Our Body Politic

Combatting Domestic Terrorism, a Cannabis Entrepreneur and a Policymaker on Social Equity in the Industry, and Why #OscarsSoWhite Still Applies

Episode Notes

This week Farai Chideya talks with Representative Val Demings about Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, the continued threat of domestic terrorism, and her thoughts on George Floyd’s murder as a former officer of the law. Cannabis entrepreneur Khadijah Adams talks about what it would take to give people of color an equal opportunity in the industry they helped create. And Dianna Houenou of New Jersey’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission shares what it means to work for social equity in the state’s new cannabis marketplace. Plus, on our weekly roundtable, Sippin’ the Political Tea, Farai welcomes business of entertainment contributor Casey Mendoza and #OscarsSoWhite founder April Reign to talk about what the latest awards nominations say about inclusion in Hollywood.


0:44 Representative Val Demings on accountability for the January 6th insurrection

12:33 Dianna Houenou on New Jersey’s regulation of cannabis businesses

19:08 Khadijah Adams on why people of color need to invest in the marijuana industry

28:44 Sippin’ the Political Tea: representation in Hollywood with #OscarsSoWhite campaign founder April Reign and OBP business of entertainment contributor Casey Mendoza

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As you know, we're only a few months into this show and we're shaping it with lots of input from listeners like you. So I want to ask you a small favor. After you listen today, please head over to Apple podcasts on your phone, tablet, laptop or anywhere you listen and leave us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much.

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. It's been over three months since the insurrection at the Capitol. Since we started Our Body Politic, we've made sure to continue conversations about politics, hate crimes and white supremacy with activists, thought leaders and legislators. Today I'm talking with Representative Val Demings of Florida. Before heading to Congress, Demings spent 27 years as a law enforcement officer, and she climbed the ranks to become Orlando's first female chief of police in 2007. Last year, she continued making history becoming one of the first women and black Americans to prosecute a presidential impeachment before the US Senate. Representative Demings, great to have you with us.

Rep. Val Demings:

It is great to be with you.

Chideya: So you have had quite a season. We've had quite a season, in America, and you have been out in front looking at questions of impeachment, the former president. How did you prepare to lead the impeachment trial against former President Donald Trump in 2020?

Demings: It was a get up early, go to bed late. We spent days and weekends as you can imagine preparing to make sure that we had all the information in a chronological order that we were ready to present before of the US Senate. We made sure under the leadership of Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler that we were prepared and I stayed very focused. It was about accountability, and I'd love to say everybody counts but everybody's accountable, up to and including the President of the United States. So we made sure that we were prepared so we could prevent the best case, and I do believe we presented a case that was clear and convincing, with overwhelming evidence against the former president of the United States.

Chideya: The former president, although he was impeached, he was not sanctioned, removed from office. Senator Mitch McConnell, after the second set of impeachment hearings, went on a tirade against the president but said, "Oh, there's nothing we can do." Even though he could have called the senate back into session, if the timing was an issue. Do you have a sense of regret or missed opportunity from the impeachment process?

Demings: Anybody who was watching television or listening, paying attention at all, to what occurred at the US Capitol on January 6, I was there. I was trapped in the House gallery with about 30 other of my colleagues. We know that the president clearly incited the riot and the attack at the US Capitol. So initially, I was encouraged by Leader McConnell's comments basically holding the president accountable, but somehow he lost his courage, he lost his nerve, he lost his integrity along the way and refused to lead the effort in removing the president from power. To say, "Well, we don't have enough days." Really? I've never, as a law enforcement officer said, "Well, you know what? It's too close to the end of my shift so I'm going to let this armed burglar go, because it's time for me to go home," or whatever. So it's absolutely shameful the decisions that was made by Mitch McConnell, the Senate's failure yet again, to hold the president accountable, but the American people and quite sadly, the world knows, because the world saw it with their own eyes and heard it with their own ears, the president leading the effort, encouraging people to attack the US Capitol and boy, did they take what he said to heart.

