Did you know that one of the longest running shows in American history was created and produced by a Black man? Don Cornelius made it his mission to put Black joy on our television screens, and for over 30 years he did just that with the must-see TV variety show Soul Train. From 1971 until 2006, Soul Train not only featured the hottest Black artists on the planet, it also showcased the latest dance moves, hairstyles, and fashion while constantly defining and redefining what it meant to be cool. The show was made for us and by us because Don Cornelius knew and understood the importance of controlling our narrative and exposing positive images of Black people throughout the decades. Now, seven years after his death, BET is telling the story behind the legend in American Soul starring Sinqua Walls as Don Cornelius.
One specific topic that we discussed with Sinqua that surfaces in American Soul is the concept of Black ownership, what it means, and how it was part of the foundation of Don’s career and the genesis and eventual success of Soul Train.
During a time when Black ownership and representation in business and media was often times contrived and controlled, Don Cornelius made it his business to keep his community first with positive images that weren’t often seen in mainstream media.
“Don was very emphatic in making sure that he owned the majority of all shares and stakes in Soul Train in order to have creative control and vision in how the narrative of Soul Train went,” Sinqua told Black Love.
Black ownership is about empowering oneself, the community, building and writing our own narratives, and it’s also about the path to financial freedom. It goes beyond the concept of entrepreneurship because anyone can create a business, it’s about creating opportunities for ourselves when there is no space that exists for us in certain areas of business. So, when we don’t see ourselves reflected or represented in a meaningful and positive way, we often take a page out of Don Cornelius’ book and push forward to develop businesses to represent the fullness of how diverse, beautiful, talented and intelligent Black people are.
Beyond the fact that Don made sure to control his business in order to make sure that he wasn’t taken advantage of, his foresight by doing this allowed him to control the narrative of his show while building a brand — an empire. And with this, Soul Train became more than just a show — it became a cultural phenomenon that grew and expanded in ways that didn’t necessarily seem possible at the time.
The authenticity of Don’s vision and the importance of his ownership of the brand came into play and mattered and when Dick Clark launched Soul Unlimited to compete with Soul Train. The show was a complete knockoff and was developed to compete directly with Don’s show. Knowing that having competition that was developed to detract to the significance of Soul Train, Don enlisted the help of Jesse Jackson to make it clear that Soul Unlimited was developed to undermine his creation, ABC cancelled the show after a few episodes. Due to this, Don Cornelius was able to leverage his brand and collaborate with Dick Clark on specials that highlighted important Black artists at the time. That’s what you call a power move.
Owning his business empowered Don Cornelius to take the little engine that could to the next level by making it the big engine that could do anything. After over a decade of success and syndication, Don launched the Soul Train Awards in the mid-80s which still airs every winter on BET and celebrates the best artists in Black music past and present. He also launched The Lady Of Soul Awards which had a narrow focus on the amazing Black women in the music industry, and he even had the very short-lived Soul Train Comedy Awards.
Without Don Cornelius’ vision, there is no Bad Boy Records, there is no Roc Nation, there would be no BET, no Issa Rae, no Lena Waithe and certainly no Black Love.
Through Don’s vision and dedication to Black people everywhere, he taught the importance of loving the community, self and also the importance of being a Black business owner because through that came influence and the ability to empower the masses to realize that Black is beautiful, smart and powerful.
Don’t forget to tune into BET on Tuesday evenings at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. CT for new episodes of American Soul.