Episode Transcript – Kenji Jasper: Blerds, Best-Sellers and Blockbusters
Isha: Kenji you and I met back at NABJ, National Association of Black Journalists, in the late 90’s and this was in DC.
Kenji: 1998. Yep.
Isha: 1998? All right. So look, you got the year down and everything. But, I remember you first from YSM, from Teen Summit on BET.
Isha: And so I feel like we were BFF’s all these years because little black nerds all over the country, like me, we loved you all because most of us, particularly those of us who felt like we were the only people that thought like we thought, we couldn’t have those types of conversations with the people that were in our circle. And so, being able to turn on that TV on Saturday and hear young people, young black people, have the types of conversations that we longed to have, it was a life saver.
Kenji: Yeah, yeah. It was real interesting when I think of about how great of an opportunity it was. It was very, very organic. I mean, we were all kind of those same kids. You know, most of us in a combination of public and private high schools, and they just sort of took a bunch of us who replied to the audition, they sent audition materials out to all of the schools; and they just put us in a room and sorta just threw issues at us. Kinda just had us go at each other. And the folks who I think were the most opinionated, had the most to say, ended up kind of doing the first season of the show.
Kenji: The show, of course, changed a lot over the first four years. But we all definitely felt the same way. It was great to know that there were other kids out there like us. With our experiences, regardless of class, who wanted to talk about these issues or needed a place and a voice for what was going on. I mean, the 80’s and the 90’s were a very different time for Black America than it is right now.
Kenji: I mean, there was no Obama. There was … Everything was so much more limited in terms of both images and opportunities that we had. And as a result, BET was a God send. We had a really great shot. A really great time. I think that experience, as unexpected as it was for me, opened the door to the beginnings of my career as a writer and journalist.
Isha: So that was the catalyst that let you know that’s what you wanted to do versus the other way around?
Kenji: Well no, I knew already. I had started … I mean, I knew I wanted to write from the time I was eight or nine. And I had … I was moving in that direction. The school paper. I was creative writing. But in junior high, I think I was in the 8th grade, I was actually involved in student government and when the application for the show came in, myself and literally … I mean, the funny thing is, that three, all four of the kids from my junior high school, Jefferson, ended up on the show. We were all like, we’re all in student government, we all ended up on the show at the same time. And what the show opened the door for me, and it was not so much writing and journalism, but just how much I loved television and film. And that on top of the rise of Spike Lee there was other things that were happening at the time, I really saw that I had a chance to do this and that I was good at it. And I did my best to soak as much as … what I could. As I can.
Kenji: I mean, while I was there at BET, I learned how to do voice overs. I learned the basics of writing a script. I learned how to shoot a camera. I just pretty much hung around, sometimes not even on the day that the show was shooting, to get as much education about just how it all worked as possible.
Kenji: So by the time I went into college there was no question in my mind that I was going to be working in media the rest of my life.
Isha: So let’s just walk through your experiences chronologically a bit. So, graduated from high school, went to Morehouse.
Isha: What was the next evolution of your career from that point?
Kenji: Well okay, while I was at Morehouse I started … I had already been writing for a couple of magazines in high school. But in Morehouse, I pretty much put myself through school as a professional freelance writer. So I covered hip hop and black music and black entertainment for a bunch of publications in Atlanta. Also VIBE, Essence,XXL. I made a name for myself while I was in Atlanta. And when I graduated, I ended up after a year or so, moving to New York and actually getting a job working for VIBE’s online department; which was very new.
Kenji: Online journalism, the web was brand new and no one took it seriously. But it was a place where I got a lot of clips, a lot of experience, a lot of chance to interview a lot of rappers and singers and actors of the day. And after the first year or two, I managed to find my way on accident, a way to get my first book published.
Kenji: So my first book came out when I was 25. It was a Washington Post and Los Angeles Times bestseller. I was also optioned, the film rights were optioned, and that kind of introduced me to the world and gave me a chance to do a lot of things beyond just straight journalism. It was books, there were film opportunities, radio, public speaking. A lot of different things happened for me. It was really about me learning how to just network and seize opportunities while they were hot and that was how I learned to pay my bills.
Kenji: As a result, I rubbed shoulders with a lot of folks in black media. I got to know a lot of different people. Though I won’t venture to say that I was at the top of the game at that point, no. I was able to make end roads into National Public Radio. Into Newsweek. Into a lot of … Into the Village Voice. Into a lot of places where people of color didn’t get a whole lot of traction.
Kenji: And so I was kinda a star in my own right. I was kinda a trail blazer in terms of what hip hop culture could offer mainstream media. And I just kinda took things from there.
Expanding Representation and the Black Nerd Movement in Media and Entertainment
Isha: One of the things that I find so interesting, and you talked about this in the beginning, that back in the 80’s, early 90’s, things were very different for us in media in terms of not having the outlets. Not having the opportunities. There was no President Obama. We didn’t see ourselves represented the way that we do now. But, we still have the same … Well I guess really, the thing is, we’ve gone from just being happy to see ourselves period, no matter how or where we were depicted. To now, we have enough representation, I think, that we have gotten to be a little picky about how we see ourselves.
Isha: So now, opposed to just being happy to see the Madea movies and the gangster flicks. Now we’re saying, now we want to see ourselves painted differently. We’re not a monolithic people, in terms of our experiences, or what we’re interested in. Why can’t we see more reflections? And we’re certainly starting to see that now.
Isha: So how has that changed the way that you work? That the industry is starting to realize, we’re a little deeper than maybe they’ve wanted to give us credit for?
