Creator of movement, awards show reveals why 'Black Girls Rock'

Former first lady Michelle Obama, pop songstress Rihanna and tennis champion Serena Williams would be great “gets” for any author.

But Beverly Bond rounded up nearly 60 inspiring, notable black women to offer lessons and gems from their own experience in her latest book, “Black Girls Rock! Owning Our Magic. Rocking Our Truth.” Featuring interviews and excerpts from women as varied as ballerina Misty Copeland and news host Joy-Ann Reid, it premiered this week.

Activist Angela Davis talked about how the 2016 election was a wake-up call -- an “overt rise” to racism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that should be analyzed — and how black women have always been freedom fighters “on the front lines” of their community. Singer Solange Knowles-Ferguson explored the thought process behind her album “A Seat at the Table,” and the dynamic, spiritual ties to black women’s hair. Rep. Maxine Waters of California, known as “Auntie Maxine” to admirers, talked about the importance of embracing the word “resist,” and how her own conviction and determination have been fostered by a long list of black female mentors and teachers.

“Every single interview was like I was talking to my sister,” said Bond.

She has been cultivating that feeling of sisterhood throughout her career. It was propelled by her own experiences as a fashion model, DJ and entrepreneur, and then through the empowerment movement “Black Girls Rock!,” which she pioneered first through a T-shirt and then the annual, star-studded awards show she created in 2006.

Bond, who grew up in St. Mary’s County, began her career as a model in New York after high school. Working with major agencies like Wilhelmina, Bond said, she found modeling afforded her things — like her first turntables — but it wasn’t something she enjoyed.

“It beat down my confidence,” she said. The modeling industry often held models to a European standard of beauty. Casting directors turned away black models when they had “too many,” and Bond’s natural hair, which she liked to sport in an afro, was often a source of contention. They wanted her to “calm it down,” she said.

But DJing was a different story for Bond. On the phone, her tone changes. Her speaking pace quickens — it’s easy to tell that she can talk about DJing forever.

“I was always collecting records. I hung around DJs. I would look at the album notes. I knew all the stuff,” she said.

She bought her first turntables in November 1999, reasoning that she could maintain a social life between castings by capitalizing on her stellar record collection (She says she inherited her good taste from her mother).

“I started to go out and listen to the DJs. … It was almost like a study,” said Bond.

In January 2000, she lugged her milk crates and her two turntables to her first gig at a club in New York, spinning eclectic mixes of R&B, hip-hop and rock. Three weeks later, Bond — a fan of James Brown, Wu-Tang Clan and Notorious B.I.G. — spun at a joint birthday party for New York hip-hop DJ Enuff and radio host Angie Martinez, she said. That night, people flocked to the DJ booth.

“They’d say, ‘You really have to see the DJ.’ I mean, probably because I was a model and the other part, I was a female” DJ, said Bond, who recalled receiving a compliment from Jay-Z that night.

“That was huge to me. … DJing became my world,” said Bond.

She joined DJ Enuff’s DJ crew, The Heavy Hitters, and became well-known.

But hip-hop and the music business could be just as dismissive and problematic for black women as the modeling industry, she said. People often underestimated her and her hard work because she was a woman and a model, and in hip-hop, black women were often criticized for their roles in music videos, despite these being “the limited opportunities that black girls had to see themselves in a glamorized way,” Bond said. There was also a matter-of-factness about the derogatory names used to refer to black women.

“All these things were going through my mind, how we were being projected, specifically in music. I was paying a lot more attention,” Bond said. “I saw a lot of dehumanizing and disrespecting of black women in particular.”

Years later, in 2006, Bond created Black Girls Rock! while brainstorming the names of inspirational black women for a T-shirt. She wanted to display black female icons and she-roes who “rocked the world” — from Harriet Tubman to Beyonce — women who deserved awards, but were sometimes an afterthought in mainstream media.

“I’m writing these names down, writing pages and pages, and I'm kind of zoned out … and at one point, I said, ‘This is bigger, way bigger than the T-shirt. It’s something we haven’t heard of,’ ” said Bond.

