If 1920s’ Harlem was the Golden Age of Culture, then 2020s’ Harlem will be the Golden Age of Innovation. The leaders of the new school are Black culture shifters, intellectuals, artists — creatives who will gladly take a seat at the table, but prefer, instead, to build their own.
In 2016, Imani Ellis constructed such a table in her Harlem, New York, apartment with 10 friends who shared a vision. A vision to build a community, support one another’s dreams, and assemble a collaborative space for other creatives to engage. Three years later, that table now includes chairs for more than 1,000 people and counting. This month they gathered at the Duggal Greenhouse in Brooklyn for a day-long event known as CultureCon.
Tequilla White, CultureCon press lead, describes the event as a “family reunion”—a place where everyone in attendance can feel at home. A space where attendees can not only leave with actionable tools and connections that will help them grow professionally and personally, but also inspired and energized to go after their dreams. Each year the “Boogie Down” Bronx native helps to cultivate the event with a J. Cole quote top of mind: “Love yours.”
Cole wasn’t the first to say it. But his two-word lyric reminds White and other members of The Creative Collective NYC, the force behind the consistently sold-out event, that the work they do is rooted in the idea that Black innovators should love the life they live. The team is comprised of creatives of color with a love for Black power building, and it is their mission to bring those who occupy the CultureCon space closer to that feeling. Eric Jones, the event’s talent lead, affirms that’s what it’s all about, “seeing all of those beautiful faces of color in the audience, knowing that we may have all taken different, winding roads to get to this present moment in time, but we’re here —ready and eager to be uplifted, inspired, and be a part of something greater.”
That something greater has been building momentum since its inception. “I remember sitting in Imani’s living room in Harlem, sharing our thoughts, passions, and motivations,” Jones recalls. “And three years later, for CultureCon to have grown to fit a space that can accommodate thousands, while simultaneously preserving that intimate safe-space feel characteristic of the Creative Collective NYC — it’s honestly a wonder.”
Since the event’s first year in New York City’s Meatpacking District, such stars as Spike Lee, John Legend, Sanaa Lathan, Tracee Ellis Ross, Regina King, and Kofi Siriboe have graced its stage, but the organizers contend that it’s less about the celebrities and more about being of service to the event-goers who can, if they choose, prioritize their wellness, get their finances in order, and get tips on navigating their career all in one place.
“CultureCon is pretty reactive and I love that about us,” founder Imani Ellis insists. “Last year guests asked for more intimate, lesson-based conversations so we built a whole second stage this year to cater to that ask. We’ll keep moving and shifting that way, building our conference based on the needs of the community.”
One such need going into 2020 is a safe atmosphere for creatives to have real conversations about the presidential elections. To speak to that need, The Creative Collective partnered with American media conglomerate, Meredith Corporation, for an event titled “Decoding 2020” where the topic of conversation was the future of politics. On the big day, CCNYC also gave conference-goers the opportunity to register to vote and hear from influential voices on why it’s crucial to use their power at the polls.
Though the group is not politically-focused, Ellis still puts former President Barack Obama on her short-list of people who she would like to see attend in the future. Others on that list include J. Cole, Desiree Perez of Roc Nation, and Yara Sharidi, whom Jones believes “screams CultureCon.”
In the coming weeks the group will take everything they’ve learned from 2019, and start the planning needed to make their dreams for next year a reality. These days meetings rarely take place in Ellis’ Harlem apartment. Much like the event itself, the team has outgrown its humble beginnings. And still, that doesn’t stop the cohort of friends from tapping into the spirit of the place that housed the Black cultural awakening of the 1920s.
In the same way the Hurstons, Hughes, and Lockes of that time tapped into one another’s prowess to speak to the souls of Black people, the Creative Collective does the same when speaking to creatives. “Knowing that we all have gifts,” Jones says, “We are all talented beyond measure, and that we have people who are like us to help tap into those powers, even when we don’t find them to be as obvious ourselves, that’s the dopest part about working with other creatives of color.” Desiree Talley, CultureCon’s small business lead, excitedly adds there’s also no need for code-switching.
“Our audience size, team and venue have quadrupled but I think the part that’s super incredible is that the vibe has stayed the same,” Ellis warmly shares. “It still feels like a living room apartment where everyone is welcome.”
Lead image by photographer S Bola Okoya*Share :