Standing in a circle in the parking lot of the Congaree National Park in South Carolina, Shydeia Caldwell, the founder of the Black Girl Magik collective, is leading a ritual workshop. She instructs us to step one-by-one into the middle of the circle, come up with a short combination of dance and sound — a clap and a yelp, a stomp and a hoot — and do it continuously while the rest of the group joins in, each person with their own invented choreography. Everyone looks around nervously, with fears and memories of middle school dances surging back like a wave. But we all want to be team players; no one will be sitting this one out. And soon, we all join — clapping, singing, saying short words and phrases. We look ridiculous, we know, but we are also impressed by how good we sound together; how good this primal song we have accidentally written is. We keep going until we erupt in laughter and applause. The energy has been lifted. We are a team.
This is the power of Black Girl Magik.
“I started BGM because I was craving to have a space with other women where we could have authentic conversations,” Caldwell tells Refinery29. “I wanted to create a place where complete strangers could be open and vulnerable with one another.” Founded in 2015, Black Girl Magik is focused on creating safe spaces for women of color on- and off- line. They do workshops around the country that include activities like tarot and ritual work, have a website that publishes artist interviews, essays that deal with topics like identity and mental health, and photography and video art. Their content — like this denim shoot collaboration — is all created by, or features, women of color. A physical manifestation of the BGM ethos.
If jeans are supposed to be universal — the great equalizer that everyone rich to poor wears — why is our vision of this all-American fabric still tied to the blonde and the blue-eyed, to the cowboys, to the underage models leering at the camera saying nothing comes between them and their jeans? It’s time to change the very notion of the ideals that were built by the antiquated standards of culture and beauty that didn’t value diversity. But it goes beyond representation.
Nicole: Beaufille Apollo Ruched Blouse, $710, available at Net-A-Porter; Levi's Altered Trucker Jacket, $98, available at Levi's; Levi's Altered Wide Leg Jeans, $128, available at Levi's. Andreia: Arjé dress; Proenza Schouler Medium Hammered Earrings, $695, available at Proenza Schouler. Ariel: Shaina Mote Curve Sweater, $317, available at Shaina Mote; Ksenia Schaider Dark Blue Jeans, $409, available at Shopbop; Closer by Wwake Suspended Earrings, $375, available at Closer by Wwake.
“Everything I do in my work is to give thanks to my ancestors,” Shydeia explains. “Being on that land where probably a lot of my ancestors were abused, being able to stand on that ground and show them the honor that they deserve while engaging in a creative project was really special in a spiritual way.” Earlier in the day, while walking through the trail, someone else had said “I feel a connection to this place;”she knelt down and burned a little bit of sage in front of a tree with roots so massive that figuring out its age proved to be a humbling experience in its own.
“Sisterhood is power,” they say more than once.
Andreia: Arjé dress; Proenza Schouler Medium Hammered Earrings, $695, available at Proenza Schouler. Nicole: Beaufille Apollo Ruched Blouse, $710, available at Net-A-Porter; Levi's Altered Trucker Jacket, $98, available at Levi's; Levi's Altered Wide Leg Jeans, $128, available at Levi's. La'Shaunae: Universal Standard Thames Fog Top, $60, available at Universal Standard; ASOS Curve Cami Body, $35, available at ASOS; Avenue Denim Skirt, $50, available at Avenue. Ja'Sonia: Apiece Apart sweater; 3.1 Phillip Lim Denim Skirt, $350, available at Shopbop. Ariel: Shaina Mote Curve Sweater, $317, available at Shaina Mote; Ksenia Schaider Dark Blue Jeans, $409, available at Shopbop; Closer by Wwake Suspended Earrings, $375, available at Closer by Wwake.
The models — Ja’sonia Hinton, an R&B singer, Nicole Sullivan, an aspiring editor, La’shaunae Steward, a plus-size model, Andreia Wardlaw, a history major, and Ariel Watson, a videographer (who did double duty and directed the video for the shoot as well) — are a mix of real life friends, internet friends, and strangers-turned-friends that very same day. For a few of the women, their friendships started on Tumblr, where they all seemingly gravitated towards Caldwell’s page, where she was posting her poems at the time. “I felt like she was my sister from the first time I reblogged her poetry,” Hinton remembers. “I felt her energy through the computer screen.” Sullivan adds: “You know how you feel you’ve known people for a long amount of time? They’re just a beautiful group of people.”
