The Art of Authentic Storytelling
Each month, over on Instagram, I chat one-on-one with talented creative professionals across various industries and communities to engage in uplifting conversations around creativity, entrepreneurship, mental health, and how we can show up in our work as our authentic selves.
Today I want to share highlights from my conversation with Zinhle Essamuah. Zinhle is a journalist and artist based in New York City and is also one of my dearest friends.
She’s a reporter for NBC News NOW and guest anchor known for her eclectic mix of broadcast, documentary and digital storytelling that attracts fresh audiences to traditional and new mediums. Previously, she was a correspondent at NowThis News where she anchored “KnowThis,” a daily evening news show. Zinhle covers issues spanning justice, gun violence, race, the economy and policing.
Zinhle’s original reports have garnered millions of views—including her segments on COVID-19 and Black Maternal Mortality, the new generation of racially diverse truckers amid supply chain stalls, and investigations into detention facilities.. She's pressed officials and celebrities in newsmaking one-on-one interviews, including Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Jen Psaki, Serena Williams, Ava DuVernay, and more.
Zinhle spends her time finding and sharing stories, making media more equitable and making old things new. She’s passionate about community building and sustainable living.
During our talk we discuss storytelling from an authentic perspective, protecting your mental health, and making space for creativity.
Lo Harris: Share a bit about yourself, your work, and how you got started.
Zinhle Essamuah: I go by Simply Zinhle online but there’s really nothing simple about my background. I grew up first gen. My parents are from East and West Africa – Ghana and Uganda – and I think that has really informed how I’ve become such a curious person. I grew up, up and down the East Coast, always exposed to different cultures and always asking a lot of questions.
Curiosity has fueled every part of my journey – whether I’m making films, flipping furniture for my apartment or doing work for NBC news.
LH: What do you look for as a storyteller in someone’s experience that makes them a compelling subject and are there certain things you do to make sure you’re representing your subject with authenticity and care?
ZE: There’s this adage that journalists or creatives are a voice for the voiceless and I stray away from that. Everybody has a voice. It’s strong, it’s loud, it’s true. Our role is to hear that, and to represent it well, and to amplify it. So for me, I start with just listening.
I take in a lot of media. I listen to podcasts. I’m reading articles – not just the mainstream ones but niche, community ones. I want to know what people are talking about. Then I try to actually speak with the people directly affected. Oftentimes I’m not taking a camera or going to sit down for the interview first. First I just want to talk to them and get a sense for what makes their eyes light up. That might be the crux of the story.
Then I think, what does the story look like? You don’t want to just tell the audience, you want to show them. I’ve been doing reporting in Jackson, Mississippi, and the ongoing water crisis there. Residents lost access to usable water over the summer and they had boil water notices. That has been restored but as I’m working on this story I’m thinking, what are we actually showing? What does it look like? We should see some of the water if it’s brown. We should hear directly from the residents.
LH: What’s been your experience as a Black woman on camera?
ZE: The space is a lot more welcoming. That said, there’s always room for improvement. I think we need to be mindful that we’re not just putting people’s faces on screen but we’re actually being equitable and giving them voice too. Tokenism is very dangerous. It’s not as simple as just showing up, being Black. It’s bringing my perspective. I think it’s really powerful that my hair is natural and short and shaved. I’ve been on major national television with my hair like that and that’s cool because that’s me.
I think a part of it is cultivating self-love. While the space has gotten more inclusive, the reality is we still as a society center Western, white bodies. So part of it is self love – saying my curves are beautiful. My hair is beautiful. And even though I might be one of the few people who look like me, it’s still a great thing to have.
LH: Have people in your personal life approached you about the stories that you've done on television or have you ever gotten an interesting lead or angle or crowdsourced a story idea from people within your community?
I do get some crowdsourced stories. I love pitching my own stories. And that's sort of key to a lot of what I do. Yes, we get assignments, but oftentimes, I'm going to my bosses, and I'm like, I think we could do this or this or I'm seeing this.
And I can give another more tangible example of a story about youth facilities in Louisiana where youth are kept, often detained. And after we did that report, about a month later, it was actually cited by a judicial system and they changed the laws and how they worked because essentially, youth were being held in solitary confinement for extreme amounts of time and they changed the laws around that. So I think in addition to crowdsourcing, sometimes, the actual reporting can spur change or awareness.
LH: You’re like Nancy Drew. You’re literally fighting crime!
