The Formidable Jessica Williams

Originally published for Essence Magazine on April 6th, 2022


Oftentimes, when attempts are made to bestow prestige on the genre of comedy, a through-line is drawn directly to tragedy—with the cross-section of both (represented by the famous masked Greek deities “Thalia and Melpomene”) representing the fine art of the stage. Actress and comedienne Jessica Williams, however, has never been one to confine herself to the tedium of convention.

A disruptive force since her arrival on The Daily Show when she was just 22 years old, Williams has chosen to dance between the genres of comedy and romance, interrogating the crevices of each category in unexpected and enthralling ways. “They’re all shades of each other,” Williams, now 32, says in between bites of her Sweetgreen salad. “I think a lot of couples actually do all these weird, funny inside jokes with each other, and that’s, like, the huge garden in the relationship.”

Few couples typify this dynamic as acutely as the fictive Mia and Marcus of Love Life season 2, played by Williams and the charmingly neurotic William Jackson Harper. Under the guidance of showrunners Rachelle Williams and Sam Boyd, the duo masterfully create a universe replete with humor, accountability, pain and growth—where love is explored as a series of choices, as opposed to a folly of fate. Their conflicts, even at their most fraught, are grounded and tangible; the lexicon of their community is immediately established, with nary a didacticism. The chemistry between the two crackles during their first interaction, when Mia enters unmoored book publisher Marcus’s life as a statuesque hybrid of femme fatale and manic pixie dream girl.

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Africans In Ukraine: Stories Of War, Anti-Blackness & White Supremacy

Originally published for Refinery29 on March 4, 2022.


On February 24, Russia breached the Ukrainian border, invading the country from four directions. Immediately, the western world mobilized in support of the Ukrainian people: #IStandWithUkraine trended globally, and brands everywhere shared messages of solidarity, sporting the Ukrainian flag. In a rare first, people seemed to be mostly united on a topic of international affairs: the Ukrainian people needed support, and anyone fleeing the casualties of war should absolutely have the right to be afforded shelter and protection. Unfortunately, the hidden caveat of international diplomacy is that it is predicated on a global framework of anti-Blackness, and the current conflict is no exception.

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The Fight for $15 Is More Important Than Ever

Originally published for Complex on Oct 20, 2020.


In 2012, 200 fast food workers went on strike outside of a McDonald’s on 40th and Madison in Manhattan, demanding fair wages and a union. 

In the almost eight years since, much has changed—the flagship Times Square location shuttered in June of 2020, and what was once dismissed as a fringe idea is now a popular national platform, for both Democratic and Republican voters. Seven states (and the District of Columbia), along with 15 cities and counties, passed legislation to gradually increase the wage to $15 an hour—resulting in $78 billion in raises for more than 24 million workers—and the Raise the Wage Act was successfully passed in the House.

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Julian Castro on the 2020 Election: ‘President Trump Is Trying to Stoke White Fear’

Originally posted on Complex October 8th 2020.


2020 has been a year plagued by a lack of clarity and direction, with great loss exacerbated by deep systemic inequalities. The troubling conditions, in America, have been buttressed with recent audio confirming that the executive office knew about the ruinous potential of COVID-19, and willfully misled the public. So far, the death toll from the virus has crossed 200,000.  Deep fissures in the country’s fabric have been exposed, revealing the urgence of policy around healthcare, immigration, housing, and policing. Amongst all of the noise, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro has been at the vanguard, facilitating these conversations on the national stage. 

Despite not being a front-runner during primary season, Castro has made waves for framing the immigration conversation around policies such as Section 1325 and 287(g), which criminalizes illegal entry and enforces compulsory collaboration with local law enforcement. Castro focuses on repositioning the narrative of the “American Dream” as one that should be reformed and enabled rather than obstructed, considering the amount of national investment in the flawed precept that we are a country built on the backs of immigrants.

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Sil Lai Abrams Talks Russell Simmons & ‘On the Record’ Doc

This originally published on July 16th 2020 in The Cut.


For years, Sil Lai Abrams has maintained that she was sexually assaulted by one of the music industry’s elite in 1994 when she was a young model during a visit to New York. The writer and domestic-violence activist first wrote about it in her 2007 book No More Drama, but didn’t she name hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons directly until two years ago in a piece for the Hollywood ReporterAbrams and Simmons’s yearslong friendship — which included a fleeting intimate relationship and Abrams’s brief stint as an executive assistant at Def Jam — came careening to a halt after the alleged rape.Abrams says that thetrauma of such a harrowing event triggered a suicide attempt that she almost didn’t survive. But people are finally listening.

