10 Questions With… Charlene Prempeh
Charlene Prempeh is the founder of A Vibe Called Tech, a creative agency that explores the intersection of Black creativity, culture, and innovation. The name is a play on hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest, referencing the influence of technology on the Black community. Since its inception, the agency has launched a series of creative campaigns with Gucci, partnered with WePresent on a year-long series bringing Black-owned media to the forefront and worked with V&A East on a new creative residency. Currently, Prempeh and her team are helping London’s Whitechapel Gallery with a creative campaign to accompany their new exhibition: “A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020.” The project is yet to be revealed but it “interrogates space as a tool for creative freedom,” she says.
ID: What is your working style?
CP: I worked really hard growing up and I put a lot of energy into my education. I always knew I wanted to excel in what I was doing. I ended up going to Oxford University, which hadn’t been on my radar at all but my tutors sowed the seeds. When I set up the agency, I was working a seven-day week for months on end but I’ve started to realize that breaks are important to renew creative energy. I try to balance the rhythm of my day to be most productive but also make sure I’m spending some time in a valuable and meaningful way beyond work.
ID: What are your greatest sources of inspiration and where do you seek them out?
CP: There are so many places. I love all of the normal things; reading (libraries!), food, travel etc. I have found recently that engaging with and reading Black-owned media platforms has really fed into our work at A Vibe Called Tech. There are some incredible social media platforms, which we’ve been able to work with, which chronicle the Black experience through history. I’d encourage you to check out @blackarchives.co and @ablackhistoryofart as well as Boy Brother Friend, Plantain Papers, and Citizen Magazine.
ID: You have a background in marketing and journalism and still write a column for the Financial Times How To Spend It magazine. How is that useful in terms of running your agency?
CP: I think that my marketing background has helped us reach more audiences and understand how brands can integrate campaigns into their wider marketing. My journalism and writing has helped us with the storytelling element of the platform. I understand why narrative is key to successful projects. My column for the Financial Times, The Kudos Project, has really given me a platform to tell stories about Black entrepreneurs and creatives in an ongoing way. The idea was to encourage people to continue to invest and engage in Black businesses beyond the editorial focus around Black Lives Matter. There are so many amazing brands that are under the radar that I have discussed through the column.
ID: Tell me how A Vibe Called Tech came about and why you felt there was a need for this kind of agency?
CP: My husband and I were discussing artificial intelligence while on holiday and some of the issues with facial recognition tools not being able to register Black people properly. He said: Wouldn’t it be funny if a science fiction film was made where all the killer robots were out trying to murder humans but they couldn’t kill Black people because the AI didn’t recognize Black faces. The thought that a new technology couldn’t recognize Black skin felt ridiculous. I started to research it further and found out that it wasn’t science fiction at all but was really happening. And there were even more troubling issues, from policing to the judicial systems, how people are employed, marketing and even healthcare. Myself and creative director, Lewis Gilbert, wanted to set up the agency to not only look at these issues but also to make the Black community aware of them and to allow them to advocate for their own communities.
ID: The agency now has two strands, a storytelling one and an awareness-raising one. Can you describe them briefly and explain how they work well together?
CP: A Vibe Called Tech started as a public engagement piece looking at the effects of technology on the Black community. It’s evolved into a platform that looks to create healthy ecosystems for the Black creativity in various spaces. Gilbert and I are now working with brands and institutions to explore storytelling through the lens of the Black experience and Black culture. Black culture has so much richness and the more people engage in Black histories and storytelling, the more the Black community will be considered in society. Both strands very much speak to this idea of how you widen the narratives told about the Black community. And how do you make sure the work that’s coming out of the creative space and technology space is beneficial.
ID: What are some of your most pressing concerns with the way technology and algorithms disproportionately discriminate against people of color?
CP: Technology in all its guises, from artificial intelligence to social media platforms, has a role to play in helping us end racial injustice. The ways in which tech is used as a tool of oppression are numerous. Some of the racism is really basic—from moderation of racist language on social media platforms to unconscious biases that platforms like Airbnb have inbuilt, which allow Black people to be rejected. Censorship by Big Tech is also very troubling as are the algorithms that dictate how we consume and experience content online. There needs to be a deep analysis into how these algorithms are monitored and designed and an awareness that our online experience is shaped daily by corporate entities.
ID: You are soon going to launch an additional platform called A Vibe Called Tech Health Check. What is it exactly?
CP: There’s this huge growth of new technology and we’re interested in how it’s perpetuating inequalities. The health check is an ongoing conversation with the Black community around their experiences of new technologies and providing information on employment, facial recognition, urban design and health and the biases that exist. It involves asking the right questions and providing the right stimulus to the community. I felt my experience in audience research and insight made me the right person to start this dialogue. The research should be going live in the next couple of months.
ID: Tech racism isn’t a new or solely internet-based thing, it goes back historically to all tech, such as photography and cinema and beyond.
CP: For me, there has always been this awareness that Black people aren’t being considered when technology is developed and that has persisted throughout time. When you look back to the start of photography and cinematography, in certain lights or with the flash on, you couldn’t capture a Black face. This has real ramifications for the documentation of our history.
ID: What can people do to counter this technological racism?
CP: Talk about the issue, read articles, come to our events—the more people who get behind it visibly, the less the conversation can be swept under the rug. The more we are educated, the more we can understand the issues we’re experiencing and be empowered to change things.
There are some really great organizations—Data 4 Justice and Algorithmic Justice league—who are activists for marginalized communities in tech that are great to support too.
ID: What do you hope to achieve in the future?
CP: Equity; a new system and an appreciation for the richness of Black culture and histories. We want to create a platform for some of the incredible Black writers, artists, scientists, activists, curators both past and present. We also have a special project coming up with the Whitechapel Gallery this spring (more to be revealed soon!), as well as the evolution of our partnership with WePresent that we’re super excited about.
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