If you were anywhere near the internet in 2012, chances are you've seen Franchesa Ramsey's (also known as Chescaleigh) “Sh*t White Girls Say…to Black Girls” video and fell in love with the hilarious and bright youtube sensation.
Her Chescaleigh comedy channel is full of a mix of song parodies, impersonations and original characters as well as socially conscious and topical comedy sketches. She is also known for her Chescalocs channel which focuses on natural hair care and styling. For years, Franchesa, who has over 250k subscribers combined and over 26 million views on her videos, has been using her voice and platform to analyze race, social causes, and pop culture in America while teaching her viewers to critically confront race and other social issues.
Franchesa has been featured on MTV, The New York Times, NPR, Ebony Magazine and The BBC. Her masterful use of comedy to tackle tough issues like race and social justice has landed her the role of host for the MTV News webseries “Decoded”. There's a new episode of “Decoded” every Wednesday.
For Harriet's founder and Editor-in-Chief Kimberly Foster caught up with Franchesca to discuss being a Black woman in the age of Youtube.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
For Harriet: How long have you been creating content for the internet?
Franchesca: I've been on YouTube since 2006. I've been making internet content since 1998. When I was in the 8th grade I started my own website. So, I've really grown up online.
How has the landscape changed from the time that you started to now?
The landscape has changed drastically because now you can make a career out of your online presence. Even when I started making videos, there was no partner program. You weren't making money off of your YouTube videos, it was strictly for fun. Now because you can make a career, you've got people transitioning to TV. There are people that have products in stores, clothing lines, make-up brands, and all these awesome things outside the internet because of their online presence.
And I always tell people you have to do it because you love it, because those opportunities don't come for everyone. And sometimes they do come but they take a really long time. I had been making videos for 6 years before "Shit White Girls Say" went viral. And I wasn't making videos that I liked to go viral, I was making videos because it was fun. I had a regular job and YouTube was just my creative outlet. And I think that it's great to be very business-minded and strategic about the content that you create, but I do see a lot of people that are maybe doing questionable things or following trends or just jumping on bandwagons because they think, "This is what's going to go viral. This is what's going to get lots of followers on Twitter." Or whatever else. And it's less about just making great content that they believe in.
When I got to college and YouTube came out, I was an aspiring actress who had an agent that never sent me out on anything. When I did get sent out, the parts were really terrible. YouTube was really a place where I could make stuff that I thought was funny and stuff that I thought was interesting. I started making hair videos initially because I didn't have anyone to help me with my hair, I didn't know where to go, and I didn't see myself reflected anywhere online. It was always just a place to express myself and be who I am.
What sort of impact does being such a heavy internet user during the time when you're really trying to find yourself have on your development?
So I do think that growing up online has really shaped who I am and what I do online now; but I do think that it was also really good for me because I now feel very comfortable on the online space. Like I know how to cultivate an opinion in 140 characters, because I've been doing it for a long time. You know?
So they really have a large amount of influence over like who is successful online. When you look at the top creators, we do have a lot of white creators in the top 100 and a lot of Asian creators in the top 100. I do think that we need a little bit more diversity in the people that are really big on YouTube, but I don't know how much of that is YouTube's fault. I think that they could be doing more to promote more diverse creators, because they have had advertising campaigns, television commercials, and billboards for creators, and they have not been very diverse at all. But besides that I think that brands need to expand their horizons as to who they work with.
You know all of those things are connected. Like the people who rise to the top are the people who have access to expensive cameras, computers, and high-speed internet at home. So the people who have access, unfortunately end up being a lot of white people. So I think it's like a multi-layered issue. I also think unfortunately a lot of people of color who do rise up to the top end up relying on like a lot of stereotypes and harmful content. Because that's what they believe their audiences want to see or that's what's going to make them successful and marketable and then it works. So it's like, yeah I'll keep making these like stereotypical jokes because that's what people want and it's made me successful so why would I stop.
I think that you're ahead of the pack in the niche of YouTube to create very smart cultural commentary that balances levity with being very, very informative. And I love that you have taken that to MTV. So how did "Decoded" come about?
