The Brown Bohemians Are Carving Out Space For Blackness & Intersectionality On A Global Scale
The word "Bohemian" has been used throughout history to describe a person who is socially unconventional and involved with the arts. However, Black people are essentially invisible when it comes to the bohemian lifestyle, even though we are the very definition of art. Being the change they wished to see in the community was imperative to the bohemians behind The Bohemian Brands, co-founders Vanessa Coore Vernon and Morgan Ashley.
As two nomadic spirits who started their career journeys as best friends first, their vision for The Bohemian Brands was birthed from the mutual desire to add much-needed representation to the community. Through The Bohemian Brands, they dared onlookers to see the lifestyle not just in color, but to see it in Black. Besides being rooted in self-care, as a brand, intersectionality is also at top of mind for the two creatives who fused their ventures together to address the fully-realized expression of modern-day bohemian Black and brown humans.
Courtesy of The Brown Bohemians
Vanessa and Morgan Ashley are providing the keys to the kingdom, granting entry to the wonders of the world on a global scale through their thoughtful curation and cultural finds, all while making art and culture that much more accessible.
Vanessa and Morgan Ashley have no doubt created a business relationship built on mutual respect and a harmonious balance, truths that can be felt in every thoughtful detail of their brand. With Vanessa serving as Creative Director and Morgan Ashley as Director of PR and Operations, the co-creators are taking their vision a step further with the execution of their latest project,Brown Bohemians: Honoring the Light and Magic of Our Creative Community, a 200+ page full-color coffee table book. In it, the two curated a beautiful celebration of Black and brown people around the world who share their most honest truths while representing the complexity of creative communities.
Without further adieu, meet Vanessa and Morgan Ashley.
Where did the idea of Brown Bohemian come from?
Vanessa Coore Vernon: Brown Bohemian started as just an online platform originally just to highlight the creative energy and creative spirit of brown and Black people. Since Instagram has been around, it has really allowed us to take control of our own images and our own narrative more than we ever have before because there's no red tape. I think it really enables a lot of brown and Black people, in particular, to lean further into their creative endeavors, creative spirit, [as well as] create adventures. Also, to really honor who it is they are and not feel like they have to wait or be subjected to someone choosing or asking them to be a part of something.
What is the significance of describing Black and brown people as 'Bohemian'?
Vanessa: I wanted Brown Bohemians to be a place where we can gather the images, gather the people and highlight them to create a broader tribe of people that look like you, think like you, dress like you, and speak like you. When you think of Bohemian, obviously from the 19th-century context, it was artisans from lower-income that found creative ways to do things. We wanted to make sure that brown and Black people took up space when you looked up what a creative person looks like or what Bohemian looks like. I wanted to make sure that our images were there and our stories were there.
"When you think of Bohemian, it was artisans from lower-income that found creative ways to do things. We wanted to make sure that brown and Black people took up space when you looked up what a creative person looks like or what Bohemian looks like. I wanted to make sure that our images were there and our stories were there."
Courtesy of The Bohemian Brands
What was the transition from going to the social platform into the business side for Brown Bohemian?
Vanessa: The transition came when I realized that we don't own Instagram. We don't own any of these social platforms and all of this gathering that we've been doing will at some point wash away, and we had no control. I was like, how amazing would it be to have a book sell with these images, these people, and these stories? Especially when the majority of the books that I have in this same realm are white people through and through. There might be maybe one brown or racially ambiguous person, but for the most part, they don't necessarily look like us. That kind of initiated the process of wanting to turn Brown Bohemians into an actual book, a tangible book. Something you can hold, something you can pass, something you can share, something that lived outside of ourselves.
What is it like to run a business with your friend?
Vanessa: It's really difficult to run a business with anyone much less someone that you are friends with or in a partnership with. A lot of people literally will tell you from the very beginning don't partner with your friends because if something doesn't work out, you not only lose a partnership, you lose the friendship. The strength that has worked for me and Morgan is that we genuinely respect how each other works and we like each other and do our job. So, I don't concern myself with any part of her business and she doesn't concern herself with any part of mine. We don't micromanage each other and we know that each of us are doing our job. That's a big part of our work ethic.
