Black queer podcaster Michael Jemison wants you to stay woke and curious

Michael Jemison

Michael Jemison Alvan Washington

Michael Jemison hated being young; he often felt like he was overlooked. Now the 22-year-old actor, artist, and podcaster is embracing his millennial voice with a podcast, Challenge the Woke, which is about digging deeper into the world that surrounds us.

“The reason I was having such good conversations was because of who I am and where I’m at in my life,” he says. “People felt like they could open up to me in some way. So I wanted to document it and also create a space to learn but not pressure people to feel like they have to teach me.”

So far, the podcast has included interviews with major Twin Cities movers and shakers: Black Lives Matter co-founder Michael McDowell; TV personality, arts supporter, and jewelry designer Robyne Robinson; newly elected City Council member Andrea Jenkins. With each program, Jemison hopes to push further into what it means to stay “woke.” “It’s challenging you to think, to keep learning, to keep thinking, and not saying, ‘I’m woke. That’s it,’” he says.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Jemison grew up in Charlottesville, North Carolina, and went to college in Philadelphia. He lived in New York City for a while before coming to Minneapolis for a theater gig. He ended up staying.

Soon after he got to Minnesota, he decided he was done doing work as an actor where he didn’t have any input. As a black, queer artist, he didn’t want to be tokenized. "I work in front of the camera, I work on the stage, and those places can get very toxic because to do that you have no say,” he says. “I was like, 'I can’t do it anymore. I’m not a robot.'”

That’s when he decided to start a podcast. He still acts and does other artistic projects, but he won’t take the job if he doesn’t have a voice in the creative process. “I’m so sick of black people and queer people there just to say they are there for diversity,” he says.

Chatting with Andrea Jenkins.

Chatting with Andrea Jenkins. Katra Ziayd

The podcast is his first foray into journalism, but he’s been asking questions all his life. “I never settled for an answer. I never settled for someone telling me to do something and that was it.” 

In addition to producing Challenge the Woke, Jemison is in rehearsals for Cardboard Piano, a play set in Uganda that will be staged at Park Square Theater. “It talks about queerness and what it means to forgive and if people can be fixed,” he says. He also works as a teaching artist with black youth and does video projects and other gigs around town.

Jemison would like Challenge the Woke to eventually be a hub for artists in the Twin Cities to collaborate on film and videos to be shared on social media. He'd also like to host sessions featuring spoken word and music.

In the meantime, he’s talking to the influential people of Minneapolis in hopes that the woke will continue to question the world around them.

“Woke to me means simply being aware -- nothing else,” he says. “I think if you start putting other things onto what woke is... you get stuck.”

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