Chideya: You co-sponsored Representative Cori Bush's resolution to hold fellow lawmakers accountable for participating in the insurrection. What do you think accountability looks like? What would be the ideal situation, aside from what you think is possible? What would you like to see?

Demings: Well, our laws, we have internal policies and certainly as a former chief of police, there were times when we had officers who violated our internal policies, our rules and regulations, but along with those come the laws of the land. So if it's discovered that members of Congress violated House rules or regulations or policies in some way that were non criminal, then we need to utilize those processes in place and in-house to deal with them, which could be censure or removing them from their committees or other administrative actions like that. But if it's discovered that they violated criminal law, then they should be held accountable in our criminal justice system. I said it during the impeachment trial and I'll say it again, no one is above the law. We spend a lot of time focusing on our foreign adversaries, and we should, but there's no greater attack, and the FBI confirmed, our biggest threat just happens to be domestic terrorism and boy, did we see the domestic terrorist show up at the Capitol that day. People lost their lives.

Chideya: We saw, among many other moments of cognitive dissonance, people who were insurgents using the blue lives matter flag to attack police officers. One of the things that we're finding out is that during the Trump administration, white-led extremist groups, which were domestic terrorist cells were not classified or tracked particularly well, and it was not viewed as a priority. What can you do in your role in Congress to help ensure that there is appropriate attention to the different groups that participate in undermining American democracy?

Demings: Well, I appreciate that question and look, back in the day, my parents and grandparents deal with the Klu Klux Klan. They may change their names, but what they believe in is still the same. They're full of hate, they're full of violence, and they will attack and injure and kill people who are not like them. So the bottom line is that we as a nation need to put more resources into combating white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and hate crimes. So we need to make sure that our federal, local and state law enforcement agencies have the resources that they need to be adequately able to monitor, identify, and investigate those who fall within these groups.

Chideya: I want you to take me inside how you think and process the world. You've had such a fascinating career arc, so many roles of leadership. There is a lot going on with the perception of police, and you as a black woman, such long leadership in law enforcement, how do you process this moment in time and what is the role of policing?

Demings: I so appreciate that question and let me just say, I spent a lot of years in law enforcement. Before that I served as a social worker dealing with abused children and families who needed emergency services. I took my social worker's heart to the job of law enforcement. So I realized we had to do two things. We had to arrest bad people, those who hurt innocent people, but we also had to deal with those quality of life issues that cause decay in communities in the first place. During my time in law enforcement, I worked with some of the most professional, some of the most courageous men and women of all colors during my time there, but we do know, especially and I think the death of George Floyd has really put a spotlight on what's wrong in policing, and it should be because we want to get it right. What happened to George Floyd was brutal, it was senseless, and it was murder and the persons responsible should be and are being held accountable. I also want to make it clear that no great society can exist without law enforcement. As someone who has walked and talked with people in Central Florida, in Orlando, it's interesting. People who live in the most vulnerable communities and the most crime ridden communities say they don't want us to defund the police. They want to see more police because they know if funds are taken away, then they feel like resources will be taken away from their communities. They just want police officers that treat them dignity and respect, officers who are well trained and professional. We all should want that. I'd love to quote the words of former Dallas Police Chief, David Brown. He's now the commissioner in Chicago, but he says, "Every time there is a societal failure, we call the police to solve it. Not enough mental health counseling available, give it to the police. Not enough drug addiction treatment funds available, let the police handle it. Schools fail, call the police, they'll take care of it." When did we start calling the police when a middle schooler won't sit down in her seat or won't give up her phone? So it's not about taking resources away from the police, but it's about being serious about funding those programs that address quality of life issues that cause decay in communities in the first place.

Chideya: So just wrapping up as you are thinking about what impact you want to leave behind, what kind of America do you want to see emerge from these turbulent years that we're in right now?

