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Kenya Russell: Creating the Right Mix for Creatives of Color

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By Ameera Stewart
The Birmingham Times

Kenya Russell recognized a need for Birmingham’s creative community, so she came up with the right mix. Through research, she found that there were no platforms dedicated to connecting creatives of color in the city.

“I felt like that was something I could kind of fit into, as a niche,” said Russell, 24, CEO of The Mix: Birmingham, a nonprofit organization that brings creatives together through events, professional development, and financial education.

Known simply as The Mix, this platform strives to build and support Birmingham’s creative community. The concept started with a magazine Russell produced for young black creatives at the University of Alabama (UA), which she attended from 2015 until her graduation in 2018. When she left Tuscaloosa and returned to Birmingham, she sought out things to do, places to go, and people to be around.

“I was already [making a space for black creatives at UA], why not just bring it to Birmingham and call it something else? … I connected with some people, put out some [feelers] on social media and looked for people to connect with, and a few people helped me get the foundation set up,” she said. “It was a really cool process, and I met some really amazing people along the way.

The Mix platform has several different ways of bringing creatives together, including its signature event, Southern Made Creatives, which took place on October 24 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC). Russell believes her events are distinct because she strives to find unique vendors and different people each time: new talents, new food distributors, etc.

“I personally feel like there aren’t a lot of allocated spaces for us to host nice events, and I am totally OK with taking over a nice space in the name of black entrepreneurship,” she said.

Nurturing Creatives

The Mix caters to millennial creatives, ages 21 to 37, based in and around Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, Montgomery, and Huntsville.

“Any discipline of creativity you can manifest can be part of The Mix: art, music, dance, poetry. If you are a ceramics maker, I want to see your work, value your work,” said Russell.

In addition to providing a platform, opportunities, and resources, Russell believes it is important that creatives know where to go and how to get the tools needed to sustain a business.

“There are a lot of places like the Innovation Depot [and] … Small Business Association that have free resources and things you can utilize, … but people [my] age don’t know that,” she said. “When I was coming up, in high school you were either really smart, really athletic, [or did hair]. … Unless you were doing those three things, what were you going to do?”

Through The Mix, Russell is trying to solidify and nurture the creative community in Birmingham, those who grew up here and those who have relocated to the city.

Sources of Inspiration

Russell is the oldest of three children: she has a 21-year-old brother and a 14-year-old sister. Her siblings inspire her because, she said, “We are a unit.”

As the oldest, she is the first one to do most things, including graduating from high school and going to college: “I feel as though I’m setting an example for them even when I don’t want to be,” she said.

Russell also is inspired by her mother, who owns a hair salon, and her father, who works at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB): “They’re very much [hustlers],” she said.

Russell attended Center Point High School and Wallace Community College before enrolling at UA, where she majored in art and started Noir magazine, a space for the university’s black creatives that shut down after she graduated because there was no one to take over.

“I really wanted to cultivate a community for creative people and … establish a platform for creative people who did different things, not necessarily just those majoring in art but those who were also creative and had talents they could show,” she said. “[I wanted to] build a community off of that because I felt there were so many dope people who were doing stuff, but nobody knew because it’s not put on a united front.”

With her mom being an entrepreneur, Russell learned about business. Another source of inspiration for Russell was her uncle, who was a photographer and videographer. He introduced her to those art forms, then she took a film class and fell in love with it. The experience also broadened her creative interests, and she decided to take a few drawing classes. In 2016, Russell’s uncle motivated her to become serious about her work, so she started selling her paintings.

“He really was one of the first people that … pushed me toward being creative and relying on self. He told me how important it was to be self-sufficient,” Russell said of her uncle, who died in December 2016.

Though painful, the loss of her uncle motivated her to continue nourishing the many seeds of wisdom he planted in her life.

“[My uncle] was a very strategic person. He planted seeds in me, and I think he knew that,” Russell said. “One of the main things he preached to me was, ‘Just when things seem dark, know that you are light, and you can make things brighter just by being yourself.’ He told me, ‘Don’t give into opinions or stereotypes. Just stay focused on what you want to do, and you can make that true for yourself.’

“He told me this stuff for a reason, so I had to really dig deep. [Losing my uncle] was painful. It hurts to lose someone you’re close to, … but you know you’re here for a reason, too, and it’s important for you to keep going no matter how you feel about the situation. … It was kind of like a kickstart for what I felt like I needed to do, … to stand tall in what I believe.”

Putting Her Best Foot Forward

In addition to running The Mix, Russell also started a branding business called Streak Social Media Consulting, which offers services for developing a brand, strategizing via social media, and building a business as a whole—“The ins and outs of your basic marketing agency in a person,” she said.

Russell feels that God has presented her with opportunities that aligned with starting the branding business.

“I’m a very spiritual person, so I feel like God calls a lot of us to do things,” she said. “I feel as though this was that for me … because, since I’ve started I have clients, I’m actually working, and it’s working out. I’m just continuing to be patient and follow by faith and not by sight, just staying strong in what I know and what I believe. … Things are good. Life is beautiful.”

The beauty comes from understanding the process, Russell added: “You have to work, no handouts. I’ve never been about that. I’ve always been about getting up and … doing it for yourself. I saw my mom and dad do that every day, so that’s all I know.”

Though she works hard, Russell also knows when to take a break from it all. In addition to drawing, she makes music, writes poetry and songs, and takes time to read. She also is a self-proclaimed “foodie.”

“I love eating and eating in peculiar spaces,” she said. “Birmingham has a lot of very cute, … underground, undiscovered restaurants and pop-up food situations, …. I love traveling and eating food.”

Ultimately, Russell is big on self-improvement and growth.

“I really try to just put my best foot forward … in everything I’m doing,” she said. “I’m really big on just being unapologetically myself, … at the same time knowing that I have an opportunity each day to be better than I was yesterday. I really cherish that. I prioritize that.

“I try to be my best self at all times. … I am human so there are lapses in that, and I take full accountability for that, as well, because that’s what makes me me. At the same time, … I know I can be better, I can be bigger, I can be more open, more free. I try to embody that and put that at the forefront of who I am as a person.”