Why Gal-Dem’s Closure Feels “Too Close To Home” For Black Creatives

Photographed by Tino Chiwariro
As soon as the announcement of gal-dem’s closure was released last week, there was an outpouring of love and support for the magazine. The long-standing community stalwart, founded by Liv Little in 2015, had dedicated eight years to sharing perspectives of women and non-binary people of colour and it will be sorely missed. For those who grew up with gal-dem through all of its iterations, it was immediately clear that the publication was a cut-through in an increasingly bleak media landscape that is still 87% white and 54% male. Given that the publication still has so much love from the audience that it served, it’s hard not to take this loss as an invalidation.
The collective closing letter from gal-dem staff read: “Through a global pandemic, brand budget reductions and economic downturn, we have worked tirelessly to reconfigure how we operate… it’s been difficult to sustain the level of growth needed here to support our work in the long term.”
A global pandemic and a recession make it near impossible for any business to thrive, let alone survive. But that of a purpose-driven, independent media organisation, whose sole mission was to centre and uplift people of colour and marginalised genders, means that this loss is monumental.
gal-dem’s former senior politics editor, Naomi Larsson Piñeda said: “It's undoubtedly a huge loss for the media landscape and all of the people who gal-dem spoke to. It was a safe space for so many new and emerging writers, and unlike other publications, gal-dem specifically sought to give people their first bylines or other first creative opportunities. In a world that is increasingly hostile against minoritised communities, especially the media, this feels like a particularly tragic and worrying loss. Our communities deserved better.”
Overnight, 300 strong POC and queer writers, editors, illustrators and creatives — who brought this publication to life over the years — lost either their main source of income or one of their income streams. Its readers, mainly women and non-binary people of colour under 35, are now left asking where to turn for independent media, and where to go to see their own experiences reflected back at them. And that’s not to say that, alongside platforms like Unbothered, there aren’t any other independent, UK-based publications to support; publications like Black Ballad, Amaliah and BRICKS magazine have been running under memberships or subscription-based services for some time now. However, overall, the options are limited.
“I think [gal-dem's closure] is sad. I think representation isn’t just seeing yourself in spaces — which if people haven’t noticed, is the new lazy tactic for diversity. ‘Look [here's] a brown person —so we’ve done the thing now!’ Erm no, Mandy, Karen, Paul and Kent, we haven’t," said Kevin Morosky, founder and chief creative officer of  POCC, a creative studio powered by Black and brown creatives. "Taking up space and being able to move the industry is part of the conversation and that’s what gal-dem was doing.”

Does Gal-Dem's Closure Signal The End Of 'Black Square Summer' Allyship?

We’re approaching our third year into what was dubbed “black square summer". After the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and in the midst of the lockdown, we opened our Instagram feeds to find what was essentially a social media blackout. Post after post of black squares with captions of “listening and learning, but staying silent” from mostly white people feeling like it was their time to step back and allow Black people to take the stage.
All of a sudden Black people were foisted into the limelight. Diversity & Inclusion pledges were made by businesses, large and small. Black corporate workers were called in to lead workshops for their white counterparts. Black influencers and content creators were featured on every white influencers' “Sunday shares” on social media and roundups of small Black businesses to support were boundless. Growth was astronomical. 
Nova Reid, author and anti-racism educator, said that her business saw a 600% increase in 2020, which has now significantly dropped. Apart from her work as an author and speaker, she offers an online anti-racism training course for people to purchase and work through in their own time.“A year later, I’m seeing this extraordinary decline and having to deal with the fact that unfortunately what elevated Black businesses, including mine, was the murder of a Black man.” 
Nova explained that the sheer volume of people and businesses who bought into her course was so much that she had to then upgrade tech services, refilm content to make it up-to-date and hire more staff so that her service could run smoothly and efficiently. Only to find that once she did that, people didn’t open her course. Not once.
“It’s obvious that some of it was a reflex from non-Black people to assuage their guilt. They’re not thinking about how they can factor this [working with Black businesses or purchasing from Black businesses] into their everyday lives, or everyday spending or everyday gifting.”
Nova has been working in the anti-racism education space for many years now, long before the topic started being discussed in more mainstream circles. From the beginning, she was sceptical about how this sudden wave of support would affect Black businesses and the wider community
“Particularly if you’ve been running your business since before black square summer you know — and given the work that I do it’s predictable as hell. It’s also manipulative and problematic, it’s very ugly behaviour, [especially] if you don’t have that background and knowledge about how white supremacy works in the ‘nice, well-meaning liberal [settings].’”