Demings: I grew up in Florida. I am the youngest of seven children. My mother was a maid, and my father was a janitor. I watched my parents work hard every day, but when it was time to vote, they would dress up and head to the polls, knowing that their vote mattered, just like the richest family in town. I cannot remember a time they did not vote. I look at my own life and because of the hard work they did for me and for our family, my siblings, we've been able to do some amazing things. I feel a direct responsibility and obligation to make sure that every boy and girl who looks like me and those who don't look like me, that they have a chance to live the American dream just as I have.

Chideya: Representative Demings, thank you so very much for joining us.

Demings: Thank you so much.

Chideya: That was Congresswoman Val Demings, Democratic Representative for Florida's 10th district.

Chideya: This month, Virginia lawmakers legalized recreational marijuana joining 15 other states and Guam. How are states regulating this booming billion dollar industry? Dianna Houenou is the chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission in New Jersey. Two thirds of voters there approved a ballot measure last November to legalize the use of cannabis. Houenou says social equity is a huge part of her mission on the regulatory board. Welcome, Dianna.

Dianna Houenou:

Thank you for having me Farai.

Chideya: I've been to conferences, including ones by the Drug Policy Alliance, which has long looked at the questions of how equity and racial justice fit into drug policy in America. Before we get into New Jersey, can you give us a little bit of a sense of how these issues fit together.

Houenou: So when we look at our drug policy, mass incarceration, and unnecessary entanglements in the criminal justice system, really have deep roots in the drug war, and the drug war was deliberately constructed in order to disrupt and stigmatize people of color, and particularly Black communities. So really, we see the effects now that have left in their wake, nothing but devastation. When you talk about cannabis and marijuana, in New Jersey, Blacks are three times more likely to be arrested than whites for cannabis possession, despite similar usage rates, and with an arrest can come a whole host of collateral consequences. We're talking about pulling people out of the workforce and preventing them from getting a job in the future. So these are the things that affect not just an individual who's arrested, but these are things that affect entire family and whole communities. It's my vision as chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, that the path that we go down is one that centers on equity.

Chideya: What does that mean specifically?

Houenou: So it means making sure that we are educating people about the opportunities that are available, business ownership opportunities, but also job opportunities if you want to work in the industry. So for example, you might have photographers that specialize in photographing cannabis flowers and buds, the security companies, IT companies that meet the unique needs of this industry. We want our communities that have been disproportionately impacted and disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs, we want them to have access to the economic benefits that are going to come with this new industry that we're building from the ground up.

Chideya: What about research that shows that using marijuana may not be great for younger adults? The mind is still sort of growing into its final form in its early 20s, and there are going to be people who will legally be able to buy cannabis. Without looking at something like a prohibition, how do you examine all of the different scientific sides, including the side showing that cannabis can be beneficial for PTSD, anxiety and other medical conditions?

Houenou: Well, it's important for us to be honest, and to be transparent with what the facts show. Cannabis advocates know that what the evidence shows about cannabis having a potentially negative impact on developing brains, which is why we have been pushing to make sure that we're talking about legalizing this plant for adults only, not for young people. I am not necessarily encouraging people to use cannabis, but rather, we want to make sure that if you are using cannabis, that it is a regulated product that has gone through strict testing and quality control measures, and that you have all of the health information that you need in order to make a decision about whether you choose to engage in cannabis use or not.

Chideya: I expect that as more states are legalizing cannabis, there's less of what's called cannabis tourism, and especially now during a pandemic where people would travel to Colorado or Nevada or California to buy cannabis or use cannabis. First of all, do you see this as a revenue winner for the state, and secondly, is that part of the math in addition to these ethical and legal questions about whether it should be legal and whether people should be arrested and jailed for it?

