WHAT IS IT THAT WE SHARE?
Ahmed Ali Akbar on creating content post-Buzzfeed.
by Aprita Bajpeyi
I first came across writer and podcaster Ahmed Ali Akbar’s work through his podcast, See Something Say Something, which came out as part of Buzzfeed’s cohort of podcasts in October 2016—a month before Donald Trump was elected into office. Even though See Something Say Something has since left Buzzfeed, Ahmed’s reasons for producing See Something haven’t changed. One of the main impulses, he told me over Skype, was rethinking who the audience for Muslim voices was.
When Ahmed and the Buzzfeed See Something team first began conceptualizing the show, Ahmed had already been deeply engaged in listening to and creating Muslim-American content on the internet. “I had a certain idea of what Muslim content on the internet was and generally my generation’s view of what a Muslim voice is, which I think is different from what other people, like my parent’s generation, were interested in. At least in immigrant communities there was this idea that if we just show them how good we are we will change their minds and,” he laughed, “they will love us.”
For Ahmed, growing up in a post 9/11 America, taking part in inter-faith meets and other outreach work, the not insignificant percentage of people who expressed strong anti-Islamic views left its mark. “I experienced trying to change people’s minds throughout my entire childhood and they still perceived me as ‘just one of the good ones’ and that Islam in general was rotten to its core. So I was like ‘why do I care about changing people’s minds? That’s not what the point is.’ My point is I want to tell the stories that reflect the things that I like about my community.”
And that’s what See Something Say Something has done. The show has covered everything from jinns, mangoes, and ghee to the Muslim Ban and mental health in Muslim communities. See Something has created a safe space for its listeners across North America (and beyond), but has also made critical discussions on tougher topics accessible to a wider audience. The intention behind the show was always clear, though—it’s not a direct response to or engagement with stereotypes, but instead its goal is to create content that asks “What is it that we share with each other as a really diverse community?”
From this space, Ahmed realized that the kinds of strategies being used by members of his community—particularly the older generation—to deal with their marginalization, were not very effective. Interfaith gatherings, presentations to schools and other community spaces and the like were designed to give people hearing only one version of what a Muslim was, more information in the hopes of changing the narrative. “What a lot of people were doing when I was growing up was like a Wikipedia page. You know, ‘There are the five pillars of Islam, this is what we believe,’ but I think the lived reality is so much more interesting, especially of young people, and I think by capturing that we did change a lot of people’s minds, but that was never the intention.”
See Something has continued this work after Buzzfeed closed its podcast division in late 2018, but now Ahmed is working without a team. “Being in a full-time job is being loyal to something,” he tells me, “and there are advantages to that. But I do really like my freedom. I’m very happy to do things on my own time, and do my own work—especially with representing my community, being as honest as I can be. That’s really nice.” Freelancing has its perks, he says, but has its own challenges as well. “I think it’s been a process of learning how to separate myself from my value as a worker and think more, especially as a creative, and think more about my value as an individual, and as an individual thinker and writer. That is a process I’m still going through and it’s exciting because it means I get to do things I had closed myself of to or didn’t have space to do before, and now I do, so that’s exciting. And I think you gotta be hungry to be a freelancer—you gotta be really, really hungry. And I’m working on developing that as much as I can. I mean I’m never satisfied with my work, but to to be even less satisfied than I already was with my work. I’m kind of that person, I feel like everything I do is garbage. I think that makes me even more hungry.”
I asked Ahmed about the hustle, and how he deals with the exhaustion it can bring on. “A really useful thing someone said to me is that people won’t forget about you,” he told me. “And I guess it depends how much you consider your worth is related to your work, and it can be motivating to say ‘yes! I want people to know me, I want people to know what I do.’ But also, it’s okay to say I need a moment to rest, and build again, and they’ll come back. There will always be work. I’ll always be able to make it work. And if I can’t do it again, it means that I probably didn’t have it in the first place. You need to work on your craft. So I think it’s okay to take breaks, but it’s also okay to be really hungry as well.”
That hunger to constantly do better is a big part of Ahmed’s craft on the podcast. When I ask him about the changing format of the show, he laughs and says, “I think this has something to do with my personality, which is to say that I get bored really easily. And I love other people, and I like talking to other people—that’s the most interesting things about life, getting to know other people.” But it’s not just talking to other people, it’s really listening to them that has helped him tighten the show, and drop segments that weren’t working well. With a runtime of just under an hour, time is precious. And when you interview someone, Ahmed tells me, it takes time to get into a conversation. And my ultimate goal is to get someplace interesting in a conversation, so if I have to waste it on something they’re not interested in, it’s not a good use of my time or my guest’s time, and I want to be respectful of that.”
“Sometimes it’s not just following the conversation, it’s building to a point that is productive. Every conversation should be productive, but how can it be revelatory is always the thing that I want as a podcast host, and it’s something that I’m still working on.”
Since going freelance, Ahmed has also had to renegotiate with himself what his relationship to his audience is, and the amount of work he’s putting in to the show. To help make the project sustainable, he’s created a Patreon that has a Discord (a chatroom a la Slack) as a reward for patrons. While he values the conversations that can be had in the chat room space, he says, “I’m also understanding that I’m asking my audience for money. I’ve never done that before. That means that I have to bring it as best as I can, and be consistent with expectations.” For now, Ahmed is acting as his own producer, which he says is very energizing. It also means that he’s gone from freelance writing what he wants when he wants to, to having a full show to produce, record and edit every few days. It’s his job again and, he tells me, “that’s very motivating and gives me a centre.”
But Ahmed also feels a strong responsibility to the space he’s created with See Something, and to its audience. And ultimately, that’s why he decided to start the show back up again after leaving Buzzfeed. He told me that after the Buzzfeed-backed version of the podcast ended, for a few months he received emails from listeners telling him what the show meant to them, how it gave them a space to be Muslim in sometimes hostile environments, and asking for him to start it back up again. And then Christchurch happened.
“I was in Michigan with my dad. And I was like ‘this is ridiculous, I have to do something. I’m pissed, I’m sad, I have a space, and I don’t think writing is the right format for this. I think podcasting is the right format, so what can I do?’”
A former Buzzfeed producer put him in touch with someone who could edit his audio, “which was the thing that was really stopping me,” Ahmed told me. “The two things were the equipment, the microphones, which I’d acquired a month or two before the Christchurch episode, and then cutting the tape. And I was like, ‘alright, I’m going to give myself permission to let a professional do that.’” Ahmed also realized that he needed to give himself permission to hire someone to cut the tape because it would take away time from his writing, which was another priority for him. If I want this to be the most efficient process, I’m going to hire a professional and pay them for the labour. And that’s what I did. And I was like ‘okay, I did it once, I can do it again.’ And then soon after that I said I’m going to plan to do a second one [episode], and I’m going to set up a Patreon. And I did. And I thought ‘that was easy, I can do that again.’”
If the need to process the tragedy helped him start the process of taking on See Something as a freelancer, the connection Ahmed shares with his audience, and what the project means to him personally and professionally, has helped him keep it going. “But,” he said, “the doing is the hardest part—always, taking that first step to start is the hardest part.”
You can find See Something Say Something on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. You can read Ahmed’s work on Buzzfeed and The Juggernaut and find him on Twitter @radbrowndads.