Moments before 40-year-old Terence Crutcher was gunned down with his hands up in the air by a white police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, another officer looking below from a helicopter on a walkie-talkie said that Crutcher — a father of four who was in route home after taking a class at a community college — "looked like a bad dude."
What exactly does a "bad dude" look like? By all accounts, Crutcher was far from being "bad." He was a family man, a father who loved singing in his church choir, so much so that he had enrolled into Tulsa Community College in hopes of earning an associate's degree in music appreciation.
On the day Crutcher was murdered, he was not committing a crime. He was not armed. He was not breaking any traffic violations. His car had just stalled. He had his hands up in the air when approached by the police. What could make the officer believe that Crutcher was a "bad dude" — bad enough to kill him? The answer is simple — implicit bias.
These false perceptions affect the criminal justice system, hiring practices, housing, pay equality, academic expectations, and more.
We constantly hear about Black people of all ages getting the police called on them for looking suspicious doing everyday tasks; or we're faced with another video of a Black person being murdered by either a rogue cop or neighborhood vigilante. It has become shockingly prevalent in the last few years but not surprising given the lack of representation in all facets of the media. The media is charged with telling stories through journalism, television, film, music videos, video games, and even advertising. When Black people are not the decision-makers at media organizations or a part of ownership, people who may not fully understand the complex issues facing our community are left to tell our stories. It's a recipe for disaster.
The Sentencing Project revealed that implicit bias from producers and journalists shapes how Black people are portrayed in the media. These false perceptions affect the criminal justice system, hiring practices, housing, pay equality, academic expectations and more.
That is why I launched kweliTV to address implicit bias and use storytelling as a strategy to change the narrative on what it means to be Black in America and abroad. Years ago, I was flipping through dozens of cable channels and shows not seeing anything I wanted to watch or could relate to: Black women were fighting on reality TV and most networks were playing the same Black throwbacks — some laced with stereotypes. If you turn on the History Channel on a month other than February one would think that Black people played no role in history — which we know is not true. After filming my documentary "Mom Interrupted" and screening it at a film festival, I learned firsthand the challenges that Black filmmakers face when trying to get distribution. Since then I've been obsessed with using storytelling to change the Black narrative.
If you turn on the History Channel on a month other than February one would think that Black people played no role in history—which we know is not true.
KweliTV allows you to discover and celebrate Black stories and culture across the globe — North America, Africa, Latin America, Europe, the Caribbean, and even Australia — through curated indie films, documentaries, web series, educational kids programming, news, and live experiences. Kweli means "truth" in Swahili. Our mission is to curate content that's a true reflection of the global Black experience.
Our content educates and entertains our viewers, dispels myths, connects communities, and sparks activism by giving Black thought-leaders, creatives, and activists a space to have a voice. Many of our 400+ videos feature topics impacting Black people globally: such as criminal justice, the environment, political activism, women's rights, etc., while the rest of our content displays the rich culture of the global Black community that's oftentimes missing in Western media.
KweliTV creates a pipeline that pays talented filmmakers of color who have challenges getting distribution despite having a successful film festival run so they can produce more impactful content. We're currently working with more than 300 indie content creators from around the world — 90% of our content creators are of African descent and half are women and 60% of our revenue is allocated to our content creators.
Our content educates and entertains our viewers, dispels myths, connects communities, and sparks activism by giving Black thought-leaders, creatives, and activists a space to have a voice.
When I first started kweliTV, I was so excited about what I was building but also extremely naive about the tech space. I had just won a $20,000 grant from NewU's Pitch Competition so I could build my beta. I knew that in order to raise a seed round of funding, I would need to get some type of traction from my MVP. And when we finally launched, we got an overwhelming positive response: hundreds of people were coming to the site to join just through word of mouth. We were actually bringing in a small amount of revenue in a matter of weeks. It was amazing. I knew that the next phase would be an investment round. But life didn't happen that way. I spent the next 24 months unsuccessfully trying to raise money. That's when I learned that Black women have the hardest time of all groups to receive investments — only around 0.2% of Black women raise VC funds.