Houenou: As more and more states start to build their own legalized regulated industry, there is an expectation that it has an impact on this cannabis tourism, but there's still a lot to be gained here for states and using some of the revenue that's generated to do some affirmative good in communities. This is we're really talking about taking this money and reinvesting in the future of our communities. So yes, there is certainly money to be made in this new industry but where the state then puts those dollars, I think is going to speak volumes about its values and whether or not it is the state truly embodies racial justice here.

Chideya: Dianna, thanks so much for talking to us.

Houenou: Thank you for having me Farai.

Chideya: Dianna Houenou is chair of New Jersey's Cannabis Regulatory Commission, and senior policy advisor and associate counsel to state governor, Phil Murphy.

In Colorado, which legalized recreational marijuana in 2012, the industry made over $2 billion in annual sales for the first time last fall. Khadijah Adams worked in real estate, computer tech and retail before making it big in the Colorado cannabis market. I wanted to ask her how did she know to invest in the business and how is she helping other women of color do the same. Welcome Khadijah.

Khadijah Adams:

Thank you for having me.

Chideya: What do you think made you an entrepreneur?

Adams: Well, I found out early on, Farai, that I am allergic to bosses. For the life of me, I just couldn't live by the eight to five and go to lunch at 12 and I kept asking them, "Hell, what if I'm not hungry at 12? What if I don't want to wake up at eight o'clock or seven o'clock?" So I really wanted to make my own hours and I was raising four sons as a single mom and I was already a statistic, if you will, and I was tired and I said I wasn't going to do it anymore. I was not going to work for anybody else and on anybody else's dream. So I began working on my dream.

Chideya: So why did you turn from the computer retail business which you had been in to cannabis?

Adams: Well, when Colorado decided to legalize cannabis for recreational consumption, I knew that it would change the industry and it would change the direction of the industry. I also understood timing and positioning. I knew that if I could just get to Colorado and get in the industry, that I would have the opportunity to create generational wealth for my family and as an African American woman who raised for African American men, or young boys to be men, I believe that this industry was built on Black and brown people's backs. Because of that, I feel like we should benefit. We should get in the industry, whether we are business owners, entrepreneurs, investors, employees, I think it's necessary for us to position. So I decided to position and position for my family.

Chideya: So tell us the steps that you took with your business, because you have already moved on from what you first started. So tell us where you started in the cannabis industry, and how you got to what you're doing now.

Adams: I started investing in marijuana stocks or penny stocks, if you will and I actually made some pretty good investments. My story got out there and I began speaking and teaching in the industry and helping other investors find viable investment opportunities. Then a friend of mine, she and I had a conversation, I said, "Hey, I want to turn this into a business," because the majority of investors that I met, they didn't want to be seen in the industry. They wanted to remain silent, and they wanted to remain private. So I came up with Marijuana Investment and Private Retreat, or in my MIPR Holdings and then we started to, a friend of mine and I. She was the investor in the company and I was the "worker," if you will. I decided to fly in accredited investors and introduce them to entrepreneurs who were raising capital. In 2017, shortly after my divorce was final, I sold MIPR Holdings to C. E. Hutton. C. E. Hutton is a business development and management firm in Denver, Colorado, and I became one of the super majority partners in the firm.

Chideya: So that's amazing. You were able to take your own firm, which you'd help build and leverage it into a position on a larger firm.

Adams: Absolutely. I did have to instead of me being the CEO, I was the COO and it was a great experience. I still work with C. E. Hutton, not in the daily operations, but I'm still the vice president and still one of the super majorities, but I decided to branch off into my own business to help women

Chideya: Tell us about that, and what's the organization that you're using for that?

Adams: I formed Khadijah Adams LLC. My DBA is Girl, Get That Money. So it's Girl, Get That Money. We are a business empowerment, coaching and consultancy firm in this industry. So we help women in business and women who are aspiring to be in business get positioned in this industry, and or expand their business in this industry.

Chideya: You also are the co author of the Minority Report.

