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Janelle Monáe’s Beautiful Future: RaceAhead

The party was for the vodka and a limited-edition bottle, but it was really about purpose, inclusion, and love.

That’s the message behind the “A Beautiful Future” program, an alliance between Belvedere Vodka and Grammy-nominated musician, actor, creative community builder, and activist Janelle Monáe.

Monáe was in New York City yesterday to promote her new bottle and the program, now in its second year. The alliance kicked off in 2018 with a series of brunches designed to support Fem the Future, a grassroots movement created by the artist to advance opportunities for women and for people who identify as women in music, arts, and education.

“Women have been underrepresented and underserved in film and television and on the music side,” Monáe tells raceAhead. Representation means different stories get told, ones that reflect a broader swath of human experience. “Fem the Future is supported by women and men who want to see women given opportunities to compete at the highest levels… but to do that, we have to make more noise.”

Part of the noise was a series of short films produced by women directors and selected by Monáe for the Belvedere program. Janicza Bravo, Lacey Duke, and Kirsten Lepore were asked to answer the question: What does a beautiful future look like to you?

For Bravo, a beautiful future meant having a seat at the table. In Val From Purchasing, a slightly-too-close-to-home but hilarious short film, she means it literally. The film depicts a senior black woman executive who notices the hard work of a younger employee and invites her to join an important meeting to share the ideas her bloviating boss was about to take credit for. It’s the kind of small moment that illuminates—and the kind of work that Monáe feels lucky to be able to amplify. “If you grew up like me… from the Midwest… with working class parents… I now have this career that takes me to so many different parts of the world and I meet so many interesting people,” she says. “What I wanted to do with this partnership is highlight the things that I feel are beautiful and the voices that are unique.”

It’s also a goal for Rodney Williams, Belvedere’s unusually contemplative CEO. Sure, he’s happy to talk about the vodka. “We’re the oldest continuously operating vodka distillery in the world, started in 1910, and we’ve won so many awards in part because we’ve been committed to craft,” he tells raceAhead. But he also talks about the power of brands to make a difference. “As part of LVMH, Belvedere is a signatory to the UN Standards of Conduct for Business which outlines anti-discrimination practices for the LGBTQIA+ community,” he says. “It’s a first, and we’re very excited to be able to support that publicly.”

It’s the kind of commitment that turned the artist’s head. Williams talked about his quest to land Monáe, which required visiting Wondaland, her growing Atlanta-based hub of creative artists, some of whom are signed to her record label of the same name. His team was invited into her home where she convened other writers and musicians, but no agents, to talk about what they could do together. Culture change was top of mind. “They wanted to know as much about us,” he recalls. “I thought, wow, this whole approach of bringing people along and creating energy around a basket of ideas… felt very natural from the beginning.”

Monáe has garnered a lot of attention for her work of late—in Moonlight (2016) and Hidden Figures (2016), and with Grammy nods for Best Music Video for “PYNK,” as well as an Album of the Year for Dirty Computer in 2019. But she made headlines for her identity as well, when she told Rolling Stone last year that she was pansexual, attracted to people without regard to gender.

Looking back, she said it wasn’t courage that pushed her forward. “I think about all of the stories I’ve heard around the world, about so many young LGBTQIA+ kids, black girls like me, maybe from Baptist families like me, believing they were not accepted,” she says. She has a big platform, she’s surrounded by love and possibility. “If you strip that away… I could very well be one of those [people], ostracized from their families and their communities, put out on the street maybe even wanting to commit suicide because I don’t feel like I belong in this world.”

Her parting message to raceAhead readers was one of allyship.

“I have asked myself if I feel a responsibility to help someone — or a group, that may not be as privileged as me. Is it my responsibility to stand up for them? Is it my responsibility to share the mic? And I’ve answered yes to that,” she says. “So I just encourage everyone to ask themselves the question because I think that would create a more beautiful future when we can be there for each other.”

