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In 1894, activist and entrepreneur Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin founded the Woman’s Era Club, an advocacy group for Black women, through which they could come together to discuss the political goings-on of their time, coupled with the effects on their families and personhood. The club was the first of its kind in Boston, built on a legacy of grassroots organizing that stretched as far back as 1793 with Philadelphia’s Female Benevolent Society of St. Thomas. At the Women’s Era Club, members also exchanged notable newspaper articles, hosted poetry readings, and shared both unfinished and published manuscripts, like that of writer and editor, Pauline Hopkins. Her debut novel Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South, had its first public reading at the club. The collaborative spirit of such clubs has thrived into the contemporary era, with digital media offering new, and expansive ways for Black women to reach each other.
More than any other event in recent memory, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how vital artists are to the ways we live. Simultaneously, it has also underscored the vulnerable conditions many work under. While media companies are currently implementing slow-moving changes after decades of failing to recognize the voices and contributions of Black women, spaces such as the Gumbo, a hip hop social club, and Honey and Smoke, a global artist community, are forging relationships and holding events that intentionally center marginalized voices.
Nadirah Simmons, a social manager at The Late Show With Stephen Colbert founded the Gumbo after losing faith in institutions that continuously refused to acknowledge her own work and that of the dope Black female artists she loved, whose stories garnered no interest at the hip hop publication where she was previously employed. Reva Santo, a filmmaker and multimedia artist, created Honey and Smoke while on the move when she realized that the isolation she felt as a traveling artist could be remedied by creating a platform through which artists could collaborate and connect no matter where in the world they were located. She later brought on Eilen Itzel Mena, a community organizer and multimedia artist who shared her vision. These three artists, each from different backgrounds and with a wide range of capabilities and motivations, saw a gap in the matrix and chose to fill it with something desperately needed, both by them and the communities they are dedicated to making both visible and audible.
On the Gumbo’s platforms, Black women have the opportunity to analyze hip hop as an enigmatic multidimensional creation that has influenced all facets of contemporary art and culture, foregrounding their opinions and research in an industry that has been notoriously reticent to offer them spaces for debate and study. “It is intentionally crafted for Black women to just talk about hip hop,” Simmons explained during a call with Hyperallergic. “At the publication I was working at before, it was just a lot of prioritizing men’s voices, prioritizing white voices, and it was extremely frustrating.” Black women in hip hop have long had to fight for space, whether as critics, scholars, or performers.
For Santo and Mena, Honey and Smoke was born from a desire to create a healing space for artists that honors the legacy of their ancestors. Likewise, the interdisciplinary nature of the platform responds to their shared experiences of being told that their goals lacked focus, and that they needed to streamline their passions.”Because Reva and I are multi-disciplinary, we get hit with the whole ‘you can’t be a jack of all trades and master of none’ thing. And that shit is just so fucking annoying,” Mena remarked. Last year, she presented her work during Miami Art Week as part of the exhibition, Who Owns Black Art. “People are really quick to put us in the administrator seat,” she said. Her frustrations were echoed by Santo. “Being a filmmaker and a writer-director, I’ve had my own friends — Black men — be on my set, trying to tell me what to do.” In addition to her work on Honey and Smoke, Santo recently finished production on her short film Trust Issues, which highlights the constant negotiations with trust and intimacy after experiencing sexual assault.
“With Honey and Smoke, what I’ve noticed as a facilitator is who feels comfortable dominating a conversation,” Santo shared. “As a femme-centered person, I try to make sure that masculine-centered folks are not dominating, just because it comes naturally.”
In a field as male-dominated as hip hop, Simmons feels no qualms centering Black women, seeing it as a way to create balance and give microphones to those who have largely been asked to be silent. “ I want to continue being intentional with what I am creating so people know it’s ok for us to have this one space where it’s just us,” she noted. “So that no Black woman feels like they have to pause for a second to wait and see if a man is going to speak first. ”
Building from the ground up requires high levels of both financial investment and emotional labor, especially with platforms aimed at fostering an artistic community while generating income. Last year Simmons ran a successful crowdfunding campaign, surpassing her initial goal thanks to the force of “Shea’s army” — the social media followers of writer Shea Serrano, who often makes a point to support creators who might otherwise fall through the cracks. “Since that crowdfunding campaign I now have two other girls on the team with me,” she said. “But after we got the money, now it’s like what if I spend it and we don’t make anything back? I think as a Black woman who sees how much we do not have access to as a people, that’s been the biggest thing,” Simmons continued. “Not just making the money and keeping the money, but just really understanding how capital works when it comes to your business. My parents have had to tell me that scared money don’t make money.”
Financial struggles have also affected Santo and Mena, with Santo in particular noting that such concerns are a massive deterrent to artists. “Money can present a really big obstacle in being able to feel free to experiment,” she said. “I think that everyone should have the right to do that and something that COVID-19 is presenting is an opportunity to shift our structures.” One of the main frameworks of expression on Honey and Smoke is the use of carefully chosen seasons to curate work based around a common theme. One of the themes for this year was, “Sweet” as a base to “push back against the oversimplification of Sweetness as passive positivity, and lean into it as a mode of inquiry.” Poets, visual artists and writers sent in work and for a few months this year, Honey and Smoke was a small but potent space on the internet devoid of shameless voyeurism, that made room for Black artists to tap into their art and needs in soft and vulnerable ways.
On the Gumbo, “Sample Sundays” have been a popular draw where DJ’s rock the turntables with everything from beloved 90s tunes, to groovy disco jams. With its conversational tone, paired with a Back and Forth meets Queen Bee vibe, the club feels like a BTS capsule of Black entertainment without the over-explaining that is unnecessary when the content is created FUBU.
Amid a time that only Octavia Butler could have predicted, both Honey and Smoke and the Gumbo are continuing to move forward with learned faith and clarity. “When things calm down I want to throw a hip hop festival,” said Simmons, “That is one of my future goals. With Meg on one stage, Rico on another and then Flo Milli on another. I feel like that would be the best festival of all time.” Santo has approached the chaos and forced stillness of the pandemic as a chance to look inward, and also revisit the legacies of artists like Toni Morrison and Kathleen Collins, who created with purpose and a heightened sense of responsibility. “Kathleen Collins had so many different ways of writing and creating and nobody ever noticed it until pretty much post-mortem,” she points out. “It’s not to say that the goal is to be famous, but there’s no timeline in terms of having your work reach people”
On both platforms there is a willingness to make room, and a commitment to showcase the layers of talent, expertise, and vulnerability that can be present only if Black women are offered opportunities. Theirs are spaces as radical as they are inevitable — a deliberate continuation of the work Black women have always found to be better done when they do it themselves.