Cuz It’s All a Nigga Got: On Vince Staples, Guns and Nihilism

ImageThough G-Unit’s song “My Buddy” is one of rap’s most memorable songs about guns, in the song, guns are aggressively one-dimensional. Essentially serving as accessories, their only real function is to amplify G-Unit’s street cred. Nas’ “Got Ur Self A Gun” is less fetishistic, but the resulting message is the same: people with guns are people to be feared and respected. On Vince Staples’ new album Shyne Coldchain II, guns don’t appear as mere props. Tying his love and need for guns to the stark absence of any other forms of security, Vince develops guns as a rich and multifaceted symbol. For me, how he accomplishes this is interesting in terms of symbolism and narrative technique. 

The first thing that makes this accomplishment so noteworthy is the sheer fact of Vince’s characteristic obliqueness. Even when he’s being clever, Vince always maintains his poker face, speaking at a constant slant as if he’s being wiretapped. For instance, on “Humble,” he raps, “Daddy had us contact high off of crack smoke/Had to get it crackin’ with the 7 cause the MAC broke/Wrist fucked up, couldn’t make it to practice.” Though he doesn’t say it outright, in this brief aside Vince reveals that he spent so much time shooting guns as a teenager that he ruined his wrist and ruined his usual gun. It’s not uncommon for teenagers to injure their wrists through sports or masturbation or plain old misfortune, but Vince Staples injured his wrists because he was always having to shoot his gun. His life was intensely precarious at all times.

That is utterly depressing. Nevertheless, despite this depressing revelation, Vince keeps it moving. These kinds of oblique references are found throughout the album and throughout Vince’s body of work. A lot of rap’s most-praised storytellers are heralded for how vivid and evocative their stories are. Vince goes the opposite way, filling his tales with silhouettes, shadows and ghosts. Obliqueness isn’t for everybody but it works excellently for Vince.

For Shyne Coldchain II in particular, this obliqueness is important to note because Vince develops guns as a symbol by actively focusing on other symbols. It’s tempting to call these other symbols foils, but I think Vince is doing something much more interesting.  For instance, on  “Turn” Vince spends the verses accosting religion and other forms of authority, noting how god, school and family – the biggest forms of authority when you’re young – have all failed him and failed themselves. Vince then hammers in this rampant failure during the chorus, chanting, “When it comes down to it, know I’m out here shooting, cuz it’s all a nigga got, cuz it’s all a nigga got.” It’s tempting to see guns and gangs as the replacement for all the forms of authority that have failed Vince, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Vince has discarded trust in authority altogether. Guns and gangs aren’t foils. As proven to Vince by the imprisonment of his father, whose previous life as a gang member is detailed on “Nate,” guns and gangs are just as characterized by failure as everything else: there is no contrast. So though Vince cherishes his guns, they’re really just another empty, meaningless symbol. When it comes down to it, Vince Staples is a nihilist.

What’s interesting about his nihilism is how Vince lives through it instead of resorting to narratives of rugged individualism. Given the systemic failure of everything in his life, you would think he’d attribute his success to himself à la “Started From the Bottom.” But there’s no narratives of self-reliance here. Because Vince Staples sees the world for what it is, he has to see himself with that same raw clarity. He’s just a guy who’s been lucky enough to shoot them before they shot him.

I don’t have any reliable way of knowing Vince Staples’ self-image, but on Earl Sweatshirt’s song, “Centurion,” Vince raps, “I can’t wait/ ’til the money comin’ in/ Spend it all on guns and rims/ I ain’t nothin’ but a nigga/ Ain’t no reason to pretend,” so I don’t think I’m too far off. If this is in fact his self-image, it’s easy to dismissively say that Vince has self-hate or that he’s a victim of circumstances. These are the typical mainstream narratives that people use when they want to make sense of the lives of people on the margins. But I think that the whole point of Shyne Coldchain 2 is that both of those narratives look at the world without considering the values that are embedded in their respective worldviews.

For instance, people who advocate self-love overestimate the availability of the resources to develop such love. For Vince, religion, family, school and even Common (“Trunk Rattle”) just can’t think outside of their privileges. Becoming a good student or a good kid or a faithful churchgoer or a positive rapper takes more than pure effort; it takes the privilege to even be able to make those efforts. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people who argue that folks like Vince are victims of circumstance overestimate how defining circumstances actually are. In contrast to that argument, Vince describes a world in which people are actively working through their circumstances despite an utter lack of privileges. These people don’t have it easy and they should have it better, but they definitely aren’t victims.

