“All I need is one mic… …all I need is one life, one try, one breath; I’m one man. What I stand for speaks for itself, they don’t understand.”

Nas

In a way, how we as Americans, and especially as Black Americans, see and celebrate Black history is captured broadly in those lyrics.

Black history is deep, angsty and often relegated to a chapter in a textbook, a streaming service category, or a month in the year – each fighting to represent something much bigger, hoping to convince the masses it’s loud and important enough to exist alone.

However, the past has taught us that lasting change is often best affected at scale by momentum that is harnessed, leveraged to assemble and breaks through established boundaries by those dedicated to the cause. More specifically, the past has proven that a group of protesters in Sanford, Florida, can kickstart a movement like Black Lives Matter, which would amplify the whimpers of an underrepresented community, give voice to the fallen and extend its arms to all who believe in its rallying cry and are willing to support its message.

Well before the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, a handful of media outlets like Black Enterprise, Essence and BET sprouted up in the 1970s and early 1980s in response to the injustices of the Civil Rights era to create a channel for public, collective expression and to empower Black communities. In kind, we later saw publications like The Source and Vibe magazines arrive in the late 1980s and early 1990s to amplify black social commentary through hip hop.

For Black folks, so much change seems to start with being able to get the masses to listen – and not just to peaceful soliloquies of circumstance, but also to mighty proclamations of position and need. The very message Nas conveys in “One Mic” is a powerful statement about being heard and taken seriously. 

It build[s] slowly to a crescendo of declaration and rage, then com[es] back, to seek a way to make a difference, with that precious one mic,

Cynthia Fuchs, rap blogger

In 2020, a year filled with pivotal shifts in culture – including the extreme democratization of content – individuals of influence responded in new places, like corporate America, with concerted noise to demand meaningful action. Within advertising and media, we saw a mobilization from 600 & Rising, a collective of 600+ employees advocating for the advancement of Black talent, more inclusive industry practices and more representation in leadership. And, while many brands and businesses stepped up with ambitious commitments following George Floyd’s death, ensuring follow-through begins with a deep understanding of what plagues those industries broadly and the Black people within them specifically.

In turn, the true action we require reaches beyond vague leadership appointments and earmarked research budgets. Instead, we need inclusive, commerce-side representation at every level of enterprise. This starts with building and activating against strategies and policies that go further than trainings and into tactical and impactful ways of engaging stakeholders both inside and outside of an organization. In 2021, we can and should do more. Now, more than ever, today’s consumers are making purchase decisions and employees are choosing employers based on a brand’s public image and where it outwardly stands on purpose. So, garnering the right kind of attention is critical too.

Brands that find themselves scrambling to thoroughly understand the landscape or staff, strategize, execute, and publicize DEI initiatives should consider leveraging external strength through agency, supplier, research and other partnerships that can get them beating at the pulse of culture quickly. However, recharting Black history is everyone’s job. It requires silencing inequity everywhere, denouncing the concept of simply hiring corporate figureheads as quick fixes to far-reaching diversity issues, and dedicating ourselves to the hard work of inclusion.

A commonality between the Black Lives Matter movement, the media initiatives of the 1970s to 1990s and the efforts of the 600 & Rising advocacy group is that they were largely upheld by the people who launched them. However, true DEI success for companies will require full organizational accountability, ongoing, dedicated resources and the support of talent from every background and ethnicity to propel it beyond the confines of subculture, trendiness and ephemerality. We can no longer silo Black empowerment – not to a Chief Diversity Officer, not to Black History Month, and not solely to Black people.

The soundstage must be much larger now. Equality simply needs more than one mic. How will you use your voice?