Mercy Sang is Using Storytelling as a Tool for Change
Diversity and inclusivity have been central topics within the fashion industry, especially throughout the last few years. Companies, institutions and corporations alike have been challenged to rethink the narratives presented, and opportunities they’re providing.
Kenyan/Australian Model Mercy Sang has dedicated much of her career to this very theme, through her self-founded publication POCC. Ringing true to the magazine’s name (People of Color Collective) the publication seeks to share stories that amplify the multiplicity of voices within the Black diaspora and beyond. Birthed from Mercy’s own experiences in the fashion world, this is her way of shining a light on the industry.
We called in on a Thursday—Mercy in Fiji, Misha and I in our respective homes in Los Angeles and London. In Fiji, it was just hitting mid-morning. The sense of calm from the location was contagious and the ease from it could be felt as we spoke. Our conversation was candid and open, with a natural flow and camaraderie that made it seem as though we had met or spoken prior. Together, we talked through: celebrating wins, making space for collective stories, and the importance of letting one’s pride in their heritage speak through the work.
MW: Hi Mercy!
MS: Hi, good morning!
MW: Thank you for making the time to chat with us, with you being on vacation and everything.
MS: Yeah it's been a bit crazy. I've technically been on vacation for two months, so I don’t think it’s even a vacation at this point. I think I need to stop calling it that [laughs]
MW: How long have you been in Fiji?
MS: I arrived on the 2nd of December. Long story short, I was supposed to be here for about a week and a half and then the quarantine laws changed in Australia, so I wasn't able to return. I was waiting for the restrictions to ease up and then it was the holidays so everything was just up in the air and I just decided to wait it out. But I think I might have to go to New York for a few days, just to get out of Fiji. There's nothing more I can do: I've done my swimming, I've done my hiking, I've eaten a pineapple a day…I couldn’t be any more relaxed and everyone is so nice here. I was telling my boyfriend that I need to go to a very mean country just to balance it out.
MW: Is that why you need to go to New York? [laughs]
MS: Yeah! I just need a week to be brought back to earth because this place does not exist, it’s just too nice. I feel like going somewhere really hectic will help me get back to that balanced state, especially as we start getting back into working.
MW: Are there projects that you're looking to get back into when you eventually go back to Australia?
MS: Yes, we are working on our first print issue at the moment so that's really exciting for POCC. It's all been digital since 2018, when I started it. In the beginning, all I wanted to do was print but as we all know, print is very hard at the moment—so we were kind of forced into being digital only. But things are moving, which has been good for us.
MW: Congratulations, that’s so exciting! We were wondering if you could take us back to the beginning of your journey into the fashion industry, and then eventually how things built up for POCC.
MS: I started modelling when I was about 20. And it’s a funny story because it was one of my friends who knew my email password and logged into it to send photos of me to a bunch of agencies. A few of them responded, and then I just thought why not give it a try as it might be a great opportunity. I had also taken a gap year at the time so the timing was perfect. I ended up doing it for a while and loved it. POCC was very interesting because I always had that idea from when I was around 20/21. I thought it would be a great idea to have a magazine that highlighted the diversity and range of stories within the creative industry. At the time, I was on sets where I was the only person of color and faced micro-aggressions and certain comments that I felt like anyone who's been exposed to, or comes from a multicultural environment, would resonate with. But it shouldn’t be acceptable that it's happening. The only way to change that, is to have a diverse set. And so I thought: how interesting would it be if every single story or feature had a person of color involved? It was just an idea. But I was speaking to one of my friends who worked at i-D at the time, we were just having a conversation and I brought that idea up casually. The next day, she messaged me saying she’d run the idea to her editor at i-D and he wants to publish a story about it. So she did this story, and now that it was out, I kind of had to do it. It wasn’t just a talking point or idea anymore. And I think that was around 2017, or maybe the beginning of 2018 that I really started it, and we launched it in August 2018 in Melbourne. And the name stands for People of Color Collective Magazine. The whole ethos of it is to diversify our sets and our content. I think the thing that people are a bit confused about is that we aren’t just solely involving people of color. We're just saying that every single opportunity should have a person of color involved: whether that's a photographer or a stylist, a model or producer—anything really. I think we're just trying to be the doorway for individuals getting into the industry, by giving them opportunities that they may not necessarily have had. It started off as an Australian publication, but I think now we can technically call ourselves an international publication because we speak for everyone, we try to speak for all people around the world.
MW: That’s incredible! The progression sounds so natural, and something that's rooted in the way you live your life and the way, I'm guessing, different connections have shaped your path. It’s cool to hear how that story eventually built up to what will soon be this tangible output in print form.
MS: I keep forgetting that it's there! And I'm definitely someone who tries to undermine my own accomplishments because I think I have very high expectations of myself and I try to achieve the absolute best that I can. I would speak to friends and I would go “oh I haven't done this, this and this”, but they remind me that actually, I have something. And that I should look at what I have accomplished and be proud and grateful. I think that's also one of the things that I really want to change this year, which is how I look at things. With social media, you can get into that whole thing of comparison. At this point, we all know we compare ourselves, but it's just a matter of recognizing your accomplishments and running with that instead.
