'There's No One Way to Be Black.' Our Conversation With Jay-Ann Lopez of Black Girl Gamers

On gaming, Black culture, making the future and more

What's it like to be the seed that launches whole communities? We went and found out.

Jay-Ann Lopez founded Black Girl Gamers, an online safe space for Black women in gaming. And she co-founded Curlture, an online platform that empowers Black women to embrace their natural beauty. The latter is now a major influence in the natural hair movement, and Black Girl Gamers boasts over 6,000 global users. On June 13, it launched its first-ever online summit in partnership with Twitch.

Lopez also co-authored a book called Kink, a collection of poetry and photography designed to empower Black women against colorism and texture discrimination. 

She never stops moving, so we tried catching up with her. Read the interview below.

Muse: Were you a weird kid?

Jay-Ann Lopez: Yes! I like to think so. Me and my godmother used to speak in a made-up language. It sounded like Simlish, and when she'd do my hair, we would try it. So instead of going "Hi, Auntie Carla," it would be like, "Edubladibladiblah?" and she'd respond! We'd spend the whole day doing something stupid like that. 

I think I was weird in a way that is not weird now—collecting Dragonball Z cards, Pokémon cards, especially as a quote-unquote "girl." Those things were viewed as less common. I was also in orchestra; I played violin and piano. And I did ballet, tap, theater craft, hip-hop, a lot of different dance styles. I went to science school one summer holiday. I did a lot of stuff, which is probably why I'm all over the place. I definitely wasn't the linear child.

Did that bother you?

No, definitely not. It gave me so many skills, different perspectives and ways to look at things. I'm one of those people that others call a "multipotentialite." I love different things and strive to be good at all of them, which is exhausting, but it's something I pride myself on.

Are you sore loser? 

Yes, I am. I will not lie to you. I find it difficult to accept losing when I could have done better. If there was no other choice, I can accept it. But if there were other options...

Are you secretly competitive?

Definitely. I think I'm openly competitive with people in my circle. But publicly? Hell no! People don't need to know what I'm vying for. People don't need to know what I'm doing.

For instance, for the Black Girl Gamers Online Summit, I only started letting information sneak out of BGG at the latest stages. I'm aware that people watch what we're doing, and I don't want them to take ideas and run. I also don't want people to see something before it's finished. I'm about trying to make sure it's the best it can be. So yeah, I'm secretly competitive. 

I was having dinner with friends before confinement. One went, "We should order a dozen oysters and whoever finishes last pays for drinks." I was like, that's stupid, and he said, you're right, and moved on. But then the oysters came and I vacuumed them with my face in case the contest was still on. 

I love oysters. Especially with garlic butter. I can't eat them raw. 

Really?

Yeah, I had them in New Orleans. They were grilled. That's the only way I can eat them. If it's slimy ... ugh, I can't do it.

That's a texture thing. Also, you're eating something alive, like a vampire. 

Yes! Exactly.

What is the movie description of your life?

Young girl, raised by a single mum, only child until she was 11. Bullied at school, at multiple schools. Went through a relationship for six years, ended, had depression and anxiety for around two years, still slightly ongoing. During that time, built two platforms that are really popular—one in gaming, and one in beauty and hair care.

I didn't know about the beauty and hair care one!

Yeah! I co-run a platform called Curlture with my best friend. From that platform, I learned the skills to build Black Girl Gamers. But Curlture is doing really well. We're one of the top natural hair influences in the U.K. So that would be my life story. It's still being written. There's probably bits I've missed.

By and large, is it an optimistic story?

Yes. I do think so.

How was BGG born?

It started in 2015. I stopped online gaming for a while because of the racism and sexism. A friend—who's no longer my friend—had his own gaming channel, with the kind of commentary and comedy that rested on African American vernacular English. And he's nowhere near a Black person, let alone a Black American person. There were also a lot of jokes that rested on women being the punchline, and I was like, "OK, I can't really do that, can't really watch your content anymore, because it doesn't sit right with me."

