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In the closing weeks of Black History Month, one of Lumen’s Attention Consultants, Emmanuel Agu, was invited by IPG Mediabrands (via Initiative), to speak to a room full of creatives, eager to expand their understanding, and interrogate the representation of black culture in the media. Here’s his account of the event.

I was grateful to be joined by such wonderful thinkers Adébayo Bolaji, Damola Oladapo , and Nelson Abbey, co-author of upcoming novel ‘Think Like a White Man’. To initiate the evening of discussion we were posed with one key question:

“in the internet age, do people have enough influence to make change on the representation of black people in the media, or is it only politics that can make this change?”, steered by our wonderful host, Mimi Okorie.

We began by casting our minds back to press coverage in the wake of the London riots following the death of Mark Duggan. There was complete unanimity on the awful media discourse of this time; papers and news reels were littered with racialised depictions of “opportunistic thugs” embroiled in gang warfare, as opposed to those illustrating disenfranchised and angry youth. Though we had conceded some progress had been made since days past, it feels as if expecting anything more than the stereotypical facsimiles of thugs, gangs and social disobedience from an industry dominated by the white and structurally privileged,  is an unrealistic goal.  

We turned our eyes instead to brilliant community owned projects such as gal-dem and media diversified, providing spaces for exploration of talent for Black (and minority) people, as well as pushing back against tired narratives dominating the zeitgeist.

Similarly, whilst we lament(ed) the need for such channels, we celebrated the power of #blacklivesmatter hashtags across social media, drawing a spotlight on injustices faced by our communities, whilst managing to somehow lower the socioeconomic bar of entry required to contribute to these discussions. Yet still, we worried about the accessibility of such platforms – who’s voices dominate these discussions? What measures are put in place to defend those from the attacks of trolls? Why do we see the plight of Americans’ used to diminish those in the UK? What are the long-term effects for the marginalized, waking up day after day to seeing black and brown bodies brutalized by the state again and again?

Next, we turned our eyes to focus on creative and advertising strategy. As we navigated this discussion,  we brought case studies and examples, citing the fallout from such campaigns like Heineken, and perhaps “tone deaf” ad placements from H&M. next we contrasted the consequences and success of Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner and Nike’s ad featuring Kaepernick. We were led to question the racial composition of the production teams in the first three instances – could such creative really be produced if black people were present in these spaces? And if they are, do they feel empowered enough to speak up in their workplaces?

Whilst the pursuit of justice and equality in all that we do is admirable, we acknowledged that we still navigate a capitalist society – profit is king. Nike’s ad showcases the potential to beyond the ordinary, disrupting the status quo in a political manner, whilst still remaining entirely profitable.   

The question posed at the start of discussion will, of course, be debated for many more black history months to come, but, I feel as if the fundamental answer is clear. Progress cannot happen if there are simply no black people in these spaces. for some larger corporations, perhaps positive discrimination programs might be seen as a stop-gap measure, but ensuring those we take into the industry are well supported in equal professional discourses, whilst guaranteeing them agency to assemble and network with peers – we will be sure to continue to head in the right direction.