The pathway to manifesting our ancestors' wildest dreams, is first led by becoming a living embodiment of their legacy. For storyteller, photographer, and podcast creator, Nneka Julia, it's the weight of three consciousness, "a Black American consciousness, a Nigerian consciousness, and a Cambodian consciousness," that when fused together, ignites the purpose and vision behind her work.
Being the child of immigrant parents, Nneka has been surrounded by examples of resilience that have informed every aspect of her creative pursuits. As a teen, Nneka and her family traveled to Cambodia, her mother's home country, to visit after the passing of her grandparents. It was on this trip that she'd pick up her camera for the first time, and everything would shift, "That trip really changed my life; it changed the trajectory of knowing what I was actually interested in doing. At that point in time, I knew what it meant to be able to capture my family on camera and memorialize them in that way."
Courtesy of Nneka Julia
Nneka discovered the art of audio storytelling through her father's cassette collection of motivational speakers and self-help gurus like Tony Robbins, Les Brown, and Zig Ziglar. In a fateful twist, she would find herself utilizing this same form of storytelling, on her very own roster of podcasts, Passing Through and The Layover. While listening, you'll spot the unique sonic experience the podcasts offer: it's immersive. It's poignant and captivating. It uproots you from whatever location you happen to find yourself in while listening and teleports you into exotic destinations and the memories that were made there.
The single-narrative podcast is filled with life lessons and tangible anecdotes that strip down the highly-curated nature of travel glamour shots, revealing the humanity in each story Nneka tells, "I think when we're online, it's easy to feel like everyone's life is so perfect and that we're alone. All this stuff is so much more important to me than the image; it's that you don't feel alone."
The mission that Nneka fulfills with her platform is necessary, especially at a time where a global pandemic has warped our sense of time and connection is hard to come by. Fortunately, this time has allowed Nneka to reset and share new stories in the upcoming fourth season of Passing Through, that reflect all of the life lessons and updates that have unfolded, "I'm very excited for the next season of Passing Through because it's going to cover quite a bit. I finally caught up with myself in terms of the stories, these are very recent things, this upcoming season is very present."
xoNecole: What was the inspiration behind starting your podcast, ‘Passing Through’?
Nneka Julia: It started as a way to archive my thoughts, feelings, and life lessons learned along the way from all the different people I've met and different places I've been. But now it's turned into this vehicle for people to understand that they're not alone in what they are going through.
I was tired of seeing the same things. When you see people curate and present an image of themselves that completely doesn't match what they're going through at the time, it can kind of warp your sense of worth. So how do I create a tribe in this digital space and how do I keep it real with myself while I'm doing it? We're all kind of archiving our lives online, but what if it was whipped out? What would I have to show my children? For me, legacy, become this ever-present idea and thought, and the things that I continue to go back to are written word and audio. I have to be able to create in this space not just for me, but for the people who come after me.
"For me, legacy, become this ever-present idea and thought, and the things that I continue to go back to are written word and audio. I have to be able to create in this space not just for me, but for the people who come after me."
Courtesy of Nneka Julia
Coming from a Nigerian-Cambodian background, how has your heritage and being born to immigrant parents informed your work?
It has informed every aspect of it. I try to live by the saying that "to whom much is given, much is required," because my parents have given me so much. Not just to their children but to their community, and there's never been this ask for recognition or reward. For me, it's like I have their bones, but I'm wearing my flesh. That's really what it feels like. I owe it to them to carry us to the next level, tell their story to the world, and carry the legacy of our family.
Why is it important for you to share your space for others’ stories to be told on your secondary podcast, ‘The Layover’?
It was totally a byproduct of the live show we did for Passing Through in 2019. Now that I think about it, it was pretty wild to do: we were eight months into the podcast, people didn't know what the show was going to be, I could have Fyre Festival'd the whole thing. But it sold out at this great spot in Manhattan. I invited six black women to share their stories on stage, and it felt like church. I knew with the live show I didn't want to center myself, why not give other Black women a chance to share their stories?
For me, I've been to different storytelling shows and they've all been extremely white spaces, where the storytellers felt like they had to make people laugh and crack a joke. And I hated that. So I wanted to do away with that; I wanted people to feel like they could cry on stage, and feel whatever the story made them feel. Seeing that live with Passing Through, I thought we could do that on a week-to-week basis with The Layover, where people aren't scared to be vulnerable, cry, crack jokes, and run the full spectrum of who we are as Black women and WOC.
How has your work evolved since embodying photography to where you are now in the space of written and audio storytelling?
I didn't realize that my creativity wasn't medium-specific, I didn't realize my creativity could come out in writing, it could come out in audio, photos, and multiple different ways; when I started off, I thought photography was it. As time went on and I started to travel more for pleasure and for work, I started to meet so many people and there are worlds within those people. You're not just meeting a driver in Bali, you're talking about his mother and his daughter, and where he's from, and what his dreams are. Those things stay with you and it affects you. And I felt like photography, yes it was wonderful but if pictures are worth a thousand words, then how much are words worth?
Courtesy of Nneka Julia
"If pictures are worth a thousand words, then how much are words worth?"
With travel being such an intricate part of the work you do and stories you tell, what have you learned from this season of stillness?
It's been a lot. I've never shied away from myself or solitude. So I can't say that this time has been incredibly difficult. Thankfully, this time has been a reset period. Before it used to be just "hustle, hustle, hustle," but now, we're living in strange times, so it's like you have to listen to yourself. Finding a comfortable routine has helped, but also finding solace that you're going to want to break those habits sometimes but you can always get back on the horse. Be graceful with yourself, but be targeted with hitting the small things like taking a walk, writing 50 words, reading two pages - those are my goals. And if I hit it, it's a success, if I go over, it's even more of a success. The atomic things add up, they all compound.
Although the future is so uncertain right now, what does the next frontier for you look like?
For me, the next step (at least in my career) would be adapting these stories into larger-than-life works. Something that speaks to more than just Instagram, something that engages all the senses. I absolutely love audio and written work, but film is all of both of things in one. So I'd love to and am planning to branch off into film, with the ultimate goal to tell my parents' story at scale as well. Communities are niching down. Anytime we go super digital, there's always the antithesis which is analog. With my future work, I want to go analog, so people are able to touch something, feel something, and have something.
For more of Nneka Julia, follow her on Instagram and check out her podcast, Passing Through.
Featured image courtesy of Nneka Julia