2015 was a year of many things. Luckily, "inspiring" was one of them. Amid the injustices, tragedies and foolery that crowded our news headlines and social media timelines from January to December, there were a few moments that forced us to comb through the clutter and take a good look at some exceptional human beings. People who, through their actions, made us look at ourselves a little differently, aim to be more selfless, second-guess our earthly purposes, be proud to be in the skin we're in, add more fuel to our internal fires, turn a small dream into something unfathomably grander. Truly personify the essence of magnificence.
This year, seven young men and women gave a new meaning to the term. From Bree Newsome snatching the Confederate flag from where it flew and Devin Allen giving the story of Baltimore a proper platform to Malala Yousafzai crusading for young girls' education and Chance The Rapper carrying the future of Chicago on his back, we learned that inspiration doesn't have to come in the biggest, boldest and brightest of packages. In our ordinary forms, with courage, passion, faith and determination, we can all do the extraordinary.
Serena Williams: From Grinding To G.O.A.T.
WORDS: CAMILLE AUGUSTIN
The resilience of Serena Williams, a great American story.
Pearly white beads shielded her hair strands when she took court at the 1999 US Open. A freshman contender, who would later be deemed one of the greatest athletes of all time, wasn’t ready to shed her precocious image just yet with the display of her signature hairstyle. But given the groundbreaking force behind her serves, the then 17-year-old athlete showed the world she’s more than her age, level of skill, and how she decides to rock her natural tresses. She defeated Martina Hingis (6-3, 7-6(4), for the championship, her first for the US Open and a first of many, many more accolades to come. The rattling of her beads joined in the chorus of claps from the audience when she turned to different sections of the crowd to show her gratitude. The hair accessories came to a halt when she took the mic to recognize those that helped her get to this triumphant point – Jehovah, her family, and the fans. A presenter of the $750,000 prize later said a statement to the beaming star that will be echoed until the day she retires. “Congratulations Serena, but also congratulations on the tremendous excitement you'll bring to this game."
More than a decade later and 21 Grand Slam titles to toot, Serena Williams blossomed from a girl from Compton who proudly rocks her hair in beads into a constant inspiration for millions across the globe. But with her rising influence came adversity on and off the court, something that spectators watched closely to see if it’d break or make her that more invincible. As someone who’s watched Serena play from the comfort of my television screen and in person, I think this year was one of her most trying times in the world of tennis. She dominated every tournament from Europe to Australia, putting her on track to make history with obtaining a calendar-year Grand Slam. But the last tourney left to conquer, the US Open, brought more despair than it did joy. Sixteen years later, Serena took the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium, and although she's won past US Open’s (2002, 2008, 2012-14), this one seemed just as significant as her first single introduction in ’99.
She lost to Italy’s Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals, and the disappointment that showed across her face when she addressed the media spoke louder than the words she uttered next. When asked how upset she was that her hopes, or everyone else’s for that matter, of gaining a calendar Grand Slam was tarnished, she responded, “I don’t want to talk about how disappointing it is for me. If you have any other questions, I’m open for that.” Serena tried not to dwell on the fact that she wouldn’t make history this year, but you can’t help but wonder what exactly she was thinking after that match point. “You set goals and they’re supposed to be huge, and massive, and scary,” Lauren Von Der Pool, Serena’s chef of three years, says. “And if you don’t reach them completely, then you have more to look forward to in the next year. She’s Sports Illustrated athlete of the year, she’s good. She doesn’t even really need those things to validate her because of where she came from.”
I'm not doing so well without @venuswilliams I'm getting mentally sick. I'm lonely, I'm sad. I just really miss my best friend. My twin. My heart. My sister. I know you are working but I'm not the same without you. 😪 can u come back please? 🙏🏾 I promise I will stay out of your room 😒 (maybe) although I was just there getting some things I needed 🙈 #littlesister #sisters
ESPN’s “SportsCenter” anchor Cari Champion, who has followed Serena’s career since the beginning, says in a phone interview, “When she did not complete the calendar slam, she was devastated and she won’t go on record talking about it, but that’s what really bothers her at the end of the day.” Who really likes to lose, especially in front of millions who also wanted to witness history? We’ll never know how Serena truly handled that day emotionally, only those within her tight circle understood what the champ felt. We can just read her body language, which Champion deems as the only thing in tennis that a player puts on display besides their statements. “A lot of tennis is about how you carry yourself in the moment where you don’t speak,” Champion says. “It’s such an individual sport. You develop a reputation, a personality by what you don’t say because it’s not a verbal sport.”
A time when Serena’s body language was scrutinized was when she returned to the Indian Wells in 2015. During one of her trying bouts at the tournament in 2001 against Kim Clijsters, she received a slew of racist remarks and jeers from the crowd that prompted her family to boycott playing at that outlet indefinitely. But she triumphantly returned amidst what happened in the past, showing that Serena’s strength not only lies within her physique, but also in her will to forgive. “There was a lot of meaning, social significance especially in this day and time that we’re living in right now, a lot of significance for Serena to return to a place that she and her sister and her family felt was racist,” Champion says. “For her to come back and relive memories that haunted her for how ever many years, I wanted to hear her talk about it.” Serena’s teary-eyed moment we saw briefly on the court didn’t translate into words apart from an Instagram post, reiterating Champion’s statement that we’ll only see bits and pieces of what transpires inside Serena’s mind, and what she allows us to witness.
“Serena had to break down so many barriers and put up so many barriers at the same time in order to protect herself,” Champion says. “She wasn’t going to give us the boo-hoo, she was going to give us just a little bit of emotion and she was going to leave it at that.” Although Serena didn’t share what she was truly thinking, throughout the years she’s opened up within the media’s eyes and one stunning moment was during her acceptance speech for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year honor. The publication gave the title to Serena for her groundbreaking 365-run in tennis, or sports in general, but a few people -- and websites -- on social media stirred up the controversial pot, and actually believed that racing horse American Pharoah should’ve won the distinction. **insert confused Nick Young meme here.** Serena mildly addressed the matter during her acceptance speech for the title recently, showcasing her graceful demeanor in the face of backlash. “I’m not standing here because I’ve just kind of cruised on. I’ve had my share of ups and downs,” she says. “I’ve had many struggles. I’ve had blood clots in both my lungs at the same time. I’ve lived through tragedies and controversies — and horses.” Before she said that statement, Serena opened her touching speech by addressing all those naysayers who threw verbal jabs her way. “I’ve had people look down on me, put me down because I didn’t look like them — I look stronger. I’ve had people look past me because [of] the color of my skin, I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman, I’ve had critics say I [would] never win another Grand Slam when I was only at number seven — and here I stand today with 21 Grand Slam titles, and I’m still going.”
“Serena had to break down so many barriers and put up so many barriers at the same time in order to protect herself.” —Cari C.
Despite the belittling of her accomplishments each time she reaches a new feat, she bounces back with even more intensity. When her body was under a microscope, which was outlined in a New York Times article earlier this year, Serena still proudly flaunted her curves on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Champion, who says she had a talk with the writer of that NYT article, mentioned that the author didn’t set out to seem as if he was bashing Serena’s physique, but he was actually praising her. Giving a cultural divide, the language the writer used didn’t translate positively with those who identify with Serena. “I think the article for me was just another example of how far we’ve come, but how far we’ve yet to go. In 2015 we shouldn’t have an article about someone’s body image and whether or not it’s great or if that has something to do with whether or not she’s being endorsed by major brands,” Champion says. “I can tell you that I do have a problem with the fact that she’s not solely judged on her accomplishments on the court and we know why that is. The list goes on and on. When you’re that great, people have to find things wrong with you, people have to tear you down. It’s just the nature of what it is. You’re never beloved when you’re that great.”
In September, I attended one of Serena and Venus’ most-talked about tennis matches at the US Open. I couldn’t root for one in particular, the level of sportsmanship was intense, but it was inspiring to see two black women dominate a field that initially tried to shoo them away. As an African American woman, I, like many of my other peers, place these two sisters on a pedestal and continuously sprinkle them with our Black Girl Magic dust. “I think that her image is powerful and I hope that it inspires women to look within themselves and know that they have the same access to that power,” Von Der Pool says. “It’s beyond Serena Williams, it’s beyond Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou. It’s something that’s transmitted through them, a source that they’re tapping that we can all tap. It’s not to focus and idolize one person, but to look within and to see the greatness that we have.”