Kenji: It’s a God send for me, man. I spent a lot of time, I’ve probably spent a good 10 or 12 years, sort of bouncing around in Hollywood trying to get smarter concepts and smarter writing recognized by producers that was sort of just interested in sitcom-y, basic kinda stuff. I mean, I don’t want to … No disrespect to Tyler. I think he, Tyler Perry, I think he found his niche and made a lot of money and made a lot of end roads as a powerful person in media playing to his audience.
Kenji: My audience is a smarter audience that wasn’t necessarily thug. Wasn’t necessarily church, Christian based church people. I think the black nerd movement, as it’s sorta called, or BLERD as I’ve heard used now, I think when you had shows like Insecure, to a lesser degree Queen Sugar, a lot of the work that Ava DuVernay has been doing. The Akil’s, you know Mara Akil, Salim Akil. Being Mary Jane, Black Light, Name of the Game.
Kenji: There was kind of an evolution where more and more there was a desire, like you said, not only picky but what I think those of us who weren’t from the projects or who weren’t any sort of environments became deemed as stereotypical because of the social economic situation of African Americans in this culture, we sorta said, well hey let’s do this. Why can’t we do this? Why can’t this happen? And I think for me the jump off point for me was when a show like Insecure, I mean it’s a raised movement online. Issa Rae, Numa Perrier,Dennis Dortch.It was a whole clique of folks in LA who were doing web series of black and sexy sort of TV clique. Maybe this was five or six, going on seven, years now. And they all, some of them got deals.
Kenji: And when Insecure came out and got three million viewers its first week on HBO, that was when to me I sorta felt like the Black Nerd movement had arrived. The success of Dear White Peoplelast year. Trying to think of certain … Those are the two things that sorta jumped out for me. Wow, black people in colleges not deemed as a bad thing. Or, it wasn’t viewed as soft or it wasn’t viewed as bougie or those kinda things. Our stories stopped being separated in this sort of have and have not’s kinda way that I felt like black media had kinda delved into before.
Kenji: I mean you would have and Ice Cube movie here, but if you wanted to see a smart black person you might have to see some minor character on the WB or the nerdy guy in Die Hard or whatever. We were peripheral. And I even credit Will Smith for this in some ways. Will Smith made the smart black, non-threatening black male interesting. Or, at least, I think he was the mainstream crossover that combined sort of hip hop and acceptability in a way that, at least, in an economic level it was like hey look, diversity has its place. And there’s money in it.
Kenji: Hell, all these years later, I can’t even count the number of years it’s been since The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Black Panther comes out this year. There’s record numbers with a real Hollywood budget and says, “Hey a movie with 99% cast of people of color can break box office records and be consistent.”
Kenji: So all those things say that once it was recognized that there was economic change, I wish that I had sort of a list with all the different projects that I could point out which were kind of groundbreaking landmarks. I think that what’s known now is that if you have the right star power and you have a good vehicle, you definitely have opportunity. And if there’s opportunity, producers, managers, writers, actors, athletes, all can find ways to maximize that opportunity to the benefit of the entertainment industry.
Isha: That is so true.
Isha: How did your parents feel about your creative career?
Kenji: I think at first, because I was always a creative kid, I think the goal was to steer me into journalism and reporting because it was a trade. It was something where I could get a job and have a career and make money and have health insurance and all those kinds of things. My dad was a graphic artist for a long time. So I mean, I grew up, I had art was in my blood. And my mom was a teacher so I kinda had this balance, but I don’t think they ever anticipated that … ‘Cause I was on … I ended up in the same kinda way that I ended up in Teen Summit. I was on another show, a kid show, a local spot show called Newsbag a few years earlier when I was 10 years old. And I just kept ending up in these kind of spotlight situations. I won awards. I was on these two shows. I got published nationally. I had a novel that came out that’s still in print and is really successful.
Kenji: So I think their goal was always to try to make sure that I figured out a way to maximize opportunities and regulate my life so that I sort of didn’t go from having this big chunk of money to being broke. Or that I wasn’t always renting forever. That just, there was a sense of practicality about it. They weren’t always completely successful.
Kenji: I definitely have had my struggles as an artist, which I think most artist do. But what I always got from my parents in different ways was senses of love and secure. And, I mean, I’m in my 40’s now. We all sort of come up with things that every person, things they wish they had or they wish they didn’t have or what have you, but I think my parents knew that I was a different kid. And they did my best to keep me away from any elements that would stop me from being different.
Kenji: I was never discouraged for being me, an independent thinker, or who I was.
Isha: That is so important. I mean, and I thank my mother for this often, because I’m the youngest of … Well we ended up adopting my nephew, but of my mother’s biological I’m the youngest by a big chunk. And so when she had my older three siblings, she was a young mom. And when she had me, she was 27. She was a little older and more established and what not. And my sister and I, my sister’s nine years older than me, and this is every holiday this becomes an argument because she talks about all the stuff that I got away with that she would’ve never gotten away with.
Isha: And I think the biggest thing, other than again my mother being older and her parenting skills being a bit more refined, one of the things that I know about my mom is that she, like your parents, saw something in me, realized I was a different kind of kid and she didn’t crush my spirit the way that often times ethnic parents, “Don’t you say this! Don’t talk back! Don’t ask questions!” You know, back in that day, that was the way most ethnic parents parented. But she gave me a little more leeway to ask questions. To express my opinions, because that was such a big part of who I was.
