The first message had come through a coworker, “Hey, have you seen this?”
The next two were random twin emails from people I rarely heard from. “ Hey girl…hope you’re well…not sure if you’re interested…” “Hey girl…hope you’re well…not sure if you’re interested…”
The fourth time my fate came calling via a simple text: “I don’t know, it just sounded so much like you, thought maybe you should check it out.”
I picked my buzzing phone up, glanced at it, and turned the damn thing over on its face.
Then, finally, I heard the voice of a recruiter, who caught me slipping answering blocked calls: Kierna Mayo? Hi, have a minute to talk?
It was me talking to me. So I tucked in all the fear, threw my jersey in my bag and quit.
Before all of the intrusions, I was minding my business, busy being the Editor-in-Chief of the oldest, largest Black magazine in the nation, doing oldest, largest Black magazine in the nation type things. I had been that kid with NBA dreams and a decent dose of raw talent, and I had diligently climbed my way from biddie ball to the actual freaking league. [WARNING: THIS IS A BAD SPORTS METAPHOR FOR MAKING IT TO THE TOP OF A NATIONAL MAGAZINE EDITORIAL STAFF.] Not only that, no longer an off-the-bench, kid—I was starting now. At center. As MF captain. (The front office was questionable, granted, but I was the man.) Why was I going to walk away from the lifetime plan again???
If I’m going to keep it all the way funky—which, in the end, is what the entire CASSIUS experiment is about [YOU WILL LEARN]—I should make it clear that I didn’t ultimately leave my high post mag world to come here to iOne Digital because I knew exactly what I was in for. Had no real clue, honestly. But when I finally had the good sense to pay attention to all the signs pointing me in this direction, and to get nosey, ask questions and then shut up and listen…what I heard was this pesky, muffled voice strugglewhispershouting: ARE YOU INSANE?! YOU ARE BIGGER THAN YOUR CURRENT SURROUNDINGS. YOU HAVE WAY MORE TO DO. THIS IS A BLANK SLATE. GET FREE, FOOL. THIS IS YOUR MOMENT FOR LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!
It was me talking to me. So I tucked in all the fear, threw my jersey in my bag and quit.
DREAMING OF CASSIUS
hey man, there’s going to come a time in your life when you will have to take a look backward and forward at the same damn time. What have I done? VS What do I want? What do I know? VS What do I need to learn? What can I take? VS What can I give?
Dreaming of CASSIUS has been a long time coming. In the most direct sense, only about six months. But insofar as this offering embodies gems I’ve collected over 25 years of professional people watching, story telling, team building and culture creating, it started waaaaay back when…
(*My people are tired of this tale, but if you’re going to ride with CASSIUS it’s a legendary media backstory worth knowing.)
THE CASSIUS BACKSTORY IN 21 BULLETS
(OR, “STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM TIMELINE”)
• Was tall and skinny teen, hated it. Mother says: Stop complaining, you look like a model
• No I don’t, Mom. *Rolls eyes, heads to Latin Quarters with crew, spies FILL IN OLD SCHOOL EMCEE in the building*
• Love fashion. Become obsessed with said models. Want to live inside of a fashion mag
• But where are the Black ones??? (The models or the magazines?)
• Become obsessed with real people’s stories, with the art of telling them. With words
• Go off to college, connect life dots, decide to work at a mag one day
• Don’t get senior year internship at dream publication (apparently also only one that knows Black women exist)
• Decide college was completely stupid; am still skinny
• Take classmate up on last-ditch offer to meet the homie who “just started a rap magazine in NY”
• Meet the homie. Join original “Mind Squad” at The Source magazine (!!!)
• Turn 22. Blow up over four years as part of first wave of “hip-hop journalism,” become known as one of few women tackling the culture with a big mouth (and pen). Beef with rappers, talk on panels, twerk in clubs.
• ’95. Admire dope invention. Pop culture-meets-politics magazine started by JFK, Jr. GEORGE he calls it. HMMMMM. Launches with ‘90s supermodel dressed as a sexy George Washington. Aha! I get it! It’s not about George Washington but what he (supposedly) represents. He was a first. A maverick. Clever.
•Oh look, now there’s a JANE mag. Aha! I get it! Everyday white girl name, but aims to be not everyday white girl mag. Clever.
• Start HONEY mag with college bestie, because young Black feminism + Timbs +red lipstick. Because late 90’s race and gender. Change the game.