Seeing Serena’s rise after certain factors attempted to publicly break her makes you look at your own inner-strength. Health scares? She overcame that. Doubt from commentators? She brushed that off. Had Drake cheer her on every step of the stateside way? We see you light skinned Keith Sweat. Lost a chance at a calendar Grand Slam, but already knows that next year she’s about to dominate all over again? She’s currently training for that. Even as a young girl, you could already relate to Serena in terms of appearance, especially when she proudly rocked her beaded hair alongside Venus, who paved the way for her younger sibling to assist in carrying on the Williams’ legacy. "It seems like forever she shared everything with her sister Venus,” a CBS sportscaster said after Serena’s ’99 US Open victory. “But now the stage belongs to Serena,” and we all have a front row seat to witness a living legend.
20 years ago I played my first professional Tennis match. I was 14. I was scared. I was not prepared for the stage. But determined I went on. Butterflies consumed my stomach leaving no space for me to eat to prepare for my match. Less than an hour later I left the court devastated in defeat. A 6-1, 6-1 loss to than Annie Miller. Basically she crushed me. Not only did I look like a novice but I looked like I did not belong anywhere on the court. However born with an innate insatiable desire to never quit I knew I would return. I would come back. I could not predict that I would win 21 Grand Slam titles and be number one in the world even 20 years later, but I did predict I would never give up. And I did not. (Oh and by the way I am still going). Now I tell you this: never give up on your dreams. It may not happen when you want it to but one day your knight in shining armor (your dream) will come true if you keep going. I leave you with this. Be positive. Be kind. And above all be humble. Xxx S
A photo posted by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on
Devin Allen: Uplifting A Beloved Baltimore One Snap At A Time
WORDS: DIAMOND HILLYER
Sharp shooting to beautify Baltimore.
Devin Allen, the 27-year-old shutterbug rocking a rounded ‘fro and beguiling smile, uniquely marked with a discrete frenulum piercing, is shooting up Baltimore.
From the thriving, black youth of the city's ghettos to the intricate street art beautifully defacing row homes and abandoned buildings, Allen’s camera has shot almost every image of the urban locale's compelling culture. However, in his three years immersed in photography, it never occurred to Allen that his work would land on the coveted cover of TIME magazine.
For three weeks, Allen’s lens captured the highly-publicized protests and demonstrations that bubbled up after the untimely death of 25-year-old Freddie Carlos Gray Jr., a black, unarmed Baltimorean man killed by Baltimore City police. Loading his Instagram with gripping images, major media outlets such as BBC and TIME tapped the follow button to track the amateur photog’s front row coverage of the events. The world witnessed firsthand how Allen’s shots of one of B-More’s most trying times were worth much more than just a thousand words.
“We took our city back and reunited,” Allen says, gazing out of the Reginald Lewis Museum’s broad windows. His dark eyes gleamed when he spoke of Charm City. “We still have a lot of issues, yes, but I saw a community come together. I saw people who would never come into the city come in and help. A lot of beautiful things were born from the uprising.”
Bred from Maryland’s largest and most populated metropolis, he'd only ever known Baltimore to be his home. He dwelled on both ends of Baltimore’s region continuum, from the urbanized sections of Baltimore City to the provincial borders of Baltimore County. Yale Heights, Emerson Village, Garrison Boulevard and other west Baltimore locales cultivated Allen’s upbringing.
The real life "chocolate city"—housed just 40 miles north of the nation's capital, which slackly occupies the nickname—is what sculpted him into the black man he is today. “Baltimore made me strong,” he says of his hometown, which has a 63 percent black population. “I fought a lot growing up. Personally, spiritually, emotionally and mentally, I'm able to handle a lot of the things the average person can't. It made me a well-rounded person, despite all of my success. It hasn't gone to my head because I still know where I came from. I'm forever humble for my city and who it made me.”
Charm City was also responsible for Allen’s first experience with photography. Using a department store-bought Coolpix camera, Allen shot simple pictures to print on T-shirts for a poetry night he put together with friends. His interest peaked in more advanced camera systems like Nikon’s D5100 and Canon SLRs soon after, citing Gordon Parks, Robert Houston and Tony Barboza on his list of photog faves. Allen's visceral connection to their work might have compelled him to pick up his camera on the days of the uprising as well. But even more embedded in him than his attraction to the art form is the grim weekend that pushed him closer to it.
"I can only do but so much with my ten fingers. When you look at it, is the issue just with racism and police brutality? There's also things within our own communities that are happening where we don't support each other.” —Devin A.
“I didn't start taking photography seriously until I lost both of my friends,” he says, noting that he might have been dead if he didn't have a photo shoot on his to-do list. Unfortunately, one of Allen's best friends was shot seven times in front of his own house. Right afterwards, Allen went to pay his respects to the friend’s mother and saw his other close friend there, distraught. “I gave him a hug, told him I love him and then I had to run to this building to get some pictures,” Allen says. “I told him that when he got himself together he could just meet me there in an about an hour.” His friend was shot in the head within that same 60-minute span. “I lost two of my closest friends in one weekend. From there, I had to take photography very seriously. If it wasn't for photography, I could've been with either one of them.”
Prior to the protests behind Gray’s death, Allen wasn't a stranger to the activism scene. Baltimore’s peaceful demonstrations for Ferguson’s Michael Brown and international concerns like the Palestine-Israel conflicts had been long logged into his memory cards. But after Gray's passing, there was a certain energy brewing in B-More that words alone simply couldn’t do justice to. “We're talking about a city that has been deprived for so many years and with so many issues," he says. "I knew at some point all of that tension would be released, from the drug issues, to the school funding, to the housing, the murder rates. And the one thing about my city is that we don't fear police. They don't.”
At first, Allen planned to solely dedicate his socials to Gray and the uprisings (“I'm glad that you say ‘uprising.’ People might call it the ‘Baltimore Riots’ when there were only two”). Void of any post-processing or editing, he used a simple camera-to-phone sequence to share his work. The process was straightforward: shoot the images raw, transfer them to his phone and post directly from there. Among the vivid, black-and-white portraits were a policeman with a single tear trailing down his cheek, a man carrying his young son whose tiny arms were held up in surrender, and Baltimore’s people screaming, chanting and crying with balled fists raised in protest.
Despite the daunting atmosphere Allen immersed himself in for nearly a month, the positive aspects outweighed all the bad. “This forced people to connect with other people they never would have communicated with. Yes, it was a trying time, but the media made it seem like we just destroyed our city completely. It wasn't that.” In short, let go of the “poor burning CVS” narrative that flooded CNN’s coverage at the time. “They were actually stocking up the price on the medication there,” he says of the now-gone Pennsylvania Avenue pharmacy. “They were charging more than surrounding counties like Columbia, Woodlawn and Milford Mill, financially raping the poor people. A lot of the buildings that you saw that they said we burned down were already like that.”
Amidst the destroyed infrastructure, Allen’s photos were beginning to build a following on social media. He uploaded his images online, posting them uncredited and trolls abused the moment by turning them into memes or falsely claiming them as their own. BBC and Fusion Magazine traced the pictures back to Allen, seeking interviews and coverage even after the protests, but the call from TIME felt almost too good to be true.
“I didn't believe it was them,” Allen says. He maintained a "whatever" attitude as they told him their plans for a post on the official TIME blog. Allen's Instagram follower count bumped from 10,000 to 20,000. "From there, I just kept documenting," he says. "When the CVS was burned down and Mondawmin Mall was looted, things didn't just go away after that. There were still stories to be told.” TIME kept in contact, telling him they’d put his images in a full spread of the May issue.
