Growing up, Eunique Jones Gibson didn't have to look far for positive imagery that reflected who she was and where she came from. At a young age, Eunique's parents wasted no time instilling the importance of self-love and embracing the richness of Black culture. From her father's afrocentric, Cross Colours-based style to seeing herself through the lens of Lena James, Jada Pinkett's confident persona on A Different World, Eunique's surroundings began to paint a colorful portrait of the worlds that true representation could form. She points out, "That was my entryway into really embracing the culture and understanding the power of who we are and being critical of false narratives." It's no wonder that her work in representation through entertainment and media no less found her.
Early out in her career, the power to influence through advertisement served as a compass to direct her career pursuits, "When people used to ask me what I wanted to do that, I always said I wanted to influence decisions in 30 seconds or less. Because that's what commercials do." But for Eunique, the power to influence doesn't stop after the commercial ends, true impact transcends fleeting attention spans and viral moments that evaporate within the vapor of a swipe or click.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
The creative-entrepreneur proved this to be true, most noticeably through her Because of Them We Can campaign and instant-classic game, Culture Tags. In creating her Because of Them We Can campaign in 2013, Eunique recognized that Black History Month was in need of revitalization, "I wanted to refresh it, make it youthful, engaging, and inspiring. I saw the opportunity to do that through photographs and eventually to evolve it from that point." As the campaign grew in online popularity and potency, it garnered the attention of prominent figures like Oprah Winfrey to Kerry Washington, "I thought it was going to be a 28-day campaign, but I also realized that in order to be true to what I was trying to prove — which was that we need to reimage Black History, I had to lead by example."
The example that Eunique continues to set is one that's rooted in her mission to celebrate culture and community through the highest form of resistance: Black Joy. Her new game, Culture Tags, has served as an instrument for joy as many have looked for a delightful escape in the midst of quarantine. Restoring play and festivity back into our households, Culture Tags continues to find new life as outside reopens, guaranteeing to be the life of any cookout or rooftop party where the game makes an appearance. "As Black people, we've gone through and continue to go through so much as a community that oftentimes joy is all we have to look forward to. It's up to us to preserve it, protect it, and create the space for it."
xoNecole: Your project “Because Of Them We Can,” garnered viral success with the images that you shared of young Black children portraying notable Black figures. You mentioned once that you “wanted to refresh Black History,” could you tell us about that mission to refresh/reimagine Black History and how that’s evolved today?
Eunique Jones Gibson: When I started the campaign in 2013, I didn't see a captivating push that made Black History interesting and exciting and something that wasn't just Black and white photos. Black History was relegated to the narrative that in order to make history or be a figure or a person who could be acknowledged in Black History, it was a typical lineup of individuals that we learned about in school but it didn't expand beyond those individuals. It also typically ended up revolving around individuals who, when we talk about Black History Month, were older or people who were deceased and we know that Black History is constantly being made. It's always taking place, it's taking place right now as I'm talking to you.
I wanted to do something that would make it interesting to learn about figures throughout history that paved that way by refreshing those images and allowing folks to see them through the eyes of a child. Because then, you become a little more interested in the story and the individual beyond your bias or what you may think based on what you've heard or haven't heard.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
Because of all the success that you did receive from that campaign, was there anything that surprised you about the feedback you received or the response in general from your community?
I think at the time what really surprised me was the fact that people wanted it to continue beyond Black History Month. It was almost as if it became my responsibility to keep it going. I had started something bigger than what I had initially thought it was. I thought it was going to be a 28-day campaign, but I also realized that in order to be true to what I was trying to prove, which was that we need to reimagine Black History, I had to lead by example. I don't think I expected it when I launched it and I certainly didn't expect to be eight years later to still be building upon that foundation.
Your game, Culture Tags, is one of the hottest new games for us. What inspired the creation of Culture Tags?
We are a big entertainment family; we love game nights and it really just dawned on me at some point that we needed more games! We needed more options that were rooted in our culture. Not games that we can play because we understand the rules and because they're fun, but games we can play because they bring back the nostalgia and excitement because we know that it was made with us in mind.
The inspiration behind Culture Tags is that same inspiration behind all of my work: it's to celebrate culture and community and to make sure we are represented. I started to think about it back in 2019. One day, I was online and saw a really long abbreviation or acronym and all these people were commenting, "Why do I know what this means?" I was definitely in that same group where I was like, "Yo, this is wild, I know what this says!" I've tried to train my mind to see the opportunities beyond what's on the surface, I immediately said, this is a game!
Courtesy of: Eunique Jones Gibson
Your agency, Culture Brands, has recently been tapped to become Hyundai’s African American agency of record. Why do you think it’s important for big brands to tap firms and agencies that are actually of the culture, especially when it comes to portraying our images in advertisements?
Because we exist. We live it, we eat it, we breathe it. It isn't something that we have to study, it's something that we innately know. In order for brands to portray an authentic representation of their customer base when they are targeting Black folks, they should have experts at the table who can present an authentic story and picture. You can't do that when you are not of the culture.