MW: It's almost like an elevated barometer. Where you're accomplishing something, but then alongside that, there's the comparison to something that always feels out of reach. There's always someone doing something better, or you always have a higher expectation because you feel like it doesn’t match up.
Mami Wata via POCC
MS: Exactly! And then you don't end up celebrating your wins or accomplishments. I think it's really important to stop, celebrate what you’ve done, and then continue.
MW: And on that note, out of all the stories that you've shared in the magazine, which one(s) have stuck out to you the most?
MS: Oh, there's so many! The story with Koffee, the Jamaican Grammy winner, was great. Fadekemi Ogunsanya, the Nigerian artist, was amazing. This one artist, Holodec, from LA, was amazing. Who else…Genesis Owusu’s was also great. He's a Ghanian artist, who grew up in Canberra, Australia. And he wasn't that huge at the time, but he just performed a late night show the other day and also was on Obama's 10 favorite songs. So random, but his article feature was great. There's just so many!
MW: I remember reading the Koffee one, it was so cool reading about how she got into music.
MS: And there's so many interesting Australian artists as well. J.Kim, who I think is one of the most interesting brands at the moment. Also, Mami Wata, a South African based surf organization, it's incredible. If you haven't read that you have to read it—the photos are amazing.
MW: Are there any that have surprised you in any way?
MS: Umm, not really, I don't think so. I think they are exactly how we thought they would be. I mean, all the people that we feature are super interesting and have a really unique voice. I think their identities are so strong; how you see them on social media and perceive them to be a certain way, is how they are while they are chatting with us. So they were exactly how you'd imagine them to be.
MW: I see. And I'm curious to hear a bit about your selection process. When it comes to finding guests, what does the behind the scenes look like for your team?
MS: I tend to give my team free rein. I believe that the people that they think are interesting probably are. Because if I think you're interesting, then the people that you think are interesting will be. And so we have this really simple program that whoever we’d like to feature, we just put them up [on a board] and then every day or every few days, we go through them and browse before reaching out. I try not to have so much control over it because I don't want it to just seem like an overly curated thing that's purely based on my taste or my interests. Going back to what I mentioned earlier—it’s about us trying to reach the masses and tell those diverse stories.
MW: You hire people you trust and you know, people who you see eye to eye with.
MS: Exactly right. I also think that hiring people that you don't really see eye to eye with is really interesting too. Because, again, I feel like I can be quite controlling and curated with my own tastes and interests. And so I think it's really important to hire people that are completely different to you because they will always have a different opinion, and that makes the work dynamic and more interesting.
MW: I also love this idea you have of framing the magazine as a collective. And tying that into what you’re saying about it not being overly curated, it makes the experience richer as it’s all just a melting pot of who we are as people of color. Someone might not be on your “level of taste”, but their story is equally as important as someone who's on the radar or is front and center having culture recognise them.
MS: That's the whole point. I mean, no one wants to see my curated version of what I think POCC is. It's just about reaching and representing as many people as we can so it wouldn't make sense if everything was just curated from me. Which is why I think I'm the founder, and I try not to have a specific type of role really, but have more of a broader term.
MW: I love how you put so much thorough intention into everything that you're doing, especially with this idea of having a diverse set throughout all creative projects. In such a fast paced industry, especially with the pressures that come from having an online presence, how do you ensure that you're staying true to your own values and beliefs, both professionally and personally?
MS: I'm a pretty solid person I think, and have never really struggled with peer pressure. Growing up, I always knew exactly the kind of person that I was and wanted to be, and what I needed to do in order to become that person. I think it just comes down to not caring so much. And I know that's really easy to say as we all have our moments where we do fall into spirals of comparison. But I think it comes down to not second guessing yourself. Because once you get into that mode, it's so hard for you to get out of it. Making a decision, and then going with that decision has been really important for me. I've also always been a spiritual person; I always try to tap into my most spiritual self. Focusing on that keeps you so occupied that you don’t have to succumb to the pressures that come from social media and the digital world. It’s so corny but I think having a point of focus and just striving to be your most authentic self is what it comes down to.
MW: There’s always truth found in cliches. Which is kind of ironic as they’re usually the hardest to learn too. You can say something like “value yourself”, and it sounds so simple, but actualising it is a different story.
MS: Yes! I find that too when it comes to watching motivational videos online. You find them so cheesy but they’re also so good. I find myself writing them down in my notes to go back to every once in a while though. I wrote one down recently actually, let me read it to you: "weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning". And so if I'm having a hard day, I’ll read that and it makes me feel better.
MW: I love that! And we wanted to shift the conversation slightly and talk a bit about your family background/heritage. Is your family currently based in Australia too?
MS: Yeah they are currently Melbourne. So I was born in Kenya but we moved to Australia about 16/17 years ago and grew up in Melbourne. I lived in Sydney for a while for work, and recently moved back.
MW: Earlier you mentioned that you’ve always found yourself to have a pretty grounded sense of self. Would you attribute your grounded-ness to your upbringing in Kenya?
