When I was young, I wanted to be a storyteller. From the time I could write up until my early teens, I created short stories religiously. I enjoyed developing the storylines, the scenery, the characters and my favorite: the dialogue. I told stories from my perspective — a black kid living in Memphis, Tennessee who was bused from the inner city to a mostly white school near the ‘burbs. I was usually one of two black kids in my class from kindergarten through sixth grade. I felt disconnected from the experiences of many of my classmates, so I took to my pencil like it was my second skin and wrote daily.
I was too shy to talk so I shared my writings instead. A lot of the white kids at my school did not know much about black culture, and what they did know came from television. They would ask peculiar questions about my neighborhood and my community. It was through no fault of their own; they were just curious.
Because of that experience, I learned from an early age how media images play a role in how people stereotype others based on race, region, and religion. And since then, I’ve been on a quest to change it. My first attempt came after I spent my college years and early 20s writing for two major city newspapers. Many of the stories featuring black people were typically negative, so I started an online magazine to discuss more empowering stories and give readers information about how they can impact their communities.
The idea for kweliTV came to me one night while flipping through a bunch of cable channels. This was a couple of years ago, during the height of reality television. Most of my choices were comedies, reality TV or 90s throwback movies. The black women were shown as loud and ready to fight. And the black men, they were mostly shown as criminals or deadbeat dads.
This wasn’t all in my head, either. Studies show that blacks in criminal roles tend to outnumber blacks in socially positive roles in newscasts and daily newspapers; almost a third of black women in film and television shows are shown in a sexualized light; and negative imagery of black women appears twice as often as positive depictions in the media.
I didn’t like my choices and I especially didn’t like how some of the shows portrayed black people. So I cut cable and gave Netflix a try. There were more choices, but it simply wasn’t enough. Where was the large selection of educational documentaries, the black and African history content beyond the month of February, and the cinematic films with clever storylines and engaging characters?
That’s when the journalist in me kicked in. I began researching independent black films and documentaries online. I realized that there was no option to watch this content unless I physically traveled to a festival, usually in another city hundreds of miles away. And the more I dived in, the more I learned. Like how black directors, especially women, are least likely to get distribution after a film festival run. I learned that the media’s perceptions about black people that I discovered as a child were not getting better. The Sentencing Project revealed that implicit bias from producers and journalist shapes how black people are portrayed in the media. And according to Project Implicit, 88% of white Americans and 48% of black Americans have implicit racial bias against black people. False perceptions affect policing, the criminal justice system, hiring practices and lower achievement expectations.
That’s when I had the aha moment. Could I start a streaming service that curated content that showed the global black community in a true depiction? Unsure and slightly terrified, I decided to give my big idea a shot. First, I wanted to talk to filmmakers. I had done a “no-budget” documentary that screened at a film festival in 2014 so I was in no way an expert filmmaker. I spoke with dozens of filmmakers, mostly of African descent, from across globe. I learned a lot about the challenges they had getting on Netflix and other mainstream services. Their insight was invaluable. Many of them were the first filmmakers to sign a licensing deal with me, when I only had a one-page website explaining my audacious vision.
Next, I had to find the right name. I knew I wanted it to be an African language. There are so many, so I decided to go with a Swahili name since most people in the States, even those who have no connection to Africa, had heard of Swahili. I wanted the name to have meaning. After weeks of searching, I settled on kweliTV. Kweli means truth in Swahili and that’s what I intended to bring people: authentic black stories. From day one, I wanted to share stories outside of the US. As an African American, I was yearning for stories about people who look like me in other parts of the world. I was curious about what black culture was like for people living in places like Ghana, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Mozambique, Antiqua, Cuba and elsewhere. The slave trade displaced African people all over the world. Many of the African traditions that they brought with them were blended with the culture of their new country — from dance, to food, to music. These cultural identities are still strong today. Yet, these are stories we never see in mainstream media. That is one of many missions we try to achieve.
In the fall of 2015, we launched our beta with just 30 films on our platform. And a little less than five months ago, we finally launched out of beta with nearly 200 titles that have been screened at film festivals big and small. We’re are working with more than 130 filmmakers from across the globe — 85 percent of which are of African descent and 50 percent of which are women. We have black films representing every continent expect Antarctica. Every day I wake up excited about what we’re building with our filmmakers as partners. I’m humbled when customers tell us how much they enjoy our curated content. It makes us work even harder to find the right film or documentary for our niche audience.
We created kweliTV because we wanted to provide a space where black people from around the globe could connect and learn about our different cultures — what we have in common and how we differ. We created kweliTV to take control of our media and give our thought-leaders, journalists, filmmakers, life coaches, activists, teachers, historians, designers, etc., a space to have a voice.
For team kweliTV, we see Matter as an opportunity to explore video news. It is something that many of our customers have been asking us about. During the Baltimore protests, a number of subscribers in the US became angry at how mainstream media covered the story. Honestly, this is something I’ve been wanting to explore since Day One. From a global perspective, most black news stories are negative and regulated to a ticker at the bottom of a screen. Just like with black films and documentaries, I want more black global news and so do many of our customers.
When I was the shy kid who just wanted to keep her head down and write stories, I never imagined that one day I would create a network that told hundreds of stories from the black perspective from around the world. I guess I became a storyteller after all.