Tahir Asadullah Lee || 27
B.S. in Journalism || Florida A&M University
Favorite Activist: Malcolm X
Hometown: Philadelphia, PA
Ain’t no fun when the rabbit gets the gun.
That’s the lesson that Tahir Asadullah Lee; truth teller, Philly native, and Florida A & M University graduate has been teaching his less than objective peers in the media business. An AP award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated documentarian, Lee has dedicated his work to shining light on marginalized voices. I was able to speak to Lee at some length regarding his career and what it’s like to be a black Muslim man working in media, and was inspired to say the least. This is a peek into the mind of Tahir Asadullah lee: photojournalist, documentarian, and intellectual.
Q: How did you make the decision to go into media? Was this a childhood dream? Did you enter school with a major related to news and media?
A: I made the decision in high school that I wanted to go into the journalism field. I grew up in a household with all women that loved to watch the news and know about what was going on in their community. It had always been a dream of mine to work in the news media. When I first entered college at Florida A&M University, I had aspirations of becoming a foreign correspondent or news anchor. My major was Broadcast Journalism with a concentration in Photography. After getting some hands on experience I realized that shooting and video editing are my strengths. This led me to pursue a professional career as a photojournalist.
Q: There is a popular video that details the ways in which racial fatigue and intergenerational trauma can impact blackness in the workplace when the reality of communities of color is often waking up to headlines about our kinfolk being murdered by law enforcement and vigilantes. What is your experience as someone with a complex intersectional identity who also plays an important role in communicating narratives to the public at large?
A: I recently left my job in television news to pursue freelance endeavors full time. There are many contributing factors that led me to make this decision but the main reason has to be the constant bombardment of stories that pertain to people of color and how there is no objectivity in reporting on the stories. Each day I would work on stories that dealt with Muslims being labeled terrorists, but not white nationalists; stories that dealt with demonizing police officers, when they are the ones that are sworn to protect and serve; and stories of young black boys being gunned down in the street, as if it’s being reported on so heavily to normalize the action. I’m a Muslim, African-American and son of two police officers. The overwhelming amount of connections I would have to the stories being reported on in the news got to a point where it just felt like I was keeping up a narrative, that I didn’t believe was right morally or ethically. So I did what mattered most to me, which is leave my job to pursue a career as a international documentarian, that will give me an opportunity to showcase my real talents and abilities. I’m a humanitarian at heart and being able to work with NGO’s, non-profits, foundations, and outreach organizations as opposed to a news organization, will give me that intimate setting I desire to impact the lives of the voiceless.
Q: Can you describe a time, if such time has ever existed, where you were the target of microaggressions or higher levels of discrimination in your field?
A: There’s been numerous times where I’ve been faced with direct and indirect racism. Sometimes I show up to shoot an event solo and the interviewee says to me, “who will be asking the questions”? Often times, I would only be referred to as a “cameraman” as if I wasn’t a college graduate from a prestigious school of journalism that has enough intellect to ask questions for myself. When going door knocking through some neighborhoods I’m often stared at because of being a tall black man with a beard and ‘locs. I welcome the prejudice of my surface appearance because it allows me to show people the kind of person I really am on the inside. Once I begin to speak, I show a level of thought that catches them off guard every time. I’m known to be vocal on various mainstream topics and current events. At a number of news organizations that I’ve worked at, I’ve been called into the news director’s office and asked to remove something I said or shared on my personal page. Each time, I stood my ground knowing that whatever it is they’ve seen is a representation of me and not my employer. I am a media professional and objective journalist that likes to engage with the masses about crucial social injustices that are constantly played out through mainstream media, something of which I was apart. Whenever there’s an incident that occurs and it has to deal with what some people call radical terrorism, I would hear the most blatant disrespectful comments from prejudice people in the newsroom. Most knew I was Muslim, and still showed no compassion from the statements they openly made displayed clear ignorance and hate towards an entire religion as opposed to those individuals responsible for their own actions. You just have to always pay attention, watch your surroundings and know that everyone you work with is not meant to be your friend. You go to work to do a job, being a photojournalist is something I do extremely well. By staying true to yourself and gaining the most valuable experience you can to further my career was my main focus, and in that regards TV news gave me what I needed in order succeed independently.
Q: Do you ever feel typecasted, or as if you are expected to have some uncanny ability to Black-splain or Muslim-splain certain situations to your coworkers? Do you feel like you have mastered code switching? Is there room for unapologetic existence for those working in the media?