“I was like, ‘They need something. Black girls need another message.’ ”

The idea quickly blossomed into a youth empowerment group and a series of mentorship programs, including a DJ academy, which taught young girls how to strive for excellence and become innovators through DJing. And she launched the awards show, hosting the inaugural event at Brooklyn bookshop Powerhouse Arena, at which she honored DJ Jazzy Joyce and female rapper MC Lyte.

Bond poured all her resources into the awards show, and it grew quickly. In following years, it was held at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York, with hosts like actresses Regina King and Gabrielle Union and honorees like supermodel Iman, who won the Social Humanitarian Award, and actress Pam Grier, who won a Living Legend Award. In 2010, BET signed the awards show, resulting in its TV debut. It’s been hosted annually on the network ever since, and the star power and female inspiration has only grown — with appearances and speeches by former first lady Obama, Rihanna and TV producer and screenwriter Shonda Rhimes.

But Black Girls Rock! “wasn’t always so pretty or celebrated,” Bond said. Initially, she said, many women hesitated to acknowledge the organization or help her in fear of losing their jobs. In the entertainment industry at the time, women “were up against a machine” — no different than the current movements like Time’s Up and #MeToo, she said.

“It was a new idea at the time, and many people were afraid to go against a misogynistic culture in entertainment — not because they didn't believe in women or black women, but it was a radical and revolutionary idea at the time. … We were pushing against this culture that diminished black women's presence, insulted, objectified and dismissed us,” she said in an emailed statement to The Baltimore Sun.

Bond said she was “silently blackballed.”

“I stopped working. I wasn’t getting DJ jobs … all of that because of Black Girls Rock,” she said.

A retaliatory “#whitegirlsrock” hashtag emerged in 2013, and Obama received criticism when she attended the event and gave an encouraging speech to black girls, promoting education and self-confidence.

But Bond has been undeterred. She “just slayed, and that type of spirit Bev has to want to make things better, to make things as best as they can possibly be … that’s what I get to see when she works on Black Girls Rock!,” said Helen L. Collen, a California-based costume designer, photographer, and close friend of Bond, who has assisted her through the Black Girls Rock! history. “She’s just riding this musical note … and she’s found her pitch. That’s how I think of it.”

Writer and cultural critic Michaela Angela Davis, who contributed to Bond’s book with an empowering excerpt on black hair, called Black Girls Rock! a full-blown movement.

“It’s been more than profound. … Why it’s so powerful for me is it’s an affirmation versus an anti,” said Davis, who assisted Bond early in the growth of the organization, often alternating mentorship and discussions with young girls at their New York lofts. “Black Girls Rock! is our generation’s equivalent of ‘Black is beautiful,’ which came out of a need to promote blackness that was not manipulated by European standards [in the 60s]. … Black Girls Rock was what we needed to hear.”

The idea for the book, which features excerpts from notable women’s speeches, blurbs about historical figures like Tubman and Ruby Bridges, and original interviews from supermodel Naomi Campbell and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors, came along a few years ago in hopes of capturing the inspiration of the awards show.

“I wanted to have something that is always there to refer to,” said Bond, who took two years to complete the book. Originally, she thought of only 15 to 20 women to feature, but “as I got rolling, it came together like it was supposed to.”

“It was really an incredible experience putting it together,” said Bond. She emphasized how giving and personal the women were when sharing their stories for the book.

Bond’s friend Davis says the book marks a period in which black women “stood up and said, ‘We love our girls, and we love our culture, and we love it enough to challenge it.’”

“When I read these narratives, and see what women are sharing, I know how much this is going to inspire that next generation and even women now,” said Bond. “ “It's like I DJed this book. ... I took women from a bunch of different genres, generations, business careers, and I mixed all together and made it make sense.”

It's not what you always expect, she said, but “it’s incredibly dope.”

If you go

Mahogany Books, the Reginald Lewis F. Museum and the Enoch Pratt Free Library host a book signing with Beverly Bond. Books may be purchased at the event for $30 or in advance on EventBrite or MahoganyBooks.com. 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. March 14. Reginald F. Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt St. Free with RSVP. eventbrite.com.

bbritto@baltsun.com

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