The Grapevine: Leading the Conversation
By Ime Ekiko
With over 120,000 subscribers, more than 100 videos, and influence in at least three different countries,The Grapevine is the exceptional YouTube web series dedicated to breaking down the barrier of polarized debates in favor of a nuanced, more complex debate whose conversations are rooted in the foundation of Blackness. “Blackness” in the Grapevine not only encompasses the Black-American experience, but also the Black Diasporic experience with respect to differences in culture, heritage, and nation. SVGE Magazine was able to sit down with creator and host, Ashley Akunna, and strategic producer & recurring panelist, Donovan Thompson, a few weeks ago:
Both Akunna and Thompson understand that Blackness as a whole is subjected to the same pressures of White supremacy and patriarchy on a global level. Both being first-generation Americans—Akunna being Nigeria and Thompson being Jamaican—The Grapevine begins to paint a multi-colored portrait of the Black-American experience. Often times treated as a monolith, The Grapevine amplifies a shifting demographic whose commonality may begin or end with race. Thompson describes his Jamaican upbringing as deeply intertwined with teachings of Black-American history for whom he credits his mother. “She taught me about African-American culture. She bought me books. I was reading about African-American leaders from the 70s, understanding what Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X did from an early age.”
It wasn’t until a moment of unconscious assumption when he posed the question, “Where are you from?” to his high school friends did he begin to reassess his relationship with Blackness. Having never felt isolated from the Black experience in America, Thompson feels he is coming to a deeper understanding of what it means to be Black. Akunna—whose father also taught her Black-American history—notes the other half of the conversation in her household, “My mom did say to me, ‘If you marry an African-American man, be careful because they might not stay married to you,’ as in the culture of marriage isn't as important to them. That's one thing I did hear growing up.” The Grapevine explores this muddled dynamic in multiple episodes including “The Collective: Africans vs. Caribbeans vs. African Americans,” with each perspective receiving their own separate episodes then culminating as a collective conversation.
We asked for their point of view on the relatively new (and delicate) concept of Black-Americans being able to appropriate African culture. Surprised to see this be an aspect of the conversation, the ‘divide’ between Caribbeans and Black-Americans weren’t visible nor felt for Thompson. But he then made a great point: “Black people don't have the luxury of navigating a framework like appropriation in the same way that people outside of Blackness approach that framework.” The Grapevine dedicates itself to exploring thick nuances, informed experiences, and varied opinions within this framework. What the Grapevine does well in navigating these conversations is the introduction of a crucial element: empathy. “Through(out) the diaspora, you have to have empathy. You can't lean toward xenophobia. You have to have empathy and understanding because at the end of the day we are Black. We're all here having a Black experience in America. Although it may be different because we come from different places, we are all having a Black experience,” Akunna explains.
She has come to the understanding that while one can misinterpret another’s culture, the moment should serve to educate rather than be misused to display entitlement, arrogance, and ignorance. “Africans have a privilege because I can trace my lineage. So we have privileges. Some of us don't. Some of us do. But we all have to be respectful, and we all have to be understanding of each other.” Undeniably echoed in the care exhibited by its panelists, The Grapevine has created a unique but safe space for deeper dives worldwide.
The conversation at The Grapevine is a global one, having expanded to episodes in the UK and South Africa with more to come. When asked about the challenges of exploring conversations overseas, both noted the cultural differences in the way issues are addressed. Akunna expressed that pulling responses out of the UK panel was a definite challenge when compared to an American panel. Both agreed racism in the UK is much more subdued, polite even, resulting in a conversation with a pacifying element. “It was a very interesting energy that was going on in the room which was about making white folks feel comfortable,” Thompson says. In South Africa, Akunna compared the sentiment of the community as similar to Americans with both having had oppressive white governments.
An interesting point she made, however, was that South Africans are just now reckoning with the meaning of being African for the first time. Different areas of the Diaspora are at different stages in reckoning with their Blackness and with each conversation, issues are brought to light—issues heard for the first time for some audience members. These overseas episodes resulted in feedback from their American audience echoing that they were not aware of the knife crime issue in the UK or that racism in general was a major issue there. But with each exploration of Blackness, so comes an inevitable connection: “We kind of built a bridge between America and London in the conversation. In London, they are starting to have their own conversations. They've been inspired,” Thompson says.
The most memorable conversations for them in general were the topics on the “N-Word”, and “Shithole Countries.” Noticing a denial of the state some home countries were in, Akunna expressed, “I feel like it was a conversation between mostly people who are first-generation, and a lot of privilege was in that conversation in terms of ‘our countries are not shitholes.’” Do not mistake her comment for condescension—she noticed a tendency of the panelists to downplay the situation, a contradiction to the bluntness of the show. Thompson stated that during the N-word episode, it was his first time hearing many white people think that the word was okay. “I heard a lot in passing conversations, but it was interesting to sit around everyday people who broke down the reasons why they thought it was appropriate. I thought it was a learning experience. I didn't necessarily walk away with a change of opinion, but I walked away with a better sense of understanding,” he said.
Yes, The Grapevine has invited white people to the show before. Though the mission of The Grapevine is to be a platform for the Black experience, some conversations cannot happen in lieu of white people when it is the relationship between the two that inform so many opinions. “We have invited white people before when it is appropriate because there are conversations that we have to have. They are difficult, and they are rough. We hear the audience say, ‘Why is there an White person on the show?’ but we say we want to hold them accountable.” It is the willingness to listen but to still hold people accountable—especially as we see an upwave of Black content penetrating mainstream white media and the reactionary aggression that results—that pushes The Grapevine above its mainstream counterparts. Akunna and Thompson know that these conversations must happen even with today’s cancel culture. But no matter how black and white (no pun intended) the conversation appears to be, there must be a willingness to dissect.
A common criticism the show faces is confusion as to how audiences can trust that the panel we see can dissect the conversation and are knowledgeable in the points of views that are being discussed. The show is formatted in a way that feels as though your friends are having the conversation to bring a sense of normalcy and comfort. What's interesting is that some of the panelists actually hold a PhDs or a Masters degrees, we learned, making them far more qualified to talk about these topics than most of us watching. It is an opinion-based show but, make no mistake, Akunna and Thompson are bringing vastly credible individuals to the table. It is the job of the panel to fact-check each other and even the audience; “If anybody wants to fact-check us on Twitter, they are more than welcome to,” but this is not the overall vibe of the series. The series is rooted in opinions—informed opinions that are inherent with lived experiences. We did ask specifically how Akunna and Thompson are able to curate the panel but, “[they] can't give away the secret sauce.”
The Grapevine is a carefully constructed series just now scratching the surface of Black Diasporic experiences. With every episode opening a new point of view, we begin to bridge the gap between different Black communities and find ways to relate to one another. We begin to have very difficult conversations within our own communities in an open and safe environment. The Grapevine molds together a mosaic of experiences, exposing its audiences to a higher level of self-awareness and sociopolitical awareness. The show was born out of the lack of Black Millennial voices in the mainstream and is working hard to bridge the gap. Above all, The Grapevine masters the delicate balance between speaking and listening. Everyone has a voice. Everyone is heard. No topic is off limits. This is what it means to lead the conversation.
If you’d like to support The Grapevine, check out their Patreon.