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Black Lives, Excellence, and Creative Fundraising

Published onMar 17, 2022
Black Lives, Excellence, and Creative Fundraising

Introduction

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is frequently analysed as a movement in which (audio-)visual media is integral. These analyses tend to focus on how imagery is used as tools of witnessing and transformation1 and on the ways in which visual media can act as ‘catalytic signifiers’.2 This article will focus on the use of (audio-)visual media to generate monetary funds for the BLM movement. This is an overlooked area of enquiry in the BLM movement as articles pertaining to visual aspects of BLM tend to analyse images or videos of civic abuse (especially police brutality) and of key moments of protest (such as Bristol’s statue of the slave trader and merchant Edward Colston being pushed into the docks by protesters in 2020), and how people respond to such imagery.34 Media of this kind raise awareness of the movement and its necessity - that is, to reduce civic abuse towards Black people and other minority people, and trigger emotions and action. The methods of fundraising detailed in this article can also be seen to have these effects, as well as raising money for BLM, and importantly, they tend to highlight Black excellence – that is the brilliance of Black ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and solidarity. This has had a long history since at least the time of the civil rights movement when campaigners such as Malcolm X and artists such as Sam Cooke supported Black-controlled businesses, demonstrating their agency and prowess at a time when so much was stacked against them, socially, economically, and politically. BLM continues nowadays in innovative ways using the internet as a significant tool with which to organise and reach out to local and global communities.

BLM fundraising effectively raises funds whilst simultaneously reinforcing positive narratives about Black citizens, communities, and lives. Whether this is done through (audio-)visual media of Black excellence (such as the example of a YouTube fundraiser considered below), or through sharing images of cathartic moments of protest on social media (such as the lino prints of Bristol’s Colston statue being toppled), the effect is that positive discourse around BLM is created and/or reinforced in various segments of society. (Audio-)visual media of Black excellence in particular supports BLM’s work to dispel negative stereotypes of Black people, showing them to be admirable and innovative. The reasons for why this sphere of (audio-)visual media is effective for reaching these ends are that they centre Black experiences, and thus decentre the (in)visible structures and discourses of whiteness.5

Fundraising is an important aspect of the BLM movement; funds are used to further the movement, to post bail for Black citizens in jail, and to contribute to other charities and organisations that support the Black community. Another example is the go-fund-me campaign which was set up after George Floyd’s death, so that people could donate and contribute to the cost of his funeral and his memorial service, and to help support his family, particularly his young children who had just tragically lost their father. BLM typically involves a different kind of fundraising than traditional organisations, one which is needed for a movement whose supporters tend not to be from the richest echelons of society. 

I will be focusing on the UK and USA because of the English language resources, and because these are two countries with large Black populations and a high level of BLM involvement. These countries are two of the three (the other being Canada) in which the organisation ‘Black Lives Matter’ is based. As I am based in Bristol in the UK, I also explore small-scale creative fundraising that I participated in and observed the summer of 2020 by virtue of my social networks.  As is clear from media recordings of the toppling of the Colston statue, this network included people from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.

I am sure that readers of this article will already know the sequence of events which led to the creation of BLM, but nevertheless this article will summarise them briefly here, because it is vitally important to remember what BLM stands for and why we need this movement. The BLM movement began in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a US citizen who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African American. The movement gained more momentum in the next summer, in 2014, in the context of the Ferguson riots which in turn were caused by the murder of Michael Brown. Michael was also unarmed, he was 18 years old, and he was killed by the American police officer Darren Wilson. This article focuses on fundraising that happened in the summer of 2020, when BLM gained huge momentum once again. This was because Derek Chauvin, an American police officer, murdered George Floyd.

BLM is global, and when I refer to it in this article, I am referring to the global, decentralized, grassroots movement of BLM. There is also a registered charity named ‘Black Lives Matter’ which provides free information and informational resources, as well as creating and circulating petitions, and fighting disinformation online. All of these activities are integral to ultimately ending white supremacy and fighting against police brutality and systematic discrimination against Black lives. Beyond this, a multitude of organisations are fighting for Black lives, such as the bail funds mentioned earlier, and thus when this article discusses BLM fundraising, it refers to funds raised for any BLM related organisations, whether that be the namesake charity or not.

Interaction with BLM on social media has been a core part of the movement, and as such it is being analysed a lot.67 This article does touch on social media, but its primary focus is creative fundraising methods. In the summer of 2020, a large amount of fundraising for BLM was done through social media, including the examples discussed in this article. However, it is impossible to say how much this was due to necessity because of the social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This article will begin by discussing Black excellence in conjunction with the YouTube fundraiser, Black Lives and Voices Matter: an art exposition by Zoe Amira.8 Next, it will examine how BLM fundraising differs from other types of fundraising, and why this is important. Finally, this article will detail two further case studies of lino prints and t-shirts being sold on Instagram as a form of micro-scale fundraising, and how this reinforces positive discourse around BLM in localised communities.