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Bree Newsome is Knocking You Off Your Pedestal

Originally published for Complex on. August 28th, 2020


A little over five years have passed since Bree Newsome commanded the nation’s newsfeeds with the insurgent act of stripping the South Carolina State House of its Confederate adornments. Despite a shift in administration, a viral pandemic and media cycles that have wildly accelerated in the wake of record unemployment and quarantine, as Newsome herself does not hesitate to point out, the more things have changed, the more they stay the same. “The system itself is the problem,” she explains. “I don’t think that the existing system can bring solutions because it’s not broken.”

In the time since her arrest, Newsome has remain unbowed, committing to coalition work in her current residence of North Carolina—such as the Housing Justice Coalition in Charlotte and its state-level campaigns such as #NeedAHome2StayAtHome. She continues to use her social and digital platforms to try to effect grassroots disruption. Simultaneously, monuments around the country—Stonewall Jackson in Richmond, Virginia, and Christopher Columbus in Boston, for example—are toppling at a much higher rate than when Newsome initially made headlines. For some, this was a harbinger of an uprising that has yet to fully materialize, while the ever-looming conversation around the November 2020 election casts its shadow over daily protests and steadily increasing unemployment numbers.

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Yara Shahidi Is a New Kind of Young Hollywood Mogul

This story originally published on August 12, 2020 in WSJ. Mag


Ask Yara Shahidi how she self-identifies and she will reply that she is not an activist but “a creative and socially engaged human.” The 20-year-old polymath has been in the entertainment industry since first appearing in TV commercials at the age of 6, and she made her big-screen debut alongside Eddie Murphy in the 2009 comedy Imagine That. Since then, starring roles on Kenya Barris’s series black-ish and grown-ish—playing cool older sister Zoey Johnson—have placed her among the vanguard of young Hollywood. Shahidi has also been a brand ambassador for Chanel and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics and was featured in several ad campaigns for Coach. For her young fans, she’s served as a voice on social justice in the arts and more. Her personal social media channels put her politics into practice: One day, she’s leading a back-and-forth with her fans about the works of James Baldwin via Instagram, and the next, creating a TikTok urging teens to register to vote. She’s also currently enrolled as a full-time student at Harvard University.

Now the actress, alongside her mother, Keri Shahidi, aims to take her reformist energy behind the camera. The two Shahidis are the co-presidents of the newly formed 7th Sun Productions, part of a overall deal with ABC Studios, announced last month. Her mother is an actress herself, and her father, Afshin Shahidi, is a cinematographer who was formerly Prince’s personal photographer. Shahidi views this new endeavor as one for her whole family, and she says that “the goal at the end of the day is to make powerful media but to also push the door wide open.”

The day of WSJ.’s conversation with Shahidi happens to be the one-year anniversary of her idol Toni Morrison’s death. “Toni Morrison set the foundation for these conversations,” she says, referring to the Nobel Prize winner’s efforts to prioritize Black life and stories. “Pushing back on the sentiments of Blackness having to be universalized in a way that isn’t expected of a Pride and Prejudice,” says Shahidi. “Those worlds did not have us in mind when they were being created.” Indebted gratitude, as Shahidi calls it, is a guiding principle of hers as she looks to Morrison and Baldwin for guidance on how to stay authentic to her artistic passions.

For the past few years, Shahidi headed a youth vote initiative called Eighteen x 18 and worked alongside progressive news site NowThis. They hosted an in-person summit for youth activists in 2018 with over 120 young activists in attendance. For the 2020 election, she and the initiative, now going by WeVoteNext, are working to provide accurate candidate information to first-time voters.

Here, in her own words, Shahidi explains the formation of 7th Sun Productions, imagining new worlds in media and her voting initiatives. 

