In Conversation with Josh Rivers, the creator and host of Busy Being Black, the podcast centring the voices and experiences of the queer Black community. After a life-altering setback, Josh Rivers created Busy Being Black as a way of turning his anger, frustration and pain into an opportunity to heal and connect with a global community of queer Black people.
He is the founder of Series Q, a network of mentorship, learning and support for LGBTQ entrepreneurs, and was part of the founding team behind Second Home, a cultural venue and workspace in East London for creative companies. He is a Role Model for Diversity Role Models, the Head of Communications for UK Black Pride and is inspired by conversations that go beyond the one-dimensional selves we’ve learned to present in the social media age.
Tell us about your podcast and how it came about
Busy Being Black, the podcast exploring how we live in the fullness of our queer Black lives, was born in the aftermath of a great personal trauma, when I was fired from Gay Times after a number of inappropriate tweets from my past were uncovered. At the time, I was unsure I would find the confidence to speak up again, but the friends and family around me – and even strangers I met on the street – kept telling me to do something with the pain, the past and the mistakes. So many people I respected reached out to say, “You will get through this and we will help because we need you out here.” Busy Being Black ultimately began as private and healing conversations with community elders, friends and family over home-cooked meals and lots of wine, and as I started to feel like myself again, I knew it would be helpful for others to hear what had been shared with me.
The conversations on Busy Being Black are often described as like listening to a private therapy session, and I think that’s a reflection of the space that was created for me as people rallied around me. So I hope I’m paying that generosity forward by creating a soft place for our community to land. It’s also a space that is created with queer Black and QTIPOC people in mind at all times. What questions do we have? What are we battling against? What do we hope for? What are some of the strategies for surviving and thriving that have gotten others through the best and worst of their lives? From exploring sexual fetishes, repairing familial bonds, understanding intersectionality, redefining masculinity to religion, spirituality, faith, relationships, art and culture, I’m proud of the breadth, depth and care that has come to define Busy Being Black.
What do you think of media representation of Black queer lives?
In Kevin Quashie’s The Sovereignty of Quiet, he argues that Blackness is always supposed to tell us something about racism, or protest, or democracy and that in that configuration of Blackness, there is no room to recognise or spend time within what he calls our wild and voluptuous interior lives. Media representations of queer Black people, while increasing, can often feel reductive – as if there’s only limited space in the public imagination for how we show up in the world. One of my pet peeves, for example, is photos of Black men surrounded by flowers, as if Blackness has to be mediated or softened in order to be read as safe, or sexy, or palatable. The work of John Edmonds is a wonderful corrective to this particular trope, and I hope that the conversations on the show – as vast and varied as they have become – offer queer Black people a space they know will reflect their complexities, nuances and idiosyncracies. Part of the joy and the power of owning our own media spaces is that we are no longer subject to editorial erasure, no one telling us “Black people don’t sell”, which I heard often during my time working in mainstream LGBTQ media.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
The world won’t always make you feel valid or valued and your response to the world around you must not be dictated by anger. You come from a long line of survivors, some you know and some you don’t, who can offer you ways of understanding yourself and who will help you figure out who you are and who you want to be: go towards them, revel in them, learn from them. You are not the sum of your mistakes or your worst moments. You will do great things in the world and you will make people feel seen, heard and loved. You will find your purpose in and among your people: as my mentor once told me, “Your ministry is in your DNA”. Oh, and wait until you learn about Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison – you will be electrified with recognition and delight!
What has been the biggest challenge during 2020? Any highlights?
At the start of the first lockdown, I spoke with many queer Black people and the general sentiment was one of relief. Many of us were forced to slow down, take a step back and rest, and while we were concerned that Covid and the attendant restrictions, isolation and poor governance would impact our communities disproportionately, we saw an opportunity to recharge. For many of us, myself included, that didn’t last long. The murder of George Floyd at the end of May, the protests that erupted, Pride month and a sharp increase in the number of white “allies” wanting to “help” all compounded and I found myself struggling emotionally. (I’ve said elsewhere that I found white people’s increased attention stressful.) And as someone who feels a great sense of responsibility to my community, I found I was putting immense pressure on myself to be useful and so I had to take a step back and refocus. There have, of course, been highlights: as of September, Busy Being Black had been streamed 100,000 times in 2020; the show was featured on multiple lists on Apple, Spotify and Amazon Music; I received funding from both Wellcome Trust and the European Cultural Foundation to explore queer Black lives across the UK and Europe; and I continued on in my work at UK Black Pride and supporting Lady Phyll.
This year was the 15th anniversary of UK Black Pride, and the event was different from the usual celebration. How did you adjust your communications plan?
The first thing to say is UK Black Pride is run by a dedicated team of volunteers and I’m really honoured to work alongside them. Lady Phyll continues to inspire, nurture and support us all and so one of the things that kept me afloat this year was the team and figuring out how we would show up for our communities. We actually ran two events this year: the first was Pride Inside in July with Amnesty International, Stonewall and Para Pride; the second was our 15th birthday celebration in August, which was watched by over 30,000 people. Our communications plan largely stayed the same, as the motivation was the same: amplify, inform and drive footfall (or traffic, this year). We honed our comms to focus on the role LGBTQ people have played historically in movements for equality; used our platforms (and Lady Phyll’s voice and influence) to call attention to the specific ways our communities are impacted by Covid-19; and delivered events with the express intentions of combating loneliness and isolation and celebrating our communities’ creativity, resilience and joy.
An introduction to Busy Being Black
Busy Being Black has released 65 episodes since March 2018 and features an impressive and wide-range of people, themes, topics and conversations. Here is a selection of conversations to get you started.
We speak at length on resilience, rebellion and protest; the tender woman behind the activist; and what hopes she has for her daughter, for UK Black Pride and for us all.
Among much else, Travis and I discuss the historical connection between anti-Blackness and transphobia, the role of performance in survival and why they sometimes lean into parodies of themself when navigating white institutions.
A deep-dive into the spiritual and the numinous, of those from the physical and psychic worlds who help guide her everyday. We also go deep into experiences that have had a traumatic impact and how she’s come out of and through them a stronger, wiser, more formidable and more compassionate woman.
We explore why changing her name allowed her to imprint herself on Igbo culture, how she helps others flip their pain into poetry through The Pancake Business, her ever-evolving and expanding ideas of what it means to be a feminist, her mother’s reaction to her coming out and the practical steps she’s taking to be true to herself.
PJ elaborates on her refusal to make her life and her Blackness performative, and how she does this through a tenacious yet gentle pursuit of joy. She takes us back to her origins in rural Jamaica, how her experience as a refugee made her reevaluate all of her relationships, how she remembers to engage her wonder and her curiosity, and her thoughts on roots, freedom and love.
Jean is a communications master who has spent her life deeply committed to the emancipation of the human spirit, and she suggests that reaching our goals and surviving and thriving in the world really all comes down to effective, considered and meaningful communication.
We discuss the genesis of gal-dem, how she’s learned to separate herself from the business she’s built, feeding people she cares for and falling in love with writing again, and how she stays focused on gal-dem’s ultimate mission of revolutionising the publishing industry. She also discusses living life unafraid to love, and how she unlocked the little box she put away when she was sixteen after having her heart broken.
We discuss her research on violence against women, and Adeola pushes back against the narrative of Europe as a post-racial project. She suggests that Europe does its Black citizens a disservice by pointing to problems abroad it has yet to address at home. As well as her insights about fighting for and defending the Afro-Greek identity and the ways conversations about citizenship and representation differ in England and in Greece, she also calls us to ancestral healing and to realise that our softness is our birthright.