George M. Johnson is a writer and LGBTQIA+ activist whose work spans memoirs, essays, and more. After starting their career as a freelance journalist and writing pieces for more than 60 national publications, they realized writing their story in bits and pieces wasn’t enough.
Johnson’s acclaimed 2020 memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, told the story of their upbringing as a Black queer youth and examined topics like gender identity, toxic masculinity, brotherhood, and family. The book is currently being optioned for television by actress Gabrielle Union.
Family is big for Johnson. In their annotations, the writer says they’ve never spent a Thanksgiving or Christmas without family, and name-checks the uplifting tunes from R&B divas like Phyllis Hyman, Patrice Rushen and Diana Ross that remind them of home. “When we're going through periods of joy and happiness, we put on music and collectively share the joy together. And even when we're going through time to sadness and sorrow, it collectively pulls us all together with words of encouragement. That's really what music has always meant to me. It's been a medicine to heal wounds.”
And their advice on holiday gift-giving? Sentiment over size. “It's not how big the [gift] is,” they said. “It's just about knowing that you're able to provide...some form of support, some form of love to a person. That really brings the joy out during the holidays.”
Madison McFerrin is a singer-songwriter and producer. And as the daughter of Grammy-winning musician Bobby McFerrin and granddaughter of Robert McFerrin Sr., who in 1953 became the first Black man to join the Metropolitan Opera, music is in her DNA.
In her annotations, McFerrin discusses her musical upbringing, the projects and passions that have defined her career, and her philosophy as an artist: “I think one of the main roles of an artist is to be a mirror to what is happening in society. When I think about the issues that I'm passionate about and [the things] I want to see change, one way that I can do my part is to use the platform that I have through my music to express those thoughts, because I know that I'm not the only one.”
In addition to sharing songs from favorite artists like Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Jill Scott, McFerrin also talks about her wishes for the holiday season. “The most meaningful part of my family holiday gatherings is honestly just being together,” she said. “Just having the opportunity to be with the people I love, to be able to hug them, is something that I will never take for granted ever again.”
Cory Townes is a DJ and self-described multi-hyphenate creator. He’s also the founder of FNCTNworldwide, a platform that helps DJs virtually connect with fans across the world and reclaim the thrill of DJing for people during the pandemic. And, like McFerrin, he’s part of a musical legacy.
“Trailblazers for me look like my father, DJ Jazzy Jeff,” he said. “ [He] showed me at a very early age that a young Black kid from Philly could make it out and see the world and do amazing things.”
His annotations cover the festive music that soundtracks his holiday season (including Christmas favorites from Boyz II Men, The Temptations and Kanye West), his creative passions, and the story of his personal journey. And fellow creators, he has some advice: “Amplify those whose voices may not be as loud as yours. If you see someone that is talented and could use the assistance — support them. Let people tell their stories...because what you don't see is there are hundreds of thousands of people that are just like them.”
For Townes, the holidays are extra-special this year and he encourages listeners to not take the presence of their loved ones for granted. “As we all gather with our families this season, just remember what this feels like — embrace that and breathe that in. Hug your loved ones a little harder, laugh a little louder. Love a lot longer. Keep your loved ones around you as much as you can.”
We hope this holiday edition of Outside Voice inspires you to get in the spirit of family and community, and celebrate the voices and culture-defining works of Black creatives.
Want to hear even more stories from Spotify’s Outside Voice curators? Check out all the playlists from season two, and learn how creators of color around the world are advocating for a more equitable advertising & media industry.
- Nwaka Onwusa, Vice President and Chief Curator, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
- Mike Shum, documentary filmmaker
- Aki Carpenter, Principal and Director of Social Projects at Ralph Appelbaum Associates
- Jonathan Jackson, Designer and Partner at WSDIA
- Niran Vinod, Co-Founder and Creative Director at Deft
- Char Arthurs, Production Manager at Alchemy Immersive