MS: I think so. I also try to go back as often as I can. The last time I was there was in December of 2019 through January and it was incredible. It's just a different experience, going back home, and I think you can relate to that too. As soon as you land and you get out of the airport, something comes over you. Do you get that? It's so weird. And I think that's what makes it interesting too—going back home and being able to speak Swahili fluently with people. And if anyone makes me speak in English, I’ll always insist on speaking Swahili instead because I speak English everywhere I go, I'm not about to do that here unless I have to. So yeah, my heritage definitely has a really strong influence on my personality.
MW: Yes I get that too, it’s like this peace that comes over you. And it’s interesting observing the perceptions that you get when you go back, both your own and other’s. We both often talk and resonate on this feeling of “displacement'' that most of us feel, but it’s intriguing hearing you experience the opposite of that.
MS: Yeah, I think I'm quite lucky in regards to that. As soon as we moved [to Australia], I was still very proud of my background. Growing up at home we always spoke Swahili so I always had that with me. Even when I speak to my mom on the phone, or call back home to speak to my grandmother or cousin, we're always speaking in Swahili—that solidified a strong sense of pride in me for my background, and I’ll always have that with me. I remember growing up and my parents would meet other Kenyans whose kids didn’t speak Swahili because they forgot, and they’d always go “Mercy hasn’t”. And I think that pride they had, was always really encouraging to me and made me realize that we have such an amazing history and heritage. It's something that brings a different layer to us and that’s what makes it incredible.
MW: It really does shape and expand your worldview. It’s so amazing to hear that you were able to recognise that from a young age and find pride in it. And given that you seem to visit different places quite often, we were curious to know whether those different environments shape your style in any way. Looking through your Instagram, you seem to have a very elegant and distinct style.
MS: It's so funny because I think my style is pretty boring, if I'm being completely honest. I love and admire people who have really crazy expressions within their style, but I would never do that. I just admire it from afar. I’ve had people online and in Australia think that I live in Europe because of how I dress, which is really interesting. I think I'm pretty safe with my style, overall. I like to have one big statement piece and then the rest is more simplified. And I've always loved the idea of uniforms. One of my worst nightmares would be going to a school without uniforms, I would hate that. Could you imagine waking up in the morning and having to pick a different outfit everyday? When you look at my closet you'd see that I have things that are very similar to each other: a line skirt, but like 10 of those. And when I like something I go crazy, and I continuously try and collect that.
MW: It definitely makes life much easier in the mornings! Are there specific brands that you find yourself gravitating back towards?
MS: Prada has always been my favorite brand, it's the only brand that I really try to invest in. I also think that Miuccia Prada is one of the greatest designers of all time, her work is incredible. Once you know the history of Prada, you just continue to fall in love with it. The recent Bottega was also good, again, because it's just so simple. I tend to gravitate towards that. Those are pretty much two of my favorite brands. Loewe too if I was to add another one to that mix. But if I only had to choose one, it'd 100% be Prada.
MW: Totally get that, it’s just easy when it comes to brands that offer more foundational pieces. To circle back a little bit, we were wondering how you incorporate your Kenyan heritage to your work at POCC?
MS: We've done a few features on Kenyan artists, and that was really interesting to me, because it was really hard to find Kenyan artists. But I think that is always something that I'm trying to do. Since I grew up in a very academic focused family, my dad's a professor and my mom's a nurse, education is a very highly regarded thing in our family. I previously pursued a business degree, when I finished high school, and didn't think I was going to be creative at all. I didn't really have family members who were creative either so I wasn’t exposed to what I could do as a creative or as an artist. So that to me, has always been really important with POCC— I try to tap into communities of people who didn’t necessarily think they could be in an industry like this, in the whole spectrum of photography or fashion or whatever. Though I think it's completely different now. We have artists like Ib Kamara, people who are from Africa, who make us realize that if they can do it, then so can we. It's really important for us to have that presentation in POCC. So people like me, who are younger, who would like to be in the creative industry, have that representation and see that they can achieve whatever they want to achieve. It's really great to see people like Ib Kamara in high places, because it can be very hard to do anything creative, coming from an African household. For example, I think my parents only really started supporting me last year. If you're really passionate about it, you just have to continue pushing until you can prove to them that this is tangible, and this is something that's achievable. To show them that it can be on par with an academic degree or profession. It’s important for me at POCC to show that you can make something of yourself in the creative industry.
MW: And I think to that point as well, about artists such as Ib Kamara being someone from an African household, it begs the question of "Blackness" versus "Africanness". I think a lot of the time in the West, we just throw all these narratives under one umbrella but it’s important to show that we’re not a monolith or just a number or quota to fill. Having that multiplicity of voices being put forward is so important, and I love how you’re highlighting that at POCC too. We were curious to know, what advice would you give to somebody who is maybe at that stage where they're building something and they want to get more into their creative pursuit. But, for whatever reason, the path hasn't quite opened yet.
MS: That’s exactly it! And to that last point, I think what I would say, as corny or cliche as it may be, is that it will happen. I don't think I'm where I want to be yet, and so if you think that I've achieved anything, it means that you will also achieve whatever you want or you wish to achieve. So I think being patient is really important and just keep working towards it and honestly, at some point, it will come. Just full faith.