So I decided to make my own channel. That was going well, then I met a couple people on Twitter, other fellow Black women. We didn't really have a space to connect, to call home and be safe away from these issues. So I created BGG, and those people were some of the first members, and they are still my friends to this day.

The community's grown to 6,000, and we've held our own events. There was "Pass the Pad" with Belong, a gaming arena here in the U.K. That was a panel/tournament event, focused on diversity. We've had V&A panels at the Victoria & Albert Museum here in London. And there was "Gamer Girls Night In," an event I came up with and co-produced with a platform called Nnesaga, another Black woman-led platform, focused on anime gaming and comics. 

We partnered with Facebook for that in January. Feels like a lifetime ago. But it was a really unique event that was popular and we're hoping to do it again.

We do a lot of online fundraisers and online content. On the Black Girl Gamers Twitch channel, you'll find different members of the BGG community streaming every day. And as a personal brand, I do talks at businesses regarding gaming and diversity. I've talked to Twitter, Unilever, Superunion and other brands.

I'm sensitive to toxicity. What made you go, "I'm going to take this on, try to help solve this problem, and create a safe space"? Knowing it would put you in a place where you might actually receive more critique.

It's how I was raised. My mum is very community-focused, so I've inherited that from her. I was aware of how the world views Blackness from a young age, through her teachings, but she never taught it in a way that made me feel ashamed for being who I was.

She always taught in a way that says, "This is how the world reacts to you, but this is not who you are. You are more than whatever characteristics they try to associate with your beautiful skin." That's something I've always held dear, and so it's served as a shield for the negativity.

Don't get me wrong, it does get me down. Sometimes we get a lot of stuff on Twitter, and I get random N-word emails. But I think the positive outcomes always outweigh the negative, and I'm an advocate for change because if you don't change, things stay the same. And what is happening right now is not acceptable. So someone has to do it, and I'm always like, "OK, well, I'll do it, then."

Even though I know I'll be faced with overt or covert racism, or being ignored completely, I stand true to that. I've been tempted to give up quite a number of times, but I feel like anyone who wants to do something shouldn't give up. That's the main thing.

How do you care for yourself when things get bleak, and when you're tired?

I'm a naturally lazy person! I don't find it hard to switch off unless I'm passionate about what I'm working on, then I'm not feeling negative about it. But I go and play games with people in BGG, I watch a movie or series, or I'll read a book. I play board games with friends and my boyfriend.

I don't find it hard to switch off. And if something is annoying me at BGG, I go and do something for Curlture. If something's annoying me there, I come back to BGG. That's how it works!

Given that you manage a community of gamers, are there games that you have feelings about? For example, people at my agency can get upset about Fortnite, in a way that almost makes it hard to be a person who plays it.

I can draw the line between what games I like and what games I'm gonna voice an opinion for. The only reason I'll voice an opinion is if I feel they're not doing enough for diversity, which is many games … but I have my own taste, which is quite broad. 

I don't play Fortnite; it's not my style. I can't get behind the building and shooting; it doesn't make sense to me. But I'm not going to judge anyone. People find different ways to unwind, and so do I, so I don't have strong feelings unless you're omitting Black women from the experience.

What do you like playing?

A variety of stuff. I recently got a Nintendo Switch Light, so I'm playing Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I just downloaded Battlefront II on the PSN Plus, to play some friends. I was playing Cooking Simulator. I love the The Witcher 3. I love Mirror's Edge, Guild Wars 2 ... a variety of things in different subsets. It depends on my mood.

Do you have generally positive feelings about the social impact of social media?

I think there's a lot done behind the scenes that people don't know about, which is positive. At the same time, I don't think some of the actions of social media companies are as transparent as they should be. Because I've built my platforms via social media, I can never say that it isn't a great tool. But that's what it is: a tool. It depends on who's using it and on their intention. 

