Audiences may know actor Kendrick Sampson from the hit HBO series “Insecure.”
He plays Nathan, the here and gone and back love interest of Issa, portrayed by the show’s creator Issa Rae.
But Sampson is also an outspoken activist and cofounder of BLD PWR, a nonprofit organization that provides training for artists, actors and other creatives to use their voices to promote social change.
Inspired by the work of others such as Black Lives Matter activists Patrisse Cullors and Melina Abdullah, Sampson teamed up with Abdullah and other community leaders to present the Los Angeles County council with the People’s Budget — a plan to defund the Los Angeles Police Department in favor of reimagining public safety through social programs.
Sampson feels passionate about empowering artists to use their voices and platforms because as many in social justice movements recite, “there is no revolution without art.” He says art comes in many diverse forms, such as protest signs, TV, film, street art, communication and rhetoric.
“I think it's necessary for us to utilize whatever privilege we have, whatever tools and talents, to push liberation [and] to make sure that oppression is dismantled,” he says.
His sphere of influence in Hollywood made the mission for BLD PWR a no-brainer: Organize to create a culture of liberation within the entertainment industry as opposed to its traditional culture of oppression.
That process begins by deconstructing “capitalism’s version of progress,” he says, which puts emphasis on the oppressive structure, corporation or business’ bottom line over the liberation and advancement of people of color.
Progress doesn’t lie within the appearance of change or diversity talks, he says. It needs to fully support both representation in the field and building power at every level to shift the culture.
Take “Insecure,” a series he coins as an “activist show,” as an example, he says. He says executive producer Issa Rae uses a holistic approach to push against Hollywood’s status quo.
“Activism doesn't necessarily have to be blatant in our narratives. Issa is showing Black people being Black — and that's something that we don't get to see. We either are portrayed as subhuman or superhuman,” he says. “Culturally, she's giving Black folks an opportunity behind and in front of the scenes at every single level, department heads, producers, production assistants, catering, whoever.”
He says Rae also ensures the show films in Black communities and works with Black-owned businesses, clothing lines and brands.
By ensuring “Insecure” utilizes and uplifts Black people’s talents through the entire show’s process, the series is able to convey the totality of the Black experience.
Last season, Sampson’s character Nathan addressed the topic of mental illness in a way that normalizes mental health struggles within the Black community.
“When you are in an oppressed demographic, you don't want to show — because it's survival of the fittest — you don't want to show any weakness, any form of weakness and anything that could be perceived as weakness,” he says.
Often, the way mental illness is portrayed on our screens fuels the harmful stereotypes around mental health. Accurately handling mental illness on camera can allow people to confront — rather than hide — their experiences, he says.
Sampson says because his work is intersectional, he considers all aspects of a character, show, production and leadership when taking on a new gig.
“At the end of the day, regardless of all our efforts, we have to participate in some form of some system that might be oppressive,” he says. “I do my best to consider how I'm participating in capitalism. What type of misogyny is present? Is there transphobia? There's so many things to consider, especially in the identity of Blackness.”
He identifies what his strategic advantages might be when joining a project and if they would outweigh the oppressive disadvantages. He looks at every angle, especially if the opportunity affords him the chance to discuss mental health or further fund BLD PWR.
While Sampson’s future artistic endeavors are on hold because COVID-19, he’s occupied with the activism and liberation efforts through his organization — during election season, no less — in order to “make sure that we come out of this better.”
This segment aired on August 25, 2020.