Going 'Afro Global' For Black History Month
This year we decided to observe Black History Month by hearing from a wide variety of people with roots in Africa, who are changing the world, all over the world.
The series was produced by Tell Me More's Freddie Boswell. She joins us now to help us close the series, along with our Executive Producer Carline Watson.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally, today - and we're sad about it - we wrap up our Afro Global series. As we hope you know by now, this year we decided to observe Black History Month by hearing from a wide variety of people with roots in Africa who are changing the world all over the world. The series was produced by TELL ME MORE's Freddie Boswell. She joins us now to help us close out the series along with our executive producer Carline Watson. Welcome, Carline, Freddie.
CARLINE WATSON, BYLINE: Thank you, Michel.
FREDDIE BOSWELL, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: And I do want to mention, if it's OK, that you are both part of this global diaspora because both of you have lived all over the world. And so I wanted to start, Freddie, by asking you - what were you hoping for with this series?
BOSWELL: Well, as a Kenyan-Brit who lived in London and now lives in Washington, I think one thing I just wanted to do was highlight some of these really exciting voices. But also it was to kind of show the connections that people have across the diaspora and across Africa, and how much also they want to connect with the different parts. So, like, I wanted to highlight, obviously, Nollywood, which is an incredibly industry coming out of Nigeria, but by highlighting Jeta Amata, the director, he's someone who is working with Hollywood actors, you know. And he said in the interview, kind of Black History Month - bring it back to Africa, let's create these connections and let's get African-Americans to realize that there is kind of an industry and a business and exciting things happening there as well.
MARTIN: One of the people who also exemplifies that connection and is making connections was Stromae. I think that was one of your favorites - the European club musician, singer - Stromae. Tell us what you liked about him.
BOSWELL: He's such a big star at the moment in Europe. And actually, the day we did the interview The Guardian newspaper in England had an article at him saying the biggest star you've never heard of. And the thing that got me - and I think we have some tape - is where you asked him how his career had been affected being a man of color.
MARTIN: And just mentioning that he is Belgian. He was born in Belgium, but his father is - was from Rwanda - sadly, he lost him during the genocide. His mother is Belgian. And, yes, that was an interesting moment. Let's play that clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
STROMAE: What does that mean exactly, man of color?
MARTIN: A man of color?
MARTIN: Interestingly, in this country, we use that to mean people who are not white, basically. That's pretty much it - not white.
STROMAE: OK, color. OK.
MARTIN: That's kind of how we use it.
STROMAE: The thing is - I'm not brown or white, that's the thing, I'm just half-and-half. I don't think it's about color or something. It's just about feelings.
MARTIN: So what struck you about that? In fact, a number of listeners wrote in because there was something about that moment that caught a lot of people's attention.
BOSWELL: Well, I think for me, I'm also mixed - my mom is black Kenyan, my dad is white Kenyan. So I was brought up without these kind of labels of you are one thing or another. And I think moving here to America is slightly different from Europe in that people understand labels, like you are black. And when we were creating the series, the question of what is blackness and who is black came up quite a lot. Carline and I, we were discussing, for example, "The Voice" winner Tessanne Chin from Jamaica. But it turns out that her background, she is Chinese-Jamaican. And so I appreciated that kind of refreshing point of view that he is part of Black History Month, and obviously, you know, his father is a black African man, but he sees it slightly differently. And it resonated with me that...
MARTIN: Everybody doesn't see things the way this thing shakes out in the states.
MARTIN: Right. Carline, what about you? What resonated with you in this series?
WATSON: Well, you know, one of the interviews you did that I particularly liked was Zahra Burton. She's a Jamaican journalist. She worked here for quite some time and then she went back to Jamaica and she set up her own production company - "18 Degrees North." And Zahra, in a way typifies a lot of Jamaicans in that we're very outward looking people. She came to this country, she worked here, but then she decided there has to be something more.
And so she took the skills and the knowledge that she learned here and went back to Jamaica and is doing really terrific work reporting on some of the lesser-known stories that you don't get out of the Caribbean, sort of taking it beyond the latest earthquake, hurricane disaster. And I loved it when she said she looks for stories that resonate with people wherever they are because, for me, that's very much about what TELL ME MORE tries to do - it's making the connection.
MARTIN: You know, the idea of a glass ceiling is also one that came up during the course of our numerous conversations. And one of the other ones that struck you, as I understand it, was from Kwame Kwei-Armah, who is a playwright who made a big splash in Britain and then moved to Baltimore to direct that city's Center Stage theater. And he was talking about why he came to America, which is a familiar story, I think, to immigrants from lots of different backgrounds. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
KWAME KWEI-ARMAH: On the surface, it would seem like, you know, everybody comes to America because it's the land of milk and honey. And many of these actors and many of us have been headhunted here. But actually, there was a sense that there was a glass ceiling in Britain for artists of color.
MARTIN: Well, Carline, tell me why that struck you?
WATSON: Well, I was surprised that he didn't think there was a glass ceiling here for artists of color because I thought, listening to that, there are any number of actors in Hollywood that if you spoke to them, they would say, at some point in your career, you can only go so far - the roles just stop coming. But then I think what would be interesting with - is to see whether or not that feeling of being able to come here and make it actually does translate into something bigger. I mean, people like Idris Elba, Chiwetel Ejiofor - will they become leading men in this country? Are they going to get the hot roles with Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lawrence? We'll just have to wait and see.
MARTIN: So, Freddie, you know, we've been talking about what we liked here about the series. Tell us what kind of reaction we've been getting from listeners on Twitter and Facebook and through other avenues.
BOSWELL: Well, I think the interview that I think got a lot of attention was Yaya Alafia, who was the "America's Next Top Model" contestant, then went on - has had quite a successful film career. She was in "The Butler" most recently. And she raised the question of what it is to be an African-American because she said, I'm part of the diaspora, I'm at home in many places, but I am truly an African-American. And I think that that's one of the things that the series did very well, is that it also showed that, OK, we're all observing Black History Month, but it means different things to each of us. And in a way, we can all then see and celebrate our diversity within what the month means to us.
MARTIN: Freddie Boswell is a producer here at TELL ME MORE. Carline Watson is our executive producer. They were both kind enough to walk down the hall and join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much.
BOSWELL: Thank you.
WATSON: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: You can listen to all the interviews from our Afro Global series at NPR.org/TELLMEMORE. And you can still weigh in on Twitter at #AfroGlobal. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.