The natural hair movement has taken off, and changed the way Black women view their hair, because of the visibility and accessibility of content and brands via social media. Small businesses have gotten loans from social media companies that kickstarted their business. I've been supported by some of those businesses, so I can never say we haven't benefited, but there's always a way to go.

We're living amid a social uprising, built on the work of past generations, and that work will continue for generations to come. I think people get frustrated by that. Is a fight that exceeds your lifespan still worth fighting?

I'm always for the good fight. I don't think we're going to see all the changes in our lifetime, but we'll definitely see some. 

This has been brewing under the surface for a long time. There's only so many times you can be poked by a person proclaiming innocence before you slap them back. Then when they get upset, it's like, "No. You can't get upset if you're poking me, and I've told you to stop many times, and you've never made any performative or corrective action, let alone offered an apology for systemic racism and slavery in historic aspects, let alone reparations."

It's so much. Racism and bigotry are insidious in every institution. It's gonna take a long time to affect everyone. But it's still a fight worth fighting, because if we don't fight, no one else is going to fight for us. 

There's a lot of performative support right now. That would never have happened if it wasn't trendy—now you need to care about racialized issues. We can't rely on those people who are performing to then carry on the good fight. We have to rely on ourselves. Then, at least we can assure some real change as opposed to surface-level change.

Do you have feelings about cancel culture?

Yeah! I have an issue with it being called "cancel culture" because there's a negative connotation. I am wholly for people owning where their attention and money goes, especially if people are harmful towards others for their race, sexuality, gender orientation or where they come from. I'm for people being aware of who they support, and I'm the same—I haven't bought anything at H&M for over a year.

I haven't bought at a lot of businesses because I don't want to support the person that runs them. I don't support Jeffree Star, nor his past racialized comments, and I'm not going to. There's plenty of businesses, including Black-owned businesses, you can support that don't do stuff like that.

Do you think there's a difference between cancel culture and the calling-out we do when people try but just get it wrong?

I do think there's a difference. There is a mob mentality that can form, and it's not good, especially when it's based on misinformation. At the same time, it has been key to bringing up a lot of hidden truths, whether it be about a social media influencer, or a political person of influence. 

Again, social media is a tool, and I'm careful before I engage in that kind of narrative. I like to do research myself, and if I can't trust what everyone else is saying, I'm not going along with it. 

People are human. And people often go through a phase of anti-Blackness, which shouldn't be a thing. But because of the society we live in, many go through it. As much as I'd like them to take responsibility for their actions, I'm aware that society makes even a lot of Black people have anti-Black tendencies, and I'm willing to give them an opportunity to unlearn that.

But not a lot are. So it depends. It's a case-by-case basis for me.

Do you feel the Black American experience of Blackness is different from your own as someone of Caribbean descent, living in the U.K.? Is that difference important?

Yes! Our differences are key to who we are. Culturally, I'm different from a lot of my American friends, but at the same time, I have family who are Caribbean but live in America, and therefore are American, and have been there for generations now. So I don't see the pronounced difference as much as others may see it. 

With Black culture, we need to understand there's no one way to be Black. There's no one way to own Blackness. Because American culture is so hyper-visual and is consumed by the whole world, a lot of Americans potentially have difficulty connecting with people outside of the United States who are Black, who have a different experience, and relate to Blackness differently. 

And Black Americans don't get a lot of say for a lot of what is shown of their culture. For the most part, what we consume outside of America is highly commoditized and packaged.

I'm very pan Africanist. Marcus Garvey is one of my idols. He's Jamaican, that's where my family's from, and we relate highly to the unification of Black people. But that comes with understanding we are different, we relate to our culture in different ways. That's OK. We don't have to all be the same. 

Within BGG there's Americans, Caribbeans, people from Europe, people from England, people who live in Asia ... and they're all Black women. One of the rules is to not discriminate based on culture. Just because we face racism doesn't mean we can't also be implicit with other -isms and schisms. And I'm not for that. 

When I became an immigrant, I grappled with understanding that certain things I thought were me, or the way the world works, were just an American worldview. I don't think people necessarily know that things they consider "normal" are local.

