• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

How Gracie’s Corner became must-see TV for children everywhere

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It’s Taylor’s Era and Beyoncé’s Renaissance, but for the toddler set it’s all about Gracie’s Corner.

Javoris “Jay” Hollingsworth and Arlene Gordon-Hollingsworth started the YouTube channel after noticing a problem with the edutainment videos that became a saving grace for overwhelmed parents during the pandemic. As their three kids looked to digital counterparts to practice sight words, learn nursery rhymes and grasp other fundamentals, the Houston-area couple was disheartened to see how few videos featured Black children.

“If you’re constantly watching things and you seldom see yourself in the picture, you start to question, like, do you have a place?” Jay said in a Zoom interview alongside his wife and their 11-year-old, Graceyn Hollingsworth, the blueprint for the channel’s main character, Gracie. “Do you belong?”

The Hollingsworths set out to address the disparity using their expertise and passion for research: Arlene is a licensed psychologist with a private practice; Jay is a chemist and former musician. Both were working as professors when they began looking into what it would take to become content creators. They built a rudimentary home studio, found a freelance animator and got to work on songs that, as Jay put it, “parents would find themselves bobbing their heads to versus wanting to pull their hair out.” In just three years, the channel has become a viral phenomenon, gaining more than 2.8 million subscribers and capturing the hearts of families everywhere.

Parents of small children know there’s a spectrum of kids content on the internet, ranging from ever-present earworms (“Baby Shark,” “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”) to borderline inappropriate (Kidz Bop covers). Gracie’s Corner offers a happy medium, with catchy songs that keep kids engaged as they learn and practice skills such as counting to 50, reciting the months of the year in English and Spanish, and brushing teeth.

Graceyn was a fan of Ryan Kaji, the pint-size toy reviewer behind the family-run Ryan’s World, and had floated the idea of doing her own toy reveals. “Being the protective parents, we were like, ‘You know, that’s a big lift,’” Jay recalled.

But Arlene had noticed that her daughter had a habit of singing “all the time: shower, cooking, doing homework, you name it,” she said. “There wasn’t a minute of the day she wasn’t singing, and I was paying attention. I was like, … ‘This could be something.’”

Gracie’s Corner launched in the summer of 2020 with a rendition of “Row Row Row Your Boat” that opens with Graceyn’s adorably squeaky soprano before dropping a hip-hop beat. As the song plays, her animated YouTube character, Gracie, dances alongside a version of her sister, CeCe, now 5 — “Baby row the boat, baby row the boat, aye!” — followed by frames of Gracie dancing with her mom, dad and grandparents. (Elliott, the youngest Hollingsworth sibling, hasn’t been animated yet, but he has pitched in vocally on at least one hit.)

In those early days, the Hollingsworths relied on their extended family to spread the word about Gracie’s Corner, but with every video came more texts from friends and colleagues who had seen the channel’s videos or, even better, had seen videos of young kids dancing along. One friend reported hearing music by Gracie’s Corner at a birthday party. In February 2022, the channel saw its biggest hit with “Phonics Song,” a trap-infused guide. “Break it down, sound it out — yeah, you heard,” Gracie sings over a flute loop. “Put the sounds together, now we’re reading words.”

The channel’s online footprint is proof that representation truly does matter. TikTok is full of videos capturing the way Gracie sparks wide-eyed reactions in children, especially Black children, with her rich brown skin, sparkling eyes and puff pigtails. And because the songs are actual bops, there are also videos of parents, aunties and uncles giving in to the urge to dance, sing or, uh, twerk (sans kiddos) along.

What started as a family activity has turned into a family business. Initially, Graceyn recorded her verses in a closet and would have to take frequent breaks to not overheat under the blanket Jay used to drown out background noise. (Their youngest kids can still be heard on some early videos.) Now the reverb is drowned out by a professional vocal isolation booth. The freelance animator who helped bring Gracie to life now heads a team of animators based in Nigeria. And Jay stepped away from academia to helm Gracie’s Corner full time.

For the self-taught content producer, the biggest indication that Gracie’s Corner was resonating happened in January 2023, when the channel received an NAACP Image Award nomination in the best animated series category. “It was mind-blowing,” Jay said of seeing his family’s homegrown content nominated alongside big studio properties including Disney Plus’s “Zootopia+” and “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder.” “I was like, ‘Man, this is real!’”

The Hollingsworth family’s efforts came full circle a few months later, when Gracie’s Corner released a remix of its first song — “Row Row Row Your Boat” — featuring Big Freedia. Jay and Arlene, who met at Louisiana State University, were familiar with the New Orleans bounce legend and thought she would be perfect for the track.

Gracie’s Corner had teamed up with other artists, including Snoop Dogg and That Girl Lay Lay, the rapper-singer who stars in the Nickelodeon series of the same name. Working with Big Freedia, who identifies as gay and gender-fluid, “opened up an opportunity for conversation,” Jay said. (The video has clocked more than 21 million views.)

“Inclusivity is inclusivity for everyone,” Arlene added. “That’s the most important thing, and we’ll make no apologies for making sure that everyone feels seen.”

Big Freedia also appeared on Netflix’s “Waffles + Mochi,” which is produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and has become a peer of sorts for Gracie’s Corner, along with the Ludacris-produced “Karma’s World,” also on Netflix.

“Maybe before us, a lot of people felt like you had to make things with big animation production studios. And I think that we’re clear proof that that’s not actually necessary,” Arlene said. “Yeah, it helps if you have millions of dollars behind an animated property. But we didn’t even have a 10th of that.”

The Hollingsworths are thankful that they made the decision to go with an animated version of Gracie. Graceyn has been recognized occasionally — teenagers approached the family during a recent trip to Disney World — but it hasn’t been incessant. Arlene expects that will change eventually: Graceyn wants to sing (she especially loves Beyoncé) and act, so her mom occasionally gently reminds her that those things will put her in the spotlight.

Graceyn, who was just 7 when Gracie’s Corner began, isn’t shy about offering suggestions for the channel’s videos, and she’s starting to grasp the ways in which Gracie resonates. “What I like about my channel is that it helps children, even those with disabilities,” Graceyn said, noting that the format of the videos — most are just a few minutes long — helps make learning easier for kids.

As Gracie’s Corner has grown more popular, with songs available on major streaming platforms and even a plush Gracie doll for sale, the Hollingsworths have expanded the topics Gracie and her friends sing about: commemorating Juneteenth, honoring historically important Black figures and celebrating the beauty of Black hair.

It comes naturally for the parents, who think about what they want their own children to know to inform every video on the platform. “That helps us,” Arlene said, “because we’re able to make sure everything we do is infused with that thoughtfulness and mindfulness about what’s important for our children that are Black, Brown and different colors to experience.”

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