Adams: Yes. So the Minority Report, I co authored that with C. E. Hutton and that is an annual marketing analysis of minority owned companies in the cannabis and hemp space. I was looking at all these annual reports that I didn't see minority businesses and I'm like, well, we actually make up $1.38 trillion into this marketplace. So why aren't we there? I couldn't get anybody to help me put it together. So I told C. E. I said, "Well, hell, we just got to put it together ourselves," and we did.

Chideya: There was a time when marijuana was legal in the US and taxed, and when it was criminalized, it had a lot to do with race, in terms of how it was framed as a Black menace to white society. Do you think that that level of racialized enforcement has carried into the legalization of marijuana or is the legalization of marijuana helping to erase some of that pattern?

Adams: I believe that the legalization is helping to erase it, but I also know that it was propaganda. When you start locking up Black and brown people and Asian people and connecting them to marijuana and saying that they did this because of marijuana, then yeah, you create the stigma, and look where it's gotten us. We have neighborhoods that have been just destroyed by the war on drugs, the failed war on drugs, and then now you have white men, and let's be clear, because I say that unapologetically, coming into the cannabis industry and taken over and not giving back to any of those communities. Now, there may be some, but for the most part, they're not. So that's why it's important for black and brown people, African Americans to get positioned in the center. I think it's important.

Chideya: So there are Black people now in a whole bunch of different roles in the cannabis industry. We spoke to Dianna Houenou who's the chair of New Jersey State Cannabis Regulatory Commission. She talked to us about the duty that she feels governments have to reinvest the revenue from cannabis to right the wrongs of the war on drugs and the impact on communities of color. What do you think is possible there?

Adams: I agree with her 100%. It's their responsibility because they to understand and know, they've seen how the world drugs has affected our communities, and how it's taken men and women away from their families and things of that nature. So yes, it's their obligation, because now you are legalizing a plant that you criminalized and that you've locked people up, Black and brown people up for many, many, many, many, many years. Guess what? Some of them are still locked up and yet, the communities are still going down further and further and further. So I believe that yes, it's their responsibility to step in, re educate the communities, and give back to these communities, provide education, provide all the resources they need to reenter the workforce, and to also expunge these records. So I believe she's 100% right, that the government as a whole should take on the responsibility to decriminalize cannabis altogether.

Chideya: Do you see the US decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana, let's say in the next four to six years?

Adams: I believe that it's going to happen with this administration that we have right now. The majority of the states will come on board, because in the climate that we're living in right now, they understand that DEI is important for any industry to survive.

Chideya: Khadijah Adams, thank you so much.

Adams: Fantastic. Thank you.

Chideya: That was Khadijah Adams, cannabis industry investor, motivational speaker and founder of Girl, Get That Money.

We love to hear from our listeners. So every week we invite you to call the SPEAK line, and right now we want to know how did the pandemic change how you parent. As families prepare to send kids back to school and as we begin to imagine the return to something resembling normalcy, I want to know what you think has changed in your family after a year of such hardship and hard work in the home. To leave us your message, call 929-353-7006. That's 929-353-7006 or go to ourbodypolitic.show for a Google form to respond in writing.

Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called Sipping the Political Tea and joining me this week is Newsy reporter Casey Mendoza, Our Body Politic's business of entertainment contributor. Hi, Casey.

Casey Mendoza:

Hi Farai.

Chideya: And we've got April Reign, creator of the hashtag campaign, #OscarsSoWhite, vice president of content strategy for Ensemble and co founder of the Sista SCOTUS campaign, seeking to get a black woman appointed to the US Supreme Court. Welcome, April.

April Reign: Thank you so much for having me again, Farai.

Chideya: So today, I'm excited to talk about all things diversity and entertainment. I can't help but think that so much of how we perceive ourselves in society and perceive things like history is also tied up with our arts and culture. So many of the films that we're going to talk about really do have to do with the construction of identity, but I want to start with the big dog, which is the Academy Awards and April, you have been on the Oscars track for so long and contributed so much. There were some interesting choices. What do we know about how the Academy chose this year's nominations and are you happy with them?

