Tobi Oredein, the editor and co-founder of Black Ballad, has been described as nothing short of a pioneer. Intelligent, astute, outspoken and genuinely dedicated to championing the voices of Black British women, over the last two years she has become a force to reckon with. Recognising the need to fill the chasm in mainstream media where Black British women are concerned, Black Ballad – a platform,media brand, and lifestyle publication centring the lived experiences of Black and mixed-race women living in the UK – was born. The brand has gone from strength to strength over the last two years, however, it has reached a critical next step in its journey. We caught up with Tobi to find out more.
NFotW: “No black woman writer in this culture can write “too much”. Indeed, no woman writer can write “too much”…No woman has ever written enough.” – bell hooks
Why is there still a need for platforms like No Fly on the WALL and Black Ballad to exist in order to create space for the voices of Black British women in particular? Why did you create Black Ballad two years ago?
Tobi: I created Black Ballad for two reasons. I studied American studies at Kings College London and I wrote as many essays on race issues as I possibly could. I grew to love exploring issues of race and critically assessing how much of influence has on our lives. So I always knew out of uni, I wanted to at write on race issues in one way or another.
Secondly, I applied for a job and I didn’t get it. I phoned the Editor and she basically told me didn’t have time to go to through my CV. It was the final straw in a year-long journey of applying for countless journalism jobs. I literally said to my best friend and boyfriend: “forget this applying crap, I’m going to give myself a job”. Six months later, Black Ballad was launched.
I believe there is a still need for platforms that prioritise women of colour because I don’t believe the media institution is still doing enough to make sure our authentic voices are heard. Yes, a handful of mainstream magazines are trying, but black women, women of colour are rarely in the offices, making a change from the inside out. Finally, there have are some great publications for women of colour, but I felt that as a black female millennial, none of those publications are aimed at me or my girlfriends.
NFotW: As a journalist yourself, what have been your experiences of trying to get your ideas commissioned, maintaining your integrity in otherwise very white spaces, and keeping hold of your intellectual property and being given due credit for your work and contributions? We’ve seen time and time again that Black women’s work is undervalued and rarely credited as a source of inspiration.
Tobi: I’ve been quite fortunate that the editors I’ve worked with have either used my ideas or respected me enough not to use them without commissioning me at a later date. However, I did have one incident where a magazine didn’t accept a first person piece on my experience of why wearing my afro out is a political statement. The magazine never responded to the pitch and a month later wanted a white female journalist to interview me on the experience. I declined the offer and politely told them it was an insult and it had been commissioned elsewhere. I never saw the piece published in the publication it was originally pitched to. It’s hard, what has worked for me is finding publications where the editors are doing their best to be allies to women of colour. I have been fortunate to meet some (white) women in the industry who are doing their best to get our stories on the platforms they run. However, these women are too far and few between in the journalism industry.
NFotW: Black Ballad is a Black owned business – using the ‘For Us, By Us’ model. Black businesses have a history of disappearing. This raises the question of sustainability and longevity. How do you and your team plan to withstand the inevitable storm?
Tobi: The problem is that when we create businesses specifically for us, we have a much smaller audience and therefore can not generate as much revenue, as businesses that are aimed at the mainstream audience. I can only talk from a media point of view, but where we go wrong is believing multi-million-pound adverts will come our way like our mainstream counterparts and turn our platforms into sustainable businesses. I’m not saying it can’t happen but it’s a lot less likely.
I say this because when we started Black Ballad, we met with a media agency that wanted to advertise a new collection of foundations for women of colour. They told us that they decided to spend their advertising money with a mainstream magazine, because they reach more people. The fact that we were specifically targeting the audience they wanted didn’t count. Advertising is a numbers game and I realised it’s a game I won’t win unless I open up my audience, which is something I’m not prepared to do.
That’s why the crowdfund and the decision to become a member-focused platform will help us in our longevity, because our economic stability will come from our members and not the odd advertisement here or there. We need to understand the same economic principles that apply to mainstream publications in order to stay afloat, are less likely to work for our businesses.
NFotW: Tell us more about the Black Ballad Crowdfund
Tobi: The Black Ballad crowdfund campaign is to take turn our website into a full-fledged membership service. The crowdfund campaign is like those on Go Fund Me and Kickstarter, the difference is that money you donate will buy a subscription for our new membership service. There are three membership options, a six-month option for £30, a year subscription for £49 and our premium subscription for £69.
We want 1,500 black women to sign up. The money raised will help us turn Black Ballad into a leading digital online platform that offers audio, visual and written content, help us put on events and pay our writers. Also, by signing up, you get exclusives discounts to brands run by black entrepreneurs that include MDM Flow, Shea Butter Cottage and Vitae London to name a few.
NFotW: What are your thoughts on collaboration with other like-minded brands and, particularly, the support Black Ballad has received from within the Black community?Do people understand the vision? Do people feel a platform like Black Ballad is needed and relevant to them?