There are certain things that you will miss, certain things that you will overlook, and that will never enter the conversation because you don't have that first-hand knowledge. You have to bring in people who eat, sleep, and breathe it — and people who can respect it. It's one thing to create culturally relevant content but the content also has to be responsible; it can't be exploitative.
Someone who is of the culture should know how to ensure that we are represented without allowing a brand to co-op the culture or present themselves as a culture vulture. There has to be people at the table with a voice to guide in that direction. A lot of times you have people who are in the room but are not at the table or people who are at the table but don't have a voice, or if they have a voice, no one is listening. We have to make sure that when brands invite multicultural or African-American companies to the table, that they are ready to listen and learn and to implicate the learnings and expertise that these agencies are offering.
"It's one thing to create culturally relevant content but the content also has to be responsible; it can't be exploitative. Someone who is of the culture should know how to ensure that we are represented without allowing a brand to co-op the culture or present themselves as a culture vulture."
I was listening to your interview on Luuvie’s IG Live and one of the things that really resonated was when you shared, “You’ve got to trust your vision. People steal ideas all day, but you can not steal a vision.” In your eyes, what is the difference between an idea and a vision?
Ideas come and go, and oftentimes they are inspired by a need. They are inspired by the environment and things that are happening around us but I think that the difference between an idea and a vision is that a vision makes the idea scaleable. A vision makes the idea sustainable; and gives [the vision] value and validates it beyond that moment. And it gives you direction. It helps to guide the direction that you move in. Oftentimes your ideas may change, but they should back into your vision.
Beyond that, I also don't think it's a good idea to fall in love with your ideas. I think you can execute them and like them, but you should not fall in love with them. You should commit yourself to whatever your anticipated goal is: fall in love with the goal, not with the idea that might get you there because that idea can shift, but if you commit to the goal, you might see that there are multiple ways to get there. Which is why you have to anchor yourself in the vision.
"A lot of times you have people who are in the room but are not at the table or people who are at the table but don't have a voice, or if they have a voice, no one is listening."
Something that many creatives may experience along their journey is analysis paralysis in not really knowing where to start with their ideas. What advice would you give to someone who may be sitting on an idea or hesitant to take a leap into their dreams?
I always say, "Date your dreams." A lot of times you can look at an idea as a dream or something that you want to execute or explore and I think you have to date it and spend time with it. You have to obsess over it, analyze it from different angles, poke holes in it. What's good about this, what's bad about it? What makes sense, what makes this crazy? You date it.
I also think you have to be willing to bet on yourself. After you've gone through that process, if you've come out on the other side, you've got to be willing to fail. If you're not willing to fail, then you will never try. If you're willing to fail, then you can take the risk to move forward with the idea understanding that if you failed, you really just learned.
Photo by: Eunique Jones Gibson and Ashleigh Bing
"Mistakes happen for us to patch the holes, to ensure that our baskets stay full once the blessings start coming in."
What’s something that felt like a mistake in the moment, but turned out to be a pivotal lesson for you along your journey?
I've had multiple moments like that. My mentor tells me, sometimes the thing that feels horrible that we lament over because they happened to us, really happened for us. He likened it to medicine that tastes horrible but at the end of the day, it does us some good. I think it can only do us good if we maintain the perspective that it's all an opportunity to learn and improve and not make the same mistakes that we made before because we are more informed this time.
Failure has been a consistent part of my process and they have been big and small, and costly - whether it's cost me money or peace of mind, they are not inexpensive! But I have learned from each one of them to ensure that I do not make the same mistake again. Mistakes happen for us to patch the holes, to endure that our baskets stay full once the blessings start coming in.
For more of Eunique, follow her on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Eunique Jones Gibson
Aley Arion is a writer and digital storyteller from the South, currently living in sunny Los Angeles. Her site, yagirlaley.com, serves as a digital diary to document personal essays, cultural commentary, and her insights into the Black Millennial experience. Follow her at @yagirlaley on all platforms!
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.”
Director of Content: Jasmine Grant
Campaign Manager: Chantal Gainous
Managing Editor: Sheriden Garrett
Creative Director/Executive Producer: Tracey Woods
Cover Designer: Tierra Taylor
Photographer: Ally Green
Photo Assistant: Avery Mulally
Digital Tech: Kim Tran
Video by Third and Sunset
DP & Editor: Sam Akinyele
2nd Camera: Skylar Smith
Camera Assistant: Charles Belcher
Stylist: Casey Billingsley
Hairstylist: DaVonte Blanton
Makeup Artist: Drini Marie
Production Assistants: Gade De Santana, Apu Gomes
Powered by: European Wax Center
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."
Let’s make things inbox official! Sign up for the xoNecole newsletter for daily love, wellness, career, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Feature image by Mike Marsland/WireImage