The Death and Rebirth of Black Glossies

Image (partial) from Arise Issue #02: Obama's Africa

Much as Ebony and Vibe crackled with the sense of discovery in their heydays, Arise feels like the magazine that’s got its finger on the pulse of today’s black pop.

I can’t say that I was shocked when Vibe stopped publishing this summer. Surprised a little, and slightly disappointed, but not shocked.

Nor was I taken aback when word leaked out in September that Johnson Publishing Company would entertain serious offers for its most famous titles, Ebony and Jet magazine.

The numbers speak for themselves in both cases, all too loudly. Ebony’s circulation is down 12 percent from last year by published accounts, and ad revenue is down 35 percent. The story was similar at Vibe, where ad pages were down 40 percent and circulation off by 25 percent. Those are troubling numbers by any stretch, and the loss of Vibe and potential loss of Ebony are bad news for black media.

Both magazines, in their own ways, represent pivotal moments in the reflection of black images, life and culture in American media. Ebony represented the aspirational side of black American life in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and Vibe captured the zeitgeist as hip-hop became a mainstream cultural force in the ’90s. At their respective heights, they both were critical markers of black glossiness, the power of a striking cover image to speak volumes from a newsstand, and for the articles, photos and ads behind the cover to open up new possibilities for readers.

But despite their historical importance, I haven’t shed any tears about their current travails. Part of my nonchalance about those events, treated with much serious and hand-wringing throughout the rest of the black media and cultural worlds, comes from my keen awareness of how tight times are for the publishing industry these days. Major daily newspapers in Seattle and Denver, and less-major newspapers in smaller markets, have gone out of business this year. Here in Chicago, the Tribune’s new owner admitted he got in over his head when he bought the debt-addled Tribune Co. conglomerate, and the Sun-Times is about to make a tentative go of it under brand-new ownership.

Everywhere you look, the industry has lost thousands upon thousands of jobs. All of this is the by-product of the Internet’s siphoning off readers and advertisers (although notably, the cost of advertising online is less than onprint -- and that affects online publications), and the industry’s failure to date in figuring out how to function in this new environment. (Essence represents another key achievement in black glossiness, but despite its comparatively good health, it recently took a hit when layoffs at parent company Time, Inc. decimated its website staff.)

But the greater part of my so-what reaction stems from my own relationship with those magazines, issues I’ve worked through previously in this space. Two years ago, on the occasion of Vibe’s 150th issue, I charitably offered that the magazine no longer held me in thrall because I’d gotten too old for it:

As a 30-something parent when Vibe debuted, I was already on the outer edge of the target demographic. As time has marched on, I’ve grown even further away from the youth market, and my interests and attitudes have evolved accordingly. I’d still rather consume hip-hop than lots of other offerings, but I no longer feel the passionate identification with it that I did back in the day. I glommed onto Vibe because it validated a community of music and culture in which I was emotionally invested, a world that spoke to me, for me, and about me. But as I moved through the ‘90s and beyond, into various other roles and life stages, hip-hop lost some of that personal resonance for me, and Vibe became less a place to see reflections of myself and more a place to catch up on my music industry research. ("Vibe: Hard to Let it Go", 3 March 2007)

In fact, the magazine’s editorial quality had declined precipitously. The feature articles were paint-by-numbers shovelware straight outta the entertainment-industrial complex, with little of the flair or shock of the new that characterized the first few years of Vibe’s run. The in-depth features that dove deeper into other aspects of the burgeoning urban-pop culture became fewer and farther between. In the pages of Vibe, hip-hop became hip-pop, and made for considerably less interesting reading in the process.

The Internet probably had a serious effect on Vibe, as it did on the entire field of print music magazines (RIP No Depression and Blender). Downturns in key sources of advertising, including the automotive and fashion industries, had a particularly serious effect on the publications' bottom line. Vibe did everything it could, shrinking its size over time from tabloid to term paper. But it could not continue to make a way, and unceremoniously ceased to be six days after Michael Jackson died (a rough stretch, no doubt, for Quincy Jones, MJ’s producer/mentor and Vibe’s founder). I can’t say at all that I miss it; if its last issue was a harbinger of what would have come (The-Dream draped all over a nude Christina Milian,), it died as much from its own irrelevance and crappiness as from any external factor.

