Faces of NPR: HBCU Edition
Faces Of NPR showcases the people behind NPR--from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You'll find out about what they do and what they're inspired by on the daily. This month is special – we are featuring HBCU alum at NPR for Black History Month. Today, we have Kia Miakka Natisse, co-host of Invisibilia.
Name: Kia Miakka Natisse
Title: Co-host, Invisibilia
HBCU: Howard University
IG/TW Handle: @miakka_natisse
Where you're from: Buffalo, NY
Kia Miakka Natisse, Co-host, Invisibilia
Kia Miakka Natisse, Co-host, Invisibilia
My first question to you is, what makes a good story?
I can only speak for what makes a good story to me. I'm really interested in unpredictability and chaos. I'm also really interested in people who are breaking things. I'm interested in the mess. I'm interested in paradoxes and contradictions. Things that feel very true to like what real life is. Honesty. I think a lot of times in storytelling we could get really obsessed with like a clean arc of the beginning, middle and end. And you know, that's not really what life is like. And so finding stories that closer represent all the sorts of confusion and unpredictability of existence really excites me because I can't predict it.
Where do you think your love for storytelling came from?
Growing up in Black culture, I always feel like so many people I know are such great storytellers, just naturally, in the way that they talk, in the way that they share information. And so I grew up around a lot of informal storytelling spaces. I'm from Buffalo, New York, and we have a local storyteller named Karmina Amin, and she would come to all the events and tell stories. And that was like really in the tradition of the griot. But then there's also going to church and hearing the stories that someone might tell from a pulpit, and the way that they can get people energized and excited by their words. And then there's how people are explaining their day, you know, and watching their reactions. So I think I learned early on that like, being a good storyteller, people will listen to you. And I was really drawn to the art of trying to explain an experience in a way that people want to listen to.
How and when did you realize that you were a good storyteller?
I've always loved telling stories. But when I was in high school, I had an AP teacher who assigned this homework assignment to basically make an episode of This American Life. And I don't know if I was really familiar with the show prior to that. But no one had ever challenged me to make something. This was in the year 2000, and I did a piece about Y2K and how freaked out I was at the time. I just loved the process. I loved the process of trying to tell this story. I loved the process of picking the music to go with it. That was so much fun to me, because that came so naturally to me, the way that I think, to be like, 'oh yeah, that's the perfect song to go there.'
And so I made it for an assignment and my teacher loved it, and she was like, 'you need to figure out a way to do this as a job.' But at the time, it's the year 2000. The only show that I know of doing this type of storytelling was This American Life. And I'm a little Black girl in the suburbs of Buffalo – like, no one wants to hear my story. But it made me really proud, because she actually saved the story and used it as an example for other students, that this is what an assignment can look like. And so I think I just felt a real sense of pride that I took in a very personal experience and created something that let other people in and said something about the moment.
But from my perspective, I was able to use elements of culture like music that really corresponded to who I was. It was such a chance for self-expression, and to see someone respond to it positively and encourage me, it put a battery on my back. I didn't like, run down the path of radio and be like, 'okay, this is what I'm going to do'. But I kept it in my mind, like, this is something someone acknowledged that I'm good at, that came easy and naturally to me and that I really enjoyed, and I would like to figure out a way to make that a part of my life.
So this teacher kind of planted a seed for you.
Yeah, absolutely, put the thought in my brain. But you know, it's interesting, the industry kind of caught up to my ambitions and created space for me to have that voice, because again, in the year 2000, there weren't too many places where people were telling stories in that way.
So I definitely have to shout out Howard in this. I want to know how Howard shaped you.
Oh, so much. So much. I have friends who are like, 'we watched you blossom there.' Before I went to Howard, I transferred schools a lot, because my parents moved around a lot and wanted to try to give me the best education. So I probably went to six different schools growing up. And as the schools got "better," the schools got whiter, and I became more and more isolated. And so by the time I graduated high school, I was one out of three Black girls who graduated in my senior class. It was a class of like 300 people. It was a very limited experience and perspective of what Blackness meant and what that experience was.
And then coming to Howard and just being blown away by all the beauty and the uniqueness and the characters, I mean, it was like a peak experience to be in a class of fifteen hundred kids and like everyone's bringing their own shit. And there's so much space for everyone to be themselves without the limitations of like, 'that's not Black'.
Since everyone is Black, you get to differentiate yourself more specifically to who you are. When I was one of three Black girls in high school, I was just "the Black girl." I didn't get to dig deeper into my identity and have it be acknowledged and expressed, because it was such a limited understanding of what Blackness is.
But at Howard, Blackness is everything. And so your expression of it and your experience of it and your enjoyment of it can be so specific to you and create all these unique sorts of flavors and experiences that were just so stimulating. I made the best friends of my life. My freshman year was probably one of the best years of my life because it was just like an environment I had never been in before. I was overwhelmed by all the newness, all the things that I didn't get exposed to in Buffalo, New York. And that alone built such a confidence in me, to not feel like I had to be limited in my expression of myself. And also, building a community of people who are so diverse and rich in so many different ways gave me confidence. I made some of the best relationships that I still carry on to this day.
I like that a lot. So what would you say is the most rewarding and the most challenging part of your job?
The most rewarding is getting to ask strangers questions. I'm a nosy person, and so for it to be a part of my job to be like, 'who is that?' 'What you doing?' 'That don't make no sense.' You know, but I'm saying it in a professional way. But just being able to really dig into my curiosity. And I think especially on Invisibilia – which was a show that I absolutely loved long before I could even fantasize about working on the show – there is such a specific way of thinking and digging into ideas that feels very good for me. So just the opportunity to be in a space where I can think in the ways that I'm interested in, be encouraged and welcomed, and talk to people from all different types of walks of life and try to understand their experience and then translate it for other people so that they can get something out of it, that's the best part. It doesn't feel like work to me because I'm a really curious person, so that I get to be curious and get paid for it is thrilling.
The hardest part is collaboration. Prior to working at this job, I had an artistic practice, and I'm very used to keeping everything close to me. It probably hurt me in some ways because if I'm depending on myself for everything, then that slows everything down. I don't end up making as many things or experimenting in more places, because it's all on me. But that's kind of like my comfort space. And now it's like, no, you got to work in a group.
So that's that's definitely been a learning curve for me, like being more open to sharing what I'm working on while I'm working on it, to allow people space to give me feedback and to try to take it, you know, and not just be like, 'you don't know what you're talking about.' That has been the real challenge, you know, and there's so much vulnerability in the type of work that we do on Invisibilia that every time before a story comes out, I have a slight panic because I'm like, you're sharing too much, it's too personal. I panic, but hopefully that will go away with time. It's a new experience for me, sharing, and sharing is not my jam.
You're sharing with me right now and I really appreciate it. But your point actually leads to my next question. How important is the synchronicity and alignment of the hosts?
Yes, very, very. Before Yowei and I stepped up to be co-hosts together, we hadn't really worked that much together. But when the opportunity came up, I was just like, well, this is an obvious choice to me. And, you know, we kind of had to gas each other up. But then there was like a moment where we were both like, 'I don't know, like this could be intense.' But, it's really worked out.
I feel like it teaches me so much about being in good relationship with someone. Like, ultimately, yeah, you could fake it. People probably do it all the time. But you know, the longevity of a relationship of making decisions with someone, disagreeing and finding a middle ground, or knowing when to gas or brake, it makes a difference. And then trying to build a genuine connection not just organized around work, which I will give Yowei a lot of credit for, because she really advocates for us to be IRL friends, not just on the mic friends. I think what I really appreciate about our relationship is that we have good communication. It may not be perfect, we may not agree all the time, but we do have a space where it's like, I can tell you this thing, you could tell me that thing, we could understand it and then come out of it like having built a little bit more strength because we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable in whatever was happening.
Kia Miakka Natisse, Co-Host, Invisibilia
Yeah, I feel like the authenticity of the relationship contributes to the chemistry that we can hear.
Right? Yeah. And that's something like, you know, not every show does that or tries to build that relationship on mic and make it really clear to listeners. But I think people like it, and I think it's also natural for Yowei and I to show up in that way. We don't want to be on mic as disembodied authority voices that don't show their humanness. You know, so much of what we ask other people to do is to give of themselves and to give of their experience to a greater good, essentially. So it's like, I want to be generous in myself as well. Like, no, I'm not a disembodied head talking in your ear. I'm a real person who struggles and is human.
I assume there are so many moving parts when creating or hosting a podcast. How do you stay focused and what are the main things that you're thinking about?
