IT IS TEMPTING, though perhaps not entirely accurate, to describe Omari Salisbury as a reluctant journalist.
Don’t get the wrong idea: He throws himself into his work as a front-line reporter for Converge Media, and as an anchor for its weekday “The Morning Update Show,” with an enthusiasm that makes many others in the business look like slackers.
Converge is five years old, and Salisbury, 46, is its founding CEO. But over the past 15 months, he has stubbornly planted himself at the head of protests, enduring showers of pepper spray and deafening blast balls; interrogated public officials with admirable persistence; bird-dogged developments across many beats, from gun violence to homelessness to grassroots COVID relief; and generally amplified stories about Seattle’s Black community he thinks should get more play from other news organizations — all while running a small business.
Meanwhile, Converge has been developing and broadcasting more than a dozen regular programs on enough topics to fill a daily newspaper. The Converge stable of shows includes news (“The Morning Update Show”), news analysis (“Clap Back Culture”), arts and cultural issues (“Rewind with Besa”), business (“Building Black Wealth”), love and marriage (“Truly Unruly,” starring former Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant and his wife Jessica), conversations with people working in the community (“Chats with Trae”) and more.
Tending all these gardens at once hasn’t been easy. These days, Salisbury’s iPhone sleep app tells him he’s averaging around two to three hours of rest a night.
“That’s not a good look, not a badge of courage,” he says. “That’s something I need to change — but some things you have to go through to get to it. If it takes me a year of two hours’ sleep to get eight hours for the rest of my life, I’ll do it.”
Despite all that dedication and grit, there’s something accidental about his starring, on-camera role at what Besa Gordon (a host at FM station KUBE 93 as well as Converge’s “Rewind with Besa”) calls “my Black CNN.”
Salisbury has prior journalism experience — including work as a national basketball correspondent — but he didn’t plan Converge this way.
“I’ll be very clear: I never wanted to do this part of the job,” he says. “My passion is off screen, developing projects and opportunities for others. Never in a million years did I think, ‘I’ll go to this press conference and talk to this official.’ I wasn’t hoping to break into the big mainstream of news or whatever. But my mama always says: ‘Buddha says what’s in your way is your way.’ ”
So how did this happen? How did Omari Salisbury become a go-to reporter with deep community trust, broad access (tellingly, he was the only journalist allowed at a key, closed-door meeting between Mayor Jenny Durkan and activists during the height of last year’s protests) and nearly 30,000 Twitter followers?
“I’m the Black Forrest Gump,” he says, chuckling. “I have so many crazy stories, and I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.”
What he doesn’t say, but is obvious from talking to others — and simply watching him work — is that luck is only one small part of the formula.
“He’s as authentic as it gets. He works hard, he believes in relationships,” says Lewis Rudd, co-founder of Ezell’s Famous Chicken. “And he’s a visionary. There’s a huge need for what Converge is doing in the community, especially in the Black community — an open and honest communication platform, for voices in the community to be heard, and for people outside the community to listen. It’s trust.”
SALISBURY USUALLY LAUGHS when he calls himself the Black Forrest Gump — which he does with some regularity — but he’s only half-joking.
He was raised with three older brothers in the Central District, and is an emphatically proud alumnus of Garfield High School, class of 1993 — but life has taken him across the globe many times over.
Salisbury has been deep in the gold mines of Helena, Montana; aboard yachts with Aliko Dangote, a Nigerian business magnate reckoned to be the richest Black man in the world; at negotiating tables in Beijing, cutting deals with the Chinese broadcast company StarTimes; and through the nightclubs of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with hip-hop stars like Megan Thee Stallion. At the Converge newsroom in Pioneer Square one morning, Salisbury tossed me his old passport. It was heavier than I expected, like a novella, with dozens of extra pages stitched in to accommodate all the visas.
After Garfield, Salisbury earned a degree in geology at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina (hence the gold mines) and began working as a radio DJ and college sports reporter for a syndicated radio show. Sometimes he’d drive 200 miles each way to cover a game for $25. (“It wasn’t about the money,” he explains. “It was just the dopest experience ever.”) If he hustled to score an interview with a coach or player, he got an extra $20.
“That’s why it’s easy for me to speak up when the mayor or police chief are having a press conference,” he says. “That extra 20 bucks was going in the gas tank!”
