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The Ozy Finesse, Explained

The scandal surrounding Ozy Media is a story about capitalism, racial equity and what people really mean when they say, 'One of my best friends is Black.'

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Photo: Noam Galai (Getty Images)

Who is Carlos Watson?

Carlos Watson is a finesser.

Wait. I think you mean “financier.”

No, I meant what I said. He didn’t finance anything. According to the New York Times, Watson got some of the richest people in America to finance Ozy Media, the digital media platform he co-founded in 2013.

What is Ozy Media?

A finesse.

Wait...I went to the website and it calls itself a “diverse, global and forward-looking media and entertainment company focused on ‘the New and the Next.’”

All media companies truly believe they will one day become a “diverse, global and forward-looking media entertainment company focused on the new and the next.” But, what separates every nigga with a webcam from Ozy Media is that Watson was able to extract millions from investors for his make-believe media empire.


See? It’s a finesse!

*Sigh* I thought you were explaining things! What the hell is a “finesse”?

In AAVE, a finesse is a way to extract something valuable from someone by using a person’s confidence, wealth or hubris against them. The term is derived from Black Spades, the card game crowned as the official Black national pastime. When a player uses a lower ranking card to extract a valuable card from an opponent, he or she has managed to “finesse” a book (White people refer to books as “tricks.”)


Because finessers get people to give them things, finessers are not quite scammers, nor are they thieves. Basically, they take the rules you defined and use them for their personal gain. Ozy Media is a perfect example of how finessing works...

And how capitalism works.

But people make false claims to investors and the media all the time. I still don’t understand why Ozy Media and Watson are all over the news.

Well, it started with Watson’s really popular interview show that had a lineup of culturally significant guests such as Bill Gates, Ava DuVernay and Malcolm Gladwell. The show was originally supposed to be on A&E before it landed at YouTube Originals, but he needed more money.


So, according to the New York Times, on Feb. 2, Watson gathered investors from Goldman Sachs, a financial institution that invests in things only white people know about. They were meeting with Alex Piper, the head of YouTube Original’s unscripted original programming division, who wanted to tell Goldman Sachs’ asset management team to invest in Watson’s wildly popular interview show. But at the last minute, Piper’s internet wouldn’t work, so the Zoom call became a regular conference call. And that’s when everything exploded.

Wait. The dude at YouTube, which is owned by Google couldn’t get his internet to work? And he was having a meeting on Zoom? Not Google Meet? Not YouTube Live? Not Google Hangout? Zoom? And there’s a guy named Mr. Piper who’s not a porn star?

This smells finesse-y. I’m sure all these rich, smart white people immediately saw this flim-flam from a mile away and outed him as a scammer. This explains everything. Thanks a lot. I’ll see myself out.

Actually, no one thought it was strange. Some people noticed that the YouTube guy’s voice sounded a little robotic, but that’s about it. It was only when one dude at Goldman Sachs reached out to Mr. Piper (you know rich white people all have each other’s email address) that they discovered the finesse, as the Times explained:

A confused Mr. Piper told the Goldman Sachs investor that he had never spoken with her before. Someone else, it seemed, had been playing the part of Mr. Piper on the call with Ozy.

When YouTube learned that someone had apparently impersonated one of their executives at a business meeting, its security team started an investigation, the company confirmed to me. The inquiry didn’t get far before a name emerged: Within days, Mr. Watson had apologized profusely to Goldman Sachs, saying the voice on the call belonged to Samir Rao, the co-founder and chief operating officer of Ozy, according to the four people.

In his apology to Goldman Sachs and in an email to me on Friday, Mr. Watson attributed the incident to a mental health crisis and shared what he said were details of Mr. Rao’s diagnosis.


Wow! That is a crazy story! Thanks for explaining it. Which way is the door? Do you validate parking?

Wait! Before you leave, you should know the entire story gets even better.

It turns out, that Watson’s show had never been bought by A&E. It wasn’t even produced by YouTube Originals. According to one insider, Ozy’s typical consumer was a “retired female white teacher who used Ozy to stay young and stay woke and loved learning about the world from it.” In 2017, Buzzfeed reported that Ozy bought its traffic from “fraudulent” sources and used it to manipulate investors and advertising clients by making Ozy look like the hot, new thing. Even Ozyfest—the company’s signature music festival–was fake.


