Brooklyn native Rondel Holder has been a marketing executive at a major national magazine, and a high profile travel influencer. Holder is the founder of Soul Society 101, a digital community of travel enthusiasts boasting a social media presence of over 100,000 followers, a podcast and a curated blog. He explains “Six years ago when I started, I couldn’t find an outlet that really showcased Black travelers from our perspective. I started sharing information about myself and my travels and people eventually started coming to me as a source of information and guidance and it just kind of grew organically from there.”
Holder is also a filmmaker and he has just completed two short films that hold a very special place in his heart. Called “Heritage Journey,” and made in partnership with The Points Guy, they document Holder’s journey to the West African nations of Togo and Benin respectively, two of the four countries indicated as locations of his genetic origin. Says Holder, “I traced my DNA with Ancestry DNA which gave me my genetic breakdown and then set out to visit all the countries that showed up.” Still excited while speaking to Amsterdam News a few weeks after returning from that trip, he says, “It worked out great that they were neighboring countries, I got to do both of them in one trip. I learned not just the history but also the modern day lifestyle of each country.”
Later this year, Holder will complete his quest by going to Ghana and the United Kingdom. Videos of his travels are accessible via his @soulsociety handle across social media platforms. “The UK video,” he says, “will be out probably in February and the Ghana video will be out in March or April. People can keep up by following my Instagram account. It’s a hub for all of my information.”
Holder’s videos of Togo and Benin are drenched in color, history, and warm yet peculiar bonding of relatives separated by geography and the ages. The towns are bisected rivers, bound by the ocean and dotted by cozy homes painted in the colors of grass, the sea and sunsets. The gentle openness of Holder’s hosts is powerful.
With childlike enthusiasm, Holder takes viewers to Benin’s so-called city on water, Ganvié. In the Fon language, the literal translation of Ganvié is “We’ve survived.” Now home to approximately 20,000 people, Ganvié was created by Africans evading Portuguese capture. Benin was once the site of West Africa’s largest slave port, shipping slaves to America, Haiti and Brazil.
Other notable stops are The House of Pythons, which contains exactly what one would assume it contains, and the Ouidah Museum of History, located in an old Portuguese slave fort. Art and sculpture depicting the agonizing experience of the captive would-be slaves flank it. Then there is the “Door of No Return” a sandy walkway with whitewashed spiked cement posts on either side, leading to an archway bearing carvings that memorialize captured Africans. Once a captive passed that point, they would certainly be forced onto a ship headed to a New World plantation.
“Before I set out on my trip I tried,” Holder says, “I looked up online about each country. I thought I knew a lot about slavery and our history but there is so much new information that I learned from taking that trip. I really encourage people to visit these countries and learn firsthand because there’s a lot that has gotten lost.”
Holder’s parents are from the Caribbean but he grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “Flatbush is dubbed by so many people as ‘Little Caribbean’ because it’s really so heavily populated with Caribbean people.” He further remarks, “New York City which itself is so diverse, you can literally meet people from all over the world. Seeing the differences between my home, which was Caribbean and then going to school, which was African-American, sparked some interest in other cultures from early on.”
Holder, who has already visited over 50 countries, sees travel as an option for the newest generation of Black diasporans. “Our parents’ generation laid the foundation. My generation has the mindset where we are more expansive in our interests. For us, travel is not a luxury, but a part of life.”
Holder thinks anyone can travel the world. “There’s nothing extraordinary about me and the way I was raised,” he says. “I don’t come from wealth by any means but I made travel a priority. I’m hoping that will inspire people to do more even if they don’t travel as much as I do.”
There are other benefits to travel than learning more about oneself and other cultures. “I love connecting with people naturally but also,” Holder enthuses, “it is just good to have an international network. It is an insane attribute to have. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve met people and I always keep in contact. Whether it’s someone I randomly met at the Gucci Museum in Italy or a young creative writer in South Africa or an expat in Grenada.”
Asked if he thought there was potential for synergistic partnership between diasporic Blacks and Blacks in Africa, he agreed that potential is strongly there. “There is so much power and information and resources in all these pockets. Blacks in the U.S. have access to technology and resources and there are so many cultural traditions and resources in the Caribbean and Africa.”