Through Podcasting, Selly Thiam Shares AfroQueer Stories
When Selly Thiam started curating queer stories from the African continent about 15 years ago, one of the first people she spoke to told her there were no indigenous names on record for queer Africans. “I was interviewing an Igbo man, a priest from Nigeria, and for him, he didn’t have any language for it at the time,” the Senegalese-American journalist and oral historian told OkayAfrica.
She used the phrase to create a digital media organization, in 2006, called None on Record, and in the years since that encounter, archived over 1000 first-person narratives of LGBT Africans on the continent and in the diaspora. “The point of using that phrase was really about the invisibility that we had as queer and gender non-conforming queer Africans; it was almost as if we did not exist,” she says. “And as I go on documenting, I find we’ve always existed in different parts of African societies.”
None on Record grew into an Africa-wide company, with offices in Nairobi and Johannesburg, training hundreds of LGBT activists across the African continent on digital media and documentation. In 2013, Thiam launched the podcast, AfroQueer, and went on to create AQ Studios, a podcast company based in Nairobi, dedicated to uplifting stories of African and Black people from around the world. AfroQueer, In Search of a Black Planet and Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women are among their podcast shows. Recently, AfroQueer won a Webby Anthem Award, which recognizes mission-driven work.
OkayAfrica talked to Thiam about carving out a space for African queer voices on the internet.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In one AfroQueer episode, we hear about the Buganda Kingdom in Uganda and the queer people who lived and served in the king’s palace. Is there a deliberate aim to interrogate African pre-colonial queerness?
The vision of the podcast was to go into historical record, and recreate and make content that told the story, because a lot of times what you hear, particularly as a queer African, is that we’re not part of the culture; we are a by-product of colonization; because the white man brought those kinds of things. That we’re not a part of traditional society, which is a very painful thing to hear, naturally. So a lot of what we wanted to do was to show that we always existed, and we’ve always been here. As we move forward too, there’s another story we’re working on right now for this season that is so fantastic, which is also about recreating a lost history of a person who was gender nonconforming. So it’s very important to us in the work that we do.
You’ve been documenting queer stories for almost two decades, and we know that with podcasting one of the major challenges is inconsistency. What motivates you to keep on?
Inconsistencies, for me – I can’t speak for everyone – have always been about resources. If I had unlimited resources, I would create all day long. And it would even be five times more content that I have already put into the world. A lot of times people think podcasting is as simple as getting a microphone and turning it on and talking, and then putting it out there. But when you’re doing something like AfroQueer, which is a documentary style podcast, it requires vast research, and script writing, and finding people who we are going to interview to go on the record, to license music, so there’s all these parts. And there’s more than two people who work on those episodes in different capacities. That is labor. It’s a process.
But when you love the work that you’re doing, and you love the storytelling you’re doing, you go through that process of getting it out into the world in the best possible way you can. But it’s important to note that to do things, you need to have time and the resources to put things into the world. And I think sometimes that challenges people.
How do the two programs AQ Studios have to train and support podcasters, Black Audio training program and the Afro Mic incubator, work?
The incubator is something I really love. People pitch us shows often to help support the production of those shows. And we didn’t do a public call our first year, we invited shows to be incubated. And that’s actually how we incubated Adventures From The Bedrooms Of African Women Podcast. It’s going to launch in March. When we spoke with them, they wanted to do a documentary-style show. So we helped them put it together. We incubated them for the last year and a half, through the pandemic, working with them, supporting them, script writing, getting them the proper equipment, and basically taking this really popular blog, and figuring out how to move it into a podcast platform. That’s how we stepped in, and the producer, Nana Darkoa and writer, Wana Udobang have done a fantastic job. They’re almost ready to launch and it’s going to be amazing. That’s the incubation that we would do.
Our slate is really quite full. This is a very busy year for us, which is great after two years of pandemic. And it’s great to come out now with all the work that we’ve been working on and share with the world. So we’ll do another public call for shows again, probably in mid-October, and then we’ll decide what show to incubate for the year 2023.
Based on the AfroQueer episodes you’ve curated and shared, do you think podcasts wield power?
I think so. I know AfroQueer has been a big affirming podcast for many people, which has been fantastic. We’d have to measure attitudinal shifts. But from what we get back, people have a sense of more compassionate empathy, which is what you always want some of the storytelling to do, so that you can see people as people. And that feedback comes through strongly.
For the listeners who are African and queer, it’s also been really powerful and informative for them; to learn about different things across the continent that have happened, or happening in more current times, has shaped their idea around their sense of existing. Basically, it’s like putting up a mirror and saying, there’s many people that are going through similar experiences as you, and even in the past as well. And that’s a really affirming experience.
What is that one episode you’ve curated that lives rent-free in your head?
I love all the stories, haha! One story I like a lot, but not more than the other stories, is Dakan. That story means so much to me. I remember finding that movie, and this was before I started the work of documenting LGBT stories; it was way back. And to have it come full circle now, 15 years later, and be able to work with the producers and Moses who pitched that story, and actually find the filmmaker and interview him about the experience of making the first queer film in West Africa in 1990. It was such an extraordinary experience for me personally. It felt like I was making this work for my younger self, who was really wanting more information and wanting to see that story. So Dakan means a lot to me for that reason.
But I love all the stories that come out of AfroQueer. They’re all really interesting and fun. I love that they’re there in a podcast. It’s almost like a time capsule, so that in a few years, if we decide to wrap up AfroQueer as a podcast, it’ll always exist in the public domain. And people can find it and listen to it for years to come. That makes me extremely happy.
We’re working on a very large archive project right now that’s going to have all of our entire organizational archive in a digital space. We’re partnering with Google Arts and Culture to put the records online. It’s going to be good for people to just put in Google and something pops up. This is something that I remember really desiring when I was a lot younger, and first coming out that I didn’t have. It put me on this quest to find these stories, because I didn’t have them. It’s a different world now, but it’s still so important that we document our experiences, and share them, especially for future generations.