Salisbury worked a broad array of jobs during and after college: housecleaner; college recruiter; music correspondent for HardRoad.com (driving to beat-up Southern roadhouses to cover underappreciated bands); vendor of two-way pagers at the Def Jam Recordings office in New York; founder or Definitions Wireless, a Northwest cellphone franchise.
But one of his favorites was at HoopsTV.com, which landed him the kind of long-leash assignment that makes reporters swoon: “They gave me an American Express card and a camera and said ‘go across the country and find basketball stories.’ ”
So he drove, covering NBA and college news, and went on the road with players from Rucker Park, a legendary Harlem basketball court where generations of maestros like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Allen Iverson and Earv “I’ll Be Right Back” Opong honed their skills.
Then, in 2004, Salisbury took a two-week trip to Africa — starting in Tanzania — that changed his trajectory.
“In the first three days, it was like, ‘I’m supposed to be here,’ ” Salisbury says. “I didn’t know how, but I had to figure it out — East Africa had so much potential.”
The trip began a 12-year chapter of Salisbury’s life as he shuttled between bases in Seattle and Dar es Salaam, working in marketing (clients included Heineken and Moët Hennessy), then in digital and broadcast media. He found an employer and mentor in Joseph Kusaga, founder of Clouds Media, a large Tanzanian company involved in TV, radio and digital broadcasting in Africa and the Gulf States, as well as music festivals.
The stories are head-spinning: launching TV and radio stations from Abu Dhabi to Zanzibar, helping deliver babies in remote villages, arranging African concerts for U.S. and British music stars including Ludacris, Mya, Rick Ross, T.I., Tinie Tempah and others.
That life was thrilling, but not particularly lucrative. “The money was African pay scale,” Salisbury says. “Sometimes it was a struggle, but I was wealthy in contacts. I learned that on the continent. Money really doesn’t compare to relationships: people who will be there, follow through, get your back.”
SALISBURY HAS THREE children: Acacia, who graduated from Agnes Scott College in Georgia; Omari (“Little O”), now at Loyola University in Chicago; and Victoria, who is 11 and lives in Houston, Texas. During his international sojourn, he’d come back to see them and they’d spent time in Africa — where, in Tanzania, members of the Maasai people would walk the younger Omari to school each day.
Salisbury came back to Seattle for good in 2016, partly to be with his son during the final years of high school. (Despite Salisbury’s fealty to Garfield, his older kids went to private schools: Forest Ridge and O’Dea.)
“I thought getting a job here would be a cakewalk,” he says. “All this world experience in media and entertainment, letters of recommendation from senior vice presidents at Heineken and Coca-Cola — I came back armed and ready. And I couldn’t get an interview anywhere.”
He wound up driving for Uber and Lyft, feeling frustrated.
In May 2016, Salisbury was on the waterfront with a friend, photographer Erik Kalligraphy, when they decided to merge their talents and experience to launch a digital storytelling platform. They called it Converge.
“Converge is a mixed media platform catering to content creators in the Pacific Northwest that focus on urban and ethnic topics,” Salisbury wrote that night, in notes he emailed to Kalligraphy. “Our story is a story worthy of telling but often is not told.”
Converge would be their answer to that silence.
The project developed fitfully, with Salisbury sometimes commuting to Tanzania or Dubai for one-off projects. But they kept at it, landing some marketing-consultation work with Ezell’s, as well as outreach and messaging for Africatown Community Land Trust.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Salisbury and TraeAnna Holiday — his collaborator at Africatown — began a weekday community-news show. “So much information was hitting, so many people were calling, emailing, asking questions,” Holiday says. “That birthed ‘Morning Update.’ ”
Their coverage expanded, from Black businesses hurt by COVID-19 to President Trump’s efforts to discourage mail-in voting for the 2020 election. When George Floyd was murdered and people hit the streets, Converge followed, documenting the demonstrations.
One early summer evening in 2020, Salisbury had another Black Forrest Gump moment — and caught eyes across the world.
It was Monday, June 1, seven days after Floyd’s murder. Hundreds of demonstrators tried to walk up Capitol Hill along East Pine Street, past a Seattle Police Department precinct. Officers barricaded the block, effectively putting a cork in the march at East Pine Street and 11th Avenue — fatefully close to Cal Anderson Park.
Salisbury was at the tense and noisy barricade, filming with an iPhone and pleading aloud (“let’s try to de-escalate this!”) when a nearby police officer grabbed one demonstrator’s pink umbrella.
