Emil Wilbekin, Chief Creative Officer, Talks Passion to Purpose
Black Enterprise Magazine July/August 2018 Issue

Name: Emil Wilbekin

Profession: Chief Creative Office & Founder of World of Wilbekin (WOW!), which is a content curatorial and digital strategy company that works with media companies to help tell stories in the areas of diversity, multiculturalism, inclusion and Millennials across various platforms.

Age: 48

I have changed/contributed to my industry by: Expanding the vision, perspective, and voice of African Americans in pop culture and media.

According to Dictionary.com, a “griot” is described as “a member of a hereditary caste among the peoples of Western Africa whose function is to keep an oral history of the tribe or village and to entertain with stories, poems, songs, dances, etc.” Not since the days of our most beloved forefathers; Buford Delaney, James Baldwin, Richard Bruce Nugent, Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam, has a radical idealist come forth with a vision and voice as unique as Emil Wilbekin.

Groundbreaking as one of the founding editors of Vibe, which is single-handedly the most influential publication to emerge since Fire!!, Wilbekin worked his way from associate editor to style editor to fashion director and, in 1999, editor-in-chief. His dedication for urban culture and leadership to ensure all of his staff understood the significance of their work, was so fierce that Vibe won the coveted National Magazine Award for General Excellence from the American Society of Magazine Editors in 2002.

Why was this such a moment?

“Winning this award, when I was editor-in-chief at Vibe, was one of my greatest professional accomplishments because it was the first time an urban magazine had won, beating out Jane, Wired, The New Yorker, and Gourmet Magazine. When I gave the speech my mother and grandmother were present, and beyond that moment, it was a major accomplishment because we gave urban audiences a platform and voice and was recognized for it.”

The Cleveland, Ohio, native was created for this and that moment. After all, during his days at Hampton University he was editor of the Hampton Script, and growing up in such a artistic environment it was evident that culture would be the area he would gravitate towards, “to move culture and be inspired by people who have come before me — my mother, Dr. Cleota Wilbekin; Gordon Parks; Susan L. Taylor; and James Baldwin.

But no one can do it alone, and Wilbekin knows ‘team work makes the dream work.’

He continues, “My key advice is to dream big and don’t place limitations on yourself. Work really hard at whatever you do; to seek mentors who can help guide you and, lastly, to live an authentic life, whatever that means to you—-all those things will help you shine.”

As Vibe and the hip-hop culture thrived it proved to be a glorious time when print was king and, to borrow from The Wu-Tang Clan, “C.R.E.A.P (Cash Rules Everything Around Print).” But a few years later we would start to see a shift in how we produce, distribute and process news in a global manner. The emergence of Blogger and WordPress made it difficult for most publications and editorial staffs to compete with these new platforms. These challenges forced Wilbekin to re-evaulate his next move.

“Professionally, it was the shift from print media to digital media. Everything I ever studied in college, learned on the job or grew up knowing, suddenly wasn’t as relevant and the medium shifted from paper to technology. I had to figure out how to take my skill set and apply [it] to new constantly changing platforms,” he tells BE Modern Man.

After a successful run, Wilbekin left Vibe in 2004, having overseen Vibe.com, Vibe TV, and even produced the first Vibe Awards. He would continue his media reign as president of brand development for Marc Ecko Enterprises; reporter for AOL Black Voices; a consultant for Microsoft; editor-in-chief of Giant magazine and Giant.com; and, in 2009, managing editor of Essence.com and editor-at-large for the print version in 2012.

With an abundance of experience under his belt, Wilbekin acknowledges his clear point of view and how this has proven successful in current projects.

“I am a visionary and creative executive with an extreme business savvy attitude. I know how to marry art and commerce in my scope of work thanks to my tenures at Vibe, Giant and Essence magazines. My point of view is very distinct in my business and my other content creations as well,” he says.

Now, fast forward to 2015: the game has changed and we are all free agents trying to navigate our way through the congestion of blogs and Tumblr accounts. ‘Brands’ seem to pop up, claiming to build a bridge to connect subcultures and social media with the majority, but none have provided the tone and clarity like World of Wilbekin (WOW!).

“WOW! started in the Spring of 2015, and I wanted to create a platform that would move culture and that would focus on how to live your life authentically through the lens of art, culture, photography and storytelling, and would celebrate black excellence; another part of my strategy was that I would create a brand extension called Native Son to empower and inspire black gay men.”

Empowering, especially self, is one of the keys to allowing your voice to be clear and distinct in whatever walk you choose to take.

“Almost everyday a young black man approaches me on the street or leaves a comment on social media telling me how I have inspired their lives or career paths, and that’s why I decided to create #NativeSon to be a platform to inspire and empower black gay men.”

He continues, “For example, after the shootings in Orlando, Florida, I wrote a reactionary piece for World of Wilbekin about what it means to be a black gay man in America, particularly with Black Lives Matter in mind, and The Huffing-ton Post reached out because they wanted to post the essay on their Black and Queer Voices section because they have never heard a story like mine before. I talked about, as a black gay man, ‘Where can I feel safe in this country?’ So it was an opportunity to tell a different narrative and give a different perspective.”

But this race, as black man, is inclusionary and no one can afford to be left behind. How black men are portrayed, represented in the mainstream media, is deplorable and oftentimes frightening.

“In fact we are demonized and stereotyped. We are in challenging times where black men are now an endangered species and the president of The United States is a black man, which is why it [is] important to have a BE Modern Man like myself because it gives us, as a community and a culture, a voice, presence and perspective. If you’re not in the room then you cannot be a part of the shift and change. I tell people it’s very important to use your voice and speak up,” he tells BE Modern Man.

Which is one of the reasons Wilbekin is able to seamlessly navigate and break through the static in life and business.

“I break through the static and make impact by pushing the envelope and being innovative.”

Being named a BE Modern Man means being inducted into a fraternal brotherhood bound by a common thread: ensuring the future of the black man’s existence.

“Being a BE Modern Man means that I am a part of a successful, fearless and professional group of men who are not willing to be limited in their scope, vision or existence,” he says. “And it’s fellowship with other black men who share similar experiences and really support one another.”

“I think it is important for people to look at each part of BE Modern Man (BE= Be Present. Strong Minded + Modern Man = Forward. Visionary. Responsible. Successful). Be a man regardless of your sexual orientation, be a part of a community that elevates and celebrate black male achievement, showcases the diversity of black men, and elevates the conversation.”

The BE Modern Man team salutes Emil Wilbekin in his effort to expand and create new narratives on manhood in digital and artistic spaces among his fellow peers. We are excited to know that we have a BE Modern Man in Wilbekin, who is leading the charge by passing the torch and inspiring the new generation of visionaries and dreamers. To find out more about Emil and his creative projects, visit http://WorldofWilbekin.tumblr.com

It’s our normal to be extraordinary. Follow @blackenterprise and join the BE Modern Man conversation using #BEModernMan.

Join the Conversation


MORE ON BlackEnterprise.com