It wasn't until two years later when I got my next check through the Halcyon incubator program, which offers a stipend, free housing, and other programming to help social ventures like mine succeed. When I started at Halcyon, I literally only had $63 left in my company's bank account. It was a lifeline for my business at that time. That's when I began my "by any means necessary" approach and started looking at other ways to acquire funding. That same year, I also won the Harvard Business School's African Business Club pitch competition as well as a grant from the Voqal Fellowship Program. Fast forward to today, since launching our beta years ago we've only "raised" about $190K — mostly from grants (like from the News Integrity Initiative), pitch competitions, and small convertible notes (like from TEDCO and Lightship Capital). We've been able to accomplish so much with so very little.
As the world continues to reel from COVID-19 and take to the streets to fight for Black lives, having platforms like kweliTV to tell authentic, impactful stories are important now more than ever. I've always understood how powerful media is — even as a child. My discovery of Emmett's Till's death on my way to church as a 10-year-old was my first lesson. An avid reader as a child, on most Sundays I would take a book or magazine with me to occupy my time while sitting in the back seat of my parent's car headed to church. On one particular Sunday, I chose the latest issue of Jet magazine.
As the world continues to reel from COVID-19 and take to the streets to fight for Black lives, having platforms like kweliTV to tell authentic, impactful stories are important now more than ever.
For those who are unfamiliar with Jet, during its heyday, the weekly magazine and its sister publication Ebony magazine could be seen in most African American households, doctor offices, beauty and barbershop and more. The two publications — owned Johnson Publishing, a Black-owned media company — were staples in the Black community. Johnson Publishing was the first media brand that showcased the very best of Black America and kept its readers updated on the latest news impacting our community.
As my dad pulled out of the driveway, I zoned out from the noise of the radio and the chatter from my family and immersed myself in the issue. While flipping through the top Black stories of the week, I turned the page to a story about the anniversary of Emmett Till's death. It was my first time learning about his story of being falsely accused by a white woman, kidnapped by a white mob, and ultimately lynched. When I flipped the page expecting to read more, I was hit with the infamous photograph of 14-year-old Emmett Till's disfigured body lying in an open casket. Mamie Till, his mother, told the undertaker not to clean up his face because she "wanted the world to see what they did" to her baby. The image startled me — so much so that I immediately slammed the magazine closed and sat in silence for the remainder of the ride. I couldn't read another word. When we arrived at church, I couldn't stop thinking about Emmett Till — the image of his mutilated face was etched in my head.
I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that a kid just a few years older than me was being gruesomely murdered the way that he was. I told my naive, 10-year-old self it was the 50s — a different time when Black people were regularly hunted down and murdered for no reason. But the reality was that those days weren't gone — just suppressed. During my youth, cell phones were too bulky and definitely not "smart" enough to record crazy "Karen's" or rouge cops. As we've seen far too many times in the last decade, the story of Emmet Till is not a unique one thanks to technology and courageous citizens recording, live streaming, and uploading incidents of innocent Black men and women dying unjustly for the world to witness — similar Mamie Till's bravery.
I told my naive, 10-year-old self it was the 50s — a different time when Black people were regularly hunted down and murdered for no reason. But the reality was that those days weren't gone – just suppressed.
Later on, I learned that Emmet's murder and subsequent coverage of his open casket by Jet magazine was seen as the catalyst that sparked the rise in activism that we now know as the Civil Rights Movement. And today, I see a resurgence in revolutionary actions after millions of people around the world watched the 8:46 death of George Floyd. As a founder of Black-owned media company, I believe it is my mission to use kweliTV's platform to amplify the stories of resistance in towns and cities across the globe while also creating a safe space for our customers to decompress from the constant images of Black death with films and documentaries of Black excellence, hope and resilience.
WRITTEN BYDeshuna Spencer