Black Creatives In South Jersey Are Striving Despite COVID-19 Hurdles

Feature Photo: Image of Avenue Black, a retail and creative coworking space founded by South Jersey-based entrepreneur Charles Jay. Avenue Black is currently located at the Deptford Mall in Gloucester County. Photo by Ahnyah Pinckney

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced as part of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University’s South Jersey Information Equity Project fellowship and supported with funding from the Independence Public Media Foundation.

BY AHNYAH PINCKNEY | For AC JosepH Media

CAMDEN — The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the loss of approximately 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in sales nationwide in 2020, according to the Brookings Institution.

That’s roughly a third of jobs and nine percent of annual sales across the creative economy, which includes fashion, film, art, music, and advertising industries.

New Jersey is home to 19,000 arts-related businesses, which employ some 80,233 people statewide, according to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. Here in South Jersey, creatives are coping with the impacts of COVID and systemic inequality yet thriving despite limited resources. 

We spent time with three of them.

Fashion line, coworking space inspire creation of a ‘Black country club’

South Jersey-based entrepreneur Charles Jay at Avenue Black in Deptford Mall in September 2022. Jay launched the retail and creative coworking space in 2020. Photo by Ahnyah Pinckney

“You have to go through adversity to figure out if this is what you want to do and to get to the next level of what you’re trying to do,” said Charles Jay, a native of Sicklerville and full-time entrepreneur since 2020. He shared that one particular struggle, his cancer survival story, is the inspiration for his fashion brand URBANE

Jay launched the athletic luxury clothing line in 2015 after graduating from Rutgers with a bachelor’s degree in marketing. URBANE designs often feature the number 93, which is significant because Jay was diagnosed with cancer in 1993 at the age of two and had to have his right kidney removed. 

“Every morning, I’d wake up and play with building blocks. So that’s where the whole concept comes from,” said Jay of URBANE’s color blocks logo. The line has come a long way, with URBANE designs appearing on television shows including VH1’s Love and Hip Hop and HBO’s Euphoria, said Jay.

In addition to managing URBANE, he opened the first Avenue Black location in the Gloucester Premium Outlets in November of 2020. This space hosted events and housed a photography and a makeup studio and a retail room available for rent. Jay refers to Avenue Black as a “retail creative coworking space” designed to encourage more collaboration among creatives of color.

An URBANE clothing line display at Avenue Black located in Gloucester County’s Deptford Mall. The athletic luxury designs are the creations of South Jersey-based entreprenuer, Charles Jay. Photo by Ahnyah Pinckney

Following a change in mall management in March of 2021, Jay decided to leave and enter a one-year lease with the Deptford Mall. Then in February, Jay purchased an old store in the Turnersville Square shopping plaza that he’s rehabbing with the goal of expanding Avenue Black into a Black country club.

“We will have wine tastings, cigar rolling, galas, art shows, fashion shows, consultations,” said Charles Jay, who aims to open the new location in January 2023.

Self-taught makeup artist doesn’t take anything for granted

Photo of Jurnee Gabri-El, a self-taught freelance makeup artist and social media influencer based in Palmyra. Photo courtesy of Jurnee Gabri-El

Jurnee Gabri-El is a self-taught freelance makeup artist and social media influencer based in Palmyra. 

“I almost don’t have a typical day,” says Gabri-El. Some days are booked with events, traveling to meet clients, or creating content for her social media platforms. Weekends are the busiest: a schedule of 2 to 4 client appointments a day, with early morning and late-night video editing sessions to prepare her content, including makeup tutorials.

“I have a healthy following. I don’t have a huge one. But respectfully and humbly, I influence the girls,” said Gabri-El, whose TikTok account has earned more than 600,000 likes and some 15,000 followers. 

One of her recent Tik Tok videos titled “We not wearing concealer no more” began to trend this summer. The traction was exciting for Gabri-El, but then soon afterward, another makeup artist, Christen Dominique, posted a similar video without crediting any sources.

TikTok users quickly caught on to the similarities and called Christen out for stealing Gabri-El’s idea. Christen denied the accusation. But these are the kinds of hurdles that Gabri-El expects. 

Gabri-El says that because she is self-taught, she doesn’t take anything for granted but tries to work hard and innovate. She says that while there are now more options for Black women in the makeup industry– for instance, in terms of color palettes that are more inclusive of women with darker skin tones–challenges remain.

“There’s a lot of colorism in the industry, and it’s one of the things I try my hardest to speak against and bring awareness to,” said Gabri-El. After six years of perfecting her craft, Gabri-El is still trying to better herself and encourages aspiring makeup artists to do the same. 

“Do your homework, save your money, plan your money, take classes with the people whose style you want to emulate…know that you’re going to have to work twice as hard for half as much.” said Gabri-El. “But more importantly, build your community and start with the people who are to your left and right.”

Recent Rowan grad aims to release South Jersey-based short film later this year

Christianna Arango, a filmmaker and self-described multimedia guru based in Sicklerville. Photo courtesy of Christianna Arrango

Not too far from Palmyra is Christianna Arango, a self-described multimedia guru. She decided to pursue a career in filmmaking after graduating from Rowan University in 2021. 

Arango is based in Sicklerville and works as the digital communication and social media manager at The Perfecting Church in Sewell. She creates all of the social media content and oversees all the church live streams and recordings.

Arango is working on her first independent project: a short film set in South Jersey that follows a group of college students who become friends after facing adversity. She’s received support from the Perfecting Church, which is helping her with plans to premiere the film in select local theaters later this year. 

“I feel like I have the ability and have been blessed with the gifts to influence people away from what’s going on in the world and show them what it could be like,” said Arango.

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