Tarn Rodgers Johns met with 2/3 of the Mostly Lit team to discuss Zadie Smith, social media and their mission to break the stigma around reading.
Whether they’re talking about Beyonce’s pregnancy or Greek philosophy, it’s impossible to listen to an episode of Mostly Lit without getting swept along for the ride. Hosted by Alex Reads, Mr Wiltshire and Reckless Rai, Mostly Lit is exactly that - a literary focused podcast that also deals more widely with topics such as modern masculinity, Pan-Africanism and mental health.
Coming from the perspective of 20-something year old Londoners, the podcast bridges the gap between black British pop-culture and literature - recontextualising both modern and classic novels for a young, diverse audience. Or, in Alex’s words, “deconstructing the bullshit using literature”. Since starting out in April 2016 it’s already made it’s way onto the iTunes Best Podcasts list, as well as attracting fans from the US and the UK.
The podcast scene has been booming in the US for a while, with podcasts such as Buzzfeed’s Another Round, 2 Dope Queens and The Read providing a platform for African Americans to explore the black experience. “I’d had this idea that I wanted to see a podcast in the UK that dealt with the subject of race that was as big as the American ones” explains Alex, when I met him and Derek (aka Mr Wiltshire) over coffee in London. “Melanin Millennials started following me on Twitter so I checked them out and saw that the network that produces them [the ShoutOut Network] were looking for new people to do a podcast”.
Mostly Lit is part of an exciting new wave of independent media coming out of the UK. Online platforms like gal-dem and Media Diversified as well as the podcasts on the ShoutOut Network are just some examples of organisations working to fill in the gaps in representation and change the face of British media. Like #OscarsSoWhite and #BlackGirlMagic, the movement is ostensibly spread through Twitter because of its ability to unite social groups - including that of black Brits that love to read. Alex, Rai and Derek initially met online, “when people start talking about books online I tend to follow them” explains Alex. “I hated Rai on Twitter” interjects Derek, “when we first met she was on my blocked list”. Undeniably, Rai and Derek’s contentious chemistry is one of the draws of the show, their stand-offs - most recently about whether or not The Colour Purple is of the same literary standing as The Great Gatsby - results in some of the liveliest moments. “She studied literature at uni so she thinks she has authority” he says.
“Yeah but Derek stirs the pot, keeps adding the spices” adds Alex.
Alex and Derek are equally as engaging in real life as they are in the podcast. They obviously get on well and the conversation picks up a natural flow - one minute we’re talking about the purpose of literature (to entertain or educate? What’s the difference between Zadie Smith and Eastenders?) and the next we’re onto the origins of romantic love. Unsurprisingly, they are also both incredibly well read. “I didn’t read a book until I was 23,” says Derek, “I was at uni and the book was The Game by Neil Strauss and after reading that I picked up some short stories by DH Lawrence, so I went from a book about how to pick up girls to DH Lawrence. After that I would read four book a week.”
With the capacity to absorb ideas and concepts quicker than a sponge, you’d have thought that Derek would have been his English teacher’s favourite. But he hated reading at school: “it made me think, was it me? Or were the teachers just rubbish.” When he discovered a love for Oscar Wilde and DH Lawrence he was studying exercise science at Manchester Met, whilst Alex took French and Spanish at Nottingham Trent. “I used to go to lectures for different courses,” says Derek, “I’d put my hand up to speak and they’d be like who are you?”
Reading isn’t always considered the ‘coolest’ pastime and one of the missions of the podcast, Alex explains, is to break this perception. It’s one of the reasons he disagrees with Bob Dylan being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, (“don’t start” says Derek when he brings it up), “music is the thing that everybody allows to permeate into everyday life, but literature is an under appreciated art form that deserves recognition” he says, “everyone loves music but no one talks about books. Why is one more accepted than the other?”
Considering that we now have unlimited access to Netflix, social media and the internet, it could seem like reading books is an outdated form of entertainment, but Mostly Lit makes the case for the importance of literature in everyday life. “People don’t realise what in society has actually come from literature, romantic love come from literature. Our notions of the devil - right and wrong - come from literature” says Derek, “literature contributes to so much and people just don’t realise.”
Another dimension to the podcast is the discussions about different black British identities. Through looking at novels such as Sam Selven’s The Lonely Londoners the team often discuss the differences between East African, West African and Caribbean diasporic identity. Last month on the podcast Derek caused a stir when said that he felt English first, and Ghanaian second, what followed was a conversation about black British identity which was also carried out on Twitter by fans of the show. This seemed to be enacting something journalist Bim Adewunmi said last year as a guest on Another Round podcast when she talked about the need for global conversations around race to “express a blackness outside of an African American experience.”
Much like listening to an episode of the podcast, I left the conversation with Alex and Derek feeling inspired and looking forward to picking up a book. My last question to them is about what they are hoping to achieve with the podcast.
“I want it to be a space for people to feel inspired about reading and writing” says Alex, “back in the day they had the salons, places where you can sit and have a conversation about books and ideas. I want it to be like that.” As for Derek, “for me, I just want to get more young people reading. Young black boys reading. That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what I want.”