Versace dress, price upon request, select Versace stores, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 
PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHED BY TEXAS ISAIAH

It took months to find a name for 7th Sun. We wanted to make sure that the first touchpoint with us was very clear as to what we represented. Funny enough, I was in conversation with [philosopher and public intellectual] Dr. Cornel West, and he was talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having read The Souls of Black Folk, I noted that Du Bois says that the Black person is the seventh son, s-o-n. We’d wanted to find a way to use that but also subvert it, to degender it, which was how we arrived at seventh sun, s-u-n

I’ve always viewed our family as being all-around creative. It was never a conversation of Well, I really want to do this and them saying no. It was Dream bigger and dream more. Production has been a field that our family has been passionate about for years. As an actor, I find it’s exciting because for once, the stories we get to tell are in no way confined by roles that I can play. It’s not about servicing me as an actor—to be like, Let’s create the dream role for me. As a storyteller, I have more freedom than ever because our company is either telling stories that are authentic to us, or we have the ability to partner with people and tell stories pertaining to other communities. That’s been the most exciting part about it; it really expands creative potential. 

At 20, I’m working on honoring all of my desires, honoring what I’m passionate about. The lesson that my mother taught me at a really young age is the fact that my voice belongs in these spaces. At the same time, I feel like I’ve been unintentionally trained to be an amenable person. Being amenable has oftentimes been weaponized against [Black artists], because we operate in the binary of either you’re amenable or you’re aggressive. As we create things that haven’t been seen before, we’re also saying, OK, let’s redefine the concept of risk when you’re bringing in a young writer of color or a young writer of any [race, sexuality, gender, etc.]. 

The art of storytelling is something that I still admire in every form, whether it’s Barry Jenkins or Issa Rae—and the fact that we’ve seen Issa go from YouTube to her own show to her own label to owning her own coffee shop speaks to the depth of vision. The first season of [Rae’s HBO show] Insecure came with a soundtrack featuring a ton of incredible Black artists. I remember watching Donald Glover in season one of [Atlanta, his show on FX]. It was the episode that was like a fake C-Span episode, with fake commercials. It was so genre-bending. What it affirmed to me is that we have the opportunity to train our audience. That episode was just a reminder that Black artists get to lead the way as creatives and trust that we are in a world of smart consumers, and that they’re either gonna get it or they’re gonna move on to a show that they do resonate with. 

Many creators inspire me, especially young ones, like [20-year-old] Phillip Youmans, who did [the 2019 critically acclaimed drama] Burning Cane. I feel like we’re really seeing the uptick in incredibly young filmmakers because Hollywood is becoming more accessible in terms of the ability to produce and distribute content. But we know that the digital space, especially for Black and brown creators, is extremely divisive. When you put content out into the world [on social media], based on those terms and agreements that we all clickthrough, the content isn’t ours. It ends up being co-opted, and it ends up being taken and not credited. 

Alberta Ferretti polo, $695, shirt,$495, and pants, $525, saks.com, Christian Louboutin heels, $895, christianlouboutin.com, Shahidi’s own bracelets. Styling by Jason Bolden, Hair by Keri Shahidi, Makeup Direction by Emily Cheng. 
PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHED BY TEXAS ISAIAH

The way that I’m trying to use my platform has been: How can I be a conduit for voter education as a young person who’s similarly developing my opinion in the world? One thing that most of my generation knows is that policy is personal. In the past couple of months, we’ve seen it more clearly than ever. 

In times when it’s hard to figure out what my purpose is, I often turn back and think about how many of our great leaders had to watch their peers die. They knew the stakes of the work they were doing, and they were doing it for a future that wasn’t guaranteed. They were doing it for a future that they couldn’t imagine. Congressman John Lewis being 17 when he started civil action,19 when he became a civil-rights leader, in his 20s when he was speaking at the March on Washington—he knew that he was risking his life. It’s remiss to say that we don’t reap the benefits of their progress every day. Their work had to be driven in a deep sense of hope. The most radical leaders are the most hopeful, because that radicalism stems from a deep belief that some sort of change, extreme change, is possible. 

I constantly am trying to figure out—what is my role, how can I be of service to the best of my abilities? It’s something that I’m tweaking and refining daily. It’s a thrilling time to be in media right now. We’re actively talking about the fact that it has to be restructured to prioritize new voices. And with that comes the opportunity to—in the kindest way possible—burn down the traditional infrastructure that has kept us out for so long and present something completely new. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Netflix’s ‘Strong Black Lead’ Marketing Team Shows the Power (and Business Benefit) of Amplifying Black Voices

This originally published on August 6th 2020 in The Hollywood Reporter.


