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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Chenjerai Kumanyika

Chenjerai Kumanyika is a man of many roles: academic, artist, organizer, journalist. He’s also a maker of podcasts, most notable for his work as the co-host of the Peabody award-winning Uncivil along with two acclaimed seasons of Scene on Radio, “Seeing White” and “The Land That Has Never Been Yet.” All three projects are united by a radical sensibility: to fundamentally rethink a core aspect of American society. This week, Nick talks to Chenjerai about how — and why — he has come to integrate podcasting as part of his larger intellectual output.

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SUMMARY KEYWORDS

people, laughter, podcasting, gimlet, uncivil, radio, called, john, whiteness, transom, history, voice, wrote, movements, music industry, felt, piece, tremendous talent, studies, scene

SPEAKERS

"Things I've Seen" Excerpt, Chenjerai Kumanyika, "Uncivil" Excerpt, "Scene On Radio" Excerpt, Nick Quah

"Uncivil" Excerpt 00:01

This story starts back in the spring of 1796. On a warm evening in Philadelphia, Ona Judge, a young enslaved woman in her 20s has recently received some terrifying news. She found out that she was going to be given away as a wedding gift to her owner's granddaughter, that she would be returned to the South, a place that she had no interest in living, and she made a decision. She made a decision that she would escape.

Nick Quah 00:29

This is a scene from Gimlet Media's Uncivil, which Chenjerai Kumanyika co-hosted with Jack Hitt. Chenjerai is interviewing scholar Erica Dunbar.

"Uncivil" Excerpt 00:39

Fear had to have been in the forefront of her mind. She must have been terrified. She knew that if she had been caught, that that was a federal offense, that was a violation, and she also knew that if she were caught, she more than likely would be punished physically by whipping. Perhaps even worse, she might have been sold off to the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean, which basically was a death notice.

Nick Quah 01:12

Ona Judge, a former slave of George Washington, is largely unknown to American history. And for many Uncivil listeners, white and otherwise, this is the first time you're hearing any of these extraordinary stories, which is exactly the point of the show. And part of Chenjerai's larger goal. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week on the show: the many hats of Chenjerai Kumanyika. Chenjerai has the spirit of an activist. But 20 years ago, that activism looked a little different.

"Things I've Seen" Excerpt 02:03

I've seen true genius, too often elude the meaningless / Appreciation of this mediocre nation / I've heard the mindless repetition, of empty words without tradition / Turn original verbs into submission / I smelled this malignerance addiction, but I guess I wouldn't be right / If I said the blunt was like a baby pipe / THERE AIN'T GON' BE NO REVOLUTION TONIGHT / Half my warriors as high as a kite / Lost and they lost all they fight / And I've tasted the bitter tragedy of lives wasted / And men who glimpsed the darkness inside, but never faced it / And it's a shame that most of y'all are followin' sheep / Wallowin' deeper than the darkness, you're fallin’ asleep

Chenjerai Kumanyika 02:38

What the game needed was a group that was kind of like The Fugees, but not quite as talented.

Nick Quah 02:44

Hmm. [Laughter]

Chenjerai Kumanyika 02:48

I've been a hip hop artist for most of my life, you know, since at least like fifth grade.

Nick Quah 02:53

Oh, really.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 02:54

In the lunchroom, beating on the tables, getting humiliated at times in the lunchroom hip hop battles in fifth grade. But in '95, I formed... some friends and I formed a group, and in 1999 we got a record deal. And the group was called Spooks, which is a controversial name. We really meant it at the intersection of its racial connotations and it's CIA connotations, because we were inspired by a book by Sam Greenlee called The Spook [Who] Sat By The Door.

Nick Quah 03:28

Yeah, that's also a movie, right?

Chenjerai Kumanyika 03:30

Yeah, yeah, it was. They made a movie version of it, which was, certainly the movie version, was banned. I'm not sure how long it was banned, or what the story was, but it was definitely a controversial movie because it involved a Black agent infiltrating the CIA. And so I think that we were... we kind of thought that we were like, "Yeah, he was infiltrating the CIA and we're infiltrating the music industry," right? [Laughter] That was kind of our... I don't know if we were infiltrating the music industry as much as we were just being exploited by it. But I think that we actually wound up getting a gold single in France. And then we got a gold album in the UK. And then we got gold singles in Sweden, and places like that, in Belgium. Which has caused some of my friends to clown me because they'll say, "well, doesn't it only take like 5000 records to go gold in Sweden?" and I'm like, "yeah, but you ain't got a gold record, leave me alone." [Laughter] "Let me live." [Laughter]

Nick Quah 04:25

But even with that success, the shine of the music industry started to wear off.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 04:30

We saw the negotiations, right? We negotiated a record contract. So in that process, we were like, "oh, y'all actually want to take everything from us?" That's something again, I would encounter--I would encounter that again later in podcasting as well.

Nick Quah 04:43

Yeah, well, we'll definitely get there in a bit. [Laughter] Eventually, he moved back home to Philadelphia, where he started developing after-school programs for kids.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 04:54

And in a way, I was always torn, because when I was developing these kind of hip hop programs where we're, after school, teaching kids how to produce, helping them think about their careers, I was like this, in a way, is also the power of music. Power of music is not only a commodity, because for the youth, and folks I was working with, it was just like, it was a way they were living. It was a way, in Philly, at a time when there was a lot of violence, where kids wanted to get off the street, and they were processing, in their music, the stuff they were going through often in very violent lyrics. And I just felt like, wow, and it was... I mean, honestly, I remember one time, if I could just give you this scene, I remember me, as a sort of working hip hop artist, but after school, I had this program at a school called Friere Charter School at the time. At the time, I didn't really have a critique of charter schools--now I do. But there was like about 20 kids who were in my program, and they just had equipment that I brought, my own equipment at first, we're making music, and they just stayed after school, making music, and making up dances, and making--writing beautiful poetry. And they would just do it. They were doing this for like four or five hours, and these are kids in high school, and I just was like, damn man, this is... in a way it's like, this seems like what music is for.

Nick Quah 06:11

So that felt like a very formative moment in your education career?

Chenjerai Kumanyika 06:16

Exactly. So essentially, it's really important for me to shout out Sam Richards, who was a mentor of mine. He was formerly my sociology teacher, when I was in undergraduate school. And he was an advocate for me, because I wasn't a great undergraduate student, because I was doing all kinds of other things, and he said, "Hey, man, I'm going to be an advocate for you to get into Penn State's communication program," because Penn State has a leading communication program. He advocated for me and helped me to get in and I'm indebted to him for that.

Nick Quah 06:49

Chenjerai did go to Penn State, and ultimately got his doctoral degree in media studies. And that's why he started thinking about dabbling in narrative audio.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 06:57

I became aware of an organization called Transom, because the thing at that point when I was just listening to public radio, I was experiencing, actually, some of the growth of podcasting. I was listening to different shows, namely, This American Life and a little bit of Radiolab.

Nick Quah 07:12

Hmm.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 07:12

But I didn't think of it as podcasting, I just thought of it as public radio. And then when I came across Transom, I was like, Oh, this is a place that trains people how to do this. And I was like, Well, I have, I got some interesting stories in my life. I mean, I'm a sort of failed hip hop artist. I got a story. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 07:30

Interesting that you call yourself "failed," but I don't think so. [Laughter]

Chenjerai Kumanyika 07:32

I mean, I'm nice. Don't get it twisted, I'm nice on the bars, but I didn't really... [Laughter] You know what I'm saying?

Nick Quah 07:38

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 07:39

So I was like, Okay, and so I applied for the Transom story workshop, I was able to take a podcasting week-long workshop with Rob Rosenthal. It was incredible, right? And so, after that, I wrote a piece, "Vocal Color and Public Radio." I was invited by Jay Allison and Rob Rosenthal to write this piece. That piece was published on Transom, and I think that that piece is really, in some ways, responsible for why I'm even involved in radio because a lot of people identified with it because it was like, me not being sure if I have the right voice. I mean, and by the way, is that ever something that you've struggled with, or worried about, whether or not you have the right voice to do radio? I mean, I think your voice is gorgeous, Nick, I wanna say.

Nick Quah 08:25

I appreciate that. It's actually something I do struggle with, but I have kind of a post-colonial context of it. So I was born and raised in Malaysia. So I go back and forth between various sort of Creole-like Malaysian slang to essentially something that sounds like the BBC, which is what I grew up watching. So that's a little bit of what I struggle with personally. But I think that piece that you wrote for Transom, was, I think, I believe is the first thing I read, or work of you that I've consumed. But it's really the first one that really made me go, "yeah, there's something about the public radio system that feels a little bit pernicious, in its aesthetics." So let's lay the foundations here a little bit: tell me what the argument was of that piece.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 08:29

It was an argument that the sort of vocal aesthetics that there's... that under the guise of professionalism, there has been a certain kind of aesthetic--and mandate, even--or maybe set of standards, that have stepped in as what a good radio, and professional radio, voice sounds like, and that that voice is essentially some version of whiteness.

