Top 3 moments at SXSW 2017

Every year, I and thousands of other revelers make the pilgrimage to Austin, TX to attend SXSW, the annual festival of technology, film, music and art. 2017 makes my 5th year in a row attending. Most people burn out after a few years and I've heard complaints that range from too crowded (it is) and not enough diversity (they've made a concerted effort to address this). All of the concerns are valid. But, most are not enough to deter me. I'm also a member of the advisory board.

Every year, we help to select the  best panels and presentations from thousands of submissions via the panel picker. We do our best to ensure that there is programming at the festival. I think we are making a difference and every year, I'm honored to be a part of the committee.

This year was no different. The programming was varied and there were lots of topics to explore. As I do every year, I try to use SXSW as a opportunity to see old friends (some of which I only see at the festival) learn more about emerging fields, and have some fun, too. I am happy to say that I managed all three. Though I was exhausted at the end, it was well worth it.

Below, I share my top picks for 2017.

AfroSpeculative Futurism

This year, the festival, I am proud to say, included more art that previous years. I'd heard about Afro Speculative Futurism as the exhibit had received lots of press from their sting at Sundance. A great write up in Vox really piqued my interest and when I heard first hand from a friend who experienced it for herself, I knew that I had to check it out. I was excited to visit.

On a rainy morning I set out to the JW Marriott looking for the small room where the exhibit was housed. I waited in line for about 15 mins before it was my turn. The members of Hyphen-Labs (Carmen, Ashley and Ece) were all present helping with the exhibit and answering questions. But nothing could prepare me for the immersive experience I would encounter. Hyphen-Labs has created a unique virtual world that comes to life in a beauty salon.

Having just sold my beauty startup Cast Beauty and  having been immersed in that world, I was taken with how rare the world they'd created was. We were in a beauty shop but the space had been transformed and was taking us on a journey to the future. How ironic, since if you consider popular culture, Black Women don't exist in the future. Our culture is meant to be mined, the best taken and we are discarded like flotsam as the dominant culture moves forward, colonizing other worlds. Hmmph

Afro Speculative  Futurism changes all that. Indeed, it turns it on its ear and places Black Women (and the salon, for years the only place Black Women could go to actually feel and be treated as women) at the center of the world... all worlds. The work is a stunning achievement and it has stayed with me ever since.

WuTang Clan @ The Moody Theater

SXSW is all about serendipity; and music unfortunately, sometimes falls at the bottom of my list while in Austin. Not because I don't want to -- there are always tons of great acts performing here. Deap Valley, one of my new favorite bands was playing, but I never made it to see them.  To be honest, I had no idea the Wu was even performing. My evening so far had consisted of meeting my publisher to discuss upcoming books, linking up with an old friend from the startup world for drinks and then heading back to my hotel. But things took a different turn.

My best friend who'd  just taken a job with Twitch and how I'd not seen in months despite us living in the same city texted. She was at the Twitch house. Come thru. With the appropriate amount of drinks having been consumed, I headed over to the Twitch House. Google said it was only a 15 minute walk. So, off I went. When I arrived, I was given a drink bracelet and told that our next stop would be the Wu Tang concert. And that was that.

Having grown up in NY, I am a child of 90's rap music and a huge fan. But being from Staten Island, everything began and ended with WuTang. Mostly because until they arrived, I doubt most people knew that there were Black people on the island before the 9 member hip hop ensemble put us on the map. So, there has always been a soft spot in my heart for the Wu Tang.

Once we arrived at the Moody Theater, we were told that we would be in the VIP section. (How cool, I thought). We were ushered to the front where Ms. Erykah Badu had just completed her amazing DJ set. Next up, was Thievery Corporation followed by an awesome set by DJ Trauma. By the time the WuTang Clan came out on stage the crowd was hyped up. They performed all the hits and did a tribute to ODB. What more could we ask for? Maybe a trip backstage where we met Ms Badu and RZA himself. Then, and only then was the night complete. All this with an old friend, too. Can't beat that.


Hustle with Jonas Keffler

I try to read about 2-3 books per month and had heard about Hustle from someone I greatly respect. It was on my list of books to check out and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Jonas, one of the authors would be speaking and giving highlights from the book. In true SXSW fashion, however, when I got to the session, the line stretched how the hall and around the corner. Dejected, I walked to the back of the line just as it started moving. In true New Yorker fashion, I noticed a gap where someone wasn't paying attention. I quickly hopped in line and began to move in lock step with everyone else. (I think Jonas would call that an opportunity gap). But, just as I was nearing the entrance to the room where the lecture as being held, the announced that the room was at capacity.

