Rachel Hislop reflects on working for Beyoncé, creating community for Black women and the power of storytelling

At Mozilla, we know we can’t create a better future alone, that is why each year we will be highlighting the work of 25 digital leaders using technology to amplify voices, effect change, and build new technologies globally through our Rise 25 Awards. These storytellers, innovators, activists, advocates, builders and artists are helping make the internet more diverse, ethical, responsible and inclusive.

This week, we chatted with creator Rachel Hislop, a true storyteller at heart that is currently the VP of content and editor-in-chief at OkayAfrica. We talked with Rachel about the ways the internet allows us to tell our own stories, working for Beyoncé and what’s to come in the next chapter of her career.

So the first question I have is what was your favorite Beyoncé project to work on? I want to know. Also, what’s your favorite Beyoncé album?  

I’ll say that my favorite project to work on was definitely Lemonade. It was just so different from anything that had ever existed. It was so culturally relevant. It was well-timed. It was honest and just really beautiful. You can sometimes be jaded by the work when you’re too close to it, and I think that’s across the board in any industry, but there was never a moment of working on that project that I didn’t understand and appreciate just how beautiful everything was. It was really just like, all of you people that I see at work every day, this came out of your minds? And then, it was just a lot of love, and it was a really important time in culture, I think. And I really enjoyed being part of that.

My favorite Beyoncé album … I don’t know that I can answer that because every part has had a very important impact on my life. I had The Writings on the Wall on a cassette tape that I used to play in my little boombox. And Dangerously in Love, I was in high school and experiencing little crushes for the first time. The albums grew. I met Sasha Fierce when I’m in college and learning the dualities of self when I’m away from home, and so on and so forth. So, it’s hard to pick a favorite when each of those moments were so tied to different portions of my life. 

I’m curious to know what types of stories pull you in and influence the work that you do as a writer?

It’s living, honestly. I’m a really curious person, and I think all the best writers are. It’s even weird calling myself a writer sometimes because so much of what I write right now is just for me, and projects that I really believe in. It’s really just the curiosity. I want to know how everything went. How did you get here? What inspired you? I’m good for going out alone and sitting next to a stranger and then learning their whole life story because I am just truly interested in people and there is no parallel in lived life. I also love reading fiction. I am not the girl that’s like, “yeah, self-help books and self-improvement” and things like that. I want to fully escape into a story. I want to be able to turn my brain on and imagine things and fully detach and escape from this world. And then I love reading old magazine articles from when people were allowed to have long, luxurious deadlines and follow subjects for a really long time. I remember this article that they would make us read in journalism school, which was Frank Sinatra has a cold, and I love that voyeurism journalism where if you can’t get to the subject, you’re talking about the things around them. Everything is so interesting to me. I also love TikTok. I learn so much. I think that it’s a really valuable form of storytelling. In short-form, I think it’s really hard — it’s harder than people give a lot of these creators credit for. My grand hope is that those small insights through those short videos are peaking curiosity and sending people on rabbit holes to go discover and read and just be deeper into the internet. I remember back in college there was this internet plugin called stumbled upon and it would roulette the internet and land on these random pages and learn things. That is how my brain is always processing. I’ll see something that’ll interest me and then be like, “I want to know more about that.” 

Rachel Hislop at Mozilla’s Rise25 award ceremony in October 2023.

You’ve been in the content media space for a while. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about working in this space?

You know that saying that if you do what you love every day, you’ll never work a day in your life? I think it’s that. There is a pressure that you feel when you are following your actual passion. This is not just my job, this is what I like to do in my free time, this is what I think is important. This is what I feel like I was born to do, right? To storytell. And every day, it feels like work. And it feels even harder than work because it feels like a calling. From the outside, I’m sure people are like, “Oh, you get to do this cool stuff. You get to talk to all these interesting people. You get to talk about the things that you care about.” But there is truly a pressure to document this stuff in a way that pays homage to everyone and everything that came before it that solidifies its place in history to come, and to handle things with delicacy and care and importance.  There’s just so many layers to it. So, it’s never just about the one thing that you love. It’s about the responsibility that you now have to this thing because you love it. And when you’re working in culture spaces specifically, there is always someone that you have to give their flowers to for you to be able to do the work that you’re doing, but you also have to be forward. You have to look forward and innovate, while you are also honoring what has come before. And there can be a misconception about it like it being easy. Or “I can do that” — we see a lot of that with interviewers I love, where people say, “Shannon Sharpe didn’t ask the right questions. Insert podcaster here who got a really great hit and didn’t ask the right questions.” It’s because we’ve lost the art because people see the end product, they believe that it is easy. And they forget that everything that journalists are doing is in service to the audience and not in service to themselves. And we’re seeing this really weird landscape now where everyone is in service to themselves and to their own popularity and to growing their own audiences, but then they don’t serve those audiences with ethics. That for me is the misconception — that it’s just so easy, anyone could do it. Now everyone is doing it, and they’re wondering where the value is and the premium stories and all of these things like that.