Isha: Now she did temper it at times. Like okay, that’s enough. We’re done talking about it. Don’t ask me anything else. Don’t … We’re done. But my sister’s all, I would’ve gotten popped in the mouth if I woulda said that! But when … Now me as a parent, that’s one of the things that I’ve tried to do, is to understand who my child is individually and what do I need to really protect that gift so that the world doesn’t beat him up? So that I don’t have different expectations of him based on what somebody else’s expectations of their kid is.
Isha: And, as I see for you, that has really helped you to become who you are today.
Kenji: Well yeah, but at the same time and given the fact that I write a whole lot about crime, my upbringing couldn’t necessarily protect me from what was happening in the streets at the time. The crack epidemic was happening. Black on black violence was happening in record numbers. I mean, I lived in the city.
Kenji: I mean, I’m from Washington, D.C. where guys were walking around … Crews of guys was walking around punching dudes in the face just for fun. It was a grizzly time in the city. And as a result of it you, particularly as a young male, learn how to temper yourself. You learn fight or flight. You learn how to figure out ways to survive. You also figure out where you belong and where you don’t belong.
Kenji: I think that young black men end up, regardless of … no matter how much parental help that you get, there are certain choices that you have to make walking in the street every day that define who you are. All kinds of kids my age were selling drugs. All kinds of kids had access to guns and ended up shooting people. Upbringing protected and shielded a lot of things, but there was a randomness about it.
Kenji: I was talking to a good friend of mine from college the other day and we were just saying, all of us brothers, and sisters too, who survived that time can’t really believe looking back in a post-Obama black America that that was how it was for us. And that the crack game wasn’t just The Wire. Or some sort of piece of cinema that you could encapsulate in a certain kind of way. There was a really … Sometimes there was hopelessness. Sometimes there was fear. Going out every weekend you didn’t know what you were gonna get into.
Kenji: I think that what was happening for a lot of kids that didn’t have the parental support I did created a level of anxiety and tension and anger and frustration and promiscuity and irresponsibility and all kinds of different things that helped to shape my view of the world as an artist. So, the chaos was just as important as the calm.
Isha: Did you ever feel guilty when you looked at some of the friends that you came up with that you know had perhaps the same type of potential that you had, but that randomness, they ended up on the wrong side of it. Have you ever felt any guilt of being the one who made it? Or not being able to do something perhaps to help them to have a different outcome?
Kenji: You know, it’s funny man. I think what I felt, to be honest, was kind of … I know this sounds really strange, but there were certain things that were expected of me. I was the kid that had to come in usually the earliest. I was the kid that was told no more often. I didn’t have a lot of designer clothes. Or I didn’t get to take the trip to Europe with some of my friends or what have you whose parents made a little more money than my parents did.
Kenji: But, the friends of mine who went the other way. I mean, a lot of the guys in my neighborhood ended up in jail, ended up getting killed, as with anywhere else. Sometimes I would ask myself, well why me? Why do I walk around on foot in this city from southeast to northwest and why didn’t I catch the stray bullet? Why didn’t I end up getting some girl pregnant when I was 15 or 17 or 19? What was it about the choices that I made that kept me out of what almost became the stereotypical sadness or angst or just loss that was associated with black people?
Kenji: And I’m a believer in … I’m a faithful person. I’m a believer in God. I’m a believer in destiny and we’re chosen to do different things. I really, to this day, feel like what I was born to do was to tell the stories of a lot of these folks that didn’t make it out. That fell. That redeemed themselves. That made names for themselves and lost those names. Came into their stride later in life. All those things are of value and someone has to tell those stories.
Kenji: And I think in the 21st century it’s harder. I think it’s harder for Millennials to recognize those stories. I think the current generation is so inundated with information and choices and options and holograms and 3 and 4D technology. YouTube and streaming music. The choices are endless, you know? They’re not gonna get clowned for listening to a black kid probably has a less chance of getting clowned for liking a Taylor Swift song now. Whereas if you were a little too into Madonna in the late 80’s, that might be grounds to get hit in the mouth somewhere.
Isha: That is so true!
Kenji: You know what I mean? Or to be into rock on MTV. Or if you were a little too in the mainstream white culture in that way, you were viewed as a sellout, an Oreo, all of those things. And the world has changed drastically.
Kenji: I personally even think that even though it’s not given its own credit, hip hop has a lot to do with that. I think that hip hops message is…Wynton Marsalis who said this ridiculous foolishness a couple of weeks ago, that rap was the worst thing that happened to the black community. I sorta thing otherwise. I think there’s a bridging element that introduced a lot of the problems in the inner city that were very in-house, inside baseball problems. To the mainstream in ways that were both productive and not productive.
Kenji: But, there was no denying…personally I think by the time Notorious BIG and Tupac left this planet, that the black experience … It’s even kind of funny when I think about it. It was ’95, ’96, the OJ trial. Everything in that period kinda shifted things where it was like, hey look we can’t deny that black people have this experience that is both different and defining for American culture. We can control it. We can stereotype it. We can keep most of the money for ourselves. We can export it as an American product and not give what we should to the creators of it. We can “Elvis” it all over the place. But what we can’t do is deny that it has value and it exists and that it makes more of an impact than what we have.
Kenji: I don’t know, I personally feel like a counter reaction to that is the alt right movement. It is Donald Trump as President. I think that eight years of Obama and everything that has happened as a result of that really forced mainstream America to make decisions. Is this a melting pot/salad bowl country? Or are we still living in a Jim Crow world and just pretending that we’re not?
