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Tommy Johnson is Flipping the Script on Tokenization

Tommy Johnson of Made With Black Culture
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Have you ever been identified as the token [fill in your most visible identity] representative? 

Perhaps someone asked you, as the only Black person in the room, what the group can do to make people of color feel more included. Or maybe someone invited you into a committee to offer your perspective as Queer, Latina or differently abled. 

Even if you haven’t experienced this yourself, you’ve definitely seen it on TV, in movies, and in other media. The token minority is a well-known and tired trope.

Being identified as the “token” is not flattering or empowering. It reduces a person to a single aspect of their identity and completely ignores their unique contributions.

Now, in the age of the blockchain, tokenizing has taken on a whole new meaning. And Tommy Johnson, Chief Education Officer at Made With Black Culture, is leveraging it to change the game for Black creators.

I sat down with Johnson at the 2022 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity to learn more about his nonprofit, Originals Nation, and their first incubated enterprise, Made With Black Culture.

Cannes Lions International Creativity Festival, June 2022: A collaborative talk titled ‘Celebration vs Appropriation’ featuring Karabo Poppy (Illustrator/Designer), Nkanyezi Masango (Creative Director) and concluding with Tommy Johnson (Founder/CEO of The Made Company) who addressed the business impact of commercializing culture.
Tommy Johnson (Chief Education Officer of Made With Black Culture), Doni Aldine (Editor-In-Chief of Culturs Magazine) and Andrea Bazoin (Tech & Trends Columnist for Culturs Magazine)

What is the purpose of Originals Nation?

I started Originals Nation to have a vehicle or outlet to express the importance of our organizing for economic progress while building a community of people who share the same values. Our north star is contributing to the diaspora by harnessing $15 trillion of total wealth.

$15 trillion is important because in the U.S. there is $125 trillion baseline total wealth and resources. As Original People, we account for 12% of the population. So, it’s only equitable that we harness at least 12% of the total resources – that would be $15 trillion. 

Not only is $15 trillion the piece of the pie that represents our total population, but it’s also what’s owed to us, exactly, in reparations and what the commercialization of our image, likeness, labor and endorsements generates for the economy every year. Most importantly, $15 trillion is a mentality of operating in the spirit of togetherness instead of individualism.

The next step for Original People in our maturity and evolution – going from fighting power to actually being power – requires economic expansion. I realized back in 2016 when Philando Castille was killed, that for 200 years we have approached equality on social and moral terms. 

And, yes, we’ve made progress. I stand here today with the options, resources, and access I have because I’m a primary benefactor of the post-civil rights legacy. But, the next step in our maturity is a function of economic expansion.

Tommy Johnson
Photo by Malcolm Garret

What do you mean by Original People?

Words like Black, African American, people of color, negro, BIPOC, disenfranchised, underserved – all these words were created by white sovereignty to confuse us all about our true identity. So, when you get past all these labels (that all of us have tried so eagerly to identify ourselves with) you arrive at this eternal truth that we are the original people. 

The first human beings began with what’s considered a so-called Black man or Black woman – this was the mother of creation, or the DNA, that created humans. We’ve been here for 6.5 million years – pioneering civilizations, discovering things like physiology, botany and astronomy; inventing things like poetry, medicine and divination systems (just to name a few). 

So, in an effort to get the language right – because within language is acknowledgment, and acknowledgment is truth, and truth is light – instead of referring to ourselves as Black or African American, we replace these words with the Originals. We are the Original People because all human beings are of African descent.

This is how I refer to myself.

Tommy Johnson
Tommy Johnson, Chief Education Officer at Made With Black Culture

How does Made With Black Culture fit into the picture?

Made With Black Culture is the first enterprise that was incubated through our nonprofit, Originals Nation. We exist to protect Black Culture from commercial exploitation, appropriation and theft. 

Right now free enterprise permits any corporation to come in and take whatever they want from anywhere and not have to acknowledge who they took it from or share in the economic rewards. To me, that’s unethical – but it’s business as usual. The values that dominate the world, to this day, are colonizing values that commodify people for profit.

A lot of times we talk about the wealth gap – we’re only talking about that in terms of possessions like a home or an investment portfolio. Well, for Original People that’s not our wealth. Our wealth is our image, our likeness, our labor, our endorsements, our creativity, our ingenuity – that’s really our wealth. 

So, the first order of business is to control and protect what we already have. That’s the work of Made With Black Culture. We want to protect our existing assets so that we can participate in the commercialization of our own culture.

