Chrystal Genesis

My  interview series continues with Chrystal Genesis; journalist, curator, host and co-founder of Stance podcast. Stance is an independent, award-winning, arts, cultural and current affairs podcast providing global perspectives, a platform for marginalised voices and interviewing individuals such as the Singh Twins, Larry Achiampong, Gina Miller and profiling movements like #metoo, #whitepeopledoingyoga, the rise of the demagogue, interviewing women in the US and UK prison systems, queer lives and gender and race in the tech industry. Chrystal also runs the young people’s programme at the Southbank Centre, and is the executive producer of Southbank’s Violet Nights podcast.

 Why has it been important to talk about issues concerning visibility and exposure? Why did you feel Stance needed to happen?

 I felt like there was a real need. I was working at the BBC for ages and was also obsessed with arts, culture, current affairs as well as how language is used and patterns of behaviour manifest itself. I’d worked in Radio 4 newsrooms and global newsrooms. I’d worked in Washington and at Woman’s Hour, I’d worked at 6 Music, BBC London and many other places. I’ve had many different experiences working with different teams all of whom had different approaches, which was a massive learning experience for me, I loved the variety and a lot of the people. One thing that I found with some of these places was the lack of representation, which equated to poor analysis and poor critiquing of certain stories, you’re also dealing with the internal politics of who’s leading on that particular story on that particular day. I remember thinking how worrying it was that this lack of knowledge was then passed down to audiences who also had this lack of knowledge but wanted to be informed. So journalists were (directly or indirectly) spreading misinformation and this was and still is having a massive impact on people. It’s exactly how stereotypes are created and I knew this needed to be challenged. I also knew it was a lot worse in the commercial world and in newspapers. I studied journalism for my undergrad and postgrad and saw how basic journalistic principles were not being used for all people. There was also a lot of arrogance and unconscious bias.

 I wanted to celebrate difference and showcase a wider variety of people in a more nuanced light so that is when I decided to launch the podcast with Heta Fell and we really got stuck in. She’s now left the podcast to pursue other exciting projects but this was in early 2017 when we started it together and it’s sad to see how badly things have declined since. You could tell, and can still tell, there isn’t much diversity of opinions in the newsroom – diversity in all forms not just ethnicity. I wanted to counteract that and be part of a movement that represented truer storytelling or work with people trying to redefine it.

 I have an audio production background and I love arts and culture. I decided I wanted to leave the BBC. I started the podcast and then started working at the Southbank Centre. My life suddenly changed and included everything that I liked; arts, culture, and current affairs. To be honest it was a hunch, all this thinking, I really didn’t think anyone would be interested. I didn’t know anyone would like it, to be honest.

 We decided to start Stance and within three months we’d released three podcasts. We started brainstorming in October 2016 and in January 2017 they were out. It was driven by real passion. Though, it’s important to state that it’s not a passion project, because I’m a professional and I’ve been doing this for a long time. A lot of people have put us in the ‘passion project’ category, which is okay, but that’s not who we are. We’ve also been pushed, by journalists really, into the ‘diversity project’ category which we also are not. It’s a way to dismiss something by not truly engaging. To be honest, it all happened naturally and it’s just amazing that people enjoy the podcasts and we’ve been recognised with awards and stuff but yes, I didn’t know anyone would care.

I want to ask you about work and structure. This is an interesting topic for me as it’s something I tend to navigate on a daily basis. Managing a job, volunteering and my website, how do you do it all? Similar to my work, it started from the ground up and is still very much a DIY project.

 When Stance started I worked full-time, which was unbelievable, but it all worked fine. It’s crazy what can be achieved through sheer drive. I also loved both jobs. Saying all this, I was doing that for two years, and in all honesty, I have no idea how I did it. I have two children as well. It got to the point where I was like, oh my God, I’m getting really tired. I was promoted at Southbank Centre and now work three days a week and work two days a week at Stance. It all works thanks to my family, husband and friends who help and encourage me. We have a producer called Rachel Porter who’s been working with us for a long time so she helps massively and is excellent. Rene Katiisa edits the website and is a huge help. We are often working into the night when there’s a deadline approaching whilst watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race! We also have lots of fun making it. We also hire more people when we can afford to or when working on specific episodes or projects. I have a better work-life balance now but a lot of wonderful people support me in order to make it happen.