Black Excellence

The first example of a creative method of fundraising for BLM is the trend of creating YouTube videos specifically for the purpose of fundraising. The most successful of these videos is entitled Black Lives and Voices Matter: an art exposition, and was posted on YouTube on 31st May 2020. As of June 2021, this video has over ten and a half million views. It was created and posted by Zoe Amira on her YouTube channel as a way to deliberately offer a way for people to donate money to BLM without costing them personally. Partakers watched the video, and let the adverts play, so that advert revenue would be paid to Amira, who would then donate it to BLM. Viewers also deliberately interacted with the video, by commenting on it or “liking” it, in order to boost it in YouTube's algorithms and therefore be advertised to more people, and reaching an even wider audience. This would in turn result in more views, and thus generate even more advert revenue. Amira’s plan was to donate the funds raised to a BLM cause, either one of the causes such as bail funds or memorial funds as mentioned above, or alternatively the organisation BLM. However, YouTube demonetised the video because it violated one of their advert revenue scheme’s terms of service - because it was created and advertised explicitly to earn money through views. This meant that Amira never received the money that would have been generated by people watching the video and its adverts. Despite this, YouTube stated that they agreed with the cause behind the fundraising for BLM, and supported Amira’s initiative, and so they pledged to donate the equivalent amount to what would have been earned through advert revenue to an organisation of Amira’s choice.9 At the time of writing, it is unclear whether this has happened yet or not.

Black Lives and Voices Matter: an art exposition fulfilled purposes other than fundraising; it features Black poetry, music and visual art. Frequently throughout the video, music is playing accompanied by a piece of art by a Black artist. The themes in the art sometimes touch on police brutality and other issues central to BLM, as well as expressing occasions for joy and other aspects of Black lives. Each section of the video includes the name of the artist, or artists, and often the links to their social media or website, so that people watching the video can then go and support the artists by buying, watching or listening to their art. The effect of this is threefold; firstly, it educates the public, not only on issues such as police brutality, but also wider aspects of the Black experience, which, importantly includes Black excellence. Secondly, the video centres Blackness because it is nearly an hour long of Black faces, Black voices and Black excellence (see Partridge, this issue). Thirdly, the video directs viewers to Black art, meaning that the individual artists featured in the video have gained exposure, and will hopefully receive more traffic than before.

Centring Blackness is subversive because of the hegemonic norm of whiteness in UK and US media.10 Images in particular have been shown to be integral to decentring whiteness in our white-focused culture.11 This is because Western culture is ocularcentric; out of the five senses, we place the most importance on sight.12 Part of this ocularcentrism means that images are perceived as factual, and thus imagery of police violence against Black people has been more effective in producing outrage in white citizens than, for example, written articles.13 In this way, visual media has a lot of power to change opinions in our culture. In fact, employing (audio-)visual media in campaigning has a long history in the fight for Black equality; in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s America, the media was used frequently to bring awareness to police brutality and other injustices that the Black community face.14

I argue that the imagery of Black art in the YouTube art exposition has a similar effect on white citizens, in that it will transform, or widen, white views about Black citizens and BLM because imagery is equated with truth. Authentic visual representations of the Black experience, including racist abuse, Black excellence, and everything in between, are therefore integral to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Celebrating Black excellence also serves as an alternative rhetoric to that of Black citizens as violent or somehow less worthy than their fellow non-Black citizens. Representations of Black excellence disregard these ‘established caricatures’.15 Mass media frequently portrays the BLM movement as violent and destructive16, but Amira’s YouTube video provides an alternative narrative to that. It is a celebration of Black excellence and creativity, and thus it juxtaposes the narrative of the movement being violent. This also means that fundraising can be less controversial; it does not actively vilify whiteness or the police, whereas the other sphere of activities do. Thus, a larger audience might be inclined to donate.

The video is also empowering to celebrate the artistic triumphs of the Black community, triumphs that include creating music and poetry that can be appreciated worldwide, especially when these achievements were reached in the face of great adversity. And finally, celebrating Black excellence, and in particular Black art, serves as a reminder to us all how much Black culture has and continues to contribute to the world, especially in artistic arenas.  

A different kind of fundraising

BLM is a grassroots movement; a decentralised social movement with no leaders, and as such creative solutions to fundraising are needed because BLM does not have the established revenue streams that larger, top-down organisations do. To add to this, Black communities in the global North continue to be marginalised, both economically and in terms of their power, status, and influence.17 Thus, Black communities are more resource-poor in comparison with their white counterparts. Of course, Black people themselves are not the only fiscal supporters of BLM, but as capitalism relies on racism18, I propose that even non-Black supporters of BLM are unlikely to be resource-rich. It is therefore important that fundraising methods for BLM are accessible to those without large amounts of, or even any, disposable income.