But being a SXSW veteran,  I also knew folks would be coming out soon. I've observed this as an attendee and a speaker. There's lots of movement. In and out, all the time. So, I stood my ground and waited. Sure enough, just after the session started the door popped open and 3 people walked out. As I was alone, I was able to get in and grab a seat, a well as a couple who were in front of me.


Jonas's lecture mostly consisted of nuggets from the book (which I purchased immediately following). Some gems:

I also was able to chat briefly with him and he graciously signed my book as well. In the week after SXSW, I finished the book. I've reviewed it in greater detail in my "Books I read in March" post.

If you haven't been to SXSW, I highly recommend checking it out at least once. The festival continues to grow and evolve but it's a great experience.

India through a designer's eyes

In October of 2016, I took a 3 week trip to India. It was, quite honestly, one of the most amazing trips of my life. As a designer, I kept my eyes wide open, taking in as much as I could of this amazing country. As we’d only visited the southern portion of India, I was aware that this was very different from the North. With its warmer temperature and tropical climate, I was surprised to see that in addition to the climate, India had in common with the Caribbean where I spent my formative years. The vegetation was familiar; lush hibiscus flowers, shak shaks (Woman’s Tongue) and coconut trees were everywhere.

The southern inhabitants of India are very dark-skinned with jet-black hair to match. Before visiting, I was aware of the caste system and how lighter skinned Indians are revered over their darker skinned brothers and sisters. Colonialism looms large in this country and southern India seemed to have borne more than its fair share. The English, Spanish and Dutch all invaded and colonized India, leaving traces of their culture while attempting to subvert Indian culture in the process. It didn't work. India, had a rich history of its own prior to colonization -- and it still does. It was interesting to learn also, that the sari, an item of clothing we most associate with Indian women, was encouraged by the Europeans when they initially encountered native woman, who went topless. Indeed old statues, paintings, sculptures and carvings show Indian women with nothing on top other than jewelry. That changed, with the advent of Christianity and Eurocentric ideals.

Color is everywhere

When you’re from a country unlike the US that truly is a melting pot and you visit a country where everyone looks the same, it can be a bit jarring. As Americans, we are used to seeing people from all nationalities and cultures just by walking down the street.  So, India was definitely different for me where I became a curiosity for most people.  Most of them men there wore short mustaches (I learned that men wore mustaches if their fathers were still alive) and the women wore their hair in a simple braided or ponytail. But even so, there were bursts of originality. Even though every woman wore a sari, the silk garment draped around their bodies -- each woman was able to express herself with color. Color was everywhere. There were rich reds, greens, and orange accented with gold. Also purples and pinks as far as the eye could see.

The color that struck me most was yellow. It was everywhere. Vivid and slightly transparent, this was a shade of yellow that called out for attention. But yellow was also present on trucks, signs and the sides of buildings advertising, flowers, bananas in the market, on saris and as the accent color on statues in temples. A bit of research revealed that “Indian Yellow” was actually a thing. And, the color yellow in India represents the color of merchants and commerce –those selling good or products. Thus the color was especially prominent on the sides of buildings advertising goods and services and the ever present motorized tuk-tuks seen virtually everywhere.


Indian written language is beautiful. As even the smallest of towns had bustling, crowded marketplaces, signs were everywhere. Some handwritten and others painted on the sides of buildings, shacks and walls. Anywhere there was a surface, really. When written in English, they didn't make much sense to me and when  they were written in Hindu, I couldn't tell what they said. But, it is important to note that the typography was beautiful to look at.


A sense of space

In their design and in real life, the way Indians make use of space was fascinating to see. Villages and towns are typically crowded with storefronts at the forefront and housing which typically consists of one or two rooms for a family of 4 in the back.
Streets in India are jam packed with tuk-tuks, motorcycles and compact cars. In the southern districts (Thekaddy, Kerala) I never once saw a crosswalk or a stop light. Traffic flowed in a zen-like way. Commuters wandered into traffic to cross streets and the traffic moved around them in a kind of dance. It was beautiful to see. For us as Americans, it seemed dangerous but once you realize that the drivers aren't whizzing by at 70mph it made total sense.

I try to look at everything from a designers perspective. Not only as a creator though, but also as a user. It is especially enlightening when one is immersed in a totally different culture. Sometimes, it's easy to get caught up in the ideas and design precepts of home but I found it refreshing to get out of my comfort zone to explore and learn while in India.