ashley akunna is centering black millennial voices with talk show 'the grapevine'

Watch the latest episode, 'The Pressure to be Curvy.'

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Feb 14 2019, 5:00pm

Like most millennials, 30-year-old Ashley Akunna contributes to several group chats. In them, she discusses the essentials: politics, pop-culture, the economy, and the latest episode of Insecure. There is, however, a key difference between Akunna’s group chats, and that of the average person. As the creator and host of the online millennial talk show, The Grapevine, Akunna allows conversations had in her private group chats to occur publicly once a week, during hour-long episodes that are watched by over 100k YouTube subscribers.

Much of The Grapevine’s success can be attributed to the lively cast that Akunna handpicks with her team of producers. Each cast member undergoes a two-step interview process and is selected based on their knowledge of the subject, as well as where they stand on the issue. Since she created The Grapevine five years ago, Akunna is fearless in her selection and attempts to pick people with opposing views and strong opinions. This recipe makes for discussions that are educational, funny, and often extremely loud. They also get the internet talking, like last March when a clip of panelist Seren Sensei accusing Bruno Mars of culture appropriation went viral.

Since that moment, which prompted responses from Stevie Wonder, Charlie Wilson, and many other celebs, The Grapevine’s audience continues to grow. Perhaps because of the show’s ability to provide education and entertainment, which Akunna calls “edutainment.” Another attractive element is that it’s the first show to center Black millennial discussion about serious topics such as slavery in Libya and colorism, in addition to amusing conversations about Nola Darling from Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. The Grapevine shares the opinions of Black people from around the world, filming episodes in New York, London, and most recently, Johannesburg.

Last month Akunna spoke with i-D about The Grapevine’s recipe for success and what’s next for the show. She also reflects on the show’s latest episode, which explores the Brazilian butt lift trend.

What inspired you to start The Grapevine?
I was 23 when I graduated college. I watched a lot of news and there weren't any millennial perspectives on the news stations I was watching like CNN or MSNBC, it was all people in their 30s and 40s. I had just graduated into a recession and me and all my friends were unemployed. We didn't know where to go or where to turn to and nobody was giving our perspective on world issues. I said I wanted to create a show where I see the conversations that are happening on my timelines on Twitter and Facebook. I just wanted to create a show with millennial voices.

Why do you think the show resonates with so many people?
There's never been a show like our show, and I say that as humbly as I can. A lot of shows that you watch that are opinion based, they're very tame. They are very predictable. Our show is like "edutainment" — it's education and entertainment. It's a great mixture, and I think people just have the ability to find themselves in at least one of the panelist. We just have honest, raw conversations that make you think. I just feel like there's nothing like it on TV.

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How did you feel when the Bruno Mars episode went viral?
The Bruno Mars episode going viral was kind of a gift and a curse. We've covered everything from the prison industrial complex, slavery in Libya, colorism. When the Bruno Mars thing happened a lot of people were tweeting us saying that Black people have bigger fish to fry, not realizing that we've talked about so many things and the people made it viral. You made it viral. We didn't make it viral. It was frustrating in that regard, but it was also great because a lot of people got to know us, got to watch the entire episode. They saw that person that commented "they'd bake a cake if Bruno Mars died," which is actually an insane comment to make, they got to see that there were other people on the panel who love Bruno Mars, and who don't think he's a cultural appropriator. So yeah, it was a great moment and it was interesting to see how our followers grew on social media and YouTube.

You’ve filmed episodes in Africa and in different sections of the diaspora, based on the experiences and conversations you’ve had in these places, how intertwined do you think the global Black community is when it comes to culture, interests, common issues, etc?
I think we have a lot more in common than we do differences. At the end of the day, we are all Black, we all descend from Africa. Some may know exactly where, a lot don't. I think there are a lot of forces that are trying to deepen the differences that we have, but being able to travel to different parts of the U.S. and talk to people, different parts of Africa, different parts of the UK, I realized we're a beautiful people, we're a resilient people. We are a people who have been through a lot historically, generationally, and we're still here, and I know a lot of people are surprised that we're still here. I'm not ignoring the differences, because we have different cultures and it’s all beautiful and it’s fine to acknowledge those differences, but when we pay attention to our commonalities we're able to succeed as a whole and we'll be better off.

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What’s your favorite episode you’ve filmed so far?
My favorite episode that I've filmed so far is probably the episode we did in Johannesburg, South Africa. We did a conversation about xenophobia with the xenophobic attacks that have been happening over the past couple of years. It was a very heated conversation, it got very real. I was just really surprised about how honest South African people can be. It was just a really great conversation that I think brought a lot of issues to the table on both sides of the conversation.

What’s one of the most interesting things you learned during the discussions?
I think the most interesting thing I learned was the separation of Black people and Colored people, Colored people being biracial or mixed race people. It was interesting to learn about the hierarchy that was legally binding during apartheid and after apartheid how people still stick within their own races, if that's what you want to call it. It was just really interesting because in the states, biracial people are biracial but we have the same politics and same agendas, and a lot of people consider biracial people Black. So to go to South Africa and see the stark differences between colored people and Black people was really eye-opening.

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What sparked your interest in tackling the Brazilian butt lifts trend?
The standard of western beauty has always been white and thin. And black women, although as come in a variety of different shapes, were known and shunned for our curves. Since the arrival of Kim Kardashian on the global scene, her manufactured curves have now become the standard for most women, both black and white. We live in a society where we are taught not to shame women for their cosmetic choices. And we understand the pressure to try to live up to what we see on television and social media. But there has been a dramatic increase in Brazilian butt lift surgery, and we want to get to the root of why that is. So that the next generation of girls and women don’t feel that they need to go under the knife.

Can you elaborate further on the racial implications of this trend?
Black people have historically celebrated a curvy figure. Even when the rest of the world told us thin was in. In every other standard we align with western beauty ideals. However, when it comes to body, this is the area in which black folks deviate from everyone else. For black women we are taught at a very young age that our bodies must hold some cushion and if not there is something wrong with us. With the rise of BBL’s with different races of women, specifically the Kardashian’s, you see a co-opting of our identity in a very dangerous way. And you see Black women who’ve historically steered away from plastic surgery partake in this phenomenon.

What do you hope people will take away from this episode?
While we have the freedom to do what we want as women, we have to analyze why we do it. And for men and society at large to stop putting so much fucking pressure on us to be “perfect.”