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Building a personal brand with Sharine Taylor

Sharine shares how Canadian freelancers can grow their business with a personal brand.

Sharine Taylor is an award-winning, Toronto-based writer, critic, editor, producer and director, as well as the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of BASHY Magazine.

In this episode, Sharine and Mohammed talk about how Canadian freelancers can build a personal brand that contributes to the growth of their business.

Short on time? Skip to the parts you're most interested in.

[03:08] Getting started as a freelancer

[08:08] Being Black in media

[13:00] Negotiating with clients

[17:33] Building your personal brand

[20:36] Reflecting on your personal brand

[23:00] Managing your personal brand

[26:21] The effects of building a brand on your mental health

If you enjoyed the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to Freelance Canada on Apple Podcasts or listen to it wherever you get your podcast. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Sharine: Everything sounds and looks good, so, yeah.

Mohammed: Awesome. So we’ve been talking about you interviewing some amazing, talented people, creatives, artists, perhaps we can maybe even take a moment and understand what it is that you do as a freelancer.

Sharine: That is an interesting question because I do a lot of things, but the main thing that I do is I’m a music and culture writer. Specifically, I’m interested in the music and the culture coming out of the Caribbean and, even more specifically, I’m interested in the music and culture that’s coming out of Jamaica. Partially because that’s my heritage and I’m not sure if you can attest to this but growing up in Toronto, there was like not a day that went by where I wasn’t engaging in some capacity with Jamaica and her products.

So, whether that is like buying food from — like buying a patty or like just seeing a record store, the music, it’s just everywhere so I never felt far removed from my roots in that capacity and, as I got older and was interested in creating my own things and figuring out what I wanted to do, it was that, like I know I want to write about that, I know I want to share that experience with people and talk about my identity as a Caribbean person, my identity as somebody in the diaspora in [a] much more different and nuanced and complicated and complex ways.

So, I’ve sort of been able to do that mostly with writing. I recently ventured into film which is an entirely different, much more collaborative experience. And then on the side, I build websites and I write bios for a range of people. Anything that’s sort of like related to writing, copywriting, and things like that, that’s all under the House of Sharine.

I believe I had pitched something and I got paid $100 for it and I was like, “I can get paid to write? This is incredible.”

Mohammed: Now, in terms of freelance, how did you get started with your writing, with your designs, with filming, all of this?

Sharine: So when I was a student, I was broke and struggling which is an outfit that a lot of students wear and I was trying to figure out how I was going to make ends meet. So, I did some music journalism for free, just covering shows and covering concerts and then I believe I had pitched something and I got paid $100 for it and I was like, “I can get paid to write? This is incredible.” So, I started thinking more about like, “Okay, if this is something that I can do and I could do it for money, then I could possibly do it more frequently, thus earning more money, allowing me to pay rent and all of these things.”

I think I was just writing really personal essays. “This is how I navigated this. This is how I’m trying to do this.” I want to say around 2015-ish, this was when this research or conversations rather about this resurgence of dancehall were coming to the fore, notably with Justin Bieber’s Story record and sort of all of those “tropical sounding” records that came after and I was like, “What is this tropical sounding thing? Why are people saying that dancehall disappeared? It has literally gone nowhere.”

Mohammed: Yeah.

Sharine: But for me retrospectively, like I’m somebody who was listening to dancehall still, so, for me, it hadn’t gone anywhere and being in Toronto, it really hadn’t gone anywhere either because it’s just something that we engage with every day so I was so confused. And then when I was looking at the editorial landscape of the people who were covering these articles and sort of penning these stories, like none of them were Jamaican people and there was just sort of this, for me reading it, was there’s this disconnect about what was happening.

I think and just really good timing. I pitched a story to Vice and they accepted this pitch so we worked on this story and it sort of became like my first official byline, in my eyes, and it was sort of talking about like what does it mean to have dancehall back into the fore and who gets to sort of have these conversations and what artists are being credited with whatever they’re being credited with. And then, a few months later, they had an opening for an editorial intern at Noisey which was Vice’s music arm at their Toronto office and I was like, “This is perfect.”

I was able to obtain that internship and I wrote more and got more experience and then, when I was finished, I was like, “I feel like this is something that I want to do.” Giving myself homework for life as a writer, which is essentially what you do, sounds like the career path I want to take. So I decided that that was something that I was going to do and then I want to say that I fell into it by accident but I don’t know how true that is. When I think about the fact that I had been writing prior and then when I was in school, I started writing for my school’s paper as a contributor. 

Then, I was an art and life editor then I was the editor-in-chief and all of these things were sort of happening simultaneously. So, when I think about it, I’m thinking that it may have been more intentional or just that I saw that it was something that I could do and then now I want to say maybe, this is year 8 of writing in the capacity that I do, really feel like there has been way more intention in like the kinds of things that I’m writing, the kinds of stories that I’m taking on, and the kinds of narratives that I’m interested in sharing with people, and learning how to make that sustainable as a freelancer.

And I also want to tack on too, because I do think that this is important, that a part of the decision to become a freelancer is also understanding the state of the media landscape that exists in Toronto and understanding, especially given all the conversations that have been happening within the past few months, is that there are not many spaces for, one, cultural and arts writing. Usually, when there are layoffs, arts, lifestyle, culture, those sections tend to be the first ones to go. So, there’s a high turnover rate. People are usually in and out of those positions. There’s not much security. Security is a very loose word right now, but there’s not much of it. So there’s that to consider.

The second thing is that Black folks don’t often get hired in media and there [are] not many spaces for us to exist. And that’s just like a reality that I had to understand, accept, and I think I’m still sort of trying to contend with it. So, given the kind of writing that I want to do, given the kind of focus that I want to focus on, freelancing was just the obvious thing to do. And I feel like that was more of a decision that was a response to just everything that’s happened and certainly not something that I decided for myself, if that makes any sense.

Mohammed: I find it so interesting that you’re a music and culture writer and when you look at, at least what is, maybe in the Western, Canadian, American world, defined as culture is very much a result of the influence of music. And a lot of these musicians and artists are Black. So, to be a Black writer covering music and culture in a space where there perhaps aren’t as many opportunities to cover it or at least ones where you can generate some form of revenue to sustain yourself, but then on top of that, you’re also the first ones out of the door.

Sharine: Yeah.

Mohammed: And it’s even more difficult because you’re Black to get those opportunities. I mean, even if you look at Source magazine, right? It started [by] covering hip hop, covering rap, covering R&B, it started with two white guys from what I recall correctly, you know?

Sharine: I’m not entirely sure but if that’s what — I mean, sure.

Mohammed: So I find it so interesting that you have all these companies that you’ve contributed to, Vice, Noisey, Fader, Days, Nylon and most of those probably are owned by people who benefit from covering culture that is defined by Black people —

Sharine: Right.

Black women, those are usually the first people out the door and the verticals like culture, lifestyle, like things that are considered niches or niche in not a specific thing, those are usually the first ones out the door.

Mohammed: — but should something go wrong in the market, there is a recession or whatever have you, or just general cuts, I feel like Black women are probably the first ones to sort of take the door out and then sort of like moves off because people that are higher up generally tend to be white.

Sharine: And that’s a conversation that a lot of folks have been having with layoffs. Not even in Canada or like elsewhere, that typically when those cuts happen, it’s like Black folks, women of colour, like Black women, those are usually the first people out the door and the verticals like culture, lifestyle, like things that are considered niches or niche in not a specific thing, those are usually the first ones out the door. So, I feel like for a long time, and I’m sure like regardless of whatever freelance position or title you hold, for a long time, I really, really, really wanted to be hired in a formal space.

One, so that I could have that experience and because I felt like it might have offered opportunities for me to earn a higher skill set, like enhance my technical skills, but like mostly because like that’s kind of cool that like every two weeks, you can expect a paycheck and not have to chase a client down and not deal with like net 30, net 60, or net 90 days which just drives me crazy. So, that part of being hired formally was really attractive to me.

Also, I’m a Cancer, so my Zodiac sign implores for me to like want to have those things, want to have financial security, and — I mean, that is like every sign but I know, specifically, that a large part of at least being a Cancer is comfort and security and stuff and financial security is, of course, important to anyone but it was also really important to me.

And I feel like, given my understanding of how [the] media works and working in or within, outside of, in opposition to, parallel to Canada’s media industry, I sort of had to just assume that freelancing was just the way that things were gonna happen. Otherwise, I would have run into a whole other set of problems, like what does it mean if I don’t get hired? Is this a reflection of me and like nobody has time for existential queries about life and who you are and what you contribute to the world?

So, freelancing was just like the better, the lesser of two evils, I think. And, yeah, I think there’s a lot of flexibility that I really do appreciate and I think that I have to sit down and have conversations like these for me to be like, “Ah, maybe it’s not that bad,” but I think it’s just understanding that, whichever you do, whichever path you decide to go down, whether it be formally employed or whether it be like freelancing, it’s just a different set of things to negotiate and I find that I have been negotiating the things, whatever they are, with freelancing with a lot more ease, or at least I’m more willing and open to [taking] those things on as they come.

Mohammed: And what has enabled you to have that comfort to negotiate? Because just to sort of expand on that, a lot of times, freelancers don’t even like the idea of negotiating, right? It’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to lose this client,” or, “I don’t want to look difficult,” or, “I might lose it and this is the money I need so I’ll just take whatever I can get.” So, how have you developed or at least what has led you down this path where you feel comfortable knowing that you can negotiate and are able to do so?

Sharine: Yeah. I used to be so, so, so, so insecure about negotiating rates, taking on assignments, and being comfortable with whatever was being offered and stuff like that, and like just all the negotiation that comes with freelancing, but then I have to remind myself a few things. The first is that a contract is not a contract until you’ve signed it and have agreed on it, which means that the terms are up for negotiation. All the terms are up for negotiation. And I think people forget that. They see [a] contract, an offered rate or whatever and you don’t have to accept those things.

I mean, of course, if those things haven’t already been discussed, the contract is being made after said discussion, but if there is a term in there or if there is a clause in there or if there’s room to add stuff, there should be, it’s a contract and it hasn’t been signed, then there should be room for discussion. So, it’s understanding that capacity of it, which it took me a little bit of time but then I was like, wait a minute, if I don’t follow through with whatever is outlined on the contract, then it’s enforceable by the people who are giving it to me, which means that it also works in reverse.

If somebody doesn’t follow through with the terms [of] the contract, then I should also be able to assert my rights in whatever capacities they are to ensure that the terms as outlined in our contracts are met. So, it’s understanding that the contract is a two-way street and that it’s supposed to function in the best interest, not even in the best interest, but — I mean, yes, that is how it’s supposed to function, in the best interest of two parties, but reading it and understanding like where this might not fit and being able to have space to talk to that. So, there’s that.

The second part was understanding my worth and my value and being okay with saying, “No, this is not something that I’m acceptable with or something that I’m willing to take on,” which I did a lot of. I remember just doing a lot of work early on that wasn’t like — what I felt like wasn’t fairly compensated or like there was much more time and energy put into what I created that didn’t reflect how much I was paid. Now, I’m far more assertive and okay with doing so. I mean, if we want to get real, Toronto is not a cheap city to live in. We all have bills to pay and that’s just the reality of where we live.

And I do believe we should — freelancers should also be saving as much as they can and creating cushions for ourselves where we can, but we also have to ensure that our time, worth, value is being taken into consideration when we are offered rates and when we decide to accept the rates. And, of course, there are particular causes or groups or assignments or commissions that you might have a little bit of leeway with, depending on whatever they are, depending on whatever about the assignment or commission speaks to you. I think that it’s okay to have those kinds of negotiations and it’s okay to sort of use your discretion.

But I’ve also been very firm in understanding my value and being okay with saying yes to projects, being okay with asking for a higher rate or an adjusted rate, and then turning down projects when they’re not able to fit what I’m asking for and being okay with that. And I think that that might even be a privilege to turn down projects because sometimes we don’t always have that luxury, but I do think that, at the very least, we probably owe ourselves in knowing that anything that you’re offered. You can say there should be at least some room for negotiation and I think that we can at least try for that.

Mohammed: Early on in most freelancers’ journey, it’s been difficult to even know what you should be charging, let alone that you should be negotiating, let alone that you can come to a point where you’re having people come to you and all that just sort of adds up over time. For some people who are fortunate enough that things just work out perfectly right off the bat kudos to them.

However, for a lot of freelancers, it is a business you’re starting and that business can take time and you will make mistakes. Over the course of your journey in freelancing, how have you been able to build yourself as a brand that other publications are interested in working with and perhaps are reaching out to you rather than the other way around?

The really cool thing, at least to me, about people being their brand is that it’s as complex and dynamic as they are. So, it changes and it can change whenever.

Sharine: Yeah. So, the cool thing, and this is such a millennial/21st-century thing to say, but I’m gonna just go ahead and say it. The really cool thing, at least to me, about people being their brand is that it’s as complex and dynamic as they are. So, it changes and it can change whenever. So there’s that. Also like, for me, I’m a writer so I guess my brand is my voice. It’s my thoughts, my opinions, and the things that I have to say and, luckily, I have a lot of thoughts and opinions and things to say.

So, it just happens to work out in that capacity. But I know that, for me, it’s understanding too that — the interesting thing about writing is that your growth and changes are sometimes documented in real-time because I know [as] a lot of the things that I — like not a lot, but like a few pieces that I’ve written early on, when I read them, I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, like girl, why?” And — or I say, “You know what, I think I might feel a little bit different about this,” or like, “This idea has changed for me,” so that’s an interesting part of the personal brand, TM, copyright, trademark, whatever.

But I do I guess try to understand that when brands or the idea of brands become people like the dynamic also changes with it. So, yeah, for me, it’s writing, it’s my words, and that’s a really — I think it’s a really funny thing to think about but, yeah, I think that it’s for a lot of — there’s a lot of room to like explore new things and try new things out but it’s weird because it’s you. Like I think about that a lot. I think that that’s something to think about.

Mohammed: When did you first see yourself as a brand?

Sharine: I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ve ever — I feel like that’s such a funny question. I think maybe everyone is a brand but then it’s just like I think brand is just a replacement word from a set of values you hold or your character and then it just becomes amplified when there’s certain visibility attached to it, right? We all move with a set of values and schools of thought that dictate who we are, what we do, what we buy, what we purchase, what we consume, what we don’t consume, what we don’t buy. 

I think that the intersection of the personal brand is when there’s this added layer of visibility which is, oh my gosh, this whole other — that is the springboard into talking about — conversations that people are having right now, stan culture, cancel culture, why do we feel so personally affected when a celebrity does something that we see is like not part of their brand or maybe part of their brand that was hidden for like sensationalism and all that stuff, right? I think that that’s where it comes from.

It’s that the idea of celebrity is that it is this added element of visibility and our reactions to it when we see celebrities stepping outside of what we’ve ascribed to them or what they’ve ascribed to themselves like when you take on certain campaigns or partner with certain brands or whatever, it becomes a moment because they are not acting in tune with whatever their brand is or whatever we believe their brand is or whatever they’ve sold their brand as.

But, for me, like how I understand the intersection of the personal and branding is that it’s just this added layer of visibility that sort of transitions one from being this personal brand. A few years ago, my friend, Talia, used to say — she works in PR and communication, she used to say like that’s off-brand, and I thought that was the funniest thing ever because of how we understand branding, right?

So like if we saw something we didn’t agree with, we’d be like, “That’s off-brand, it needs to go away,” or like, “That’s totally on brand,” and even though I think it’s said in jest, it might speak to what we think about ourselves and the things that we engage in and what we think about others and the things that they engage in or choose not to engage in.

I think that once you do anything public, there’s a certain level of attention that comes with it that you sort of get thrusted into the limelight and I guess the next thing that happens is what you do afterwards.

Mohammed: I think we can both agree that regardless of if you are perceived to be a brand or not, there’s still a matter of accountability and owning your mistakes as much as you own your successes. At the same time, do you think that there are freelancers who may not see the value of building a personal brand or perhaps it scares them for a lot of the reasons you’ve said? Do you think there is much of a choice between being a brand or not? Or is it just something that forms as a result of your access and audience and network and just your own success?

Sharine: Yeah. I think that once you do anything public, there’s a certain level of attention that comes with it that you sort of get thrusted into the limelight and I guess the next thing that happens is what you do afterwards. There are people whose work that I’ve engaged in and loved and I think it’s so incredible and I don’t know what they look like.

And maybe that anonymity is intentional, like the next level of personal branding is then a question of what we think about unwarranted attention which is like my very nice way of saying like fame and like when somebody’s infamous and stuff like that, like — and who that idea of celebrity, again, that’s like a whole other question and I don’t mean the celebrity in the literal sense of how we see like Rihanna or Madonna or Beyoncé, whatever. I’m just talking about the idea of celebrity as this like super highly scrutinized, almost spectacle, like all eyes on you, this hypervisibility that comes with the attention or that comes with the —

Mohammed: Spotlight? 

Sharine: Yes, the spotlight that you’re ultimately thrusted in and, I don’t know, I kind of — like I think it’s so ironic that one of the most prolific artists is Banksy and nobody knows who this person is. They have committed to anonymity. They could be anybody. They could be anywhere at any time. And I think that that’s very interesting to me. So, I do think that a part of figuring out what you want to do with the personal — I think a part of having a personal brand is figuring out what you want to do with it, especially once you’re mobilizing on the spectrum of visibility.

So if it’s on a local level and then it gets to a national level then it gets to an international level, like what are you planning to do with that? Is that important to you? For some people, it isn’t; for some people, it is. Do with that what you will, but I do think it’s a matter of understanding that maybe, at one point, depending on whatever it is that you do or whatever, that that might be a question that you have to answer and — or it might be one that you want to ignore too. The personal brand as the artists or freelancer understands it themselves is like what they want to do with it. And for some people, it’s nothing. And that’s cool.

I do know that a lot of like Black women online who have accrued this kind of visibility that I don’t have been very vocal about speaking to what kinds of harm that has introduced them to.

Mohammed: What would you say has been the mental health-related aspects of having a brand and having that spotlight? I mean, yes, your brand, you can command higher rates, you could negotiate better terms, you may have clients coming to you rather than the other way around, but you also have people that are now more critical of you or harassing you or just in your DMs all the time. What has been the cost of it to your mental health?

Sharine: Yeah, so this is a conversation that a lot of folks have been having online, and I should be specific. A lot of Black women with a fair bit of digital visibility have been happening online is that there is this idea of like if something goes wrong, they have to be the ones to like write these whole threads about what injustice they’re facing and people demanding that labour of them and then people demanding that labour have them for free. Or even people saying, “Retweet this,” or, “Share this,” or whatever, this demand of labour, even if it’s like digital labour. Also, this increased unwarranted digital harassment.

We just saw that [as] this week, last week with this rapper, Talib Kweli, and this Black woman online that had questioned something and for 10 days straight, he had been essentially harassing her for like 10 days, that’s a week and three days, like I — you know, there’s all this other baggage that comes with it. And when maybe if you — I’m not, I mean, I don’t consider myself but if I’m thinking about like Black women who have like intentions on working in the influencer space, like beauty, travel, like, and however — whatever way that looks like, I feel so bad thinking about the added amount of stress of navigating that sector online and all of the just stuff that comes with it.

For me, like I just put my phone down. I’m like, “Girl, I don’t have the time,” and I disconnect, I don’t engage. I do try to be intentional with the things that I engage in. I do not read the comments; I learned that lesson very early on. I try to disconnect where I can because that’s important for me and because I need that — I need to have those options and not exist, Sharine, the digital version of Sharine doesn’t need to exist all the time. That is a lesson that I’m learning. I don’t need to be engaged all the time. I don’t need to be plugged in all the time because there’s this element of self-care even digitally that I need to have for myself. So, that is something that I’ve been trying to commit to.

I believe, I want to say maybe 2016 — I do a digital detox. In December, I usually deactivate my socials for a while or I just don’t use it. I delete them off my phone. So I’m going into the New Year thinking that I did something. It helps me. It’s something that I’ve been doing for a few years. I don’t mind it. I feel like it sort of helps, but, yeah, I do know that a lot of like Black women online who have accrued this kind of visibility that I don’t have been very vocal about speaking to what kinds of harm that has introduced them to and what the expectations are of people who are following them or people who are like just don’t have their best interests in mind and I feel like that’s a lot of things to navigate. And I tried to shield myself in the best way possible in the ways that I know how and in the ways that I can. So…

Mohammed: Right.

Sharine: Yeah.

Mohammed: Well, Sharine, thank you so much for all of your insights and input and —

Sharine: Thanks.

Mohammed: — I really appreciated this. I’d love to know where people can find out more about you and your work online.

Sharine: So in conversation with the personal brand, there is a lady in South Africa who has Sharine with one H as a handle, so that is why my handle everywhere has two H’s. So, if you’d like to connect, I am Shharine on all platforms and online

Mohammed: Amazing. Well, thank you so much!

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