 You have addressed topics such as the female prison experience, interviewed important figures like Janetta Johnson, a transgender activist, and spoken about the rise of US congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. You tend to tackle big issues on the podcast, has Stance had an impact on you personally?

 You know what, not really. I’ve been working in journalism for so long now. I have a lot of experience from working on the foreign desk and having to see some pretty horrific videos of people in war zones etc. So no, not really, I’m used to being exposed to injustice. It kind of spurs me on in a way, to find answers, look for accountability and try and get to the truth or humanity in a story or subject. Saying all this, there are occasional times I’d be thinking, god the world is so awful, I can’t cope, but then I just hug my children and I feel a little bit better! Or pick myself up again and move on. It isn’t about me and we speak to such extraordinary people who don’t have time to think, they just do.

 How do you go about planning the next episode? Is there a structure you follow?

 We tend to work a couple of months ahead on the podcast. I’m always looking at what’s around, what’s coming up. Now, we get a lot of people emailing us with such interesting stuff which is amazing in one way. But you’ve got to be careful, because the problem with not doing your own research or relying on PR is that you end up just being another ‘cool’ podcast or rehashing the same stories and perspectives. That’s something that I definitely don’t want to become. I don’t want to become a cool trendy podcast that doesn’t have much depth, which is where my interest in people, thematic ideas, politics and policy comes in and why it’s important to aim high and get better and better. That questioning and that curiosity is what keeps it interesting for me.

 I tend to stick to a structure but also try and mess around with it as well. I constantly try different things. You might have heard a recent podcast with Deborah Colker, the amazing Brazilian dancer, the writer Kerry Hudson and Wasfi Kani on Porgy and Bess the opera. I had three strong interviews with a lot of texture (in the way that they were created) so went with that. It was really lovely and I think worked really well. I do, however, really enjoy taking a topic apart like the LGBTQ community in Manchester for example.

I’m quite interested in that idea that people or followers offer their opinion or make suggestions to Stance. Do you ever receive any negative feedback from your followers?

The internet, in particular, is normally taken over by those who shout the loudest or those who are quite savvy and know how to use these social media platforms. But in terms of Stance, no, not really. When we posted something about the Google Manifesto, someone responded and said ‘women are thick, that’s the reason they don’t have those jobs,’ or similar, some guy trolled us for a while but then we blocked him, so it was fine. I think because we’re not mainstream and don’t have massive marketing budgets, we’re okay. It’s generally quite positive. Also we are not argumentative or divisive in our approach which I think people respond well to. It reminds me of when I first got into journalism. Before University I went to Lambeth College and studied a course covering media, politics and production. It was really good. That course was incredible, out of the people on my course, I was the youngest. There was a woman in her seventies, a guy who had just come out of rehab. It was the most incredible group of people. Everyone was saying different things and no one hated each other. We all came together to hear different perspectives. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. In fact, going to university, I found much more narrow. Everyone was nice but basically people from my background disappeared. Essentially the more I developed in my professional career, the less representative were the people around me.  With Stance, we wanted to do solutions-based journalism, which is such a cheesy term, that you hear it a lot now. It’s basically giving more context about what people can do or what people are doing. Naturally, I didn’t even know that, but it’s weird, from the beginning of my career, I’ve almost come full circle in what I wanted to do. Stance is positive, but it’s not wishy-washy or worthy.

 Stance is critical and is creating a discourse and dialogue. I’ve learned so much, especially from London and around me. I also really appreciate the international context as well.

 That is so lovely to hear. I do try and I think it’s important to travel. I went to Mumbai in India, then we went to Bergen in Norway, Sri Lanka this month. The international and global perspective will always be present. That’s the key. Another very important thing about Stance is that we need to be out and about, I like taking the listener to a place or to the heart of a story.