Morgan Ashley: I think if you're going to do it, doing it in the way that Nessa described, is just super important. Because in my mind, there can't be two CEOs that do the exact same thing or two artists to do the exact same thing. I think that's why it's been able to work. I don't ever really see myself wanting to design or do those things. It doesn't excite me. I think that what I do does excite me, and the same for Nessa.
Being Black queer women, how has this influenced your brand and business?
Morgan Ashley: I'm definitely loud about being Black first and queer. Those are things that I advocate for and am extremely proud to be and identify as. Identifying as a woman, a black woman, and a queer Black woman is extremely important to me. I would like to say that I put a ton of attention behind it and always want to put it on the forefront, but it just happens organically because those are things that I'm so proud to be. It just comes across in everything that I do. Blackness and conversations around race and ethnicity are in everything. So whether it is us publishing this book that's for our community or we are going to a restaurant and are the only Black people at a table, it's a conversation that we have to talk about. So, for me, it comes across in everything that I do organically because I'm so proud to be and identify that way.
Vanessa: I wholeheartedly agree. The thing I love the most, and that I know within our brand and within ourselves, is it is something that happens consciously and unconsciously all the time. It shows that we are unapologetic about who we are and who we evolve to be. For me, it was less about labels or how you identify or what you believe and more about are you living in love authentically and living in your highest and best life. That was always the most important thing and I made sure in our brand everything represents the people that are a part of it.
"Identifying as a woman, a black woman, and a queer Black woman is extremely important to me. I would like to say that I put a ton of attention behind it and always want to put it on the forefront, but it just happens organically because those are things that I'm so proud to be. It just comes across in everything that I do. Blackness and conversations around race and ethnicity are in everything."
Why were you the ones to tell this story and did you have any self-doubt?
Vanessa: 1000%, [we had] all the self-doubt because, who are we to think that we can publish a book? Being women; brown and Black women, just in life in general you can find yourself always being pushed down, pushed in a corner; shoved down. I think you question and second-guess yourself more than other people in that same situation. These opportunities don't show up at our door. Essentially, we have to show up for the people that showed up for us. It's more about fighting through nervousness and eagerness and saying we are absolutely worth it, we are absolutely showing up as ourselves, and this project is bigger than that. There were people we reached out to in the community that sent us their images and their stories, and they trusted us. I always looked at it like, no matter what, this isn't about me, this is about them; showing up for these people that trusted us with their story. So, no matter what, I'm going to make sure I see it through.
Morgan Ashley: I joined the project for brand Bohemian only a couple of years ago. I haven't been here since its inception, so I don't have the same feeling regarding self-doubt. What kept coming up for me is fight or flight. At that moment when she asked me for help, I had to do it or she wasn't going to do it at all. I didn't have the time over the years to have the same feeling. I just remember thinking at that moment, 'Holy shit, we have to get this done.'
How did you come to the decision to write a book?
Vanessa: The decision came from knowing that we wanted it to live outside of the social platform and then trying our hand at self-publishing. We were not just telling our story, we wanted the stories of all of these different brown and black people around the world to have their story shared through their work and images. We found we were more of a vessel or a conduit. We have 53 different brown and black people that have a quote in the book or a whole feature. That itself is a rarity and very, very hard to do. But it was our job to just get as many people from different places and different backgrounds as possible telling their story. It was important to make sure that their stories directly came from them, and were highlighted.
We didn't want to send off all of these stories and all of their images to our publisher. For us, the part that made our book special and different is we did everything. It was every single image, the color tuning of it, editing the text, the layout, the concept; every single element was done by us, by the three of us. To look at this book, know that it's black and brown hands and black and brown energy that created it through and through. We have everyone from different places, different backgrounds melted into this book, but still made it feel seamless.
