By Hannah Lee | Photography by Cornell Watson
Before HBO’s sci-fi thriller “Lovecraft Country” aired in late July and early August, the network sent out stylized influencer packages made up of items from Black-owned businesses, brands and creatives. The series was created by a Black woman and stars Black heroes, so HBO’s marketing teams wanted to make sure the touch points for fans also remained Black. Inside the bags was a booklet-style guide providing insight into the vendors, their company missions and the creative process behind each product. Of the eight products in the gift bag, two were from Durham-based businesses: an “Atticus” tote bag from Autopilot and a “Sundown” candle by Bright Black.
In This Conversation
Talib Graves-Manns, chief marketing officer and co-founder of Autopilot
Christopher Tuning, CEO and co-founder of Autopilot
Tiffany Griffin, co-owner and founder of Bright Black
*Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity*
DURHAM MAGAZINE Can you give me a brief history of your businesses?
TALIB GRAVES-MANNS Our company and both of our personalities [are] built out of hip-hop culture, street wear, African American culture [and] primarily metropolitan areas. The first product that Christopher created is called “Skycap,” and it protects your baseball caps when you travel so they don’t get crushed – a very stylish solution that we own the patent for. The story is: I went to go visit Christopher when he was in New York, and he had this big [piece of] Styrofoam. It looked like a baseball cap. I said, “What’s that?” He said, “I’m working on something. Come back.” I came back next year, and he had a prototype. I understood his vision. Then he asked me to join the team as a co-founder to help bring these products to market. We began to build other products that have a similar aesthetic. That was almost seven years ago. We’ve been working hard ever since to bring innovative luggage products into the market.
TIFFANY GRIFFIN I co-founded Bright Black with my husband, Dariel Heron. We use scent as an artistic medium for sharing positive stories around Blackness. We launched our business in the fall of 2019, so we are very new.
DM Tell me about your products that were in the tote bags.
TGM The advertising firm Translation did all the marketing strategies for “Lovecraft.” [It’s] an African American-owned advertising company based in New York [who we’ve worked with before]. They reached out to us to say, “Hey, we want to deliver really high-quality Black-owned products to influencers and promote the treatment of the show, backstory of the show, as well as the videos they have.” And Christopher just leaned into it and studied Atticus, [the main character], studied the book and offered them a few different designs and bags that we thought represented the aesthetics of “Lovecraft Country.” They fell in love with the tote bag and decided to order that bag for I think 300 people globally. We’re calling that design specifically “The Atticus Tote,” which is made out of high-quality green canvas.
TG We were approached by Translation, who we don’t have a relationship with, and we’re not super clear how they actually found us. They reached out and said, “Hey, we have this partnership with HBO and [“Lovecraft Country” Executive Producer] Jordan Peele, and we’re creating this virtual screening premiere kit and want to include a candle. Could you make a suggestion on what kind of candle that you already have in your repertoire that would fit the screening of this premiere?” Upon watching the trailer, it was pretty clear that our Durham scent was the most fitting for the show and for the kits. I sent them samples and said, “This is our recommendation, but we would do a custom label.” They smelled it – we sent them all of our scents – and they agreed that the Durham was perfect. We created a smaller version of our full size offering [in] our signature black matte vessel with a wooden wick. Although the packaging is co-branded with Bright Black and HBO, it’s not the Durham candle. It’s a “Sundown” candle.
DM And you both didn’t know that you’d be featured in these influencer bags together beforehand? How did you discover the link?
TGM I got a funny story. The Autopilot team was on a call with Translation. And I’m like, “Well, I know a lot of Black people, and I know a lot of Black business owners. I need to know who else is in this bag. Who else is dope enough to be in the bag with us?” They’re like, “Yeah, there’s a company from Durham.” We’re like, “We know. I live in Durham.” And they’re like, “No, Autopilot, we didn’t even know you were in Durham. It’s Bright Black.” And I said, “Get out of here!” Literally a month before COVID-19 happened, Tiffany was at Knox St. [Studios] for [an] event.
TG Wow. And I found out when Talib reached out on Instagram and said, “Hey!” (laughs) The thing is, we negotiated the deal back in June, but we couldn’t say anything. We didn’t know who else was in it. It was pretty hush-hush until the launch of the show, but when Talib had a meeting with them he reached out, and we were like, “Oh, my gosh, what are the chances?” It’s a highly curated kit, and there’s literally hundreds of candle companies, so the fact that you have these two companies that are both Durham-based is pretty crazy.
DM Who received these bags? What was the feedback like?
CHRISTOPHER TUNING It kind of exceeded my expectations, all the love we’ve been getting. People supported the whole kit and really genuinely love the bag.
TG I was telling Talib, I don’t have HBO (laughs), but I feel like the influencers kind of fell into a few different buckets. Some of the influencers are really high-profile actors and actresses on a number of HBO shows including “Insecure.” There were also influencers on the back end of HBO. Some animators and videographers and editors who reached out and said that they received the candles and the packages and really liked them.
TGM One of the targets – outside of these famous Black people like actors, actresses, musicians, athletes – was the blerd community, meaning Black nerds. People who read comic books, who are into anime, science fiction, and [many who have] already read the Lovecraft books.
