In this guest post, Martin “DJ Graffiti” Smith shares his thoughts on the dualities of Black History Month, the complexities of speaking from the Black experience, and practical advice for making inclusivity a meaningful part of event design all year round.
Photo by Doug Coombe
In the interest of providing a platform for Black event professionals to share their take on Black History Month, EventMB reached out to Martin “DJ Graffiti” Smith for a guest contribution to our publication. Here are his thoughts on the implications of Black History Month for the event industry, and how the principle of inclusivity can be carried forward in event activities throughout the year — not just for the month of February.
There is an interesting duality that permeates Black existence.
Each February, we celebrate Black History Month and recognize Black people’s often overlooked and under-recognized contributions, which are sometimes even improperly attributed to others. At this time, space is created to acknowledge the inequality Blacks have endured, while simultaneously praising their ability to thrive.
For all these reasons, there is a constant push and pull between progress and pain.
As a professional class that brings communities together, event professionals are in a unique position to lessen these hardships and increase progress by practicing inclusion and providing platforms that celebrate diverse viewpoints.
The Dilemma of Speaking on the Black Experience
When asked to contribute this piece for Black History Month, the progress and pain duality hit me like an avalanche. Initially I felt honored because I appreciate EventMB’s industry leading coverage and research. Immediately after, I felt slighted. Is my input only valuable because I’m a Black event professional and it’s February?
Fortunately, EventMB apologized in advance for the optics and made me feel appreciated and valued, so I’m excited to share my trusted techniques for creating engaging and inclusive events.
Though I hope my words make the Black community proud, the color of my skin doesn’t qualify me to speak for all Black people. Our opinions are as diverse as our skin tones. In addition to reading what follows, I encourage you to seek other melanated viewpoints.
My Top 3 Tips for Creating Inclusive Events
1. LET THE PEOPLE GUIDE THE PROCESS
For over 25 years I have performed as DJ Graffiti in clubs, concerts, and events around the world. In 2020, due to the pandemic, I pivoted to enterprise virtual events. The immediate obstacle I had to overcome in the virtual space was losing the ability to see my audience. At best I can see 50 people on screen at a time, while in person I can quickly glance at thousands of attendees to determine if they are enjoying the music I’m playing.
In the virtual space, to compensate for what I can’t see, I take song requests live in the chat. As a rule, established DJs see requests as an insult, akin to storming an award-winning chef’s kitchen to give advice. Several of my peers have even looked down on me for it, until they were won over by witnessing the energy created by engaging the audience.
The Guided Event Framework
Overcome unengaging and lackluster experiences by letting attendees guide the process.
Make participation a priority during your live event, and consistent attendee engagement will generate a sense of continuity that will keep activities from feeling disjointed. The people will tell you what they want. It’s then your job to curate instead of create. This avoids appropriation and even works on a psychological level, as people are more likely to enjoy something they’ve had a hand in creating.
It’s inclusive because you’re encouraging attendees to show up as their authentic selves and be rewarded by being included. Diverse attendees who pass on participating still benefit from the representation of those who are more vocal.
For even more inclusivity, survey the audience prior to the event to get input from community members who’d prefer not to engage live. Requesting preferences in advance will help to incorporate diverse perspectives you might otherwise miss.
Since it’s Black History Month, let’s make this 110 percent clear. If an event or messaging is intended to resonate specifically with Black people, include as many Black people in the planning and execution as possible. Extrapolate this philosophy as needed for other diverse groups.
2. AIM TO DELIGHT THE LEAST REPRESENTED
It’s always important to think critically about the target audience of any event, and consider whether or not it might be exclusionary for underrepresented groups. For example, holiday events are often thinly veiled Christmas parties, watered down by avoiding references to Christmas.
In 2021 (with my client’s permission) I decided to change the format of the traditional corporate holiday event. I created a list of the holidays celebrated during the winter months and collected danceable songs for the most popular.
Instead of a recycled and uninspired event, we brought together a global audience to enjoy songs for holidays including Diwali, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the New Year and Christmas.
Imagine the joy of those who for years felt unseen, who now actively felt included.
It’s not necessary for everyone to celebrate the same thing to be inclusive. It is required that you make space for everyone in your community who is celebrating.
Representation is Key
In order to elevate the least represented, it’s often helpful to ask, “Who’s most likely to feel least seen?” Create a list and make it a point to surprise and delight each underrepresented person or group.
One of the most efficient ways to delight diverse groups is by presenting them with a reflection of themselves.
However, recruiting diverse participants isn’t always as simple as you might expect. Some people of color find it tiring to be singled out based on their differences. Here are a few tips that will help you navigate approaching Black people and other minority groups to make sure they are represented in your event:
- Ask for permission to ask. ‘I’m planning an event for… are you open to discussing it?”
- Preface statements that you feel may be received differently than you intend.
- Humbling yourself and admitting your ignorance can go a long way to easing awkwardness.
3.WHERE ARE THE RECEIPTS?
Black people unilaterally appreciate receipts, and by “receipts” I mean proof. In the context of DEI policies, it means providing evidence that you’ve made a meaningful effort to be more inclusive.
As a DJ, my goal is to create an unforgettable experience that unites diverse audiences. Thus, I don’t measure myself singularly by whether I made my client happy. My measurements for success are:
1. The variety of requests I was able to accommodate
2. The number of comments I receive from attendees saying, “When do we get to do this again?” and “I didn’t know how much I needed this!”
3. How long it takes to receive inquiries for more events.
Diversity is a built-in component of measuring my success. If there are underserved groups within the larger audience, there will be a lack of diversity in my metrics.
Additionally, to ensure my performance is resonating widely, I occasionally do a ‘Pulse Check’ by asking, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where are you right now?” While most of the audience replies in the chat with a score of 10 (or more), I’m looking to engage personally and improve the scores of those who are 7 or below.
At your next event, instead of aiming only to include diverse audiences, ask yourself what experiences would gain responses like, “I’ve never felt as appreciated as I did at this event.”
Those comments are the receipts that show your efforts paid off.
Defining Your Receipts
What receipts will be left behind when you’ve created an inclusive event? If your desire to create room for diversity goes beyond empty words, success will leave clues including Black speakers, attendees, board members, and equitable compensation.
To ensure your dedication to a diverse and inclusive community is substantive, ask, “How does diversity, equity, and inclusion align with my values?” Inclusion should logically follow as an extension of your overall mission.