Nick Quah 09:38

In the Transom piece, he shared an example of that so called professional radio voice, like the ones you'd hear on NPR.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 09:46

“For John, losing a fish is no small thing, because John is a fisherman with a capital F.”

Nick Quah 09:52

But he also read it in his own voice.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 09:55

“See, what you might not understand is that for John, losing a fish is no small thing. John is a real fisherman. I mean, this guy's caught hundreds of fish in his lifetime.” But my argument was also, in this piece that I wrote, that there was dimensions of understanding what American experiences, and what people's experiences, and what's going on with social movements, and what's going on with capitalism, and race, and all these other things, in gender, and sexuality, that are being crowded out by virtue of this professional standard, right? It's so it's like... and that was tricky territory, because it wasn't about me to try to say what a white and Black voice is, right? It's like, that's very scary territory, because you can move quickly into an essentialism like, "well, talking Black is one thing," but people seemed to relate to it. And in fact, I had journalists, women journalists, reach out who were telling me how they had been coached and told that their voices weren't enough and weren't right. I did that and I think that that led a lot of people in radio who are experienced, really experienced journalists and created opportunities for me to work, and so John Biewen reached out.

Nick Quah 11:04

John Biewen is the audio program director at the Center For Documentary Studies at Duke University and the host of Scene On Radio, which was Chenjerai's first major podcast gig.

"Scene On Radio" Excerpt 11:14

[Phone rings] Hello? Hey, Chenjerai Kumanyika? Yeah, who's this? John Biewen. Hey, John, what's going on, man? How you doing? How you doing? I'm alright, you? I'm good man. You know, one day at a time. So I'm doing this crazy project looking at whiteness. And I'm just not sure I'm up... I'm not sure I'm the right person for the job. I'm a little concerned about my perspective as a white dude. And thinking I might, I maybe could use some backup. Somebody to kind of check me a little bit and bring in... help flesh out the story with the perspective, your perspective as a person of color in this world. What do you think? Right. You're not asking me to speak for all people of color, are you? Yes, of course. Okay, good. Because, yeah, that's what I do. So... [Laughter]

Chenjerai Kumanyika 12:11

It turned out that obviously John was up to something far more radical in what he was doing, which is that he wanted to enter into the idea about the history of race, where it comes from, what it has to do with America, from the vantage point of whiteness, and his embodied experience, right? Because I think part of what makes Scene On Radio, and "Seeing White," very attractive to people is the way it starts out with this sort of gentle set of assumptions that a lot of white liberals have, who are well meaning people but may not quite understand everything that's going on. So I mean, I think that having that experience, and then seeing how people resonated, and I was like, oh, wow, it really resonated. I mean, I just gotta say, every single... from the moment we dropped that, my email inbox has been full of people who listened, and were affected by it. And one other thing I just have to say on this note: we live in a time where it seems like a lot of people have already figured out what they think. And it's almost impossible to have genuinely transformative political conversation sometimes because people kind of already know what your... I think everybody has their talking points and they're sort of just waiting for the other person to jump in. But I get to see something very different. I get to see people who are really learning. I also do organizing, right? And so it's very instructive to me, because movements can't always wait for the least educated people to catch up. Sometimes we have to force what we need to happen, because people's rights and lives are at stake. In Season Four I said, "While white people are learning, Black people are dying," right?

Nick Quah 13:52

Yeah.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 13:53

But I definitely see, through what's happening, with seeing why, that people can change.

Nick Quah 14:02

It was a profound experience and Chenjerai was just getting started. More in a minute. Chenjerai wanted to do more with podcasts. He wanted to unravel American history--to ransack it, as he says in the intro to the podcast Uncivil. Here's where things get interesting. Chenjerai gets the opportunity to make this show with Gimlet Media, the poster child for corporate podcasting. Given Chenjerai's history with the music industry, his organizing, his interest in radical politics, his critiques of capitalism, why did he say yes to Gimlet?

Chenjerai Kumanyika 14:56

Are you calling me a sellout, Nick? Are you saying I sold out?