 There’s an interesting group I have recently been introduced to called Migrants in Culture who talk about not just representing marginalised groups or individuals, but also ‘fighting for their rights’ – this is something I think about with my platform. Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the potential or possibilities of people out there who you would like to chat to?

 I try to do what I can. I do have a responsibility to reflect a wide range of communities and not in the poor way that lots of mainstream media historically has and still does today. I’m never going to be that person who says, ‘let’s get a black person on or let’s get a gay person, let’s get a woman on the podcast’. I swear to god I could never do that. My approach is more, ‘this is what I’m reading and this is what I’m hearing or this is what I am seeing’. If you look in the right places, hidden places, take extra time to research and try not to follow a trend you will naturally find the right people to tell those stories. Stance isn’t perfect but I’m also working to a deadline and we have a DIY approach so at the end of the day I’m proud of what we achieve.

 I’m interested in the close relationship between art and activism as a way to explore cultural identity, to create change and address both political and social issues. Would you ever adopt this idea of activism when thinking about Stance?

 No, I wouldn’t, funnily enough. I don’t feel I deserve those credentials. Maybe I will one day, but not at the moment and I certainly don’t mean that in a horrible way, it’s also the journalist in me I suppose. I’m interested in the experts and the people actually doing the work, who are really doing all the work, they’re the ones putting themselves on the line or trying to innovate. I’m just behind a mic. I’m just helping them.

 I want to ask you a bit more about the medium/set up of the podcast. In terms of the far-reaching changes in digital media and communication, and the shifts in journalism, culture, and politics to online platforms, do you believe that the use of podcasts, online literary and criticism has helped to bring people together and embrace topics such as intersectionality?

 I think it has two sides – or more! I think overall social media and the internet, it’s amazing. I can’t believe the days when we didn’t have this network or access to people. Obviously, I remember when it was just email, and I had my old school hotmail account! Now it means more voices can be heard. Even if you just think of Black Lives Matter and the amount of videos we see of black people being shot and beaten up, the camera cannot lie and people have to be less apathetic. There are obviously issues with that in terms of black pain, black trauma and constantly having access to content, which results in desensitising people, that’s a problem. However, the positive side is that other people can now see what we’ve been talking about for ages. Justice, corporate accountability, things like that. Even if you look at people who are literally the only gay person in their village, which is still a thing, I think social media is a lifeline. People tell me this all the time.

 I think we just need to be careful with misinformation. People like jumping on stuff when they don’t understand the source or why things are the way they are. There’s a lot of that. Or just being a women online, you need to be careful.  If you look at journalism, and if you look at politics, women are avoiding working in those industries because they don’t want to be attacked and suffer with mental health issues as a result. We’re not protecting people. I think that impacts so much coverage too.

 Also, it doesn’t matter what political ideology you follow, misinformation is something that needs to be stopped, it’s dangerous. Some people might want to know where their community is and they’ll just read The Guardian all the time, or they’ll read the Times and that’s fine, but I’m not interested in reading stuff I agree with. I don’t feel that’s going to help me develop as a human being.

You come across as someone who enjoys knowledge sharing, learning and listening.

 I’ve always been a massively curious person from when I was a kid. It’s funny. I was included in this really inspiring event not so long ago as part of the New Architecture Writers Programme, they critique architecture and design. I remember someone asking me about when I first became interested in journalism. I couldn’t place when but I always knew I was never scared of someone saying something different to me or if they said something that alarmed me. Obviously you can feel scared sometimes if you’re chatting to a racist and you’re out of your regular environment for example but I’ve always wanted to know where it came from, what it’s all about?

 Which is what makes Stance so relevant, especially in the online world where you’re either redirecting someone’s thinking or making sure a voice is being heard.

 Exactly, and as an independent platform we get to decide how to present it and you can be experimental or challenge your own thinking. Again, I don’t think any of our stuff is hostile, but I must say, I don’t always agree with everyone we have on. It’s important to have a range of voices.