I'm still in shock and speechless that i have the cover of @time and a full spread ::: I started photography in 2013 and i have never been published or even tried :::: @time found me and loved what i have been doing and my story, they have been helping me with booking my interviews showing me the ropes since ::: But this was for Baltimore City and every young black kid with a dream, you can do whatever you want just fight for it, if you love it fight for it. And shout out @fujifilm_xseries my favorite system and camera i used to snap the cover and @dsptch_sf for the amazing wrist strap that makes easy to run around
A photo posted by Devin Allen ◼️◾️▪️ (@bydvnlln) on
Nothing short of tears of joy, Allen immediately contacted his family to tell them the good news. The photo of a man charging down an empty street with a bandana covering his face, a line of gun-wielding officers organized behind him, was the foundation of this premise and caused Paul Moakley, TIME’s deputy editor of photography, to offer an exciting proposition. Though the magazine had already had a cover planned for its May issue, Allen’s photo had caused some reconsideration.
“They told me they didn't want to get my hopes up, but it looked amazing to them for the cover,” Allen recalls, noting that Moakley promised to call back with an update. “The next day, I woke up and checked Twitter to see all these notifications. All I saw was the actual cover all over Twitter with, 'Amateur Photographer From Baltimore Snags The Cover of Time.' I called everybody, and they just cried. I cried.”
Aside from that famed cover image, Allen’s photographs tell a greater story of his stomping grounds, which include the good, the bad and the ugly. “I call my city a beautiful ghetto because at the end of the day, it's beautiful. There are people down on their luck with next to nothing. There are kids who are raising their own siblings. There are people addicted to heroin and crack, but at the end of the day they don't give up. My pictures show how strong people at the bottom actually are.”
“Good” might be an understatement for Devin’s photos, though, considering his work has taken him all over the world. Skipping overseas to Manila, Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo, he felt connected to every culture he transcended. His excursions opened his eyes and made him realize his city was a “cakewalk” compared to what other parts of the world were up against. They also account for his repositioning in social activism. It's easy to plug him and his work into the Black Lives Matter movement, but he rejects it. Yes, he covered the events that blanketed his own city, but he did not base it around a particular social cause. Allen says he doesn't stand for everything movements such as Black Lives Matter believe in frankly because he doesn’t feel they are inclusive enough.
“At the end of the day, when you're exclusive to one movement, you disconnect from the rest of the world,” he says. “The United States is very disconnected from the rest of the world. We live in a fishbowl, and I've been outside that fishbowl. I've been in the ocean. So I see greater trials and tribulations around the world.”
Backlash during an AfroPunk festival gig, where he photographed transsexuals, further drove his point home. “They fail to realize that even in the black community, we exclude the gay and trans community,” he says. “That's sad. At the same time, me being a male, people won't understand that. I think black lives only matter depending on the area or media it attracts. I don't agree with that, and I don't like that. At the same time, I can only do but so much with my ten fingers. When you look at it, is the issue just with racism and police brutality? There's also things within our own communities that are happening where we don't support each other.”
Your sexual preference is your own business idc , Im fighting for all my brothers & sisters I love you all :: #blacktranslivesmatter ::: #DVNLLN A photo posted by Devin Allen ◼️◾️▪️ (@bydvnlln) on
Allen’s disassociation from Black Lives Matter, however, certainly has not rendered him colorblind. Many of the hurdles faced on his way to success were directly related to his melanin count. While his white counterparts received gifts, support and other benefits from major camera manufacturers like Leica, he was shot down almost every time for being “too controversial.”
“I tried reaching out to other camera companies," he says. "The most I could get was a discount on a $7,000 camera. I had reached out to Leica, and they said they didn't do sponsorships. I explained what I was doing with the kids, and told them I'd love one of their cameras to document the story. The representative told me that they could give me one camera for a month or two, and every image I took, I would have to give them the rights to every image. I knew it didn't sound right, so I passed on that.”
A later incident confirmed his skeptical theories. He met a Parisian director who came to Baltimore with a Leica camera in hand. When he asked where he got the unreleased model, the man matter-of-factly replied, “Oh, Leica just gave it to me.” Of course the disappointment was there. “It's not just about the free stuff,” Allen says. “I could care less about that. I just needed the support. [The director] said, 'If it were me or another young, white photographer, you would be in space somewhere. You'd be out of this world and very well taken care of.' So, it hurt because I know I have good work. But, like I said, it's made me stronger right along with Baltimore.”
When Allen’s not strapped to his gear, he’s got plenty going on. He was granted the opportunity to shoot Golden State Warrior MVP Steph Curry in Asia through a budding relationship with Under Armour. He’s also giving back to his hometown in tremendous ways with “Inspiring the Youth.” The program he started as his own teaches Baltimore’s inner-city youth photography and image development skills. Russell Simmons and Michael Skolnik even invested in the young photographer, aiding him with $20,000 dollars. Prior to the generous loan, Allen raised $3,000 from a GoFundMe he started for the program, with the website’s creator topping off the amount with his own generous donation. The blessings didn't end there. Behemoth digital corporation Samsung dropped in to offer a helping hand as well.
“They're the only camera brand that reached out that took a liking not just to my work, but to my mission,” Allen says. The company sent him equipment and backed his projects, forming an “amazing” relationship with the budding photog. “I want to connect that relationship with Under Armour, and they possibly do things to take my work global.”
Although Allen’s photography has led him to this point, he’s letting his inner-self guide his path. “I want to see where my heart takes me. I want to be more spiritual and more in tune with the world. I want to be able to live outside of barriers and go off the grid. My life goal is to be great and change the world. I want to break barriers where my color won't be an issue. It's always going to be a problem to some people. But I want to be free.”
Zim Ugochukwu: Putting Brown Faces At The Forefront Of Trendy Travel
WORDS: STACY-ANN ELLIS
Leader of the new cool.
Zim Ugochukwu is good at faking it. Really good. On an unseasonably warm fall morning, Travel Noire's founder and CEO walks into VIBE’s Midtown Manhattan office with her face beat for the heavens, a small rolling suitcase trailing behind her and the kind of enthusiasm indicative of a full eight hours of sleep. Her eyes light up with every question asked about her company and she talks with her hands and whole face when digging into the corners of her memory. Zim’s energy is on 100. It’s funny, because in all actuality she just came straight from Newark Airport on a red-eye out of Los Angeles, where she’d only spent 24 hours for a business trip. And right after her interview with me, she’s heading back to the airport to catch an evening flight home to Durham, N.C. Then next up is Madrid for a change of a work backdrop, then Marrakech for a biannual team retreat, then Brazil at the top of the year on business again. If she’s the least bit tired—which I’m sure she is—none of it shows. Her rapid-fire routine runs like clockwork. It comes with the territory of being at the helm of one of the most popular travel companies for people of color in 2015.
Chances are that if you have even a trace of brown pigment, you or someone you know has Instagram logged a trip to somewhere foreign and fabulous with the tag #TravelNoire beneath it (or at least made bucket list plans to do so). But the culture of the phrase exists beyond its quirky hashtag. "It's been a really rewarding journey for people to share their stories with me of them overcoming fear, getting off the beaten path and having these transformative life experiences," Zim says of watching people's travel lives blossom through the TN lens. "Because once you travel, you continue traveling."
On the company’s website, TN self-identifies as “a digital publishing platform that creates tools and resources for the unconventional traveler.” But since its inception, it’s morphed into much more than just an editorial endeavor. Offering unique paid services like web forums and curated getaways via TN District and Travel Noire Experiences, respectively, as well as consistent freebie blog posts on TravelNoire.com, the company is a community for people curious about the world around them to connect both on and offline. Thanks to Zim, Travel Noire is now the hub of all things organically trendy and worldly as it pertains to the Black Diaspora and an unintentional gateway to the vast world unseen.
"When I came across [#TravelNoire], it almost felt like, wow, I do exist in the form of other people going out and seeing the world," says Gaston Depusoir, TN's newly minted Director of Financial Operations. "It kind of gave me permission to go other places and experience new things, because if other people can do it, then why can’t I?"
The whole idea for Zim’s dream company was conceived in the same cushy haven where many a fantasies are created. “I named Travel Noire when I was in my bedroom in San Francisco,” she recalls. Although originally from Minnesota, Zim set up shop in California after a year-long stint in India through the Henry Luce Scholars program. “The logo was the more interesting part. I was like, ‘Let's do a hot air balloon.’ It was so terrible. But Travel Noire was the most bare bones, literal translation that I could come up with. I threw the 'e' up in there to give it a little oomph and it stuck.”
