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Who gets to represent black culture?

Updated: May 14

In celebration of hip-hop's 50th anniversary, Pepsi MAX collaborated with the estate of The Notorious B.I.G. to release the original studio version of a 1997 freestyle he did in reference to the drink on a hot summer day. This beautifully executed international campaign serves as a reminder of the links between brand and Black culture. In the 25 years since the freestyle, it has continued to grow more common to see Black people in marketing campaigns and see black culture leveraged for its ‘cool factor’. But while this has been celebrated on the merits of diverse representation, there lies a deeper question of who is really benefiting from this shift in culture.

Black culture is popular culture

The influence of Black culture was evident in the conversations surrounding this year’s Love Island. While the cast represented different ethnicities and regions across the UK and Ireland (and even France), the season was described as “London Island” due to the frequent use of Black British slang. The dialect however comes from Jamaican Patois – an English-based Creole language with West African influences – and stems from post-war Caribbean migration. And while this language now proliferates in UK popular culture, thousands of the Windrush generation, who made that cultural imprint, are still misclassified as illegal immigrants with no compensation.

Black Twitter doesn't just call out ads and brands for the sake of creating memes, we do it because our culture has become THE culture and we have yet to receive the due credit. Today we’re faced with the intersection of Gen Z marketing, cultural appropriation, and the influence of Black culture. One of the most notable ads facing criticism this year was Nando’s recent ad ‘This Must be the Place’, which had Black British slang peppered throughout the advert. While the intention may have been to make the ad more culturally relevant, it had a “cringe effect” with audiences instead.

Instead of performing surface-level representation, marketers need to interact with the Black community before they use aspects of the culture. Some may say that Footasylum is an example of an inclusive brand strategy done right with its Youtube channel dominated by Black talent including Nella Rose, Chunkz and Harry Pinero – becoming a staple in Black culture. However, we could also question whether this representation is authentic as the success of Footasylum relies on Black humour and the Black experience. While the show always provides me with a good laugh, I also recognise that much like the success of Nike’s Nothing Beats A Londoner campaign, we only see one archetype of blackness celebrated – the ‘hood’ aesthetic.

In the UK Black diaspora, our identities are a combination of dialects, rituals, and cultures that we should be able to celebrate and express authentically. However, it becomes a problem when we have our cultures recreated and repackaged by marketers. Particularly with the commercialisation of UK rap music at a momentous high, we’re seeing how working-class black or ‘hood’ culture has become more marketable and is being centralised as the dominant narrative of Blackness for Gen Z.

Not only is this aesthetic not representative of our diversity, it's also contentious within the community itself. For example, last year, when UK rapper Central Cee wore a Nike tracksuit to the British Fashion Awards he was widely criticised on Black Twitter for cultural appropriation and ‘cosplaying a roadman’. Some may question why we as Black people would associate blackness with ‘ghettoness’, but I believe it’s deeper than ownership of ‘hood culture’. It’s the experiences of being a Black person attached to the aesthetic, accompanied by the othering and the microaggressions. Someone on the outside, however, may just see it as ‘cool’.

What does this mean for marketers?

In the current climate, marketers need to embed inclusion into every stage of their creative process as without an inclusive process, the creative output suffers. We’ve got to a point where representation isn’t enough, and quite frankly it’s gotten lazy. Representation can still be progress but it’s equally valid for Black audiences to question the campaigns and ads we’re seeing are nothing more than performative politics. While the intention may be to create culturally relevant content, more often than not, these creative outputs are actually culturally insensitive. When language, fashion or cultural queues are out of place (much like the Nando’s ad) it feels tokenistic, like it’s been put against a checklist, just inauthentic.

I fear we’re seeing collective fatigue surrounding equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) in the creative industry, coupled with waning accountability. Evidently, the death of George Floyd sent the world into a frenzy, uprooting problematic ways of thinking and bringing up uncomfortable conversations about race that many people never dreamed of having. However, it’s clear that fewer companies want to have these conversations but are surprised when cracks start to form in internal cultures and more notices are being handed in from Gen Z.

As we’ve all seen in recent years, Gen Z is fearless and unapologetic – unafraid to call things out but also a key audience to marketers. One thing that I’ve noticed about my generation is that we live by concept – if you want our spending power, we want intentional marketing. An example of this done right was Ruka – a black-owned hair care and extensions brand, and their first televised advert on ITV. It was lovely to see this ad in the midst of Love Island’s madness because it showcased so many different representations of Blackness in 30 seconds.

How can cultural makers engage with Black culture without being accused of cultural appropriation?

1. Hire black talent:

At The Unmistakables, we often tell clients if they want to represent a particular group within a strategy or campaign, then this group needs to be in the rooms where these conversations are being had. Making your hiring practices more inclusive demonstrates two things; you're putting your money where your mouth is and while you intend to implement change, you're not trying to speak on behalf of marginalised communities. Black people make up only 4% of the UK’s population but our influence reaches across the globe – we deserve rightful representation.

2. Ensure client briefs include the perspectives of Black creatives

Making the hiring process more inclusive is one thing but to make a real impact, your focus should be to prioritise internal change over external comms. Attempting to create inclusive campaigns without a solid internal structure is essentially working backwards. External communications should mirror the values and practices of an organisation or agency otherwise, what’s the point? Has everyone forgotten why we had black squares to begin with?

At The Unmistakables, we recognise that brands/organisations are at varying stages of their diversity and inclusion journey and encourage our clients to engage with Black creatives in the wider community. However, before reaching out externally, we advise that Black people's time and value is respected. This means ensuring you have an equitable budget and clear brief in place that allows for collaboration as so much can be learned from valued inputs.

3. Know your history

As a historian consulting on inclusion, a common theme I’ve noticed is creative teams not knowing the histories of marginalised communities they’re engaging with. I’m not suggesting that a strategist needs to spend hours researching for a dissertation on the history of blackfishing, however, a simple Google search or a conversation goes a long way. Brands and agencies looking at their own histories also allows them to hold themselves accountable; identify areas that require work and most importantly, collect their receipts – before someone from Black Twitter does.

Undoubtedly, Black culture has become mainstream, so gatekeeping our culture has become increasingly challenging, especially in the age of social media. With the changing course of society, I do think culture makers can engage with our culture without being part of the community but it needs to be done with consultation, consideration and care. Plain and simple, don’t use our faces without our voices.

This article was written by Chynna Rhooms, Associate at The Unmistakables


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