When Netflix announced that Tracy Clayton was getting back into the podcasting game with a new show for the streaming giant called Strong Black Legends, it quickly reached the top of the Apple Film & TV Podcast chart. It seems fans of Clayton’s last show, Buzzfeed’s Another Round, which she hosted with writer Heben Nigatu, had been eagerly awaiting her return to the medium; the response on social media was enthusiastic to say the least. After a year away from the mic, Clayton has teamed with Netflix and Strong Black Lead, its black audience outreach initiative, for a show on which she interviews black Hollywood icons and “gives them their flowers,” both literally and figuratively, honoring their place in African-American culture and pop culture at large.
On Strong Black Legends, which will have new episodes premiering every Tuesday, Clayton takes her penchant for fun and insightful interviews into one-on-ones with guests like actor Lynn Whitfield and costume designer Ruth E. Carter (next week’s episode features Garrett Morris, the first black actor on Saturday Night Live). Through those conversations, she’s shedding light on the artistry behind some of our favorite black movies and TV shows. The Cut spoke with Clayton about the new show, her goals, and what she learned from her time interviewing high-profile guests on Another Round.
Tell me more about giving your guests — people who are legends in black communities but still haven’t gotten their due — “their flowers,” as you say on the show.
The idea is to appreciate our own black legends and black heroes. Not so much because they’re underappreciated by us. They’re on the show because they’re amazing and you don’t get amazing if nobody is appreciating and supporting you for the work you do. But I think that with the current climate of the world, [for anyone] that isn’t the mythic norm — a straight white dude, middle class, whatever — you feel like every part of you is being attacked. You begin to think about what you have, and you begin to appreciate it while you still have it. And even though they’re not underappreciated, they should be on more things. They should be on the cover of the magazines. They should be on more podcasts, on more shows. Because they’re part of the building blocks of black culture which of course is the building block of quote unquote American culture. So it’s a love fest because we [the fans] deserve it and they [the guests] deserve it too.
In your conversation with Lynn Whitfield you told her that interviewing her made you the most nervous out of all the other people you’ve talked to in your career. What is it about the interviewees on Strong Black Legends that brings out that nervousness in you?
I think it’s because they matter to me. That’s not to say that Hillary Clinton doesn’t matter to me. But I feel like they were present during my formative years and my childhood years. Black pop culture has helped to shape the person that I’ve become, and thankfully I’m learning to like that person. When you meet your hero, you don’t want to look stupid in front of them or disappoint them or accidentally offend them. I guess when it feels like family, when it’s people and things that you care about, the stakes are always higher because you don’t want to dishonor your heroes in any way. You also don’t want to disappoint the audience by disappointing their heroes. And the validation that I get from my community has always been most important to me, so I don’t want to do anything to dishonor that.
What do you hope these conversations will illuminate for the listener?
I personally am very interested in the actual craft. I wanted to know how John Witherspoon chooses his roles. And how Lynn Whitfield warms up before she performs. Because I think that with black actors and actresses especially, they don’t really get asked that very much. It’s always like, “Say your catchphrase.” And I really wanted to push past that and [ask], “Tell me about this thing that you love to do. Tell me about the training that you have in this thing. Tell me what this thing means to you.” I feel like those are conversations that I always want more of when I listen to interviews with my favorite folks. Other than that, I just want it to be a good conversation that feels like a conversation and not an interview.
What lessons from making Another Round did you draw on in making Strong Black Legends?
Another Round taught me the importance of centering yourself and securing your guests in the conversation that you’re having. Because it really does make for a better interview when you don’t have to worry about, Can I say the N-word? Can I say a cuss word? Do I have to explain to people what the soap opera Passions is? When you don’t have to worry about whether or not your audience will get it, it becomes an easier conversation to have. It becomes a funner conversation. It’s also just more honest. Then it becomes a space for people who don’t have a space. It becomes a place where they can finally see themselves represented. Because there’s always going to be somebody who shares at least a part of your experience. And when you’re able to really bare your soul in a safe space like that, I mean, that’s how you get the best content folks! That’s how you do it! Let people be themselves. I insist on doing that.
Did you have any reservations about doing another podcast after how Another Round ended?
I had reservations because it was my first time back in the saddle. But I didn’t have any reservations because of the way that Another Round ended. And that’s because I’ve had enough time to process. A while ago I may not have been able to answer that question in that way. I was like a raw, exposed nerve. [Heben and I] were so stressed out. My mentions are all people who really miss the show and perhaps did not express that in the best way. By that I mean that when someone listens to your podcast they begin to feel like you’re their friend. They can forget that they don’t actually know you in real life and come to feel entitled to [you]. I don’t think that I understood that then, and it was tough. I had to grow a thick skin and learn to not take people’s frustration or disappointment personally. I’m still working on that. I’m better at it, but [there’s] always room for improvement. I guess I’m just a little more secure in my right to do what it is that I want to do. As Béyonce says, “I’m grown woman, I can do whatever I want.” I wasn’t following in that, but I definitely am now. It feels really good to be able say that with confidence. Wow. Growth! My therapist’s going to be so proud of me.
Right after Strong Black Legends was announced it became No. 1 on Apple’s Film and TV podcast chart. How did it feel to see that response?
My mentions were wild for days afterward and I was genuinely shocked. Seeing the size of the response, I guess I had to see that to understand how many people [Another Round] reached and touched. It made me understand and accept that we made a thing that people love. And I believe it was hard for me to acknowledge that because I was not this close to self-love before. I didn’t think that little old me could possibly make something that great or that amazing. And not that I’m there yet, but I get it. I understand it and I see it.
Who is your dream guest for the next round of Strong Black Legends? Oh my goodness gracious. There are so many. I would love to talk to Kim Wayans, Kym Whitley. I’d love to talk to Erika Alexander. Queen Latifah would be amazing to talk to. I will go on and on and on. There are so many.