Women in Color: Antoinette Isama, Writer & Editor
Antoinette Isama is one of those people who thinks before she speaks. When she does share her thoughts on anything from a new Drake song to pan-African intersectionality, she always brings a fresh perspective.
The Brooklynite works at OkayAfrica, a website dedicated to highlighting music and culture throughout the continent. As an editor she's constantly writing and editing, but more importantly her work bridges the gap between American audiophiles and the international community.
With a masters in journalism having reported in Chicago, Cape Town and New York we just had to sit down with her.
Town/City You Claim: Silver Spring, MD
Occupation: Associate Editor at OkayAfrica
Favorite Quote: "If you don't like someone's story, you write your own." —Chinua Achebe
1. How did your time in Chicago shape your journalism career?
Chicago was the place of my formative years—it's where I came into my own professionally and personally. It's where I studied for both my bachelors and masters in journalism as well. Chicago’s history, the changes that I saw (changes that are still happening today) and the diverse neighborhoods I lived in showed me the importance of storytelling, and looking well beyond what you see at face value, and doing the work to produce authentic content accordingly.
2. How important is it for journalists represent the demographic they're reporting on?
The one word that comes to mind for me is "nuance". When it comes to reporting on the community that looks like you, you'll always approach your work and the people you'll interview along way with this unsaid understanding and trust—and each take a lot of work to reach otherwise.
3. What role does music play in connecting the African diaspora?
As a daughter of Nigerian immigrants, music was key in dreaming about home growing up and in a way, it still is. Music was a tool my parents used to keep my siblings and I grounded in our roots and I’m sure that’s also the case for my fellow diasporans. You see across Africa’s diverse cultures how music is used to communicate, to celebrate and ultimately to tell stories; with the internet being a space that makes discovery and cross-cultural exchange much easier, you feel like you’re not an ocean or two away from home after all.
4. OKA is known for their amazing parties: How does that shape your work culture? And what's the best party you've gone to hosted by OKA?
Producing our parties and events are pretty separate from our day to day, but we just want to foster the community and good vibes at our parties that we have in our offices. I've only been at OkayAfrica for about a year now, so I think my favorite event so far was when we had our ‘Afrobeat X Afrobeats’ at the Lincoln Center. It was a concert, but once Antibalas and Davido shut down the stage it turned into a great time with probably the most diverse crowd I've seen at our events.
5. Are there any glaring differences in how news is reported in the States versus Cape Town, learned from your time at the Weekend Argus?
During my time at the Weekend Argus, it was sobering to see how different media scapes are going through the same struggles than that of the media in the States. The only difference is that these difficult transitions and changes are happening at a different pace; at a different time.
By the time I began reporting in Cape Town, the traditional media houses were side-eyeing the need to engage on social media, the need to know how to report using smartphones and the need to incorporate more visual forms of storytelling. Mix that in with limited Internet access (yes, even in South Africa). My time was brief, but I appreciated my colleagues so much more because of how they were able to produce stories that mattered for their communities despite their daily roadblocks.
Another thing I became much more aware of is the space I take up and how I fit in it. I felt an unsettling privilege. There were times when I was able to have much easier access to sources and governmental departments because I was the ‘American visiting journalist,’ than my South African colleagues. My accent also played a huge role in that as well. Not to mention, my Nigerianness was erased—I probably took too many moments to explain to folks that Africans are living and existing not only outside of Mzansi, but outside of the African continent.
6. If you weren't a journalist, what would you be doing professionally?
I think about this often, especially since I feel like there’s so much more of me to give. I probably would be working towards a Ph.D (that may still be the move for me in the future) as an adjunct professor teaching a course on the intersections of African youth culture (on the continent and in the diaspora) and new media.
7. You talked about 'the clap back' and how Millennial hold people more accountable publicly: How has that affected the way artists are covered?
Not only do millennials hold more people accountable publicly, we want to see the humanity in artists beyond their talent. How else can we relate to them? What do we have in common? In a way, I would hope artists realize that when we, as media, need to engage with them for content, that they acknowledge that (and help us out!). I’m also super introspective, so I’ve always wanted to see more content along those lines—and there already are in our space.
8. When did you first realize you were Black?
I’ve always felt my upbringing made me sure of who I am in my blackness, but outside of the home I realized I was black with my hair. I had girl classmates on the early end of elementary school compare hair lengths—but my hair was cornrowed to the bottom of my neck—and I always got questions as to why I never had to wash my hair everyday. That’s probably the earliest memories of realizing I was different.