Remember Fyre Festival, that “high end” event in 2017 that was supposed to be Girls Gone Wild mixed with Coachella but ended up being a millennial version of Naked and Afraid, with hundreds of people spending thousands of dollars to end up trapped on an island eating bologna sandwiches? Remember how, even though the real culprit behind the debacle was some nobody huckster, everybody came after Ja Rule because 1) he was the biggest name anyone could recognize, and 2) he can never, ever be forgiven for helping “Jenny from the block” gentrify hip-hop in 2002?
Imagine that same anger, betrayal and confusion, except instead of being trapped on an island, people are stuck in Baltimore; instead of swimsuits, people are in Avengers cosplay; and instead of going after nobody rapper Ja Rule, folks are coming for Jamie Broadnax, one of the biggest up-and-coming names in black-nerd pop culture.
This weekend was supposed to kick off Universal FanCon in Baltimore, the inaugural comic book and genre convention by, and for, people of color, the LGBTQ community and the disabled. Big names were coming: Billy Dee Williams (who will hold the trophy for best Lando Calrissian until Donald Glover smashes it and melts it down for Imperial credits in Solo: A Star Wars Story next month), comedian Orlando Jones (Sleepy Hollow), writer Roxane Gay and a host of others.
There was even going to be a rave done by DJ Kristian Nairn, better known to the world as Hodor from Game of Thrones. (Envision a room with hundreds of people screaming, “When I say white, you say walker!” “White! Walker! White, Walker!” That’s either scary or cool AF, depending on your perspective.) FanCon was to be that convention, free of the obnoxious racist fan bros who often dominate other major genre conventions. Then suddenly, last Friday, just seven days before launch, it was canceled.
Rumors of misappropriated funds and out-of-control egos ruled the interwebs for days. Broadnax, founder and CEO of Black Girl Nerds and arguably the biggest name attached to FanCon, became an obvious target.
Broadnax’s @BlackGirlNerds community has been on a Cardi B level come up for years, starting as a small group of black girl nerds online looking for fellow travelers, and evolving into pop-culture and Hollywood thought leaders who hang with Oprah, Ava and Idris, all while having their hashtags like #DemThrones and #DatFlash sought after by television networks. Broadnax is the face of #BlackGirlNerds, and now people who praised her as a trailblazer just a week ago are coming for her neck.
“I was hired to handle Community Outreach,” Broadnax explained in an email to The Root. She added:
My role was to leverage the Black Girl Nerds brand to promote the event. I brought on some affiliates and some guests and sought out sponsors with the connections that I had to the entertainment industry and the media to get involved. I also alerted friends and members of the press that I knew to publicize information about the event. I was never paid for my work. The organizers offered to pay me a percentage of the profits. As you can imagine, I haven’t seen a dime and at this point, I don’t expect to see anything despite spending a lot of my time and putting my reputation on the line for it.
As every comic book fan knows, with great power comes great responsibility. I’m pretty sure that’s followed by, “with great power comes great accountability.” As stranded conventioneers search for answers, many have been frustrated by the fact that Broadnax’s own descriptions of her role with Universal FanCon shifted from being “hired” to work at FanCon to being a “volunteer” at FanCon to being a “founder” of FanCon, depending on where you check. However, that shouldn’t necessarily make her the main target of ire, either.
“We have to be equal in the critique,” said Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, a writer, blogger and influencer in the black-nerd space who’s been very vocal about the #FanCon failure. “Robert Butler (@DarthGeekonious) and Robert Gill (@BigbadARob), those two need to be held accountable equally, not just the black woman. However, Jamie saying she was brought on as a volunteer is just not true.”
When asked about what actually led to the fall of Universal FanCon, Broadnax got more specific, pointing at Thai Pham, an “event organizer” with a questionable background. In geek terms, this guy has two exploded Death Stars and a Red Wedding under his belt, so perhaps he’s not the best guy to do your event planning.
“Thai Pham told me that the organizers had run up nearly $400,000 in unpaid expenses,” Broadnax wrote. “I received an e-mail from Hyatt, who was leasing the convention space to FanCon, stating that over $70,000 was owed by the close of business Friday, April 20. This led me to ask more questions. Unfortunately, none of the organizers are answering my calls now. I’m in the dark as much as anyone else at this point.”
This is a key point to the whole Universal FanCon debacle and, more important, to the future reputation of Broadnax as an important voice in the nerd and sci-fi community. Her critics can try to blame her for when she knew the convention was in trouble, but that is entirely different from making her responsible for the event failure. Broadnax wasn’t holding all the gold coins; nor was she singularly responsible for bringing Pham into the mix. However, with so much confusion, money and hurt feelings swirling around, it’s difficult to get a handle on which leaders should be held accountable and for what, why and how.
“They just didn’t know what they were doing; conventions aren’t easy and they were trying to start big,” said one FanCon attendee who was in contact with organizers before the event but wished to remain anonymous. “And nobody wanted to say anything because of the cult of personality around Jamie. I knew they were $300,000 in the hole in late March.”
The failure of the convention has opened up doors to long-simmering criticism of Broadnax—some of it professional jealousy— and some fairly detailed tweet threads about her business practices and leadership at Black Girl Nerds. As part of her statement about the FanCon cancellation, Broadnax said that she is stepping down as CEO of Black Girl Nerds, but that hasn’t quelled criticism.
Broadnax has been quick to defend her team in the wake of the Universal FanCon cancellation, while more or less staying out of online debates about BGN as a business.
“I do, however, believe the criticism the team at BGN received is unfair,” she wrote in her email. “None of the other journalists from BGN was involved with any decisions made by FanCon. I spent a lot of my time, resources and energy on this project. I realize I’ll never recover any of that, but I still want to find out what happened. Unfortunately, none of the organizers are returning my calls, texts or e-mails.”
In the end, the failure of Universal FanCon will hopefully not cast a damper on future black-run, people-of-color-centered conventions that are planned around the country, like WakandaCon in Chicago in August. If anything, this event may prove to be a cautionary tale for all those involved, especially those with reputations at stake, to make sure all the details are ironed out before launch.
As for Broadnax, while she and Black Girl Nerds are being dragged as a staff, label and organization, right now it would be wise not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Broadnax is not the oblivious victim that some of her supporters, or even she, may depict herself as. She is also definitely not the villain that some of her detractors have been portraying her as, either. She is simply a black girl geek who had a dream of building a community of special individuals in a world that hates and fears them, and this one part of that dream didn’t pan out.
In a community built on stories of men and women who fight the good fight, fail and often come back in amazing resurrections, Broadnax should be given the opportunity to have that story as well. Black nerds need all the voices they can get.