Reign: To answer your second question first, no, I'm not happy, I'm never happy. There is every now and again, some optimism but definitely not happiness, because the people who go to see the films, who are spending their hard earned dollars, either they're in a movie theater post pandemic, or using streaming services, are not being represented in front of and behind the camera. So we don't know a whole bunch about how things were chosen because we never do, and that's part of the issue, not just with the Oscars, but with all of the voting bodies for films every single year. What we know is that the Academy, over the last five years, since 2016, the second year of #OscarsSoWhite, committed to doubling the number of people of color and doubling the number of women within the ranks by 2020. They actually met that goal, but the Academy membership is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. What we also know is that the Academy and many of the other voting bodies, I don't want to pile all of this on the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, because they're basically all in the same pot, but the Academy does not require its members to view performances before they vote. So if you're not watching the movie, and the majority of the folks who are voting are white males, we're talking about a popularity contest truly. So there isn't any optimism, but I think slowly but surely we are seeing some improvement because as we get newer and more diverse members within the academy body, they are being incredibly outspoken with respect to who and what they're supporting every year.

Chideya: What are we seeing though, in terms of the nominations with people of color on camera, and behind the scenes?

Reign: We are seeing some improvement there. So for example, we had movies like Minari, which is an incredible movie within AAPI, Asian and Asian American Pacific Islander cast and crew. So in front of and behind the camera, telling the story about really a typical American family living in this country and trying to survive. So that was really wonderful. We saw for the first time that we had more women than ever nominated as best directors because #OscarsSoWhite is not just about race and the Black/ white binary, but also sexual orientation and gender identity, and disability, all traditionally underrepresented groups. We saw for the first time Black women nominated in the hair and makeup category, and in the 90 years of the Oscars, we're still celebrating or at least acknowledging those firsts, but we know that there's much more work that needs to be done.

Chideya: I think that the gaze of Hollywood is so interesting, and so is the voice of Hollywood and sometimes that voice really is culturally complicated. So Casey, I'm going to turn to you. Minari, which April just referenced one the Golden Globes for Best Foreign Film back in January, and here's a clip of what the director, Isaac Lee Chung said during his acceptance speech.

Isaac Lee Chung:

I just want to say that Minari is about a family. It's a family trying to learn how to speak a language of its own. It's goes deeper than any American language and any foreign language. It's a language of the heart, and I'm trying to learn it myself and to pass it on and I hope we'll all learn how to speak this language of love to each other.

Chideya: So that was a very deft and politic way of framing the value of this movie across all cultural and linguistic lines, but language became an issue in categorizing this film for awards, didn't it?

Mendoza: Absolutely and I loved the way Isaac Lee Chung referenced that in his Golden Globes Speech, because when any minority or disenfranchised group calls for better representation in entertainment, the essence of what they're asking for is to be seen as human. So we've referenced a lot now that Minari captures this really universal story about family. So to have that story be categorized as foreign is just the very definition of othering, especially during a time when Asian American communities across the country are fearing for their lives. Because hateful racist, and xenophobic attackers see them as foreign, doesn't see them as human and don't see them represented as human on the screen. So to have again, Minari being recognized, I think, is a positive thing to have Steven Yeun, and Yuh-jung Youn nominated in the acting categories as a positive thing, especially knowing that it'll give more representation to the AAPI community in the Academy, but again, there's still a long way to go. Because even with Parasite winning Best Picture last year, that was the first time that Korean cinema was ever recognized by the Academy, even though entertainment as a whole is global and full of people of color. The Academy really needs to continue recognizing that rather than having this be just a single moment.

Chideya: The Oscars put Minari in a different category than the Golden Globes for awards consideration. Is that right?

Mendoza: Yes, it was nominated for Best Picture and it was not nominated in Best International Film, because it is an American film.