The company launched in 2013, but this year in particular Travel Noire has made major strides in changing the way people of color see travel and the way the world sees black travelers. Or rather, making sure they see us, period. “If people don't see themselves, can they truly know what's possible?” she says, noting that the biggest misunderstanding stems from the stereotype that people of color only travel to Caribbean islands or nowhere at all. “We've been traveling for eons, but there's been no way to connect those dots, you know? Twenty years ago, we took a picture and it would end up in your apartment or house and the people who saw it were the people who came to your house.”
Of course, there will always be those who push back, akin to those screaming "All lives matter!" at a Black Lives Matter protest, but they don't bother Zim much. "I say, 'If you find value in the content you create, then it's already yours,'" she says calmly. "My job is to bring people from their current realm of understanding to a new realm of understanding. I'm not preaching at you. I'm not talking down to you. I'm simply trying to get you to understand why this matters. When I'm going to China and little kids are trying to rub off my skin because they think it's dirt, that's a different kind of experience that no one is really speaking towards."
Instead, her attention is focused on the young travelers showing interest in her brand, who crave the connection of people who look like them and are just now finding both the funds and the courage to step out of domestic comfort zones.
"A lot of travelers are younger, and I notice on our Twitter feed we have a lot of minorities and people who don’t have a lot of money," says George Hobida, founder of popular cheap flight-finder Airfarewatchdog, over the phone. But this notion is quickly changing. According to the Mandala Research Firm, U.S.-based African-Americans take one or more international trips a year, and spend $48 billion on travel annually. Spending amongst affluent blacks in America is at the highest it's ever been, according to Nielsen's 2015 report, Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse: African-American Consumers – the Untold Story. That means more disposable income, which leads to more travel experiences and the shift from stuff to experiences. In addition to income levels rising due to immigration, youthfulness, educational pursuits and having relevant dialogues within the digital community, this year signaled a tipping point in the way African Americans consume media, with the population having an increasingly strong impact on fields like television, music and social media. Naturally, this includes the travel industry, and the head honchos are taking notice.
"Knowing that this thing that we've created has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of people? It's mind-boggling." —Zim U.
Although she feels she's a far cry from a travel biz expert ("I didn't know that much about the travel industry as a whole, I just knew about travel"), Zim made her way to Brooklyn last October to speak at the Skift Global Forum, a creative business conference for the global travel industry. Her audience was a room full of current and potential business partners; powerful execs curious about what this young woman's product has to offer in such a thriving market.
"The chief marketing officer of Airbnb was there. The CEO of Virgin Airlines was there," Depusoir says. "Zim went up there and gave a speech about the black experience to travel and what Travel Noire was trying to do. And afterwards, the CEO of Skift came up to her in tears. I’m not going to lie, at one point during her talk, I had a little tear in my eye."
The waterworks came from pulling the curtains back on the gritty details of her personal life, and how they all played parts in the creation of (and necessity for) a company like Travel Noire. "It was an industry conference and people didn't expect me to be so open about my own journey," Zim says. The presentation touched on her father, her mom, when she left him, why she left him—him bringing a gun home was the breaking point—and how they were robbed, put in shelters and put on welfare. "[I addressed] all of these different things so that I could preface the stats of what was to come. If I would've just gotten into the numbers, it would've been a very different kind of reaction. I started with what I think I do really well, which is telling stories, and I started with my own."
Speak to the universe and it will answer. That’s how Depusoir, formerly a suited up investment banker, wound up as one of four full-time positions at the buzzing travel company, with the ability to work from any corner of planet Earth that has a steady Wi-Fi connection.
“I went on a solo trip to Asia in December of 2014,” he recalls over the phone. “I remember I was doing ATV ride in Cambodia and had this epiphany like, wow, this is such an amazing experience. I wish my career could be devoted to sharing all experiences like this with people of color.“ From there, Depusoir emailed Zim asking to work with the company some way, somehow. She never did respond to his inquiry due to the sheer volume of incoming emails, but a few days later she posted an ad for a Founder’s Apprentice role. “[It] was exactly what I had been looking for,” Depusoir says. “Months after I joined, I actually forwarded her the email that I had previously sent, and it was kind of cool that things just worked out and I got to where I wanted to be.”
Seven months and a promotion later, he now oversees all things numbers-related at TN, from working with the company’s accountant, making sure the books are right and tackling revenue projection to conducting product performance research and handling investments. Since the staff is still growing, he also pulls from an all-hands-on-deck task list. "I also do customer so service," he says. "When people email and they have questions, I’m in charge of answering. I think at some point as we grow and we scale, I’ll probably focus more on finance, but for right now, it’s truly a team effort and we all really do a little bit of everything."
It’s true, the staff is small and scattered—current employees call New York, New Jersey and Maryland their homes—but efficient. They help make day to day tasks much easier for Zim. And what exactly are these daily to-do's? Her response to the, So what do you do? question is swift. “I could show you better than I could tell you,” she says before whipping out her laptop and portable Wi-Fi device to walk me through a dizzying calendar of overlapping red, yellow, purple, pink rectangles filled with tiny text. Each color is tied to a different employee, marking down both their agenda breakdowns and geographical whereabouts. Conference calls scheduled for the staff, slew of freelancers and Travel Noire's adviser. A million tasks for an entire team spelled out on one 13.3” MacBook pro screen. On any given day, Zim is drafting four-and-a-half-hour long emails, tinkering with Wordpress stuff, reviewing applications, tending to marketing automation software, mapping out process flows, setting calendars, and solidifying daily sync meetings. "No day is the same," she says.
A lot of people ask me about my calendar. I'm obsessed with time. It gives me an idea of what my day looks like so that I can minimize unproductive time. Our calendar is color coded by team member, so that we know what we're each working on. It's a crazy system, but it's how our small team gets an insane amount of work done. Most people are surprised when we tell them the Travel Noire team is a three person operation! Oh. And this is what my freedom looks. The freedom to have breakfast at any time of day, anywhere. #zimworkshere
And no day is ever an off day. "She works nonstop, whether it’s on the weekends or while she’s on vacation," Depusoir says. "While she’s on vacation, she’s not really on vacation because she’s still answering emails and responding to messages. Her work ethic is one of the most impressive ones that I’ve seen."
But the 'round-the-clock commitment is no biggie for Zim ("My work is fun, so it doesn't really feel like work"), because in her eyes, she serves more as a millennial Yoda to her team than Merriam-Webster’s definition of boss. “I'm guiding people,” she says. “It's a very flat organization; we talk and discuss everything. We're very, very transparent. When you have the right team, you don't have to be that micromanager at all.”
Two years ago, if you asked her if she knew her six-figure company would be what it is today, she might’ve laughed it off. "I never knew it was gonna blow up to be this. Never in my wildest dreams," she says.
That's her being modest. Her humble, rocky beginnings and bio-student-turned-global-resident story is nothing short of remarkable. Her resume is peppered with random (and 100 percent factual) occupations that can make even the most accomplished witness inward moments of triviality. We're talking cloning genes as a 19-year-old UNC Greensboro student and traveling the country with her research. Helping to open the international civil rights museum in Greensboro. Working for the Obama campaign in 2008 and being the opening speaker for him. Being appointed as the youngest precinct judge for North Carolina’s Board of Elections. Organizing non-profits in California. Learning Hindi and taking residence in India for a year.
None of these things connect in any way more than wholehearted passion and a natural wiring to go hard or go home. "I had no idea what I was doing, just diving in, and that was a normal thing," Zim says, reflecting. "For me, I don't know how to be average with anything, and when you look at things that I've done in the past, I've always gone so hard at doing them that something magical would happen."
Zim and her crew still have plenty of ways to grow up and glo' up with Travel Noire, but these past three years have been the most fulfilling and inspiring running start she could've asked for. In her own words, it's been a big year, but there are bigger years to come. To her, the biggest reward isn’t the number in her bank account, the overlapping passport stamps or the eager 200K plus combined followers on their Twitter and IG pages, but in knowing that at this point, Travel Noire’s skies are limitless.