Kenji: As we make more and more strides in media and in every facet of America we have an increasing number of black men being shot for no reason and it being caught on tape. The judicial system says, hey this is happening and we’re not going to say or do anything about it because it would … We would be forced to recognized that certain things in this country have not changed.
Kenji: I say all those things to say that when you’re looking to define the black experience in particular, not to talk about the black athlete or the black artist experience or the black intellectual experience. One of the … We can’t hide who we are. No matter how … If it’s in our DNA, folks know. That’s where we live. That’s the way this country is run. That’s how the world is run. And I think as a result, we’ve been forced to in many ways learn how to protect ourselves and in other ways learn how to accept what we can’t change.
Kenji: I know that is a long answer to the question.
Isha: No, that was … There was so much there and I’m sitting here thinking to myself, okay I could spend the rest of our time just picking that apart. And as much as … So I may have to have you on for like part two because-
Kenji: I would love to.
Isha: … Oh I would absolutely love that! Oh, I hate it ’cause I want to stay there. I want to stay there! But I’m not going to do it because people will be mad at me because there are folks I know who want to understand some of the specific things that you’ve done throughout your career that have worked for you. And even some things that haven’t. And they don’t have opportunities to hear from someone like you. And so I’m going to force myself to go in that direction with this conversation.
Writing a Best-Seller
Isha: And I want to talk about your novel, Dark.
Isha: Best seller. When you’re writing, I mean ’cause you’re a freelance writer so you’re writing all the time, but when did the idea for this novel grab you? And how … What does that process look like for you?
Kenji: Well that book was very personal. I think it’s interesting because it’s written in the first person, a lot of people have assumed that it was sort of a document about my very direct experience. It was one of the greatest compliments I ever got was when I went to visit some youth in a youth detention facility. The DC Jail. And they all thought that what they were reading was a memoir so their question to me was, well … And I’ll explain what it’s about.
Kenji: It’s about a young man whose never been out of his neighborhood in Washington D.C. who ends up committing a murder and he’s forced to leave D.C. for the first time in his life. And he ends up in Charlotte, North Carolina for a week interacting with his best friend whose moved there. Sorta trying to figure out what direction the rest of his life is going to take.
Kenji: And when I started writing it I had written a number of short stories in college. When I started writing it I was 21 years old. I had graduated from college. And I was thinking to myself, I had this great historically black college experience, but all I’m thinking about is all the dudes back at home in D.C. who are never gonna live in a dorm room. Who aren’t going to spend four years interacting with … Away from just the war that’s happening in the streets for them every day. And Ty Williams, whose name of the main character, and I, the main difference I saw between the two of us was the choices made. And how those choices affected the people we were around. And the overall environment.
Kenji: There was no one in my life who would’ve ever ended up putting a gun in my hand. Even if they’re just … I was fortunate enough to not be in a circle of those guys. Now, we all knew guys who would. We all, all of us, my crew, we all knew guys who would and did and went to jail for it and the whole nine. But specifically the guys I ran with didn’t. So, I was really telling a story that was for all the young brothers out there who found themselves walking the line between chasing their dreams and surviving in the street. And to say hey, look man. You’ve got choices.
Kenji: I wrote it while I was working at a computer lab at Spelman College. And it took me about eight months, but I came into work every night and I wrote a couple of pages every night. Proofread, checked them, made changes during the day, and by … I probably started in fall. By that spring I had this two hundred and something page first draft. And it took, if that was 1998, it would take another three years and every publisher I reached out to telling me no, before I got a book deal. Because no one believed at that point in time there was an audience for this, what they considered to be, this story about this street kid murdering another street kid and there being redemption in that.
Kenji: And it’s funny ’cause at that point in time, that was a time of Terry McMillan and Connie Briscoe. A lot of sisters were writing these black woman centered relationship books that were really successful. And everyone, it was kinda like, yeah okay this might be a book that my son would be into, but is that gonna be profitable?
Kenji: The irony is that after my book, ’cause not that long after me Terri Williams’ Be True to the Game came out and she had been selling it independently. You had a cluster of books that basically said to the book industry, hey hip hop America, black people, white people are interested in this genre. These books will make money. And then the market got flooded and there was sort of the copy of a copy of a copy of it and kinda lost its luster at a certain point.
Kenji: But it was the only book … I think it was the only book that I wrote that was really about me making a statement. I think the rest of … The pieces I wrote after that were a little more personal. Or they were really cool stories, but I don’t think I was aiming to touch the minds and hearts of every black male in the same way. Probably not, at least, until this current … my most recent book, which comes out in August. I was just sort of, because I was a student of literature, I just wanted to tell dope stories. And what I didn’t understand, particularly about books and even more so about movies and film, is that you have to have a target audience.
Kenji: About movies and film is you have to have a target audience and there has to be something that that audience can identify with. And you also need to have a machine behind you. And my advice as you were sort of saying is that folks who want access to know sort of how I did it or why I did it or what motivated me, everybody told me no. I mean I got the writers market I got all these different books, went to all these, wrote all these agents, all these photocopies, all the mailing and postage to all these different people and everyone told me no.
Kenji: For the longest time I think I still have all the rejection letters I got from two different books I tried to send into the book industry they just didn’t see it, they didn’t think it was palatable, didn’t think it mattered. But what I knew when people read my work or when people took in my ideas is that I had something. It’s always a matter of getting the something that you have to the right person and that person isn’t always the person in front of you. It isn’t always the person you expect.