Travel is key. I've traveled to over 23 countries now. I love traveling. I don't smoke, don't drink, travel is my thing. That's why I save my money and where I spend it. Travel is key to understanding that your experience is not universal.

With that comes an understanding that, especially in the U.K. and the U.S., we have a high privilege. We have to acknowledge that sometimes people might not like the fact that we have that privilege. When you go somewhere else, you might be looked at differently because of it, or you might not be in the same position, because you assume the privilege that you have is actually normal, but it's not; you get to realize, "Oh, this is actually a privilege that I had."

I think travel will get a lot trickier. Imagine that in the next two, three years, it becomes prohibitive. If you were limited in where you could go, would you favor certain countries, knowing there are other places you might never get the chance to see again?

There'll be a prioritizing of places I love and call home, and places that have historical monuments I haven't seen yet, just because the world is changing and I don't know whether they're gonna exist anymore. On that list, I'd put the Caribbean, Jamaica and Cuba, two islands I'd love to visit and just keep, to be able to go back to all the time.

I wouldn't put America on that list.

Really!

Or I would pick states, rather than the whole United States. California, maybe New York ... I don't know about Florida, to be honest. I would only pick Florida because there's a bunch of Caribbean people there. The only places I would visit are the Caribbean places in Florida.

Would you still live in the U.K.? 

Nah, I'm more of a Caribbean girl. I need a good beach. I recently went somewhere that was a mix of beach and city, and it was utterly perfect. That's what I need. I need somewhere there's sun. The U.K. doesn't have enough sun, though she has been uncannily sunny lately, which is weird.

Isn't it weird how the end of the world is kind of gorgeous?

I know! I was like, we've never had such a sunny April in my life. So weird. 

But yeah, so the Caribbean would definitely be on that list. Africa, the whole continent. A couple of states in the U.S. Japan has been on my list for the longest time, but if I can't go, I won't cry about it if we're talking about the end of the world. I've been to China, I love China, but if we're talking into the world, I'd want to go to places I call home and feel comfortable around, and just be surrounded by my culture. So that's why the Caribbean's first. 

How do you express yourself creatively in your work?

It comes out in the events I organize, and sometimes in the branding. For "Gamer Girls Night In," we had two panels, one full of Black women, and the second a diverse panel of women, all from the U.K., but of different backgrounds—Asian, white, Black, mixed race. We had smoking cocktails named after gaming stuff, a gaming area, game-inspired nail designs, a DJ.

I like to add a Jay-Ann spin to events. Not the typical male-gaze gaming event, you know? The typical blue neon colors and ee-ee music, none of that. So my creativity comes out that way. In the beauty scene, it comes out in hairstyles I do, content I create, and the posts I curate. So it comes out in a variety of ways, and I like the fact that I can do it in different avenues.

What about music?

Oh, music! I used to play instruments; I don't play anymore. But I like curating playlists. I have a bunch of playlists on Spotify that I share with friends. I have a mood music playlist that changes my mood every time I listen to it. This is one way I deal with anxiety: I listen to that playlist, and it'll calm me down, change my mood, get me inspired again. 

I've never been one to stifle the creativity I have. Unless it's for work, I don't like following prescriptive processes. I like creating new ones.

Is there anything that confinement unlocked in you?

Yeah, more learning than being creative. Learning the more financial aspects of running a business. And it affected my environment: I redecorated, putting things in different places, to feel more comfortable when I work. And I created more content for Curlture specifically.

And obviously, preparing the Summit for BGG allowed me to be like, "This is my idea, I'm gonna do it." I've been able to take the time to create from scratch without being pressured for time. Therefore I feel happier about the content that I put out.

What was your vision board for the BGG Summit? 

I always wanted to do an in-real-life summit, an IRL event for Black Girl Gamers, but a huge one, where all members can come down, a whole conference. I think this is the precursor.

