Until recently many intersectional communities of identity (Black queer men among them) have been seen as essentially marginal and exotic; due to a combination of low consumer numbers (a narrative imposed by a glass-half-full focus on lack rather than abundance), the privileged status given to geographically defined communities (focusing on place-based initiatives over people powered change, then feigning surprise at the hegemony of the usual suspects), and a majoritarian bias that understands difference solely as a threat to solidarity (tainting any potentially valid movement towards democratic reform with an inherent xenophobia). However, recent revelations about the use of state-sponsored misinformation campaigns to influence elections, the rising mistrust of evidence presented by complacent, elite-bound journalism, an international rise in nationalist political populism, rapidly shifting expectations and patterns of media consumption, and an emergent revolution in manufacturing processes that raises serious questions about both brand values and the value of brands; pose a series of challenges to this received wisdom.
Further indicators of a shift are reflected in creative responses to these challenges. Responses include the disruptive financial regime of UK grime music that undermines the power of record company taste arbiters; the Carters’ trajectory to greater music market dominance through emphasizing minoritised culture representing a stark contrast to the Jacksons’ appeal to a ‘… doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White’ universality a generation ago; HBO’s determinedly Black, determinedly avant-garde, unapologetically art-school Random Acts of Flyness, once an unthinkable TV commission appearing to be a natural next step in a battle for media market-share in a post Get Down, Insecure, Atlanta terrain; while Jordan Peele and Boots Riley are creating excitement by profitably reframing entire film genres free of the legacy of blaxploitation, making Disney’s Star Wars and Marvel Universe reset of the baseline for gender and ethnic inclusivity in the mainstream a rapidly unremarkable ‘new normal’.
Beyond pop culture, we continue to experience the drawn out exposure of the failings of once-respected elites; from feathering their own nests by making expenses claims for duck houses, through to leaving social homes to burn in an inferno fuelled by cheap cladding and profitable social distance, via truths stretched thin enough to cover the side of a bus yet still substantial enough to convince a majority of the electorate that worse will at least feel better. We spend increasing amounts of our time unpaid in working environments that required the mobilisation of millions to call out pervasive sexual violence only for the distracting glamour of a self-absorbed entertainment-industrial complex to make it all about Hollywood’s bad apples, barely acknowledging the wider context; the ‘roar which lies on the other side of silence’. Inured, we do little more than roll our eyes when we discover that the leader of the free world established a charitable foundation that he used to buy yet more golden trinkets for himself, or that a leading homelessness charity in London readily shopped the indigent who asked for help to the Border Force in exchange for favourable government contracts. When TERFs hijacked London’s Pride march, seeking to protest against the hard-won freedoms of Trans people, onlookers were justifiably perplexed as to whether a group of queer people with whom they disagreed but who held their beliefs sincerely, was preferable to marching behind groups representing government-subsidised banks, military, UKIP or Police in full, marketing financed, pink-wash. We look on dumbfounded as Nike are rewarded with market share growth for taking two years to decide that their principles matched those of a still unemployed Colin Kaepernick, reinforcing our suspicion that while brands are starting to understand that ‘the future of commerce lies in creating dialogue’, the emperor remains embarrassingly unclothed.
Culture/media organisations have been quicker than many to reject the silencing effects of homogenised consumer markets that over-serve and reinforce power at ‘the social median’; much quicker than the painfully slow responses from civil society organisations that remain laden with a misplaced nostalgia for a false memory of a past idyll, but still much too slow for those marginalised and excluded from full participation in a supposed mainstream by what they have long recognised as an everyday misunderstanding of the modern reality. A reality in which there are overlapping, interdependent, porous and fluid publics, rather than a singular contested public space.
Rather than self-censorship, or mock consensus-building (where only the marginalised ever compromise), or so-called ‘respectability politics’ that followed from the straight jacket of 20th century ethnic nationalisms, we are at the vanguard of renewed interest in answering cultural studies pioneer, Stuart Hall’s ‘coming question’, or poet/griot Audre Lorde’s demand; namely that we learn to live with and value difference. Identities that are minoritised and/or intersectional hold within them the complex warp and weft of global processes that reflect the paradox of persistent western-led globalisation, at the same time as persistent localism; the globalising marketplace disruptions of behemoth Amazon, at the same time as the resurgent petty nationalisms of Brexit and border walls.
Rather than being cowed by the scale and weight of the issues at hand we are seeking to do what all should do when in extremis; create. We will create spaces in which to articulate the voices of Black queer men and in so doing convene to take community ownership of our data – wresting control of an overlooked social niche from companies still mesmerised by breadth over depth, from those who have spectacularly failed to develop the necessary trust to use such personally sensitive data responsibly, and from civil society organisations seduced into tinkering with declining institutions of state that are overdue transformation on behalf of their once-beneficiaries; now clients.
For the past two years we have been in dialogue with Black queer men across the country, and have dug deep roots where our people are; from musical theatre to dance, at Carnival and at the movies, from drug den to museum, ‘freak Twitter’ to church choir, workplace to prison cell. We’ve focused our initial efforts much less on justifying our relationship to a supposed mainstream, in which by definition we are objects that differ from a silent, unquestioned norm, than choosing instead to do what it takes to make Black queer men the subject – unapologetically BlackOut.
50 years since Marsha P started a riot, we have learned from our resilience in the face of racisms and homophobia, and revel in our remarkable ability to reconstruct family when let down by blood. Those close but informal sexual and social networks that worked against us by accelerating the spread of HIV, can finally be turned to our advantage rather than to that of professionalised service-deliverers to whom we are a problem to solve, or a mainstream media who justify their existence by leering into our business as if their gaze liberates rather than confines us within their narratives, as we create together and flex our networks to leverage resources, express compassion, distribute power, and deliver change for those around us.