Tobi: I think collaboration and support are key. Again, teaming up with these brands was making sure we play our part in supporting the ecosystem of black led businesses. Collaborating with Melanin Millennials and buying their advertising slots was key. We must start looking to spend our pound in our community. Yes, Melanin Millennials targets our audience, but it’s about also being a doer and not just a sayer. I think it’s been hard convincing people to pay for content because we’re accustomed to having online information for free. However, people have been very open to the discussion and even some black men have bought the subscription to show their support.
Yes, many people have said they feel Black Ballad is needed, we’ve had tons of messages and emails of support. The messages are humbling, because people genuinely seem to love the brand, but we just hope that people feel that they love and need the brand enough to join us as members.
NFotW: Your, now viral, recent video in which you discuss the lack of focus in mainstream media on black women in comparison to superfoods was very poignant. All jokes aside, avocados and quinoa do get more coverage than anything to do with Women of Colour. What do you have to say about that? Where is mainstream (white) media going wrong? Do we even need a seat at their table or should we not just be satisfied that we have platforms like Black Ballad?
Tobi: I think editors should be disgusted that there is truth to that statement. I’ve found two or three editors that are trying, but it’s not enough. Two or three alone won’t make a much-needed change. Why is it only is it only a handful of publications where black writers have a degree of freedom? It’s ridiculous to think when it comes to women’s lifestyle publications, I feel it’s only The Debrief and The Pool where I see multiple black female voices on the site. Others, who I won’t name, are too busy maintaining the inequality that exists between white women and women of colour.
I think that if a magazine is hailing itself to be a magazine for all women, British women or it isn’t clearly labelled that it’s for only white women, then yes, we need a seat a table. Why? Because on that rare occasion that black women or black culture is discussed in those publications, more often that not, it’s a case of misrepresentation. Mainstream women’s magazines wouldn’t pay men to be the expert voices on the experiences of white women, so why should white women be the expert and often, the only voice for black women and women of colour?
NFotW: You said the day you have freedom to write about things other than your race and gender will be the day you have ‘freedom as a journalist’. What do you mean by this and why is such ‘freedom’ something marginalised voices do not have?
Tobi: As I said, race is my passion. However, I’m also wheat intolerant, I doubt I can get a piece on being gluten free for Christmas commissioned because editors often believe that black writers can only write about black issues. That’s just one example. I also know I’m not alone in feeling like this. Too often, black journalists I know, also say they only get calls to write when a race issue has taken place. If an issue that affects black women arises, yes, call on a black female journalist. But as black women, know we are more than that. Our white female counterparts don’t just write about the everlasting wage gap between men and women. They write about their families, their holidays, the economy and of course, the latest avocado trend.
NFotW: Despite the fact there is still some way to go, has the landscape changed for Black women over the last two years since Black Ballad has existed? Do we have more spaces now for our stories and more visibility?
Tobi: That has been the saving grace in all of this. Platforms like Gal-Dem, Media Diversified, and others have given us choice. It’s great that black women of different age groups and interests don’t feel like they only have one choice when it comes to media choices. The girl that reads Gal-Dem may not be the girl that reads Black Ballad and that’s okay. In fact, it’s great because it shows that we both have strong editorial voices and we are playing our parts of serving different women of colour/black women within our communities.
NFotW: 2016 has been an intense year worldwide for (bad) race relations. Being a Black woman isn’t easy right now, not that it ever has been. This uncertainty is juxtaposed with the rise in the natural hair movement, #BlackGirlMgic, #BlackLivesMatter and other movements to empower black folk in the UK, the USA and beyond. What are your thoughts on the aforementioned and what is the place of Black British women within this context. Often there is a focus on African-Americans but what can Black British women bringing to the table right now?
Tobi: I think in a world that increasingly feels dark, these movements have encouraged black women more than ever to take pride in their identities. They are vital in connecting us across countries and are more important than ever, as politics moves to the right and demonises people of colour. I do think black British women have their place in those movements, but in order to have our place, we must create our lanes. Of course, celebrate our American counterparts, but we should all have black British women we consider as the definition of black girl magic. Spread the word about their achievements, the more we talk about the amazingness of black British women, the more we stake our claim in what is becoming global movements for black women.
NFotW: What would your advice to be Black British women who want to work in the media and find a space for their voices?
Tobi: Don’t wait for anyone else. Create your own platform.There is no right or wrong way of doing things.
Tobi Oredein is a writer and public speaker from London. A graduate from Kings College London, she started her career in entertainment journalism. However, in June 2014, she shifted career gears and launched Black Ballad, a publication that seeks to tell the human experience through the eyes of black British women. Outside of Black Ballad, Tobi’s freelance work explores the themes of race, feminism, beauty politics and popular culture. 2016 has seen her write for Buzzfeed, The Independent, Elle, The Pool, Vice, Glamour and The Debrief.
Find her here: https://twitter.com/Blackballaduk
And support the crowdfund here: http://www.blackballad.co.uk/crowdfund/
The crowdfund ends on December 18th at 11:59pm.