“Tea With Queen And J.”: A Podcast For Black Women Who Won’t Be Silenced
A profile of co-host Janicia Francis that finds strength in her tears
Janicia Francis doesn’t know her tears protected me but they did. I sit alone, listening to a show, trying to understand if there’s an end to my loneliness or hers. When the co-host of Tea With Queen And J. entered MIST Harlem’s café for our talk, I was struck by how her physical presence matched her voice: enveloping and grand.
But I’m biased. Listening to her podcast, and by extension, her views, has turned me into a devotee. Each week, a Black girl named Janicia and a Black girl named Naima recite a mantra so daring it empowers their fans.
“We are two womanist race nerds talking shit over tea, dismantling white supremacist patriarchal capitalism, one episode at a time. I’m Queen. I’m J. And this is Tea With Queen And J…aaaaaoooooow.”
And with that clarion call, the pair trade commentary on topics of the week that include but aren’t limited to: racism, misogynoir, feminism, representation, White feminism, anti-Blackness, anti-Blackness among non-Black people of color, Netflix series reviews, celebrity missteps, workplace micro-agressions, the fallibility of Whiteness, depression, body image, self-care, slut-shaming, respectability politics, and on.
“I affirm that I’m strong. I affirm that I’m not a lady. I affirm that I am enough,” repeats J.
Rather than rattle off a glossary of social justice buzzwords without context, the hour-long podcast reviews life through the lens of two free Black women. These free Black women are both aware of the implicit bigotry aimed at them and armed against a world that tells them not to question it. To that, they issue a strong Fuck You, with a side of Nah Fam, and a sprinkle of Who Man’s Is This?
Since podcasting isn’t terrestrial radio but isn’t entirely new either, they use their creative room to defy some rules as they observe others. Their “spot of tea” episodes are like audio blogs, freewheeling and often stream-of-consciousness-inducing. It is perfect internet-era art, adept at expressing private thoughts in public ways. I listen to them at the gym, or on my bike rides because, like any good podcast, they make you forget you’re listening. They bring you in as you zone out. The breaks in conversation read as natural moments of respite after untying some knotty issue. Their commercials, intros, and segments recall public radio, with info on how to donate and support their independent business.
But it’s their bond as people, and specifically, J.’s ability to tie in stories from her life, that’s the core piece anchoring the weekly broadcast.
And she cries. She describes herself as an unashamed crier. She has made me cry while I was listening, and in so doing, made me want to listen again and again for a year. Whether she’s describing how Afropunk made her sister feel welcome to live and breathe in her body at a Black event or she’s talking about a mental health lull that’s got her struggling to accept her own mortality, J. sheds tears liberally. I’m not sure she knows her tears are a portal into into mine and others’ fragile loneliness. So I tell her.
“I can cry about anything but it feels embarrassing because sometimes I feel like I’m crying about something that other people feel doesn’t justify tears because tears are relative to each individual. And they mean different things, like, I’ve cried in front of people before who felt like I was using my tears as a tool for manipulation when I’m just doing me, you know what I’m saying? You can take it however you want to take it. I’m not crying to elicit any response from you in any kind of way. But for the most part like — at its most — at its core, I feel good about it because usually I’m recording in a safe space with Queen, who I’m close to. It’s not like, you know, we’re not just two people who, like, come together and aren’t connected to one another. I’m crying in a safe space. And then it’s also like, it’s also my truth. Like, all different types of people listen to our podcast and I think that it is important for me — as someone who’s inclined to cry anyway — it’s important for me to let that be. And not try and restrict that so that people know that whatever the topic is…It’s either traumatic or it makes me feel something you know? Usually, people can read what exactly it is that I’m feeling. Sometimes I’m crying my tears of joy or whatever. But I think it’s important I don’t suppress that because so much of our lives is suppressing shit anyway.”
I’m not crying to elicit any response from you in any kind of way. But for the most part like — at its most — at its core, I feel good about it because usually I’m recording in a safe space with Queen, who I’m close to.
I start to imagine a free Black world as Francis gestures and booms, leaning back from the table, letting “fuck” and “shit” fly in her powerful voice. (Her mother, though supportive, wishes she didn’t curse so much but this is what a free Black woman sounds and looks like.) Her voice rolls and roars like a vintage American muscle car. It builds speed without sacrificing power. Her voice projects feeling. On my bike rides, I’ve let her husky baritone invade my insecurities and break up my solitude.
In real life, we’re now seated across from each other at a tiny table with a black tablecloth draping from it. Behind us, a little Black girl with barrettes in her hair is playing on an iPad with earphones swinging from her head as she jumps down from bench to floor to reposition. Francis is a model for little Black girls who want to keep playing in the world unbothered. She won’t censor herself to protect the feelings of others. She won’t shrink herself, she reminds me, to maintain a dangerous, violent status quo. Black women are asked to reduce themselves in the face of this violence and to hide from it. She won’t launch into a diatribe about heroics but she’s made her brave moments an example I can model, and that little Black girls can see out in the open. On the AfroPunk episode, which unraveled the reasons why the corporate influence on a cultural mainstay had made it unsafe for the people it was named for, Francis explained how she and her sisters rebuked some men catcalling her.