Kenji: It isn’t always the person who just falls in love with it right away. So many things are about timing and I think even though I’m I don’t know I guess because I spent my 20’s and 30’s watching so many young black millionaires come about in the music industry and in sports what have you. Things didn’t move that quickly for me. And what I learned was most important was serving, figuring out a way to tell your story and still pay your bills or comparably do something in service that helps you to survive.
Kenji: And somewhere in that at a certain point and if I’m eating up some of your questions please forgive me but I think for a while I convinced myself that I could just be another guy that was paying bills and that isn’t what I do. If I don’t have a story to tell if there isn’t some sort of way or need for me to express a certain idea I’m not gonna be there very long, I’m always sort of on a journey to do that.
Kenji: And sometimes it’s helping, sometimes it’s healing, sometimes it’s building, sometimes it’s destroying, it’s a whole lot of things at once. And the journey and the trial for any self-employed person, particularly an artist that’s looking to make their way is, get used to saying no, get used to taking it on the chin, get used to people jerking you around, people playing games with you, people trying to manipulate you because that is the world in which we live in a capitalist society. And that part of it just doesn’t change.
Isha: How did you get wise to the business side of entertainment so that you weren’t being taken advantage of.
Kenji: You know, this is funny, I had pretty good, on the book side, I had agents that were good at reading a contract and making sure that I didn’t get into anything too awful. What they weren’t always good at was negotiating or helping to make me … it’s funny, our mutual friend, Cheryl Smith recently told me that a commodity is not always a good thing. But I think it’s very easy to be devalued in the entertainment industry. If you don’t believe that you’re somebody, if you don’t believe you have something you have to say, if you aren’t willing to say no people will take advantage of you.
Kenji: And for a certain point in time I took a lot of paychecks that I shouldn’t and some folks took advantage of that. Not in any large way where I feel like my name necessarily got diluted but they blocked me from opportunities in some cases they dirtied my name with people because it was to their benefit as they were trying to survive in an industry where they were less talented. And I had to say, “Hey look, the game isn’t fair.” And I only can I not just trust my handlers in their points of view I have to take a look at every contract and every offer and think about how does this work for me? How does this work for my brand?
Kenji: I think the 21st century has thus far been a century that’s been about developing brands, becoming a brand, that your existence in itself in the work you do is a brand as independent artist or creator or entrepreneur. And I don’t think I had a brand for a long time. I think I was a guy that was a really good writer and I could kind of I felt like I could work with anybody or tell anyone’s story and that wasn’t true. When I stepped away from telling my story and started focusing on telling other people’s stories that was when I had less success.
Kenji: That was when I kind of found myself for all practical purposes under people’s thumb. Now hey, look, we live in a capitalist society we all have a boss we all work for somebody, someone signs our checks, and we’re all never 100% free. But I think that because I had so much success so early what I forgot was the importance of maintaining networks of making sure that you take care of folks who take care of you.
Kenji: Of not assuming because something you did with someone worked out at one point that that’s always gonna be your go to person. That folks pay attention to social media in both positive and negative ways and you have to be very careful about what you post, with what frequency that you post, and that you’re always seizing opportunities because when you work for yourself you and your voice is what brings work through the door. When you start thinking your friends, or your agent, or anyone else is gonna do that work for you that’s when you start to make mistakes.
Isha: As you look at your personal brand and you said that that was one of the things you didn’t do well, so as you continue to refine that, to cultivate that, what’s the story that you want your personal brand to tell?
Kenji: I think now where I recognize that I am is I’m an exceptional African American male who is now in his 40’s. I’ve had so many diverse sets of experiences in entertainment and I’m an authority about what works in terms of content creation, in terms of marketing, in terms of storytelling. In terms of even just human behavior. And what I had to learn how to do no matter what my product was at the given time is using that product as a means to share the story of people like me to people who may not necessarily be just like me.
Kenji: That as an example, as I was sitting working on my most recent novel Nostrand Avenue which comes out in August, I was, one of the things I was sort of thinking is that I could write another sort of traditional crime story. Or I could take elements of all the things I love, comic books, new age spirituality, yoga, telekinesis, whisky, drugs, marijuana, all these different things, sex, love, erotica, and I can weave these things into a story that has a very specific point about personal redemption and accepting that who you are in your 20’s isn’t who you have to be in your 40’s.
Kenji: That the mistakes that you make as a young man don’t have to continue to haunt you if you’re willing to confront and face not only the choices you made but also the thing you weren’t necessarily in control of. And because there are so many women particularly black women who don’t have access to that kind of introspection from the point of view of black men who are in their peer group, who are their perspective mates, who are sometimes views as the enemies, understand these people, that’s what my gift is. I’m an interpreter.
Kenji: And my brand is to be an interpreter of not only the African American experience but the world experience for Generation X. I’m a television nut, I’m movie nut, I’m a music nut. I know how to create the cues that anyone who is familiar with my time period can check into it and understand what I’m saying regardless of whether or not they’re on the street understand the slang that’s there. And I kind of for a long time just saw myself as another guy on the bus that could write.
Kenji: And even though I’m articulate and I have these gifts that I’m really great at for a good while I wasn’t using them and now I realize that my brand is using them. And using them to help not only to elevate other businesses, my audiences and individuals, but generally the world. Folks need to know that all of us can’t hoop, all of can’t dance, all of us don’t carry guns in our waistband but that doesn’t make me any less male, any less dominate male, any less of a threat to enemies of African American and world culture. And once I saw that for myself I understood, “Hey, the road I have is about building bridges and clearing roads and not necessarily in following wherever the rest of band is going.”