There was a brief tug of war. Then, an eruption: arcing fountains of pepper spray, blast balls, officers jabbing protesters with batons. Salisbury was hit with spray and blinded in one eye. He kept filming.
Nobody seemed to realize it at the time, but that pink umbrella changed everything — not just the character of that summer’s protests, but the future of Salisbury and Converge.
More people were watching the stream than he realized, including Mayor Durkan. Salisbury was bringing them to the front lines with raw footage in real time — but with the dedication of a journalist, not satisfied to simply show what was happening to him, but what was happening around him.
“The pink umbrella” quickly became an icon; the footage got millions of views.
That incident, Salisbury argues, was also the moment of conception for the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP), which would be born the following week, on June 8, when police dismantled their barricade and abandoned the East Precinct, leaving a vacuum for the protesters to fill.
“A lot of people in the streets hadn’t been protesting the SPD specifically,” Salisbury says. “Most were protesting a crime against humanity, against George Floyd. But on June 1, with the violence and brutality, SPD made it about SPD.”
Converge started broadcasting from CHOP. Soon, a viewer — temporarily fleeing the chaos — offered up his spacious apartment for a Converge headquarters inside the no-cop occupation zone.
Salisbury and Converge stuck around. So did their new audience.
“IT WAS DAYS before we realized we were big,” Salisbury says. “I still thought we were talking to 100 people in the Central District and South End. But we had been broadcasting for months, so we went into the protests full stride — it was preparation meets opportunity.”
The situation was kind of a reversal. In the early days, Salisbury had joked to Holiday and the team that he could guarantee an audience of two: his parents. “Maybe seven if my mama logs into all her devices and grandpa calls my aunt to watch,” Salisbury says. “We were excited if we had 10 people, but stayed after it like it was 30,000.”
Now they were broadcasting to many thousands with the same intimate tone — an inviting mix of familiarity and professionalism — they’d brought to their earlier work.
“People aren’t just getting objectivity, they’re getting us authentically,” Holiday says. “I think that’s part of the trust we’ve been able to build.”
Holiday started at a local network-affiliate TV station, but says she left because she wasn’t “able to be the for-real TraeAnna Holiday in those spaces.” On Converge, Salisbury and Holiday sometimes cry if they’re deeply affected by a story or, when the news is about young people, they’ll mention their own children. Viewers have come to know Acacia and “Little O,” who make semiregular appearances.
Converge isn’t just a news platform — it’s a community. And the community, in turn, keeps Converge on the air.
Like many media-outlet owners, Salisbury is a little reluctant to talk about specific viewership numbers and budgets these days, but he says the organization is the smallest Black media outlet in the city.
“The truth is, we’re always broke,” Salisbury says. “We don’t have big grants, we don’t have big advertisers and we literally, literally stay on the air because of our $5 donors. Everybody here works for way, way below what they should be paid.”
Salisbury doesn’t shun advertising — in fact, he has choice words for businesses that talk about “diversity, equity and inclusion” but don’t support local Black media.
“Over the years, so many companies died on the vine because these white advertising agencies locked out Black media,” Salisbury says. “The only advertising Black media could get was from other Black companies that didn’t have much money to begin with. I’m not looking for DEI initiatives, I’m looking for you to buy advertising and get a return on your investment like everybody else! I don’t need a handout, just a hand up.”
But Salisbury keeps plowing ahead. While being careful with the details, he says projects are already brewing in Portland, with eyes on the rest of the Pacific Northwest — but he emphasizes that he isn’t after expansion for expansion’s sake. His mission, he explains, is to shepherd an excellent, local, Black media outlet that will make his parents and his community proud.
“In a way, my career is in reverse,” he says. “I’m not doing this so I can move on to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN — Converge is for our neighborhood, and for the people of the Emerald City.”
Salisbury has moved among kingpins: private jets, yachts, signal distribution in 50 countries, Michelin-star restaurants in France, regular vacations in Portugal and Spain. That’s not what he’s chasing.
“My mama always says: ‘Leave things better than you found them,’ ” he says. “If Converge has come into this crazy ecosystem of Seattle politics and everything else, and leaves things a little better, we’ve done our job. Everything I’ve done, everything I’ve learned, has been leading up to this. I’m here right now because I’m supposed to be — and only a Black Forrest Gump thinks like that.”