Chideya: Yeah. April back to you, I actually want to do something that I don't know that we've done before, which is play you a little bit of yourself, because you were one of the first guests on the show for which we're grateful. So last fall, we talked about the Oscar nomination process, and you shared this.

Reign: Well, the Academy, the Oscars, and the SAG Awards, and the Golden Globes and all the rest of them, that's the end of the game but where the real structural change needs to happen is on the page when that screenwriter sits down and says, "I'm going to write the next blockbuster."

Chideya: So April, this is something that you have been passionately talking about. What emergence of new venues do you see for people who are behind the scenes in Hollywood? Are we seeing progress there?

Reign: Slowly but surely. So the exciting part of this is that producers and actors and actors and actresses are creating their own production companies. No longer waiting for a seat at the table at the big studios, the 20th Century's and the Paramount and the Universals, but creating their own production companies incorporating the inclusion writer. Michael B. Jordan, for example, as an early adoptee of the inclusion writer for his production studio, Outlier Society, and making the films that they want to see. So, by definition, they incorporate more people from marginalized and disenfranchised communities, both in front of and behind the camera.

Chideya: Casey, turning back to you, diversity and representation is a topic across various entertainment industries and there was a kerfuffle recently when The Weeknd boycotted the Grammys in March. What do we know about that, and what comparisons can or should we draw to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that April started for film?

Mendoza: Of course. So The Weeknd pledged a permanent Grammys boycott after his single Blinding Lights, which was one of the most successful songs of 2020, and part of an album that went double platinum that didn't receive any nominations from the Recording Academy, but this boycott is more than about not receiving any recognition for his work specifically. It's about the lack of transparency on the actual nomination process and the lack of Grammy recognition in general, for black artists. That's something that obviously parallels to the Academy because there is no transparency and the nomination process, and there is a history of very little recognition for artists of color. Talking more about the music industry, this also isn't the first time it's happened. Kanye West and Frank Ocean have also boycotted the Grammys, for the exact reason and I think that while The Weeknd's boycott has definitely drawn more recent attention to the issue, whether that leads to long term change at the Recording Academy is up to the Recording Academy. If they don't change, I think it really calls into question how important should the Grammys be as a marker of success, and I think the same thing is true of the Academy. If we continually have to ask for representation or create our own seats at the table, I think it creates this conversation of maybe we should also create new markers of success that recognize our artistry.

Reign: Let's remember that in hip hop, DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince boycotted the Grammys decades ago, because the hip hop award wasn't going to be televised, and then obviously led to some changes with within the Grammys. So voices are necessary. I wish there had been more support for The Weeknd's boycott.

Chideya: I was just looking at one of the articles about The Weeknd's boycott and there was a USC Annenberg inclusion initiative study that found that black performers are about 38% of artists on the Billboard Hot 100, but they have just been 24% of the Grammy nominees this year, and 27%, year to year. In the end, April, isn't this really about money that if you win awards, that brings you shine that can bring you money, and that the award systems are a way of moving capital in the end?

Reign: It's always about money. That's the bottom line and that is the way that structural change is made. However, moving back to film, because that's where I'm most comfortable, it doesn't always translate into money. It means money for the studio that has made the film, but it doesn't necessarily mean increase opportunities for those who actually win the awards. Halle Berry, very famously, even recently, this was the year, I think maybe the 20th year anniversary of her winning the first and only Oscar ever given to a black woman in the Best Actress category.

Reign: She has been very transparent about saying the doors were not open to her and the fact that Viola Davis still has to audition for roles is beyond me. Just ask her how much she wants, double it, and sign the contract. That's the way it should be in my head. So that's part of the problem that one would think that opportunities, because you're an Oscar nominee, or a Grammy nominee, or an Emmy nominee would just flow like water, but they do not. So then the question becomes, what good are these awards, if they're only for the gatekeepers, because the gatekeeper can say, "Oh, my studio won an Oscar for, or someone working with my studio won for this performance." That maybe allows them to get more things green-lit, but not the actual people who are doing the work. The producers, the actors, the cinematographers, and so on.

