This interview was originally published on Medium
Joel Leon has been telling stories, making music, and creating art for as long as he can remember. But it wasn’t until 2015, when his essay “Don’t Be a F***boy” went viral, that it became clear that writing could be the vehicle to pursue his dream: to create work that leaves a legacy and prove what’s possible as a black man in America. We caught up with Joel to chat about what inspired his book and what he’s been spending time with in Pocket.
You are a storyteller and newly published author. When did you know you wanted to write and tell stories, and how did it become a career for you?
I really try and avoid the overly used line “It found me,” but, it found me. Since I could actually write sentences, I wanted to write. I wrote for the school paper in 4th and 5th grade. I was making mini-comic books and album covers with track listings; I created an imaginary band and an imaginary film series and there was always this very big part of me that wanted to tell these stories I kept seeing in my head.
It became a career towards the tail-end of 2015. My daughter’s mother was in her 3rd trimester, I was just feeling really depressed with where I was at as an artist. At the time, music and emceeing and theater seemed to be where my focus was heading for the most part. However, I was just feeling alone and unsure about fatherhood and my role as a potential provider. I started writing essays and monologues really out of a sense of desperation. Medium.com gave me an outlet, especially because I was fairly new to the essay writing side of things, and I wasn’t submitting to publications yet. THSPPL, a publication on Medium at the time, caught wind of one of my pieces. That piece, “Don’t Be a F***boy” went viral, and pretty soon I was churning out piece after piece. It became clear that I could do so much more with my writing in that way than I could by using any other literary device I had been using up to that point.
You recently published your first book, A Book About Things I Will Tell My Daughter. How did the book come about? And have there been any unexpected responses?
Interestingly enough, it’s the same path that led to writing as an actual career. I knew I didn’t want to self-publish. Growing up with Toni Morrison as my literary idol, I knew that her and others like her had followed the route of an agent than a publishing house. I wanted to follow in that time-honored tradition of writers I admired. After a potential agent kinda bailed on me, I was left with not knowing what the next move was, and feeling utterly vacant and lost. I remember having a surreal moment with God like, “If you keep ignoring what I am asking of you, I will take it from you.” At the time, it felt like every week someone was asking me to publish a book. People were asking for a book of affirmations. But that felt like cheating. I had been giving my followers on social media affirmations for free via Twitter, and it felt like some con artists bullshit to charge them money for something just because it was being delivered in a physical manifestation. I wanted to give them, and myself, more. So, I kind of buckled down and decided I was going to just self-publish.
I started looking at printing presses and decided I wanted to write about something that would give me the room to explore and touch on many topics, while also being able to cull material from previous years that felt good enough to be shared with the world. The idea for the book and title came from that; this need to explain the world to my daughter and her daddy’s past, through rhyme and verse and essay. And, lo and behold, when I decided to self-publish, a publisher came into my radar. Within 6 months of declaring out loud I would self-publish, I wound up publishing through Bottlecap Press.
The response has been nothing but love. I’m appreciative and honored. There was a lot of support for the launch and the presales did really well. When Lin [Lin-Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame] endorsed it on social media, it felt like confirmation that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing as an artist and storyteller.
What has surprised you most about being a father?
How much I learn from my daughter. How much of a sponge my daughter is. How much love I actually have. How much more I need to learn. How to be accepting of the fact that I cannot and will not be able to teach her everything. And that fatherhood and the roles of fathers are dramatically undersold.
What does your creative process look like? Where do you find your inspiration?
A lot of it just starts with listening. I’m scanning social media, people’s faces; I’m looking at conversations on trains and train platforms. I’m listening to restaurant conversations. I’m looking for new music and taking a lot of walks and processing my day and the interactions within it. I’m going to movie theaters and trying to watch things that are thought-provoking and speak to my spirit. I’m looking to engage with other creatives, debating and questioning and sharing ideas and issues we’ve encountered through our own creative processes, through love, whatever. I take my camera with me pretty much everywhere, in hopes I’ll see something I want to capture what will serve to inspire some piece of art. I’m trying to read as many books and as many articles as possible. I’m just trying to stay as alert and aware as possible, looking for ways to enhance my art and add to the mental portfolio of images and material in my head. Essentially, I am trying to use my life and my living as source material as much as possible.
You’re also a musician and have been spreading your message to the masses through multiple albums and live performances over the past several years. How does storytelling through music differ from your writing?
I believe in seasonal craftmanship in that, as an artist who uses multiple mediums as a form of expression, each medium will take that lead in different seasons of life. Music was very fruitful prior to the birth of my daughter, at least in a very different way. While I never made much money doing music, I created an aesthetic, a sound for me that I carried into my writing. Everything I do is through the lens of hip-hop, from the way I dress to the way I talk and put essays and thoughts together. Nasir and Jay Z were my favorite poets long before Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni were.
I used to tell people writing songs and writing spoken word pieces and essays all felt like different parts of my brain were being activated when I wrote. So that, music required a very different sort of process. I needed a beat to write to. For spoken word pieces, I just need a song that speaks to me that helps me navigate the work. And for essays, it’s almost always, exclusively jazz. Music has always been the foundation of my writing and my experience as a human being.
What type of impact do you hope to have with your work?
I want to change the world in a very important, and larger-than-life sorta way. I realize that I do have an impact now, but on a smaller scale, smaller than I’d like to, to be honest. For someone who looks like me, who comes from Creston Ave. and E. 188th St. in the Bronx, me even sitting down for this interview, as a 35-year-old black father, is kind of unreal. Statistically speaking, I had a better chance of dying at the hands of law enforcement or from someone in my neighborhood or being locked up. So it’s become paramount for me to speak to the masses in a way that allows the message to get across: Yes, this is possible. Yes, you can look like me and still make it. You can define what success looks like and means to you. You can break barriers and open doors for others. I want my art to shift how others decide to make art for generations to come. That’s my goal. And I want to see that while I’m alive. I don’t want to Van Gogh this shit, nah. I want to be able to smell all the roses. I want my flowers! I want a legacy my daughter’s children, if she decides to have any, can and will be proud of. I want generational wealth in finance and spirit for her, for them.
What fascinates you?
My daughter. People, in general. But mainly, Lilah. Every day with her is something new. She pointed to the sky one night and said “Daddy! Look, the moon!” She was genuinely excited, and I know that comes from us talking, us sharing energy. That stuff moves me, every time.
What have you been discovering, saving, or spending time with recently in Pocket?
Recently it’s been a lot of saving — NYT published a great article on brown point shoes, Rolling Stone gave some love to Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, and 99U broke down how to get your side hustle on. But, I’m really excited to dig into this Buzzfeed News article calling out abusive men in Hip-Hop.
Imagine if your Pocket came to life as a party or gathering and we were invited. What’s the vibe? Who would we meet?
Ah man, shit would be lit. There would be a lot of Hollywood A-Listers, a lot of hip-hop stars, a lot of artsy folks who probably didn’t vote for Trump. It would have to be at some hole-in-the-wall art gallery in the Bronx, and the theme would be social justice and there would be a silent auction to help recently released black mothers. I think there’s a space for social activism and high-end art and boujie conversations and educated dialogue with cats who wear penny loafers sitting beside parolees and gold-chain wearers, right along with Lil Uzi Vert and Hillary Clinton and Obama and Kalief Browder’s brother.
If you had the chance to escape and read all of your current Pocket saves, where would you go?
Rihanna’s living room, for sure. I love her. Like, for real. Like, donate a kidney.