We recently caught up with freelance journalist and founder of Black Ballad Tobi Oredein. We discussed the need for black representation in media, by creating a voice for black British women, plus more.
How did you get started in Journalism?
I have always read magazines as a young girl, I used to love Cosmo as a teenager and had a subscription to that and another magazine called Smash Hits. So that kind of ignited and intrigued my interest in magazines. I had my first work experience at a magazine called Company, which came through my Saturday job where I worked in a shop called Oasis, I asked for a chance to do work experience in their PR department. One day Company was doing a piece on Interns and how they dress and my boss recommended me for the shoot, so I did it, and whilst I was there I just asked for a chance to do some work experience. I was able to get in touch with the Fashion Editor and for the next few months I did my work experience and that led on to more work experience and internships, resulting in me landing my first job at the age of 21.
Have you always had a distinct point of view when it comes to writing?
No, I think that is something you develop over time. Finding your voice as a writer is an important journey. I can recall a time where I used to read magazines and I would try and write like certain writers, and then when I got my job I had to write in that house style. When I was freelancing I found all of these different people trying different styles that suited their magazines and then I found out what I liked and how I liked to write. My distinct writing style really developed when I started freelancing around 2012, through exploring different publications and tones and figuring out what I liked to write.
What have been some of the positive and negative experiences you have faced as a black journalist?
The most negative experience I have had was an internship where I was the only black woman in the room and it was 2012 the year that Whitney Houston passed away. This magazine did a tribute issue to her and they talked about her childhood and took a childhood picture and printed it. But what they did was take a picture of Oprah Winfrey as a child and so I pointed it out, they said to me that it was published already and were disrespectful towards me. In that moment I felt so small and realised that as black women you are not allowed to have a voice and if you speak up people will say that you are the black girl with attitude. That for me was a massive learning curve in my career, it made me feel like I could not have a voice and stand up for myself. What happened from there was I went to my next job where my team didn’t treat me very well and I never felt like I could stick up for myself because I knew what would happen as a black woman and that people would use stereotypes to silence you. So that was a very important experience for me and is something now that I am not afraid of or feel shy about.
Another important experience I had in my career that has been positive was creating Black Ballad. Knowing the impact it is making on black women, it’s for black women by black women and is something that I can understand. When people reach out to me online or tell me about their experience of Black Ballad it’s really humbling. Just recently we had our first writer’s workshop which I said was my proudest moment because the journey I’ve been on as a journalist has been very hard and so I was able to give back to young writers and give them my knowledge, skills and tell them this is what you need to do.
What is the backstory behind creating Black Ballad?
I found that as a reader, mainstream magazines just didn’t represent me. Visually we are not there, in the past couple of years things have gotten better but I don’t believe they are where they should be. Also, being in the industry I had a lot of experience, I was freelancing and trying to find a job, but I couldn’t, so I decided that I wasn’t going to wait for anybody and that I was going to create my own job. I decided that I was going to do something that I wanted to do and do something for black women. I felt like what was out there for black women didn’t speak to me. We are more than our hair and there is a difference between Black British women and Black African women, I feel like publications in the UK are so heavily influences by the African-American voice and it just didn’t resonate with me and my friends. So a combination of those 3 key factors lead to Black Ballad.
You recently had a relaunch of the site earlier this Summer. How and when did you decide it was time to make those changes?
Before the relaunch, we were a free access blog and that’s how we ran for 2 years. However, when you have a team of people and you can’t pay them any money because you’re not making any money, you have to take a look at your business model, if there is a business model in place. It’s not fair that people write content and don’t get paid and also as a journalist we should get paid to write our content. So when we realised that having advertisers wasn’t going to work for us we decided to create a membership and explore that avenue, as well as thinking about the things we wanted to do such as being able to put on good events. We decided to relaunch with a different business model and that’s why we did the crowd fund and have continued to say that our business model will be memberships.
You mentioned you used a crowd funding campaign to raise money for the relaunch. What made you use that option and how was this experience?
Crowdfunding is tough. To relaunch our website and the new business model to memberships we needed to have something big to drum up our publicity and to tell people what we were doing. What I found with Crowdfunding which is a very valuable lesson, is that you have to create your own press. I quickly learnt that as much as you can have contacts and know people in the industry, they are not going to do something that is going to jeopardise their own business model for other people. Allied ships only go so far, especially in business, which I learnt running this campaign. Also if you’re going to do a Crowdfunding campaign create your own authentic press, be original. Our final video we used was taken from an outtake video, where I talked about how white women’s media cares more about avocados than black women and that changed the crowd fund. That statement is something I have said for years and that is how I truly felt. For anybody wanting to do crowdfunding, I would say be authentic, having personal interactions is important. People want to buy into people so make personal relationships with potential customers.
What can people get by buying a membership to the site?