We have a really great production manager in Liana Simstrom, and she really helps me to not have to think about a lot of the details of production and planning, because that's not my strength. My eyes will glaze over whenever someone's like, 'let's build a system,' and I'm like, 'let's just talk story.' So yeah, definitely that's where teamwork comes in, you know, and that's where collaboration comes in, because it's not just me. Having really great producers to help steer the ship makes a world of difference. It's definitely a group effort to be like, how do we get this thing going? And I think also, having a good editor who can figure out when is the time to wander and when it's OK to be lost, and when is the time to try to ground down what we're trying to do. So yeah, it's a challenge, but I find for myself, I work best when I'm situated inside of a joyful, playful space. So that's what I'm always trying to reconnect to. What makes me excited about this? Where can I find my joy or play in this work? So that when I am caught up and doing my things under deadline or having to think about things from a structural production level, I can still kind of have a piece of it that I enjoy, so that it doesn't feel like work.
So what is it that brings joy and play out? Is it the chaos that you're speaking to, or something else?
I think it's so many different things. It might just be the nature of the subject I'm exploring. I could be super into that and just be like, oh man, I just can read about this stuff and really geek out with people talking about it. It could also be the people whose stories I'm telling. I'm always so grateful when someone wants to open up and share their experience for other people. And it makes me really proud, but I also feel a great sense of responsibility for those people. Like, OK, they gave me this thing and I want to really show care for what they're sharing with me, because it's a vulnerable thing to ask someone to do.
And I also think some of it, again, is coming from an artistic practice, where it's like, understanding how I work. If I feel stagnant or if I feel really confined, a lot of times the answer for me is to step away and move my body. It's not like 'ground in harder and just push through.' Sometimes I'm like, I'm going to have a 10 minute dance party. I try to reconnect with a part of me that feels good, because that's so much more generative for me than just being like, you know, 'pressure, pressure, pressure.' It's not a good look.
I feel like there's a lot of room for potential at NPR as far as different things that we can do and try to bring here. So, what areas would you like to see NPR develop?
For me, I would love to just see a greater and younger diversity of people sharing their stories, and in ways that feel good for that community. How can we honor that and understand that? Like, yeah, it may not light my fire because of whatever my life experiences is, but that does not mean that there is not a space for you to tell this story. And there are people who are, like, really juiced to hear it.
I try to think of what we do as like a microphone and a speaker, instead of just focusing on a mission and that possibly clouding my ability to be present. It's a microphone and a speaker, how can I use that to draw forth the audience who needs to hear what I'm saying?
I already feel like NPR's audience is so great, but it is also very white, you know, and there's so many other people who could really benefit from listening and contributing their unique experiences, to make NPR an even richer tapestry of sound.
I like that answer. So how did you get to become a host? Your job is literally to be curious. Like, that's everyone's dream. How did you get this job specifically?
Well, to become a host, that was luck and divine timing. I don't know. I know coming to NPR, that path is clear to me, becoming a host honestly was not.
How I ended up at NPR was meeting B.A. Parker at a radio residency, and she mentioned my name to Cara Tallo, and Cara brought me on just to see if I would be interested. And I came, and it was like the best job I had, ever. I walked into the building, and everything about it, I was just like, 'oh, I've never felt this in a job,' where it this feels like I could be there for a while. Most jobs, after six or eight months, I'm like, oh, my time's up, I gotta go. But this is one of the few jobs where everything about it feels like just the right thing for me.
And then when the host opportunity came up, I think it was the opportunity I saw for myself. I don't know if anybody else saw that opportunity for me. It was something that, in combination with the events of the summer of 2020 and in finding more space to have a voice and advocate for myself and the things that I wanted, it felt possible, and I believed in myself. I have the skills, and I know I'm a fast learner and I know I can do this. So it was probably one of the biggest acts of advocating for myself I've ever experienced. What's the worst they can say? They can say no, and it's like, well, I shot my shot, you know, I tried. But Anya Grundmann took a chance on me, on us, and it was a good thing for the the show. My feeling was always that the people who are here can make the show. And that's really where Yowei Shaw came in, because she's been at the show for so many years, she knows how to make this show. I brought my host aptitude to that and was willing to fill in the blanks of the things that I didn't know with a desire and ability to learn. Just make this a learning experience.
Kia Miakka Natisse, Co-host, Invsibilia
Kia Miakka Natisse, Co-host, Invsibilia
So what do you think is your biggest life lesson thus far?
For me, the process of getting older is being like, 'oh, you know what? I've had good instincts around this stuff for a very long time.' And different systems and education and people will teach you self-doubt. But my specific experience, my specific intuition, my specific path is specific to me, you know, and so I can trust that what I want to do, what's available for me to do, even if it doesn't make sense to anybody else, it will eventually net something positive. Just a greater relationship with my own intuition, which I don't know if that's exactly advice, but that is something that has felt affirming to me in the past few years, to realize I can trust myself, you know, I can know what's best for me. I can trust my intuition and I can feel safe in that.