To read about the rest of the Culture Shifters, including actor Da’Vine Joy Randolph and activist Emily Barker, return to the full list here.
Jasmyn Lawson is on the career journey of her dreams.
When she started at Netflix in 2018, Lawson immediately let her curiosity lead her to find the answer to one essential question for Black pop culture lovers: Why aren’t all of our iconic TV series and movies on streaming services? Of course, the answer was complicated, with licensing deals and ownership at the crux of the issue. But a little email sleuthing led her to some solutions: The team that buys rights to stream films had recently secured all three installments of epic stoner film series “Friday,” and she wanted to know how the deal came together, and how to pursue more iconic Black films and movies. Lawson said her conversations with that team were mostly built around elevating the importance of serving Black communities with their favorite content. Elevating the urgency of retaining, growing and exciting Netflix’s Black membership base led to the service acquiring throwback faves including “BAPS” and “Love & Basketball.”
Lawson’s work at the streamer has resonated with Black audiences, especially in the last couple of years. To put it simply, Lawson has been the ultimate cheerleader for amplifying Black creators and their work — and ensuring that Black audiences are getting as much out of TV and internet culture as they have put into it.
“There’s no way in denying that Black people, minorities and women and queer culture has had a dominance of what popular culture looks like and how it moves forward in the world,” she said. “I know people quote Jay-Z all the time but we are the culture, nothing moves without us. I feel so privileged and honored to be a part of archiving those stories.”
In November, Lawson, 29, moved to Netflix’s original series team, managing series development and current productions such as “Never Have I Ever,” “Dear White People,” “Family Reunion” and other live-action comedies on the streaming service. Previously, she’d been the editorial manager for Netflix’s Strong Black Lead initiative, overseeing editorial efforts of TV and film for and by Black people. She’s helped to lend words to actor Cicely Tyson and former first lady Michelle Obama for the Strong Black Lead video series that always starts off with “Hey, queen!”
During the pandemic, Lawson’s impact became even more clear as people rejoiced when the streamer added a gaggle of iconic Black sitcoms to its roster: “Girlfriends,” “Moesha,” “Sister, Sister,” “Half & Half” and others. Lawson said her work to get these TV series on the network had long been underway.
“I was glad that it was able to provide our members so much joy, specifically our Black members,” she said. “It was a balm. And it was a great way to escape and relax.”
For Lawson, the path to this moment was not always linear. But perhaps if you asked her 10-year-old self, maybe her wildest dreams set this all in motion. Lawson grew up in Jackson, Michigan, with her social worker mom, “a hustler who was always working.” So television was her window into the world. By the time Lawson was in the sixth grade, she was spending all of her time watching television. She watched the shows her mom watched, like reruns of “Martin” and “Living Single,” and episodes of Mara Brock Akil’s “Girlfriends.” She listened to Jay-Z and DMX unfiltered.
“Black pop culture was an immediate part of my life for as far as I can remember,” she said. “I don’t remember not being a part of that world.”
Lawson is a graduate of historically Black university Spelman College, where she majored in theater. She thought she’d go into production and one day work in TV and film, working with casts and scripts. But after working late, grueling hours on an internship, she decided to switch paths. Lawson nabbed an internship at Cartoon Network, where she worked on the digital team. A child of the early days of social media, Lawson has long been obsessed with the internet. She had a blog on Xanga, was on MySpace, BlackPlanet and, of course, eventually Facebook.
“I loved the merger of entertainment and technology,” she said. “I remember watching ‘House of Cards’ on my iPhone and really being obsessed with ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and how diverse that cast was.”
When she was 21, Lawson wrote a blog post titled “Oh Netflix! You Amazing Genius You!” laying out her desire to one day merge her love for entertainment and technology. At the time, she was living in New York, working at NBC as part of its Page Program. “So I’m saying this now,” she wrote in the post. “After my year in New York, I hope to be living in California working for Netflix.”
But that timeline wasn’t quite right. Lawson landed a gig at Giphy in 2016, as its culture editor, making sure there was strong Black representation in its GIF library. Again, here her impact was crucial to Black audiences, especially on social media, where the perfect GIF response can only be crafted with the proper resources. After a couple years, she was recruited by Netflix to help run its newly launched Strong Black Lead initiative.
For Lawson, Strong Black Lead’s mission perfectly aligned with her own personal desires to see full, nuanced — and fun — representations of Black people on-screen.
“The way people responded to ‘Moesha,’ ‘Girlfriends’ and ‘Sister, Sister’: so many said that that was the first time they saw themselves on TV and the impact that had on them,” she said.
“For me, the impact of ‘Girlfriends’ was that Mara Brock Akil was a Black woman who created this show,” she add. “And I was like, that’s what I want to do — not be Tracee Ellis Ross or be an actor. I want to be Mara Brock Akil, and I want to create these shows, and I want other Black women to be able to do so, too. Now I’m at Netflix, and I’m working with Mara Brock Akil. Those things come full circle. And they matter.”