Black creatives are consistently brilliant while navigating professional obstacles and social oppression. Melissa Kimble, founder of #blkcreatives, knows Black creativity. Her tweet, “Even in the middle of pandemics and protest, Black creativity is still our saving grace.” was featured on a Chicago billboard as part of a Black Lives Matter campaign.
Melissa has tuned her ears to the echoes. In dark places, an echo — the phenomenon that happens when sound bounces off a hard surface and returns to its origin — is useful for location and direction. During turbulent periods in American history, Black artists, musicians, and writers have imbued culture with the joy, pain, love, and heartbreak that represents the full spectrum of American life. While today’s spotlight is on these Black creatives, Melissa remembers “no one else was using that term” when she first started in 2012.
When Ebony Magazine laid off Melissa and her entire team in 2017, she considered making a full-time commitment to building #blkcreatives. But after years of being underpaid and underappreciated, she felt validated when a company called her for a new opportunity. She accepted a position in New York that looked great on paper. It had an impressive title and decent pay, but misery set in almost immediately. Only six months into her new job, Melissa was depressed. Her social life suffered. She was let go. “I bombed.”
She was nearly a thousand miles away from her support system of family and friends. “I had the option to choose what was best for me. I didn’t, and it backfired.” Albeit painful, Melissa admits that this experience helped propel her and #blkcreatives forward.
While the current state of society seems unprecedented, Melissa notices similarities with times past. Fond memories of a wellspring of Black creativity penetrate foggy childhood recollections of uprisings, war, and political polarization. Several hit movies emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s like Love Jones, Poetic Justice, Bad Boys, and The Best Man.
TV in that era was also an enormous source of pride for Melissa. Shows from Moesha to Living Single, Girlfriends to Family Matters, depicted the variety of fashion, music, politics and values of Black life. “In the 90s, nobody was responding to racism. It was a part of the art, but it was not the essence.”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin featured two of that era’s biggest stars, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Martin is Melissa’s favorite show, and she notices its influence everywhere. In the 90s, Black creativity flourished in the face of much adversity. Melissa finds the resurgence of the Black culture of her youth to be heartwarming, though everything seems like it’s a reflection of the 90s, perhaps to a fault. Today, many are content with replicating decades old formulas, including designs using Martin’s patented typography.
At first glance, 2020 seemed like yet another year of refurbishing the Black creativity of yore. Sony Pictures released the blockbuster Bad Boys for Life, the third installment of the 25-year-old Bad Boys franchise starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Rumors surfaced that The Best Man would return. But nobody foresaw the way the world would change.
Melissa found the healing practices she had begun shortly before things fell apart provided her with some level of resilience. By the time the pandemic was declared, she was in a groove with regular therapy and daily routines. She wrestled with a lot of old wounds and repressed trauma that was blocking the growth of #blkcreatives and noticed that her own creativity expanded. She was having fun and at peace, but life would soon test that tranquility.
* * *
For some, lockdowns simply meant adjustment. In response to social distancing, many shifted more of their lives online for work, community, and self-expression. For Melissa and many others, the pandemic also brought sadness and grief. Melissa lost her stepfather — who she calls her dad — to pancreatic cancer.
Melissa began sharing dispatches of her thoughts and feelings on social media. “I feel like if I didn’t share what I was actually going through, I wouldn’t be true to who I am online. I know I’m not like the only person who has recently lost someone, and I feel like we don’t really share enough about how hard grief can be, especially during this time.”
Her first tweets after her dad passed away began as a way to process her own emotions. Surviving family and friends often have trouble finding a place to process death in public forums and daily life. For example, Melissa’s step sister received no time off to grieve the loss of their father, which happened only months after grieving the loss of her own stepfather. Melissa discovered that her transparency created space for others who had also lost loved ones. “We really don’t talk about grief enough.”
As in the 90s and earlier generations, the contemporary social climate and work conditions are antagonistic to racialized people. The economy slates company performance and profits over the health and well-being of creators. Corporations exploit them for their creativity and they benefit little from it.
While the ideas and work product of Black creatives are always in high demand, a considerable number of Black creatives aren’t able to meet their financial needs. Agencies and corporations have a poor history of recruiting, hiring, and retaining Black talent, and the freelance world is notoriously fickle.
This, on top of a substrate of generational trauma, mental health concerns, and systemic racism. Melissa believes that excellence under these constraints only begs the question of the potential impact of Black creativity without them. “Could you imagine what we could really do if we were creating from a place where we are valued and healed?”
That question animates Melissa as much today as it did when she first started the network. #blkcreatives hasn’t changed in response to all the upheaval but has only refined its mission of advocating for Black genius. “Black people are always getting killed by white people and police. But even if we hadn’t had the summer that we had last year, #blkcreatives would still do what it has to do.”
As Melissa advances the #blkcreatives network, her focus remains on community. She desires not to be the source for anyone in her but a resource — she describes it as something that filters out instead of filtering into — for creatives to be themselves, create, and get paid for it.
Melissa envisions that the future for Black creatives will revolve around collective care. She foresees relationships moving to the forefront with a premium on intimacy and reciprocation. Not overly produced, but real life clusters in which people come together to exchange stories, tools, and lessons learned. The emphasis is on cultivating Black ingenuity regardless of the circumstances not reacting to racial violence or economic decline. “Creativity is connected to the parts of ourselves that are completely free.”
While history may not repeat itself, Black creatives will continue to find their way through the echoes of unrest and instability. Melissa’s #blkcreatives will be there as “a guidepost in your journey when you need us. We give you what you need and get the fuck out of the way.”
Joshua E. McCoy is a writer and photographer based in East Point, Georgia. His work examines structures and status quo aiming to find the seams and bare the threads.