Hearing Tracy Clayton on the end of a phone—high pitched, bubbly southern accent—feels like the friend I hadn't spoken to in a while. It’s been more than a year and change since Clayton and Heben Nigatu hosted the much beloved BuzzFeed podcast Another Round—the conversational based program that blessed ears with booze fueled exchanges with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay and Hillary Clinton among others.
Since a dustup that included a departure from BuzzFeed and an eventual stoppage of the podcast, there’s been a void; one that Clayton herself understood to the benefit of her own self-care.
”It could of been us trying to get back on it, but we were just tired. Not only physically but negro spiritually tired,” she tells me with a laugh.
Core fans get it. Tracy’s been dedicating her voice and time to the digital world at exhausting levels for years. What began as a rise through the journalistic writer ranks—thanks to on-brand wittiness and unapologetic blackness—continued with digital fame and a new Netflix endorsed phase.
Thanks to the streaming giant, she’ll be leading the Strong Black Lead Podcast debuting tomorrow, featuring ten black TV/FILM legends from John Witherspoon to Lynn Whitfield who will all get their flowers (literally). Each segment will be one on one in nature, and dive deep into personal journeys within Hollywood from a black millennial perspective.
I had the unique opportunity to talk to Tracy Clayton about returning to the mic, and why in some ways that terrifies her.
VICE: I’ve been a huge fan of Another Round , but it’s been a ride. How excited are you for this next chapter?
Tracy Clayton: You know what, I’m now just starting to cross over from terrified to excited. This is my first official podcasting job since last year when Another Round went on hiatus and I was nervous to the point of wondering if I remembered how to do it. Can I still read words out loud? Turns out…not very well and that's taking some practice, but I'm starting to feel the tingle in my bones, and the muscle memory is coming back. I'm at the point of being super excited when I think about the people that I'm speaking to, and think about how ridiculous this all is. I'm sitting across the table from people I’ve basically grown up with. In that sense, I’m just glad to be working again. The money's nice, and it's good to feel well enough to do this again.
Was it difficult to make a return to the mic?
It was and it wasn't. It was difficult because I didn't know if I could take on a project of this magnitude. I wondered if I needed to take on smaller projects with smaller steps before really jumping back into the saddle. But when am I going to get to talk to Garrett Morris like ever? When am I going to get to talk to any of these people? To add to that, it’s exciting to work with Netflix and be out in LA and not in New York where it's all rainy, gloomy and depressing right now. My emotions was like, hold up, wait a minute…but my brain was saying nope, we doing it, we’re going, let's go.
I think a lot of people are still coming to grips with the end of Another Round . When you think back, what lessons are you taking with you from that time moving forward?
The biggest thing that goes through my mind is the importance of putting yourself first because that's basically what Heben Nigatu and I did with Another Round. Once we took ownership of the podcast, it could of been us trying to get back on it, but we were just tired. Not only physically but negro spiritually tired (laughs). It was difficult in the beginning because I didn't anticipate what the response would be. People really missed the show and some of them re-listened for the third time, I'm thinking… there are other things to listen to, you know. It seems like a weird thing for me to come to grips with, because I had to get used to people missing a show I was a part of that much. I knew that people liked it but it really meant something to some people.
It wasn't easy to be in the position to take away this thing that you all love and that we gave birth to for a little while. But we were tired and we needed to rest and lay down because invisible illnesses like anxiety and depression are things that even HR departments don't always acknowledge. We knew that not everybody in our listening audience would understand and I’m not a person who likes to disappoint people. One of my favourite differences between Heben and I is that whereas I'm concerned with being liked (laughs), she wants to be fair.
Is it weird to be doing this whole thing without your partner in crime, Heben Nigatu?
It is! It's weird when I'm in the booth and talking to no one. Usually during pickup, at least my co-host was there to look in her eyes, and I could pretend I was talking to her. But here, it was just me in the studio talking to myself. I feel like it's missing something. I'm also wondering how people are going to receive it. Will people want me without my twin attached to my hip? Do I want to go out there without my twin? It was scary which is why I knew I had to do it. Do things that scares you. I'm sure somebody famous said that… Eleanor Roosevelt? Yeah something like that.
But you’ve got this opportunity to work under the Strong Black Lead arm with your own unique lens. How does it feel to be in this mix?
For me, it's like working with the BuzzFeed PodSquad because it meant working with a bunch of very diverse women. We had that in common, and there was so much that no longer needed explaining. When someone was emotional that week for X-Y-Z reasons, we talked about it. It's just nice to be around people that you don't have to explain stuff to. That's really what the Strong Black Lead team feels like. I don't have to worry about explaining who Mekhi Phifer is. When I pitch ideas, I don't have to break down everything and explain who I am or explain the culture. It's just them saying yeah, we got it, we know who that is. It's a relief to be able to relax and not have to teach anyone about your culture or explain yourself before you ask a question. It's just another 20 pounds off your shoulders when you're working on content to be sent out to the masses of the world. You do better work that way.