On June 28, 3.7 million people watched as the BET Awards went virtual amid not only the COVID-19 pandemic but also uprisings for racial justice happening daily across the country. The show (largely) successfully closed in around a tagline — “Our culture can’t be canceled” — and struck a harmonious balance between the gravitas of the Movement for Black Lives and the need for celebratory entertainment.

Two years prior, in that very awards ceremony, Netflix’s Strong Black Lead marketing team premiered its “A Great Day in Hollywood” commercial, tying the current wave of reinvigorated interest in Black stories to an iconic 1958 photograph by Art Kane, which captured jazz greats from Thelonious Monk to Dizzy Gillespie, in Harlem during the genre’s golden era. With 47 Black actors, writers, showrunners and producers across 20 shows, the spot aimed to bring a message into sharp focus: “This is not a moment, this is a movement.” It wasn’t merely a response to hashtags like #OscarsSoWhite, but rather a harbinger of what was to come as SBL worked to establish a cultural resonance, combining marketing and editorial in a concerted effort to shift the ethos and culture within the Netflix brand.

“You know it was special when you started going out to talent, and everybody was like, ‘I’ll drop everything, just tell me when,’ ” says Maya Watson, Netflix’s director of editorial and publishing. Reflecting on “A Great Day,” she says it was almost like they sensed today’s zeitgeist coming, “It was like a little whisper that I feel people felt: It’s our time. It’s time to shift the narratives in Hollywood. It’s time to have more representation.”

Strong Black Lead is a sub-brand of Netflix that amplifies content specifically targeted to various slices of the Black experience. While it has its own vertical on Netflix, boasting the deepest bench of Black programming among the top streaming services, it has also become a popular brand outside the platform at the cross-section of technology, culture and community-building.

“A few Black [staffers] were like, ‘Hey, we want to start prioritizing and talking to the Black audience,’ ” says Watson, who, before moving to Netflix, worked for Oprah Winfrey and former President Barack Obama. “Our colleagues were like, ‘Cool, what do you need from us to get it done?’

Since then, the team has worked to establish SBL as an integral part of Netflix through editorial content and original programming created exclusively for the brand. With almost a half-million followers on Instagram and 163,000 and counting on Twitter, successful initiatives include the #HeyQueen shortform video series featuring such celebrated Black women as former first lady Michelle Obama and Angela Bassett reciting affirmations, the Strong Black Legends podcast and video series where stars of classic Black movies are interviewed, and #BetweenTwoFaves, which highlights conversations among icons across the Black diaspora in entertainment. (One of the most popular was a chat between Phylicia Rashad and Cicely Tyson timed to their latest film, Tyler Perry’s A Fall From Grace.)

Myles Worthington, who worked for Netflix PR before joining the SBL team as a director, says one standout has been the biweekly podcast Okay, Now Listen with Sylvia Obell and Scottie Beam. Close friends, the two Black women discuss what they’re dealing with at any given moment — from belting out gospel to speaking candidly about sex — with a firmly Black cultural frame of reference (Nora Ephron, in one episode, is referred to as “the white Terry McMillan”).

Obell says working with SBL gave her the budget to do Okay, Now Listen properly and an all-Black team supporting her on a day-to-day basis. “It’s empowering,” she said, adding that it’s a “safe space for Black women to create something dope.”

Jasmyn Lawson, a manager on the team who also produces its podcasts, says that at the beginning of SBL they weren’t sure what to post. Netflix had original series like critical darlings Dear White People and She’s Gotta Have It, but their programming needed a broader voice, so they turned to data to find out what else resonates with viewers.

“Ninety percent of the time the things that would perform well and things people were responding to were things where we were celebrating Black culture,” Lawson recalls. “We homed in on what we were great at.”

Strong Black Leads -HOLLYWOOD Portrait -Netflix - EMBED - 2020
Courtesy of Kwaku Alston/NetflixNetflix’s Strong Black Lead team and dozens of Hollywood talent re-created Art Kane’s iconic 1958 photograph “A Great Day in Harlem.”