A: My coworkers and me have had plenty deep rooted conversations where I highlight how they convey the facts of stories is very important. Honestly, those that aren’t completely stuck in their ignorant ways are actually receptive when they hear things come from me to give them a different perspective. That is one thing I appreciate from the reporters that I’ve worked alongside of. I don’t believe that there is room for a person being unapologetically black within a newsroom. Realistically, the two can’t exist without one side being forced out by the other. I’ve seen this happen firsthand at different stations. When you become to vocal, they’ll do anything to silence you. That’s why I’ve made it my objective to speak out against of the negativity that goes on inside of newsroom in America and how the success of blacks is always limited up until a certain point unless you give up apart of yourself to the larger agenda. I believe that alternative news sources are becoming the new norm and traditional journalism is facing extinction the same way the newspaper has. When you want more for yourself and can’t stand to see your people suffer through a lens or on a screen any longer, it was time for me to get up and make a real impact that can provoke positive change on more levels than I can imagine.
Q: In what ways is your field affirming and empowering to you as a Black Muslim man? Do you consider yourself an activist? How are you able to center your personal values in your work?
A: I wanted to be a journalist because it afforded me the opportunity to become well-rounded and diverse in different roles throughout a newsroom but most importantly the chance to speak with some of the most interesting people in various fields. Having the chance to interview people about the things they do on a daily basis is something that’s always intrigued me. I have a strong thirst for knowledge and through journalism, photography and film is how I chose to express using these mediums. Photos, video and writing are all ways to express viewpoints. It becomes empowering when you can touch a diverse audience based off the content you place online. I would consider myself an activist; for change, accountability, humanity, ending mass incarceration, putting an end to gun violence, discrimination through law making and a long list of other things. But being an activist and a journalist some would say is a tricky situation. So in my eyes, I prefer to be called an agent for truth. Truth isn’t always the most pleasant thing we want to here, but the truth can set us free. If we weren’t living our lives constantly today based off of the notion of class division and race, I strongly believe that the human race would be further along. We lack compassion and that is truly the downfall of humanity. I don’t allow the work to affect me because the reality is what makes it to the screen. I like to shoot in real life situations, documentary-style. Not staging anything but being there to witness things unfold. That’s why I choose to fall in love with photography, videography and journalism. Those are what truly display my personal values in and outside the workplace.
Q: If you could offer any piece of advice to members of marginalized communities who would like to pursue a career in media, what would it be?
A: The advice I would give to individuals of marginalized communities that have an interest in pursuing a career in media is to go for it. Everyone’s path to uncover the mask of lies pumped out by the media happens at a gradual pace. The industry is not the same it was 50 years ago, just like the police force. Things evolve for better or for worse but to ultimately gain the wisdom needed to prosper, the ugly truth must reveal itself. There was a lot about the media I was blind to. As a minority faced with obstacles and having to be ten times better than my counterparts, it made me a stronger individual in the long run to stand my ground when necessary. I would strongly urge members of the minority community to be cautious of what they say and be ready to answer for it at any moment. We live in a sound bite world and as such we must conduct ourselves in a way that projects a objective image of blacks, Muslims and police officers on a worldwide scale. Making generalizations is the worse thing that someone could do. I’m an AP award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated photographer, but when people look at me they always judge a book by it’s cover and I welcome that.
Q: When you look back on your growth to this point, what do you attribute your success to? What is your project that you are most proud of? Who would you consider your support team? Where do you see yourself in 5 years? How about 10?
A: When I look back on my growth I have to honestly say that my mother has been an amazing support system for me. Being an only child and raised by my grandmother for a portion of my life they always instilled in me the importance of respecting others and being strong-minded at the same time. Secondly, I would have to say God plays a pivotal role in much of my success. The project that I am most proud of is my latest documentary film titled: Going Home | GH | Ghana, which I shot, narrated and edited from my 15-day experience in West Africa. This was the major project under my freelance production company: Virtuous Lion Productions. My support team is close family and friends that keep me motivated and constantly going after my next challenge to prove that there is still good in this world. In the future I see myself inspiring the youth, although I’m not sure exactly how I will do so, I am a firm believer in the youth being our future.
As we continue to seek liberation, it remains of utmost importance that we speak our truths into existence and find power in our voices. The Truth Tellers represent the best of us, those with the courage and talent to not only lift their own voices, but seek out the silenced and center their stories. Thank you to Tahir for being the first subject, may Allah swt make you successful in all endeavors.
Stay tuned for more!
Photo courtesy of goinghomeghana.com