As a Black Creative, Brands Want Me—but Not My Conception of Blackness

In a short film and essay, artist summer mason reflects on the constant dance between taking commissions and avoiding exploitation in an era of commercialized identity politics.

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Jun 29 2018, 8:29pm

This short film is a PSA by artist summer fucking mason made for all the Black, queer creatives who are exploited and frustrated.

Waves of uncertainty flow over me during the hours of pre-production. I’m shooting a commercial commissioned for a company that will pay my bills, but as I work, I find myself stopping constantly to question whether I’m safe—whether my vision and my work as a Black creative are safe in this corporate context. Rather than focusing on the set, I find myself in a swarm of thoughts, asking: Who gets to define the Black aesthetic? Are non-Black folks even allowed to contribute to that visual narrative? Is it rooted in work made by Black creatives, or in non-Black people’s perception of Black “authenticity”?

As a filmmaker, I understand the fragility of the Black image, and I make it my job to treat it with care. While allowing these questions to sweep over me on set, I remind myself that my work is honest and intentional, and if a non-Black client doesn’t like my project proposal, that’s not necessarily a reflection on the integrity of my work. I strive to perform this type of resilience with each new project I accept. I question, and then I keep moving.

Lately, though, I’ve felt less fluid.

Azha Luckman by summer fucking mason.

I recently completed a video commission for a small clothing company. The project explores intimate moments of a Black, queer relationship. If anyone has seen my work, they know it’s not color-graded lightly, nor is it joyous. It takes itself very seriously, and demands both patience and attention. Overall, my shit is Black, gay, and dramatic as fuck. All that is clear from my reel, which the company saw before hiring me.

My depiction of a Black, queer relationship in the videos I shot was one that was honest; queer relationships aren’t all frolicking in a field of glitter. I presented a personal experience of a Black, queer couple lounging around their house on a Sunday afternoon. Sometimes there are moments of togetherness as each of the models are intertwined, grasping each other tightly on the couch. Other shots depict them in different rooms, taking their own emotional space.

The feedback I received from the creative director felt inappropriate yet all too familiar: I was told that my depiction of the queer couple was too dark, moody, boring, and depressing. I was literally asked to “lighten” the work.

Although I know there are worse comments that could be made, I felt stuck. Hurt, even. I had spent hours looking through the company’s past photo shoots to make sure my aesthetic felt both mine and cohesive with their brand. And I felt my approved film treatment translated seamlessly into the final product. I know that companies are very particular about ads and that ads are fictions, but this was more than just an issue of different taste or the difference between art and advertising; the interaction revealed a deeper bias.

This brand, like many others, prides itself on being “ethical” and honest—it specifically seeks out Black and brown bodies of diverse shapes for its ads and doesn’t retouch them. But I realized then that the white creative director who frequently uses Black models had curated her own depiction of Blackness—one that is insistently simplistic and joyous. She had mastered the most effective way to capitalize on Black femme bodies, and my visuals did not align with it.

How did non-Black folks become the experts on Black queer experience, when just two or three years ago, they wouldn’t bother to answer any of my emails? In a time when you will be publicly dragged for being problematic, it's important for companies to "seem woke," and one way they carefully navigate that need is by hiring Black folks like me behind the camera. But a pair of white hands lay over mine as I hit "record."

And it’s not just commercial work. I’ve received emails back from residencies, grant programs, and museums stating that my work is “too colorful in content” or “too ethnically bound.”

With this commission, I had finally met my tipping point. After receiving the email, I asked myself: is it all worth it?

I pulled out from the project and the video never ran.

Yetunde Olagbaju, by summer fucking mason.

“I accept gigs based on the nature of the job: [asking myself,] does it satisfy me aesthetically? What exactly am I doing?” freelance model Cyndei Jordan told me when I shared my story with them. “Sometimes it seems like projects just want to suck political movements dry and, even worse, for free. While I’m not in the position to judge motives, I try to be responsible about what images I align myself with.”

It’s an especially complicated time to be a Black creative. We are swept up in the midst of the second-wave Black renaissance, as Black artists are increasingly taking over the mainstream. My own art is demanding attention, as I’m met with platforms and offered grants in a way that doesn’t necessarily feel likely a decade ago. I’m excited that my art doesn’t stay on the moodboards and treatments for proposed work; I actually get paid for my ideas. And occasionally, I get offered a seat at the board meeting.

But as my friend, visual artist Yetunde Olagbaju, put it: “Being a talented Black artist, curator, creator, collaborator can lead to tokenism, microagressions, and general devaluing of talent.”

While people are starting to recognize that that Black youth have long been the creative directors of American culture, that recognition has a sharp edge. It makes us targets for exploitation, for companies using our images and ideas merely as cultural currency. And for artists like myself, who are able to be paid for their intellectual property—which still isn’t the case for the majority of young Black people who define what’s cool in this country—that can require an uncomfortable level of compromise.

Simultaneously, though, Black artists need to represent our authentic visions in the mainstream. As another friend, Bay Area photographer Azha Luckman, put it: “It is extremely important for someone who is a Black, queer womxn and looks like me to be behind a camera…It is important for people like myself to narrate stories and produce ideas so others can watch our stories come to life and exist in places they wouldn't normally be seen in.”

Yetunde Olagbaju, by summer fucking mason.

In addition, we’re living in a time where art and media are packed with manufactured illusions of authenticity. So, it’s crucial for artists like me to bring honest narratives to the industry, even if fitting them into commercial structures can be painful. As Olagbaju put it in regards to her own work: “How do I properly price a piece that helps me and the people who experience it heal matriarchal trauma in their families? How do I put a price on my emotional labor? How do I put a price on vulnerability? … Although it's a tough topic for creative Black and Brown femmes, it's necessary for our survival and sustained creativity.”

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I don’t yet have the answers to all these questions that keep me in a constant state of doubt—frustrated and confused. I’m grateful that I live in a time where more companies and organizations seek Black artists to create content that reflects their identities. But that alone isn’t enough, when I’m being told, implicitly, that my work is too Black, or isn’t Black in the way they want it to be.

I do know, at the very least, what I want as a working Black artist: The ability to contribute work to an evolving Black aesthetic, receive appropriate payment for my work from companies that have the means to offer it, and be given the opportunity to make a career from all this shit. But I also want to retain full creative control over the Black narratives and imagery I choose to create. After all, my work is personal.

For a downloadable cheat-sheet of "questions to ask and things to know" for Black freelancers, see mason's "The Yellow Pages: Navigating the Commodification of a Black Aesthetic."

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