56 Black Men founder Cephas Williams on why we must not forget this moment and go back to business as normal until we’ve ended every injustice black people face
Cephas Williams founded the 56 Black Men movement to challenge the negative portrayal of black men in the media and change social perceptions. The vision is to see a world where black men are spotlighted for positive things as opposed to negative and help create a world where black men feel adequately represented.
In response to the recent news surrounding the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, the latest campaign from Cephas seeks to explore the global impact on black communities, particularly in the UK. In the form of a video and series of digital billboards, again supported by Clear Channel, ‘Let’s Not Forget’ reminds us not to forget about the countless African Americans who have lost their lives unjustly.
LBB’s Alex Reeves asked Cephas why he chose to respond to the moment we find ourselves in this way.
LBB> The 56 Black Men project has been a huge part of your life for around two years now. What's kept you motivated?
LBB> When this latest series of acts of brutality against black people happened, what was your personal response?
Cephas> This year when I came to the knowledge of the death of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I do not remember what my first response was for each of these killings, but I know that over this period I have cried.
LBB> And how did that lead to taking the 56 Black Men project forward with 'Let's Not Forget'?
Cephas> I was very delicate around the topic of whether or not I aligned the 56 Black Men brand to the killing of George Floyd, especially because it felt like many people were just responding with no real consideration or direction and I didn't want to be one of those people or brands. I really wanted to make sure that whatever I contributed was both meaningful and needed, but equally had a clear sense of direction.
Seeing everything around social media and the amount of messages I was receiving from all around the world from both the black community and our non-black allies was a lot to take in personally, day in, day out. I felt many things, including helpless to really change the state of the world towards black people, so I decided to go for a walk with my partner. It was on that walk that I was able to take a breath and really consider how I was going to respond. We talked about many things, including the fact that this keeps happening and over time people will more than likely forget, as they've done time and time again, but the idea for the campaign didn't come to me at that time.
Later in the evening as I was in bed and seeing so many brands respond, I felt an overwhelming sense of saying something, but still didn't know what. So I took myself out of my shoes and considered the role that 56 Black Men played in society, especially our strategic positioning in the UK as well as mine. I started to consider the many different types of people I am personally connected to and the many different types of people that are connected to 56 Black Men as a brand.
I then started to look at the brand and the business for what it was, what it meant to me, what it meant to black men, the wider black community and our allies. Looking at our strapline, which reads 'Let's Change The Narrative For Life', not wanting to distract people from a core message and our tone of voice as a brand being very text based, I was inspired to do something with writing that spoke about what had happened in America with the killing of black Americans and somehow articulated its global impact on the black community, that could translate to the position and experience of black people in the UK. The problem being, we will all rally around the black conversation now, but we will then forget that this ever happened and tomorrow or next month or next year, we will go back to business as usual and nothing will change. Yes, the killers of George Floyd and many others need to come to justice, but when they do, let us not forget the many other forms of injustices we face that need to change.
LBB> What message was most important for you to get across in the campaign?
Cephas> It was important to create something that I felt could contribute to gathering this momentum and channel it into something that could prepare the hearts and minds of people as well as the wider landscape for change. At the same time, it was very vital for me to mention the names of people that were killed in the States as this was a sad but vital element to what has gone on to bring about this awakening. It was also important that I created something that could transcend a video and had synergy with other media platforms, to ensure maximum coverage / amplification.
LBB> How did you go about getting the film together quickly and working with Clear Channel to put the names of these people out on billboards?
Cephas> How I went about creating the film so quickly is because there weren't many people in the room, there was no ego, there was no desire to serve myself, there was nobody telling me, ‘I don't like that idea’ or over analysing the piece, it was just me, my laptop, the bed and my partner’s energy as she slept next to me. I came up with the idea while in bed and had the finished video ready to release by the time she was up and active again.
Regarding Clear Channel, those lot are just legends, period, but more technically speaking, the relationship I have with the Clear Channel leadership is one of trust, respect and a real desire to do good. Caroline Forbes [specialist partner] initially reached out early last year and that is what brought me into the building, once I was in the building I just built genuine dialogue and a relationship with leadership. I approach any relationship as a human first, so I don't really think about the technicalities of whether something can be done or not, I put the suggestion forward and if we align we align, if we don't I may ask why not, but it's not by force. In this case we aligned.
At this time also, big organisations and leaders should not be silent, but should also approach responding with due diligence, so I sent a text to the leadership in Clear Channel as I did many other CEOs and leaders within my network and Clear Channel responded. The text I sent was straightforward, which I followed up with an email to further explain the thinking and the direction of the campaign.
LBB> You say that Let's Not Forget is just the start. In the name of trying to stay optimistic, what tangible steps do you hope people and society will take going forward on this journey as a result of this moment?
Cephas> Many things, people should follow me on LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter as I touch on this along my journey almost everyday. But in short, black people need to be at the forefront of the conversation and our non-black allies need to support our efforts. I also detail some of the change in the Let's Not Forget video piece.
LBB> Is there anything else you'd like to add for our readers in the global ad industry?
Cephas> To my black brothers and sisters - keep your head up, if it is of any encouragement, we stand together, the knowledge that you are reading this, praying for me and supporting my efforts gives me hope that I am not alone in the journey, we need to stick together where possible, we need to not be silent when we can speak, I stand with you, we stand together.
To our non-black allies - in your bid to support the black community, continue to listen before you speak, and sometimes just listen, don't speak, go home and really think about it. We appreciate your allyship, it will take all of us coming together to really bring about the change we need to see.
To the CEOs of companies and the leaders of this industry - contact me, I would like to work with you to help bring about the change we need to see within the world, with a specific effort targeted toward the black community. I have things I am working on and other leaders and CEOs have stepped forward to work with me. Change will come when you align your strategic efforts with our thinking and lived experience and your core values with details on how you will really bring about the change.
To the world - let's not forget what has happened at this time, but let's change. Let's change the narrative for life.