Behind the scenes of becoming an adult: That’s how Hafeez Baoku and Chris Below describe the hour (ish) they’ve spent each week for the last year, pulling the curtains on real life.
You may not know them by name, but you would by voice if you’re one of the 3,000-some people who download their podcast each month. The Roommates, which streams free on iTunes on Soundcloud, captures frank, “late night” conversations between the young men–Baoku is 27 and Below is 24–on everything from politics to sex to race to religion.
To that end, the podcast is the antithesis to polite dinner party banter. The Roommates brand their show as combining elements of stand-up comedy, Ted Talks, and sermons–a tall order.
Though they started as actual roommates, Baoku and Below–like so many others–lost the home they shared to Hurricane Harvey.
“2017 was a huge emotional roller coaster ride for us–it was a crazy year,” Baoku says. “[We realized] we might need, for a period of time, to go our separate ways and learn a little bit more about ourselves.”
Separate ways weren’t so separate, as Baoku recently moved next door to Below. Still, there are no plans yet to change The Roommates to The Neighbors.
There are plans, though, including—if the men have their way—eventual international expansion.
“Long-term, we don’t want to just talk to people in America,” Baoku says. “We want to talk to people all around the world. There are just so many stories.”
Indeed, as conversations range from the NFL to infidelity, there’s no shortage of material.
“There’s always a new perspective, and there’s always a new individual going through a unique series of problems,” Baoku says. “As long as there are human beings in this world that have problems, we’ll have something to talk about.”
Baoku’s preferred topic? “Transparent male conversations,” he says.
“We live in a society where a lot of guys have this bravado of toughness, and it just seems like, ‘I’m male, I got it all figured out, I got it all together,’” he adds. “Seeing the hurt, the pains, the difficulty, the struggles–I just don’t think that’s communicated in media.”
The Roommates, then, is a radical challenge to that reality. Case in point: Episode 55, “Our Secret Feelings,” in which “Hafeez and Chris share about the importance of perseverance in the midst of difficulties and break Man Code Law #4532, Sec. B, Article 22 by discussing their feelings and emotions.”
Contrary to the infrequency with which men discuss those “secret feelings,” The Roommates’ episodes that go there are some of the most well-received. When the podcast featured guest Mary Jo Rapini, a sex and intimacy therapist who regularly appears on Fox 26, Baoku says, Rapini reported getting more listener feedback than any other appearance. Most strikingly, half the respondents were men when, typically, women are the most likely to reach out.
Baoku wants more of that, and he expects to find it as The Roommates continue to foster difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. Guests are sought on a wide spectrum of ideology and experience; one sequence of appearances—the Houston leader of Black Lives Matter, communications director for the Houston Young Republicans, and president of the Houston Feminist Society—ruffled a lot of listeners’ feathers.
Baoku wants more of that, too, as he and his co-host seek to respectfully explore a range of viewpoints to better inform their own. In a sharply divided political climate, society needs fewer echo chambers and more room for debate and real dialogue, he says. His favorite listener response—and a common one—is a mix of exasperation, enlightenment, and entertainment.
“I’m young, we’re all young, we’re all growing as people. There should be things you disagree with,” Baoku says. “A lot of people talk about diversity, but usually when they say the word ‘diversity,’ they mean diverse people of the same thought.”
Which brings him to another oft-discussed point on the show—race.
“Whenever something is dominated by two black leads, it usually creates the feeling of, ‘oh, this is for black people,’” Baoku says, adding he was “astonished” by the level of support and engagement beyond the black community.
And while The Roommates ask questions like, “is twerking really dancing?” and “is it ever OK to switch barbers?”, they also ponder use of the N-word and police brutality.
“What I’ve noticed in Houston is that in the African-American community, there’s not a sense of togetherness. I’ve noticed that it’s very competitive,” says Baoku, who moved from Atlanta to Dallas before reaching H-Town. “What we’re really striving to do is create a community of people helping one another and uplifting one another, not having this ‘crabs in the barrel’ mentality where in order for me to be successful I must pull you down. We use our platform to uplift other people.”
More than anything, though, The Roommates seeks to offer an hour of unadulterated reality in the heavily edited and carefully curated age of social media and shiny veneers.
“The reason we say ‘behind the scenes’ is because, right now, everybody is putting on their movie … and in their movie, everything is perfect. Everything is fine. Everybody’s smiling and eating the most amazing meals in the world,” Baoku says. “Behind the scenes, life is messy. People are hurting, people need help, people need spirit. We’re so afraid of saying, ‘I don’t have it all together.’”
The Roommates will be the first to tell you–they don’t. They feel most accomplished when that transparency spurs their listeners to open up, too.
“That’s the win for us,” Baoku says.