BUSY BEING BLACK
“I tried for so long to lift myself up within systems and structures that were designed to crush me and people like me. No more. Busy Being Black is a commitment to a Black radical tradition.” Josh Rivers, creator and host of Busy Being Black, the podcast exploring how Black people live in the fullness of their queer Black lives discusses the confrontation that inspired the podcast’s title, what it means to be “Busy Being Black,” Bell Hooks, Lady Phyll and interviewing Oprah.
Tell us about Busy Being Black. What was the genesis and the intention of its manifestation?
Busy Being Black is a podcast exploring how we live in the fullness of our queer Black lives. I centre conversations with those who have learned (and are learning) to live at the intersection of their identities. The idea came to me in the autumn of 2017. I had just hosted an event called Forbidden Fruits where we explored what it means to move through the world as queer Black people. Afterwards, I had some unsolicited feedback from a white person about how I should have created space for white people in the conversation. It led to a very tense exchange and I blurted out, “I don’t have time for this. I’m busy being Black.”
I suppose at the very heart of Busy Being Black is my intention to speak to a younger version of myself. The young Black boy who felt so othered and so alone, who was sexually assaulted and taken advantage of, who performed a version of himself that he thought would please others. I want him, them to know that they are valued and valuable, that their lives are worth fighting for. My motivation is to in some way, however small, try to create work that prevents a young Black boy from feeling like he doesn’t belong or isn’t loved.
Busy Being Black is also borne of trauma. After my very public shaming, I kept saying to myself, “This has to be for something greater. This has to be for something greater.” Words I said many years ago were re-weaponised to cause myself and others harm. It’s my responsibility to turn this experience into something good, to heal where pain has been caused and to fortify where links and connections have been weakened. And it’s ultimately my way of answering the fundamental question of life: Why am I here?
What does it mean to be “Busy Being Black?”
Busy Being Black means whatever you want it to mean. For me, it’s a mission statement, a proclamation and an ethos. It fills me with pride when I say it to myself, “Josh, you’re busy being Black.” It reminds me to focus my energies, that I’m here in service of others and that I am valuable. It connects me to those who came before me as well, who agitated endlessly for justice. It reminds me that I am not alone. And it’s allowed me to feel unapologetic. I tried for so long to lift myself up within systems and structures that were designed to crush me and people like me. No more. Busy Being Black is a commitment to a Black radical tradition.
You’ve mentioned Oprah as your dream podcast guest. What’s one question you’re gagging to ask her?
Well, Oprah is actually my dream guest for the Busy Being Black television show (for which I’m writing a treatment at the moment). One of my earliest memories is interviewing my sister’s dolls after watching the Oprah Winfrey Show. I must have been four. In any case, I really just want to say ‘thank you’. She is one of my Black blueprints, one of the people I look who up to who has shown me that the pursuit of my purpose is noble, that I needn’t shy away from the emotional and that I can use my own experience, my own pain, for good. She’s shown me that I can be myself.
Has there been any resistance towards Busy Being Black and how can we promote the message of BBB?
I was expecting a lot of resistance to Busy Being Black, but there hasn’t been any. In fact, the feedback has been incredibly emotional and empathetic. I think more people than I realised identify with me and my experience, and at the very least, they are seeking answers to age-old questions too. And there isn’t really anyone speaking to queer Black people on an existential level. I joke that I’m prone to getting lost in ontological mind-spirals, but there’s an appetite for these types of conversations, for learning. I’m really grateful that people around me were so adamant that I get back up and start creating again.
A queer uncelebrated person of color you recommend we inform ourselves of?
I’d actually recommend Bell Hooks. I’m not sure she identifies as queer, but her work should be essential reading for every Black person on the planet, particularly Black men. And I try to keep at the front of my mind the queer Black people living their lives day-to-day, and who do so without any celebration or platform or attention, those who just get on with it and who navigate the attendant quagmires of living in a white country like Britain. I also don’t think Lady Phyll gets the recognition she truly deserves. She is a titan of activism and a beacon of hope and I’d like her to have a more global recognition of the work she does.
“I tried for so long to lift myself up within systems and structures that were designed to crush me and people like me. No more. Busy Being Black is a commitment to a Black radical tradition.”
What qualities or achievements do you look for in a Busy Being Black guest?
I’m really moved by art and artists, particularly poetry and poets. An ideal Busy Being Black guest is working to understand themselves better, is using their platform for the advancement of Black people and is committed to lifting up the queer community. And in recognition that our queer Black lives aren’t lived in vacuums, I also look for those with queer-adjacent experiences: I’m excited for the upcoming conversation with a former inmate (a cis-hetero Black man) who is wrestling with his identity and his life since coming out of prison.
When will you upload the official dance moves to the Busy Being Black beats please Josh?
My personal Instagram is where the remixes (like “Wading in the Water”, for example) and dance moves will live for now. Ha ha.
Through the podcast, have you experienced a moment of revelation of a deeper connection to your purpose?
Every time I sit down with someone I feel something. I purposefully leave the conversation structure loose so that whatever is meant to come out of the conversation has the space to do so. And it’s really when I hear the final episode, before I press “publish,” that I’m most impressed with the conversation. My conversation with Phil Samba is perhaps the most triggering though. I had to add in a Busy Being Triggered Buzzer.
Is there a consistent theme that can be concluded from the interviews?
We’re all trying our best. Be kind to yourself. Look out for others. We have a much larger and expansive history than we’re taught. As Travis Alabanza says, “We have always been the answer and the gift.”
Do you believe Busy Being Black will inspire a succession of non cis-white-male groups exploring and celebrating their identity?
I can’t really think about that. I hope that by me speaking honestly and candidly about my own experiences — sexual assault, addiction, public shaming — that others will understand that they don’t need to hide, that they don’t need to be ashamed of where they’ve been or where they are. I’m so tired of hiding, of taking other people’s ideas of me as gospel. Busy Being Black is an honest and unapologetic exploration of how to self-actualise, of how to be the best, most truthful me.
“The system was never designed to accommodate us; it was designed to thrive off our oppression, and it’s this system that sees the rank underrepresentation of Black people in every industry and the overrepresentation of Black people below the poverty line and in the prison system.”
In a Donal Trump and Theresa May period how do you believe society can pivot and discontinue creating excuses for racism?
I think we need to completely upend and destroy the system that’s in place because it is built off the backs of Black people, the subjugation of women (particularly Black women) and racism, murder, rape and brutalisation. The system was never designed to accommodate us; it was designed to thrive off our oppression, and it’s this system that sees the rank underrepresentation of Black people in every industry and the overrepresentation of Black people below the poverty line and in the prison system. Those of who think we can change the system from within are deluded (I used to be one of those believers). It needs to be completely taken down and rebuilt.
Busy Being Black has only had 14 guests and has already been a featured podcast on iTunes. Where do you hope to see Busy Being Black in the future?
Busy Being Black will be a television show, a multimedia platform, a production company and a supporter of Black creatives and talent.
If you were to substitute yourself for an alternate interviewer and choose the interviewee for a Busy Being Black session, who would they be and why?
I’d like to hear Lady Phyll in conversation with Angela Davis. Can you imagine? These two momentous women from the British and African-American traditions coming together to talk about misogyny, oppression, racism and sexism and how they’re working to dismantle it? It would be so epic.