Potential donors have nothing to lose by watching a video, by which I mean that it does not cost them any money, nor very much time. However, it does involve trusting that a complete stranger, who you only know through social media accounts, will donate the earnings that you have helped to create to BLM funds. When comparing the different priorities of charity characteristics of different racial/ethnic groups in the USA, Frumkin19 found that white Americans valued charities that were ‘...organized and systematic’, ‘undemocratic’, and ‘aimed at small redistributions of resources’, more than other groups. They also have strong-rooted ideas about a ‘deserving poor’, which are absent in Black communities.2021 In comparison, Black citizens valued investing in youth and community projects the most.2223 These trends are visible in the fundraising practices of BLM; donors trust one another, seeing one another as equals fighting for the same cause, as opposed to private citizens supporting a large corporation that entrenches the view of a supposed ‘deserving poor’. Conversely, long-established charitable organisations are often found to be distinctly untrustworthy, with limited transparency about where funds go, such as Oxfam’s 2018 scandal involving their volunteers paying for sex in Haiti,24 among others.

It is pertinent to mention that many organisations and charities are beginning to target Black and other ethnic minority communities as ‘untapped resources’.25 These organisations attempt to raise funds from Black and other ethnic minority communities, but do not actually serve or represent these communities, nor do they necessarily align with the values of these communities, such as a focus on community and youth work. This atmosphere necessitated a new kind of movement in which organisations actually support Black communities and Black lives; this movement is BLM.

Micro-scale fundraising

A micro-scale form of creative fundraising that I witnessed during Summer 2020 was the selling of handmade art. This was particularly present on Instagram, which was home to a lot of BLM activity this summer. Social media users created and then sold hand-made products such as hand-embroidered T-shirts with themes supporting BLM on them (figure.1), and lino prints of Bristol’s Colston statue being toppled (figure.2). These T-shirts and lino prints were sold to friends and followers for a couple of pounds, and the buyers trusted that the proceeds would then be donated to BLM causes. Again, these two examples had multiple effects beyond raising funds; the process of sharing images of the works on social media, in order to sell them, was community building and identity building because people were interacting with their friends and their social media followers in order to raise money for a shared cause. By buying and selling these artworks, online communities were producing positive discourse around the BLM movement, as well as publicly making clear their commitment to, and support of, the movement. This created a positive norm among many social media communities - that is, groups of people who tend to all follow each other - to be vocally pro-BLM and to donate to the cause.

The lino print of Bristol's Colston statue being toppled is a particularly cathartic image. The toppling of Colston was pivotal moment of the UK’s BLM movement last summer, and it was a cathartic act for many people, especially Bristolians such as myself who have been debating the problems surrounding the statue for years. Thus, the creation of the lino prints commemorating the occasion were an outlet of creativity, which were then used for fundraising purposes. However, it is necessary to consider the impact of the circulation of the image of Colston being toppled, given that it is imagery of the destruction of property.

When discussing Zoe Amira’s YouTube video, this article described how the exposition of Black creativity provided an alternative rhetoric about BLM than that of the movement as violent and destructive. Is there a risk that producing lino prints of an act which was seen by many as destructive, will reinforce a negative view of BLM protests? I think the answer to this is, in certain situations, a possible yes, but this does not mean that such art should not be created or spread, nor do I think that this was the intent or effect of this lino print’s creation. Firstly, the lino prints presumably reached a much smaller like-minded audience. They were advertised and sold to a small group of people who follow the creator’s social media account, whereas Amira’s YouTube video has 10 million views. Additionally, the medium of lino printing, as opposed to photography for example, combined with the fact that the print shows no human beings, makes it quite removed from “reality” and thus less likely to provoke negative responses. Of course, there are people who are predisposed to dislike BLM, or who were very against the toppling of the statue and would thus have a negative reaction to the lino print. However, these issues are impossible to avoid, and do not mean that the lino prints contribute to wider negative discourse around BLM.

Conclusion

This paper has highlighted forms of creative fundraising for BLM which arose in the summer of 2020. These creative forms of fundraising not only contributed funds to BLM causes, but also celebrated Black excellence and supported positive narratives around Black lives, both generally and in the context of the BLM movement, through the use of (audio-)visual media. Micro-scale creative fundraising in particular helped to popularize the BLM involvement and donation through creating and nurturing pro-BLM sentiments and actions among groups of friends and communities on social media. These methods represent a different kind of fundraising to established norms; BLM fundraising is not typically professional or organized, but neither does it involve uncomfortable notions of a ‘deserving poor’ (and thus by implication, an undeserving poor). The fundraising examined in this article is creative not only because of its content, but because it provided ways for people with little to no disposable income to donate. This is important in the face of the disproportional lack of wealth faced by Black citizens, and the racist nature of capitalism implicates that few BLM supporters would be wealthy, regardless of their ethnicity. This article points to a lack of literature on the changing nature of campaigning and fundraising combined with the democratic possibilities of the internet, where, for example, one can raise money through posting subversive audio-visual media on YouTube. Lastly, this article raises the issue of potentially creating negative discourse around BLM through the distribution of certain images - in this case the lino print of Colston’s statue being toppled. However, I have argued that this was not the actual outcome of such circulation of imagery. In fact, the imagery consolidated means for more economic clout and agency.


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