In the end, because he values nothing in particular, Vince Staples is perfectly equipped to describe his world. And while his description won’t flatter anyone, even himself, it’s a description that everyone needs to hear. Listen to the album here. Even if you don’t care about guns or nihilism, the dude can rap his ass off, so there’s always that.


Interview: CJ Johnson, Comic Book Writer, Filmmaker and Fellow Hip-Hop Enthusiast

My typical strategy for writing about interviews is to take key quotes and use them to compose an essay. For the most part, I think it works, especially if an interview is long or if it fits into an essay idea that is particularly timely. But sometimes a conversation is so pregnant with rich moments that to compose an essay is to exclude those moments, especially if they can only be fairly represented by the dialogue that took place during the interview.

Because I really enjoyed the conversation that CJ and I had, I’ve decided to provide the full interview transcript. I had an essay in mind and it was about 80% finished, but revisiting the transcript a few days ago really made me rethink how I would present this interview. Accordingly, the full interview – all 6,000+ words – are provided below. That’s a lot to read, but if The Paris Review can do it, why can’t I?


Stephen Kearse: I watched the video for your interview at The Strand. In it you said that Curren$y is the model for your approach to comics. Why does that model appeal to you?

CJ Johnson: Basically, he puts out a lot of quality material, but he’s adapted to his situation, which is that people are going to get your work for free, especially with music. So he gives out free music. In a year, he might do 5 or 6 free projects and then once he does put out a retail album, his fans are more invested in supporting him. Now obviously, he probably makes a lot more off of touring, but I think that’s a good approach. Social Skills is the free mixtape. You get these stories and illustrations for free and then I’ll do a graphic novel that you have to pay for. I feel like my fanbase at Social Skills really want to support me financially by supporting the e-book.


And then also he does exactly what he wants to do. That’s the other thing, the most important thing: creative freedom. Except for Kendrick Lamar, who’s the only recent example I can think of where the album is better than the mixtape or his independent album, everybody else, you can just tell that the labels wore them down and they had to compromise. So my thing is always having complete creative control over everything I do. So yeah, that’s why he’s especially a role model.

SK: If a book publisher approached you, what kind of costs would that come with?
CJJ: Well, my background is in filmmaking. In the world of book publishing, there’s not as much pressure from the publisher because a budget for a book isn’t anywhere near the budget for a movie. But my number one thing would be having creative control. Number two is that I’m not going to kid myself and expect to do like Harry Potter numbers. So I would say well let’s look at the independent bookstores that have had success with the type of thing I’m doing – the kind that are afrocentric and into independent books – and let’s get into those stores. And then if it does well, maybe we can look at Barnes and Noble. So basically, I’d want a say in everything. The advance would really be for me and the illustrator so that I could solely work on the book and not worry about a part-time job or anything.

But yeah, that aspect of it isn’t even a big deal because I want to concentrate more on myself: growing a brand, being able to distribute maybe another graphic novel as an e-book. Eventually down the line, after building a fanbase, I could look into a publishing deal or something like that.

SK: How far down the line would this be? A few years?

CJJ: Yeah, a few years. Obviously it would be great if all my terms were met immediately (laughs), but I’m naive enough to expect that.

SK: That’s really patient.

CJJ: Yeah, my number one thing is doing exactly what I want and getting it to as many people as possible. So the next thing I’d try to do is like e-books on Amazon, Kindle. But with this I just wanted to do Paypal, that way I wouldn’t be splitting the profit with anybody. Down the line that wouldn’t matter so much because I’d be in a financial position to lose some of the revenue. But who knows, maybe eventually KOBK will be printed when we have the money to do that.

SK: So your background is in filmmaking. Why did you move to comics?

CJJ: I didn’t necessarily move. I like both. I definitely want to do both, but filmmaking is definitely my first love. When I was 14 I knew I wanted to write my own films. I actually did 5 short films in a row and with each one no matter how great my vision was, I wasn’t able to execute it because I was so desperate to have a creative outlet that I rushed the project. So no matter how great your vision is, if you don’t prepare and execute it to meet your standards…all 5 of those didn’t meet my standards at all, so I was kind of down about it after the last film.