I mused about Ebony in 2005, after the death of its guiding light, John H. Johnson. ( "Ebony: Then, Now and Later",1 September 2005) For years it had been the flagship media brand of black pop culture, proving to the world (including, crucially, black folk themselves) that black was indeed beautiful. But by the turn of the new millennium, that lesson was less in need of telling, especially with newer brands like Vibe speaking to contemporary life with a style and energy Ebony never bothered to muster. In a world of designer restaurants and celebrity chefs, Ebonywas the staid family diner whose tried-and-true dishes were showing their age at long last, a fact borne out by circulation figures already on the downswing:

My guess is that Ebony will continue to be Ebony, with some minor tweaking here and there but nothing particularly drastic. That might be good enough for now. But the car buyers, parents, and consumers of tomorrow don’t have the same attachment to Ebony that Johnson’s generation did… Ebony’s content has long been criticized by many as lightweight, but for many years it was the only game in town if you wanted to read about black folks. Today it’s still the biggest game, but it’s not the only game, and younger black consumers of media understand that far better than their elders do.

… For Ebony is very much like the network evening news: a staple of life for generations when media outlets were fewer, and still bigger than all the other sources for the content they feature. But signs of erosion are beginning to show, the great leaders have done their work and moved on, and now it’s time for the new stewards of the franchises to chart a course that responds to the modern marketplace and landscape, and begins to anticipate what tomorrow’s might look like.

Four years after I wrote that, Ebony sits on the precipice between slow (or not) death and difficult reinvention. Whatever courses those new stewards charted (a website redesign, a print makeover) did not prevent that circulation downswing from becoming a straight-up plummet. Talented writers left in droves, in search of an actual paycheck. If there is a flagship media brand of black pop culture these days – and that’s a big if, given the splinterization of the media across every imaginable demarcation – it isn’t Ebony.

Ebony may or may not survive this crisis. Vibe got a second lease on life (and funding), and will resume publishing in December with a quarterly print schedule, a focus on its revamped website as the center of the brand, and relaunch covers of two of hip-pop’s most blabbed-about names of 2009, it-boy Drake and bad-boy Chris Brown. But while I will continue to follow their progress and wish both pubications the best, I’ve since moved on, entranced by a new fountain of black glossiness, emanating from a most unlikely place: the runways of the motherland.


It called me from afar. Nigeria, to be exact, by way of Borders.

On the cover was a dark-skinned woman, her hair coiled into an intricate up-do, dashes of highlight accenting the curve along the bridge of her nose, her face a flawless surface of ebony. She wore a ruffled collar of gold fringe, then brown and white strips, then red and black ribbon. Below her chin was the cutline “Obama’s Africa”, with an inset of the First Couple in a private moment before the inaugural parade.

Across the top, in big red letters, the announcement of something new and inspiring: “Arise”.

This was my introduction to a notion I’d never taken the time to imagine, an African fashion magazine. Not that Africa doesn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t have a fashion industry, mind you. I’d caught wind of the occasional African designer who’d manage to bubble up in European ventures from time to time. But I never knew that there was a full-fledged fashion industry in Africa, let along a magazine to trumpet its existence. But there I was, thumbing through the pages of the second issue of Arise like I was meeting a cousin I never knew I had.

There were articles aplenty about the African fashion world: runway shots from Johannesburg Fashion Week; a feature on the current generation of black models; spreads on the season’s hot looks. But there were also pieces on how Africans regarded Barack Obama’s victory, the pop music scene in Kenya, and South African surfers. Elsewhere in the magazine, there was a piece on China’s economic influence on the continent, a former Microsoftie who founded Ghana’s first liberal arts college, and a back-page tribute to Cesaria Evora, Cape Verde’s musical gift to the world.

Without looking for anything of the sort, I had found my passport to modern Africa. That one not-so-slim (186 pages, 9 5/8 x 13 inches) volume had introduced me to more hot scenes, artists, movers and shakers than I ever would have thought to seek out on my own. I have always lived to experience progressive black culture, and now here it was on a downtown Chicago newsstand, all the way from Africa. No starving babies, no corrupt politicians here: this was the voice of a new African generation staking its claim in the post-modern global marketplace. Arise, indeed.

