Phoebe: Okay, let’s go. Claude Grunitzky.
Phoebe: Hi. How are you?
Claude: I feel good, it’s finally Spring and it’s looking like there’s a bit of sunshine coming our way, so that makes me feel really good.
Phoebe: It really makes a tangible difference to the energy of the city, I think.
Claude: It does! And especially somebody like myself, being born near the equator, in the tropics, and having lived in these climates pretty much my whole life. It brings back something from my childhood, and my days growing up in Togo, and just really enjoying the sunshine in a different way.
Phoebe: You’ve got muscle memory, or the equivalent thereof. Climate memory.
Claude: Absolutely, I do.
Phoebe: Well, let’s start. I would introduce you, but I don’t know how you currently identify your title. What do you tell people that you do nowadays?
Claude: It’s very difficult to explain. [Laughs]
Phoebe: I’ll leave it to you.
Claude: The easiest way to do it is to go back to the common denominator for my career, which is, I’ve been a media entrepreneur. That’s how I would define myself. A media entrepreneur, and a writer, journalist and editor. Even though I do other things, that’s how I would summarize it.
Phoebe: You do a lot of things, you really do. You are probably one of the hardest working people I know. You’re always on a plane, you’re always in a different city. We first met here, maybe – well, no, we didn’t meet here, but we, I first sort of became, involved in your working world a little bit in New York when I was sixteen, and I recently wrote about that in my newsletter.
At that time, you were running TRACE magazine and TRUE agency. So we’re going to go into that in a little bit, but I wanted to start by getting a little bit of background. I know a little bit about your earlier life, but I don’t know a huge amount considering how long we’ve known each other. I specifically want to talk to you a bit about the lens of your childhood through education and learning, I know you went to school in a bunch of different places. Can you give me a bit of background on all that?
Claude: I was born in Lomé, which is a very interesting capital in Africa because it’s right on the border of Ghana. And interestingly enough, the culture of Ghana - of eastern Ghana - is part of the culture of Togo as well, because you have to remember it was [formerly] all one country. So, Togo being a French-speaking country and Ghana being an English-speaking country, I as a child learned to understand various cultures and various languages. I learned the language of Togo - the main official language of Togo, which is French - but after, learning the vernacular languages of Kabiyé and Ewé which are really important languages that the population speaks, and not just the people who went to school.
And it was also interesting, growing up in a family where my father was a real intellectual who was very successful in politics. He’d come from an intellectual family, a Polish family that became more and more Togolese with the generations, and so he was a high-level thinker. But my mom actually never went to school. Growing up, it was interesting spending weekdays with my dad - and the world of intellect and books and ideas - and then going to my mom’s place, my sister and I on the weekend, and having to live, and understand, and navigate a different world. [That world was] full of people who never really had any sort of formal education, but then had a real level of emotional intelligence that ended up helping me as I became educated and trying to venture into the different worlds.
Having that experience as a child would probably be the defining experience of my life: being able to understand the world of people who are educated, versus people who are not educated. The world of people who are quite well off versus people who are below the poverty line. And I think that my travels and my transcultural adventures eventually reflected those kind of early, awakening moments.
Phoebe: Yeah, that’s so interesting, I didn’t know all of that but it makes total sense, and just reminds me a little bit of my own childhood, coming from a background in which my parents were well-read, but also living in public housing and having that experience, and kind of moving between the two.
Claude: And it doesn’t have to be a dichotomy in a sense, because you actually learn from both worlds. I remember as a child I went to École Montaigne, named after the French philosopher, in Lomé, which at that time was the best school for grade school. That was such a great experience for me - going to school and learning - and at the same time I’d come back and ask my mom about this thing I learned in school, and a lot of those things she didn’t know.
And then it was only a few years ago that I discovered I share the same birthday with Montaigne himself, the great philosopher!
Phoebe: Oh really? Wow!
Claude: Yeah! Yeah. So that was living in Togo. Then when I was eight years old, my dad was named ambassador of Togo to the United States so we moved - my sister and I - with my dad and stepmother to Washington, D.C.
Then we went to the French lycée in Bethesda, Maryland, which was a totally different experience because that was the most diverse environment I’d ever seen. All of a sudden I was surrounded by not just Togolese kids and a few Ghanian kids and other West African kids, but with children from all over the world; not only because of the diplomatic world that kind of converged around D.C. obviously, but also because people worked at the World Bank and IMF, so it was a certain level of privilege that we were kind of experiencing as children of our dad the ambassador, but at the same time, I was confronted, at the age of eight, with what it was to be in an environment where people speak all kinds of different languages in a French school in America, and having to make all of that my new identity.
Phoebe: That’s a lot for a – how old were you at that point?
Claude: I was eight years old!
Phoebe: Yeah, that’s a lot for an eight year old to absorb.
Claude: It was. So we were in Washington, D.C. for four years… Living in Washington, D.C. and going to Bethesda, Maryland and then spending the summers with our mom in Togo, which was a whole new set of imaginations, obviously – coming back from America and going to Togo, to my mom’s world.
Then when I was twelve, my dad was fired by the president of Togo and that was the end of his political career. My sister and I were sent to a boarding school outside Paris. And so I ended up spending my teenage years in a Catholic boarding school there, and that really was a very deep and intense experience for me.
Phoebe: In what sense?
Claude: In the sense that I dealt with direct racism as a child in a very different way from what I’d seen in Washington, D.C.