I actually was reading a graphic novel at the time – I’d always toyed with the idea of doing one – and I started to look at it like, wait, everything I want to do as far as visual storytelling – even without motion or audio – still has a relation to film and it will just be me and one other person, the illustrator. And also, whether I have a scene with two people in a café or on Mt. Everest, the budget doesn’t waver at all. So I have more creative control. But the number one thing when I thought about doing social skills was the turnaround between my ideas and the execution. It would be quicker and it would live up to my standards. With a film it takes so much time, so many people, and then you have to worry about all types things that are outside your control. Filmmaking takes a lot of time and money, so I didn’t want to go back to that until I had the proper resources. That was the main thing. And then once I started thinking about it more and more, I realized that it was perfect for the type of creative person I am. I’m very meticulous with the writing and the characterization and how the story is told, so even though I’m not illustrating, I have a very big vision that I give to the illustrator. So I’m hands-on with things even as small as like an ashtray in the panel or something.

SK: So it was kind of a financial decision, but also a practical decision. Because right now, taking the example of Mt. Everest, with a film you have to coordinate all these things and there all these contingencies: you have to get a pass to shoot, you have to fly your crew to the location, it might rain, you might have to rent a helicopter, all these things. With comics, all of those problems are erased. You’re not limited by a budget.

CJJ: Yeah. Because I was financing these films myself, I had a really limited budget. Still, I take the ultimate blame because the smarter thing to do would be to say, okay, I don’t have enough preparation or the money to do it the way I want, so I’m not going to do it until that happens. But I didn’t do that! I just rushed in because it was my only way to have any type creative outlet or vent on life. With comics, especially with a blog, I don’t have to worry about that. I’ll have an idea on Tuesday and be able to see it executed within the week and executed to my high standards. You can’t do that with film. The other thing is, because none of those films were up to my standards, no one outside of my friends and family saw them. I had plans to submit them to festivals and all that, but I once I finished, I didn’t hustle or promote it. Social Skills is the first thing I’ve really shared and it worked really well, surprisingly. I have a lot of fans, even fans I wouldn’t expect, mainly on Tumblr. I got very, very lucky with that.

SK: So what I would take away from that is that comic books compress production time?

CJJ: Do you know Terrence Malick, the filmmaker? In the 70’s he made two films and then he had a gap in between then and 1998 when he made The Thin Red Line. He or Kubrick will take like ten years between films and that’s kind of how I would do it. Because film is no longer my only outlet, I’m in a position where I can make the type of film I want. I can have an idea today and be okay with the fact that I won’t be able to do that until 5, 10 years from now, because I have comics and photography in between. I wasn’t in that position when I was only able to do film as a creative outlet. I had this burning desire to just do it, no matter what, and it ended up hurting me. I feel much more positive about filmmaking now than I ever did.

SK: So comic books, in a way, brought you closer to filmmaking

CJJ: Yeah, definitely. Now I love both of them equally, but a few years ago if you would have told me I’d be doing comics, I’d have been shocked and surprised. But yeah, between the films that I want to do and the graphic novels I want to make and the photography, I definitely feel like a more complete artist. I also feel much more confident as well about the way I do things because with Social Skills, that was the first time where I said whatever my first instinct is, I’m going to go with it. If I have an instinct to write something and I feel kind of frightened about how people will take it, I have to do it. Whereas before, with the filmmaking, I still did exactly what I wanted, but I was kind of worried about going too far or alienating people. Now, I don’t think about that at all and ironically that’s brought me the most amount of fans. And they’re a really diverse group of people. And ironically, when I look at the type of people who follow me on tumblr, most of them aren’t even into comics.

SK: What type of artistic costs and opportunities do you see in choosing in comics over film? Not to say that they are totally different; they each have their own characteristics, but…

CJJ: In film, I think you have more opportunities because you’re combining literature with theater, radio, photography, costume design and basically all of the arts. And then [visual] editing is specific to filmmaking. When all of that comes together in a great way, that medium, in my opinion, can’t be beat. But again, with comics you have much more control. Whatever idea you have, you can do it. You don’t have to worry about the budget or if the actor can pull it off, even if you get the people you want. So there are pros and cons, but as much as I love the medium of comics, I think that film as an art form gives you the best opportunity to express yourself because it’s the closest to real life.

SK: It’s interesting that you say that because your comics are pretty realistic.

CJJ: Thank you.

SK: Seriously, they have a really strong vein of realism. So is there really a distinction?

