This Black History Month, as we look towards the future of a legalized cannabis industry, we should remember the lessons of what Black exclusion does to new and vibrant enterprises. Earlier this week, I was reminded of the systematically racist history of MTV, and I immediately drew comparisons to the current state of Social Equity in the cannabis industry. Even more fascinating is that MTV was saved by the very artists and community it rejected: Black Americans. Similarities to the current state of cannabis can be drawn – a new industry is attempting to show its value by “narrowcasting” to the wrong audience and unwittingly destroying its own business model in the process.
So What Happened to MTV?
David Bowie said it best in an interview with an MTV VJ in the early days of music videos in the U.S. “I’m just floored by the fact that there are … so few Black artists featured on it. Why is that?”
The channel claimed it was narrowcasting “to the midwest” and trying to move Middle America to embrace more diverse musical voices. Culture wasn’t having it: at the same time MTV was defending its choices, Rick James, creator of Super Freak and one of the biggest names in music circa 1983, called out the network as “blatantly racist,” stating that “a lot of Black asses are going to explode MTV.”
Meanwhile, MTV was in financial turmoil, reportedly wasting a total of $50 million dollars by 1983-84 – a full $40 million over expected losses. Their narrowcasting model, focusing on white middle-class suburban households to fund the network, was failing spectacularly.
Slated for cancellation, MTV changed its strategy. Guess which trailblazers rescued the network and redefined the possible?
How Black People Saved MTV
In 1982-83 MTV refused to show Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video. After learning this, the then-President of CBS Records reportedly stated, “I’m pulling everything we have off the air, all of our product.” Whoops. Suddenly, Billie Jean — then Beat It — and then Thriller — were all on heavy rotation. MTV became a hit station, introducing videos from greats like Prince, and by 1988 had created Yo MTV Raps. In essence, Black artists, culture, and hip hop placed MTV in the zeitgeist; saving the channel from its narrowcasting self and creating the MTV we know today.
How Social Equity Can Save Cannabis
So how is this related to cannabis? It’s no secret that the legal industry and government regulators have failed to create enough pathways for BIPOC businesses to enter the market. Like MTV, their focus on what makes this industry ‘successful’ is narrowcast — and it’s keeping Black people out. If MTV taught us anything, it’s that focusing resources on the already enfrancised is not a good business strategy.
Enter Social Equity. These programs were created to give support to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC)–criminalized and terrorized by the War on Drugs–to build their own community wealth. It takes capital to start a business and many cannabis companies systematically exclude Black people from the cannabis industry even though we are the cultural engine that fuels it.
While JayZ, Snoop, Matt Barnes, Wiz Khalifa, Whoopi Goldberg and others define culture when it comes to cannabis, it is still nearly impossible for a Black person either to work for or create their own company.
At Eaze, we are working to fulfill our responsibilities to the Social Equity and BIPOC cannabis community through our Momentum business accelerator, Social Equity Partners Program and Social Equity menu. These are all works in process, but they are not one-offs; the work is integrated into everything we do, from the cannabis we source for white labeling to the products customers see on our menu. The goal is remedying the past, yes, but it’s also on supporting wealth creation and sustainability going forward.
MTV got it wrong. Cannabis can get it right, but it will take honesty, self-reflection, and hard work. Social Equity, diversity in hiring, supporting Black brands and rejecting narrowcasting helps everyone — even those that reject those values. BIPOC people are the key to growing, sustaining and saving cannabis for everyone.
Darius Kemp is the Head of Equity and Community Change at Eaze.