Spotify Helps Spelman Students Explore Blackness Through Podcasting

Students at the all-women HBCU are using Spotify's support to create podcasts that tell their stories on their terms.
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Updated on October 4, 2023
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Image Credit: Bailey Lois Johnson
  • Spotify last month announced five Spelman recipients of its NextGen scholarship. Each student will receive $10,000 annually for three years.
  • Second-year student Bailey Lois Johnson hosts "Xoxo, Black Girl," where she relates her everyday experiences with her femininity.
  • Johnson said being a NexGen scholar and having Spotify's presence on campus inspires other students to pursue podcasting and storytelling.

Spelman College students are turning to podcasting to "Love Blackness" with the support of streaming giant Spotify.

Spotify last month announced five Spelman recipients of its NextGen scholarship. Each student will receive $10,000 annually for three years. The NexGen program is designed to "infuse, activate, and grow podcast culture on college campuses," according to the company.

Spelman, an all-women's historically Black college and university (HBCU), is the first HBCU in the NextGen program. Other university partners include the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania, and New York University.

The Spotify partnership gives Spelman students exciting opportunities to tell their own stories, said Michelle Hite, Ph.D, associate professor, honors program director, and international fellowships and scholarships director.

One of those students is Bailey Lois Johnson, a second-year English and theater major from Cleveland, Ohio, and a recipient of the Spotify NextGen scholarship. Her podcast, "Xoxo, Black Girl," addresses her lived experiences — ranging from an interaction with a customer at her job to talking with her father about how his parenting shaped her.

Johnson said "Archetypes with Meghan" by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex who speaks out on social justice and women's issues, is her biggest inspiration. Johnson said Markle is honest and vulnerable with her listeners and the diverse women she brings on the podcast.

"I love to just sit and talk about what's going on with me at the moment and how that relates to my own femininity," Johnson told BestColleges.

Podcasting Blackness in Full

Spelman's advancement team approached Hite about the opportunity to collaborate with Spotify because of her experience with storytelling workshops.

Hite's teaching focused on what feminist scholar bell hooks calls "Loving Blackness."

"In other words, we exist, and we teach. And we live through this idea that our lives are for the sake of our communities and our families and our loved ones, and so it is about Black flourishing," Hite told BestColleges.

"We don't live out our experience through the sort of racial antagonism that we talk about race through in the dominant culture."

Hite said she thought the partnership was a wonderful way to expand the storytelling effort since audio provides a rich context for teaching students how to tell stories.

Last spring semester, she taught a course with 17 students focused on a NextGen audio-first curriculum. The students created a seven-episode podcast that explored the murder of Emmett Till and the enduring cultural legacy of his death.

Spotify's appreciation for diversity at Spelman is critical to the success of that class and the NextGen program as a whole, Hite said. Black students who commit to telling their own story are part of the social justice effort to reclaim their lives.

The culture of a Black and white binary has flattened the Black population under the idea that "Well, they're all Black people," Hite said. When students podcast their own stories and experiences, it's not self-indulgent, but instead a step toward an honest regard for Black life.

"So we need (students) to tell those stories," Hite said. "It's also a courageous gesture to push back against what is expected of (Black students) to assert new and needed and valuable things about the human condition and the human experience that benefits the greater culture."

Inspiring the Next Generation of Podcasters

Spotify NextGen scholars serve as ambassadors to students on behalf of Spotify.

Student-podcaster Johnson said the scholarship is just the beginning. Spotify has opened the audio gates for all Spelman students.

"I think what makes the Next Generation scholarship so incredible is that I know so many other girls who have come up to me and been inspired by me [getting] the scholarship and them realizing that maybe they can get something like that too from Spotify," Johnson said. "Because it's not just going to be me who gets the scholarship; it's going to be other now-sophomore girls and sophomores coming."

Hite said Spelman is ensuring students know the opportunities Spotify will give them for employment and internships in the audio industry. She said even Spotify's presence on campus tells students it is interested in telling their stories, and they are welcomed in the industry.

Spotify's work with Spelman is just the beginning, said Kristin Jarrett, Spotify's Equity and Impact Lead, and the company is eager to expand Spotify's NextGen program to more HBCU campuses in the future.

"Together, we're setting out to create a new class of Black content creators — equipping them with tools and resources to develop their podcast skill sets and ultimately making a career in audio more accessible for the next generation of storytellers," Jarrett told BestColleges.

Johnson said she's never seen so many of her sisters get up early to get in line last semester for a spot in Spotify's Creator Day, where they learned about podcast creation.

"I had never even thought about starting podcasts. I always thought I would always be just a listener and not a talker," Johnson said. "Just by them coming and showing that they saw something in this Black woman that they knew would be valuable to other listeners, it inspired me to get myself out there.

Hite said she is working with Spotify to integrate podcasting into other courses and find a way to partner with college archives to tell Black historical artifacts' stories from their perspective.

Hite said Spelman is building a model for HBCUs to draw from, and she invites them to collaborate with Spelman to make statements about the power of their voices. She sees an opportunity for collaboration and human storytelling in a post-affirmative action and generative artificial intelligence world.

Students interested in podcasting should just pick up a microphone and start, Johnson said. It doesn't even have to be a good microphone; she started on her phone.

"And don't be afraid to do it exactly how you want it to come across and be perceived," she said, "because I often think us Black people, we feel like we have to fit into the stereotype of what we are allowed to talk about and what we should talk about."