Hip-hop artist Benjamin Starr leveled two steep allegations against TEDxCharleston in an Instagram video posted on May 12.
"My understanding of it is that it is about ideas worth sharing," Starr said in the video, which was presented by Black Collective. "I was looking forward to performing musically with musicians that I work with all the time — incredible musicians. During that process, it was brought to my attention that there were issues of censorship going on — serious censorship. There was also a racist comment that was made and there was no accountability to that, in response to that comment."
A month and a half earlier, Starr pulled out of the April 10 TEDxCharleston event, a local franchise of the wildly popular TED network where he was slated to perform.
"I'm not known for stepping away from any performance obligations, but the things that I learned about — I didn't want to give, to put myself on that stage, to put other artists who I work with on that stage, and for that performance or that presentation to live in perpetuity under the TEDxCharleston platform, because I feel like that would have been a nod of approval to what I heard," Starr tells the City Paper about the decision to not perform.
"We are very disappointed by all of this, but this [is] our sixth-year event," says TEDxCharleston representative Claire Monahan. "In this day and age, there are organizations everywhere that are going through this, so I find it kind of fascinating that we're going through it now, too."
Even though the group bills itself as a place for progressive and thought-provoking ideas, TEDxCharleston has acknowledged that the racist comment alluded to by Starr did occur. Since Starr's post, the organization also says a presenter has expressed that they felt censored during the preparation process for their speech. (Starr says he was not directly involved in either incident.)
On March 15, TEDxCharleston organizers say a volunteer made a racist comment to one of this year's speakers during preparation for the April 10 event. Neither TEDxCharleston nor any participants have gone on the record to identify the parties involved or the exact words that were used, but Monahan says that action was taken quickly.
"I don't think it [the comment] was meant to be racist, but it was," she says. "We immediately started an investigation on this. We spoke to all parties who were involved and we let that volunteer go."
The decision to let the volunteer go was reached on March 20, five days after the incident. The next day, the organization fired the volunteer.
By then, Starr had removed himself from the roster of TEDxCharleston speakers and performers. Starr says he withdrew on March 19 because of what he felt was an "underwhelming" response to the comment and talk of censorship.
"This could have been avoided if it were handled in a way that reflected some leadership," Starr claims. "It's not difficult to handle something like this. There's an aspect of it that could be handled with real leadership, I believe. Then there's the aspect of it regarding any kind of silencing or censorship, if it is encouraged by leadership."
Starr announced his departure in a March 22 Instagram post.
Because of these events, TEDxCharleston says that they are working to create a more diverse lineup and leadership in their future. Kylon Middleton, Mt. Zion AME pastor and 2019 TEDxCharleston presenter, has recently helped the local chapter with those efforts.
"We've had a couple of meetings," Middleton says. "They recognized that in their organizational leadership structure, speaker coaches, etc., that there was a lack of diversity."
Some volunteer coaches have already started attending racial equity training, according to Monahan and Middleton. "That gives a level of at least exposure to areas of sensitivity, inclusion, diversity, in a racial context that enables individuals who may not have that predisposition to be a little bit more sensitive to words, to nuances that are specific to people of color and others who may be highly offended," Middleton explains.
The pastor also asserts that TEDxCharleston is "sincere" in their hopes to make their organization better.
"Even though it was a horrible thing that happened and it was shocking and terrible, it's been amazing how we're taking steps forward to ensure that it doesn't happen again by educating our team and learning together," says Monahan. "So, I would say that it is a positive out of a very bad negative."
Middleton did say that he was not on the receiving end of the racially charged comment that led to a push for diversity, nor did he feel censored by the volunteer coaches that guided him during his preparation.
By the Rules
Starr notes that while increased diversity is a critical ideal, the issue for him is now about trust and the culture surrounding TEDxCharleston. "I get that people do damage control, but you can't skip over accountability, honesty, and transparency, and go straight to 'the answer is being more diverse,'" he explains.
Starr also said that he was not the target of the racist remark and did not feel that he was being censored during his time with TEDxCharleston. In fact, he was perplexed by the situation because of his 2016 performance at TEDxGreenville, where he did an impassioned medley of original music.
"I didn't receive any kind of steering one way or another. It was just like, 'Hey, do your thing.' That's what kind of made it even more confusing," Starr says. "I previously did a TEDx that was curated by a queer black woman and none of these problems persisted. It is totally antithetical to my experience."
Nonetheless, Monahan says that a speaker reached out to TEDxCharleston leadership on May 17 via email to inform them that they felt censored during the process of putting their speech together, but reps would not discuss the identity of the speaker.
Starr also wanted to respect the individual's privacy and did not offer their name.
TEDxCharleston insists that they do not censor their speakers.
"Censorship, I agree, that's a really big deal and that is absolutely not something that we do," Monahan says.
The TEDxCharleston representative admits that the guidelines, which are detailed in the contract that each TEDx speaker signs, could be interpreted differently.
"It's ideas worth spreading. With that in mind, sometimes we have to shape a person's talk so that what they are saying is aligned with not just these rules, but that it is the best possible version of that talk," says Monahan. "I don't know if somebody would think that is being censored because we do work with speakers and say 'you shouldn't say this; say it this way.'"
The rules are available to the public online. Among the guidelines: No political agendas, no religious proselytizing, no pseudoscience, no selling from the stage, and no divisiveness are allowed on a TEDx stage.
Speakers are assigned coaches who work to help presenters craft the best TEDx talk possible while also ensuring that the ground rules are being followed.
Starr confirmed that he was given the guidelines, as well.
Because no details were disclosed about the circumstances of the allegations at TEDxCharleston, it's hard to know what was viewed as censorship in this situation.
In Starr's definition, censorship is going "above and beyond to shape someone's message for them in a way that goes against the story they are trying to tell or the expression they are trying to get across."
"When you use different tactics or suggestions to alter that, to guide that in a direction where you as a brand or an institution want it to go because it accomplishes a certain task for you, or doesn't put you in a position necessarily that you don't want to be in, it's censorship," he explains.
When asked for an official definition of censorship, Melody Serafino of TEDx, the international organization under which TEDxCharleston exists, says that "TED doesn't comment on individual TEDx events."
Local TEDx events "are organized independently under a free license granted by TED," according to the group's website.
According to Monahan, the TEDxCharleston rep, the event went edgier in 2019. This year saw discussions of social justice issues such as police interactions with minority communities, apologies for systemic racism, youth homelessness in the LGBTQ community, and pornography's effect on teenagers.
"I know we had several speakers that maybe wanted to say something that we directed them not to say because it didn't align with those TED rules," Monahan says. "It was either inflammatory or it was accusatory without data or reason to back it." No specific examples were given, but Monahan says the speeches that were "pushing the barriers" were the ones that were worked on the most.
"We have TEDx rules that we have to abide by," Monahan later added. "From our perspective, that is how we have to handle all of the structures of our talks, from the time limit of no more than 10 minutes to they can't be breaking any rules. And so, at this point, that is still how we are on the whole thing."
Along with the racist comment, the claims of censorship also have prompted changes for future TEDxCharleston events. "We had several speakers this year that what they wrote in their application ultimately was not what they wanted to talk about," she says. "And so we're reworking our application before the next event, just to make sure what you have put down and submitted is exactly what you are going to be talking about."