Erika Alexander launched her career during a time when entertainer’s value was solely determined by people who didn’t look like her.
The actress, director, and producer’s perceived worth to studios was assessed at every audition, callback, and rehearsal. Everything meant something, down to the parking spots and craft services on the set of Living Single, the series that solidified her stardom. The message was clear: you have no power here.
“I’m an actress,” Alexander told ESSENCE. “I’m in their toolbox and they take me out.”
While the owners of the metaphorical toolbox attained wealth and power, the tools they used often didn’t reap the same benefits, nor did they know how to, Alexander explained. “I didn’t understand how art and commerce worked.”
Today she’s carrying her own toolbox with partner Tony Puryear. The pair is releasing 10,000 non-fungible tokens (NFT) connected to the world they created in their popular science fiction graphic novel Concrete Park with the help of Curio. It’s their second collaboration with the firm; the first sold out completely. “They have a storytelling ethos. That guides how they pick and choose their partners,” said Alexander.
Non-fungible tokens (NFTS) are unique digital assets that are primarily housed in blockchain. They are traceable and unique. Dissimilar to other forms of blockchain, like bitcoin or dogecoin, their value is not expected to remain equal from unit to unit. NFT owners who trade their assets determine whether or not they are worth what they’re swapping. The low barrier to entry to creating NFTs presents an opportunity to artists who frequently land on the bottom of the art world’s economy.
“Artists usually are people who work in a space for marginalized people, to be Black in America is to be marginalized,” said Alexander. “People will underestimate you, undervalue you, and undermine you.”
Those who purchase NFTs retain ownership of the art but the artists issuing tokens can still retain copyright and reproduction rights. The digital format gives artists access and leverage that’s difficult to acquire in other formats. NFTs can be associated with physical objects but artists don’t necessarily have to manufacture anything offline or incur any cost of shipping. To serve their audience, they just need to create.
“You don’t have to have so many barriers to entry. You can have a conversation with your audience and they can find you, then that opens up everything. We’re finding the new Shakespeares, the new Gauguins, the new Basquiats and Kehinde Wileys. Before now you had to be in a gallery,” Alexander said. “Somebody had to buy your stuff and they said what was expensive, and they had a whole network of people that would buy stuff to make it valuable.”
Cartoonist Markus Prime has issued NFTs featuring symbols for the erotically charged from his series “Oh Nah.” Vakseen, Shantell Martin, and Serwah Attafuah have each created NFTS a well. Christie’s sold an NFT of a collage by the artist Beeple. It sold for $69 million.
“I think that for young people and people who are traditionally marginalized, LGBTQ people, [people] in different geographic spaces, they don’t have the access that bigger cities might give them. This is a game-changer,” said Alexander. “If we’re not talking about this space,” she declared. “We’re not in the game.”
NFTs are a controversial topic in the contemporary art world, however. Blue-chip darlings, athletes, tech billionaires, and even unwitting meme stars have rushed to cash in on their popularity, even as critics and gatekeepers openly question the value of “digital art.”
“We can’t just take and think about the bottom line dollar. You have to think about what it means to have the connection with the person who’s buying into it,” Alexander said.
Dark Horse’s Concrete Park NFTs are the first “generative art projects,” that Curio, known for distributing digital collectibles, is releasing.
Alexander finds value in those who interact with the art she creates, no matter where it lives. Sitting in front of a framed poster of the documentary Good Trouble, Alexander leans forward, as if to physically demonstrate how far she’s come. Today, she’s fully invested in “the power of how art and commerce work.”
“When I was on Living Single, the audience would come in at the end of the week after we had rehearsed the whole show four days. On the fourth day an audience would come in and then we would record the show and the audience would get an opportunity to see us. They say for free, but it wasn’t for free. They probably should have paid them, but it wasn’t because they were our fourth character,” said Alexander.
“We needed them there in order to have this dialogue. And they told us where the jokes weren’t, whether this was funny, and we would reshape it and come back at them. What you hear is that conversation.”
NFTs’ tradeability lets Black fans have those conversations with each other within communities like Quirktastic, and Black Girl Nerds.
Alexander earned comic stripes having conversations in the fickle fan communities that can make or break science fiction creators. She and Puryear courted fans at booth conventions alongside other authors. “We were doing great inside of the comic book world, which is always full of people who are innovators and disruptors and all those types of things,” she said, smiling. Hollywood, which has been rejecting their concept for more than a decade, wasn’t convinced of the story’s potential.
“We wouldn’t be doing a science fiction comic book if we could have done that in film and television. We did that because of the racism,” said Alexander. Its conception came from Alexander’s own love of science fiction and a desire she shared with Puryear to create spaces for Black people in a fictional future that rarely included them. Fans flocked to it.
“They were finding us organically. We didn’t have any of the power that I might’ve had in film and television. None of that translated over in the comic book world.”
Organic direct connections are increasingly valuable at a time where virtual marketplaces and content distribution outlets can de-platform anyone they deem bad for business. OnlyFans recently reformed their content guidelines (twice). Similar platforms that allow creators to monetize their followings like Pateron, and Substack have the option to do that as well.
“I think a company has the right to curate their space. They pay for that, right? If I’m on Instagram and they don’t want me there for whatever reason, whether I agree with them or not, I can suddenly lose this huge following I built for years and that they’ve made money off of. because I never owned anything on there, except for my presence,” she said.
Information surrounding value determinations of analytics and data from those considering these platforms is murky as well. Benchmarks from brand partners and studios can vary depending on who the creator is. The line between “popularity versus impact” is rarely decided by those standing firmly in the culture.
“The algorithm is the ghost in the machine,” said Alexander, whose explosive Breakfast Club interview was swiftly overshadowed by a quasi-rapper with a technicolor ponytail. She has partnered with Black Girls Code to be a part of the evolution of the tech space.
As Alexander put it, “We can either start to realize it’s there and try to make it more of a Black ghost. Or we can think that we can win just by being excellent and give our stories away and have no access or ownership.”