Who are the Black women you’re inspired by and the people you go to when you’re faced with so many of the challenges Black people have in the content/media industry?

I am very intentional about friendships, and I treat my friends like extensions of myself. They’re the board of directors for my life, and these are often friends from college. I think people really discount the friends that you make in your first big girl job and how you’re learning everything together. Those have become the people that I call on throughout my career, who I call on to collaborate with projects, who I call on when things are falling apart. I’ve been just so blessed to have those people in my life as my board of directors for all things. And I serve as the same for them. I am going to tell you the truth: I don’t know that I’ve met a Black woman that I’m not inspired by. I truly am just so in awe of so many women. 

I made a practice after the pandemic of being like, “I don’t want these people who I like online to just be my online friends.” I wanted to meet these people in real life. I started just DM’ing people and being like, “Hey, we’ve been on here a while. Can we grab lunch?” And then just continuing that connection in person has been so, so fantastic.

I do also want to shout out Poynter Institute. I did a training with them in 2019 right before the pandemic for women in leadership positions in newsrooms. When I tell you it was a week-long, intensive, seven days we were in a classroom … it was like therapy for work in a way that I didn’t know I needed, and I didn’t know was available to any of us. We built such strong bonds, even though some people worked at competing publications. But when we put all of that aside, it was just women of all ages and all backgrounds who were working in an industry and really, really cared about the work they were doing and wanted to be their best. And through that group of people, I have just made true, lifelong friends. When things were falling apart in 2020, I was calling on my cohort members and building deep, deep connections from there.

What do you think is the biggest challenge we face in the world this year on and offline? How do we combat it?

There’s so much happening in the world that I think the one thing that I can say that continues to be dangerous is misinformation online. I’m going to speak specifically about Palestine. We see the power of storytelling from the front lines in a way that we have never witnessed before with any conflict, right? And we’ve seen that unfold into just horrors that we would never know were happening if we did not see it coming from the front lines. I just give kudos to the journalists that are on the ground and the people who have become journalists by force who have documented us through situations that we couldn’t even fathom. Even if we tried, we couldn’t fathom what it’s like to work through that. And while that is really helpful and illuminating the evils of the world, the other side of that there’s so much misinformation because everyone is trying to be fast to discredit what we’re seeing with our own eyes and framing that used to be able to take place is not available anymore. And I’m not going to speak to that being a political tool or otherwise, but the framing is not as readily available. I think we saw this with our election in America. Specifically, we’re in an election year — we saw this with our elections, four, eight years ago — and now as technology starts to grow and change faster than we are learning how to master it, I really do believe that misinformation is going to be one of the hardest things to combat. 

I really don’t know how to combat it. Things are just changing so quickly and there’s just so much access to so much. I think the answer as it is with most things is community and people coming together to dream together. There’s not going to be a single person that solves for all of this. It’s going to take collective efforts to help make sure that we’re doing our best.

What is one action that you think everyone should take to make the world and our lives online a little better?

I think everyone can be a little bit more curious. We don’t need to trust things at face value the first time. We need to be more curious about the sources of the information that we are taking in. And it doesn’t mean that we have to be constantly engaging in combat with it. You can take things at face value and then do more research to inform yourself about all sides of a story, and I think that that’s one action that we can take in our day-to-day lives to just be better.  

We started Rise25 to celebrate Mozilla’s 25th anniversary. What do you hope people are celebrating in the next 25 years?

I hope we get those flying cars that we were promised (laughs). But truly, I hope that in 25 years, we are celebrating the earth more. I really do hope that we’re celebrating the earth still housing us and that we’re all just being a little kinder and more thoughtful in the ways that we’re engaging with nature and ourselves, and that people are spending a little bit more time reconnecting with who they are offline.

What gives you hope about the future of our world?

I mentor with the Lower East Side Girls Club, which is a nonprofit here in New York, and we do a mentee outing once a month. The girls are aged middle school through high school, and they are so bright and so well-rounded and smart, but they’re also funny, and they have great social cues and they think so deeply about the world and they’re really compassionate. They don’t allow the things that used to trip me up and trip me and my peers up as like middle schoolers, like they’re so evolved past that. Every time that I think that mentoring means me teaching, I realize that it really means me learning, and when I leave those girls, I’m like, “alright, we’re going to be okay.” They give me some hope.

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