ZE: I might change my bio to the Black Nancy Drew.
LH: Have you ever faced any challenges as a Black journalist developing and pitching and sharing Black stories, especially via major news outlets?
ZE: When George Floyd was murdered, a lot changed in the whole world. And it shouldn't have taken that long. It shouldn't have happened. But I think once that happened, it really forced everyone – organizations and even news organizations – to reckon with how we talk about this stuff and also, how do we treat and empower or just listen to the Black journalists and Black staff that we have? When that happened, I noticed a shift actually.
LH: How do you prepare mentally when it comes to sharing emotionally challenging stories?
ZE: I'm so big on therapy. When a tragedy happens, it tends to hit me about a week or so later.
So making sure I take a beat, even if it's just to sleep.
And then some other things – trying to stay eating healthy on the road. I gotta get my vegetables in. I carry a green juice powder. I have my giant water bottle. I just try to keep myself healthy because it's a physically demanding job.
And also my community and my friends. I am grateful that people reach out to me when things happen – checking me. Also, I'm not shy about – if I'm feeling low – just asking [you to] keep me in your thoughts or your prayers.
LH: How do you balance sharing your authentic self, while also maintaining professionalism?
ZE: I've always been one to sort of take pause. The only thing that would make me want to go tweet immediately is hearing about Beyonce’s Renaissance tour.
I feel like the last few years have invited me to like show more of my personality online. And that has been a fun process.
Be self-attuned – who am I to me? And then who do I want to be to the world? Then thinking through what are the key tenants and value systems that I want to convey.
And I think that's been helpful especially because, yes, I'm a journalist, but I have a lot of other identities too. I write, I'm an artist, I do furniture flipping. I love my friends, I love like weekends and just like hanging out. And so I think about figuring out what parts of my life I want to share with the public and what parts do I just sort of want for myself.
LH: Being a journalist is a job that never stops. Nonetheless, this has not stopped you from having a healthy expression of creativity. Tell everybody the kinds of things that you're into creatively.
ZE: I have a singing background and play guitar. I like to write songs and sing them. They tend to be moody and sad, but I enjoy them. During COVID I developed a new hobby of furniture flipping.
When you live in New York, a lot of people throw out really nice stuff. Sometimes it’s super vintage and just needs some serious TLC. So I asked my mom if she had an extra drill – my mom who actually also happens to be handy – and she did and, lo and behold, I took to drilling stuff and painting stuff. It started with a dresser for my friends and now like 90% of my apartment is stuff I've refurbished. I'm all for women picking up drills and hammers.
Also I'm big on doing things I'm bad at. I'm in a profession that kind of demands you to be kind of “perfect.” It's nice to have some stuff that I do on the side where I can use my hands because I do such heady work, but also that I can just mess up and it's okay.
And I love an elaborate dinner party. I realized I’ve hosted themed parties since I was like in my teens.
LH: Would you say that your art has made you a better journalist or that your journalism has made you a better artist?
ZE: I would say my art has made me a better journalist because I was an artist before I was a journalist.
I was not always on camera. I started behind the camera. I was operating cameras and editing and I remember a senior producer pulled me aside and said, ‘You incorporate music in such an artful way when you're editing.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, I'm a musician.’ I think in soundtracks. I have music to scenes of my life. So I think my artistry informs my journalism. And it also helps me hear more and see people differently.
But at the same time, journalism has helped me ask better questions and become a stronger listener and also has allowed me to really hear what people mean when they're answering your question because it's not always about the words that are spoken. Sometimes it’s what's not being said.
LH: What advice do you have for people who want to make more room for creative expression but have a demanding career?
ZE: I would say it is a marathon, not a sprint. I think we can be very self-critical and think if I'm not doing something now I’ve just failed. Have patience and grace for yourself.
Also develop repeated practices. I think this is key. I read this book – The Artist’s Way – and I recommend it if you're someone who's trying to cultivate your creative self. Find a rhythm that you can stick to and maybe some form of accountability.
I started scheduling weekly morning coffee dates and I was like, this is a writing date. We're gonna write together. I did that with two friends for a few months
Get your art out there, too. Go to an open mic and do it. Post it or at least email some of your pieces to some friends because I think you'd be surprised by the affirmation you get. Part of the beauty of art is that it brings us together and that's a cool thing.
Head over to Instagram to watch the entire interview and be sure to follow Zinhle Essamuah on Instagram @simplyzinhle.