CJJ: Yeah because I think what’s great about it is that you’re reading it and ideally the dialogue is realistic and you’re imagining what’s being said and in your imagination they’re natural actors in the world…but what if you really did have natural actors? And then you have the audio that’s the ambiance of the scene and you have the voice audio, then you have the soundtrack, then you have the cinematography and the camera is moving and you have the composition within the frame plus the editing…when you experience that for two hours, it’s different from any other art. Unfortunately, because people are greedy and are more concerned with how much money they’ll make, they don’t utilize it in that way, but there are those rare moments like in films by Fellini, Tarkovsky and Eric Rohmer that really reach the pinnacle of what you can accomplish in that art form. Basically, what I’m trying to say is that you get locked into a great film in a way that you don’t get locked into a great book or a great comic.

SK: I don’t know if that’s true. I think that’s a matter of opinion, but what I think that you’re getting at is that as someone who likes creative control, the comic book as a genre is limited doesn’t allow you to create as many things?

CJJ: Yeah, what’s funny is that I don’t even prefer one over the other, I’m just saying that when you reach the highest heights of a film, there really just isn’t anything else like it, in my personal opinion. But I definitely understand why other people wouldn’t feel the same way.

SK: I actually agree. I just wanted to push you on that point.

CJJ: Malcolm X is one of my favorite films and no matter how many times I watch it the way I feel about that is different than how a Malcolm X graphic novel could make me feel, even if that graphic novel is excellent.

SK: Returning to my comment of the realism of your comics, why do you choose realism over a mode of surrealism or something more cartoonish? Is it because of your relation to the content?

CJJ: Yeah, definitely that! But also, just as a reader and as a viewer or films and television, I’m not really into surrealism or anything cartoonish. The closest would be like The Boondocks, or The Simpsons or Daria or something like that. But those have an element of realism. Not that surrealism or superhero comics aren’t good, but I’m not personally interested in them. And yeah, as far as the content, it’s definitely not autobiographical, but it is very personal.

But one day I do want to a graphic novel or story for kids or an adventure story like Raiders of the Lost Ark for kids. But that would be just one special thing, whereas with everything else I do I automatically think in terms of realism. That’s just what I’m personally interested in. With everything I do, my goal is to express myself and then also ask, if I read this or watched this, would this be my favorite thing. Would this be the thing I’d tell all my friends about or even strangers? So I write what I respond to. And again, it’s very personal.

SK: Since it’s personal, do you feel like you have a responsibility to not present it in a way that misrepresents?

CJJ: Yeah, definitely.

SK: That’s one of the problems with The Boondocks. If you don’t know that it’s satirical, you might just be watching Adult Swim and see it after watching Aqua Teen Hunger Force and think that it’s making fun of black people.

CJJ: Yeah, I remember who wasn’t black thought that. She was Asian and she was like she thought it was really offensive to black people. But yeah, she didn’t realize that it was a satire. But anytime you do a satire, you run that risk, whether it’s The Boondocks or the movie Network or something like that. But again, I feel like that if I see the world and the world is complicated and people are complicated, I have to represent that too. I can’t just say that because my main character is rich and yachting people might not like him, that I shouldn’t write him. Yeah, I could be irresponsible and try to do exactly what plays well with audiences, but I don’t think about that when I do anything. I’m the only audience when I’m writing. And I like stories with protagonists that are complicated. Pretty much every story we see that’s popular, if they start off complicated, by the end of the story they’ve changed. Life doesn’t work that way. But it’s interesting you thought of that in terms of responsibility. I’ve never thought of it like that.

SK: I thought of it that way because I read Yeah You’re Cool, then I looked at your blog CJ Visuals and it was interesting that though there were no direct parallels, the images of the people you hang out with – who I guess are your friends – were very similar to the people in your comics.

yeah you're cool part 11

Panel from Yeah You’re Cool Part 11

CJJ: Yeah (laughs), especially the women. I think that the natural hair is probably the one visual theme that goes throughout all my work. In the photographs, you don’t necessarily get their personalities that much –  that’s another thing: this year I want to focus on photography, so Social Skills  is on hiatus until January  2014.