Claude: Which you know, being “Chocolate City”, the Black experience in D.C. is very different from what it is in other American cities. And all of a sudden being a minority, one of only two or three non-white children in a Catholic boarding school which was a very bourgeois environment, that was also another level of privilege, and just people questioning my identity based on my race, based on my hair, based on my skin color, and based on the experience of coming there as an African who had lived in America. It was really confusing, but at the same time it ended up shaping a lot of decisions I made later on in life.
Phoebe: Right. And were you able to find solace in your studies at that point?
Claude: I did find solace in my studies. Because I met this French language teacher, Jean Ferrer, who is really the person who changed my life. When I was fourteen years old, he read one of my essays for his class and he said: “You’re a writer.” I had never thought of myself as a writer, but he identified a gift for writing and writing essays, and he did end up really nurturing that side of my personality. I ended up doing really well in that environment, even though my experiences on a personal level were so different from the other school kids that I was spending pretty much the entire week with.
Phoebe: Were you an avid reader at that time? Do you recall what kind of things you liked to read as a teenager?
Claude: Yeah I do, I do. A lot of those books were actually recommended by the Professor Jean Ferrer, and he actually introduced me to a book that ended up being really important for me as I tried to come of age, and understand what life was about, and the meaning of all these things that happened to us. That book was Candide by Voltaire. I think I was probably fifteen years old when I read it.
What's interesting is that I’ve read that book six or seven times since then - it’s a very slim book, published in 1759, thirty years before the French revolution - and as a child I didn’t really understand the satire as much. I read it literally. To me, it was a story about optimism, and having faith in a brighter future, and what some people call the panglossian world. As I got older, I understood the satire, and that a lot of the misadventures and really difficult episodes in Candide’s life are actually a critique of French society, and of the world itself. It’s interesting that different layers of lived experience ended up altering your view of a seminal book that had an impact on you.
Phoebe: But early on your takeaway was optimism.
Claude: My takeaway was optimism, because that is the subtitle of the book, right?
Claude: However, I realized that it’s a critique of optimism; a really smart and constructive critique of optimism. And that I’ve always said that I was an optimist, everybody’s always called me an optimist, On my first Facebook account, the first word was “optimist”, and I’ve lived my life as an optimist. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve kind of understood that there is a way to live your life that is not necessarily blinded by optimism.
Phoebe: I mean, the fact that you were able to cultivate optimism as a life philosophy at the age of fifteen, when you were in what sounds like not a particularly positive environment, is a testament to you. What does optimism mean to you now?
Claude: Optimism is a little bit different from what I was experiencing as a child, because my childhood was really about a series of disillusions about what had happened politically in Togo. I’ve kept a lot of letters that are a correspondence with my dad, who was really unhappy with the way things had worked out or not worked out for him, and the way Togo was adrift as a military dictatorship. A lot of the post-independence optimism that I had felt from him as a child, and seen, was gone.
So I clung onto optimism as a way to understand that there could be a better future, and a lot of that has to do with our Christian faith and so on. And now that I’ve had so many ups and downs in my career and professional life, I’ve learned to be a little bit more cautious in the sense that I’m not always very trusting of people in the way that I was maybe when I was in my early twenties, staring out in business and becoming a media entrepreneur.
I still have faith in certain people, but I’ve learned to trust my instinct a little bit more, and that may have to do with the very high level of emotional intelligence I saw in my mom, who - because she didn’t have the intellectual baggage, or read a lot of books, and hadn’t gone to school - always relied on her instinct. That emotional intelligence has helped me later on in life, whereas I would say that in the first part of my career, my twenties and early thirties, were just driven by optimism and this faith that things were gonna work out one way or another.
And that is also finally because I’d seen that things hadn’t worked out for my dad and for my father’s side in politics, and I feel like I learned from some of their mistakes. I felt that if I don't repeat those mistakes, then things will end up working out.
Phoebe: Right. It’s interesting though that kind of you’ve had this, the trajectory of your relationship, with optimism and this transition to rely more on your instinct and your emotional intelligence. There’s a parallel with that in contemporary work culture where emotional intelligence is the new key skill that everyone is touting, you know Alain De Botton just wrote a book called The Emotionally Intelligent Office. It’s kind of seen as the essential skill of the modern age, rather than maybe the sort of more traditional forms of education that you were brought up on in your schooling environments.
Claude: And I discovered a lot of that really not too long ago. Because I know that Daniel Goleman wrote a really interesting book called Emotional Intelligence and people were talking about it a lot. For me, it’s something that I experience directly as I interact with my mom, initially as a child living in Lomé and seeing her only on weekends because my mom and dad were not together, and then spending summers with her when I was living in America and moved to France and London. She’d become a seamstress and she survived on the back of a really high level of what people call now emotional intelligence.
Phoebe: I’d like to talk a bit more about that and how it’s shaped your career later on, but I’m also interested in your relationship with pop culture and music, and how those facets of culture were impacting you. Because obviously they were – you went on to establish a music and style magazine. What was your earliest exposure to the kind of stuff you actually ended up documenting later on, in TRACE?
Claude: Well for me, it was really an experience that came out of what I’d seen in Washington, D.C. as a child, and what I would see when we would visit our uncle who was living in New York working for the United Nations. My father’s brother was working for UNICEF in New York and we would spend weekends here. And I saw the beginning of hip hop culture in New York.