First of all, the vision board is purple. On the left, there's a yellow box with "great conversation." On the right, a lime green box with "inspiration." In the middle is the Summit and the panels. Offshoots are possibilities from that. 

Also on the board is, "If you don't do it, no one's gonna do it." Another quote would be "You've done it, you've tried, no one can say you didn't try." Because I'm aware how critical the gaming industry and gamers can be. There probably will be critique around it. But my thing is, if you're so good, go and do it too. Oh, sorry! You can't. I think that's how I spare myself.

I have a mantra I say whenever people are being overtly negative towards BGG, or ignoring us completely, or I see other people get opportunities based on the fact that people are scared to interact with BGG: "They'll learn." That has been the driving force behind me for over six years. Imma show you. And that's gotta be on the vision board, too.

What do you use as a compass for trusting yourself?

My instinct, and I like to bounce ideas off my close friends. I have a circle of people all doing their own thing. We are all creatives. I also bounce ideas off BGG; I do focus groups in the community. Prior to the Summit, I did one to see if my ideas were aligned. I don't want to create ideas where everyone's like, "This is not what we want, Jay!"

So I use them as my North Star; I put them and what they want first. But by running the community, I'm privy to many conversations that outside people aren't, so I can also take action without having to ask everyone, because I know they've said it already before.

What do you wish people understood about gaming?

I wish they understood how powerful it is. Gaming goes so underground. It's not what people think it is, and has the potential to be so much more, if those within and outside gaming didn't have an antiquated view of what it should be.

Why is it important to challenge stereotypes about who and what a gamer is?

Stereotypes have ripple effects. If a brand has a stereotype in their mind, that's the kind of influencer they'll go for. That will shut out Black women, Asian women, and LGBTQI influencers as well. So if they think the white male demographic is the only one that games, that's the only demographic they'll pay attention to, and have paid attention to for a while. Thus, creators who are non-white and non-male don't get those opportunities. 

Stereotypes have a ripple effect on the economy of other people. It's not a surface-level idea; it's something that actually has an impact on people, where they can go and how far, and where the glass ceiling is, and whether you can break through it.

How are you measuring success? 

For the most part, feedback from Black women. Also milestones, like the Summit or "Gamer Girls Night In." Those are validating milestones that show I am making a difference, what I'm saying is being heard, and I am garnering a community that is important. But in my mind I'm like, keep going. Don't watch anything else, just keep going. Otherwise you start noticing what you did or didn't get, and that's when you start comparisons and begin to feel a certain way about things not going your way.

If I lose an opportunity, I'll create another, which is what happened with the Summit. Last year I wanted to do it, but didn't have the opportunity. This year, I've done it. And I'm more focused on the "They'll learn" and the "Keep going" as opposed to any other kind of measuring tactic, because I feel that's when people sometimes go wrong.

One thing that surprised me about Black Lives Matter was how, in addition to all the big brands doing their value signaling, many minority-run companies felt pressure to remind people of their positions. Did you feel pressure to somehow situate Black Girl Gamers in the context of BLM?

Nah. I never felt pressure. It's not pressure because I relate to it, and I know the community relates to it. Police brutality and Black Lives Matter are not a siloed issue. It's an issue that affects many Black people, including myself. I'm gonna use my platform to speak out on it. And I've done the same with Curlture. 

I've been to protests. I've been to fundraisers. We've raised money. I don't think I'd be proud of myself if I ran a community focused on Blackness, then ignored the major Black issue that affects me and my family. I'm sure there's probably people looking at me sideways, but if they don't know the story behind it, I would suggest investigating that.

I get why people look at brands sideways, and I'm doing the same. It's become trendy to care about Black lives as a proxy for doing the work. Supporting Black Girl Gamers isn't the work for Black Lives Matter unless you're helping a fundraiser. Helping us is great, we appreciate it. But we've been doing this for years. You don't use a time like this, focused on a specific Black issue, to then support creators. You should be doing that from the get-go. And if you haven't, then ensure that work continues.

