Interview with Namso Akpan, activist and founder of the Building Blocks Coalition.
The idea of Black freedom and empowerment is one that is dear to the hearts of many Black rights activists around the world today. Since the inception of slavery roughly 400 years ago, the Black man has had to struggle with so many forms of oppression. We have overcome slavery, but many of its effects can be seen in our society today. It is therefore no secret, that the tools used in the fight for freedom in today’s society need to take a different form from those which were used in the past. Economic freedom is one of the many tools at our disposal – if only we can take advantage of it.
Namso Akpan is an advocate for Black economic empowerment. He is of the view that aside protesting, we need to be able to create empowerment for our people using other methods. Together with Steven Chapman, he set up the Building Blocks Coalition to outline and build the infrastructure for Black empowerment. He talks to us today about his inspiration to set up this organization, what he thinks is wrong with the current struggle and what his opinion is, on how best we can fight against the oppression we are faced with today.
Namso, we are very glad to have you with us today. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
First of all, my name is Namso Akpan. I’m the founder of the Building Blocks Coalition and also the president of the Association of Southern Movie Workers.
What inspired you to start up the Building Blocks Coalition?
Well, Building Blocks Coalition started like a month ago after I had invested ten years with the Association of Southern Movie Workers. I came back to the U.S in 1998, after I had reached the top of the Nigerian film industry now known as Nollywood. Coming to Atlanta, I realized that those opportunities that I came looking for were not in existence. So I decided to create them because I had seen how my father and his colleagues had created opportunities for the Nigerians. I invested ten very hardworking and successful years in creating those opportunities here in Atlanta and throughout the eleven south-eastern states. That’s when I finally discovered and realized that we have a very big problem, and the industry cannot be in existence without that problem being fixed. So I had to leave the industry and go out to fix the problem. That’s when we created Building Blocks Coalition, to fix the Black problem that is affecting Black industries.
Did the creation of these organizations have any connection with your love of the history of the Black Panther Party?
I have researched the Black Panthers and I realized that the Black Panthers, like most of the other pro-African organizations, are looking for empowerment. So it’s all the same thing. But the issue is, how is that empowerment being sought or how is the process of achieving that empowerment? Now, after the years I have spent, I have realized that a lot of our organizations have the right mindset, which is to create empowerment for our people, but the methods are wrong. And the methods will not bring them what they’re trying to get.
What methods do you think aren’t working and what in your opinion should be done differently?
For example, protesting, whether violently or non-violently, is a waste of time. You cannot beg people for your rights if they are yours. You cannot spend your time talking about what you are planning to do without doing anything. And that’s what all the Black organizations in America do. They talk about what they’re planning to do, but they do nothing. And all of them have failed in one major thing – they’re all beggars and angry, and that’s what has to stop. They have to build. Most of these organizations have built nothing; the NAACP has built nothing in a 100 years, the Black Panthers have built nothing in 50 years, the National Action Network has built nothing since its inception. So the issue is, what is the motivation of these people? Is it just to empower themselves or is it actually to empower Black people? Now look at the people that are empowered. How did they get empowered? If you notice, none of them has done anything that we have done. 100 years ago, the KKK was supposed to hate the Catholics, the Jews, and the Blacks. Where are the Catholics and the Jews today? They run the world. Where are the Blacks today? They’re the stepping stools of every other race. How come three races were hated by the KKK but two have become winners while the other is at the bottom?
Do the Black community and the Black rights organizations support your projects? Are they inspired by your ideas?
No. And that’s the problem. The Black man has been broken in America, so they are no longer thinking in ways that can empower themselves. So when you go to empower a Black man or Black woman, a lot of people turn around and look behind you to see where the white man that came with you is, and if you don’t have a white man, they don’t trust you. How can you be trying to empower yourself but you depend on the white man for authenticity? We just introduced a new program to give out $5,000 to every new small business in the community. How many of our people are even asking questions about it? Very few. So you create it, but do they take it? No. But they spend their time blaming the white man, hating on the white man, protesting to go to the white man’s mall. A lot of Black organizations are protesting Walmart. But the question is, “You want me not to go to Walmart, but what are you offering me as an alternative?”
I think what you guys are doing is amazing and commendable. You guys are making history right here, right now. I was quite surprised when I saw your campaign that you wanted to collect $5 million in donations to create 5,000 businesses in Atlanta. How’s that campaign going?
The progress is not going good, because like I said, our people do not trust anything that is Black. Our women do not wear Black hair. It starts with us wanting to eat in other people’s restaurants. Where is the Black restaurant chain? Where is the Black clothing chain? Where is this Black man that sews these hanging-down pants that Black boys wear? He’s probably a Chinese. So because of those things our people are skeptical and hesitant because they don’t trust themselves. It took us ten years to find this out. As we have started doing the fundraiser, we are going to keep it going because we believe that sooner or later our people will catch up. And if our people donate slowly, we will just set up the companies slowly but we will set them up.