In the broadcast TV eras of the ’90s and early aughts, entire programming blocks were built around shows with majority Black casts. UPN evenings were anchored by Girlfriends and Everybody Hates Chris. Fox’s North Star was In Living Color. But when the rubber met the road, consistent marketing dollars were not given to shows with majority Black casts and audiences. Now, with Netflix’s marketing budget growing to $2.6 billion in 2019, the opportunities are plentiful for a team like SBL and its sister verticals (NetflixIsaJoke, theMost and Con Todo) to build out their content and reach.

“Being able to aggregate content, voice, style and design toward any particular demographic, in this case people of color, is just smart online community-building,” says Richard Lachman, associate professor of digital media at Ryerson University in Toronto. “These sub-brands can be empowered to build relationships with press, creators and audiences on their own.”

Defining “Black content,” however, can be a bit nebulous. For example, does Shonda Rhimes’ programming count, even when she has majority white casts? The answer may come down to how the consumer engages with it.

While some Netflix titles like Dear White People are no-brainers, Lawson notes that what the SBL audience sometimes wants to talk about isn’t so obvious. “One of my favorite shows on Netflix is Sex Education, which isn’t a Black show. It isn’t even a U.S. show,” she says. “But there’s a character named Eric played by Ncuti [Gatwa] that the audience has loved and is obsessed with. I think it’s something really rare. He’s not just like the Black best friend. You get to explore his queer identity, his religious identity, his African [identity] as well as his Britishness in the show.”

Celebrating legacies is also a priority for the brand, especially through the Strong Black Legends podcast. The series aims to give beloved performers their flowers while they can still share in the moment, and one of those moments went viral in a very bittersweet way. Just a few months before his death, actor John Witherspoon was interviewed by host Tracy Clayton. A Netflix promotional photo of the Friday star was widely shared upon news of his passing, and was even displayed at his funeral. 

“People only really see the final output, you only see that wicker chair photo, you only hear that interview,” says Netflix community manager Dani Howe of the image. “But. in my head, I thought, ‘Wow. Jasmyn worked her ass off and a Black woman did that. A Black woman gave us that final moment.’ “

These moves have not inoculated Netflix from growing pains when it comes to addressing diversity and inclusion. In 2018, former communications chief Jonathan Friedland was fired over his repeated use of the N-word. In November 2019, comedian and Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique sued the company, alleging race- and gender-based discrimination over the pay she was offered for a stand-up special. Most recently, British multihyphenate Michaela Coel revealed that her critically acclaimed series I May Destroy You didn’t land at Netflix, despite a $1 million offer, because of the company’s unwillingness to allow her to retain a share of the copyright.

The streamer’s public U.S. workforce demographics also show there’s still work to be done: Only 7 percent of the staff is Black (although that is almost double the reported figures from 2018).

Lachman says it’s important that offering inclusive content doesn’t distract from fixing those underlying issues. “Inclusion can’t only be marketing,” he says. “It needs to reach the level of the senior executive and the key decision-maker.” (Tendo Nagendo is vp original film and in July, Netflix hired Bozoma Saint John as chief marketing officer.)

Adds TimeJump Media CEO Larissa Lowthorp, “A market vertical, or niche focus, will backfire if the audience perceives that it’s been done solely to capitalize on current trends, consumer sentiment or tragedy. In order to be successful, and also ethical, the marketing niche must be driven by a genuine need to serve and represent a specific audience, use their core data, test viewership and [use] feedback to better the brand.”

The SBL team isn’t shying away from those tough conversations. “We’re at a time now where people are being very critical and should be very critical of the companies that are creating our content,” says Lawson. “I want our audience to respect us for listening to them, [and know] that we are giving opportunities to Black directors and Black folks behind the scenes.”

That Black content is currently trending isn’t good enough for SBL’s team. They want it to be sustainable. With Netflix’s marketing machine at its back, and direct, authentic interaction with their audience, they’re able to understand what people want.

“We have super insights sitting there in the comments,” says Worthington. “Here’s the storylines, the characters, the creators that really resonate. They can use this as a way to deeper understand the audience and they can make better choices on product content decisions.”

Investments of this sort recently paid off in a significant way. After Netflix acquired seven classic Black UPN shows, including Girlfriends and Moesha, SBL turned the news into a viral moment for the company with a tweet that nabbed 170,000 likes and prompted the approving hashtag #okaynetflix to trend.

“You can’t make a campaign like this,” Watson remarks. “It comes from a deep place of understanding the void in the marketplace. And then saying, ‘This needs to exist.’ “