is the continuing impact Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy has on Black entrepreneurs?
Her impact is that of a great American rags-to-riches story. I hope that by the time people have finished watching the series, and doing some additional research, that they really see Madam C.J. Walker as a multidimensional woman. She was the first child in her family to be born after slavery, who was a millionaire by the time of her death in 1919 and made a difference in her community as a patron of the Arts and a helper of other women to become economically independent. I think this, her being an impactful inspiration to many, gives hope to others to follow in her footsteps.
Calvin Quallis worked multiple jobs that he hated before founding Scotch Porter, but between childhood memories at his mom’s beauty parlor and his own trips to the barbershop, one thing stuck out. “On some of those worst days, I’d go get a haircut and come out thinking I could take on the world,” Quallis said. “So I’ve always known that grooming and self care had the chance to make you feel better about yourself.” After founding a barbershop called Center Stage Cuts in New Jersey and seeing so many customers with dry, damaged hair in their beards, he began to research ingredients and start making products in his home. In the first 12 months of Scotch Porter – named after his favorite drink (scotch) and his favorite musician (Gregory Porter) – he made more than a million dollars in sales. Since then, Scotch Porter has become one of the most known names for black men’s beard and skin care products.
This year, Scotch Porter is seeing changes. February has seen the launch of a new hair care line, and a new set of ingredients to the beard and skin care products that were already so popular. Plus, the signature brown tubes that hold their products has been changed to new, streamlined blue packaging. Quallis visited the VIBE office to talk about the foundation of the company, 2020’s new leaf, and Scotch Porter’s emphasis on community and lifestyle beyond what their customers put in their dopp kits.
VIBE: Black men have always cared about how we look, but in recent years, we’ve been more comfortable using products for our faces and beards. Where do you think that comfort comes from?
Calvin Quallis: I think it’s a couple of things. One, access to social media. We’re always in front of a camera, always visible. When you’re always visible, you want to look your best. Two, folks are just much more comfortable that were in the past considered female-oriented. So, always being in front of a camera, with selfies and the gist, and wanting to look your best and becoming comfortable using products that were originally toward women.
VIBE: I’m not sure that you were the first black beard company that I heard of, but you were definitely one of the first that I had seen that didn’t just seem like a homemade thing. You were very professional. What kind of strategy went into how you presented the product?
I did work at a design firm. So just seeing designers put together beautiful buildings and different projects, and also in my own personal life, I like nice things. So in terms of the overall aesthetic for the brand, I think it comes somewhat naturally, and then also working at a design firm and seeing how they put together projects, and how they start from scratch, and how they think about design. I think that lended a hand as well.
VIBE: When you were selling this early on, was there any convincing you had to do for the customers?
At that time, I didn’t see many folks talking to black men about beard care or hair care. I didn’t see ads on Instagram or Facebook. So when we launched, it was easy to break through the noise. I noticed at the shop that guys were growing out their beards more, and there weren’t products on the market meant specifically for coily, curly, dry hair. So I seen that as an opportunity, and folks weren’t advertising products like that. It kind of made it slightly easier than it is now, because every other day there’s some new product that’s popped up that someone has created. At that time, it was easier to cut through the clutter because there wasn’t much available for guys with hair textures like us, and they weren’t advertising it if it did exist.
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VIBE: Tell me about the new hair products you’re launching.
We’re launching new reformulated hair care products, along with reformulated beard and skincare products. Our new hair care line includes five products: our Hydrating Hair Wash, Nourish And Repair Hair Conditioner, Smoothing Hair Balm, Smooth & Shine Hair Serum, and our Leave-In Conditioner. All of these hair care products, including our beard and skincare products, are multifunctional, so they do more than just one thing. Our hair balm and hair wash don’t only cleanse and condition, but also include some flake reduction actives, and healthy hair and scalp botanicals that help with things like dandruff, and it also helps prevent hair thinning.
VIBE: I’ve been using Scotch Porter for so long that I always associate the image of the brown containers. What made you decide to change up the look?