“We can literally build this from the dust, and we have the power to say what it is that we want to do and what it is that we don't want to do,” she says. “Who we want to work with and who we don't want to work with. Everything is in our power. Everything is figure-out-able, and knowing that this thing that we've created has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of people? It's mind-boggling. I don't think that I deserve any of this.”
Bree Newsome: The Climb Seen Around The World
WORDS: MAWUENA SEDODO
Thirty feet high, a million miles ahead.
On June 27, 2015, the nation witnessed a new American hero hailing from the top of a 30 foot South Carolina flagpole, clutching what many equate to being a symbol of hate, oppression and racial injustice. This hero was none other than activist, Bree Newsome.
Let’s set the scene. It was a gloomy Saturday morning when Newsome and fellow activist, James Tyson, both 30, prepared to scale one of the most morally appalling poles in the nation with only one thought in mind: The flag must come down. Moments later, the country watched in awe as she flashed a confident smile while being whisked away from the South Carolina State House in handcuffs by law enforcement.
Just a week prior to Newsome’s removal of the flag, Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, opening fire on nine African-American churchgoers during a weekly Bible study session. Carefully outlined via a manifesto laced with images of the Confederate flag, the young white shooter outright stated that he intended to create a race war. Instead, Roof fueled an already-brewing, vibrant climate of racial activism, cueing the entrance of everyday American freedom fighters like Ms. Newsome to the main stage. Not only did his actions invigorate the movement, but they also incited the conversation about what the Confederate flag really meant in America.
“I think the impact that we made will end in reframing the discussion at a really critical point, because at the point where we take down the flag there's this talk about, is it heritage? Is it hate?” Newsome says. “So doing the action that we did brought it back to the moral question.”
Armed with scripture, Newsome began her careful and well-calculated ascendance up that South Carolinian pole. What was going through her mind, exactly? “I had really planned to do the whole thing in silence, but over the course of those four days I've been meditating on some scripture and praying,” she says. “When the cop showed up and started having the conversation with me, telling me to come down and telling me what I was doing was wrong, I just kind of off the top of my head automatically quoted the scripture to keep myself centered and focused.”
How can one respond to scripture that advocates for love in a society laced with hate? "You come against me in the name of hatred, repression, and violence,” she declared during her descent. “I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.” To some, she’s crazy. To others, she’s a religious zealot. To Academy Award-nominated director Ava DuVernay, she is a hero. “Yes. I hope I get the call to direct the motion picture about a black superhero I admire,” DuVernay tweeted. “Her name is Bree Newsome.”
NAACP President and CEO Cornell Williams Brooks echoed DuVernay’s sentiments. “We commend the courage and moral impulse of Ms. Newsome as she stands for justice like many activists including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Henry David Thoreau and numerous other Americans who have engaged in civil disobedience,” he said in an official statement. “The NAACP calls on state prosecutors to consider the moral inspiration behind the civil disobedience of this young practitioner of democracy.”
What many may not grasp is the symbolic significance of that moment: having an African American woman climbing the pole with a supportive white ally on the ground, looking out for any danger coming her way. “I think the role of white allies is to really seek to organize other white people in anti-racist framework. Black people didn't create white supremacy and we can't eliminate it on our own. That's just not possible. I think a lot of times racism is viewed as something black people must defeat, one way or another, either through protesting or boycotting. Through being exceptional negroes,” she says with a coy laugh. “That's just not how it works.”
Brittany “Bree” Newsome grew up in Columbia, Md., a well-integrated city with a sizable black population. Despite the mixed income housing and diverse school population, Newsome recalls getting her first whiff of racial disparity at an early age. “I can remember being in eighth grade and being the only black kid in class when we were learning about slavery and the teacher made a ridiculous statement about slaves not being treated that badly,” she says. “It was several times where it became glaringly obvious that I was the only black person in class.”
While this experience laid the groundwork for her activism, it was the summer of 2013 that would change her life. “It was a combination of Trayvon Martin’s case and the attack on voting rights going on in North Carolina. When I saw what was going on, I really felt like I had to get involved,” she says. Little did Newsome know, it would be the summer of 2015 that would set off her activist powder keg.
“It was the current racial climate in the country, the massacre itself, the fact that they were reluctant to fully acknowledge that it happened,” Newsome says. “It was the political dynamics to what happened, that this really was a terrorist attack, that this was the assassination of a black leader, a legislator there in South Carolina. So for the Confederate flag to fly at full staff while they buried him was the ultimate insult. I felt even more passionate that it was important that we make a statement in taking the flag down and not just allow the legislature to go through whatever political theater they were set to go through when removing the flag.” Like the old adage says, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.
Reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement half a century ago, progress could not have been achieved without allies who’ve risked their lives to create Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fateful dream. Newsome believes our activism still requires the cooperation of the community. “We really need to think more of ourselves as a collective of black people,” she says. “The things that we're dealing with here in America are really similar to South Africa, to Brazil, to black people in a lot of different places.”
This is the very black unity that Malcolm X advocated for with his creation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU). This is the very black unity that Marcus Garvey advocated for with the Back to Africa movement in the 1920s. As much as some Americans try to glaze their eyes beyond it, this country is not a post-racial one, and it won’t be unless America agrees to look at oppression objectively and analyze our nation’s condition head on. The movement doesn’t stop because a man of color resides in the White House.
"A lot of times racism is viewed as something black people must defeat, one way or another, either through protesting or boycotting. Through being exceptional negroes. That's just not how it works." —Bree N.
“You have to step back and ask yourself, we've had one black president in 200 years of history. That's not really an indication that things have dramatically changed. If you look at the overall state of Black America, things have not really changed that much,” she says. “If we're measuring progress by successful black people or free black people, we've always had that. There were free black people during slavery. There were a lot of accomplished distinguished black people doing great things even while the majority of black people were enslaved and it's no different today. Even though you have a black president, or you have an Oprah Winfrey, that doesn't change the reality of mass incarceration, police brutality or any of these other things. Would you really describe black people in this world as free? I wouldn't.”
So what can those who measure progress by successful black individuals do to recognize the oppressive system that their very own brothers and sisters suffer under? “Studying history and knowing our history is very important because we're kind of raised on a single narrative view of America that often is not our narrative or our story,” she says. “We recognize a lot of times the current condition that we're in without fully understanding all the dynamics that led to this situation, and that's part of what impedes our ability to organize ourselves. There is a whole history of the African American experience that is often not told. So one, we should really have a strong understanding of our history, and then two, we really have to think of ourselves as a collective more. I think those two things are really important to our ability to organize ourselves.”
History shows the resilience of black people around the world and how powerfully we respond to the epidemic of white supremacy; how black people rose in unison against the instances that have plagued our very identity. Thanks to the rise of social media, a tool that Newsome believes, “democratizes the narrative,” history will show black peoples’ ability to use various channels to mobilize and organize the masses, and most importantly, it will show the mass movements that have erupted because of it.
So what’s next for the movement? “Things evolve over time. There's a lot that's changing demographically very rapidly in America and some of the natural tension that arises from that. I certainly hope that we're not going to be dealing with the same issue,” she admits. “I actually don't think it's sustainable. As the wealth gap grows it creates more of these situations that lead to these police brutality incidents, so I think we're at a point now where we've got to do something. I don't think we can go another 50 years.” The only thing that is evident is that activists like Newsome will go down in the history books, deconstructing white supremacy, one flagpole at a time.
Fight Like Malala: Finding Your Purpose And Sticking To It
WORDS: STACY-ANN ELLIS
When destiny doesn't scare you.
At age 15, little girls around the world are enjoying the luxury of just being little girls. Picking out the right nail polish color each week. Hanging out with friends on the weekends. Finishing up homework and studying for exams. Blushingly talking about juvenile crushes with fellow girlfriends. Helping parents, siblings and caretakers with chores around the house. Weaning out of training bras. Learning how to become a woman after Mother Nature takes her course. You know, girl stuff. Things were different for Malala Yousafzai, though. Instead, she was seeing black while back down on a gurney, trying to wake up from a bad dream that wound up being a frightful reality. She was nursing a gunshot wound to the forehead, with her father Ziauddin and mother Toor Pekai praying to the heavens for her recovery. For her to walk, talk and function normally. To just be Malala again.