 I wanted to talk to you about the work you have done with Tate. What has this platform being like for you?

 I’m a Tate Exchange Associate and I think what Tate Exchange, in particular, are doing is bloody amazing. It gives you the opportunity to bring together so many different voices and disciplines; people like us, big research labs and universities all under one roof plus our own guests or collaborators. You have people who are thinking in interesting and different ways and bringing their interdisciplinary approach, which is super exciting. It’s similar to how I think. It’s a challenge, professionally, to have two jobs and work with lots of big organisations, of course. The Tate is also huge and different departments have different approaches. So for example Tate Exchange are different to Tate Lates for example. I also think that it is important for people outside of large institutions to know. It is the same as the BBC in that way.

 There seems to be a bigger wave of people using their voice to speak out about misrepresentation, or inequalities but maybe it’s the case that there’s just more platforms available for that now? Do you think there has been a shift in the awareness of cultural diversity and representation over the last decade? Stance, is a great example of supporting and addressing these particular issues head-on.

 There are definitely more platforms around now. I think people are using their voice to talk about issues such as resources and money which is important as the usual players are still holding the purse strings. This means smaller groups have little room to grow or stay afloat. Many, like us, straddle the world of brands and charities but can still be ghettoised by institutions and corporations sometimes. That is a problem. Many are holding institutions to account and challenging their views on who is valuable and why. Also, I find this move towards ‘diversity’ quite tokenistic because again, the people who hold the purse strings are employed indefinitely whilst many people are being given short term contracts. It’s always good to look at the numbers and the details.

 I do think there needs to be much more collaboration and support amongst us all trying to change the tired narrative, instead of feeling threatened and being competitive, there’s room for a thousand Stances! There also needs to be more support from the people, particularly artists, at the top. They should be saying I’m not just going to use the big platforms, I’m going to do smaller ones or show work alongside other emerging artists, if they say you really care about it, that’s what they should be doing. I think that’s the key. They need to make the time for collaboration and prioritise what’s important, everyone wins in that scenario. I feel we’re relatively lucky with Stance, as a lot of the people we approach are happy to be on our platform, but I know for other platforms that isn’t the case. People need to really live what they’re saying.

 I also get concerned when people are thrown into the identity box and that’s all they are allowed to talk about. It is interesting as well, because if you look at, for instance, a middle-class white man. Many of them talk about their identity 24/7 but it’s not called identity, it’s not called anything. It’s called ‘Mr Whatever rediscovers his childhood’. It’s in so many books that exists. It’s also in so many TV show, but it’s not called that. Our stories, mine, yours are ghettoised, especially when talking about identity. I think it is sadly turning into a code word for ethnic individuals or women. Another way to ignore and put in a box. It’s so important to hear personal stories but honestly we should be able to talk about economics, for example, we should be able to talk about equality or anything and for people to listen.I think it’s about pushing into that space. It’s complicated because I was on a panel discussion chairing an event called Lost In Media: Migrant Perspectives & The Public Sphere, which looks at how migrants and refugees are represented through media and it’s excellent. I was speaking to Moha Gerehou from in Spain. I think there’s three or four established black journalists in Spain, that’s about it, not many. I remember he told me how he had written a piece about economics and he received so much shit for it. ‘What does a black man know about economics’? That’s what you’re dealing with. Non-stop racist abuse and he stopped doing it and had to address racism in his work, it’s crazy but that is what some people are like. That’s an additional barrier for minorities who want to work as journalists. You also have to choose your employer carefully as many are openly hostile to minorities. There are a multitude of things that we’re dealing with on a day to day basis that creates further barriers and the lack of understanding from people who are not ‘marginalized’, it’s astounding.

 That’s why I feel Stance has still got a lot more work to do. There are so many areas that I need to critique and get out there, and just show the other side before it gets lost. There’s a lot at stake. Seriously, Stance has to keep going. We need more platforms challenging media too!