And then in 2013, MTV produced a web series called "Braless," which was hosted by Laci Green and is still on MTV. It's a web series and they've gotten millions of views. It's focused around feminism and pop culture. And so with the success of that show MTV was like, "We really think we should do something that is about race, especially with the cultural climate." So much stuff was happening like Ferguson and Trayvon Martin, so audiences were really calling for this kind of content. The production company that produces "Braless" talked to MTV about developing a show around race and pop culture, and based on my previous pitch, my name was like in the little circulation for a host. And I met with the production company, it was almost eerie how similar what they had wanted to do to was to what I had initially pitched to MTV. So we worked together to refine it so it was a good balance of both of our voices. It took about 8 months from start to finish to actually get it green lit and off the ground. So that was the end of 2014 and then in March I we got the okay, and spent a few months working on the name, and the set, and pulling together like our writers, and figuring out what our voice was.
Actually, it's been like surprisingly easy and awesome. It was obviously always a challenge for me to produce on my own and on a schedule because I've always worked. I very briefly did YouTube full time, and even when I was doing it, I was also acting, public speaking, and consulting. It's really hard and time consuming to film and edit by yourself. So I never was able to stick to a schedule which is something that I regret.
So the luxury of working with MTV is that I have a team that can create the stuff that I have in my mind. You know a lot of times I find myself limited by my own skills. I would say, "This is what I really want to do, but I don't know how to do it" or I don't have the time and so there's a whole team at Kornhaber Brown that I can say, "Wouldn't it be really cool if we had a gospel choir show up and then this happen and then this happen," and they say, "Okay great we'll find them, we'll hire them. You want to do animation? Great, we'll get our animators in here."
And now that we've gotten 20 something episodes under our belt, it's a lot easier for me now, because I know when I need to get my script in and kind of the flow of our work flow, and it's a lot easier than I think most people would assume.
That's a really good question. I haven't really found anything that I've been afraid to tackle. Sometimes I get a little nervous when other people say certain things. Like I'm very conscious about whose content I share. Sometimes I will really agree with something that someone says but I'll dig around and see what other stuff that they talk about. And then I'm like, "Oh I don't really agree." I know some people that are very pro-black on the internet and I completely support them. But sometimes they venture into, "Let's kill all white people," or things like that and it makes me really uncomfortable and then I'm kind of like hesitant.
But aside from that, I can't really think of any topics that I've shied away from.
No, I try to keep the same mind about my content that I have always had. I want to make sure that I can stand behind the things that I say. As long as I feel confident in the content that I'm putting out there, I don't really worry about it. That's not to say that I won't still make mistakes or that I have to learn from those mistakes when they present themselves.
Oh my gosh, all the time. It happens all the time. I am very honest about the fact that I've had to learn things throughout my career and I think that that's a result of growing up slightly sheltered and not being exposed to certain things.
You know, even being checked on my language, when I talked about the Stonewall movie I used "gay" and "homophobia" very liberally to talk about a large intersection of people that includes LGBTQ. "Gay" is not really a catch-all for all those different identities, and so someone had to say to me, okay you're not just talking about gay people, you're talking about all these different identities so you shouldn't use "gay" or "homophobia" to talk about all those different types of people. And I had a moment of being like, "Whoa I hadn't really thought about that." There are all these different sexual identities that are asking for representation and asking for equal rights and they don't identify as gay.
So I'm very open to that because there's no way for me to get it right every single time. I'm not perfect, I don't know everything. So I try to be an example for my audience, to say I'm open to that feed back, so I hope you can be open to that feedback too, because no one is perfect.
I grew up listening to riot grrrl music and reading things about women's issues and fighting against patriarchy. I read about those things as a teenager and it was interesting to me. I was really engaged in the LGBTQ community and I was just exposed to those things earlier than I was exposed to talking about racial equality and my identity as a black woman. And so I've always felt really comfortable identifying myself as someone that believes in the equality of women and men. That's just never been something that I shied away from.
I'm very much of the mind that I care less about the label and more about the work. Like I see lots of people who do the work but say "I don't identify as a feminist." Then they champion feminist causes and they celebrate feminist ideals but they just don't want the label.