Josh Rivers is a podcaster, writer and public figure, and the creator and host of the award-winning podcast Busy Being Black. Busy Being Black is a growing anthology of queer Black voices, “an oral history project and conversations with those who have learned – and are learning – to thrive at the intersections of their identities.”
Have you been to Berlin? And do you have a favourite coffee spot here? If not, maybe a place where you are in the UK?
I have been to Berlin, I’m laughing because I almost missed my flight back from Berlin because I was ensnared by a group of men. I was having the time of my life! It was early 2017 so I can’t remember Berlin very well. But near me, in Norwich is a wonderful cafe called Bread Source. They do the best coffee. They have the most wonderful service. They make incredible freshly baked, wholemeal sourdough, and these amazing rye chocolate chip cookies with fresh sea salt on them. And I keep petitioning them to set up a rewards program called #BreadSourceBabes, of which I would be the face.
When you started Busy Being Black in 2018, you released a statement of intent saying that Busy Being Black was a state of mind, an ethos, a proclamation of the fullness of queer black lives. Not many podcasters release a statement of intent; Why did you choose to do that? Why was that statement important at the time? And has it changed?
At the genesis of Busy Being Black, a statement of intent felt important because I was trying to establish my voice in a way that required accountability. And I felt like the best way to do that was to let people know what my intentions were. It also gave me a way to consolidate my thinking. I was having lots of different conversations with queer black elders and age mates, and I wanted to be sure for myself what the goal was. But I also wanted to invite other people in to say; “If I miss this mark, if I don’t do what I outline here, please feel free to speak up and say something.” I think for those of us who are committed to using our platforms on behalf of, or in service of marginalized communities, we have to be open to this type of accountability. And I think it’s missing across the board, not just in podcasting, but in civil society. I don’t think my statement of intent or its intention has changed a great deal in four and a half years, I’ve maybe just become a little more specific with my intent. But I feel strongly that a statement of intent, particularly for those of us who seek to impact marginalized communities, can be an incredible way to also say; “I’m here to be accountable to the people I wanna impact.”
It is clear that your own growth and learning is deeply tied to Busy Being Black – is that challenging to navigate? Being a vessel while still being affected yourself?
No. But, what I struggle with is how much of myself Busy Being Black is. I guess it’s a very ontological struggle because I don’t want to overshadow my guests. I’m a very natural part of the conversation because I am the architect, guiding my guests and my listeners through. I’m tussling with this at the minute; How much of myself do I put into Busy Being Black social media presence? Do I speak in the first person or third person? How do I make sure that I’m not overwhelming and making it just another platform about me? I understand that the way I think and what I’m curious about influences the conversations, but how do I make sure I draw myself back out when my voice isn’t the most appropriate voice to share?
Do you think you’ve figured out a way to make that work yet?
I’m still experimenting. For Instagram in particular, I’m kind of pulling myself out where it makes sense, which is most of the time. But I do appreciate that sometimes I ask really amazing questions, it’s something that I’m very good at and I take a lot of pride in. So sometimes as a setup to someone’s answer, maybe putting myself into that conversation makes sense. But I think what I’ve set it on for now is just focus on the guests.
I will say personally, it is an absolute thrill to talk to you, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. If you go onto the Busy Being Black website, we’ve got words like “home” and “culture shifting” and “a fucking moment” to describe the experience of a Josh River’s interview. Can you share your magic with us?
I have not been asked to reflect on how I do interviews…let me think. I have to be honest. I’m very conscious of asking people stupid questions. I feel like I have the capacity to ask big, meaningful questions, so I’m driven from a negative space in that respect. I don’t wanna be the person who asks the stupid question. But I seldom think in isolation, I like to think beyond what I’m reading. I’ll ask myself questions like, “what’s not included here?” “Who’s not part of this conversation?” I’m always looking beyond the immediate to find out, well, what’s the connective tissue here? How can I make this make sense? So when you offer up a space that allows for that connective tissue in a conversation, you will end up with a deeper conversation. Because, like me, my guests are likely thinking beyond the immediate piece of work that they’ve been invited to talk about.
I firmly believe there are stupid questions. And insultingly stupid questions!