MADE WITH BLACK CULTURE is a mission-driven tech company minting the IP of Black Culture. Through a blockchain watermarking system, MADE authenticates products made with Black creativity, likeness or influence. We prevent appropriation.

Our Culturs community is made up of people who identify as mixed – multicultural, multiethnic, and multiracial. So, when it comes to preserving “Black” culture, who gets to be Black?

The reason we chose Made With Black Culture instead of “Made With Original People’s Culture” is because Black is the word that is used in trade. If you want to change something, you have to meet the thing where it is. From there, we can educate on why that is not the appropriate terminology. But, education on nomenclature is not as important as the advancement of our economic interests. 

So, who gets to identify with this? Of course, first it’s the Original People who are the creators and sustainers of the culture. Then, it’s the people who are not of African descent but who are supportive of the culture – consuming it every day – they are also made with Black culture. [Ultimately], we are rooted in acknowledging the way Black culture is ingrained in the economy and bringing our valuable cultural assets under our control.

Just to be clear, Black culture is not the only culture that is oppressed by economies. Because of the lack of accountability around trade, everybody is oppressed. It’s just that the Original People have been the most oppressed, historically and economically. Starting with Black culture allows us to create a proof of concept around a system of ethical trade that can combat oppressive economic practices.

Q: How do blockchain tokens (NFTs) play into all of this? 

So much of systemic racism is about how our history, our identity and our creations have been erased – completely whitewashed and removed from existence. But, the blockchain is not erasable. The blockchain allows you to build trust because it is public, immutable and transparent – you can’t change it. So, what better tool to use to protect, preserve and perpetuate the existence of a group of people? 

If five generations from now some kid wants to know who invented the folding chair, or the stoplight, or the potato chip, they can go on a public ledger, see when it was authenticated, and see all the people that helped to create it. They can know the truth.

Empowering the world to consume Black Culture ethically starts with acknowledging Black creativity for what it really is – Intellectual Property. Until NFT technology existed, we never had a way to draw a line around our intellectual property and cultural assets. 

A line is like your border – it’s your protection. Because we’ve never been able to draw a line around our image, our likeness, our labor, and our endorsement, it’s been taken and extracted from us for 2,600 years. There are no walls, no barriers and no public ledger to draw a line back to the verifiable source of truth. So, we use the token to draw the line and say “that’s ours.” 

Up until now, there has never been recourse [for cultural appropriation and theft]. You just take, take, take and meanwhile the creative who put their blood, sweat, and tears into the thing gets nothing. It’s just not right. [By using the blockchain and NFTs], once you know it’s ours, and you want to participate with it, you have to do it differently.

Photo by Yan Krukov

A: You register your work, just like when you apply for a trademark or patent. The trademark office is a centralized body trying to regulate this and create trust. But with the blockchain you no longer need a centralized organization because the blockchain is the trust – it’s public, it’s transparent, it’s immutable. 

I look at Made With Black Culture as a trademark office for all of the creations made by Original People. As a creator, you want to register your work so that there’s a line drawn around it on a public database that says, “I created that dance,” “I created that artwork,” “I created that sound.” 

How can creators ‘draw a line’ around their work?

You cook up whatever you’re going to cook up, but before you give it to the world you register it so it can have the Black Stamp on it saying “this is a protected work and, if it is ever going to be commercialized, this is who I want to be sure has equity in the commercialization and profits of this thing I created.” 

If someone reading this article is lit-on-fire excited about this, what can they do next?

First, if you are a creator of African descent, register your products, whether physical or digital, to get the Black Stamp. Visit https://madewithblackculture.com to learn more.

#stopplaying campaign, courtesy of Made With Black Culture

Second, advocate for ethical trade by calling out companies you see that are exploiting or appropriating the culture. You can tag Made With Black Culture. We have a campaign called “Stop Playing” and it’s our way of telling these brands “stop playing, you know this product is made with black culture.” For example, we recently called in Adidas for appropriating the iconic Yeezy sneaker design without permission from its creator, Kanye West [now known as Ye].

Lastly, as a consumer of products, ask these questions of the brands you are supporting: Who actually created this? How are you giving credit and economic benefit to the creator?

People are more conscious now about their intentions, their actions, their motivations and how they impact the community. We couldn’t have this conversation 15 years ago because the consciousness just wasn’t there. But now, people are talking about purpose and well-being. It’s just an amazing time to be alive, and why the timing of this work is so important.

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