However this politically uncertain period plays out, with BlackOut we now have the prospect of each other as a resource; a means of seeing each other authentically; a way of re-investing all those efforts put in over generations to be ‘twice as good for half the result’, and a focus beyond asking for pay to fix our serial oppressors’ faults, with little resource left to fix our own – we know that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, so we’re laying the foundations for our own. The whole neighbourhood will be better off for it.
The BlackOut Agency Agency will generate profit through delivering collaborative projects in commercial media production, arts production, consultancy, health promotion, and enterprise development interventions, funded by a mix of grants, government/civil society contracts, and commercial investment.
Audience engagement will be driven through the BlackOut app/online media platform which will create and share diverse audio, video and written content and a calendar of IRL events by and for Black queer men in the UK. The reach of the platform will attract additional support from brands and open opportunities for direct sales of goods and services in response to demand.
Collaboration and visibility will be supported by the creation of a work/makerspace hub, enterprise incubator and performance venue in London. The decline of high street retail, demise of the bar/club, rise of AI and automation could together create the perfect storm for existing structures. Good! For Black queer men in the UK there is no halcyon day to look back to – indeed, necessity has already given us a headstart in embracing change that has required a creativity-focused, more fluid, way of engaging with society, community, space and work. While there are many workspace delivery social enterprises, the BlackOut WorkSpace will be unique in being grounded within a community of identity (delivering benefit to all communities), focused on clustering creative entrepreneurship that will build assets for individual entrepreneur; directly addressing inequalities. Despite the rhetoric, the leadership of both social enterprise and for-profit versions of workspace businesses remain disproportionately white and class privileged. Rather than repeating the unproductive pattern of failure followed by long periods of hand-wringing, we advocate taking action right now. Our workspace will add connection, skill-sharing, networking, enterprise incubation and space to articulate the new, while importantly, acting as a beacon for demonstrating how living with difference can enhance our strength.
We estimate there are between 15- and 20000 men who identify as Black and queer in the UK (a subsection of Black men who have sex with men) who will be our primary target audience. In addition, we will seek to engage with the communities of which Black queer men are part – in the UK, about 2.5 million people of African descent (including those racialised as mixed), broader proximate LGBT markets for goods and services, urban creatives and trendsetters. We have already connected with networks of Black queer people in continental Europe (Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, Malmo and Berlin), South Africa, Caribbean, and North America (Toronto, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, NYC and Washington) to share learning and insights fro mutual benefit.
Who With? Leadership
Both the journey and destination matter to us.
We (Rob Berkeley, Marc Thompson & Antoine Rogers) have worked together since the project’s inception. We gravitated towards each other because we’ve long admired each other’s activism, energy and integrity. Working together has enabled us to appreciate the process, but also to offer support to each other as we continue to develop our knowledge and expertise. There is significance in our relying on each other as Black queer men – in ‘finding our tribe’. We realised that despite a combined half-century of activism in the same city between us, we had had few opportunities to come together to create our futures,.
We have complementary skills and networks and made an early commitment to each other to be constant learners, reflexive in our practice, and willing to take the risks/personal privations commensurate to the potential prize. Marc is a widely respected leader in HIV prevention and care with an encyclopaedic knowledge of black gay liberation movements in the UK, which helps us to learn from others’ mistakes. As a university lecturer, writer and leading researcher of London’s LGBTQ voluntary sector, Antoine maintains our focus on young people, and connections with organisers. As a British American, he also encourages us to keep our horizons broad and our relationship to our diaspora alive. Rob adds his sociological analysis, political antennae, media, racial justice, government, and charitable foundation networks to the team. He has been in a position to eke out some space to develop BlackOut full-time for six months without taking a salary. Intensely curious about systems change, we are determined to create a model of civil society leadership that responds more effectively to lived experience, and challenges others to consider how to lead in communities with so few of the structural ties like family, neighbourhood, ethnicity or language that others currently rely on (a pattern that may become a more widespread experience for others over coming years).
Ultimately, we share a deep commitment to the well-being of Black queer men in the UK and beyond and have worked at making BlackOut work for us; we see ourselves as the earliest beneficiaries of the BlackOut vision.
Who With – Partnerships
In our initial period we have been pleased to be able to work with each other and with a broad and exciting range of partners, clients and friends. We are seeking to create efficient, agile administration functions which will enable us to establish and deepen work with increased numbers of partners to deliver even greater shared value. Here are some of the organisations we have worked with since 2016
- Fringe Film Fest
- British Library
- ViiV Healthcare
- UK Black Pride
- Lambeth Council
- Arts Council
- Postcode Lottery
- Big Lottery Fund
- Pride in London
- Ubele Initiative
- BBC Pride
- Centre for Progressive Policy
- Black Thrive
- Hackney Pride 365
- Brixton Housing Co-Op
- 198 CAL Gallery
- National Portrait Gallery
- The Wallace Collection
- Autograph ABP
- The Conduit
- Mayor of London
- University of Manchester
- Black Aids Institute
- Counter Narrative Project
- House of Rainbow
- Young Vic Theatre
- Thomson Reuters
Who With? – The Collective
Our collective networks have been enhanced greatly across our initial period of working together. This has helped us to identify a rich seam of expertise, talent and contribution among Black queer men who are primed to work collaboratively as part of the collective and build both personal and community assets through delivering projects with and for other Black queer men. Their expertise spans film-making, theatre, dance, health promotion, psychotherapy, entrepreneurship, event management, photography, policy analysis, music, fundraising, fashion, podcasts, writing, film production, historical analysis, political campaigning and legal advice.