On Point

Congressional Black Caucus members hold a ‘State of Black America’ town hallAt the invitation of U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Virginia’s 4th district, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and a host of Congressional Black Caucus members convened over the weekend at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond. The event was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans; during the subsequent town hall, panelists discussed issues germane to black equality – environmental justice, healthcare, maternal mortality, and legislation that aims to tackle the legacy of the racial caste system, like the 2018 anti-lynching bill and last week’s hearing on reparationsl. Caucus Chair Karen Bass talked about The First Step Act, criminal justice reform legislation which passed in December with bipartisan support. “The criminal justice system is one of the most unjust systems in the country,” she said. “There’s still so much to be done.”Virginia Mercury

Tyler Perry takes his own advice
Perry brought the water to our eyes with his soaring speech accepting the BET Ultimate Icon Award on Sunday night, a monolog on a finding success despite a difficult life and a racist world to find his ultimate calling: To help others cross over from despair to hope to success. But his final piece of advice, “own your stuff, own your business, own your way,” is very much reflected in this long-awaited new streaming service with BET set to launch this fall. Viacom Inc., the parent company of BET Networks hasn’t priced BET+ yet, but we do know that the service will be populated with original movies and programming created by producer and actor Tyler Perry. He will also have a financial stake in the venture.
Wall Street Journal

Happy birthday digital advertising!
Digital advertising turns 25 this year, which the good folks at Adobe thought was the perfect time to check in with consumers. How do you like digital ads? A survey of 2,000 diverse and multi-generational global consumers finds that ads fall short in some key areas. Some 47% of respondents felt that ads tend to skew male, and 59% find the digital ads skew white.  Some 66% of black and 53% of Latinx respondents their ethnic identity is often portrayed stereotypically. It matters: 38% of consumers said they are more likely to trust brands that show more diversity in their ads and 34% say they’ve boycotted a brand because they felt it did not represent their identity in its advertising. In fact,over half of LGBTQ+, African American, and Gen Z respondents have boycotted brands because of their digital advertising. The full survey is here. More global results below.
CMO

 

On Background

Nicole Dennis-Benn on how her novel’s character became her ‘heroine’
Homosexuality is still taboo in Jamaica, explains the author of Here Comes The Sun, and that’s why she was “afraid” to write Margot, the main character. In an essay for Catapult, where Dennis-Benn will be teaching a writing workshop, she describes the apprehension she faced while creating Margot’s identity. It felt like coming out again, she says, “making me realize just how much homophobia I had internalized in my life.” But the story told through Margot—and the issues it helped spotlight—forced her to confront that inner struggle, and, ultimately, accept, and let it go. “A triumph,” she writes.
Catapult

Take a DIY tour of black Hollywood
Why? Because as writer Danielle Dorsey explains, the early trailblazers who broke down racial barriers in the early 20th century are never mentioned on the official tours. Nope, you won’t find Hattie McDaniel’s grave, Marvin Gaye’s home, or Nat King Cole’s home — the first black family to move into the “whites only” neighborhood of Hancock Park. According to Dorsey, Cole’s real estate agent had a white-passing woman buy the home on the Cole’s behalf, then transfer the deed. When the housing association found out, they offered to buy the house back at a profit. Cole responded, “If you give me a million dollars, I’ll leave the country.” See? History is so fun.
Travel Noire

Schools are using technology to “listen” for potential violence. What could go wrong?
It’s a fascinating and invasive idea that doesn’t appear to work. “Aggression detectors” are software-enabled listening devices that are increasingly being used in schools, prisons and public businesses to detect people bent on aggression before they start shooting. Except, as this fascinating investigation from ProPublica found — they even tested it in a high school —it doesn’t seem to work. “It’s not clear it’s solving the right problem. And it’s not clear it’s solving it with the right tools,” says a University of Utah computer science professor who studies how replacing humans with artificial intelligence affects decision-making in society. The most aggression detected is the rush to get into the business. Currently, the education security market runs a cool $2.7 billion.
ProPublica

Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead and assisted in the preparation of today’s summaries.

Quote

A lot of this album [Dirty Computer] is a reaction to the sting of what it means to hear people in my family say, ‘All gay people are going to hell.’
—Janelle Monáe