Steward, meanwhile, had met everyone that same morning. “They sent me an email,” she explained. “I’m really nervous, but really excited.” You wouldn't have been able to guess she’d be nervous; on her Instagram, she has 65 thousand followers and posts almost-daily photographs of her outfits — sheer dresses, cropped tops, bikinis — her gaze always staring straight at the camera, defiantly at the viewer. But in this space, it was okay to show her vulnerability.
Nicole: Brock Collection sweater; Tome skirt; Everlane Modern Boyfriend Jean, $68, available at Everlane; Sachin and Babi Sparklers Earrings, $250, available at Sachin and Babi. Andreia: Arjé jacket; Off White Lace Body, $667, available at Off White; Off White jeans. Ja'Sonia: AYR Denim Kimono, $195, available at AYR; Baldwin Harper Trouser, $325, available at Baldwin; Leigh Miller Jetty Earring, $150, available at Leigh Miller.
“Sisterhood is the initial source of freedom, the source of being yourself,” says Anaka, the photographer. “It is the source of finding a community that loves you no matter how you choose to grow.”
While getting their hair and makeup done, A Seat at the Table softly plays, and Watson starts to dance along to Solange’s choreography. “I won’t dance embarrassingly today,” she says. This is the perfect place for you to do the choreography, someone reminds her, and so she continues. They start shooting and there’s too much excitement. “Everyone stop talking and breathe,” Anaka tells them, “I am getting too many open mouths.” They are standing barefoot on the muddy ground, making sure everyone applies bug repellent, and even scratching each other on the spots they missed and the bugs found. When they get too serious for the photographs, they start sharing old stories, and showing each other videos on their phone. They give each other compliments, on their hair and on their clothes. They talk about their favorite incense.
Throughout the day they share the women that have inspired them. Wardlaw is inspired by the unknown slave women and freed women she reads about in her history courses. Steward looks up to writer and influencer Sanam Sindhi. Sullivan is empowered by women like Julia Sarr-Jamois, Elaine Welteroth, and Melina Matsoukas, “you know, just a lot of smart black women that are kicking butt right now, and have the titles that I didn’t see black women having when I was growing up.” She adds: “It makes me feel very optimistic about my future, about what will happen soon if I really work my butt off.” These women, known and unknown, also belong to the sisterhood, connected through time and space.
“And I’m going all the way, but I’ll leave on the lights for you,” sings Solange in her latest album, and it’s not difficult to see the way these young women keep entering dark room after dark room and changing them with their light. “I think people of color have always used art as a means of freedom,” says Anaka, “because freedom of expression is a way to survive.”
Nicole: Apiece Apart sweater; Tibi Raw Denim Midi Skirt, $375, available at Tibi; Everlane High-Rise Skinny Jean, $68, available at Everlane; Leigh Miller Sea Stone Necklace, $345, available at Leigh Miller. Ja'Sonia: Juan Carlos Obando Blouse, $1,595, available at Shopbop; Good American The Pin Up Dress, $225, available at Good American. Andreia: 3x1 Aikido Coverall Jumpsuit, $395, available at 3x1. Ariel: A.W.A.K.E. Corduroy Top, $670, available at Shopbop; Citizens of Humanity Estella Side Ruffle Jeans, $328, available at Citizens of Humanity. La'Shaunae: Universal Standard Loire Ribbed Tank, $40, available at Universal Standard; Avenue Denim Skirt, $50, available at Avenue; Torrid Distressed Denim Jacket, $44.17, available at Torrid.
In their hands, a fashion story would never be just a fashion story. They shared their inspiration with us and in turn inspire us to live more truthful, honest lives. “I feel like I am in a transitional phase right now so I am just making sure i’m surrounded by positive energy, trying to live in the present, and appreciate things,” Sullivan explained mirroring the feelings and energy of so many of us in these current times. “[I’m trying to make myself] realize that these are memories, not just things to live through quickly.” And lucky for us, the memories of this magical day in South Carolina exist in these beautiful photographs and video, that we are so thrilled to share with you.
She added, “Sisterhood is simply love.”