I was 10 in 1981, which is when we’d go to New York a lot. I really loved this thing I saw happening there, and even though I wasn’t in it, I could feel it was going to be big. So by the time I got to Paris, and my boarding school outside Paris, I became obsessed with hip hop culture. And that obsession turned into a career.
Phoebe: How were you interacting with hip hop culture from a boarding school in Paris?
Claude: Well, there was a show that would actually air on the weekends in France, on national television, and that show was called H.I.P. H.O.P. [Laughs]
Phoebe: Say it like you see it!
Claude: Exactly, because France was always the second hip hop nation after the States - at that time - and they would invite all these hip hop icons, Afrika Bambaataa and everyone else. That show aired on the biggest French network which was called TF1. It was a prime time show.
Phoebe: That’s incredible. Is it on YouTube?
Claude: And it’s on YouTube!
Phoebe: Is it? Oh my god, I’ve got to watch it.
Claude: Yeah! One of the main producers on the show turned out to be one of my best friends like twenty years after I experienced the show as a teenager.
And so, I would kind of live vicariously through those guests by watching that H.I.P. H.O.P. show on TF1 on weekends. And I said, I knew this thing was going to be really important for me. And as I got a little bit older as a teenager, I managed to meet some older guys, including some American guys who were living in Paris, and they snuck me into the club Bobino, Bobino was the best hip hop club back then.
Phoebe: Where was it in Paris?
Claude: It was near Montparnasse, the train station in the 14th. And that was incredible, because being there as a teenager - seventeen, eighteen years old - and just hearing this American hip hop that was being also being fused with some of the French hip hop that was being produced then, I said: “This has gotta be my world.”
When I turned twenty, I heard Massive Attack’s album Blue Lines. And I said: “This is my sound, this is a sound that I want to be close to, this is exactly what I’m feeling; it’s expressing my worldview.” I moved to London from Paris and just decided to become a music writer – even though I was still a student, I was freelancing as a music writer.
Phoebe: So did you finish your degree in Paris, or did you transfer out?
Claude: No, I transferred to London University. I never finished my degree in Paris, because I could feel that that trajectory - of just studying politics and being in the world of the French bourgeoisie - was going to be detrimental to who I thought I could really be.
So I chose London, and that was freedom for me. As soon as I got to London at age twenty I really came alive – as a writer, as a cultural critic, as somebody who would sneak into all these shows at Brixton Academy, I was there all the time. One day I met Jefferson Hack, and that was the beginning of my career in publishing.
Phoebe: Right. What was your relationship with Jefferson like? What were you doing for him at that time?
Claude: So when I met Jefferson, I had already become a fan of his magazine Dazed & Confused, which was a pretty new culture magazine at the time.
Phoebe: What year are we talking about here – now we’re in the early 90s? [Laughs]
Claude: Now we're in the early 90s, now we’re in 1994, and by then I had just graduated from university in London. Jefferson had an office at 56 Brewer Street in Soho, and I just walked up to his office one day and said: “Can I be your assistant or intern, or whatever I can do for you to help you out? You don’t have to pay me.” And that was one of the best decisions I ever made, because I became his consigliere, we became very close friends - we’re pretty much the same age - and I was helping him out with whatever he needed.
He didn’t have money to pay very many people at the time, but when we all moved to 112 Old Street and were part of the Shoreditch wave, it became super exciting. The Dazed & Confused circle was expanding to include Alexander McQueen, his stylist Katy England who was working with us, Katie Grand – all these wonderful journalists who were really interested in fashion as it related to music, and film, and art, and contemporary culture in general. So I worked under Jefferson for about a year, and then he allowed me to incubate my own magazine inside his office at 112 Old Street.
Phoebe: That was generous of him, wasn’t it? [Laughs]
Claude: Yeah! And I’ll always thank him for giving me that opportunity, for incubating my first venture.
Phoebe: So, tell us about that first venture. What was the concept there?
Claude: The first venture was a short-lived magazine called TRUE, which was launched in June of 1995. We - and when I say we - I mean my best friend and cousin Sunita Olympia, we launched that magazine because we were both obsessed with hip hop and we were both Londoners, and we felt that, by aligning ourselves with Nas, and the new generation of rappers, but also understanding Massive Attack was coming from, understanding the heritage of Soul II Soul and all of the great Black British R&B bands we could do something pretty special. The magazine became successful almost immediately, and we were in the basement of the Dazed & Confused office on 112 Old Street.
Phoebe: Who was on your first cover?
Claude: The first cover was Method Man!
Claude: Photographed by Barron Claiborne. It was Method Man smoking a lot of weed, and that was our cover shot.
That was fantastic because we never had any experience in publishing, but we just did it. We just did it, because I’d learned a little bit from Jefferson and the Dazed crew, and it just happened.
Seven to eight months into that venture, we started arguing all the time; my cousin and I. We were equal partners, business partners, and we started arguing because we didn’t have the same vision for what this TRUE magazine was supposed to be. A year into that venture, TRUE magazine ended up folding, and we’d stalled. Six months later, I regrouped and was able to launch TRACE magazine with a very, very similar logo, just turned the “U” in True into an “AC”, which then became TRACE, and did that down the road from the Dazed & Confused office. Back then we were at 65 Clerkenwell Road, always in the east end of London.
Phoebe: I love your encyclopedic memory for the addresses! Although as I reference in the newsletter, 476 Broome Street was seared in my memory –
Claude: There you go.
Phoebe: But that’s a later stage, I don’t mean to jump ahead. So what was your, how did TRACE diverge from TRUE, and what was your vision for it at that time?
