On March 8, Seren Sensei went viral with her cultural appropriation accusations against Bruno Mars. In a video clip taken from a recent episode of The Grapevine, a YouTube talk show focused on issues important to black millennials, Sensei confidently stated that Mars "is not black, at all, and he plays up his racial ambiguity to cross genres." The comments sparked a dialogue around the exploitation of black cultural products that went from Black Twitter to the Washington Post.
Despite this notoriety, there is much more to Seren Sensei than that buzzy clip. Since the death of Michael Brown, she has been on YouTube preaching the virtues of buying from black-owned businesses. As Sensei Aishitemasu, a name taken from a line spoken by Rinko Kikuchi’s character in Pacific Rim, the 30-year-old advocates for nothing less than a black economic revolution. On YouTube and on her site, the Washington, DC resident regularly makes posts covering everything from sharp takedowns of popular advertising and black-owned gift guides to movie reviews and stories of black history’s hidden figures like Queen Anna Nzinga.
Inspired by Toni Morrison, Dr. Joy DeGruy, Angela Davis, and Nina Simone, the published author is constantly asking, “What am I going to spend my hard-earned money on?” As a result, she’s galvanized a community of over 55,000 followers (34,000 on YouTube, 3,000 on Tumblr, 7,000 on Instagram, and 11,000 on Twitter) who are looking for tangible ways to support one another. “Money talks and bullshit walks,” she said of the ways that the black community can reinvest capital back into itself.
Currently, Sensei is at work on a short story collection and a speculative fiction manuscript, both on reimagined black communities outside of the white gaze. She’s also working on an essay series on black artistry and value, and finding it outside of traditional capitalist practices, for Riot Material. Over a couple of phone conversations, I spoke to Sensei about black-owned businesses, why the black economic revolution is nigh, and the economics of cultural appropriation.
VICE: Your viral comments sparked a conversation around cultural appropriation. But what is the relationship between that and the bigger issue of white supremacy?
Seren Sensei: Cultural appropriation is a system of white supremacy, especially here in the United States. Racism touches every aspect of our lives, including the art and entertainment industry. Like I said in the video, we want our black art to come from non-black bodies, because we live in a system that devalues blackness. We see this play out with other cultures as well. It’s not a Bruno Mars-specific problem, or a music industry problem. It’s a symptom of the racist society that we live in.
What’s special about this moment right now?
In the last four of five years, we’ve gotten to the point where we can say that the Iggy Azalea stuff is not cool. But we cannot really speak enough about the fact that non-black people of color can benefit from racism because they are not black. Once they realized they couldn’t package blackness with a white face like Iggy's, they moved on to a brown face like Bruno's. And you see how it went. He won the album of the year. To me, Bruno Mars is blackface karaoke. He dresses up in signifiers that have become stereotypes, like gold chains, unbuttoned silk shirts, and gold rings. He has a bunch of black bodies around him like props and accessories. It’s just like Miley Cyrus, but people are OK with Mars because he has a brown face. But the truth is, he is not black.
What is the economic impact that cultural appropriation has on black artists and black entrepreneurs?
Black artists can’t get ahead, they can’t get on, they can’t get amplified. They can’t get their careers or businesses off the ground. Thug Kitchen is an example. It was a blog that posted their recipes in ebonics. Like, “Yeah bitches, it’s time to make some bad-ass pie.” They got a book deal and blew up because no one knew who they were. When it came out that is was two white, suburban people, everyone realized it was cultural appropriation. White people like that don’t have to worry about anti-black racism—they have the privilege of crossover appeal. With black people, it’s taken for granted that, “Of course they can rap, play basketball, and cook. They’re black.” But when a white person does it, society heaps all this praise on it. That is racist.
What can black people do as consumers do to fight cultural appropriation?
