Kendrick Sampson Combines Acting And Activism In Hollywood And Beyond
The "Insecure" and "How to Get Away with Murder" star is also an activist and founder of BLD PWR.
June 17, 2022 at 7:23 pm
Calls for reparations for slavery and racism in America continue, with the proposed HR 40 bill still being debated in Congress and new calls for President Joe Biden to authorize a commission to study the issue. This week, Blavity spoke exclusively with actor and activist Kendrick Sampson about how his career and politics coincide, his take on the reparations movement and the importance of more entertainers being involved in activism.
A storyteller and a misfit
For Sampson, best known for his roles on shows like Insecure and How to Get Away With Murder, acting and activism both stem from a common set of values and lived experiences. “I have always been a storyteller since I’ve been a kid, and I’ve always felt like a misfit,” the actor said of his life before moving to California and his career in Hollywood. Looking back on his time as a teenager throwing house parties and standing up for less popular kids, Sampson reflected that “it all informed the way I am now, which is I have a huge passion for creating safe space for misfits — for the people who are marginalized.”
Sampson credited his social awareness to impactful people that he met shortly after moving to LA to become an actor, including television producer Marilyn Beaubien and Pastor Frank Wilson, who challenged him to volunteer in LA homeless shelters. It was through this work that Sampson learned both the need for direct community activism and the necessity for larger policy shifts. “This philanthropy, these shelters are just band-aids,” he explained. “And while we need band-aids, they don’t get to the root of the problem.”
Building power, battling for abolition
To help get to the root of these problems, Sampson co-founded the organization BLD PWR “to systemize those efforts to organize Hollywood to bring real change.” BLD PWR — pronounced build power — describes its mission as “engag[ing] pop culture, education, and activism to build and train an inclusive community of entertainers and athletes to advance radical social change” in partnership with grassroots organizations and activists.
Sampson described the group as a way to help Black people regain control of their narratives in the media and public discourse. “There’s a story told about all of our communities. Usually, we’re not the ones telling it.” The goal of BLD PWER is to utilize the power of Hollywood, which “inspires legislation or promotes legislation or promotes cultural shifts,” to promote system change.
The type of change Sampson described is “very openly abolitionist” in its focus. “We totally understand — as opposed to reform — that systems need transformation.” Given that current systems were “built for harm,” Sampson expressed the need for a “transformative process.”
Sampson explained how he and his allies “challenge state violence and capitalism” as well as the legal system. “Reparations ask — or really demand — the government to answer for their part in that abuse, torture and harm of our communities” through various social systems.
Transforming systems of oppression
“Federal, state, municipal governments, county governments that’ve all participated” in oppression, Sampson explained, and yet remain heavily funded with little accountability. Sampson expressed that he and BLD PWR believe that “the roots of our policing and incarceration systems are continuations of the practice of enslavement.” These systems, Sampson argued, must be made to take responsibility for the continued harm they create.
“Any harm done by the government when we’re paying them tax dollars to protect us to provide services to us — if they fail in those areas and there’s no accountability, what does that say about us and about our legal system?”
Discussing reparations programs in places like Chicago or California’s reparations task force and its recently-released reparations report, Sampson expressed support for such local or state-level work “as long as it leads to action and isn’t a tactic to delay or just give PR talking points.” Sampson and BLD PWR agree that “we need a study that looks at the range of impacts on Black communities including our wealth, our mental wellness and our ability to thrive.”
Pointing toward calls for Biden to implement a reparations study through executive action, Sampson also expressed that Biden, an author of tough-on-crime legislation in the 1990s, has a personal responsibility “to repair the damage that you directly drafted and promoted.” Sampson said that “it is super encouraging” that steps like California’s reparations study are being achieved, but he urged that the reparations process “can’t end with a study” but must be “followed up by action.”
Passing up jobs but finding inspiration
Sampson is fully aware that his robust activism has and will continue to cost him potential opportunities in Hollywood — a price that he’s more than happy to pay. After trying to achieve change in more subtle ways and being ineffectual, Sampson explained that now “I’m being bold with those decisions that are directly aligned with our liberation.” He said that such boldness is necessary.
“Being nice to folks who have every intention to harm or profit off of our harm is not anything that I’m interested in negotiating.” Acknowledging that he has lost acting jobs because of his stances, Sampson expressed no regrets. “If somebody is directly impacting and harming my people, then I don’t want to work with them, so if they don’t want to work with me, cool.”
While losing potential Hollywood colleagues, Sampson has gained relationships and inspiration from fellow activists. He is especially inspired by young activist “kids who are organizing their schools, kids who are doing way more than even I’ve done at my age.” Discussing a recent discussion panel appearance alongside a youth activist named Jacob, Sampson discussed the advice that he gave his young counterpart for fighting nerves during public appearances. “I picture the people that I want to free, the people that I want to create a better world for.”
With much work to be done on resolutions like HR 40 and the larger fight for reparations and restoration, Sampson intends to continue his work toward creating that better world.