Ashley Akunna wants to change how black Millennials are featured and represented on television. After graduating from film school, the New Jersey native took her talents to the perfect online destination: Youtube. There she uploads The Grapevine, a panel discussion style talk show that features smart and opinionated young men and women who discuss their views on hot button issues. Think topics like Bill Cosby, colorism, and cultural appropriation.
We caught up with Akunna to find out what inspired The Grapevine, what it takes to bring it to life, and why she thinks “clap back” culture on social media should be put to bed.
What inspired the concept for The Grapevine?
After college I went back home to live with my family and apply for jobs. And I watched the news a lot with my family. I realized I had graduated into a depression. There were no millennial on Rachel Maddow’s show or Chris O’donnel’s show, or Keith Olberman’s show. It was all middle age people who really didn’t know what it meant to graduate into a depression. I was just kind of like, ‘this is weird.’ They’re not really getting our opinions on social issues and politics, so I was like, ‘I want to start a show.’ I wrote down a lot of ideas, I talked to my friends who are producers, and I just decided that there’s not really like this on TV and there still isn’t, and I would create it.
How do you go about picking people on the panels?
I knew from jump that I wanted to have everyday people—people who don’t really have anything to lose and can speak honestly. Most of the people on the panel are my friends and I’m very proud that my friends game is so diverse and is so different, and that’s what you see on the panel, so a lot of friends, a lot of acquaintances, a lot of friends of friends. What I do, I vet people to make sure they’re passionate no matter where they land on an issue. I just want to make sure they’re passionate, they’re able to articulate their point, and they’re not afraid to say what they have to say even if it’s unpopular.
I definitely would like to encourage people to be open to hearing other opinions and to not get carried away with the clap back culture that we see happening on Twitter, especially with black twitter. It’s okay to have a difference of opinion. It’s okay. I think I’m learning that from having this show. It doesn’t mean you’re my enemy. It’s okay to disagree but we can all sit at the table and get along. This who “finish them” culture, it doesn’t really breed positive energy. So I think a lot of black people get caught up in that and I don’t think it’s good. I think we can have dialogue, I think we can be passionate, and we can clap back in a respectful way, but when it turns into a culture of negativity I think we have to stand back and see what’s really going on.
How do you choose your topics?
I’m on social media, I see what’s going on in news, I keep my ears to the streets in regards to what’s happening, but I also look into what makes people upset and what really makes people rant. Then I’m like, okay, this is a hot button issue, so then I try to be careful about how I frame it to get a certain answer. So It’s mostly just whatever’s trending, whatever keeps people’s panties in a bunch.
A lot of our viewers are overseas. I definitely want to travel with the show. I want to go to Philadelphia and shoot, I want to go to Miami, I want to go to L.A., I want to go to Chicago, I want to go to France, we want to London and South Africa to see what the issues are there and see what the black millennial there are talking about. We definitely want to be picked up by a network but we are open to continuing to grow on Youtube, but we definitely want the show to be big. We know that’s what will happen.
Who makes up your team?
I am the executive producer/producer/host. I wear many hats obviously, but then I also have a producer who also edits the episodes. Her name is Amada Lee. Then we have a strategist who is Donovan Thompson who you see on the panel. He just joined on as a strategist. So there’s three of us. Very small team.
Where do you get the funding?
Self funded. It’s an investment. It’s me paying for pretty much everything. It’s a lot of money. It’s funny, in the comment section, people are like, ‘yeah, I think we’re going to talk about police brutality next week,’ and I’m like, uh, we’re shooting again in August [laughs]. People don’t know how we shoot so everyone on the panel was laughing.
What’s your favorite Episode?
My favorite episode would have to be the four episodes we did on Bill Cosby. We talked about Bill Cosby and we talked about the allegations. It got really heated on set. That was the one time on set that it was really uncomfortable.
The episode with the most views is on Africa versus African American. That’s the most popular one on our channel.
What do you see for The Grapevine in the future?
The show is definitely going to be big. I see the show growing immensely. I created the show in 2011 so I only shot the pilot. Then we shot another pilot in 2012, then took a break in 2013 for financial reasons, then I started shooting consistently in 2015. So from February of 2015 we started with 872 subscribers on Youtube. As of today, we have 8300 subscribers on Youtube which is crazy growth. This with no real marketing. It’s really just grown with word of mouth and people falling into the Youtube rabbit hole and finding our videos.