It was all a dream. He probably never even read Word Up magazine.

You’re telling me this dude bamboozled someone into investing $100 million in a glorified YouTube channel? This nigga is the finessing GOAT! Where did he find these dummies?

Well, I wouldn’t call them dummies. Some of the investors included Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry and Google’s Chief Legal Officer David Drummond and Alex Springer, who owns the largest publishing house in Europe. Even the Ford Foundation gave the company grants as a minority-owned business.


These are very smart, very wealthy people!

This isn’t just a remake of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Watson got these suckers to buy him an entirely new wardrobe and told them he wasn’t naked, he was actually wearing the hot, new “drip.” And, because white people don’t know what “drip” means, these billionaire rubes were like: “Can I buy some more?”


It’s hilarious really!

He scammed these people out of millions! Why do you think it’s funny?

Because, if they would have done their due diligence, none of this wouldn’t have happened. Advertisers could have easily looked up Ozy’s audience metrics with Google. Investors could have asked for more details. They could have talked with A&E or YouTube on their own. But they were ready to invest in Ozy because Watson essentially exploited a little-known epidemic that is very common in America–Black Friend Fever.


What the hell is “Black Friend Fever?”

I’m sure you’ve experienced it before. It’s when white people declare that they are not racist because “one of my best friends is Black.”


Similar to “I voted for Obama-itis,” Many white people truly believe that exposing themselves to a Black person gives them a natural immunity to being called a racist. BFF not only inoculates white people from accusations of white supremacy, but negro proximity also offers the appearance of diversity and/or inclusion. And the Black friend—usually someone with no facial hair who attended an Ivy League institution and owns a kayak—also benefits from doling out their antibodies to deserving co-kayakers by becoming “one of the good ones.”

In the case of Harvard alumnus and Stanford Law grad Carlos Watson, he parlayed his Caucasian-adjacency into millions of dollars for Ozy. But the reason the finesse worked is that these people don’t fuck with Black media.


But Watson is Black, so how can you say that?

Do you remember that article Tasha sent you from Ozy about that interesting thing that affects Black America?


No, I don’t.

Oh...Well, why didn’t you go to Ozyfest with your homeboy last year? Didn’t he say it was the greatest concert he ever attended?


What homeboy? I have no idea what you’re talking about

OK. Remember when you were at brunch and all your Black friends were talking about Carlos Watson’s interview with that very famous person?


I don’t recall that ever happening.

That’s because it didn’t.

Almost every Black person we spoke to had never heard of this Black media outlet. Somehow, Watson managed to convince a bunch of wealthy white people that he was creating the next wave of Black media in spite of the fact that he is relatively unknown.


Wait, you said “almost every Black person” had never heard of it. You know someone who knew about Ozy?

Well, there was one guy.

“I’ve been very, very aware of it and I’ve been following them,” Roland Martin told The Root. “The thing that was strange to me is that I kept looking at all of these pronouncements about his large following and I never at received an email, a tweet, an Instagram post, a Facebook post about something from them. Never. I’ve had followers send me, or tweet me an item from The Root, The Grio, Buzzfeed or Vice. But not one time have I ever had someone send me an article, a Pocket, or even say: ‘Man, I heard this from Ozy.’”


Martin, whose Black Star Network streaming service actually targets Black viewers, contends that the reason this cool, Black media company was so appealing to investors was that it didn’t really appeal to Black people.

“There is a very important nuance here,” Martin explained. “If you’re Black and you own something, they will call it ‘Black-owned’ even if it doesn’t speak to Black people.


“What you have here are investors, advertisers and all these media outlets, that did these glowing stories and television interviews—television and digital because they heard about this smart Black entrepreneur. But the reality is, here’s a Black-owned company that wasn’t targeting Black people, and that’s the thing that we have to confront. Advertisers and investors don’t really want to be involved in anything that speaks to Black people because, then they see it as ‘controversial.’”

“Everybody—advertisers and their clients—love Black stuff,” added Martin. “But they really don’t love Black people. They want that Black consumers and they want that Black dollar. But what they really want is the veneer of Blackness.”