Malala's story has increasingly become a widely known one due to the overwhelming levels of “extraordinary” laced throughout the tale. Prior to Oct. 9, 2012, Malala had a pretty normal life in Pakistan's Swat Valley, a lush, green area in Mingora nestled amid the Hindu Kush Mountains. Starting at five years old, going to school was a common and safe practice for her, since she attended the Khushal School, an institution her own father founded in 1994 to train a new generation of women leaders. She and her friends would take the bus to school and bring home assignments everyday, just like your average kid. That is, until the rise of the Taliban. Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an organization promoting strict Sharia law led by Hakimullah Mehsud, invaded Swat in 2007, but their elevation to "terrorist" status amongst the people of Mingora was gradual. Maulana Fazlullah, who later took over Mehsud's reign after he was killed in a U.S. airstrike, seemed like an ally to the people of Swat Valley at first. Under the on-air moniker Radio Mullah, Fazlullah started out as a pirate Islamist radio personality, and would talk to the women of the region in a brotherly manner. Women were fans of his show, until the topics got more radical, violent and controlling. Soon, women and girls were being ordered not to go to school nor leave the house, barred from playing active roles in society. Eventually, at the end of 2008, the Taliban made it clear about their intentions to forcibly shut down all girls' schools in Swat on Jan. 15, 2009. Mullah went on to blow up at least 100 of them, putting children's lives in danger.
Instead of waiting for armed forces to intervene, she decided to use her voice as her weapon. With the support of her father, an 11-year-old Malala protested against the school closings with the speech “How Dare the Taliban Take Away My Basic Right to Education?” at a school in Peshawar. After that, the BBC approached Ziauddin to see if someone could write a blog for them about life under the Taliban rule. Naturally, Malala fit the bill. She used a fake name, Gul Makai, to pen 35 BBC Urdu entries between January and March about life under Taliban rule. Unworried, she went on to make her TV debut on the Pakistani show, Capital Talk, in Feb. 2009, then two New York Times documentaries, Class Dismissed, and, A Schoolgirl's Odyssey, in the same year. Pakistani backlash caused the Taliban to temporarily ease their grip on the town, and some girls found their ways back to scattered low-key schools. But with all the face time boosting her identity, it made Malala a clear target for the Taliban. Whispers of threats made their way to Malala's family, but no one—the Yousafzais included—thought the Taliban would be cruel enough to actually execute a child.
In 2012, the Taliban made a believer out of them all. A four-man hit team sent by Fazlullah boarded a school bus carrying Malala and her friends. After quickly identifying Malala with her friend's nervous eye contact, they shot her in the head and fled, thinking they left her for dead. Little did they know, that was the farthest thing from the truth. She didn't just survive, she flourished.
"I don’t believe that Malala was given any special magic by God. I believe that being in the presence of an inspired father and a spiritual, powerful mother for her path, when she started to speak, she started to feel a sense of purpose." —Davis G.
Director Davis Guggenheim and co-executive producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter Parkes tracked Malala's ordinary-to-extraordinary story as well as her long road to recovery in He Named Me Malala, a documentary that released on Oct. 2 of this year. "They were an ordinary family in the Swat Valley, and something very precious to them was taken away from them," Parkes says from across the table at a press brunch. "Telling their story was part of survival. Part of bringing help." For 18 months, they spent time with Malala and her family, from her readjusting to a safer new life in Birmingham, England to becoming the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2014 (she shared the prize with children's rights and education advocate Kailash Satyarthi) to ringing in her 18th birthday in an unconventional way.
"On her 18th birthday, they said, 'Okay, you’re done with your exams, you have a week off and your birthday’s coming up. What do you wanna do?' She goes, 'Jordan.' To be with the girls that she met there," Guggenheim says. When he was in Jordan with her on the Syrian border, no one knew who she was. She was just a girl. "[It wasn't] a huge press thing, because she feels connected to those girls. She’s a real person who wants to be with the girls who are like her, who are suffering the way she’s suffered."
“It’s honestly humbling to meet you,” Jon Stewart told Malala when she stopped by The Daily Show in 2013. "You're 16. Where did your love for education come from?" He looked more starstruck than expected for a host who's interviewed the likes of President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson and Bruce Springsteen. Malala's answer left him at a loss for words.
"We are human beings, and this is the part of our human nature that we don’t learn the importance of anything until it’s snatched from our hands," she said, as if she was standing at a podium instead of on a swiveling office chair. "In Pakistan when we were stopped from going to school, at that time I realized that education is very important and education is the power for women. That's why the terrorists are afraid of education. They do not want women to get education because then women will become more powerful."
Here, and at the myriad of appearances she's made thereafter, her diction was strong, unwavering. Not rehearsed, not over practiced, but you get the sense that she knows there's no room for slip-ups in her delivery. Her message is too important to have any open holes for criticism. "Beyond the message of how remarkable her specific story is, I think the film and spending time with that family makes the audience more aware of how many potential young women there are out there that aren’t getting educated and could be Malala," MacDonald says. "I mean, who are as brilliant and could bring so much to our world but don’t have the access."
At the heart of it, Malala is a fierce orator, global crusader and a public figure, who is still very much an active Taliban target, but refuses to let fear hold her back from making sure all girls have access to quality education through the Malala Fund. But even simpler than that, she's someone's little girl who's making her parents—and parents worldwide—very, very proud. "This man, 7,000 miles away from where I live, or it used to be 7,000 miles away, has challenged the way I am as a father, and in a fundamental way," Davis says of Ziauddin.
You don't always ask for your purpose. Especially when it's revealed to you in the most frightening, left-fields of ways. Especially when it's heavy, and is for the benefit of more than just yourself. Especially when you may not have had a chance to live selfishly yet. But none of that deterred Malala from taking on the plight of young girls worldwide in the face of danger. Being hunted by an ideology that seeks to overpower and destroy didn't uproot Malala from her deeply set values and genuine desire to go out into the world and learn.
"This extraordinary girl was shot, point blank in the head, and she survives," Parkes, a man of no faith, says. "She survives intact and she survives stronger. I’m trying to find, other than luck, an explanation. What you’re saying as a logical person, an easier explanation that there’s something going on here. And I pray that’s true."
Yesterday, for the last Monday of school, Sahira, age 7, USA, had to dress up as a historic figure who has changed the world. She chose ?#?Malala? "for her courage to stand up for her town’s right to learn" and for being "a true warrior." Here's what the young lady thought of the book #IAmMalala: "The book is quite intense and scary, but also very funny in some parts like when she woke up after months of being in the hospital she said she found out her older brother was having a love affair with his X-box and her younger brother had discovered Nutella. I learned that no matter what challenge you face, you can usually overcome it if you try hard enough. I also learned one girl can change the world." Sahira, so wonderful to know we have bright young readers like you who are inspired by Malala's story. Have a great summer, and keep reading!
As ordained as her path may seem, for others, the way she lives her life is more practical than anything else. "I don’t believe that Malala was given any special magic by God," Guggenheim says. "I believe that being in the presence of an inspired father and a spiritual, powerful mother for her path, and then when she started to speak, she started to feel a sense of purpose. And as that sense of purpose grew, we became taken by it."
Simply put, Malala's destiny cannot—and will not—be stopped.
“They thought that the bullet would silence us,” Malala said at the inaugural Youth Takeover of the UN in 2013. “But nothing changed in my life except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
Umaara Elliott & Synead Nichols: How Four Footsteps Became Millions March NYC
WORDS: SHENEQUA GOLDING
Walking for change, and it's still just the beginning.
Unlike fellow organizer Umaara Elliott, Synead Nichols didn't grow up in a "woke" house. Elliott grew up Muslim and long admired the teachings of Malcolm X. But Brooklyn-born, Washington Heights-raised Nichols said growing up in a Trinidadian home, she was aware of color, but it wasn't until 2012 that she began to see the world, particularly, the ramifications of being born in a black body.
"[My family is] smart, they’re intelligent people," Synead, affectionately called Cid, says. "But I didn’t really understand what it meant being a young black woman until about 2012. Trayvon Martin, honestly."
