Black-Owned KweliTV Is Bringing Authenticity & Access To Streaming

Photo: Courtesy of Lenzy Ruffin.
In the age of the streaming service, TV and film lovers are spoiled for choice. There are more than 200 different streamers currently available on the market with thousands of different titles to binge. But if you're looking for platforms that cater to a more…melanated experience, the number of offerings decreases drastically. Though conversations about diversity and representation in Hollywood are ongoing, we just aren’t seeing enough significant institutional change in the landscape; Black creatives, actors, and stories are still being put on the back-burner. If you look hard enough, however, there is one corner of the entertainment industry that is all about Black business: kweliTV.
As one of the only streaming services on the market to cater specifically to the global Black community, kweliTV’s mission is to create a pipeline through which Black filmmakers can connect directly with Black viewers. Launched in fall 2017, the Black-owned interactive streaming service is home to over 600 unique original films and series — many of which you’ve likely never heard of before — brought to life by Black creatives from all over the diaspora. Its catalog boasts a rich selection of for-us-by-us content across all genres, running the gamut from spellbinding documentaries like Seeds: Black Women in Power to hilariously entertaining cartoons (Vanille) to everything in between (a personal fave: Africa United). 
The origin story of the hidden gem streaming service started with a simple observation. Founder DeShuna Spencer was searching for some new content to dive into and couldn’t find what she wanted. For Spencer, a local journalist-turned-PR-rep-turned-entrepreneur who had grown up on all of the Black classics that we know and love, modern television and film simply wasn’t hitting the way it did in the past. Bored with reruns of Love Jones and Brown Sugar (oldies, but goodies) and the onslaught of popular reality shows that tended to depict Blackness in problematic light, Spencer’s efforts to seek out new types of Black content seemed like a herculean task because she didn’t have access to them as an someone on the outskirts of the entertainment industry. She wanted to support these films, but she had no idea how or where to start.
Courtesy of kweliTV
Seeds: Black Women in Power
“At the time, it felt like the only way to see the newer Black films by Black creatives was to go to an independent Black film festival,” recalls Spencer during a Zoom conversation with Unbothered. “But I wasn’t in the industry like that — I couldn’t just go to the Pan African Film Festival or to Sundance to check them out.”

Kweli means ‘truth’ in Swahili, and we want to represent Black culture that’s real to who we are and how we live our lives. And not just here in the U.S., but across the globe because Blackness can’t just be viewed through one lens.

deshuna spencer
When her deep dive into Netflix, the main streamer on the market at the time, produced meager results for newer Black films (Strong Black Lead’s rich catalog wasn’t yet a thing at the time), Spencer was surprised to learn that there wasn’t a streaming service offering a wide range of diverse genre-spanning Black projects. Rather than complaining about the void, she decided to tackle it head-on by filling it herself despite having little to no knowledge of the entertainment space. 
“I had all these ideas about what I wanted to see, but there was no streaming service that offered any of that,” she explains. “So one day, I was sitting on my couch and just thought I’ll start one myself!, which is crazy because I didn’t know the first thing about the industry. But I just knew that there was a gap that needed to be filled. People always say that if you don’t see something you want to see, then you have to make it yourself. And that’s what I did.”
Spencer’s vision started with baby steps, a few conversations with content creators here and there and tireless research into how much launching a media company would cost — as it turns out, a lot — and slowly but surely, her vision began to come together, starting with 38 independent filmmakers who agreed to let the platform stream their work. As Spencer connected with filmmakers and other industry professionals while building the framework for kweliTV, she began to realize that out the space wasn’t just for viewers hungry for new titles; kweliTV would be just as game-changing for the passionate creatives eager to share their work. Being a Black filmmaker in an industry still affected by racial bias isn’t easy, and the path to creating a film, even one meant for the indie circuit, can be a difficult one. Statistics show that only 7% of filmmakers in Hollywood are Black, and even the most in-demand Black filmmakers are still working with less funding because of the persistent wage gap in Hollywood. When their films are completed, getting them out to the public often presents additional challenges as Black creatives struggle to secure the marketing and distribution deals that would allow their films to be seen by the masses. It’s a whole ordeal from start to finish.
Spencer can’t ease the stresses of the development stage — though filmmakers working with kweliTV do have a built-in network designed to help them connect and exchange resources with each other during production — but Spencer wants to alleviate the pains that come with distributing content by purposely seeking out indie filmmakers who haven’t necessarily had the opportunities their peers have been afforded. She hopes that by giving these under-recognized talents a platform, they’ll get noticed by movie lovers and by major studios/distributors alike, and be able to ascend professionally. In an ideal world, being featured on kweliTV will be the foot in the door that leads to creators getting even bigger deals that can change the trajectory of their careers forever. 
Courtesty of kweliTV
Africa United

“Of course, we have non-Black subscribers too, but our audience is Black, so we’re not diluting our Blackness to appeal to anyone. The goal isn’t to be relatable — the goal is to be authentic.”

deshuna spencer
“It feels good that these creatives trust me with their work,” says Spencer. “A lot of first time filmmakers have been burned by other streaming services and distributors, but we’re filmmaker-first at kweliTV. Success for us means that the creative is successful, even if it’s not on our platform. We’ve had people get exclusive deals with bigger streamers, and we celebrate that. Oftentimes, they’ll come back to us because we’re family. We’re like Grandma’s house; you know we’ve always got a home cooked meal, banana pudding, and greens on the stove for you.”
Since its launch, kweliTV has seen massive growth, bringing in thousands of loyal subscribers and frequently dropping brand new titles on the platform for those fans to enjoy. Spencer is excited by the recognition that the streaming service has received (including a small business spotlight in Apple’s App Store for its disruption within the tech world), and she’s eagerly anticipating further expansion of the community that she’s built. Yes, there’s a lot of competition in the streaming industry — a new streaming service seems to pop up every other day — but what distinguishes kweliTV from its rivals is the core value that guides every business decision it makes: authenticity. Because it’s focused on centering Black narratives of every kind, kweliTV is able to foster an intentional community for Black people all over the world. The space, unencumbered by outside (read: white) expectations that can often influence the verity of the work, allows filmmakers to share their projects with the world exactly as they were meant to be shared. The result? Blackity-Black stories that actually speak to who we are as a diaspora. 
“Kweli means ‘truth’ in Swahili, and we want to represent Black culture that’s real to who we are and how we live our lives,” Spencer explains. “And not just here in the U.S., but across the globe because Blackness can’t just be viewed through one lens.” 
“We want to give Black creators the freedom to express themselves in a way that doesn’t require them to compromise their truth for a larger studio or a wider audience,” she concludes. “Of course, we have non-Black subscribers too, but our audience is Black, so we’re not diluting our Blackness to appeal to anyone. The goal isn’t to be relatable — the goal is to be authentic.”

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