Let’s talk about guests. Are you having a big say in how they’re being chosen?
My only individual experiences with helping to think of subjects to interview is literally me in a makeup chair, yelling out the names of my favourite actors and actresses (laughs). We're currently investigating some of my suggestions and I'm excited, because most of my suggestions are people I have crushes on. See how I did that? (laughs). And it also happens to work well for the show.
But I’ll also say that I had a chance to talk to Garrett Morris who I mentioned before. He’s a legend of course. We've had a whole lot of diversity blimps and blunders, so we had a ton to talk about. I’m completely obsessed with the show Martin. I couldn't tell you how many times I’d seen it and I’ve memorized almost every episode and season except the sixth, because you already know. (laughs) But I remember having a blast talking to him. We're like family. For one, he's been in my house in an odd way since I was younger, and combine that with the rapport, and he just felt like somebody I already knew. Both Morris and I hit ground running, flirting a whole bunch (laughs). It was all fun. There are a lot of moments like that.
I’ve always been c urious about the process. Your past podcast was so conversational. How do you prep on a ground level with legends that make most people pause.
This was interesting because I'm so used to making podcasts with a very particular theme and a particular process. The documents looked the same, and the prep process was the way that I’d know and remember. But I was able to draw from things that I know helped me to relax more and get into someone's head. When I'm thinking about the questions I want to ask, it comes down to how I can encourage them to open up. A lot of times, it’s sharing parts of myself and personal stories. It’s also…you know what, I feel like I'm selling you all my secrets here. I need to tighten up a little bit (laughs).
But I’ll say that I also go back to my favourite interviews and view questions that were asked so that I could build on that, and find out how I can go deeper into an asked question. As far as working as a team both now and on Another Round, I've had the absolute blessing and privilege to work with people who I love and who can pretend to love me. I'm joking, we all love each other pretty well. So much of what works comes down to collaboration. Just because I'm the face, doesn’t mean there aren’t so many other moving parts. I'm only half as good as my producers. So it’s pretty much balls to the walls. I assume I’ll never talk to these celebs again. I ask what I want. You can only hope they fall in love with you, so you can be friends after. It’s pretty much what I'm doing.
You’ve always been a champion of podcasting. I see you big up podcasters constantly on Twitter. What’s the strength in the artform that you’d wish everyone would see?
There are a couple. For one, it’s such a fitting forum for POC, women and other marginalized groups because we don’t need anyone's permission to say what we want to say. With any podcast, it’s you only yourself. You don't have to ask to use the N-word. You don't have to go through another editor and wonder if you can talk about a person. You set the standards in saying what you want to say. You have the microphone, and being handed that after so many times of being silenced is a relief. You can breathe easier and tell honest and true stories. Another thing I wish people really knew was how much work goes into making a really great podcast.
That's something that irritated us on Another Round. You had people saying that the show was really great, but questioning why it's just a podcast…low production value, or low something they used to call us. I was like listen, you haven't interviewed a single person that put this show together. You don't know if it’s low. If it sounds effortless, it's because effort went into making it sound that way. That's a huge thing I want people to know. People believe it’s easy, but I had four anxiety attacks on the way to the studio (laughs). It's a lot of work. If it were that easy I wouldn't be so stressed out.
I can imagine.
With podcasts, you also get accents and lots of them. I have a little bit of an accent myself, I don't know if you can hear it.
I’ve been listening to you for three years. Of course I can.
Thank you, thank you, I'll take that as a compliment. But it's the diversity of voices that can increase representation. I was at Wake Forest University (North Carolina) as their media expert-in-training if I may do a little name dropping, and there was a young lady who I met who had the thickest, most syrupy flow, country accent. She wasn't sure if she should start a podcast with her voice. I told her that's exactly why she needed to do it, because there are so many more of us who feel that way, who wouldn't feel that way if they heard us. If we could turn on a newscast and see someone in a country accent telling us the weather, that would change things. They still got a degree right? Come on.
I want to talk about the anxiety you mentioned. I personally get anxiety every time I do one of these interviews. How do you deal with that constant?
Are you nervous right now?
Haha, yeah I am.
Aww (laughs). I'm only nervous if I have time to be. With Another Round, it wasn't like a limited series podcast. We had time to take in the planning of each episode. But when I got the time to sit down and think about it, it was like…oh my god, how do I talk to this person when I can't say words right now. Nerves and nervousness still happens, but I find that I work better in high pressured situations because I can't stop and think about how nervous I am. It goes from the interview starting in X-amount of minutes. Then I get a thirty minute break. Then I have to get ready for the next one. It's stressful because…oh my god, interviews back-to-back are draining. But with a fast turnaround with a project like this, I don't ignore my nerves, I just wake up and acknowledge that this is going to suck until it doesn't anymore. It's going to be terrible until it's over. But it'll be over. Nothing lasts forever. I'm at a point where I can remind myself to look ahead and see the projects I’ve successfully done. I told myself all of that since this morning. Commit to being anxious sometimes when you don't have any other options.