Chideya: So this may sound super basic, but why do awards even matter? What's the deal? Casey.

Mendoza: When I look at Oscar nominations, and Oscar wins throughout history, I do see them and historians do see them as markers of what the time period is like, and if we don't adequately represent artists of color, we're not accurately looking at history.

Chideya: April, what about you?

Reign: I think that is exactly right. I'm not sure that they are as relevant as some people would want them to believe, would want all of us to believe. But as of right now, when we talk about the Oscars and the Grammys and the Emmys, they are still considered the pinnacle in film, in music and in TV. So one wants to be recognized and acknowledged by their peers with the most pinnacle award that there is, even if it's just something that's going to sit on your shelf and unfortunately may not lead to the opportunities that we would like.

Chideya: Casey, as you think about the world of entertainment, including the world of awards, what are you looking forward to or looking for in terms of the ways that not only the entertainment industry itself, but entertainment media makers like you can respond to our times?

Mendoza: Of course. So I think one of the best places I am seeing improvement is like the development of consultation roles, I guess. As someone who covers the industry, I find a lot of value in following groups like Color of Change, which has been doing amazing work, analyzing how cop shows and crime dramas warp audience perceptions of the criminal justice system. There's this organization called Hollywood Health & Society that provides health and science experts to make sure writers are accurately tackling issues like climate change or HIV and AIDS, and Define American, which was founded by Jose Antonio Vargas does a lot of work making sure that immigration storylines on film and television are accurate and human and all of those groups and the experts that do this consulting work, really do help better representation on screen and I would hope in the writer's room too. I think they really show that you don't have to be entrenched in the Hollywood system. You don't have to be an established writer or an actor to make positive change and get this done.

Chideya: April, wrapping up with you, any other thoughts on some unsung MVPs in the entertainment industry, whether it's groups like Color of Change or, certainly people like yourself with #OscarsSoWhite, but who comes to mind?

Reign: Charles King at MACRO is doing an amazing work, and he has just announced that he's been funded to the tune of, I believe $10 million and that money is going to go directly into the communities of marginalized people to make films. Very near, if not at the top of my list is Franklin Leonard and The Black List who has been working for years and years to allow screenwriters to have their work seen and reviewed by others and in fact a film that was previously on The Black List is now nominated for an Oscar. So you can see the clear trajectory there. What I think we're seeing is that again, people are taking the reigns in their own hands. Nobody's coming to save us. We know that the studios are all run by white men and who are resistant to change and who still, in some cases, don't believe that films can travel and that films can translate. We've got Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians and Coco, and so many others to indicate factually that that's not true, but apparently they're okay with leaving money on the table. It's unfortunate because I think as we see the uptick in streaming services, especially when we were all home for this past year with the pandemic, that film is becoming much more accessible to those who may not have pockets as deep as the big studios.

Chideya: That's fantastic, and we're going to have to leave it there for now. So it was great talking with you April.

Reign: Thank you, always a pleasure to chop it up with you, Farai.

Chideya: And thank you, Casey.

Mendoza: Of course. Thank you.

Chideya: Thank you for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcast. Our Body Politic is produced by Lantigua Williams & Co. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Original music by associate sound designer, Kojin Tashiro. Our producer is Priscilla Alabi. Julie Zann is our talent consultant. Production assistance from Mark Betancourt, Michael Castańeda, Natyna Bean, and Sarah McClure. This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family philanthropies, from BMe community, a network designed to build caring and prosperous communities inspired by black people and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. "Combatting Domestic Terrorism, a Cannabis Entrepreneur and a Policymaker on Social Equity in the Industry, and Why #OscarsSoWhite Still Applies." Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. April 16, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/