[CONVERSATION]: Brain Food with Ayanna McNeil of Brainwash Media
This editor-in-chief of a bustling, multi-faceted digital platform facilitates stories being told from young people of the diaspora. Holding space for the most niche of niche and the richest of rich conversations to take place, Ayanna McNeil proves that everywhere Black and Brown millennials are is a stage for curious and captivating thought to be expressed and known. The ‘no small talk’ tagline is more than just that with an expansive array of multimedia content being produced on a weekly basis, Brainwash thrives by not being indifferent to difference, they embrace it.
— On community
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: How do you find such unique contributors and how do these contributors reflect you? How do you think Brainwash’s contributors benefit from having a space for their difference?
Ayanna McNeil: I always wanted Brainwash to be a digital editorial platform outside of myself so even though I, at the time, was the person writing everything; I knew in the back of my head that I wanted to have other voices on there, so I started with my immediate circle.
As Brainwash started gaining traction, between the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I’ve had a lot of people say ‘Hey, I want to do this thing. Can I do it with you?’ We have our writers who contribute every month, we just added a column on our site called JPSY. It’s run by this really cool girl who shoots different music acts in New York City on Polaroid. She goes to their events, photographs them, interviews them and publishes with us on a bi-weekly basis. We have a web series that is created by this really dope Black girl, Shania Banton. She streams her web-series, WAVES, on our site, every other Sunday an episode debuts.
In terms of how I see myself reflected, everyone in my life acts as a mirror. Everyone that I attract is attracted to me because I have some sort of quality or they have some sort of quality rather that I possess or would like to possess. Each one of my contributors does that for me in some regard. I’m always in constant awe of everyone and anyone whose submitted anything for Brainwash, anyone we’ve published and anyone in our ecosystem because it makes me want to be a better person; not just a creator or writer, businessperson or whatever, just a better human being.
— On the relationship between authenticity and drive
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: What motivates you to keep that same authentic and honest energy that is Brainwash’s signature?
Ayanna McNeil: Brainwash isn’t necessarily about me, it’s about the entire diaspora and reclaiming our humanity by telling our stories ourselves, our way. At this point in Brainwash’s lifespan, it’s not a matter of how its just a matter of ‘it has to be’. There’s no me saying ‘Okay. I’m not gonna do this anymore. I’m not motivated.’ because it’s not about me. It’s about Briana whose able to grow on our platform and have a place for her poetry when no one else would publish it. To have a space where Gam and his queer identity can talk about whatever. If one person can say ‘Yo. That shit really helped me, opened my eyes, made me think differently about myself or the world in which I occupy, my identity, about my Blackness, then I’m cool. I’m rocking’ with that.
My favorite thing to tell people that I know, especially creatives who want to start shit, is to stop saying the word ‘aspiring’. Someone aspiring to do something is foolish to me, you either are something or you’re not. You don’t get to say that you’re an aspiring filmmaker to make yourself feel better because you’re not actually doing anything to work towards the goal you want to achieve.
I would love to make films, like documentary films, but I would never call myself an aspiring filmmaker because I’m not actively working towards that goal at the moment. So at this point, I don’t get to attach myself to the title of filmmaker. Just say you’re not doing shit. People have the weirdest excuses: I don’t have the money, I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the friends, I don’t have the time. That is foolishness. I was writing articles on the bus to my trash retail job on my Notes app in my phone. You don’t wanna do it badly enough, that’s just what it is.
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: A lot of that ‘aspiring culture is about distancing self from accountability. It’s about having the title without doing the work. You don’t benefit from just having a title.
— On why 'no small talk' is vital
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: Brainwash’s tagline is “no small talk”. What does that statement mean to you? How do you practice it in your everyday life?
Ayanna McNeil: Being able to cultivate a space where we have deep meaningful conversations that make you think about who you are and who you want to be and the space between those two ideas and how you can get from one to the other is very important to me. I think a lot of the conversations that happen, both online and in real life, amongst particularly young folks have no value or substance to them. As a platform we are not going to write articles about a Kardashian for clicks or talk about five ways to wear a scarf because it doesn’t add any value to the lives of the people that are consuming it. Just as you pay attention to the foods you put in your body and the people you surround yourself with, you should also be mindful of the content that you are consuming.
‘no small talk’ is a reminder to myself, to anyone who reads Brainwash, to anyone who wants to contribute, that this isn’t a space for us to have meaningless, surface-level conversation. Even when we do talk about pop culture — because we have, we’ve done album reviews, critical op-eds — it’s always from a frame of ‘Okay, let’s dig deeper.’ We’re gonna talk Cardi B, Donald Glover and Solange but in a way that presents the idea, dissects the idea and looks at it from multiple vantage points because nothing is ever just one thing.
‘no small talk’ is definitely a way of life for me.
— on 'the future of Brainwash'
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: What are your hopes for Brainwash?
Ayanna McNeil: I hope that we grow into a media brand the way that a Vice or a HuffingtonPost was able to. To have different channels within us, supporting all Black and Brown millennials. When I say all, I really do mean all: fat, queer, trans, poor, unattractive, beautiful etcetera. I want to be able to have a digital space, produce events, publish books, host podcasts, produce television and film projects.
— on 'self-definition and the purpose of her voice
Ashanti of A Note to Zami: How do you define yourself? What memories and experiences shaped you as a person?
Ayanna McNeil: I don’t define myself. I don’t find it necessary to. When I was in high school I always wanted to figure out my style, I wanted to attach a label to how I dressed. I’m a fashion girl, I went to fashion college. I’ve worked in fashion my entire life so I always wanted to be like ‘I am the edgy girl.’ and then from here on out I’m only wearing shit someone would look at and say ‘Oh, this is an edgy piece of clothing’ like leather or graphic tees. Those forced definitions never really served me because when I started to grow out of that space, I feel so attached to that label that I almost felt stifled by it. Whenever I try to attach a label to who I am, what I do, why I do it, it just seems purposeless because then I’m tied down to something that might not be the same tomorrow.
College definitely shaped me because it made me realize that I have a voice that people want to hear. Prior to that I was like ‘Nobody gives a fuck. No one’s gonna care about what you’re saying.’ Once, an English professor told me this: ‘Ayanna, your issue has never been understanding complex ideas. You have an understanding of things almost more deeply than I do sometimes. Honor and understand that what you’re saying and doing is important.’ I think hearing and understanding that like ‘Yo. You have something to say whether you feel like it everyday or not is irrelevant.’ You have something to say and it is your responsibility to say those things for the people who feel like they can’t.
Check out a few of Ayanna's favorite things at the links below: