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‘Improving lives’: Tim Cook on Apple’s pledge to help Black creatives in the UK

Apple CEO Tim Cook, Soutbank Centre chair Misan Harriman, and Sofia Mpanda and Grace Olanma Etigwe-Uwa, who were both part of Photo-Fantastic (Apple)
Apple CEO Tim Cook, Soutbank Centre chair Misan Harriman, and Sofia Mpanda and Grace Olanma Etigwe-Uwa, who were both part of Photo-Fantastic (Apple)

In his first trip to Britain since 2019, Apple CEO Tim Cook visited the Southbank Centre in London on Sunday as Apple announced a partnership to support Black creatives in Britain. Speaking exclusively to The Independent, he confirmed that this was the first partnership of its kind for the company in the UK, and is part of an initiative Apple calls its Racial Equity and Justice Initiative (REJI).

Instrumental in setting up the partnership were Southbank Centre CEO Elaine Bedell and Apple’s vice president for environment, policy and social initiatives, Lisa Jackson. Both are part of the Apple tour of the Southbank Centre.

Standing on the terrace where The Kinks are said to have composed Waterloo Sunset, and marvelling at the acoustics in the Royal Festival Hall, Cook is smiling and relaxed. As we pass a glass room called the Community Cube, a soundproofed space where musicians can practise, I remind Cook that he used to play the trombone. He comments that were he playing today, the soundproofing would be a useful benefit for anyone outside.

Cook is accompanied by Misan Harriman, the chair of the Southbank Centre and a successful photographer whose work has ranged from British Vogue to the Black Lives Matter movement. So, it’s fitting that the tour sees them meeting the photographers who took part in the Photo-Fantastic accelerator programme.

This was Apple’s first encounter with the Southbank Centre, earlier this year, when 15 London-based Black photographers spent an intense period shooting images and videos in seven days. The results have been exhibited through September. As the photographers talk about the value of the pre-flash for changing the finished picture, the importance of matte as opposed to gloss prints, and the stress of setting up so many photo shoots “and hair and make-up!”, their keenest passion is reserved for the process itself. One participant, Sofia Mpanda, says: “The space that was created for us meant that this was the first time that the anxiety that I always experience could be broken down. I was in a safe space with people who looked like me, with people who I could fully trust and who I knew wouldn’t judge me, so it really allowed me to push my work.”

Cook seems moved by this. “I found that inspirational. The way the cameras, the photographic tools were used is incredible.” Cook is a deeply socially engaged person, often quoting from his political heroes including Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. So, in setting up projects like REJI, what is Apple’s role in social change? “Apple believes that we should be leaving the world better than we found it, improving people’s lives.” It seeks to achieve this by providing products which help people create things more easily, more effectively, and by investing in projects like this.

But many brands made a lot of promises at the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Is Apple living up to its promise? Cook is adamant that it is. “Absolutely. We have blown right past our initial commitment of $100m, way beyond it.” This was made in 2020 when REJI was first announced. Cook is right: Apple says it has already spent more that $150m and counting, with investments including an innovation and learning hub in Atlanta, a developer academy in Detroit and $25m invested into credit unions and local financial institutions for funds that will support communities of colour.

The Southbank Centre partnership is the latest initiative and will provide training and development programmes to overcome barriers Black creatives can face, along with collaborations with local schools to spark a passion for creativity. These programmes will operate in London, Birmingham and Manchester.

This kind of initiative could perhaps signify a moment of cultural transformation for business as well as the arts, perhaps, and the way companies are run.

Cook doesn’t directly comment on this, but stresses that what he’s concerned with is making a difference in people’s lives, in empowering people. “You’ve seen how important a project like this has been for the photographers who took part. Not everybody gets the opportunities they should.” Cook seems determined to change this, one way or another.

Harriman is also passionate about what programmes like the current one can do. “You’ve just seen how important it is: being seen, doing a show at Southbank and having access to great teachers and photographers. This is just the beginning.”

With talk of creativity, the topic easily turns to Apple’s former CEO, Steve Jobs. “Our job is to provide tools for that. When you think of how the camera, for instance, on the iPhone has changed from the first version to the 48-megapixel camera on the iPhone 14 Pro, the progress we’ve made is incredible,” Cook says. “Steve loved to see people harness their creativity, and he loved helping them to do things they didn’t know they could do and show them their talent.” Apple is a very different organisation now from when Jobs ran it, bigger and more successful, but this strand of passionately seeking a way to help people to realise their potential seems to remain the company’s north star.