It’s been a remarkable four months for Taj Critchlow. It’s actually been a remarkable four months for the whole world, but it’s been a uniquely remarkable four months for Critchlow.
On March 12, he was the executive producer of Popp Rok, the Toronto production company he built with Julien Christian Lutz (better known as Director X) as part of the Mile Inn commercial production collective.
On March 13, he was laid off as the full force of the COVID-19 pandemic began to wash across Canada and the Mile Inn owners moved quickly (and, Critchlow would say, rashly) to cut costs.
“I was devastated,” he says.
But now he’s launching a new production company called Fela, with an unambiguous goal to shake up Canadian advertising, inject some new energy into the commercial production sector, and to advocate for young BIPOC creative talent.
The four months between then and now included a series of transformative events, both for Critchlow and the world. Fela was “birthed in a revolution” he says. That experience first shaped and then validated the vision for his new company, crystallized in Fela’s mantra: “Own your culture, tell your stories.”
Twice now, Critchlow feels he’s been badly burned by business partners as he and Director X have tried to build their own production companies in Canada.
First it was Creative Soul, part of the short-lived S8 collective in 2015. Friends since high school in the early 90s, Critchlow and Lutz had already earned a reputation for their work on music videos with A-list musicians like Usher, Justin Bieber and Drake, with X directing and Critchlow his manager and executive producer.
But they wanted to do more advertising work, and were promised they’d get that chance if they joined S8. That’s not how things turned out. They got some brand work (including “Skittles Pawn Shop” with BBDO), but felt ignored and manipulated by the owners. They were unhappy, but kept quiet.
When a lifeline came from the upstart Mile Inn to start something new in Toronto, they took it, launching Popp Rok in late 2016.
At first it felt comfortable and good. There was a lot of creative spirit and energy flowing back and forth across the handful of boutiques that made up Mile Inn. But there, too, they started to feel under-appreciated, undervalued and ignored by the owners. “Tokenized,” is one of the words Critchlow uses.
Director X was one of the hottest directors in music, and young protégé Karena Evans was a rising star in the music industry, but they still felt resistance from the Canadian ad world and unsupported by the leaders at Mile Inn.
Once again, says Critchlow, they opted to stay quiet and not rock the boat. “A lot of times with respect to black employees, we worry about being described as difficult,” he says. “People like me are like ‘Okay fine, let me just play along.’ Because I did not want to become ‘difficult.'”
When Critchlow was summoned to the all-staff meeting on March 13, he’d just come back from L.A., where he had overseen Popp Rok music video shoots for Usher and Black Eyed Peas. They were also in post-production on a feature-length branded documentary for Bud Light with Anomaly. They had work in the pipeline, but Critchlow and two other Popp Rok employees were let go. They were told it was temporary because of the crisis, but the damage was done.
Critchlow and X had given everything to build Popp Rok and then it was taken away from them. “That broke my spirit,” he says.
For weeks he couldn’t sleep, until Evans recommended a 21-day meditation program meant to focus on abundance and the power of manifestation. “It built me back up spiritually,” he says.
His thinking also started to change, and he came to a realization that being pushed out of Popp Rok was his own fault for not learning from the S8 experience and failing to ensure that he had ownership.
And then George Floyd was killed in the street by Minneapolis police. Black society rose up almost as one to demand an end to systemic racism once and for all, and Critchlow was even more certain he needed to create something new that could be a force for change.
He ended up going back to Popp Rok for a few weeks after the Bud Light client expressed concern he was not there to finish their documentary. But by then Critchlow knew he was done with Mile Inn and Popp Rok. He walked away for good in early July.
Being the owner of Fela isn’t just about business, it is more than that, says Critchlow. “I wanted ownership because I come from a culture and a race that doesn’t own shit, that comes from nothing. And we have to fight for justice, we have to fight to be heard,” he says.
And what needs to be heard is that the Canadian ad industry is badly in need of change. The entire industry—from chief marketers, to agency creatives and producers to the directors at most production houses—has been dominated by an old guard that is mostly white.
It’s not that they don’t want to work with Black storytellers and producers, says Critchlow, it’s that they’re not actively seeking them out because they’re comfortable with what and who they know. The problem isn’t universal, he says, citing strong allyship from a handful of agencies including Anomaly, Sid Lee, Leo Burnett, Cundari and Juniper Park\TBWA. But it is too common.
It’s the structure and inertia of the system that make it hard for young Black creative talent to find work in the Canadian ad industry. “It’s funny, we talk about America being rooted in a history of racism, but America is still a better place of opportunity for Black men and Black women and people of colour,” he says.
“I tell people I had to move to America to get into the Canadian film industry,” is how X put it during a recent ICA panel.
One of the common excuses they hear is that music video work isn’t storytelling, says Critchlow. He then rhymes off a list of big-name directors who started out shooting music videos: Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Antoine Fuqua, F. Gary Gray.
The storytelling ability of X and Evans was enough to land big-budget commercial work in the U.S. for brands like the Gap and Tinder. Evans just directed the pilot of the Starz series P-Valley and an episode of the FX series Snowfall.
“She’s from Toronto,” says Critchlow. “But she can’t get a campaign in Toronto?”
“And you notice all the work that comes out of our market, it looks the same,” he adds. “Why does all the work look the same? Because they keep going to the same people, same directors and they have the same outcome, instead of bringing in new energy, diversity to bring flavour, and different colours and different tones and aesthetics and textures.”
That may be difficult for a lot of people to hear, but it needs to be said.
That’s why he and X felt they had to start a production company they own—to be a platform for young BIPOC creative talent, to mentor them and advocate for them across the industry. They plan to expand to the U.S., but Toronto will be the home office.”The reason why is I have to keep fighting for our market. I have to break down the walls. I have to fight for inclusion and diversity,” he says.
The absence of diversity was reinforced most vividly last week with the revelations about sexual harassment and racism at Mile Inn that led to the firing of its Toronto president.
Critchlow was shocked by the news, and had never heard about the 2013 email from a Mile Inn co-founder to the executive team that used the N-word. “It shows just how broken the system has been,” he says.
The stories of abuse and casual overt racism may be extreme examples, but it’s only possible because of a lack of diversity and representation, says Critchlow. If there were more women and more people of colour in Mile Inn’s executive suite, they would not have been able to behave like they did for so long.
“But because these guys had this toxic, misogynistic boys club, they were getting away with murder. But guess what? Justice has been fucking served.”
Fela is named after the late Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti. He was not only a creator of Afrobeat music, but an unrelenting social critic who spoke out loudly and often about corrupt governments in Africa, police brutality and the lingering damage caused by colonialism across the continent.
“He really resonated with me at a time when you had people from Paris to Australia yelling ‘George Floyd and Black Lives Matter,'” says Critchlow. “But what I really loved about what this man stood for was he said his music was a weapon, his art was a weapon.”
For Critchlow, Director X and Karena Evans, Fela will be about change and progress and breaking down barriers. Fela was born in a revolution that goes on. Own your culture, tell your stories.