Claude: TRUE was much more of a real hip hop magazine that had styled elements and that was also interested film. TRACE was a real urban publication that some people called a style publication.
So hip hop was the driver, R&B was the other driver, but then we were integrating a lot of Black music from South Africa, from dancehall culture – we were less of a purist hip hop publication.
I became more and more interested in fashion, just from being around Jefferson, and Rankin, and Katie Grand, and Katy England, and all my colleagues at Dazed & Confused, so we were increasing the number of pages that became devoted to fashion and style and street style. Because what was happening then, in the hip hop revolution, was that a lot of the rappers and emcees and dancers were kind of changing the way they were dressing. It became super interesting to chart that evolution from a journalistic perspective.
Phoebe: What was that transition like?
Claude: Mary J. Blige was, I guess, a perfect poster child for what I was doing, because she had a style - hip hop soul - but it was a style other people could call ‘urban chic’. She was adding high fashion elements to the street style, which was the underpinnings of what they projected in the outside world, and I really liked that. We helped them a lot with styling, and we worked with them, and that became a really important part of the identity of the magazine. The styling and the photography was just as important as the writing.
Phoebe: Right. Alongside that, the magazine was informed by the emergence of expressions of this culture around the world. When I think back about TRACE, that’s the first thing that springs out at me - the idea of transculturalism, essentially -which you can express a lot better than I can. How would you define transculturalism?
Claude: Transculturalism is a word I discovered by reading some academic journals that were coming out of Canada. I can’t remember the exact name, but there were two or three Canadian authors and academics who were writing about this subject, and I said: “This is it.”
Phoebe: Why were you reading random academic journals coming out of Canada?
Claude: Because I was curious about cultures that had integrated a lot of different immigrants. So I started understanding the culture of Canada, and then I looked into Brazil, and I looked into the European nations that had very large immigrant populations. Canada seemed to be place that had done a pretty good job at integrating foreign cultures and so I started researching at libraries and I discovered these terms, and I started reading more, and I said: “This is what I’m going to do.”
So I started popularizing the term transculturalism, and I even changed the tagline for TRACE from ‘Urban Magazine’ to ‘Transcultural Styles and Ideas’. Because that’s what I felt that we should do: focusing as much on the styles as on the ideas. And it became really successful as a business even though the beginnings were really difficult, where we were literally living hand to mouth.
Phoebe: Yeah. I’m sure. That’s kind of interesting. So you started a magazine with a philosophy, like a philosophical underpinning essentially as well as well as this aesthetic appeal. Would you say that you were trying to encourage people to embrace transculturalism as a way of looking at the world, a way of experiencing it, and if so, what facets of it did you believe were important to communicate?
Claude: Well, it really started with a desire to destroy stereotypes, and erase racism and sexism; a lot of the bad things that we saw in hip hop culture. The transcultural term actually came later. I created a whole iconography around the terminology after I discovered the words in Canada, but the reality is we were just reacting to a lot of problems we saw in hip hop culture. I remember we worked with the photographer Terry Richardson before he was famous, in 1997, a year after I launched TRACE. We published these b-boys who were kissing in full bleed, and that was a really important spread in the publication. We, at the time, got a lot of letters, because there was a strong culture of homophobia in hip hop.
So, we wanted to get rid of a lot of the things we found problematic with the culture. Even though hip hop and R&B were really progressive, there were a lot of things that we did not like. And transculturalism became a way to incorporate the different observations that we saw of a world coming together. And when I said coming together, it was a world that has become supermodern by becoming more accepting of other cultures; of other religions; other socioeconomic mannerisms. We documented all of that through music, film, fashion, and cultural reportage.
So, I would say that the transcultural terminology was more of the consequence of the early experimentation around trying to destroy stereotypes. Once we had the word to describe what we were trying to do, it became a lot easier to rally journalists and writers and photographers around our mission, which was defined as: “Transcultural”.
Phoebe: You clarified the concept with that word. This was a time that was still pre-social media, pre-internet revolution. Magazines were still the way these ideas spread primarily, right? I’m trying to think how those concepts would have come together, or how people would have learnt about them otherwise. Magazines were it.
Claude: Magazines were it if you were producing a style magazine, which is what I was doing with TRACE. But then when I moved from London to New York, in a conscious effort to be in the center of gravity itself, in the birthplace of hip hop and reconnecting with those things that I saw as a child, it was really important to understand the new digital age.
It was really very difficult for us to establish ourselves as a business in Soho at 476 Broome Street, because in 1998 it was the beginning of the real dotcom age where everybody was excited about the internet, and these dotcoms that were going to basically shape the way people consume information. As independent publishers, we were able to carve out a niche, because we had a really specific subculture that we spoke with. Because we spoke to different lifestyles, people still wanted to experience our world through printed matter.
We got lucky in a sense, because when we were able to secure major funding from Goldman Sachs to really grow the TRACE company, that was on the back of the fact that a lot of the dotcoms had failed in 2000. By the time we secured our funding in 2003, a lot of the dotcoms had gone, and people were interested again in what they call ‘real traditional media’. I was able to do that in magazine format and TV format, but the reality is we were doing the same thing. We stuck to our print roots without immediately just jumping on the bandwagon of trying to create the dotcom, because that was the future, as the analysts and the media was purporting.