“I don’t owe you a hello! No one owes you a hello!” she shouted at the men who, in this story, played bumbling but obvious villains.
This could be a mantra. In opposing men this way, she takes the necessary risk in order to live in the way she proclaims. Her integrity is at stake, for sure, but it’s her basic right to move through the world without crumbling to constant threat. She’s earned her courage so she doesn’t apologize for it. At the risk of being trite, I say she’s actually unapologetic in an era of uncritical profiles that overuse the label.
“That what you said is key though — actually unapologetic. Because I do agree that that term is overused but I do agree that there are people who describe themselves as unapologetic and are not unapologetic. And I think it’s OK. I don’t think we all have to be in media being unapologetic like that. And I think also maybe that word is tricky. Because I don’t — When I say we don’t all have to be in media and be unapologetic, what I more so mean — minus the apology portion so much — what I moreso mean, is we don’t always have to be our full-ass selves in media. That’s not everybody’s lane. My podcast is specifically for us to be our full-ass selves. And talk shit or whatever. And I think that there are spaces and there are characters and players, in this sphere of media, who are not their full-ass selves, who do hold back, who are not unapologetically Black, who are not their full Black selves, who are code switching, and are being reserved and are holding their tongue for the safety of white ears.”
When I say we don’t all have to be in media and be unapologetic…is we don’t always have to be our full-ass selves in media. That’s not everybody’s lane. My podcast is specifically for us to be our full-ass selves.
In this way, Francis houses me inside the history of where we are: Harlem. For Black feminist icons, Harlem has been a shrine and a haven. But Harlem’s been tragic for them too. Zora Neale Hurston explored the Morningside enclaves that shaped her literary work and social leadership. Lorraine Hansberry wrote the scenes from plays that won her international acclaim. But like every Black artist telling too much truth to a world unprepared for it, they sacrificed the rank and spoils that come with being more agreeable. Hurston was buried in a potter’s field, despite publishing frequently and influencing other great artists of her time. Hansberry died at 34, perhaps aged by the political struggles she engaged in her life and work. The price of the ticket for free Black women is their personal comfort, and much more often, that very freedom. I’m moved to ask what that means for J., a podcast host whose signature call-outs are in direct opposition to capitalist ways and our society’s endless quest to “secure the bag.” Has she always walked in the world like this? And if she has, what does it cost her? The show’s other notable mantra, “pay Black women,” demands the value for labor that goes unpaid and unseen. A lonely fate awaits the best truth-tellers.
I pose a scenario: would she trade some of the freedom to speak her mind or to release their unedited content for a million dollars and a dedicated (but problematic) male producer? She takes a moment to consider, as these opportunities have been popping up on her radar and there are memories to mull. After shifting her muffin to the side, she explains.
“I don’t think that I have it in my spirit to do the catering and the coddling. You know what I’m saying? And so, if he’s cool to argue every day because we’re not going to cater to him and we’re not going to kowtow to him, right, then I’m cool with that. Then, that’s just, you know, that’s just what I feel. Like Queen might feel differently, which is why it’s good that there are two of us, right? But I think that, the things that make me feel like I’m shrinking… where I have a million dollars while developing a fucking cancer, you know what I’m saying, inside of me, an ulcer or some shit. Those things I try to stay away from.”
For someone so confident and skilled, it surprises me that this is her first true media job, an audio maven with thousands of loyal listeners. J., the public persona, might be only five years in the making, but Janicia, the outspoken cultural critic, is a lifetime title.
“This is kind of who I’ve been. And I’ve kind of been on this journey through white supremacist patriarchal capitalism trying to figure out, ‘Ok, what am I supposed to be doing with this?’ Because I wasn’t somebody — I didn’t feel like I could go to school for journalism. I just didn’t think that broadly. Like, both of my parents started school, started college and then dropped out when I was born and that was it really. I don’t come from a long line of motherfuckers who went to school with and did something else. That’s not my experience. So for me, I was just told ‘Ok, go to college’ and I go to college just like, ‘Ok what am I supposed to do here besides graduate?’ Look I don’t know how to become whatever a successful person is. I went to college. I got out. I got jobs. I worked in retail. I did a bunch of random stuff but I was always that person that people enjoy having conversations with. I’m always on some shit. I was always like ‘Oh wow. She’s on one right now!’ Like you know, ‘She needs to relax! She needs to calm down!’”
What feels like a sterling but earnest performance is really Francis putting her soul on display. Maybe this is the future of audio experiences. Maybe what I see as “J.”, the character, won’t be a character, and maybe us leaving it all out there, being our full Black-ass selves, will become the norm. Maybe I can start to write like I don’t care what people think. Maybe a little Black girl will play in public loudly and unmoved. Francis lives this vision outside of the podcast and alludes to dispatching with personal friendships that don’t support her agency, her right to be a free Black woman. On the show, she mentions lovers but not by name. I get the sense that this is another hidden cost of public, truthful, Black-ass vulnerability: romances, friends, fuck buddies. With intimacy hard to pin down, she’s frustrated but circumspect.
