Social Activism or Personal Branding?

While scrolling through Twitter this past Sunday I saw a picture of DeRay Mckesson, along with Regina Hall, Gabriel Union, Donald Glover, and others at the 2018 Oscar ceremony and immediately stuck out to me, I noticed DeRay wearing his signature blue vest over his tuxedo.

DeRay first made a name for himself in mainstream media as one of the people on the front lines in Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of Mike Brown in 2014. It was an incident that caused civil unrest in the community and sparked a movement called Black Lives Matter. You could see pictures of DeRay leading protests and get arrested in the very same blue vest he wore to the Oscars. Since the Ferguson, he’s marched in countless other protests, launched a policy platform called Campaign Zero to end police violence, and has even run for Mayor of Baltimore. My issue is that throughout all of what I just mentioned he continues to wear the same blue vest he was first seen wearing in Ferguson. 

Now, don’t get me wrong DeRay has a resume’ that speaks for itself as a social activist even on a fundamental level. He does the groundwork, he’s transformed what we know as activism by using social media to get his message out to the world at a much faster rate than others have done in the past, and through his actions has attempted to be a real champion of change. However, when I saw those pictures as mentioned earlier of him at the Oscar’s wearing the blue vest over his tux, I saw him as someone merely pushing his brand in our faces.

DeRay is probably not alone in this discussion. Many people like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson have branded themselves but, in my opinion, they do not shamelessly promote themselves in the same manner DeRay does. We all know Sharpton and Jackson as a result of their work, not a trademark piece of clothing. Before the Oscar pictures, I didn’t pay the blue vest any mind. I saw it as a middle finger to those people in the world who relished seeing him arrested in that very same vest because he was now able to get in front of any camera an speak his message to the masses. That said, wearing it to the Oscar’s tells me that he wants to do a little bit more than to spread his word, he wants to make sure that whenever you see a blue vest somewhere, you think of DeRay McKesson.

Don’t believe me? Well in 2017, when the third installment of the Planet of the Apes franchise was set to release, commercials and promotional pictures showed an ape sporting a very familiar piece of clothing, (you guessed it) a blue vest. Upon first look, many people, including me, saw this as a direct shot at DeRay. We all know the words, “monkey” or “ape” can be used as derogatory terms for Black people, and placing one in DeRay’s blue vest was seen as a not-so-subtle diss to him, the Black Lives Matter movement, and Black people as a whole. DeRay then took to Twitter and accused the movie producers of personally mocking him, and he had every right to do so, right? But here’s the problem, it wasn’t. It turns out that the apes in the original, “Planet of the Apes” movie routinely wore blue vests. After realizing that fact, DeRay had to acknowledge the coincidence and his mistake for initially calling foul. It’s not hard to see why. Many of us have the image of him in that damn blue vest planted firmly in our brains that we naturally have made the two synonymous.     

At this point, I don’t think it is even a question anymore. Yes, DeRay Mckesson is a social activist fighting against injustices around the country, but he is also pushing his brand without shame. I mean, he wore it to the Oscars! While some people see a blue vest and think of him, others see him in that blue vest and think back to Mike Brown’s death in 2014. What message is he trying to send precisely by not putting that dirty blue vest away for ONE night? 


Malcom X. Bowser is a writer, curator, and founder of Urban X.

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