Martin's death—and consequently George Zimmerman's acquittal—acted as a social benchmark, a shift of sorts, for the young activist. But it was the non-indictments against officers Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo in the shooting death of Mike Brown and the chokehold death of Eric Garner, respectively, that ignited Nichols and Elliott to action.
Just 19 and 23 years old at the time, the duo met the way most young people do: through social media. Their friend, Mikey, and a mutual affinity for technically trained dance was all the two needed to form a bond of trust and begin the arduous task of planning the Millions March, NYC. "We just wanted to have something that would outnumber the NYPD, and show them that numbers do count, and that people have more control than they think," Elliott says.
From Nov. 25 to Dec. 13, the ladies worked 'round the clock at Cid's Harlem apartment, which affectionally became known as the Revolutionary Room. Everything from mapping out the route to getting the word out required a training neither had.
"I’m like OCD, but no organizational skills with activism before," Elliott admits. "We had a lot of help from other people so it really wasn’t just us two organizing it, but that was our first time ever doing something like this."
Nichols was without a phone and much money at the time and could only communicate through email, which in 2014 can be considered very 2.0. "The only thing I had was Wi-Fi," she says. "I let people know I had to be timely and please only contact via email because I don’t have a phone. If I get somewhere [and you're not there] within 10 minutes, I’m leaving. That’s just how I had to move at that point."
Facebook was the microphone of choice for the march, yet both Elliott and Nichols had no idea many had heard of the demonstration, or would much less attend. "You know Facebook, eight people will say they’re going, three say maybe and two actually show up. But as the days starting going by, more and more people would RSVP," Nichols says. "I told somebody at my job, ‘Hey, I would love it if you could come to this protest we’re organizing.’ She was like, ‘What’s it called?’ I said The Millions March and she was like, ‘On Facebook?’ I was like, ‘Yeah,’ and then she was like, ‘Me and my friend are going to that. You’re at like 10,000 now.' I was like ‘What!?’"
The Facebook page received about 60,000 RSVPs, which still merited a collective "What the hell?" and "Oh my God!" from the organizers.
"We just wanted to have something that would outnumber the NYPD, and show them that numbers do count, and that people have more control than they think.” —Umaara E.
And while Elliott had the support of her family, Nichols, who admits to always "going against the grain," didn't have her family in her corner. "My parents actually weren’t very on board with this," she says. "For a very long time, right when I started doing this stuff, I dropped out of school. My parents put in so much work for this, but I was so fed up. Like, okay, I’m going to go to school and my degree is not going to mean anything and I’m going to get shot down like a dog for no reason. They weren’t very happy, and we didn’t talk for a while to be honest. I was pretty much by myself, doing my thing solo."
The night before the march, Elliott and Nichols stayed up preparing for the big day ahead and as dawn broke the two drove the route to find The City That Never Sleeps in a surprisingly quiet state. To their surprise, bus loads of people had migrated to Manhattan prepared to march, but it was only when the demonstration was in full swing did either realize just how big the turnout was. "We knew not to go to 34th Street because it would be crazy. Then we turned around and went down Broadway to 1 Police Plaza in lower Manhattan and that’s how we knew," Elliott says. "When we made the turn, that’s how we knew. We were like, oh shoot. This isn’t ending! We were walking down the block and still saw people. We were like 'How many people is it?'"
Seeing the thousands in attendance struck an emotional chord with Nichols. "I started to tear up," she says. "This is incredible. This is amazing. If 100 people came out, I would’ve been satisfied and I would’ve walked with those 100 people, but to see tens of thousands of people… I think at one point, Umaara showed me an areal view when we had gotten to 14th street, maybe 21st, an areal view of the protest and I just couldn’t even believe it. It was unbelievable."
As protestors marched through Manhattan, Elliott, Nichols and others who led the demonstration each carried images, which collectively showcased Eric Garner's eyes. The powerful and piercing image of the Staten Island man, who 11 times said "I can't breathe" as he was placed in an illegal chokehold, became the literal pink elephant in America's bloody white supremacist room.
Since then, the two have continued their fight for justice and even held vigils for the nine parishioners killed inside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., but both maintained in order to receive true change, it's going to take more than just protesting.
"I think there needs to be, honestly and it sucks, but there literally needs to be a communal, a real communal, economic situation," Nichols says firmly. "So when I say that, I’m thinking in terms of we need to endorse certain things economically. I feel like black people as a community, we fail to realize how much economic power we put into society. I think it’s really important for us to really take hold of that to our advantage."
Chance The Rapper: The Heart That Beats For Chicago
WORDS: STACY-ANN ELLIS
Chance's good works shine the brightest.
Pinning down Chance The Rapper is an exhausting task. Frustrating, really. For three consecutive months, I played Gmail ping-pong with his manager, Pat, trying to arrange a sit-down with the Acid Rap rhymer to no avail. Only maybe's, probably's, tentatively's and a "will advise." As aggravating as it was for me, I guess that’s the wonderful thing about the 22-year-old Chicagoan born Chancelor Bennett. If it doesn’t directly lend itself to one of his two passions—making music and the city of Chicago—he simply doesn’t have the time. He’s busy actually being about it rather than sitting around talking about it.
Looking at music and entertainment this year alone, the only thing that comes to mind is: what a time to be Chance The Rapper. From the top of 2015 to now, he has been victory lapping across the globe and back. A rigorous festival summertime circuit brought him out to the Free the People, Bonnaroo, Life is Beautiful, New Look Wireless, Trillectro and Pitchfork Music festivals, to name a few. His own 33-city Family Matters Tour, co-starring Metro Boomin, D.R.A.M. and fellow Chicago artist, Towkio. The release of the whimsical Surf, a collab album credited to Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment (stylized as SoX), the four-person creative troupe Chance calls home. His left-field, off-the-cuff joint project, Free (Based Freestyle Mixtapes), with His Basedness Lil B. His acting debut starring in the Colin Tilley-directed VICE short film Mr. Happy. Slice, a mystery flick directed by Austin Vesely, on the horizon. The creation of No Collar, his own 5.3 percent Helles-style lager via Goose Island for Pitchfork Music Festival. The premiere of "Angels," the first of new material from his forthcoming untitled mixtape on The Late Show with Steven Colbert, then his follow-up with a history-making debut of "Paradise," featuring Jeremih and R.Kelly, on Saturday Night Live seven weeks later.
There’s no doubt Chance had a banner year, but the real gold star goes to his seemingly around-the-clock contributions to the city that nurtured him during his ascent from Chi-town shorty to international star. On nearly every one of these aforementioned ventures, he stayed true to the sole line of text inked over his heart, "Get back to work," and suited up in his uniform. In Getty and Instagram images alike, small, glassy eyes peek out from beneath the brim of the snuggly affixed Chicago White Sox ball cap he wears damn near everywhere. If it's not that black hat (but it usually is the hat), it's some other insignia from a Windy City team like the Blackhawks or the Bulls, or an SoX tee, sweatshirt or varsity jacket. You know, to casually remind onlookers exactly who he does it all for.
"I'd like to think of Chicago as a developing city," he told Hot 97's Ebro Darden in October. "I don't like to tell the story like we're stuck in a rut. It's a place that's coming up constantly in terms of art, education and respect of life. I can't sugar coat it and make it seem like it's not a grimy city, but I used to see it from the aspect of a young person trying to survive. I was fearing for my own life and my homies' lives, so I was working on a lot of initiatives to make it safer for myself. Now as a parent, I'm a little more worried about the city from the perspective of a person who has a child."
The recent birth of his daughter, Kinsley, has helped to amplify the new dad's pre-existing efforts to zero in on Chicago's youth. "You could easily throw an anti-Chiraq campaign or show or go on the radio and talk about how bad it is, but when you're first-person engaging with the youth," he continued, "they love when I come on a field trip with them or love when I'm throwing a free event. They trust me and understand my views. I can't necessarily save everybody that's my age, because people gotta make their own choices. I can't worry about what my contemporaries are doing. I have to worry about the future of Chicago."
After being crowned “Chicago’s Outstanding Youth of The Year” at the tail end of 2014 by 100 Chi-town teens, Chance has all but made it his mission to carry that honor on his back all throughout 2015, carving out time within a packed music schedule to reach back towards the city's youth and pull them forward. Between a slew of initiatives centered around art, education and entertainment, there's enough love from Chance to go around for every age bracket.
