For many, the ability to curate our digital conversations is both a blessing and a curse. Some media experts fear we're all living in polarized silos of information wherein we're only exposed to viewpoints that align closely with our own. Though it may be comforting, what are we missing when we refuse to engage with those we disagree with? Perhaps we're neglecting these clashes provide opportunities to learn and grow, or to at least think more deeply about our own stances.
The Grapevine is a webseries built on the good that can be generated from uncomfortable interactions. Creator Ashley Akunna brings Black millennials together to chop it up on a variety of topics. Colorism, Black feminism, and ethnic divides within Black America are among the conversations she's hosted, and the discussions can definitely get heated. But with great care Ashley, who also serves as the series' host, keeps her guests on track to deliver a finished product that's continually compelling. Now the show is looking to expand, and we caught up with Ashley to talk about the show she's built and where she's headed.
How did the idea for the Grapevine come to you?
I graduated college in 2011. I studied film, and I graduated into a recession. When I would watch CNBC or CNN, there was no millennial presence on these panels, and I felt that was a huge mistake because we were the ones graduating into the recession. We had something to say about what was going on in the world.
The only place I saw that, honestly, was on blogs in the comments section. I thought to myself, why not bring that to light? Because there was literally nothing like that on television.
What were the first steps that you took to get The Grapevine off the ground?
When I graduated, I wrote a treatment for the show. I copyrighted the show, but then I didn't have money. I had a certain aesthetic in mind. I wanted the show to be shot a certain way, and I want to do it right. Even though I came up with the idea in 2011, I waited until 2014 when I had the funds to shoot it on my own. Really just being able to fund the show myself was the first real step.
You were working a real job and saving up your money to fund the show like hire the cameraman and the sound people?
Exactly. To rent a studio to be able to feed people actual food other than pizza and bagels. That was the goal.
I'm interested in the casting. It's always interesting to see the diverse opinions that are represented, the diverse ethnic backgrounds that are represented. How do you go about finding your panels?
It's funny because most people don't that on every panel, even though we get on each other's nerves, for the most part we're friends. On our recent Black feminism panel, people butt heads but they're actually really good friends in real life. All the panelists are my friends. Sometimes I ask people If they know people who have a certain viewpoint on certain issues, but for the most part I wanted to stick to everyday people that I knew or have come in contact with.
You mentioned the Black feminism panel which was super interesting to me. I've watched a whole lot of your episodes, and there are a lot of times where the discussions get very heated. Is there a point where you just shut it down, when it just becomes too contentious and you feel like you absolutely have to step in?
We haven't really had any situations that were crazy or where people felt uncomfortable. I do a check before we shoot. I tell people that though we often have a difference of opinion that does not mean that we can't respect each other, that we will hate each other after. After the shoot, I see how people are feeling about what happened. Definitely with the feminism panel, we had six feminists on the panel, but I think we dropped the ball with certain things, so we're going to reshoot that episode. For the most part, I let people do their thing.
How do you choose the topics that you'll discuss?
I choose what's trending on social media. I watch what I'm seeing consistently on my timeline on Facebook and Twitter and what gets people excited. I sit with my team. We go back and forth via text like, "What do you think about this? No, that's not good. We should use this." Right now, we're talking about doing a panel on activism and interracial relationships.
Yeah, and that's been something I've been seeing on my timeline quite a bit, especially with Nate Parker because I'm sure you know that before the rape allegations, the first thing that got people mad was the fact that he has a white wife. A lot of people didn't know that. That was really big on my timeline.
Donate to The Grapevine here.
Right now you're raising money to help expand the show, what do you hope to do with the money that you're raising?
We have a couple of goals. We want to start shooting in places like Philadelphia and LA and Houston. I'm actually moving to Houston next month. We're definitely focused on expansion. The next year we want to have live shows where we invite an audience.
With this money we're raising, we really want to be able to shoot episodes consistently. We're shooting again next month, and that will be our last shoot of the year. We'll shoot 10 episodes in a day, so that fundraising money will really just go towards continuing the show.
It's difficult being an independent Black content creator, what advice would you give to somebody who wants to create something--build something from scratch?
I would definitely say to people to just kind of hit the ground running. I know it's easy to say don't worry about money, and I think that's one thing that made me start later. I was so focused on money that I wasn't really thinking about my resources or even the fact that I could barter my services for certain things. I would say don't try to accumulate every single aspect of information that you think you will need, once you have a certain amount of information, you're good to just go and make your own rules, and try the best that you can. I think what's most important is not to wait until things are perfect or things are aligned.
I write scripts and I see scripts that are out now, it's like, "I had this idea!" I really think a lot of people have the same ideas. It just gets down to who decides to put it out first and who does it the best. Just hit the ground running, and don't be afraid.