The exclusivity of the voice-over business has been one of the entertainment industry's best-kept secrets. Traditionally a field dominated by white males, the voice-over world has for decades lacked diversity and inclusion for people of color.
Husband and wife duo Rudy Gaskins and Joan Baker have been part of a movement to promote diversity through the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences (SOVAS), established in 2013. The SOVAS provides access and support to people interested in voice-over acting through education, training, and job opportunities. SOVAS is also the producer of the Voice Arts Awards, and That's Voiceover!.
"Diversity begets diversity," said Gaskins. "Our appreciation and advocacy for inclusion resulted in a program that has diversity in its DNA. It's not as if it's effortless, but it's an organic and extraordinary mosaic of racial inclusion."
The efforts of Gaskins and Baker have helped increase the value of voice arts, as well as the range of talent working today. Baker, one of the top female voice talents in the business, started her career in 1991. Gaskins is an Emmy Award-winning producer as well as chairman and CEO of SOVAS.
"Joan and I had to actively guard against the Voice Arts Awards becoming a 'black thing,'" he continued. "We knew it had to serve all people, and its service to all people should never be called into question."
The 4th annual Voice Arts Awards ceremony, held earlier this month at the famed Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City, is evidence of advances made in this mysterious industry. Multi-genre performer and activist Lily Tomlin, whose career spans more than five decades, was presented with the Voice Arts Icon Award by her good friend, two-time Emmy winner and voice-over legend Bob Bergen.
Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns received the inaugural Muhammad Ali Voice of Humanity Honor, presented by three-time Emmy Award winning voice-over actor Keith David. In 2013, David was the first recipient of a Voice Arts Award.
"Muhammad Ali is one of the people who took his world and widened it so that everyone in the world can see," said Burns, who is slated to produce a documentary on the iconic sports legend. "He spoke with his voice, even when he no longer had a voice to speak to all of us about a much bigger and more important and wider history."
Another winner was voice actor Jeff Wilburn, who received two awards for "Moonlight" and "NBA on TNT." Renowned voice actor Rodd Houston, promo voice for TV One who has voiced projects for companies such as Verizon and was "Bud" the talking frog in two of Budweiser's memorable Frog ads, received one of the evening's top honors for Outstanding Body of Work.
"I am humbled to receive this honor," Houston said. "To be acknowledged by your peers for your work is special."
The awards ceremony was the culmination of the two-day weekend, which included the annual That's Voiceover! Career Expo, produced by Baker and Gaskins. Agents, voice actors, directors, and other industry insiders led interactive seminars on the various genres of the business. The sessions ranged from broadcast work in commercials to cartoons, as well as how to break into the industry and navigate a successful career. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson on "The Simpsons," was presented with the 2017 Backstage Vanguard Award for Arts and Humanities.
According to Gaskins, there has been a progressive increase of African-American and Latino entries each year from 25 to 33 percent. Over the years, African-Americans have become more involved in the voice-over arts. Black actors have not only used their voices to promote products and build brands globally, their voices have also raised social and historical consciousness. Celebrities such as James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, Keith David, and Nancy Giles are among voice acting trailblazers that have opened doors for a new generation of aspiring voice actors of color.
Baker said it was the death of her father from Alzheimer's disease that empowered her with purpose and encouraged her to pursue her goals.
"He was and still is the wings on my back," she said. "I decided I wanted to give back; and also I wanted to give thanks to a community [voice-over industry] that has supported and accepted me from the beginning."
Since 2005, Baker has donated all the proceeds from her book "Secrets of Voice-Over Success" to the Alzheimer's Association, which she has earmarked for a cure.
Baker and Gaskins' leadership and their desire to serve is a testimony to their gratitude and their work in the voice-over business have also kept them close. Noting that he and Baker celebrated nearly 20 years of marriage this year, Gaskins said it's an "unimaginable bliss" to share a life mission with someone he loves.
"You can move forward with a laser focus, built on trust," Gaskin concluded, as the couple prepares for next year's lineup. "You know that your partner has both you and the mission at heart. We hug and cry at the end of every event."