Phoebe: Tell me a little bit about that TRACE world of the kind of early 2000s. As an intern coming here in 2004, I got to see a little glimpse of that world. I was totally intoxicated by coming to New York for the first time in the middle of summer, walking into 476 Broome Street - also as a massive hip hop fan, also as someone who was so inspired by that culture - and walking into that world. Can you describe that time of your working life?
Claude: I guess describing it would feel like reminiscing a rhapsody in a sense, because it was constant rapture.
Every day I would wake up and I just couldn’t wait to get to work. And I’d be in the office until 11pm, 12am, and it was 24/7 in the sense that every evening there would be some event. We would throw our TRACE parties every month as a way to bring our to life and to bring our readers to experience what our quote unquote brand was. It was just an exciting moment because I had come to New York not knowing anyone. TRACE had become my calling card because I was wearing a TRACE t-shirt every day, going to work at 476 Broome Street and just running into all kinds of people in the streets, and being able to interview rappers and singers and creatives from all different walks of life. We became a bit of a first port-of-call for a lot of creatives who were trying to establish themselves in New York.
Many young photographers and illustrators, they came to the TRACE office unannounced, because we had an open door policy, and for us it was so exciting to meet these people on a day-to-day basis, because no two days were the same. That constant reinvention was something that allowed us to continue as a monthly magazine, and then bimonthly, and really feel like we were contributing significantly to the evolution of hip hop culture while staying true to our roots as an independent publication.
And we were independent until 2003, when we received funding, and then we were a little bit more corporate. Those early years, from 1998 to 2003, were super exciting because it was all about an empirical approach to reporting on this massive hip hop culture as people were getting really, really big. Eminem had come to our office before he was well-known, Alicia Keys hung out in my office before anybody knew who she was… Seeing all these people in the very beginning of their career, and being able to speak to them about their dreams, and how they felt they could change the world through music or art or photography or whatever – it was extremely exciting.
Phoebe: Definitely. As you said it was a very optimistic time. I don’t think it was just my youth and wide-eyedness, you know, that makes me remember my interactions with that culture as such. I think especially as you say, for hip hop, I guess it was the first time that hip hop really had kind of crossed over, so a lot of people started to make a lot of money off it. New York was the epicenter of that, and that whole scene seems like it was very vibrant at the time.
Claude: It was, but it was also a congregation of people who wanted to make money of course, but who felt they had something so special that the whole world wanted to hear.
Being able to spend time with the RZA, and the Wu-Tang Clan, and understanding their world from Staten Island – I actually went to RZA’s mom’s funeral in Staten Island and got to understand really how they grew up in those projects. And to know that, despite the fact that you grew up in those projects, you really could create a sound and a worldview that would speak to people all over the world.
That was something I hadn’t really seen in my life, and I’m hoping the new level of interaction that we’re seeing in Instagram and social media will allow people to disseminate the message in a more authentic way. Because even though everybody wanted to become rich, and become famous, there was a sense of authenticity and paying your dues that I don’t always see in the young creatives that I meet now.
Phoebe: I can’t disagree with that. I wanted to go back to what you said you came to New York and you didn’t know anyone. And I once read a study on your career in Harvard Business Review, was it?
Claude: It was in Harvard Business Review, but it was originally published as a case study in Harvard Business School.
Phoebe: Okay. And from what I recall, that article focused on your network-growing abilities, your community-growing abilities, that facet of your career. Is that correct?
Claude: Yes. That is what the focus of the case study was.
Phoebe: Yeah, which is very much a kind of emotional intelligence skill, right? Your ability to come to a city as vast and populated as New York, and not only find a place within it but also become, you know, a nucleus in yourself, and through your magazine, and the world that you created for a broader network. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve approached doing that throughout your career, and how important it’s been to your ongoing success? Your people skills, basically.
Claude: I would say that those people skills, again, are very directly linked to the way that I saw my mom live her life as a young woman: A mother to these children, who was working as a seamstress, making very little money, but being able to go to environments and be really comfortable because she was always very well-dressed. She would say to me: “Nobody would know that I don’t have any money in my pocket, because I feel like I do belong here.” So she was able to interact with people in a different way.
Coming to New York without any money, any funding or any backing, I was really ballsy in the way that I felt that I could own this city. At that time, New York really allowed you to just really express yourself. And people would give you a chance to pitch or whatever it is that you were trying to do. And I was approaching people that I respected because I had drawn a list of the people who I considered to be the most influential in hip hop and R&B urban culture, and I made a deliberate effort to meet those people. I would meet them at events, at book launches. I would meet them at screenings, at fashion shows. I would just walk up to people because I wanted to meet them. That’s how I got to meet a lot of people in this city, even though initially I didn’t know anyone.
I got very lucky because I became very close to Bethann Hardison, who really took me under her wing, who mentored me, who introduced me to a lot pf people, and who ended up helping me as an entrepreneur. I guess one of the reasons they helped me is because they could see that I was about something. They could see that I had a real vision for what TRACE could become, even though independently I was just trying to survive.
But New York, at that time, allowed people with a big dream to get in front of people who could help them. Whereas now there’s a lot more gatekeepers, it’s a lot more difficult, and because of the intermediation that has come with the internet has kind of changed the way you deal with people and the way you interact.
Phoebe: Which is ironic because the internet supposed to obviously foster greater interconnectivity, but you’re sort of saying that you don’t feel like it fosters authentic connectivity.
