Is Diddy’s New Black News Network a Ripoff of Artist Kahlil Joseph’s Acclaimed Venice Biennale Project? Some Critics Think So

Film director Barry Jenkins is among those taking to Twitter to point out the similarities.

Sean Combs. Photo by Paul Bruinooge, ©Patrick McMullan.

Music mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs surprised fans over the weekend by announcing the launch of a new platform, “Black News,” to report current events from the perspective of the black community.

This might be welcome news to many, but for some, it brought about an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Artist, filmmaker, and music video director Kahlil Joseph, creative director of Los Angeles’s Underground Museum, presented a strikingly similar concept at the 2019 Venice Biennale with his video, BLKNWS.

And it didn’t take long for many in the cultural community—including Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk director Barry Jenkins—to point that out.

Diddy introduced his latest endeavor in an Instagram video: “I always wanted to develop a platform to report the news from our perspective, from our lens, from our people—so I decided to launch ‘Black News,'” he said.

Amandla Stenberg appears in BLKNWS by Kahlil Joseph. Image courtesy of the artist.

The framing echoes the thinking behind Joseph’s project, which Artnet News editor-in-chief Andrew Goldstein described as “a two-channel video that imagines a cable news network animated by a cosmopolitan, culturally omnivorous, politically engaged, art-loving, and intellectual black sensibility—a bit like if BET merged with CNN and then merged with Artforum and the New Yorker.”

Joseph has declined to comment on the similarity, but his fans and colleagues haven’t been so circumspect. While no one person could make an exclusive claim to such a big idea, some have pointed out that it is unlikely that Diddy was unaware of Joseph’s work, and expressed disappointment that the precedent went unacknowledged.

“At first I was SURPRISED then delighted that Kahlil and Diddy came together but then I checked and… I’m sorry but this ain’t right,” Barry Jenkins wrote on Twitter. “It illustrates how one can collect art without SEEING it. Bcuz how can Kerry James Marshall be on your wall but u not know of Kahlil Joseph?”

It would be easy to assume that Combs had teamed up with Joseph to bring BLKNWS to a wider audience. The musician is also a high-profile art collector who has been known to make the rounds at Art Basel Miami Beach with art advisor Maria Brito—she helped him pull the trigger on his $21.1 million purchase of Marshall’s Past Times (1997) at Sotheby’s in 2018.

And even if Combs were not so embedded in the visual arts, Joseph has close ties to the music industry, having directed music videos for the likes of Kendrick Lamar and FKA Twigs. His most high-profile project, creating the visual album for Beyoncé’s Lemonade, was nominated for an Emmy.

Joseph originally conceived of BLKNWS as a pitch reel for an actual news program that he presented to major news networks. They all passed. Instead, the project was incubated at the Cantor Arts Center at California’s Stanford University before appearing in what is arguably the world’s most prestigious exhibition for contemporary art.

Since then, BLKNWS has appeared at David Zwirner in New York, as part of an exhibition of Joseph’s late brother, painter, curator, and Underground Museum founder Noah Davis. It was screened at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival in January before a limited release at independent cinemas across the country. The piece was also scheduled to be on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Brooklyn’s Weeksville Heritage Center, an event that was cancelled due to the global health crisis.

Asked about the controversy, curator Helen Molesworth, who appeared on a mock news segment in BLKNWS, told Artnet News: “Unfortunately, I do think that this is an example of plagiarism. Joseph’s BLKNWS has had wide and heterogenous exposure, from screenings at the Underground Museum to the Venice Biennale, from being workshopped at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford to its existence in the lobby of the Eaton Hotel in Washington, DC. It’s been circulated widely among Hollywood folks and many music industry people own copies of it. So I find it hard to believe, to Barry Jenkins’s point, that anyone, by which I mean Diddy, who owns a Kerry James Marshall and professes to be all about the culture, isn’t aware of what the director of Lemonade is up to. But the real question for me is why did he continue with it even after he was explicitly informed? What version of the culture is that?”

Joseph’s project is due to get another showing at the now-postponed “Made in LA 2020: a version” biennial, with the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles partnering with the Los Angeles Nomadic Division to present the artwork at black-owned businesses and other sites across the city. LAND and the Hammer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Combs is launching his version of “Black News” on REVOLT TV, the music cable network he started in 2003. The first episode, featuring special guests Nick Cannon, Jhene Aiko, Styles P, Angela Yee, and Deepak Chopra, debuted Sunday night on REVOLT TV’s YouTube channel and offers tips on how to use food and herbs to boost immunity and enhance wellness. According to REVOLT, the concept was inspired by a town hall held on REVOLT about the impact of coronavirus on Black America. (Separately, Black News Channel, a broadcast television news channel headquartered in Tallahassee, debuted on February 10 during Black History Month.)

Diddy could not be reached, and REVOLT TV did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The feedback to Diddy’s project has been mixed, to say the least. “It’s a tender time and while I appreciate @Diddy launching a news beat directed towards black issues, there is already a project title[d] BLKNWS and it’s authored by a black artist. Disappointed in his team for this oversight,” said independent curator Kimberley Drew on Twitter. “We need a voice right now, but we cannot overwrite the work of our peers.”

“It’s blatant plagiarism,” added Tunisian writer and curator Myriam Ben Salah on Twitter. “This is a rip-off of Kahlil Joseph’s #BLKNWS.”

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