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Kennita Hickman is a cultural and music writer, entrepreneur and health enthusiast.
I knowingly and graciously accepted a contract that required me to work for free.
And it’s because I’m Black.
I know that sounds wild. Maybe even salacious. Bait-clicky. But it’s not.
In fact, throughout my 21-year career in writing for magazines (local to international), working in radio and managing artists — most of that work was for free.
Quick rundown of who I am. I wrote my first nationally published article at 15; contributed articles to magazines in Milwaukee, Canada, Germany and stateside; and I worked in radio, including some voiceover work. Most folks know me for artist management of hip-hop and rock artists here in Milwaukee.
I’ve been around.
And yet I knowingly and graciously accepted a contract that required me to work for free.
In this case, I was asked to create semi-exclusive content for a media company. I was elated for the opportunity. The media company had seen my work before, so it felt like we were building a relationship around building content.
I did ask about being paid. Several times, actually. I used words like “licensing” and “distribution” — language a media company would understand.
I was told explicitly there was no money in the budget for me. None. And that I’d shoulder the financial burden of creating this content. I was also going to have to find advertisers and sponsors – and potentially share the profit with the media organization.
So I shouldered the cost of everything. Initially to create written content, I spent maybe $250 or so for each package, including materials, photographer, but not my time. Then we switched to video. I went from paying $250 a piece to $2,500 for each video — again, not including my time.
I created six published pieces in total — three printed and three video pieces. This doesn’t include additional photoshoots to accompany each piece and a teaser video. From the analytics I’ve seen, all of them have performed well for the media company.
I’m not an anomaly, nor is this situation. Free work is often offered to folks of color and poor people under the guise “This will be an exposure opportunity for you.”
Let me tell you — I can count, on one hand, how many folks have booked me for another gig or became a client as a result of me working for free.
I’m not ungrateful for opportunities. I’m incredibly grateful for each and every one. My question is: When have I worked enough to no longer have to work for free?
In the above case, I said “yes” because I didn’t want to be viewed as difficult. As a Black woman in white spaces, I don’t get the luxury of having a bad day. I don’t get to show the fullness of my emotions in non-Black spaces. I often don’t get the opportunity to say “no” and be asked again or negotiate.
Once I was told there was no money on the table, I looked to what’s the next best thing in this partnership. It was ownership. Being able to own my content seemed a bigger play.
I was scared to continue to push the money issue. What if they said “no” to distributing my content? Or what if they decided not to book me as their emcee?
I would later find out that everyone was getting paid except me, the only Black content creator.
That’s the rub. Again, I’m not an anomaly as a Black woman creative in Milwaukee. First off, we’re often not sought out for work. It can seem particularly difficult for folks to FIND Black talent — I’ve sat at tables where they literally said: “How do we find rappers? Where do we go to look?”
Especially with paid work. Folks will book us and hire us to check off that diversity box. We’re often paid less, if at all. And then it all goes back to, “Hey, it’s not in the budget but we really need this work done,” or, “Hey, this is an opportunity to grow your brand and elevate you on our platform.”
Can we be honest about how we leverage BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) work and labor without proper compensation? And how that’s really the language of America? It’s literally HOW this country was built? Can we be honest and just take that in for a moment?
What I didn’t see is that folks book me because they see value in what I could bring. I brought affluent people of color. Millennials. When I tag something and say ‘shop here,’ ‘eat here,’ I can measure folks who do just that. People trust my personal and professional ethos, which is why no one in my circle understood why I said yes to not getting paid.
I just didn’t trust that I had that influence. I didn’t believe it. I said yes because of the lack of value I placed in myself, my skills, my influence.
I’m sad that I didn’t advocate for myself. That I didn’t trust my abilities enough. I’m sad that I got used to continuously proving my worth by doing free work.
I’m not an anomaly there, either.
What I want BIPOC creatives to know right now is this — you’re worth it now. Set the amount. Negotiate if you want. Work for free if it’s your choice.
People who value your work and what you’re bringing to the table will pay.