Support other black people. All the black people who are coming out now and defending Bruno Mars are crazy. I’m like, where were you when Jeremih was fighting with his label to release an album? Where was all this energy when people were pitting Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj against each other? We hate ourselves and we prefer to see black art come from non-black bodies. We have to be more supportive of our own people and our own culture. We have to have more pride in our self-worth and our culture and uplift each other. A lot of black people look to non-blacks for validation. They say that we should be flattered that non-blacks like what we are doing. But that statement puts non-blacks on a pedestal and blacks on the bottom. We have to get out of that mindset.
How did you begin your journey towards only buying from black-owned businesses?
I started researching more about what businesses are out there. At this point, it was 2015-ish. A lot of businesses that I initially saw were the same over and over, like clothes, hair products, and stuff like that. I started digging even more for essential items that we use every single day, like soap and your toothbrush.
So if I have to spend money on these items every day, why don't I start trying to get these items from black-owned businesses? And then I just went down the rabbit hole. I was finding all these black-owned businesses on Instagram and Tumblr. I started following Official Black Wall Street on Instagram, whose founder, Mandy Bowman, just launched an app.
Once I really started looking and digging, it was like a whole world opened up. That was when I decided doing black-owned business unboxings on my YouTube channel, which I do the last Friday of the month, every month. It snowballed and now it's to the point where practically everything in my house is from a black-owned business.
What can you tell me more about the "economic revolution" that you talk about on your YouTube channel?
I am American, so I am speaking about black Americans and what's going on here. Black people here set the trends, we create culture. If we could switch into a mindset of just not being consumers, and start consuming from our own people, we could be investing money back into black-owned businesses and utilizing that to create more jobs in our communities.
You see the job creation, you see the economic revolution, you see the power when you divest your money from white-owned, racist corporations, and invest it back into black-owned businesses. You're reclaiming your monetary power. That, to me, is the building block. That, to me, is the first step to an economic revolution.
You emphasize businesses owned by black women. Why?
I am a black woman, so I clearly like supporting other black women. I like to support black men too, obviously, and black people in general, but we do live in a patriarchy. In the system of racism and white supremacy, there is a structure that gives black men… I don't want to say an advantage, but certain privileges that a woman aren't going to have. It’s very easy to settle into supporting the default. We black women are doubly impacted.
Why don't more people buy black?
I think the biggest problem all of us have to deal with is our internalized anti-blackness, which is a consequence of living in and growing up in a racist, white supremacist society. All the major corporations and banks are white-owned. We grow up with that being the norm and the standard.
We have to break that mindset and break that conditioning, and it's difficult because we're bombarded with these images and these ideas at on both conscious and subconscious levels, basically from the moment we are born. Once you get into the proper mindset, it's kind of like, How do I start? How do I find the business that has what I need?
How did you do it?
It becomes a lifestyle change. I can buy from Freedom Paper Company, but it's online and they don't have a store, so I have to plan it out in advance and give myself enough time to get it, instead of the convenience of I'm just going to buy it from Walmart. Now I have to keep an eye on my tissue supply because I have to wait two weeks for it to come in the mail. A lot of people don't want to make that adjustment, they just want that ease.
Everything you get easily is paid for somewhere else. You get it easy from Walmart and you get it easy from Amazon, but that's because they're huge conglomerates who don't pay their workers enough. It's an adjustment all around, and a lot of people aren't there yet.
Do you have a list of alternatives for random items you wouldn't think there are a black-owned companies for?
I actually keep lists of black-owned businesses everywhere. I have a list on my phone, computer, and on Instagram. I also run a Tumblr called Black Spring Essentials, which is basically nothing but everyday items from black-owned businesses. It’s not just like one brand—it's a ton of different types of brands. People are always asking me, "Oh, do you have a suggestion for this and that?" I’m a list person. I keep mad lists everywhere.
Where do you find the black-owned businesses you buy from?
WeBuyBlack.com. They call themselves the Amazon of black-owned businesses. It’s basically a search engine where you can literally type anything you want in, like socks and mouthwash, and it pops up with a black-owned business that sells those things. It’s probably like my number-one best resource.
Then, there's Official Black Wall Street, which started on Instagram as a kind of directory. They recently launched an app where you can search for black-owned businesses near you. They also launched a full website that's really good, too. If you type in the hashtag #blackbusiness into Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr, you can also come across a lot of stuff.
How do you feel about black-owned businesses that sell to white-owned businesses?
Personally, I think that sucks because, again, black people and black women are the biggest purchasers of hair care products. To sell your company instead of doubling down and continuing to be with your company in the long run is a bit short-sighted. It's all about taking the money and running.
Which, you know, is capitalism. It's a byproduct of our capitalist society. It’s like, How much money can I get for me, instead of thinking about the larger picture: How can I possibly grow this business for my family? How can I grow this business for my children? How can I create more generational wealth for my family? How can I potentially grow this company for the community and hire more black workers? When they sold Shea moisture, they got a whole new branding team of white women. I'm not about that. For a long time, black Americans weren't allowed to own businesses or be entrepreneurs. We're just starting to play catch-up and a lot of us have the mindset of surviving instead of thriving. But I think that mindset is slowly changing now.
A lot of people are putting more of an emphasis, and there have been really high-profile acquisitions, like Carol's Daughter by L'Oréal, which upset a lot of people. People are questioning the value of sell, sell, sell. I think people are getting tired of capitalism. I'm anti-capitalist, and I think people are realizing that it's more important to keep their businesses and grow them and to figure out ways to continue grow. A lot of the younger generations are feeling different with regard to black pride and black power. You have to support each other.
Can you tell me some of your favorite black-owned products?
That’s hard! I love my toothbrushes from Coral Oral and True Laundry Detergent, both available on We Buy Black, because of their quality and effectiveness. Coral Oral comes in a four-pack—which is a year worth of toothbrushes—and really leaves my teeth feeling squeaky clean, while True does the same for my clothes. I also love Freedom Paper Company, which sells a variety of home goods like toilet paper, napkins, paper towels, and trash bags in affordable multi-packs. My favorite soaps are from Monie Squared and they come in a variety of scents with all-natural ingredients formulated to clean skin without drying it out.
I’ve tried so many hair products, but my favorite right now is Alikay Naturals, which was started by a fellow YouTuber, BlackOnyx77! I’ve used her Moisturizing Black Soap shampoo on my hair when I had dreadlocks and I still use it as a loose natural. I love it! Alikay Naturals is also readily available at Target, Rite Aid, Sally’s Beauty Supply store, etc. I also mentioned CHRiS CARDi for clothes and luggage, as well as soleRebels for eco-friendly, fair trade shoes.
What do you want to see in the future?
I just hope that it becomes the norm and the standard for us to support our own the way that our society is set up is to support white brands and businesses. I would like for our new normal to be to support our own and also not to cash out and run when our companies do well. We need to build them up into something bigger and better, into something that can be the backbone of future generations and future generational wealth. It’s a lifestyle choice to make the conscious effort everyday: I’m going to support a black-owned business or another black person. I’m going to put my money where my mouth is because, yet again, money talks and bullshit walks.
What's intrigued you most about the dialogue you've sparked around cultural appropriation?A lot of people don’t know the difference between ethnicity, nationality, and race. Puerto Rican is a nationality, not a race. Bruno Mars can be Puerto Rican and not be black. People also have short attention spans. That two-minute clip is from an hour-long conversation. People have been trying to come up with points that we already addressed on the show. But most people are just angry because they like Bruno Mars. But I said on the panel, I think he is extremely talented. What I’m saying doesn’t take anything away from his talent. He’s a great entertainer and performer. But that doesn’t change the fact that he is benefitting from anti-black racism. Stan culture like that is really toxic when it gets to the point that your favorite artist is above critique. What we do on The Grapevine is have conversations. Some people might agree and some people might not agree. But I am a freethinker. I’m going to think what I want and say what I want and no one is going to stop me.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
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Correction 3/16/18: A previous version of this article misattributed a line to Idris Elba's character that was instead spoken by that of Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim. VICE regrets the error.