“I think for people like me who operate a non-traditional media platform that covers a non-traditional subject matter and content, gal-dem was a symbol of what we could do on our own, a symbol of how we could pioneer conversations around the topics that mattered to us..."

Emma Slade Edmondson, host mixed-up
Kevin was also entirely sceptical of the sudden wave of support from “well-meaning” customers or brands wanting to be seen as doing the right thing. “We turned down a lot of money and collaborations over the past three years — from ALL your favourite brands. Because we knew and felt it was always going to be a one-night stand kinda thing. Because of this, we’re not dependent in a lot of ways that other Black and brown-owned companies are now, that’s no tea no shade — like, we get it —  everyone has to do what they have to do, but the main function of POCC  is protection and growth of community so we HAVE to turn away from the spaces that hurt us regardless of the money they want to and wanted to throw at us.”
Kevin is passionate about the importance of community building and how newer businesses, freelancers or creatives can join together, instead of solely relying on support outside of ourselves. “The problem now for Black and brown businesses during this period is [to get] into formation with each other — now really is the time for us to be shouting ‘gang gang gang!’ together. And supporting each other.”

Black Businesses Are Struggling After 'Buy Black' Support Dwindles

When financial support is taken away what is the impact on our businesses, but also our mental health and our self-worth?
“I was working full time when the pandemic hit, in a job I hated, doing digital content on the side. Then, in June 2020, there was a scramble for people to diversify their feeds. I gained over 10K followers in less than a week. It had a real effect on my confidence — suddenly people were following me because of the colour of my skin and not because they actually enjoyed the content I was creating,” said Ghenet Pinderhughes Randall, a content creator and freelance digital marketer based in London. 
“It took some time to wrestle with that idea, and I’m not sure I’ve ever really recovered from it. The leap in followers also meant I had a lot more brand work dropping into my inbox. I was able to pay off my credit card and have savings for the first time in my adult life. I was finally able to quit my [full-time] job.” 
But now for Ghenet the growth and the work have slowly dwindled.
“I have a stagnated audience that hasn’t grown since 2020 and never had any actual interest in engaging with me or my content. The work is barely coming in and when it does, I’m being asked to work for free or I’m offered a pittance in exchange for a lot of time and skill. It’s frustrating but it’s also out of my control. I’m currently trying to build up my freelance work supporting small businesses with their digital marketing, something I’m really passionate about but the frustration hasn’t gone away as I’ve lost out on work and been overlooked again and again.”

“The decision to close gal-dem feels too close to home. One that many of us are grappling with on a daily basis.”