"Being women; brown and Black women, just in life in general you can find yourself always being pushed down, pushed in a corner; shoved down. I think you question and second-guess yourself more than other people in that same situation. These opportunities don't show up at our door. Essentially, we have to show up for the people that showed up for us. It's more about fighting through nervousness and eagerness and saying we are absolutely worth it, we are absolutely showing up as ourselves, and this project is bigger than that."
Courtesy of The Brown Bohemians
How did you create the images in the book?
Vanessa: In our community, we ride for each other, we show up for each other and that's literally how this happened. The people that are featured in the book are people we're inspired by and are our friends. Also, people whose work we aspire to collaborate with one day or that do beautiful stuff in our community. Everyone did this off the strength of the relationship we have or them being familiar with our brand or feel at ease to share their story. The book has a warm familiarity to it that can be rare and hard to find. It doesn't feel like this whole book happened outside of our community but happened within our community.
What is the Brown Bohemians book about in your words?
Morgan Ashley: I think what you'll see and feel is yourself as a person of color in a way that you have never seen yourself before. The coffee table book is really about Black and brown folks, but it's our voices in regards to curating it and then the voices of the people who are featured. I think you'll see yourself in a way that you haven't before and you'll see Bohemian described differently in a way that we haven't been before. People look very different in this book than you would see when you're Googling or looking up the word Bohemian. So that feels really authentic because we are as a brand who our community is, and it felt necessary to do.
Vanessa: These are pieces from this ongoing story, and no matter if it's this book or 50 books in the future; there would never be enough books to house the complexities of us, the creative spirits of us, or our contributions. But, this is just our art and adding something to this big puzzle that is important. We hope that you see yourself reflected back to you in some ways because the most important part of this book is that you feel a part of this community, you know you're a part of this community and you feel welcomed here.
For more of The Brown Bohemians, follow them on Instagram. Purchase the Brown Bohemians coffee table book by clicking here.
Featured image courtesy of The Brown Bohemians
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Queen Latifah On Her Journey To Self-Acceptance: 'I've Been Trying To Maintain My Freedom To Be Me'
Actress and rapper Dana "Queen Latifah" Owens is defying societal standards by refusing to be confined in a box regarding her personal and professional life.
Owens, who has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades, is widely recognized for her empowering songs and the variety of acting roles she has obtained throughout her career, among other things. The list includes Living Single, Set It Off, Chicago --with which she earned an Oscar nomination-- Just Wright, Girls Trip, and most recently, The Equalizer series on CBS.
Owens is also very tight-lipped about her personal life. However, in 2021, The Last Holiday actress showed appreciation to Eboni Nichols, who is reportedly her partner, and their son Rebel after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.Since then, Owens has revealed why she doesn't want to be defined as anything but herself and how she maintains her sense of freedom. In a resurfaced video from theGrio Awards, Owens opened up about those topics when she accepted the Television Icon Award for her past contributions
In a clip uploaded on theGrio's Instagram account last week, Owens explained that she often had to fight to be herself because "the world" kept trying to put her in a box based on what society thought a woman should be.
"My whole life, I feel like I've been trying to maintain my freedom to be me. And the world is trying to put these things on me to stop me from being who I am," she said.
Further into the speech, Owens explained that although many would have their own opinion about her from what the media spews out, she would continue to be herself by wearing "beautiful gowns and dresses," playing in the dirt, participating in basketball games with men and loving who she loves because that's what makes her happy.
The Beauty Shop star also added that despite her celebrity status, she would continue to show respect for others because that's who she is as a person and how she was raised.
"So I wear these beautiful gowns and dresses because I want to because that's part of me. I play in the dirt. I play basketball with the boys because that's me,” she stated. "I love who I love because that's me. I love all of you who have supported me. I give you your respect. I don't have to be above you because that's me. I know me."
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Feature image by Mike Marsland/WireImage