Celebrating Black History Month 2024: TJ Smith

February 21, 2024

As Black History Month winds down, there’s still much to celebrate around the theme of Black Futures – African Americans in the Arts. For TJ Smith of Compass Digital, he enjoys Black films and music, especially Hip Hop and R&B.

While he’ll watch almost anything, TJ is a “big comedy guy.” He said if you asked his wife what’s his favorite comedy, she would reply – without hesitation – the 1999 movie Life with Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy. The film is about two strangers in the Prohibition Era who are wrongfully convicted and develop a strong friendship in prison that lasts them through the 20th century. “It’s a pure comedy within this odd theme and it’s hilarious,” TJ chuckled.

If he had to choose a favorite actor, it’s Denzel Washington because of the breadth of his films – biopics, dramas, sports and action movies. He been impressed with Denzel’s artistry since the 1989 film Glory, in which Denzel won an Academy Award. It tells the story of Black soldiers fighting for their freedom from slavery during the Civil War. TJ cites the scene in which Denzel’s soldier character is getting whipped for insubordination. “He really didn’t say any words in that scene, but just has a stone-faced expression, and then you see a teardrop. Just knowing the setting of that movie and his emotions, you experience the truth he’s telling.”

The power of film to transport you to another place and time – from the serious to the hilarious – is what moves TJ. “I think those are the best kind of movies, when you can put yourself in that situation and you feel it as well.”

Music has that power, too. Usher, Tupac Shakur, The Roots and Old School R&B Charlie Wilson are among TJ’s favorite artists. “I grew up in a household where Sundays were cleaning days. My mom used to put on R&B records, and we would just sing and clean,” TJ recalled. In heavy rotation were the groups Sounds of Blackness and Earth, Wind and Fire. “I hear any of their songs and immediately remember the smell of bleach in the air from cleaning, and my mom singing into the broom handle!”

Sounds of Blackness blended R&B with Gospel in their melodies, and the song his mother really liked was “Optimistic.” Although TJ hasn’t heard that tune in years, it has memorable lyrics that resonate with him even today: “You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky.”

Being optimistic is in TJ’s nature. “I’m always a glass-half-full-kind-of-guy and see the best in people,” he noted. TJ has been with Compass Group for almost 20 years and was recently named vice president of digital operations. “To be able to start at the base level of the organization and have an opportunity to work my way up speaks to the opportunities within Compass,” TJ shared. “It’s been awesome for me.”

The role of technology in the arts is of keen interest to him. “On the positive side of technology, social media provides the opportunity for more folks to showcase their art to a broader audience without having a major label or a major publisher,” TJ said. “It’s opened the door for a lot of artists we probably wouldn’t have been exposed to by providing a much larger platform. All it takes is for one song or one snippet of something to go viral and you reach millions of people. Then it’s like, wow, who is this guy? Who is this woman? Let’s hear more.”

TJ is also paying close attention to artificial intelligence. “AI is in its early stages. Artists – and all industries for that matter, even Compass – are trying to figure out the best use case for this technology and it’s going to be interesting to see how it unfolds.”

Ever the optimist, TJ still thinks the human mind will be better. “We may not be able to produce the content as quickly as an AI bot, but we will do it. I like the creativity from the human mind, I think the robustness of what a human will create is probably going to be ten times better than what AI will create,” he added.

In the meantime, TJ advised, “Always remember ‘you can win as long as you keep your head to the sky.’”