Claude: Not really. Back then, I would go to a conference and actually endeavor to have a real conversation with a person. I would go to whatever it is that they were promoting and wait in line and just speak with them. And that little elevator pitch, which was related to what I was trying to say about what I considered important about TRACE, was a real opportunity to interact face-to-face. Whereas now, everybody believes that just sending a DM is going to be the solution to actually meeting somebody. And I don’t think that you can actually ever really replace these face-to-face interactions. Because I was a witness, right? If Woody Allen - I know a lot of people don’t want to talk about him - but he did say 80% is about showing up. I was the one who really did show up, and waited, and made sure that I had my one or two minutes with whoever it is I wanted to meet.
Phoebe: Yes. You’ve been a mentor of mine and I’m sure you’ve lots of people come to you for advice often. How do you advise people to navigate that side of building? Do you think it’s as important as it was in that era to have those connections? In the Harvard Business Review on you, it details a spreadsheet you had where you kept up with how you maintained contact with all these people - this really quite a methodical way of making sure you had this strong network around you.
Claude: I did that for years, because I knew exactly the people who mattered to me. I was doing so much research about them and what they were doing, and how I could add value to whatever it was they were doing, through TRACE or in other ways. There are certain people we never ended up working with on TRACE, but we ended up working on marketing campaigns together, or we ended up promoting their book because we liked what they were doing. And a lot of these reactions we had to what was happening in the culture was just based on love! And keeping a spreadsheet was not a way to automate a process - it was much more of a way to make sure that –
Phoebe: You were doing it.
Claude: That we were doing it, and keeping a to-do list of these people. There was an excitement in New York about being able to find people back then. Because, it is the one city, perhaps London in some ways as well, where you can actually meet pretty much anyone. If I wanted to meet Zadie Smith, then I would find a way to meet Zadie Smith! Within two or three months!
Phoebe: You just gotta find her! [Laughs] So, when that era sort of came to an end, that era of TRACE, and New York kind of feeling the way that it did, and the recession I believe had a big impact on that broader bubble, sadly bursting a little bit, you decided to go back to school. Is that right? That era was followed directly you going to MIT. Have I got the timeline right?
Claude: That’s exactly what happened. The recession, which started in 2008, was really brutal for the publishing industry. And even though I had diversified, to use a very corporate term [laughs] and started venturing into marketing and television, magazines were still my first love because that’s what I knew, and that’s where I’d actually excelled.
Because I’d been involved in running two or three different companies, on three different time zones and moving between London and Paris, and New York, and LA .on a monthly basis, I got lost in the shuffle of trying to expand. Of trying to become a really successful media entrepreneur, versus just an independent magazine publisher – which is what I was before.
The crisis really hurt us, because overnight we lost most of our advertisers. We had expanded, hired more than 100 people across four offices, and I was in a situation where all of a sudden we had to let people go because we just didn’t have that revenue anymore. And a lot of those clients literally sent us termination notices, and they were gone within a month or two.
So here we were. We thought we had built this really successful series of businesses around the TRACE and TRUE brands, and we were stuck with a situation where we had overhead that was bigger than what we were actually bringing in as revenue. I realized how non-sustainable my model was, and that this crisis, despite the election of Obama, who we had a lot of faith in, was gonna last for a while.
And that was a period where I started doing a bit of soul-searching, because I was about to turn 40, and I’d been very successful in my thirties, I’d been able to make some money and hire a bunch of people and meet a bunch of people, doing what I love - which is journalism - and expand my business. But I reached a point where I was stuck, because I was things the old way.
I made two big mistakes. One, I tried to expand too quickly, and two, I got away from the roots of what really made me successful in the first place. Which was really this laser-like focus on excellence in publishing. I felt that I really needed to step away from New York, and that constant, 24-hour party, work, party lifestyle, and be in more of an academic setting.
That’s when I applied to go to MIT as a Sloan Fellow, and I was accepted. That was really great because I’d always wanted to go to MIT, and be in that MIT Harvard ecosystem I had a lot of friends who had studied there, who had taught there, and I felt it was great because it’s close enough to New York that I could always come back to New York, but it’s still pretty much college town: Cambridge, Massachusetts, Boston. I really just left New York and moved to Boston, and entered the Sloan fellowship, and also got an MBA when I was there. [Laughs]
Phoebe: Just on the side.
Claude: Yeah, just on the side! Because I felt I had made some business mistakes. And I thought: Why not use this opportunity to get an MBA from MIT Sloan, and just understand some of the mistakes I made in order not to repeat them in my next venture.
Phoebe: What was the biggest lesson or idea from that time that you’ve really carried with you ever since?
Claude: The ability to continuously adapt to changing environments. That is something that is really difficult.
Phoebe: Right, which is the other big thing that’s trending in contemporary work culture as a key skill. Because we’re living in such a rapidly changing world, a lot of the kind of stuff that I’m reading at the moment, anyway, is about the ability to keep up with that. So what does that mean for you now?
Claude: I’m glad people are getting interested in that because I wish I had access to some of these books and some of these workshops. I knew how to make money from advertising and subscriptions, so I had a model that I’d perfected: You increase your circulation, you increase your visibility. You attract sponsors who pay, and you make money, and you become profitable.
And then when the internet changed the game altogether, I realized that we had to reinvent ourselves by really getting into understanding how digital media was changing. One of the main reasons I went to MIT was so I could camp out at the MIT Media Lab, because I’d met some people who’d studied there and who’d done research there, and I felt they were reinventing the distribution of media, and new business models around media, and that was great.