• Discover that fashion advertisers don’t love us AT ALL, wonder why. HMMMMM.
• Notice that Black culture is officially everywhere in mainstream now, including runways, and including no-sisters-allowed, Sex and The City. “Hey! What gives? I have that same gold nameplate!”
• Pay attention to the business of media: Who sells what? To whom? Whose stories get told? To whom? AND FOR GOD’S SAKE WHERE ARE THE BLACK AND BROWN PEOPLE?? Note the sheer power of content to center—or erase your ass. Still no Internet of things.
• Have a craaaaaazy thought. Consider the GEORGE and JANE moment. What’s in a name? No, literally, a name. Dream about a Black girl, high-end fashion magazine response to Vogue; reflect on how mainstream editors poach our style, and how certain advertisers straight dismiss us—imagine calling it … KEISHA.
• Late ‘90s. Black people have names, too.
• 2017. iOne Digital wants to launch a “master brand.” HMMMMM.
NOW WE’RE HERE
As America falls deeper in love with Black culture, how is it that it also appears to simultaneously fall deeper out of love with actual Black people? What happens when brands, so enamored by the power of Black thought, Black bodies, Black action, Black passion extract The Black? [RHETORICAL QUESTION, however, feel free to see recent soft drink commercial faux pas for answer.]
CASSIUS was born after months of closed-door ideation sessions and massive strategic planning on the backs of many dedicated professionals. As digital journalists—a swarm of content creators hovering above the most congested Internet known to man and woman—the task before us was almost ridiculous. Do something no one else is doing. Create an urban millennial lifestyle platform, but keep Black culture as the stated nucleus—and don’t you dare diminish this truth. Naturally attract a wildly diverse audience to the tune of tens of millions a month. Put culture vultures on notice. Find an available URL.
(Good luck with that last piece.)
So just for clarity, CASSIUS is not about Muhammad Ali.
I admittedly struggled with the mandate. As a vet in this media game, for years I’ve watched advertisers (essentially across all categories) diminish the value of content—and audiences—they perceive as Black. I mean, why pretend? Can CASSIUS build a business model that will rival mainstream platforms that routinely “borrow” from the culture yet forget to return the goods? Is the world ready for a mostly of-color squad, that effectively speaks to ALL audiences? Sure hope so, family. This is what CASSIUS is. The new new mainstream. If the color black = the saturation of all colors, then consider Blackness the sum of the whole. Diverse is good. Hell, Blackness itself is an infinite pool of diversity where no two ways of expressing itself are ever identical. At CASSIUS we get that the cultural exchange happening among people of all races, all faiths, all genders, all sexualities and all social stations is an exercise in human enrichment. Consider us all the way down.
To map the course for this experiment in dopeness, I took my content leaders off site for a day. What we doing, y’all? What lane can we completely own?
The reality was what you know. There is no Internet lane left for “ownership.” Were we going to wholly own hip-hop? Style? Celeb news? Not. But I had two clear thoughts about how to be different. With so many of us here coming from magazine brands, why not do what we do—shoot the hell out of stuff and flip covers (they know me for flipping covers)? Second, what if we stopped trying to own lanes, and instead commanded—all the time, every time—one central point of view? A bold posture that would lend itself to any and everything we touch. One that would pour itself all over every piece of CASSIUS content, whether about sex or food, or sex and food. We needed a path to our greatest collective truth and a vehicle to put that reality on blast, daily. We decided that day that, like the millennial generation it reflects, this project would be “born unapologetic.” (And kill covers.)
Hopefully, you have figured out why this brand is called CASSIUS. (If you don’t know who Cassius Clay is then promptly STFU, DON’T SAY A WORD, RUN-GO-GOOGLE.) CASSIUS is of course, the birth name of the world’s foremost international icon of unapologetic existence—Muhammad Ali.
His “Cassius” evolved. Will yours?
Real talk, wisdom doesn’t have to only come with age. One can be young and wise, brave and about your business (and even flawed)—such is the legacy that Muhammad Ali bequeathed the world. Get into it! Being unapologetic nags at your spirit—it’s that foreboding sense that all rules are not necessarily good ones. Folks, being unapologetic means you have a weird urge to run when others are walking. For most of us, being born this way is both blessing and curse, heavy on the blessing.
So just for clarity, CASSIUS is not about Muhammad Ali (remember GEORGE mag?); it’s not about one great man, but about the greatness in us all.