The magazine, which bills itself, “Africa’s Global Style and Culture Magazine”, is produced by the Nigerian publisher ThisDay (the issue I discovered also had a spread on the ThisDay Awards gala from January 2009, which featured Kofi Annon, Bill Clinton, and Lionel Richie among Nigeria’s professional elite). It’s part of a new wave of African magazines catering to an upscale audience. The New York Times recently observed that this is supposed to be a difficult time to launch a new print media product, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for Arise and its fellow publications thus far. Arise’s mantra might be summed up as “Afropolitan”: at home in the world, but still joyously rooted in Africa and all things African (issue #3 had a feature story on such self-proclaimed Afropolitans).

I’m now snatching up each issue of Arise as soon as I see it (and have US$12 to spare – imported magazines ain’t cheap). The most recent issue I picked up, #6, represents both what the publications does well and what it doesn’t. Its front-of-the-book shorts are chock-a-block with pieces on the new and the hot from throughout the diaspora: a New York-based digital artist from Nigeria; an intricately designed house (literally) of art in South London; a food column from Ethiopian born celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson; a pan-African DJ set list; and product shots of must-have designer sneakers and similar gear. Its fashion section is headlined by a roundup from Cape Town Fashion Week (no, I didn’t know they had one either), and includes spreads on up-and-coming young designers and an outré photo shoot with model Sessilee Lopez.

Arise does a fine job capturing what’s going on in African music and film. Issue #6 features interviews with Sengalese rapper Sister Fa (all those who wondered what happened to rap’s conscious sistas should start here) and Nigerian (or “Nollywood”) film star/aspiring mogul Stella Damasus. American audiences will not find the articles on Jay-Z and R. Kelly particularly revealing, but they do a better job hanging out with dancehall crossover star Sean Paul.

Its news section (“Polity”) has photos galore from the Obama administration’s first visit to Africa. There’s some discussion of US-Africa policy, but the overall tone echoes the wonder and awe at his victory, the nature of it, and all that it was said to represent, the euphoric glow that diminished on this side of the water long ago. There’s also an interesting piece on the effect of celebrity philanthropy on African life. It’s a subject that’s been explored with far more heft and vigor elsewhere, but at least the piece quotes some African voices seldom heard in the global media. Most surprisingly, the issue pays tribute to the late Senator Edward Kennedy, with a two-page spread of photos from throughout his career, including a striking shot from his maiden Senatorial campaign.

If you want in-depth coverage on the political issues, Arise is not your magazine. If you want deeply reported profiles of figures large and small, look elsewhere. Arise seems to be better at introducing us to African talent we don’t know than catching us up with the stars we do know. And its web presence is pleasing to the eye but, but all but devoid of content. But if you want a ticket to the most exciting party in the whole African Diaspora, written with enthusiasm and smarts and brimming with style and heady optimism, look no further. Fashion is definitely the core focus, but instead of drawing itself inward like American fashion magazines, Arise uses fashion as the tentpole to present the face of contemporary Africa – no mean feat in a land with contemporary faces in each of its 61 jurisdictions.

Much as Ebony and Vibe crackled with the sense of discovery in their heydays, Arise feels like the magazine that’s got its finger on the pulse of today’s black pop. It’s almost as if the news of black pop is no longer happening in our stateside ‘hoods, and the cutting edge where black American musicians and dancers and poets once lived is now populated by multi-lingual polyglots who know more about our world than we can even dream about theirs. Arise is a must-read in the sense that Ebony and Vibe once were, and must figure out how to be again if they want to survive. For those titles, the future is uncertain at best. For Arise, it’s just getting started.

Perhaps no greater indication that a torch may be passing exists than this: as Arise and other African fashion magazines find their way into American media diets, Johnson Publishing canceled the fall leg of its Ebony Fashion Fair, a staple of black social and philanthropic life for more than 50 years. The company hopes to revive the touring fashion show next year. But if that doesn’t happen – and even if it does -- don’t bet against an Arise Fashion Fair, or some sort of branded promenade with innovation, panache and a big-time dose of the motherland, hitting these shores one day.

In the meantime, there’s Alicia Keys on the cover of October’s Arise, looking even more glamorous and exquisite than she did on Ebony or Vibe. Black glossiness is dead; long live black glossiness.

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