MIT was great also because of proximity to the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, which was really good, because I didn’t want to be influenced by New York hipsters, who were so obsessed with ‘making it’, that they didn’t question themselves – in the same way that I refused to question myself once I became successful: At the time I just thought: “I know how to do this, I got this, and it’s just gonna keep getting better and better.”
Withdrawing, realizing that you’ve stalled, and stepping back to be a student in an academic environment: That’s really a decision that I do not regret. It showed me empirically that I could do things differently, and that I needed to question my own decisions and my own motivations.
Phoebe: And what was the key learning of that time that guided the next move you made in your career?
Claude: The key learning for me was that I needed a new vision. Because I had had this vision for hip hop culture since I was a teenager, and that drove my entire career throughout my twenties and thirties. I needed a new vision around what I would be documenting. I couldn’t keep doing the same thing, which was basically writing about rappers, and R&B singers, and fashion designers, and thinking that that was going to be significant. It wasn’t satisfying for me anymore. Also because I was getting older, and I didn’t have the same love and obsession for hip hop.
And so, I felt it was really important for me to focus Africa. And why? Because I spent a lot of time talking to my mom and my relatives back in Togo, and I could feel that there were a lot of really exciting things happening within several metropolitan areas in Africa. And I travelled a lot to various continents even just growing the TRACE brand, and I could see that there was a youthful energy, a new youth culture that needed a voice and that needed platforms for self-expression. And that really is what I try to do.
Phoebe: You spent a lot of time researching and writing on that through your fellowship as well, right?
Claude: I did, I did! But one of the great things about being at MIT, and a bit of a privileged status which is the one that I had as a Sloan fellow, is that you get free money to do a bunch of things.
Phoebe: Awesome! [Laughs]
Claude: It’s great! A bunch of people just give you money to do things. I had also saved up some money from my ventures and I was able to go to various African cities starting on my own hometown Lomé. I spent time in Accra, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Lagos, just researching what was happening in youth culture, and how could we tell those stories on a web platform.
And so I was thinking of digital media in a different way, and MIT Media Lab and the MIT environment really helped me to critique some of the early ideas that I had, and some of the preconceived notions I had on how media should be perceived, and distributed, and consumed, and that really helped. I’ve stayed very involved in MIT since I started my Sloan Fellowship there in 2011. I’m still going to Boston now, every month, because I’m now teaching workshops at the Harvard Kennedy School. So that’s been great.
Phoebe: What do you teach?
Claude: I teach Social Entrepreneurship and workshops in masterclass models where it’s really helping students, usually at the Masters level, to look at ways in which they could scale their social impact ventures. And these might be microventures, but it’s students who want to launch something that will have significant social impact, versus being a money-driven enterprise.
Phoebe: And has that been one of the foundations of TRUE Africa? Well, tell us a bit about the next thing you ended up doing before I jump ahead.
Claude: So, while at MIT and being able to get money to research, to travel, to interview people, to document, I launched the beginning of what became TRUE Africa. So, I ended up launching TRUE Africa as a media platform championing young African voices in 2015.
But before that, I had spent the years 2011, 2012, 2013 and part of 2014 just working with various professors and researchers and PhD students and engineers at MIT, on what this new iteration of ventures could be. And in 2014, there was a great report that came out from The New York Times that was called The Innovation Report. And that was really great because it showed that a great media company like The New York Times, which in my opinion is the greatest media company –
Phoebe: They do a pretty awesome job.
Claude: – was in danger as well, because they hadn’t reinvented themselves. So they were kind of dealing with the same issues I was dealing with, albeit on a much larger scale. So with all that information, I used that as a way to think about what TRUE Africa could become, and how it would not be so much about the writers and editors, but it would be about identifying people and giving them the megaphone, from an African perspective.
Phoebe: So that was 2015, and obviously that’s been your major focus for the last few years alongside your myriad speaking and teaching commitments, I don’t know how you manage, and having a child of course!
Claude: Yes, getting married, having a child, all of that. [Laughs]
Phoebe: Just squeezing that in somewhere! Doing the MBA; whatever! So where are you at now? You’re obviously doing TRUE Africa. For people who aren't necessarily so familiar with it, how do you describe the mission of that platform?
Claude: Well I created TRUE Africa after a three to four year incubation period, as a way to help young Africans express themselves, about culture, about creativity, about technology – about all of the things that were shaping their lives. It’s interesting because we were off to a great start - 2016, 2017 were great years for us - but, it’s been really difficult scaling as a self-funded independent media venture.
Even though we got a little bit of funding from Google, and we were able to empower some of these voices we had identified just from being on the ground and talking to them, it’s been really difficult from a business model perspective. A lot of media companies, as I’m sure you know, are still trying to figure it out. And so we are in that category of media companies that are trying to figure it out. The intuition that told us - “Ok, we can just launch really good website that is well-designed and easy to navigate, and publish a bunch of African stories that were truly homegrown” – proved to be a bit of a fallacy, in a sense.
Now, I’m reinventing the business model by trying to link the different Black experiences all over the world. As opposed to focusing on continental Africa, I’m really trying to find commonalities in the Black experience in Brazil, and the Caribbean, and the African-American culture here, the European diaspora, as well as the African continent and having much larger vision around Blackness. In a way it’s a bit of an evolution from what I was doing with TRACE, because back then it was really more about youth culture, through hip hop, but now I want to use blackness and the evolution of Black identities to reinvent what TRUE Africa is supposed to be.