If you don’t want to become a member and you sign up with your email address you get access to 3 free articles a month. If you are a member there are 2 options, you can be a standard member which costs £4.99 a month or £49 a year or you can be a premium member which is £6.99 a month or £69 a year. All members get access to all content, discounts to all events and discounts to 12 black owned businesses in our directory. As a premium member, you get all that as well as access to our online community which is for black women to talk about the issues they want to discuss, as well as some events which they attend for free.
What sort of things do you look for when looking for people to write for Black Ballad?
I look to commission black women, there is no one that is going to give me a better perspective of black women, than black women. I look for fresh perspectives on ideas, and there are 2 pitches that I get at least twice a week, something about having 4C hair or I’m not your typical black girl or what it’s like to be a black woman in a white space. I commissioned a piece where somebody spoke about why we should be paying black hairdressers more money, as well as a piece where they spoke about being a black woman in a white space but it was the perspective of somebody in the 70s. So I do look for new voices and points of views, people are paying for this content so I can’t be only putting articles that are about the same topics all the time.
How do you think stories can be told that shift the perspective of black women in the UK?
Firstly they need to be told by Black women. For so long you get these opinion pieces or these stories and investigations on blackness about black women and they are not written by black women. They are inauthentic and they are disingenuous. I believe the problem is, where journalism is so competitive it’s good to have a specialism and because it is an industry that is predominantly white, I think that where it is crowded in topics like feminism, arts and culture, white journalists decide to have a niche and that niche has been on race. They’ve been able to take black culture, black issues and go in and get information and become experts on the matters. Not saying that white writers can’t write about these issues, but when you are the only experts it is a problem. So the answer is that black women need to write about black issues and they need to be in control of the narrative.
So as a whole how do you think we can improve the voices of the black community?
I think by connecting with each other, sharing our knowledge and sharing our voices. Creating a connection with each other not just in journalism but in different industries. Don’t be the person who loves to be the only black person in the room, we all need to be there. There should not be this notion of there is only room for one, there are so many different perspectives being a black woman or being a black man. My life is very different than the black woman that is light skinned. So we can’t just have one voice that speaks to the whole community. We need to hear both perspectives so we can understand each other and make progress.
Where do you see journalism and the voices of black journalists going in the next few years?
I think the more we understand that we are different, there will be more voices. I see more blogs and websites and communities popping up for black women. I think very, very slowly mainstream journalism is realising the importance of black voices. Due to social media and the fact that no longer can white writers pass off black work as their own, I think we will start seeing more black faces in the mainstream. As a freelance I do write for the mainstream, I’m not in the office but I think that more of us will get to be in the offices.
Why do you feel the mainstream media is reluctant to promote other cultures? Can we do more and build our own platforms?
Mainstream media is stuck in its ways, I think money drives mainstream media not morals. They only think about the majority of their readership and what they want and they don’t give their audiences much credit to have the ability to relate to people that don’t look like them. Industry racism is there and the problem is, what is on top is so white, that it doesn’t change or trickle down and until that changes at the top, I don’t think that what we see will change.
Who are some of your favourite writers?
One writer that influenced me a lot was Bim Adewunmi who is a British writer that writes for BuzzFeed in America. Another writer Sarah Bivigou, doesn’t write a lot but I read 2 pieces of her work and I can honestly say, is one of the best writers I have ever come across. She wrote a piece on Sickle Cell Anemia for BuzzFeed and another on Pentecostal churches and I remember reading her piece thinking, I wish I could write like that. I’m a big fan of Danielle Dash her critical essays are so good and I’m so in awe of how quickly she puts them out and they are always quality. I do really love Victoria Sanusi who writes for BuzzFeed, I love the fact that she is in a mainstream space and she’s doing so much content that celebrates black men and black women. And finally Fiona Rutherford who is also a reporter at BuzzFeed. She covered the Grenfell tragedy like no other reporter, covering it so well and in a way that is a modern-day journalist, putting it on Twitter and writing all these compelling articles and I’m in awe in what she is doing.
What do you hope to achieve with Black Ballad?
I believe that we are on our way to being the best platform for black women in Britain and in Europe and I want to challenge those in the US for being the place for Black British Women. I want us to do more regular events and to make sure we are connecting black women with other black women. I want Black women to come onto Black Ballad and walk away with joy. A lot of content that is written for black women can be quite traumatic and that is fine because it does need an outlet but there needs to be a balance, so I want to make sure we give our readers that balance. I want to work with more brands creating partnerships and give our women a lifestyle experience. One thing we want to do is strengthen the Black British Community ecosystem.
On a final note, what advice would you give to someone wanting to get into journalism?
Write, write and write! Network, network and network! One of the things I would also say as an editor, is if you are getting into journalism and wanting to pitch, make sure you’ve read the magazine or publication you want to write for. Make sure your reading publications you aspire to be at.
To keep up with Tobi and all things Black Ballad visit their: