Somewhere between a motivational conference and church service, Black Girls Rock! isn't your ordinary awards show. Thanks to soul-stirring speeches, diva-leaning performances that pair a message with the music, the show—which aired in early April on BET—is concerned more with tackling the educational and developmental issues that face young women of color. Founded by DJ/social activist Beverly Bond, Black Girls Rock! is platform for recognizing women of color working in community services and the arts that has grown exponentially in its nine-year lifespan and five years on TV. This year's broadcast even managed to draw in First Lady Michelle Obama, whose candid, positive affirmations of young black girls' confidence and natural beauty drew backlash and sparked critical debate. We spoke to Bond to hear about the origins of the Black Girls Rock! movement and how she's combating the negative stereotypes of black women in the media today.
Why did you start Black Girls Rock? I felt Black Girls Rock! was a necessary affirmation that young girls were not getting in media. As a DJ working in the entertainment world, I was watching what was happening. I just felt that there needed to be some sort of intervention and alternative message to inspire our girls to become their best selves—to let them know that they matter, that they're beautiful, and have gifts to offer to the world.
How do you feel about the portrayal of black women on reality TV? I'm not going to say that every piece of reality TV is like this, cause that's a broad category, but we do see a lot of images of women of color—and women, period—fighting, arguing, while they're looking super glammed-out, with these big houses and with all this money. They're catty, trivial, shallow, and materialistic. It's unfortunate that these images are a majority of the entertainment that young girls get to see. People who act as if those messages do not matter are kind of fooling themselves. Of course, I don't think that the world is going to be perfect, but I do think that for my part, I need to counter that.
How was this year's broadcast different than previous years? From the time we started, in 2006 —when we had two nominees, DJ Jazzy Joyce and MC Lyte, to moving to Lincoln Center, then growing into The Times Center and finally getting to broadcast on BET —the show continues to grow because we've been able to touch and inspire people. It's a beautiful thing. I think Black Girls Rock! is striking up an interesting conversation about gender and race in America and in the world. There is no shortage of black women who rock. There's no shortage of black women who need to be recognized for their contributions, so I think each year is unique in that way.
"It was huge for Michelle Obama to lend her voice to Black Girls Rock. It was a bold mood move for her to attend black girls rock, I think she knew she would catch backlash."
What was it like to have Michelle Obama attend? It was huge for First Lady Michelle Obama to lend her voice to this; she understands what this is. As a black mother raising daughters—even if you are raising them in the White House—you're privy to all of the messaging that is directed towards black women. It was a bold move for her to attend Black Girls Rock, and I think she knew she would catch backlash. From day one, when we wanted her [to attend], I said if we're ever going to get her on this show, I think it will be in their last term. Even for me, starting Black Girls Rock! and getting the backlash, I knew that someone in her position would certainly get that. Michelle's message of affirming black girls—assuring them that they're beautiful in the skin that they are in, and encouraging them to be educated and to go to their next levels—is in line with what we have been saying. We all want our kids to understand the importance of discipline, integrity, work ethic, and just being their best selves, despite the obstacles.
What about young black boys? Where do they fit in the Black Girls Rock! mission? Everything that I want to see for young black girls obviously I want to see for young black boys, too. We've actually made smart look real cool. Our girls are happy to read, to have real conversations about media literacy, and they're happy to dig in the crates and learn their music, culture and history. They see it is a growing process, as growing into their best selves. So actually, we are just applying the same model to our boys program, which will launch this summer.
You created Black Girls Rock! as inspiration for young black girls, what was an early inspiration for you? I'd say my inspiration is the village. I realized that I didn't have some special silver spoon. I didn't grow up with my father. Sometimes I would have to leave my mom and she'd send me to stay with different relatives. But I realized that I had a village of relatives, aunts, teachers, and people who cared enough to invest advice, to make sure that I was okay. I know what the village looks like. I think people are very aware that when they come to Black Girls Rock! that it's always been this real conversation. One of the things that I've always loved about our award show is that people come there with these inspiring speeches. These women know that they are a part of the village, that they are there to inspire and to help raise our girls.