emma, co-host of the 'mixed-up' podcast
The outlook has been the same for Emma Slade Edmondson, sustainability and behavioural change consultant and podcast co-host of Mixed Up. “I think for people like me who operate a non-traditional media platform that covers a non-traditional subject matter and content, gal-dem was a symbol of what we could do on our own, a symbol of how we could pioneer conversations around the topics that mattered to us even when met with people telling us no, [or] telling us it wouldn’t work, no one was interested in what we had to say, that it wasn’t worth doing, and was of no monetary ‘value’.”
Emma said that the aftermath of attention that followed from black square summer felt dispiriting because of “empty promises from brands” while simultaneously being encouraged to “scale up” without any support. Audiences and brands wanted more and more content to consume at the cost of Black creators' and creatives' mental health who also struggled to produce at scale without any funding.
“In actual fact, we’ve seen other bigger companies profit off of our work. A good example of this being with [my podcast] Mixed Up. An ex-agency, having been granted funding to branch into podcasting, presented our work as part of their portfolio… you won’t be surprised to learn that we received no trickle-down funding or support whatsoever. 
“In reality, we are left with impossible decisions around whether to carry on with the work when we are unsuitably compensated, often emotionally exploited for our stories, and run ragged trying to do everything ourselves in a system that doesn’t value us or our work in the way it should,” she explains. “The decision to close gal-dem feels like one that is too close to home. One that many of us are grappling with on a daily basis.”
Kalkidan Legesse is the founder and owner of Sancho, an ethical and fair trade retailer based in Exeter. The bricks and mortar location closed at the end of March and they announced they would be going on sabbatical as they pivot to online until the end of 2024. They have also launched OWNI, an AI resale app.
“Best case scenario for Sancho is that we find someone to operate it,” explains Kalkidan, who cited that going on sabbatical was the best possible decision for her and her partner/co-founder, as well as her team. 
“I imagine what we’re doing practically, is very similar to gal-dem. We’re taking a bit of time. We’re not in a place that means we’re forced to close, but we're taking time because we deserve that, because we’re human. The biggest relief I’ve found this year is calling it ‘a sabbatical’, this term has left me open to flexibility.”

Businesses are cutting back, people are being laid off, and purse strings are tightening. With that also comes a decrease in the emphasis on buying Black, supporting local businesses and our local communities...

Jamii started as an online discovery platform for independent UK Black businesses and offers a discount to shop at those businesses to its members. They released a report, polling the 200 businesses they have in their directory on what the economic recession looks like for these small businesses and how Black business owners are feeling. Collectively, these businesses maintain that they saw a huge surge of support following the death of George Floyd in May 2020 and that there was a nationwide call to “buy Black” which continued into 2021 and positively impacted sales. 
The combination of the pandemic and the recession is also attributed to the slowing in sales across the board. Businesses are cutting back, people are being laid off, and purse strings are tightening. With that also comes a decrease in the emphasis on buying Black, supporting local businesses and our local communities who are already reporting that they lack the cash reserves to survive, unlike the majority of mainstream retailers. According to Jamii’s report, ‘89% are concerned about the impact the recession will have on them and 84% of Black businesses have seen no growth this year.’ 

“There needs to be more nuance and understanding about what it means to run a business that is Black-owned in a society that is inherently anti-Black,”

Research also shows that the majority of Black business owners don’t feel like they have the knowledge or access to valuable business information and resources that will help them during times of hardship. It’s also been reported by eBay that Black British women are more likely than other communities to enter entrepreneurship, start a side hustle or a business. More than a  third (37%) of Black female business owners reported making no profit last year, compared to 16% of white male business owners.
“If we go back to the abolition of slavery, enslaved people were granted freedom with no money or property to their names. I’m not surprised that there are so many people who are entrepreneurs with our backgrounds, it’s in our lineage. What’s not changed is the difficulty in accessing support and being seen as credible by banks and by customers. You’re always having to convince people that you’re worth it,” said Nova. 
The landscape is looking unpredictable at the moment. Many of us of a certain age have now lived through multiple recessions, and history shows us that with an economic downturn, an upswing follows. But when there is a systemic gap, and a lack of resources and information available to business owners looking for support and ultimately funds to keep afloat, that means that there is more to lose than to gain.
“There needs to be more nuance and understanding about what it means to run a business that is Black-owned in a society that is inherently anti-Black,” said Nova.
gal-dem’s closure, unfortunately, signals the end of an era, and you can’t help but wonder who else's stories will not be told as a result. The trickle-down effect this has on our media, our creatives, and small businesses cannot see their way out of a system and a landscape that isn’t built with them in mind.