Nick Quah 14:58

[Laughter] No, I guess I'm calling back to working through the music industry to infiltrate it, right? [Laughter]

Chenjerai Kumanyika 15:06

Ah, yeah. I mean, no, it's really great, what you bring up, and again, let me just say I actually approached some of my mentors before I did this. And so, because I was aware, and knowing that history, that we have history, there's tensions, we kind of know how this plays out. Gimlet was a sort of venture capital, ad-funded thing, that was operating in that mode, and I knew that those tensions would be there. So I had conversations with various folks about it. But I approached my work at Gimlet like an experiment, because I did see and realize that there was an opportunity to do a massive historical education and political education project into something that I think not enough people understand. One thing that continues, I think, to be the case is that many of the leading voices in media, people who are writing op eds, it's stunning to me how little history we know. And I include myself in that, because I'm not traditionally a historian, right? I just play one on many podcasts. [Laughter] So I approached it as an experiment to say, "Okay, well, Alex Blumberg, personally, is reaching out to me and saying, I want to invest in... help to promote and create this radical history of the Civil War. And I want to do it using our platforms, and we're going to fund it with ads and everything else, but we're going to get it out there. I want it to be as good as possible. I'm going to bring the tremendous talent at Gimlet to do that."

Nick Quah 16:36

Uncivil turned out to be extremely popular, and would go on to become the first Peabody Award-winning show for Gimlet Media. It reached more people than Chenjerai could connect with on campus. It held a different kind of power. But the irony of the situation didn't escape him.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 16:54

Gimlet was a place with tremendous talent, but people were working really hard, and I in the early phases when I was there, I mean, I can't necessarily attribute this to anybody, but it was my feeling that some of the people, because of their vocation as storytellers and journalists, and because of their identification with Alex Blumberg and Matt [Lieber], who they felt were nice guys who had their best interest at heart, they were tolerating things that in my mind was like, we should have a union.

Nick Quah 17:25

Yeah.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 17:27

You know?

Nick Quah 17:27

So a few years later, they do.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 17:29

Right. And so to me, if Alex, or someone else, or whoever was to say, "Well, sure, we had to make compromises with capitalism, but look at all the beautiful things we've created. You know, isn't that ultimately for the good?" I would say, "Why did your company unionize?"

Nick Quah 17:47

Hmm.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 17:48

"What were the things that caused people to unionize?" That's another side that has to be looked at and I think that that is not limited to Gimlet, rife throughout the podcast industry.

Nick Quah 17:59

Despite that cognitive dissonance, Chenjerai is still making podcasts. He produced a multi-part interview for The Intercept with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, the acclaimed scholar of prison abolition. And now he's back at his first home, Scene On Radio with John Biewen. In Season Four, they take on the history of American democracy.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 18:19

One thing I really want to be clear is, what I really think we try to do, and one of the reasons why I love history, is that history, I think, gives us an empirical basis to wrestle with the questions we're asking, so we're going to talk about police or race. It's like, where do police come from? That's an empirical question. But then the answers, it has a lot to do, and answers, gives us tremendous answers, for what's happening now, where we should be going. And I think the same is true of other areas, that we engage the history.

"Scene On Radio" Excerpt 18:47

And you know this very well, but this chant is a staple at marches and demonstrations. [Clip of people chanting "This is what democracy looks like"] What I think that chant captures is that protest is what democracy looks like. At least it's one really important part of it, right? I mean, protests have played a real crucial role in pushing for change in the past, think of the suffrage movement, think of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, or pickets organized by organized labor, right? People out there, making their voices heard directly, forcing those in power to listen, demanding change, and demanding justice. [Clip of people chanting "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!"] But okay, more specifically, what does democracy look like?

Chenjerai Kumanyika 19:37

So I definitely encourage Season Four, "The Land That Has Never Been Yet" is what we called it.

Nick Quah 19:41

And of course, Chenrjerai has a lot of projects in development--you know, with all that free time he has,

Chenjerai Kumanyika 19:48

I think what happened is, somewhere along the line, I forgot how to only wear one hat at a time. You know? [Laughter]

Nick Quah 19:54

I can relate. [Laughter]

Chenjerai Kumanyika 19:54

Because I'm hired as a professor of media studies, but for me to do that job well means I got to understand the movements I'm studying, because I study cultural industries and social movements. And I understand those movements by being a part of them. And then also, as a professor of media studies, I feel like it's important to communicate to audiences beyond the academy. And as a podcaster, obviously, I'm drawing on the knowledge and research from the academy, and my access to movements. So I think in that sense, those categories kind of all flow together, but I wish I could only do one thing--I can't, and I just just hope that my wife doesn't choke me.

Nick Quah 20:32

You know, I can relate on many, many levels. [Laughter] Chenjerai, thank you so much for this conversation.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 20:41

Oh, thank you so much for having me on, and I look forward to the next Hot Pod, man.

Nick Quah 20:44

Hey, I appreciate it! Keep safe.

Chenjerai Kumanyika 20:47

Peace.

Nick Quah 20:48

Chenjerai Kumanyika. Season Four of Scene On Radio is out now. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.