“I don’t want to feel sick because I’m pretending to be what people feel comfortable with. I’ve lost mad friends from doing this podcast. I’ve lost friends who felt like I was being too extreme. I lost friends who didn’t like that — even though I leave them anonymous — but if my friend does something that’s mad white supremacist or that’s mad anti-Black, I’m gonna air it out on the podcast. I’m never gonna say who they are and I make sure I talk about it [in a way] that other friends don’t know who I’m talking about. But people are so uncomfortable with being challenged, with growing, with something being said that’s not in line with the norm. It makes them uncomfortable. So I’ve lost a lot of friends in this process.”
I’ve lost friends who felt like I was being too extreme. I lost friends who didn’t like that — even though I leave them anonymous — but if my friend does something that’s mad white supremacist or that’s mad anti-Black, I’m gonna air it out on the podcast.
This is where the interview becomes personal. (Mind you, all of the interview is personal since I’ve been conducting an imaginary conversation with J. for a year and feel previously connected but still.) She has sacrificed for me to feel more included in the world. She won’t say up front the extent to which she’s had to adjust to fallen friendships or misconceived loves so it’s up to me to hear hurt between the responses. I only hear hurt because I’ve trained my mind to her voice, to the crackling passion she betrays when there’s a point she needs to make. Her ongoing freedom mission has created casualties, collateral costs she hasn’t always talked about on the show. But the community she’s formed to uplift people (like me when I lost my job) or the countless others she’s helped, has opened her to new versions of love, versions of herself that seem infinite as I sit with her, watching and listening. Her voice affirms that we are not alone.
“You know, [Queen and I] protect each other because we’re by ourselves. That’s it. There’s nobody else who… We’ve built a circle of Black femmes who fuck with us, who support, who…You can’t talk shit about them in our presence. It’s not unintentional that we did that. It was important, first of all, to uplift other Black femmes in the [podcast] space. It was important for us to do that. But I’ve gotten so much out of it. Just connecting with like minded people. Well. Yeah we protect each other fiercely because our vision of what this podcast is and what it can be like and what’s gonna come from it, is pretty much in sync. And we want each other to be successful as individuals. So whenever I’m on a podcast or she gets called to go on a podcast, we support that shit. So we’re fully invested in each other’s growth and each other’s safety.”
When I ask about what it means to embrace huge, everlasting love from her listeners, she perks up. Her bright mane bounces as she speaks.
“I believe in what we do and I have a commitment to our listeners which is why I get really upset if some shit happens [and] I can’t post the show on time — and it wasn’t my fault — if it was my fault, then it’s like, you know, we’ll figure it out. But if somehow we’re recording at a studio or some shit happens that was like out of our control but they could have controlled that shit and now my listeners don’t get their show when they expect it? That pisses me off. I have a really big commitment to our listeners. Upholding that commitment makes me feel good. And I think having people who expect something from me and working to rise to that occasion, regardless, feels good. And honestly the show feels good for me to do. If I’m going through something, I’ll say it on mic just to help me. Let me talk through it a little bit. Or sharing this with other people — because I’m not the only person who’s having a bad mental health day.”
“Honestly, I’ll get on mic and I’ll do that. Because there’s someone listening who’s also having a wild shitty day. So it’s good for my mental health. Also I think with depression, there is a story that we’re telling ourselves that’s not true. And sometimes, we know it’s not true but it feels so real. ‘I really do feel like I’m garbage right now. I feel like I’m garbage.’ But if you can know that that’s a lie, it feels great. I was going through this period where I really do feel like garbage. No one can tell me that I’m not. This is just what it is. Don’t try to tell me otherwise. But I think pretending that I’m not garbage, right? Pretending that this story I tell myself all the time is a lie and accepting that maybe the person who’s affected positively by my [revelation] maybe they’re the one who’s telling the truth. That’s helpful to me.”
Here her voice trembles a second. Then I choke up. I realize I’ve fed into a Black Superwoman fantasy to hold myself up while weighing her down. Awestruck, I’ve made her another surrogate for pain, to deliver me from being too alone. Instead of imagining her freest, fullest self, I’ve created another proxy to feel my suffering, carry my failure to love, and reflect my long-held guilt. I was fooled because she can still fight for social justice while feeling vulnerable. Her majestic hair is her mask, not some armor. She’s felt beat down, dried up, crushed, unheard, and lonely like I have. I’ve felt isolated, marginal, less-than, and mortal like she has.
And when I sit with the idea that I have not protected her, that I have not supported her, that I owe a debt to her message, which has protected me, I know what kind of profile I need to write. When I wrap my mind around her fight, how she’s locked horns with the most fragile of men and their tainted ideals, how she’s blocked out the million contrary voices shouting back she ain’t enough when she affirms that she is, I know that profile has to center her words. When I slip into the trap of pitying my blind spots instead of using that same energy to expand my vision, I know I have to write words that saw and words that listened.
I tune in to Tea With Queen And J. because everyday they choose loud bravery over indignant silence. So I need to write a profile that’s a pledge to be brave even when I want to disappear. Janicia Francis cries because Janicia Francis is enough. I write because I am enough. I hope I can write the profile that destroys the lie that we ever weren’t.