I’ve noticed for a while, the space is just becoming increasingly competitive. I’ve known for about a year that we needed to reinvent ourselves, and to reup. Make better products, make them more affordable – we’ve been able to reduce the price point on all our products by about 25 percent. Also, pull out things from our products. There’s no BHTs, there’s no parabins, no formaldehyde donors. We’ve gotten rid of phenoxyethanol, and we’ve included really interesting ingredient stories. This, again, is all based on seeing how the landscape has gotten increasingly competitive.
VIBE: I wanted to dig into that a little bit. You were one of the first in the space. What do you think is the balance between sticking with what you know, vs. knowing when you need to change?
Part of it is insight. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on around you, with a focus on the consumer. Understand what’s going on in the marketplace, but also thinking how we can better serve the customer by delivering even better products. The products that we’ve reformulated are even better than we’ve had before. Thinking of price points and making products more accessible. Then, just giving folks more value and pulling out interesting ingredients that help with some of the issues that men have as it relates to grooming.
VIBE: One of my favorite parts of Scotch Porter is the emphasis on lifestyle and community. Last year, I went to the pop up shop you had, and I was impressed – not only did you have the products at a discount, but you also had the panel for black men to congregate. You also have the email newsletter, and the print manual; in the former, you recently told customers to go to the doctor. Also, each purchase comes with the NakedWines voucher. It just feels like there’s an intention to make black men enjoy each other and love themselves.
It stems from our mission. Our mission from day one has always been to help men feel their best and to live their most fulfilled lives. These touchpoints are just expressions of that. Even as I think about wellness – over the last 14 months or so, I’ve lost 60 pounds. I’ve been getting better at looking at what I’m putting in my body, and what’s important, and these are the things I need to do if I want to be around longer. I’m still on my journey; I ain’t there yet. But we’ve always been talking about how internal and external wellness are a big part of helping guys to feel their best. Some of the articles you see, or the pop-up shop where we have a discussion around mental health, and even the articles on going to the doctor. It’s a holistic approach to helping men feel their best. For us, it’s never been about just giving you the next goop to put in your beard, and that’s all that you need to look and feel your best. It’s internal and external.
VIBE: The manual and the newsletter have these important messages, but it doesn’t feel like they’re talking down to you. It just feels like one of my homies emailing me about it.
Because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to digest it. And again, I’m on my own journey. I’m not there yet. I’m not rocking a six-pack. And it’s not necessarily about that. Each and every day, what can you be doing to make your life better? For us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s the conversation that we have with guys. It’s not about us being on a soapbox pretending we have it all figured out.
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It’s official! We’re proud to share that #ScotchPorter is now available at select @Target retail locations across the nation. (CLICK LINK IN BIO FOR STORE LOCATOR) • • We’re pumped about our retail expansion as it provides us with the opportunity to bring our #MULTIPurpose better-for-you Beard and Face care products straight to your local #Target store. • • When it comes to accessing products that are non-toxic and healthier for you, you deserve options that won’t break the bank. With key ingredients in our Beard and Face collections including Biotin and Pomegranate Enzymes, our products have you covered. • • Thanks for riding with us, we’re just getting started!☄️ #MensGrooming #TellAFriend
VIBE: Within the past couple of years, Bevel sold their products in Target and they were later acquired by Procter & Gamble. Do you have any plans to expand in terms of selling products outside of the website?
On February 9, we launch in about a third of the Target doors with our beard care and skin care products. We’re super excited about that. Target has launched a campaign, and I’m included in the launch for their black history month Black Beyond Measure campaign, where they’re highlighting black founders and their success stories. Excited to be a part of that and share my journey, both with potential entrepreneurs and regular customers.
VIBE: Anything else about Scotch Porter that people should know?
One of the things that’s always been important to me is providing access, opportunity and employment to people that look like us. It’s really intentional. I’d say about 95 to 98 percent of the folks that work with us look like me and you. We provide opportunity, and we provide what I consider great pay. I remember when I was working for somebody else, feeling like I had to fight to climb the career ladder, the limitations that were put on me had nothing to do with my skill set. When I was starting Scotch Porter, I made it very important to hire people who look like us and give them an opportunity to climb up.