But Roland Martin is just one guy. Maybe he’s just salty because he couldn’t do what Carlos Watson did.

Nah, Black media owners have been saying this forever.

In April, Byron Allen, who owns multiple media platforms including The Grio and the Weather Channel, sued McDonald’s because they don’t advertise with Black media. Allen, along with Martin, Ice Cube, Urban Edge Network’s Todd Brown, and Black Enterprise’s Earl Graves Jr. recently published an open letter calling on General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra to resign if GM continues to refuse to spend money with Black-owned media.


“Mr. Watson’s ability to raise millions and generate ad revenue for a breezy journalistic product focused on the ‘new and the next’ — which from what we can tell hardly any real audience consumed — should not be taken as a positive sign that it can be done (with a few ethics tweaks). It’s another discouraging datapoint in an industry full of them.” wrote Lauren Williams wrote in a Times op-ed.

Williams, who founded Capital B (and formerly worked at The Root)—a Black-led nonprofit news organization focused on telling the stories of Black communities, continued:

“Too many of the people responsible for doling out the dollars that keep the industry afloat would prefer to give money to a company like Ozy, with an Ivy League-educated pitch man selling a shiny, controversy-free vision of news and opinion, with none of the real-world stuff,” Williams wrote. “Ozy was the white whale — the perfect, brand-safe opportunity for folks to say they were supporting a Black media company, even if the only Black person being supported in the process was Mr. Watson.”


So you’re saying that rich white people invested in Ozy because it was the media version of the “Black Friend”?

Again, I’m not saying this. All of the Black people who know what they’re talking about are saying this. Take Todd Brown, founder of Urban Edge Networks’ HBCU League Pass and was one of the signatories of the letter to GM. According to Brown, the Ozy fiasco isn’t just a salacious story; it shows the biases faced by owners of Black media even among advertisers who understand that Black culture is what drives revenue and trends. He points out that the advertising spending pie is worth $322 billion, of which Black media gets less than $100 million. And, because the Black media revenue stream is so small, Black outlets remain small or disintegrate altogether...


Unless you are the Black Friend.

“You know, white people have been choosing safe Negroes forever,” Brown told The Root. “They didn’t want Malcolm X. They wanted Martin Luther King. They’re looking for a more passive, acceptable answer in Blackness that’s not too aggressive, not too focused on Blacks, and not really driving Black economics or opportunity.


“Our argument is we spent 1.3 to $1.7 trillion in this economy and the advertising industry is mostly monetizing Black bodies–whether it’s sports, entertainment, general market issues or news. We just want to participate in the commerce and the community that we create. But [investors] find a person with Ivy League credentials, a Stanford education, a great smile and a comfortable tone to be much more accessible—even to the point of not being as rigorous with that person as they’ve been with us.”

Ohhhh, I see. So the people who control the advertising and investing dollars basically give people like Watson a black check so they can say “one of my best friends is Black.” And the only way you can be the “Black Friend” is by not serving Black people.

So what can anyone do about these gatekeepers?

“We’re going to bypass these agencies. Now, we’re going to bring the pressure directly to the companies,” Martin told The Root. “We just need Black America to stand with us in doing this, otherwise we are going to continue to be screwed over, dissed, dismissed, and we will never be able to properly grow our media companies and achieve the kinds of scale and reach that is needed. It’s game on.”


But how does anyone “bring the pressure directly” if advertisers and investors have all the money and the power to determine who deserves it?

Well, that’s the thing. Capitalists would have us believe the wealthy individuals and corporations are successful because they operate better or more efficiently. In reality, they’re just taking the capital they made from our bodies, our culture and our communities and redistributing it among their friends. We’ve been fooled into believing that there are rules to this game but, as you can see, there are no rules! There isn’t even a game! There is no logic, rationale or system to how they determine who’s deserving of economic success.


And, every now and then, if you’re affable, clean-shaven or own a kayak, they might throw a few pennies your way and call it an “investment.”

What they’re really investing in is the mythology of capitalism. Without the occasional Black Friend people might begin to realize that capitalism is just privilege, welfare and white supremacy disguised as merit.


That’s one hell of a finesse.

I think I can validate your parking now.

* After an initial reply, Carlos Watson did not grant The Root’s request for an interview.