Instagram’s #ShareBlackStories movement has notably helped make artists like Love Watts more accessible to all.
Black History Month, in a larger cultural context, is always interesting to watch every February. Because as it unfolds in real-time, it’s usually celebrated by talking about the same three to four civil rights/abolitionist figures (I.e MLK, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass). Or, in the case of last February, spending the whole month waiting on who is going to be put on blast for wearing blackface while in college. Thankfully, Instagram has spent the last two iterations of Black History Month trying to engage in modern and contemporary Black History with their hashtag (and movement, really) #ShareBlackStories. While the hashtag is not confined to the month of February, Instagram has used the month for the past few years to encourage diverse Black voices on their platform to express themselves and share their unique perspectives. And this time, it was in the form of collaborating with artist and visionary LOVE WATTS and the lovely faces of Netflix’s Strong Black Lead.
The LOVE WATTS team-up with Instagram took place at the Watts Empowerment Center on February 27. And part of what immediately made it stand out to me was that, on top of being an experience that celebrates leaving Black history, it—quite literally—was a pop-up exhibit that sought to give you the fully immersive art experience of “mainstream” art exhibits.
Watts himself (born Jordan Watts Watson) recognized the uniqueness of such a set-up and worked that much harder to bring it to the Watts community: “Well, when Instagram reached out to me, I basically had this platform that was just on my phone pretty much, you know, and really wanted to expand on that and bring it to real-life”, Watts told Wear Your Voice. “And in regards to it being specifically in Watts, California… I did the visit and I saw what was going on in the community and all the love that embraced and all that stuff. I was like, this is the perfect place, perfect scenario. And I was able to bring a little bit of fine art in that curation [style] and as a thing that I really specialize [in], right here in the middle of this beautiful community. That’s what really brought me to Watts, California, with the help of Instagram. And we’re bringing that platform into real life and making it happen.”
RECOMMENDED: Tschabalala Self Is Rebranding The Body With Her Art
Watts also praised Instagram for being “sharp” and in tune with the times where it concerned getting him involved and his art involved in their #ShareBlackStories movement. This is notable because the social media platform (and social media in general) had made it so that art in this fashion—not just movies, television, or music—can be accessed by all.On how social media has aided and shaped his work, Watts added: “I started to experience art through Instagram because I’m not, you know, trained in fine art. I never went to any kind of school or anything like that. So a lot of these new artists that I’m sharing with the world, I personally discovered on Instagram. And to me, it’s everything.”“I know a lot of my followers. They tell me they never get these chances to see art or go to museums or they’re too intimidated to go into galleries. And the platform that I’ve created on Instagram allows them to do that every day in the privacy of their own homes and actually get a taste of this fine art. There’s no intimidation. Nobody’s judging them. Nobody’s checking their pockets. [No one] is frisking [them] at home. Everything is cool and easy and super democratic and everybody’s having a good time and getting inspired. So I think Instagram and platforms like mine have everything to do with democratizing art in 2020 and beyond.”Watts’ comments about “democratizing art” in the social media age was especially poignant, particularly because Instagram then followed up this event with the beautiful faces behind Netflix’s Strong Black Lead.
I’m not going to lie to you. Seeing “Winston Duke” in tiny text above the original flyer immediately caught my attention and, like, was 99.9% of the reason I wanted to be in attendance for the event but what I learned while there was pretty damn interesting and worth it all on its own.
The group, which includes Maya Banks, Myles Worthington, and Jasmyn Lawson (partnered with Instagram’s Joy Ofodu—who is in charge of brand marketing) regaled tails of their history to us, which included trying to come up with a different approach to reaching Black audiences online in a post-#OscarsSoWhite world. But probably the most fascinating of this tidbit was the fact that they saw that mainstream Black media (think Essence, Ebony, etc) weren’t covering Netflix content that particularly catered to Black audiences… because no one was highlighting this content. And after this was noticed, it gave birth to Strong Black Lead—and the teams’ desire to constantly push the kind of Black content that might not be as publicized elsewhere.
I appreciated this deep dive into their storied history and I also appreciated how it was tied in with the appearance of their special guests—which included Bresha Webb (A Fall From Grace) and Winston Duke (Spenser Confidential). While these guests were in attendance to promote their aforementioned films, we learned a bunch about them—including the fact that Webb had done stand-up in the past (which made sense considering how hilarious she was) and caught all our jokes about the state of wigkind in A Fall From Grace (her’s was laid though); and the fact that Duke was pretty open about having to fib about his actual height (which is around 6’6’’ to 6’7’’) because of how height or “largeness” (which includes height and weight) can exacerbate how Black people are perceived by racist institutions. Which, again, we wouldn’t know without platforms like Instagram existing to make all of this readily accessible.
Black History Month may have come and gone (seriously, how fucked up is it that February moves so fast???), but the work that platforms like Instagram and Strong Black Lead are doing to suss out new Black stories remain.
And you should check it out.