 On that, how do you envisage the legacy of Stance?

 Sometimes I feel like there’s still so much more to do, let alone talk about a legacy. The legacy aspect is so interesting thinking about it. Speaking of legacy and archive. I studied an MA in Global History and a lot of my research looked at how women were involved in the Pan-African movement during the interwar years and how they were forgotten and literally wiped out of the history books by the white establishment but also, in some cases, by men in general. Una Marson, a feminist, writer and activist, Eslanda Goode Robeson an anthropologist, author and civil rights activist who was married to Paul Robeson, who no one knows about. Amy Ashwood Garvey, a Jamaican Pan-African activist with extraordinary talent and drive who did so so much and was married to Marcus Garvey, again who no one knows about. She wasn’t even mentioned in the Windrush exhibition recently held in that tiny space in the British Library. She used her money to start the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 but was pushed out by her husband. Also Claudia Jones, an activist and journalist  from Trinidad, these were incredible women. What I realised though, through carrying out research into these women, and others who were incredible allies, was that no one really knows who they are and no one has been able to develop further study into these women or protect a lot of their archives. It reminds me of how history is lost and how we keep a record. I want to develop a more accurate conversation, a more broader and accurate conversation. I’m always thinking about that, I suppose. In terms of Stance, it will go on until we don’t want to do it anymore and want to do other things. I hope it is useful in some way!

It’s interesting as I recently found out, through an artist, that many primary schools, particularly in London, teach black history but simply reference Martin Luther King, which is an important history to learn but with no recognition of local black history. For example, Olive Morris, a community leader and activist for the black nationalist, and squatters’ rights campaigns was based in Brixton.

 Oh god, don’t get me started. I’ve been trying to reason with my children’s school for so long. It’s not even about black history, we just want to make things more inclusive, more accurate. I think that there’s so much that has to be discussed within our education system – there’s a huge white saviour complex but also to be fair, lack of time and money. I think that you’re dealing with a hugely paternalistic and patronising attitude on top of all this. I think in general the whole curriculum needs to be more inclusive and stripped right back. Thinking more widely, I do believe we are fighting against ignorance, othering, and racism in the education system and I don’t think society is ready to go there and unpack it. They are supposed to be the good ones you see. In terms of the amazing Olive Morris story, it is crazy. Dr Harold Moody should be in the history books, in all schools but he is not. It is just not a priority for schools and that is the issue. However, saying all this, of course it isn’t the whole school. Many teachers on the ground and the teaching assistants get it and are up to date but perhaps the closer you get to power the more you think you know it all. Also I think the UK likes to think that ‘things happened over there, not over here’ and it is so deeply ingrained. This is a huge topic that deserves a full interview! Or series!

 What’s coming next for Stance?

 We’re going to be doing an event at the London College of Fashion for their design and politics season. This will be a free event on from 2-7pm on Saturday the 7th of September. We’re looking at the design of nightclubs as spaces of counterculture and resistance. It’s really exciting. We’re looking at the actual design and architecture of nightclubs because if you look at academic research, there’s not been much on it. There’s so much to discover and talk about. We’re also thinking globally, educationally and also looking at interiors. Also, access is an area we will cover as many people can’t go to clubs because they can’t bloody get in. Literally, they can’t physically get in. That’s totally unacceptable. We’re also looking at the political side of nightclubs, exploring how ‘black music’ continues to dominate the charts but why is it still so hard for artists to get gigs or for some black clientele to get into certain clubs? We will be exploring how we challenge the institutionalised racism within our nightlife culture. Inspired by personal stories, infamous news stories as well as the old form 696 Form and the culture media and select committee report which basically said that grime and drill music, ‘black music’ – quote, is one of Britain’s biggest exports, but it is being stifled by police and by politicians. We have some extraordinary speakers and we will have tunes by DJ Kaylee Kay and a workshop led by Grime Documentor Callum Jack. It’ll be lively and a lot of fun!

– Laura Hensser, 2019