[If you haven’t seen the show], it’s really good. Prepare to binge watch. It’s horror inspired. The main character, Atticus, as well as his uncle, they’re voracious readers of science fiction and horror books. And a big part of the storyline is that they have really vivid imaginations. They’re traveling from Chicago to Connecticut in search of Atticus’ father, who has gone missing. They have to use the Green Book, which was used around that time for African Americans who were traveling and needed safe places to sleep and to eat. They address all of the historical context of Black readers, fiction, travel, throughout the entirety of the show.
DM So it was very purposeful that the influencer bags included Black-owned businesses. Why is that important at this moment, especially in conjunction with the subject of this show?
TG I’m going to answer a slightly different question, which is: Why is it always important – not just at this moment – for Black businesses? One of the major pathways to social justice – including racial justice in the United States, and I would argue everywhere – is through economic justice. And one primary pathway to economic justice is through supporting Black entrepreneurship.
One of the best things about working both with Translation and with HBO on this project is that they did not try to haggle us at all. Companies as big as Amazon and Nike and Google, and as small as coffee shops literally around the corner from my house, are all recognizing or jumping on bandwagons around the utility of Black partnership, Black economic partnership and aligning themselves with Black businesses. And usually, it’s kind of on their terms, right? It’s like you as a Black business should be just eternally grateful to have access to customers or capital or various sorts of collaboration activities to the point that is actually often detrimental to business. They either want very deep discounts or incredibly fast turnaround times, that are just completely unrealistic and would never be asked of white-owned companies, both in terms of timeframes and/or money.
That was not the case with HBO and Translation; they paid a fair rate. They were incredibly reasonable with timelines. Obviously they’re working under a timeline, but they didn’t ask for something in a day, and when they did need certain types of parameters, they paid for them. They really treated us like equal business partners and recognized our value.
The point is that, when partnering with Black businesses, you should also partner with them as equals. You shouldn’t partner with them in some sort of charity mindset or mindset to where they should just be grateful for your partnership. HBO and Translation clearly were mindful about curating this package that was a tribute to highlighting Black dynamics in the United States. They’ve partnered with Black businesses in a fair, human way that recognizes us as business people.
TGM Well said.
CT Well said.
TG I’m really passionate about that point, if you didn’t notice.
DM Would the Autopilot team like to add anything?
TGM She dropped the mic.
DM This show has a global reach. What sort of positive impact does it have not just on your brand, but also on bringing more visibility to Black-owned businesses in general?
TGM Black businesses are present within communities but are more often overlooked. There’s a quote that I really love that’s resonating now in the Black entrepreneurship community that says, essentially, “Black businesses are over mentored and underinvested in.” I’m often hearing, as a Black business, that somebody needs to mentor me and/or coach – coaching is good. But mentorship and assistance should always come with capital, [in] the form of investment, as well as in purchasing power. So, I think that the exposure that this has had for our company, and the other ones that were included in the kit, will give them exposure, which should lead to more revenue. Ultimately, that is what is most important for us; to be able to grow, [we need] to have direct investment in the form of purchasing into our business.
CT Some of the most positive feedback we’ve been getting, and talking about, is everyone involved in the kits and how good quality the products are. At times, I think Black companies get a bad rap for having inferior products or like, they should be cheaper. With this kit, everyone was really pleased not only with how it looked, but also the quality of the products. So that was important for us as a brand and as a whole community to kind of get past that stigma that we’re inferior.
TG Christopher took the words out of my mouth around quality. There is a stigmatization around Black business and creating products. I would just echo that point that we received a ton of feedback on quality. Literally, one woman posted a story on Instagram where she was singing to the candle and was just like, “This is the most amazing thing that I’ve ever gotten,” or something to that effect. The feedback has been incredibly positive. We’re pretty confident; we don’t necessarily need external validation and yet, it’s not a bad thing to get. And, yeah, if it’s good enough for Jordan Peele and HBO and [producer and actress] Issa Rae, then it should be good enough for anybody. And, just to tilt Talib’s point around, that hopefully drives sales to the degree that we and other Black businesses are successful. That success directly funnels back into the city via tax revenue. So there should be an incentive among the city and the county and the state to think about creative pathways to economic development for Black makers and Black artisans. There are more pathways to prosperity than just tech. I think Autopilot and Bright Black are two incredibly great examples of pairing creativity and entrepreneurship. We’re not a nonprofit. We’re here to make money.
DM What did it mean to have both your businesses chosen for this opportunity?
TG It made me really proud. It really highlighted both the history of Black entrepreneurship, but also the current state of Black entrepreneurship. Black businesses are here. They’re doing really great work, really high-quality work, giving back to the community more often than not. This company was objectively putting together a kit and wanted the best makers and artisans. And in this kit, two of the [businesses] are in Durham. That’s pretty cool.
TGM I gotta be honest. It does feel great. It’s amazing it happened. It’s also a little bit bittersweet. You know, we constantly show up ready to play ball all the time. It’s unfortunate that I can’t point to 10 different HBO deals that happened through the year. Right? It is not lost on me that if it were not for Black Lives Matter, if it were not for Black men being murdered in the street and raising the profile of the Black experience, maybe this very decisive decision would not have been made. That’s not lost on me. But … understand if there was a more equitable decision-making process across America, maybe the forces that led to this decision might not have happened.”