Yeah, that’s the thing! I take it very seriously that I’m inviting someone into a space that I’ve created, because people have so much other shit going on. So I try to add to their lived experience. I want them to feel engaged. I also want them to feel as if I’ve done my research. My favorite moment in the past year was when I uncovered a connection in the conversation with Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley that she said no one had connected before. And I was like, “Yes!” I couldn’t think of anything more affirming than that.
Where do you think that that skill comes from? Is that something that you had to teach yourself when you first came into podcasting?
When I first started Busy Being Black, I was really focused on something a bit more linear with my guests, A to B. Now it’s more about how do we go down an enchanting path together? For example, I recently spoke to Marquis Bey. I was reading Walter Brueggemann’s 1978, the Prophetic Imagination, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Marquis’s work. So I messaged Marquis to see if they would have a conversation with me about enchantment and prophets instead of black trans feminism. And they said, “100%, I would love that.” My guests’s support of my brain, interests and curiosities, plus that feedback loop when they say, I’ve never had an interview like that, or that was so much fun, or I completely lost track of time, or I could speak to you forever – I think affirms that I create a space that people want to be in.
You’ve recently gone all-in with Busy Being Black! Freelance work to pay the bills but Busy is your priority. Congratulations! What led you to make that call, and how has that transition been?
About a year ago, for the first time in a long time, I felt quite unhappy. I was feeling an unrest, a dissatisfaction, an insatiability. Nothing’s right. I knew at the time it’s because I’m doing stuff for other people that I don’t wanna be doing. I found myself in a situation where I was looking at another person thinking, “you are the architect of your happiness. You’re the person preventing you from being happy.” And I emerged from that situation and thought; “God, I couldn’t stand that guy. Imagine being that blind to your role in your own happiness.” And the next day I woke up and I was like, “Fuck. I was speaking to myself.” So I literally woke up the next day and resigned from my job. What I’m testing now is trusting myself.
It’s really less about, how do you make enough money to cover your rent? Because if the question ultimately is, can I trust myself? That’s a pretty urgent question to answer.
I wanted to chat about your new season. Is there an insight or a highlight from a recent episode that has moved you?
Two come immediately to mind. The first is Ahmed Best. And our conversation originated as a response to the images that the James Webb Space Telescope returned. Now I call it the J W S T or the Just Wonderful Space Telescope because there was a move within the queer astrophysicist community, to rename the telescope because James Webb was actually deeply problematic within NASA during the Lavender Scare. What I couldn’t quite get my head around was that we are looking at a past. That the sky is populated with things that aren’t there anymore, but that we can still see. And Ahmed then went to talk about how we need to be the brilliance that people will see in the future. That even after we’re long gone, are we going to be as luminous as the images that JWST has returned?
And the other understanding that emerged for me as significant was in the conversation with Marquis Bey about the Black Trans Feminist Imagination. So many of us are concerned with what the future looks like. Apropo the conversation with Ahmed. But Marquis says that we can’t know who will be in the future, that it’s impossible for us to try to imagine a future to work towards because all we know is oppression. And so if we’re to think about ourselves in the future, we have to be willing to unmoor ourselves from everything that we know.
What stands out for me, is that there is a conflicting, but I suppose complimentary conversation about the future. Both of them call us to look beyond the immediacy of now. But each asks us in different ways to think about how we show up in the future. And I think that’s a really interesting place to think from as a podcaster, as a human, as someone concerned with the future.
As we start to wrap up this beautiful conversation, and speaking of futures, what does the future of Busy Being Black look like to you?
The pipe dream is to offer a visual representation of our magnificence. That’s the best way I can describe it. All I can think about right now is how do I reflect the brilliance of the community back to it? How do I make sure that the community knows that in sound, sight and thought, that we are a community that deserves investment and a reflection of our brilliance.
To close, we like to ask our guests what their favorite sound is. What’s yours?
Beyonce. The sound of her voice. The sound of her singing. The sound of her music. The sound of her laugh. The sound of her silence… which we’ve become very accustomed to.
And mine. I do think I do have a great voice.
interview by Julia Joubert, for Bear Radio.