In knowing that, what do you want to bring to the podcast that’s uniquely you?
Hmm… that's the hardest question so far. It’s the fun and irreverence. I want to create a space where listeners can go for a break from everything else. The world can be awful and terrible right now, but here’s this one hour show where you can listen to me flirt with your favourite granddad or speak to these people that you and I both love. I personally love to hear people talk about things that they really like and enjoy, even if I'm not interested in the subject. It's just nice to see the glee of something small, and that's what feels the most organic. It’s what I’m best at. Because of my anxiety, in the moment I can sort of just go blank. I've got my questions there, but I believe I'm still good at following the thread and energy of the conversation. I also have a very poor attention span, and a lot of times I'll hear something shiny, I'll follow that. I don't know, I'm just a big ol' goofball. I want to share that and let people relax a while.
That’s why people love you. You’re known to be funny, authentic and frank. How important is it for you to be successful without compromising who you are?
Ahhh. The older I get, the more important that becomes to me. When you're younger, it's easy to be dazzled and impressed anything you've never had before. You're working at some new shiny start up and it's got perks. Young folks are very excited about perks, so it's really important for me to be fun but also to be myself because I'm a bad actress. If I were acting, I wouldn't listen to me and I wouldn't expect anyone else to listen to me either. The more genuine and open you can be with yourself when you're producing content like this for other people, the the more opportunities people have to bond with you over life experiences and thoughts. If you see me raising topics about being nice to yourself, yes it's a tough talk for everyone else, but initially, it was a tough talk for me. I need to hear these things. By the way, what was the question again? (laughs) See what I mean?
The question was about being yourself and not compromising yourself.
Mmhmm, right. I think it also goes back to voiceless versus having a voice thing. This is very well illustrated in one of my favourite people, Mrs. Beyoncé Knowles Carter. Don't know if you've heard of her. But I was speaking to my therapist about this the other day and she was like, “What do you think about Beyoncé?” And I asked if she knew we only had an hour to answer that question. Beyoncé's trajectory from “Bootylicious,” giving interviews and talking to everyone, to running the gambit of what a celebrity is quote-unquote supposed to do for so long is crazy next to her laying on top of cop cars in New Orleans. What? She got on stage at Coachella and cussed out Coachella because she was the first black women on stage at Coachella…while she was being the first black women on a stage at Coachella. That's crazy. It's important because why not? Why can't we? There's no good reason why we shouldn't be able to able to be ourselves.
You’re going to be interviewing a lot of black artists. When artists of colour usually get interviewed, there’s a lot of emphasis on questions of diversity versus talent. What’s your view on that?
It’s wack. Go talk to white people about diversity. I'm already brown, so this is ya'll's job (laughs). I'll help you with it if you want to pay me but I mean. It's wild to me. Every time something racist happens they wanna come talk to us brown people. You're asking the wrong questions and you're worrying about the wrong things. That's why with Rachel Dolezal, bless her heart, exposed a marked difference between the way white people interviewed her and the way that a black woman did the same. The important answers is what I want to hear. There weren’t the base level questions because we don't have to establish a working definition of racism before we have a conversation about it. You already know what it is. Let's just get to the important part. Otherwise, I’m just sitting as a black person listening to race 101, and I already passed this course. It's a waste of money and time. When white people do things that are groundbreaking, or mess things up, it's always the same… at least we started a conversation thing. We've been talking about this, you just haven't been listening because you've done nothing.
Another thing I gotta say. I'm tired of listening to true crime podcasts and having to give my racial analysis to everything. It's like, OK, this is what happened, but all the victims are black and nobody cares about black victims… let’s mention that. I've gone off again because I listened to a lot of true crime this morning (laughs). At any rate, it's why it's important that we tell our own stories and not have to go through white editors to get things approved. Companies need to actively go out, pursue, and find writers of colour. You can’t say that we don't have any brown people in this group because they don't exist anymore. Nah, you don't have any brown people because you haven't looked for them. If you're satisfied with that then be satisfied with how white you are.
What do you hope people most take away from this podcast?
I just want people to have fun, learn more about their faves. I want them to be reminded of their favourite movies and TV shows they forgot about. I want them to relax and take it easy even if it's just for an hour. Hang out with me because I miss everybody. I'm actually starting to remember why I started doing this in the first place. But unless y'all listen, it's just me in a room by myself screaming at my producers (laughs). I'm doing it for y’all and I'm doing it for the culture. It's gonna be a good time.
Future season 1 guests include Lynn Whitfield ( Nappily Ever After, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate, Greenleaf), Academy Award nominee Ruth E. Carter ( Black Panther, Do The Right Thing, Dolemite is My Name), Garrett Morris (first black actor on SNL, Martin, The Jamie Foxx Show), Loretta Devine ( Family Reunion, Waiting to Exhale), John Witherspoon ( Friday, The Wayans Bros.), Bill Duke (High Flying Bird, Sister Act 2) with more to come.
Follow Noel Ransome on Twitter.
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