Phoebe: It’s obviously a complicated time in the world on lots of levels. Race, in America anyway, certainly feels like the most pressing - I don’t know, issue seems the wrong word, but it’s a preoccupation of many people’s thinking here in New York specifically. Finding ways to understand it and document it – that’s a really important thing right now.
Claude: It’s a really important thing right now with Black Lives Matter and everything else that’s happening in the Black world – even taken as far as the #FeesMustFall movements in South Africa, a lot of Black freedom fighters who are trying to change what it is to be perceived as Black. That goes to AfroPunk, and a lot of cultural producers out there who I really respect, but for me it came out of a real disappointment in noticing the ten years after Obama took office. The promises that we had seen and heard around the time of his inauguration, are very difficult to tabulate when we look at the current environment and how we’re threatened everywhere.
As a Black male, we’re always being perceived as a threat, and that’s something we live with. From riding the subways or an elevator, and seeing someone clutch their handbag because they feel like you are a threat instinctively – but then having Obama be elected was such a big thing for me and for so many other Black people around the world. Because we really thought he was going to solve the problem of racism in eight years. We really did think that. Well, I did.
In this age of Trump, and division, and polarization, it’s become really difficult as a Black person not to feel like this is something we need to react to; that we need to be much more vocal about; and that there needs to be some sort of revolution that comes in the form of creativity. And it doesn’t necessarily have to go through politics. In the way that Barack kind of rode the activism wave to the highest levels of political achievement, I think we can do it with people like Tyler Mitchell, with people like Grace Wales Bonner. We can use Black creativity as a way to continue what people like Quincy Jones had done. I think that’s gonna be really powerful, because politics are going to have to react to this new wave of Black activism through creative expression.
Phoebe: Does this moment feel like a continuation of what you were trying to document from the start of your career, or do you almost feel like you almost have to go back to your ideas around transculturalism - the early TRACE days - and maybe reframe or revisit them?
Claude: A lot of work I do now is looking to the spirit that I had back then as a young, budding publisher who really had this idealistic - you mentioned the word utopia; so, a utopian view of what the world could be - using publishing as the conduit to that type of expression. I do that because iI want to question myself, and take myself outside of these kind of corporate interests, and understand what it is that drove us to create in the first place.
And so the work that I do now is try to go back to the 24-year-old who had this dream, and launch my ventures with that same do-or-die mentality. I think that it’s becoming really important now, because the internet has allowed many people to express themselves. And those of us who came of age before the internet age - who are not millennials, but who are Generation X, which is the generation I belong to - I think we have a little bit more experience now.
I think people in my generation - Erykah Badu, Jay-Z, Diddy; the Black entrepreneurs and Black creatives who came of age in this way - I think we have a role to play by mentoring the new generation of creatives so they become our legacy, in a way. Because our legacy is much bigger than our own cultural productions, or our own media productions, or our own expressions.
I believe that there’s going to be a movement of people coming together: a new golden age of Black creativity, in a way that’s a bit like Opportunity magazine and how the writers from the Harlem Renaissance would rally around that magazine and invent a new Black world.
My friend Taiye Selasi - a writer who is a great influence on me - she talks about this a lot: That we need to come together and express ourselves, whether it is through poetry, whether it’s through film, whether it’s through photography, whether it’s through television shows, and find a way to change people’s perceptions around what it is to be Black. Because these stereotypes are really hurting not just us, but the culture at large. And the violence that we are seeing on every street corner is a reflection of the fact that surviving as a minority in these developed Western nations is becoming increasingly difficult. And I think we have enough experience now that we can talk about these things from a lived-in point of view, versus being young, and idealistic, and hopeful.
Phoebe: Yes. You’ve seen one cycle, and now you’re on a different cycle, and it seems like something that you can pin some optimism on.
Claude: I think we need it. And that’s why when I read Candide by Voltaire, I have a very different reaction to it. And that’s great! Because we get older, we get wiser, and hopefully we learn from our mistakes.
Phoebe: What do you feel optimistic about now?
I think the new generation of new Black writers that I’m really interested in, - whether it’s Teju Cole or Chimamanda - they are really shaping the culture in ways I could never have imagined. And that really gives me a lot of hope for the future. Because a lot of them just know each other, they work together, they collaborate, they inspire each other, and they’re not stuck in this box of what Black creativity is supposed to look like; they’re constantly reinventing it.
The imagery that’s coming out of it, the clothing that’s coming out of it, the styles, the ideas – that is all really, really great. What’s really interesting is the collaboration I’m seeing between Londoners, and Parisians, and New Yorkers, and LA people, and Lagos people, and Nairobi people – I never used to see that. I actually was one of the first people to do that back then, through publishing, but now I see people doing it in film, and becoming really successful doing it.
Also, I see new Black empowerment through economic freedom. I didn’t really see very many of my friends become rich; I didn’t really see very many entrepreneurs become rich in this way, by doing something they really love, and that is so exciting to me. I think that there are going to be so many opportunities for the next generation, so long as they stick together, and remain truly authentic, and don’t get consumed by the byproducts of fame and fortune.
Phoebe: Well, that’s a very hopeful note to end on I think, Claude. I want to end on a hopeful note, because you’re a hopeful person. You’ve made me hopeful at many points in my life, and been a great teacher to me – so thank you very much for taking the time to do this.
Claude: Thank you for this opportunity, Phoebe. It was super fun.