How do you plan to use these funds once you are able to reach the target?
Well, it’s a continuous effort. I’m looking at $5 million coming in within the next few days, weeks, months, years, and as it does come in, every $5,000 turns into a middle class business, a business that can create a middle income economy, and a business that can make at least one or two people middle class. Because when I graduated from college in Nigeria, it was like looking at the world from a different point of view. Only people who didn’t have a family, or no parents all that, were the kind of people that looked for employment. For me, the thought of going to seek employment never occurred to me or my friends. Because it was a natural progression where you go to school, you learn something, you graduate, and you practice it. So each person that graduates comes out and sets up their own company. I graduated and set up a movie production company and I hired six people. Now imagine each graduate being able to create employment for four, five, six people. That means when you go to your street you’ll find companies that are generating revenue, instead of what we have now, which is just people that shop. If you look in Atlanta, is there any Black person that makes beds, or bicycles? But what does it take to make a bike? Are you saying that there is no Black person that can weld a bike together? Do you realize that with $5,000 one can start a bike manufacturing company? Then your people can get it on layaway. Then you can start designing different kinds of bikes for different reasons. So these are simple things that generate revenue and employment. But it’s like we’re broken, brainwashed to think we can’t do it, but I know we can, because we’ve been doing it. So we’re not trying to train anybody, our people don’t need training. We need the opportunity to set up and operate.
You said that you invested in a special infrastructure 10 – 12 years ago in order to stop Black people from building their businesses on the infrastructures which they do not own and also to avoid them being wealthy without power. Can you describe what it is that you guys did those years?
In 2002, I stumbled across a place called The Bluff. I noticed a lot of Black people there, so I went and bought a movie truck, took it to The Bluff and started shooting films called The Bluff. I pulled people from The Bluff and let them start shooting films, empowering them. One of those people is Curtis Snow, who is very popular today. Now, I showed them how to make films with nothing. Then after that we felt, “Hey, if we have films and we can teach people how to make films, how do we generate revenue from this?” So I invested $50,000 into developing vending machines to vend DVDs, way before Redbox. I had the vending machines built here in Atlanta, had them delivered, put them all out, went to the Georgia State Film Department to speak to Lee Thomas who is presently the deputy commissioner of the Georgia film, music & digital entertainment office. She was the just a liaison officer when I met her years ago. She was responsible for looking for locations for Hollywood productions. She had no way to help me, had no clue what I was doing and couldn’t understand what I meant by industry. After that, we put the vending machines out, only for me to start getting citations because they said selling DVDs through a vending machine was illegal. So we lost all the vending machines. A year or so later, I saw Redbox, and I wondered how they got theirs in. So we created a new method of selling the DVDs directly to the gas stations on the counter through some white boxes and we flooded the south-eastern space with that. By 2012, that developed into 500 or so stores. It gave us the ability of controlling the distribution and releases of the films. But then something crazy happened. Everybody was pushing us, “Hey, it’s 2012, DVDs are going extinct, you have to switch to online.” I hesitated till 2015. By that time everybody felt we were in the wrong track keeping DVDs afloat. So because we didn’t want to have to create a marketing budget to push DVDs, we decided to switch online and the whole thing went dead. That’s when we realized that online is like a deathtrap. You’re told that online is the next revolution, but when you do go online, you don’t make money, because our people will not buy directly from you online. They will buy from ebay, Amazon, all those established organizations, but not from their cousin. And that’s the same play that is happening with all the independent online deliverers of content. So we realized there’s a little bit more to do. Instead of us continuing to support independents making films without having a place to sell those films, let’s get out, let’s go back to building the infrastructure. For example, out of those 5,000 companies that you saw us hoping to create with the $5 million, at least 400 – 500 of them are going to be movie theaters. 50 – 75 of them are going to be online movie or TV channels. When you have those two things, then you can create an industry. We need to have around 100 – 200 channels creating the same content, Black music and Black news, so that if John shoots David, you have a 100 channels that can carry it tomorrow and then you have impact.
You participated in the Black Panther Party 50th Anniversary rally held in Atlanta. How often do you participate in such events?
I participate in every rally I have the opportunity to, mainly to tell them that it’s not the way. But the people that are at the rallies are at least trying to do something.
Do you have any parting words for our readers?
The special thing that I have to say to our Black readers is that they need to read. Reading is fundamental. I’ve always heard that if you want to hide information from a Black person, you hide it in a book. I’m noticing it. Our people are not aware. They watch too much TV, they believe too much of what others tell them instead of them investigating. So we want people to investigate what they hear, investigate what we’re doing. And once you notice that this is probably one of the best things happening in Black America, join us, support us, so that we can support you, and so that we can support others. So that ten years from now, we’re not even talking about protesting or demonstrating at all, because we’ll have no reason to.