How do you not start with Oprah?
Sure, when discussing the podcast “Blackbelt Voices,” you could talk about how its founders wanted to create a platform that recognizes the important role Black Southerners have played in the region’s history.
You could talk about the need, the necessity even, for adding voices to the Southern experience that are as authentic as any, but have gone mostly unheard.
You could look into the historical origins of the podcast’s name, which has nothing to do with martial arts and everything to do with life in the South for Black Americans.
You could savor the underdog story of how a modest blog turned into an acclaimed podcast. But, see, that would bring us back to Oprah.
So let’s get that out of the way.
Produced and written by Adena White, Kara Wilkins and White’s sister Katrina Dupins, “Blackbelt Voices” launched in 2019 to allow authentic Southerners, who happen to be African American, to share their experiences and add to the culture and heritage of the South beyond what comes out of Nashville.
“We were country, rural people, but then we'd hear about being Southern and rural and it didn’t fit our experiences,” White says.
In its short existence, the podcast has earned positive notice, which includes making The Oprah Magazine’s list of “The 15 Best Educational Podcasts for You to Expand Your Mind” published Sept. 30, 2020.
When Oprah Winfrey — the influencer’s influencer whose book club recommendations are the seal of approval for millions — suggests something is worth checking out, people tend to take notice.
“It was a good October surprise,” White says.
The Oprah list includes NPR’s “How to Do Everything,” Peabody and Pulitzer-nominated “Ear Hustle” about life in prison and Peabody winner “74 Seconds” about the aftermath of the death of Philando Castile.
“They’re the top of the top,” Wilkins says. “And if you really look at that list we’re one of the only smaller local podcasts. That is what blew my mind. We are on this list with NPR or other large corporation podcasts.”
The national recognition began when Apple Podcasts featured “Blackbelt Voices,” followed by mention in Vanity Fair’s “Eight Podcasts to Deepen Your Knowledge of Black History” last June. The timeliness of the exposure — given the murder of George Floyd, the summer protests and the influence of Black Lives Matter — isn’t lost on the “Blackbelt Voices” team.
“I feel like that was kind of an open door for lots of other people to find out,” Dupins says of the Apple recognition, “and then of course the stuff that happened over the summer put us on the minds of a lot of people.”
“Blackbelt Voices” explores subjects ranging from historical to cultural to political, while also profiling activists, organizers and eyewitnesses to history. The podcast’s title comes from the historic “Black Belt” of Alabama known for its dark and fertile soil, which came to represent places throughout the South with majority Black populations.
Blackbelt Lives began as a blog project White undertook after the 2016 election as the conversation turned to Donald Trump’s success in winning Southern states, but with Black voices again left out of the conversation.
“There were always these think pieces about people who voted for Trump, but where were the Black Southerners at?” White says.
Once the blog got off the ground White wanted to do more, and it wasn’t hard to interest Dupins and Wilkins. Outside the sisterly connection, the three women had crossed paths through various professional relationships, though Wilkins and Dupins didn’t meet in person until their first Blackbelt meeting.
Dupins is a former journalist with a background in television production and photography, bringing technical knowledge to the podcast. She had been looking for a production opportunity when Blackbelt surfaced and said she initially saw it as a “YouTube kind of thing.”
“So Blackbelt worked out perfectly for us because it was about telling stories but also putting the video element to it,” Dupins says.
White and Wilkins are public relations/communications professionals who understand the value of promotion, though the podcast’s national recognition came largely without any publicity push.
“So when we show up on these lists it’s because someone in that company or that organization was listening,” Wilkins says. “That’s what makes this, to me, even more special or phenomenal. …
We’re just doing what we love to do and people are taking to it.”
For Blackbelt’s purposes, the South is the 16 states the U.S. Census Bureau classifies as “Southern”: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
Story ideas can come from anywhere, and there is no shortage. From social media acquaintances to mutual friends, local professionals and notables throughout the South, the potential profile subjects go into a spreadsheet for consideration.
Each episode takes about 90 minutes to two hours to record, followed by writing commentary and editing.
The trio’s personal favorites include “(Natural) Heads Held High” about the cultural and political impact of black hairstyles. Another favorite is “The Truth Always Comes Out: The Murder of Marvin Leonard Williams” about Williams’ death in police custody in 1960 and his brother's efforts to get the case reopened 25 years later.
As it turns out, there are a lot of voices in the Black Belt.
“It’s hard to pick a favorite,” Dupins says. “Every one of us, when she's finished, says, 'That was my favorite one.'"