Isha: I think that’s so critical. You talked about it doesn’t make us any less threatening. And if we think about where we are culturally right now and where we would say perhaps we need to be as a people, what do you think are the tools that we need to be fighting with?
Kenji: It’s funny a lot of different tools. There are things that need to happen in the street. Street soldiers have a purpose and I mean that very seriously. But at the same time I mean I think the person that personifies where black art is right now to me when I think of someone is Donald Glover. Creator of Atlanta he just opened a new movie as Lando Calrissian this week. He’s a guy in his 30’s who has a really strong sense of black culture but at the same time got his breaks in these mixed majority white environments.
Kenji: He’s able to translate the black experience to an audience that sometimes is not completely black. And I think that his tool is being the nerdy guy or being the different guy from a very unilateral monolithic environment. There’s a story to be told and I think if you asked me what our weapons are I think our weapons are our perspectives. And each of our perceptions requires different sets of tools. Somebody needs to know whether or not a 9mm, between the 9mm, pistol, and 45 which is more likely to jam on them in the case of a shootout. Far more often it’s their intellect.
Kenji: Sometimes it’s their physical prowess, sometimes it’s their usage of humor. Sometimes it’s their processing of mathematics and science. I think the biggest thing that we need to be able to do is read our environment and pull the proper arrow from our quiver of skills and make sure that we hit the bullseye every time. And we’re not all equipped to hit every bulls eye, we don’t all have 100 different arrows in our quiver. But we have five or six that we all need to learn how to use as best we can.
Kenji Jasper’s Tale of the TAPE
Isha: I’m gonna deviate a bit and take us into tale of the tape because that is the whole premise behind that exercise. And I talk about this in my book, Five Rules to Win Being You, and I use the analogy of a boxing match. And tale of the tape at the beginning you hear the announcer they’re comparing the fighters and you’ll see whether you’re looking at their height, their weight, their reach, the circumference of their arms or their wrists which seems completely random if you’re doing anything other than boxing but you’ll see each of the fighters has their unfair competitive advantages.
Isha: And the same thing that you’ve talked about there. We may not have 100 arrows in our quiver but we’ve got five or six so when we figure out what those five or six are and how to use them effectively now we’ve got a fight. So, let’s talk about your tale of the tape or in your analogy the arrows that are in your quiver but we’ll stick with the tape analogy and tape stands for Talents Abilities Passions and Experiences. So, what are your talents? The things that come naturally to you? Flow with ease? You don’t have to work at it.
Kenji: I’m an excellent writer. I’m an excellent strategist. I’m a really good intuitive reader of people. I’m really good at like I said interpreting and translating I think that’s what I’m best at is taking an idea and knowing how to sell it to any different audience and tell a story that gets the point across no matter what kind of room that I’m in. And that gives me a certain universality where on a good day I can talk, I can stand in front of any group of people and get them to at the very least understand what my point of view is. On my worst day I have to find a way to find common ground with individuals who may not necessarily believe in me or understand where I’m coming from. And I have to do that with enough grace and style where I’m not perceived as a threat.
Isha: So, let’s talk about that A, your abilities. What have you had to work at but it has gotten to the level of a clear strength for you at this point?
Kenji: Small talk. Growing up my dad’s a very intellectual guy and the kind of conversation that happened in his house I think if I had to always make sure that I think I came off to a lot of people as sometimes a know-it-all or kind of head in the clouds, very ivory tower. And what I had to make sure that I did moving out into the world was that I knew how to say the same thing in a way that someone with less education or with less experience wouldn’t feel offended or become insecure about what I was talking about. One learning sports metaphor is learning about things that you know all black folks go through. Or all people regionally are annoyed by.
Kenji: Or just being able to chat up people and understanding what their strengths and weaknesses are. I am by nature a very kind of shy person. I stick to my own kind of wheelhouse and my own corner. But what I had to learn how to do is walkover and start a conversation. Overhear a conversation and find ways to interject myself into that conversation if it’s a conversation I feel I need to be a part of. If I need to cut somebody off during an on air interview where there are four or five people that was the biggest thing BET taught me. That sometimes you have to cut other people off so that you can be heard. I’m sorry go ahead.
Isha: Look, I’m gonna cut you off. So, I tell you that is and the way that you all did that was respectful and that’s something that’s missing from panel TV today. And not even necessarily panel TV anytime you’ve got more than two people in an interview together you turn on cable news it just becomes this shouting match where nobody is heard. Nobody’s perspective comes across. And you all were able to do that in a way as young people that we were definitely missing and a lot is being lost because folks just can’t even hear the perspectives that are being made.
Kenji: I think it’s also that culture is as such now. I think reality TV has created a culture where because our worlds are so much more tame now than they were let’s just say in the 90’s. What folks like to see is these big dramas and blow ups and cat fights and the like that’s kind of the sexiness of how people interact. And the problem with that is is that what it’s taught the new generation of people is that there is not value in negotiation unless you’re either the loudest person or unless you have the largest number of followers on Twitter, or Instagram, or what have you.
Kenji: That diversity and personal difference, finesse is just something that’s gone out the door I feel like. And I think that we were kids, we couldn’t be really loud about what we had to say in most of the environments where we came from. It wasn’t cool to kick knowledge about what was going on with black people in the street in the day to day. It was who got shot? Who got pregnant? What drama is popping off on the block? We were happy to be somewhere where we would be heard.
Kenji: And I think that the way that black views are heard now is Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, all these social media accounts that allowed them to be their own TV show. But at the same time what they don’t have now is a real sense of how their peers are feeling beyond their post. Everybody’s a star in the universe on what they post but teen suicide is up. Bullying is a much more serious issue. The Me Too movement, all these things, a lot of things have been hidden for a long time because we’re all standing on our own individual platforms without having a larger sense of where people are as a whole.
Isha: Yeah. Let’s talk about your passions, that P. What gets you really excited or makes you really angry?
Kenji: Oh wow, we don’t have enough time for that.
Isha: So, give us the Cliff’s Notes version, 30 seconds.
Kenji: Well, a really good meal. Someone, a really good counterpoint to mine is something that excites me. A beautiful woman with an even more beautiful brain. But idiocy pisses me the F off. If I hear something that’s not well thought out, if I hear something that’s judgmental in a way that doesn’t work for me, that sparks the fire in the belly. Or injustice, injustice pisses me off. I’ll get more pissed off with injustice done to someone else than what’s done to myself.
Isha: All right. Now the E in tale of the tape, your experiences. And we talked a lot about this but let’s extract that into how have your life experiences really shaped the way that you see the world? And the way that you relate to other people?
Kenji: I’m an explorer. I realized I’m the guy that goes in first. I’m like the marines. I’m a trailblazer. And understanding that the trailblazer doesn’t always get the credit, the trailblazer doesn’t always walk away with the cheerleader, but he makes sure the path is clear for the others that step behind him. And I think for me what I had to learn to love was the experience of lighting the torch and standing out in front. And to quote Star Trek, “Exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life.” In so many different ways as a creator, as a strategist, as a content creator and to not be discouraged by the fact that someone else the second person on the relay team may get more cheers but that doesn’t mean that the work I do is any less important.
Isha: Yeah. That’s good, that’s good. Now let’s talk about your new book coming out in August.
Kenji: Okay. Nostrand Avenue is a story of a guy named Jamison “Kango” Watts. He works kind of in the criminal underworld as a guy that sort of you come to for these flawless plans. He has a natural gift to kind of use people and events to bring about the outcomes that’s desired sort of working with what he has. He’s sort of a genius in his own way. And in his youth he sort of breaks away from an organization he’s a part of and ends up sort of pissing off some unnamed parties that run him out of town.
Kenji: 15 years later he’s no longer in Brooklyn where the story begins but he’s in Washington D.C. He’s running a restaurant, he’s doing things very quietly when a woman from his past, his old yoga teacher who sort of helped him hone some of the skills that he has, asks him to sort of come back to New York and to do a job for her that will take him from New York to London and eventually to Venice, Italy. And it’s the job is one part of it but really it’s about him carrying a lot of baggage of heartbreak, of banishment, of not knowing if he still has it at 40 or 41. And really learning as the heat is turned up that not only does he have it but the world needs him. He has to come out of his cave and he has to go back to what he does best.
Isha: What genre would you say that this novel falls into?
Kenji: I would call it Afro Futuristic Crime. There are bits of science fiction and elements of magical realism. There are elements of both traditional and African Centered religion. It’s literally like a dive into a very different pool than the one you’re used to but you’re swimming with folks that you know. And they’re thinking about things that have also been on your mind, gentrification, male and female relationships, marriage and children, how friendships fade, bisexuality, homosexuality, all these are different elements that are traveled through a very second person stream of conscious narrative. So, instead of I or he the book is written as a you. So, you become Jamison Watts through the entire book. You understand what it’s like to be him. You understand how he feels about these other people without ever really being able to separate yourself from what his experience is.
Isha: I think that’s a very bold and needed way to take that story on. And I think as we look at so many of the challenges that we see and the way that we relate to each other. It’s because we’re never able to really see life through the perspective of someone who is very different than us. And so often when people are challenged to do so because it’s so uncomfortable because it challenges their norms so much you shun it, you shun the people, you go out and picket about it because you don’t even want to try to understand what life looks like for you or the way that you see the world. It’s just a whole lot easier to just say, “Nope that’s wrong I don’t believe in that. We’re done.”
Kenji: And that’s one of my point of entrance was as a love story because I think that when your point of entry is about male and female relationships it’s a lot easier to say, “Hey okay … ” I think the first line of it is, let me do, I think the first line is something to the effect of about him regretting meeting this woman who he loved very much. And here it is, yeah, “Sometimes you wish that you never met Jenna Anne Campbell. You wonder if it would’ve been better for both of you if you hadn’t asked your boy Murph to hook you up with the same girl that did his cornrows.”
Kenji: And then you explain the story of it. Something very universal, something we all think we may regret love affairs that we have or we all think that maybe we would have been better not meeting or knowing this person. But that of course is never the truth. People enrich our lives and whether or not we hurt them or they hurt us it is something about who they are and who we are that is made better or is changed by the experience. [inaudible] said to me, “There’s no change without conflict.” And I think that in this story I’m telling, which is a multi-book story, it’s really about the fact that these events that seem that this guy sort of beat himself up about it at one point in his life were really the springboard for something much larger and something so much more important than he was ever really willing to give himself credit for because of his own self-esteem.
Managing a Career as a Creative
Isha: Now let’s go back a bit to how you’ve managed your career and you talked about that challenge between just taking the paycheck that you shouldn’t have taken. But how do you make sure that you’re not the stereotypical starving artist? So what have you done practically to manage your life, manage your finances in between gigs and even the way that you look for work?