It was this group of 100 Chicago teens that nominated and chose me as the recipient of the Outstanding Youth Award. The plaque is awarded to those who earned it based on youth leadership and an ear for the common issues that plague young Chicagoans. I consider it an honor to teach and a duty to learn, so I plan to wear this proudly and continue to lead the city in conjuction with the Evangel World Outreach Center and other organizations devoted to the next generation. I was ecstatic to see how pleased everyone was with my win, but let me clear to those who speculated. I was chosen by the children, the mayor was only in attendance. #LongLiveTheYoung
Open Mike Nights, his passion project with poet and activist Malcolm London to honor their fallen mentor, Mike "Brother Mike" Hawkins, have reserved Monday evenings as the time for teens to share in spoken word, song and comedy free of charge. Much like Chicago Public Library's YOUMedia program was to Chance and Malcolm growing up, Open Mikes are that communal space for any teen with a high school ID to cultivate creative identities. “So many young people in the city never even leave their neighborhoods,” London says over the phone. Malcolm is from the West Side of Chicago, while Chance is about 40 minutes away on the Dan Ryan highway in West Chatham. YOUMedia was their only common link. They both eventually formed a friendship and wound up in the same SAVEMONEY collective, where they came into their own as performers. The program, which kicked off on Feb. 9, has since welcomed homegrown icons as big as Vic Mensa, King Louie, Hannibal Buress, BJ the Chicago Kid, Kanye West and Chance himself to perform, but star power is not the crux of this operation. "About 250 kids come out, but it’s not fans," he says. "It’s kids who are creating and taking the reins of their own community and their own artistic space. Me and Chance are just facilitating it."
The first annual Teens In The Park Fest, a concert and festival geared towards young adults ages 13-24, was an even grander endeavor. Chano & Co. worked with Chicago City of Learning, Chicago Park District and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to treat nearly 9,000 people to a free summer fest at Northerly Island with an A1 lineup. Chance curated the concert bill, which included D Low, Joey Purp, Mike Golden, Donnie Trumpet and SoX, Kendrick Lamar and several other local talents, while Malcolm played host. With the turnout being so successful, the host squad is gunning for a part two. "It’d be great to do a Teens In The Park Festival every year that is curated by Chance the Rapper," London says. "Unless Kanye comes back to do it. I don’t really know if there’s an artist in Chicago that has as big of an audience as Chance."
Although Chicago Park District reached out to Chance with the idea via his father Ken Bennett, the mayor's deputy chief of staff and director of the Mayor's Office of Public Engagement, Chance took the simple task a step further. "From what I remember, they wanted him to perform at this thing," London says of the conceptualization of T.I.P. Fest. "That was the initial conversation. They didn’t pay him what Pitchfork [Festival] would pay him, of course, but it was more like donating his time. Chance was like, ‘Ok I’m down.’ He brought me, Noname Gypsy and a few of our other friends that are part of our staff that run Open Mike and was like, ‘I also want to take kids on a field trip to the museum and lead a couple of field trips.’ That’s what he wanted to do and he wanted to do it specifically for kids in his neighborhood."
That thought bubble soon manifested itself into three outings that took 6 to 11-year-old kids from Chicago's South Side to cultural attractions that they may not otherwise visit on the other side of town. Over the course of a month, Chance and his staff of friends surprised kids from Cole Park District with a secret trip to the Field Museum of Natural History, Hermitage and Morgan Parks to the Adler Planetarium, and Fuller Park to the Shedd Aquarium. Then, in preparation for one of the nation's coldest winters, Chance teamed up with Detroit's The Empowerment Plan to put proper coats on the backs of Chicago's homeless population through Warmest Winter Chicago. According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 125,848 Chicagoans—including 20,205 students—were reported homeless between 2014 and 2015. Unfortunately, seven percent of these individuals die from hypothermia each year. To get ahead of this, Chance is raising money towards the creation of 1000 coats, which have double functionality as a sleeping bag, and the eventual construction of a Chicago-based Empowerment Plan factory.
And of course, let's not forget the follow up to 2014's #SaveChicago Memorial Day anti-violence campaign. This year, just like the one prior, Chance and his younger brother, Taylor, used their social platforms to echo their father's desperate pleas for Chicago's youth to put their guns down during the warm weather holiday. "Last year we did the same thing and saw results," Chance tweeted in May, linking to our news write-up of 2014's efforts. Churches, schools, radio stations and outreach programs joined in on the efforts. In 2014, over the course of 42 hours, there were no reported shootings in the city. It was applause-worthy progress from 2013 in which 17 people were shot that weekend, although the streak came to a halt after an Ogden Park incident on day three. This year, however, the progress receded a bit. Over a five-day period, at least 56 people ranging from ages 17 to 47 were shot, 12 of whom died.
According to the Chicago Tribune’s ongoing report on the city’s homicides, from Jan. 1, 2015 to press time, there were 461 homicides reported. That’s a rise from the 435 reported homicides between Jan. 1 – Dec. 31 in 2014. This just means there will be more instances for Chance and those who share his determination to improve the Chi to roll up their sleeves.
That faith in the future, necessity to give back and unshakeable work ethic can be directly attributed to Papa Bennett. "[My dad] is a great man. He's always taught us right from wrong, and that you don't just pick on somebody because they're smaller than you. You try to help them out," Taylor Bennett says from across VIBE's conference room table. "[Chance] knows that just by a slight hair, he could have not been where he is right now, and thanks to all of these blessings, he is. You can't forget the place where you come from that's given you all these different talents and showing you all these different places."
“My dad has been really instrumental in getting a lot of these things done and I don’t want anybody to think anything different of a man as good as my father, or think of him as anything other than a man of the people. He taught me to be this way and helped me get the space at Harold Washington Library for Open Mike Night and helped me get a free festival for kids from the South and West sides, and helped me get the Chicago Park Districts and bring kids,” Chance said during a recent WCGI interview.
And now it's rubbing off on Taylor, who is three years Chance's junior. "I've learned a lot from my brother. I've learned how to be strong. I've learned how to stand up on my own two. Being Chance The Rapper's younger brother, there's a lot of different things that are obviously expected or projected for you to do," Taylor says. "I would say he's taught me how to be a man, for lack of words."
"It’s less about what his art is doing, but how his art is doing it. He’s an artist taking up the responsibility to do more than what people expect of him." —Malcolm L.
"People around the world [and in Chicago] should look at what Chance is doing in Chicago and say, 'Wow, I'm really thankful that this guy is out here killing it and still representing us in a positive light,'" Taylor says, his smile just as wide and warm as Chance's. "Chance has money and he's doing great as an artist, but he doesn't have Jay Z money yet, you know what I'm saying? So he's like, 'I don't need Jay Z money to have a chunk and say we're gonna do a march.' He's still trying to bring back resources and help the community and still doing these great things. He hasn't just said, 'Man, I'm from the hood and when I get all this money, I don't ever wanna come back here.'" To London, the narrative of Chance The Rapper is to go to spaces, perform for people, build with people and support other people. "[It's] less about the 'I' and more about the 'we,'" he says. "I think it’s really incredible the way Chance continues to do that."
They say I’m saving my city, say I’m staying for good/They screaming Chano for mayor, I’m thinking maybe I should. It's Saturday night and Chano is quick-spitting these "Paradise" lyrics to a blended SNL crowd—as the first independent artist to serve as a musical guest, no less—in between exuberant kicks and shuffles of Chicago footwork. Much like Taylor presumably is from the live audience, inhabitants and expats of the Windy City are beaming at the sight in front of their television sets. Here's a kid who came from 79th and Princeton in West Chatham, signature hat in tow, putting on for a city whose tumultuous, internal battles have long been laid out for spectacle and entertainment consumption. But it’s his beloved city to claim and his to help fix.
"I think it’s less about what his art is doing, but how his art is doing it," London says proudly. "He’s a Chicagoan who cares about the city like every Chicagoan. People should be proud that he’s taking up the responsibility, because he’s just an artist taking up the responsibility to do more than what I think people expect of him. No one expects more of Chance than he expects of himself. That’s something to be proud of."