You don't just do it for a moment, then go back to normal. We're still dealing with the same issues we had before Black Lives Matter. So focus on Black Lives Matter. That's my thing. That's why we're raising money: it's a real issue that affects any Black person, gamer or not.

Do you have a theory on this time in the world right now? How are you making meaning?

This is gonna sound very spiritual, but I see it as an energy shift. It's an overdue change. I also feel there's something insidious going on behind the scenes, not gonna lie. But at the same time, there's a change that is coming and that has been waiting.

The world was based on imbalance for a very, very long time—towards women, towards Black people, towards LGBTQIA ... and I feel like it's teetering. I don't know which end it's going to finish on, but it's teetering. I don't know how else to describe it. I don't think it's a coincidence that all these things are happening at once.

Do you have a theory about the nature of the universe?

I don't. I did science as a background. My degrees are in biochemistry, and that's how I got into recruitment. Weird. 

I think the universe is older than we know. I'm reading books about African spirituality, specifically West African spirituality. When I go there, I ask for their version of how the world started. And I don't have a concrete answer, but I feel there's so much we don't know.

A tidbit of information I've held close to my heart, since I was a kid, is knowing that the Dogon tribe in Africa knew about astrology and the planets way before Western civilization. When Western civilization went to visit them, they tried to claim that it was they who introduced it. There's these little pockets of treasure, of information, around the world that we haven't tapped into yet. But I don't have a specific theory. I just feel like we don't know it all.

Yeah, hearing stories that challenge the idea that white culture was the civilizing force. And also the idea that we've progressed "logically," from savage to barbarian to civilized.

Exactly. Especially when you come from like a non-white culture—because you've had your traditions, you've had elders passing down stuff. When I was young, my mom told me the world descends from Africa. There was no scientific evidence at the time, then lo and behold, a scientific study proves it. 

So our cultures do tell us stuff. When I went to Teotihuacan, Mexico, which is where the pyramids are, I was like, this is amazing culture. We're not being told the whole story about where we come from, the way the world's developed ... history. We've definitely been lied to.

What have you discovered recently that captivates you right now?

My boyfriend and I are playing this board game called Cashflow. We're trying to become more financially astute, and learn about investing in stocks and stuff. In that game, you go through the rat race, then through the fast track. You have to make up enough money.

It's teaching me about financial literacy. Like, when is the best time to invest in stocks, buy a house … just seeing the bigger picture about managing money. It's a little complicated when you first start, but once you get it, it's really fun!

How would you compare it to Monopoly?

It's a more harsh Monopoly. You literally can lose your money within a moment. After three days of playing the game, I finally figured out how to exit the rat race. I then landed on a healthcare square, and if you roll less than a six, you lose all your money—like, $100,000 worth.

So it's proper cruel, but it teaches you how to take risks, and what to understand about deals and stuff.

Do you know what you want to be when you grow up?

I would like to be an improved version of myself. I want to be healthy mentally, physically, financially. I want to be someone who can help the community continuously.

One time I went to an event and Beyoncé's publicist was there, Yvette. She said that one thing she's grateful for is that she can still be kind. That's one thing I'd really like—to still be kind, still help people and not be taken for granted. I think sometimes when you move up in the world, people start becoming more catty, and I don't want to become like that. So I want to be happy, healthy, wealthy, but kind.

Imagine that aliens are coming, and they can see our impact on the world. All that pollution! Climate change, everything. Only one message can be sent into orbit to just … give them context. You have been chosen to deliver this message. When would you say?

Colonizers did it.

Someone has to take responsibility, and it won't be me! I feel like we are gonna get slapped with a whole lot of karma if we don't change. 

Literally, I can just see it happening and we're gonna go, "Oh, my God, how did this happen?" Well, we didn't change when we had the chance.

Angela Natividad
Angela Natividad is a founding contributor to Muse. She is also the co-founder of esports agency Hurrah.gg, and co-author of Generation Creation.

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