Kenji: Well one of the things that I learned that I had a gift for, and I thank my momma for this, is I’m a really good instructor. And in times when creative work wasn’t necessarily always paying the bills I can always teach a workshop. I can always work with teams, nonprofits are always looking for individuals. I think that what I had to do because, and I didn’t have to do this when I was younger, is sort of say, “Alright, what do I want to make? What do I need to be making? What can facilitate that in this period of time with this sets of experiences?”
Kenji: I spent, to give you an example, my thirties were very quiet. And because I didn’t maintain a lot of my networks. A lot of my contacts in media sort of faded and went on to do other things. So I had to find new ways to interest an audience and what it was that I’m doing. Some of that is understanding the value of what’s happening now. Some of it is kind of being retro and posting and talking about things that younger individuals may not know about. It’s making new friends, it’s understanding that there’s a lot more value in, for instance LinkedIn, than there always is in Facebook. Or that I am better served in places where my voice can be heard whether it’s a webcast, whether it’s a panel, whether it’s traveling so that my name and my brand is the most visible.
Kenji: That’s the way to maintain clientele and also continuing to do the best work I can. One of the things that I’ve been doing a lot of this year is I’ve been doing a lot of publicity for the book industry. So, doing press releases, helping with press campaigns, helping individuals with their press strategies gives me some behind the scenes power. That enables me to do different kinds of work and different kinds of folks than just someone who really wants to publish their book. Or someone who really needs a screenplay written or what have you. And I think my goal is to sort of keep my fingers in a couple of different pots that are all bringing income in so that I’m never sort of on empty as I have been at certain points in the past.
Isha: I think it’s interesting too, one thing I’ve found and being in front of the camera and being behind the camera. Being the one that’s pitching to get my brand out there or the corporate PR which is right now my corporate sponsor, how to get other people’s brands out there. There’s a different perspective, I think, when you are pitching someone else and when you’re pitching yourself. For me one of the things that I’ve found is I just get too close to it, when it’s my stuff.
Kenji: Right, and that was something I didn’t do. And to be honest with you, I mean this is just the honest to God truth, the conversation that we had was really helpful for me because you were able to give me a perspective about my career and my situation that I was just too close to. You can sort of step back and when you look at someone else in a three dimensional sense and you see their value it’s a lot easier for you. And even seemingly less arrogant for you to talk up someone else.
Kenji: Seemingly less arrogant for you talk up someone else, than it is for you to consistently talk up yourself and you know if why publicity and social media managers and life coaches are so important at this point, you know, because even the best of us need folks who speak for us and when you don’t have that, sometimes it’s easy to sort of have these crashing moments where you feel like it’s your voice that’s the problem, because you’re the only person that’s speaking for you even though most of the time, that’s an illusion and that’s not necessarily true.
Kenji: I think that I named my current company, The Grand Illusion, because so often, particularly in entertainment, it’s really easy to get caught up in the packaging of it, but when you hand certain reigns over to folks, you know, you can’t be a one person band and when it comes to promoting your image and promoting your brand, you cannot do it alone.
Isha: That is so true. I feel like you just did a commercial for me for a program that I’m launching, because …
Kenji: See, I’m good!
Isha: Yeah. You didn’t even know that. Thank you.
Isha: Wanna leave with two quick questions. One, for someone who is on the creative side and looking to branch out into a national scene, what advice would you give them in terms of navigating the industry and positioning their work to get those types of opportunities?
Kenji: I would say the first thing to do is to do research, you know. Know who’s hot and who’s powerful in what it is that you do and understand that you’re not going to get to your target person first. Understand who’s one or two or three levels underneath that person. Make it a point of following the people who you’re interested in and who you want to be close to on social media. Make it a point of reading the news, adjusting your news updates towards your career and the things that you’re interested in, because the more you speak the language, the more qualified you are to end up in rooms where you can make the deals you need to make.
Kenji: The second thing to understand is that most of it isn’t personal. There are a lot of people competing for a small number of slots in every given job and you have to use your tale to take the best advantage to get the most work possible.
Kenji: What I learned for myself for instance is that my career and my experience level are as such that it doesn’t make sense for me to not be in New York or in LA or Chicago or Miami or a first tier market, because if I’m in a smaller market, I’m too expensive for the small jobs and I’m a threat to the local big fish for the big jobs, so it’s like, I’m better off fighting on ground where not only I’m most comfortable, but where I’m also the most qualified.
Isha: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kenji: I think I had a good eight or nine years of my life where that lesson escaped me and I kind of sort of pigeonholed myself in taking work that was less than what I should have been doing. From here on in, that’s a mistake I will never make again.
Isha: I feel like you just smacked me all in my face.
Kenji: You did that to me the first time we talked, so I’m only returning the favor.
Isha: It feels good though. Does not understand what it feels like, people are like, “You really offended me, but I kind of like it.” Now I know what that feels like. Thank you so much for that.
Isha: So last question, and this time is just gotten away from us, I wish we had another two hours to just continue to chop it all up, because I know we could easily. But the last question I wanna ask you is what’s your definition of success?
Kenji: Success is being, to me at least, it’s feeling the ground under your feet and being happy with the position where you are in the current moment, knowing that that position may change, knowing that position is not permanent, knowing that to move forward or backward it requires effort on your part, but it’s feeling solid, it’s feeling present and it’s being aware of your own strengths, your own abilities, and most importantly, loving yourself.