Alexandria-based streaming platform kweliTV celebrates global Black stories and storytellers

Alexandria’s DeShuna Spencer wants you to binge on Black culture without the interference.

The founder and CEO of kweliTV has dedicated herself to celebrating and amplifying international Black stories and storytellers. After five years in business, she’s now got 40,000 registered users, with 48,000 watchers of her live channel.

“It’s been a rough couple of years,” Spencer said. “My goal is to make things better. I want to change the world. I know that I’m only one person, but I feel I at least can do my part with my platform.”

Spencer runs the steaming service from her basement in the city’s Parker Gray Historic District of Alexandria. The content (seen for $5.99 per month or $49.99 per year) includes award-winning independent films, documentaries, web series, animation and children’s shows like Look, Listen and Learn.

A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Spencer harbored dreams of becoming a journalist, and got a degree in communications and journalism from Jackson State University. She cut her teeth as an intern writing crime stories for the Oakland Tribune, but found the work unfulfilling.

“I didn’t want to know the coroner or the police chief,” Spencer told ALXnow. “I wanted to be in media in a way that celebrates authentic Black stories.”

“Kweli” means “truth” in Swahili.

The live channel launched in 2020, during a period of social, medical, emotional and political upheaval. Spencer said that people needed a positive outlet to act as a safe space, which is what she provides.

Spencer also founded emPower Magazine in 2008, and shut it down in 2017 — the same year she launched kweliTV.

ALXnow: From publishing Empower magazine to today, you’ve been doing this work for years. What was the spark that lit this flame for you?

Spencer: I started as a journalist, I was a writer first. After I graduated, I ended up moving to the (San Francisco) Bay area and getting an internship at the Oakland Tribune. That was the real spark, because I was always the first person to get in the office. I was still sort of thinking it was Central Time, so I was always really early. I lived with six other girls and three bedroom apartment in Alameda, California. I would literally be the first person in the newsroom at like 6:30 every morning just because I wanted to get out of the house. The only other person in the office would be the senior cop reporter, and since I was always there first, he would always give me really interesting stories.

After the internship was over they wanted to hire me full-time as a cops and courts reporter, but I hated those stories about people being hurt, about Black people getting shot. That was pretty much my job, where I would interview someone’s mother whose child was shot… I didn’t want to know the coroner or the police chief. I wanted to be in media in a way that celebrates authentic Black stories.

That’s when I started meeting with community organizers and people who were actually trying to make change. I ended up moving to Buffalo, New York, and I was an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. It gave me a different perspective on the work I wanted to do, and I really wanted to focus on those people who were making an impact. I ended up moving to the DC area when I was 24 years old and I became the communications manager for a trade association. They had a monthly magazine that I was put in charge of. I was always a reporter, so I had to learn how to manage people, manage money and manage projects. It was an invaluable experience.

ALXnow: What’s the difference between your streaming service and others?

Spencer: At the root of it, it is really about dismantling what we see as this Black narrative in traditional media. That’s the mission of kweliTV. I truly believe that storytelling is, by changing, can change the world.

For us, number one is for people like me who celebrate ourselves, where we’re not seeing images of trauma and suffering. Number two, this is for people who don’t look like us to understand why culturally they may not necessarily see it in traditional media. Hopefully, we’re able to change perceptions on how we’re seeing ourselves and by people who are not part of our culture.

ALXnow: Is traditional media missing the beat?

Spencer: People have felt fatigued with the media, and I felt that having a streaming service and using documentaries and cultural films to tell stories had a much bigger impact than the news cycle. The path is extremely clear and I’ve always I’ve always focused on social impact content. That’s very important to me. But also, I know that people tend to digest content through watching versus through reading.

Documentaries are our number one genre on kweliTV. We’re not going to have a bunch of reality shows in order to build our audience. We’re going to stick to our guns and may not be for everyone. We know that we’re different. We’re mission-driven and we’re not going to be one of those other platforms, and we’re okay with that.

ALXnow: Are you hoping to produce your own content at some point?

Spencer: A lot of platforms jump out the gate trying to create their own content to compete with Netflix. That’s our goal. Our goal is slow and steady growth to eventually create original documentaries and documentary series. In the future, our goal is to definitely move beyond movies and shows and to also focus on health and wellness content. We really want it to be an experience for an entire family, where they can come for practical advice, or, for instance, if you had a bad day to do breathing exercises. I’m really excited about having conversations with Black wellness coaches and financial experts so we can really expand our platform in a way that can help our community, whether it’s financially, physically or mentally.

ALXnow: Everybody was stuck at home a couple of years because of the pandemic. Was that good for kweliTV?

Spencer: It was. That’s why we started the live channel in 2020. People were suffering financially, especially if they were frontline workers.

ALXnow: You’ve realized that giving away content is valuable part of your business model.

Spencer: Exactly. The live channel is ad-supported, totally free for anyone who wants to watch the channel. We saw it as a bit of a benefit especially during the height of the pandemic where everything seemed so uncertain. It’s been a rough couple of years. My goal is to make things better. I want to change the world. I know that I’m only one person, but I feel I at least can do my part with my platform.

ALXnow: What is your vision for kweliTV? Where do you want it to go at the end of the day?

Spencer: The overall goal is for kweliTV to be a global brand, that when people think about a mission-driven platform that they think of us. I would love to get into farming creatives who are underrepresented to be able to fund their projects. I hope that whatever is the technology of the day, we’re still in it and we’re still evolving to meet new combinations of where the world is.