3:30PM Sunday afternoon: Before I left for Texas, my mom asked me to explain the purpose of SXSW. She’d heard of the festival before, but wasn’t quite sure what exactly it entailed. I explained that it’s basically a collection of both front-end and back-end “creatives” who’ve gathered in one place to share ideas, innovations, and inventions. While the parties andÂ performancesÂ are a main draw, as the 2,000 different panels taking place during the festival prove, most go to learn how to be better at whatever it is they’re doing. And, as noted in my recap, it’s the only event I know of where you’re likely to find anyone from the founder of Whole Foods to a natural hair blogger sitting in on or leading a panel.
Personally, I jumped at the opportunity to go for three reasons:
1. As a “creative,” manning a panel there is a pretty big belt notch. I’m not too cool to admit that stuff like that matters to me.
2. I want to be better I what I do.
3. For a writer/blogger/content producer, getting out and meeting people in person is perhaps the best way to find new revenue streams, and there’s no better place to do this than SXSW.
So, while the recaps so far have focused on the “fun” parts of the trip, the business end is why I convinced myself to spend 50 hours in car during a 100 hour span just to be there.
And, after attending multiple panels in both the BiT (Black in Technology) house and the convention center, I noticed a theme. The Black panels dealing with blogging/writing tended to be more focused on revenue end issues—brand building, crowd-funding, content partnerships, etc—while the “mainstream” panels I attended discussed the actual craft and the thinking behind it a bit more. (Note: I’m not saying that each of the “Black” and “White” panels followed this script. But, the ones I personally happened to see did seem to trend a certain way)
You could make the argument that this trend is an example of us (Black people) being more concerned with appearances and/or the bottom line than if what we’re doing is actually meaningful and helpful. But, I don’t see things as pessimistically. Although the people in the Black blogosphere are stars among ourselves, very few of us are able to make a name off of blogging/writing, and even fewer are able to make a decent living off of it. Generally speaking, the people on the “White” panels I attended are there because they’ve “made it” already. Basically, most of us don’t have the luxury to travel 2000 miles and spend $2000 dollars just to discuss our craft. And, in order for some of us to reach the book deal/TV show/paid speaking appearance/Writers Guild membership point, learning about some easily applicable macro ways to better yourself isn’tÂ necessaryÂ a bad thing.
Anyway, the most memorable panel I attended that weekend happened to be a “White” panel that (ironically) was dominated by a Black panelist. Moderated byÂ Joe Garden and featuringÂ Eddie Pepitone,Â Janine Brito, and W. Kamau Bell, “Why Comedians Don’t Give A F*ck If You’re Offended” touched on many of the writing/content-specific issuesÂ I’ve gone back and forth with over the past few years. Most notably, are there any subjects that should be “untouchable,” and should writers be held responsible if someone happens to get offended by your work/words?
Being that Garden used to work for the Onion (former Onion editor Baratunde ThurstonÂ was also in the house), it was no surprise that the Quvenzhane Wallis tweet controversy was the first subject brought up. In his pre-panel intro, he mentioned that he was moreÂ disgustedÂ by the Onion’s apology than the actual tweet. Basically, if the intent to satire is obvious—which, in my opinion, it was—a comedian shouldn’t have to apologize for a joke that just wasn’t constructed properly. Pepitone disagreed, saying that while there are no sacred topics, writers also have a duty to be aware of their limitations.
(Personally, I side with Pepitone here. Full disclosure: There was nothing about the Quvenzhane tweet that I thought was offensive. I saw it, thought “oh, that was a little off-color,” and would have forgotten about it if not for the controversy it caused. But, just because something doesn’t personally offend me doesn’t mean that it’s not offensive. And, a person who attempts to go there with that type of humor needs to be aware of the racial and social implications if he fails. Also, as Bell pointed out, the tweet had a limited upside. Whoever authored the tweet basically attempted to build aÂ grenadeÂ from scratch without reading any instructions. If it works, great. You now have a working grenade that you’ll never, ever use. But, you’re much more likely to fail. And, if you fail, you’ll probably blow your entire face off)
Bell—who was easily the star of the panel—brought up another point about comedians and workshopping. He told the story of how Chris Rock became upset once when footage of him appearing at a small comedy club was passed around the internet. When professional comics go to these types of clubs, they’re workshopping—thinking aloud and testing out new material before it goes out to the public. Basically, as Bell put it, releasing that footage allowed people to see Rock’s “half-baked ideas before they’re fully baked.” And, when that happens, you run the risk of having people offended by a newlyÂ conceivedÂ thought that actually wasn’t “ready” to be heard yet.
Blogging has a unique relationship with this concept, because the thing that makes most blogs popular—the idea that you’re able to read a person’s unfiltered thoughts—is also the thing that occasionally gets bloggers in hot water. Basically, bloggers don’t have a workshop because blogging is the workshop. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written something at 11:45pm, published it, woke up, read it again and thought “Shit, I can’t believe I said that.” You can always delete things, but if 5,000 people have already read it, doing that is pointless and actually seems kinda weak.
***The internet has created a dynamic where theÂ permanentnessÂ of it can get people pissed at you today for something you did two or three years ago. Bell shared a story where a woman recently approached him, pissed about something he’d written in like 2007. When he told her “Yeah, you’re 100% right. What I said was f*cked up, and I actually apologized for it three years ago” she actually seemed disappointed that she couldn’t be outraged anymore.
***Bell: “Political correctness is always dishonest.”
***Bell (again) “Presidents and Popes apologize, so why should a comedian believe he doesn’t have to do that too?”
***Pepitone (paraphrasing): “The best comedy is when a person makes fun of something with equal or greater power. The Quvenzhane tweet failed because it ignored that rule.”
***Also, a point each panelist touched on was their annoyance with people who “volunteer” to get offended. Basically, there’s enough info out there to learn about someone like Louie CK before you attend one of his shows. And, if you’re the type to get easily offended, why still attend…and why not just buy tickets and see the thousands of other comedians whose style/content is moreÂ compatibleÂ with your sensibilities? You wouldn’t go to a Taylor Swift show and complain that she’s not Ghostface, so why do that with comedy?
We left Austin right after this panel. I’ve debated whether to recap the trip back home, but aside from me falling asleep at the wheel right outside ofÂ CincinnatiÂ and almost killing us both, nothing worth mentioning happened.
In summary, this entire experience was one of the most memorable moments in my life. I loved Austin so much that I’d consider moving there. I loved the atmosphere of controlled creativeÂ chaosÂ SXSW cultivated. I mean, where else are you going to walk out of a panel featuring W. Kamau Bell and run right into this…
I loved the surreal experience of driving past cities like Memphis and Little Rock that played such a huge role in the civil rights movement. I loved finding out that, if coming from the east, you have to cross the Mississippi river to get to Arkansas. Even though I will never, ever, ever, ever do this again, I loved being able to say IÂ successfullyÂ completedÂ a cross-country road trip. And, honestly, I loved the audacity of Texas. Facing that type ofÂ conspicuousÂ andÂ ubiquitousÂ regional pride was initially off-putting, but it became endearing and even enviable.
I will definitely be back next year, I’llÂ definitelyÂ plan to stay longer, and (hopefully) I’ll definitely remember to actually make a schedule, bring some sneakers (my feet are still killing me), and buy my plane tickets in time next time.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)