But long story short, yeah I think it all represents me and what I respond to. Again, it’s all really personal just because anytime you do something really personal, you’ll fight tooth and nail to make sure it’s done. Money doesn’t really motivate me, but even if it did, the type of people who are motivated by money and popularity might work hard, but they’re not going to mortgage their house to get something done. Great artists have died penniless because they put out something about more than just what could bring them a certain lifestyle. Anytime you put your all into it and it’s personal, it ends up being up to your standards and to me, that’s the most important thing. Artists’ successes and failures don’t actually have anything to do with people’s responses to their works.

But yeah, it’s funny that you picked up on that because my photography definitely has a correlation, visually, to my comics.

SK: From comics to photography to film, what is it about the image that appeals to you? What does the image in particular enable you to do?

CJJ: I think because I’m a quiet, more observant person, I pick up on a lot of nonverbal things that tell you so much about a person. You can describe these things very well in a book, especially if you’re a good writer, but one of my favorite moments, whether it’s a film or a graphic novel, is seeing someone do something and there’s no dialogue at all. It’s kind of ironic because I love dialogue, but visual storytelling allows you to use so many more tools than just the dialogue or the narration.

SK: You’ve kind of experimented with other, nonvisual mediums. For instance, I downloaded your mixtape, Diaspora Muzik.

CJJ: Yeah, I love all music.  Disapora Muzik represents my change from being just a lyrics-driven hip-hop head, one of those guys that thinks that the 90’s will never be topped, to being like you know what, someone like Joe Budden, who is a great lyricist, but has a terrible ear for beats, could learn a lot from someone like Shawty Lo or Chief Keef. They’re both really good with hooks and choosing beats. Or Drake, who I’m not even a fan off, he has that thing like R. Kelly where he’ll have like 3 different hooks on a song. Combining all of that, which is something that Nas did on Illmatic, Biggie did really well, Kanye does really well, and Jay-Z too, makes you a complete artist.

I’d say that post-Black Album Jay isn’t necessarily what I like, but Reasonable Doubt, Blueprint, Vol. 1Vol. 1 is slept on. It has the worst Jay-Z songs, but also the best Jay-Z songs… But again, I would say that someone like Ross’ ear for beats is incredible. Even the Clipse, the Re-Up gang mixtapes, the We Got it For Cheap Vol. 2., that’s hot.

SK: Did The Neptunes produce that?

CJJ: No, it was a mixtape back when people were rhyming over other peoples’ beats.

SK: I miss that! I felt like that was the ultimate demonstration of skill. When someone else’s song comes to mind and your verse is the first one I think of, you’ve won.

CJJ: Well, that We Got it For Cheap Vol 2. is the best example. All the songs I knew and liked are now to me just Clipse songs. There was “Put You On” by the Game. They took that beat. But anyway, what I’m getting at is that they were able to pick the right beats and still be lyrically incredible.

But anyway, back to the comic, I was thinking about that myself. I know what my strengths are but I need to work on other things like my visuals. For example, like with KOBK, that’s going to attract people who aren’t necessarily used to hearing someone talk about black ownership or who aren’t used to female characters that are strong, but the reason they’re attracted to is because they see these lush colors and a guy on a yacht with a topless girl. That’s going to attract people more than if I just said that it doesn’t matter what the visuals are as long as the dialogue is good, which is what I think Joe Budden does.

Panel from KOBK

Panel from KOBK


CJJ: For me if someone doesn’t like my work, I would never say that they were too dumb or didn’t appreciate it. I would just know that one: it’s subjective. And two: if someone isn’t at least responding to the visuals, I’d be kind of surprised (laughs). Again, me being a more complete artist, with Diaspora Muzik, I actually gave a lot of stuff a chance that I formerly wouldn’t have and ended up liking it because I found that something may not have the best lyrics, but the beats are incredible. And I realized that you have to know something about music to know what beats to pick, to know the type of flow to have and know which kind of hook to use. I actually did the mixtape in themes. The first part is celebratory, so it’s like a party atmosphere. And then it gets into the political with Saigon and that Dead Prez and Jay-Z song, and then it gets more reflective at the end. So there’s like three themes running through it. But yeah, I’m glad you took the time to listen to it. I appreciate that.

Back to your question though, I don’t think I’d be a good DJ. I think I’m good at making a good playlist or a mixtape. I wish I could DJ and go to a party and mix and see what the crowd likes, but I don’t have that particular talent in music. But I love music and I know I’d only be able to subject someone to a playlist. That’s another reason why I am doing something visual and not musical.

SK: You feel that you’re stronger in the visual arts.

CJJ: Yeah. I definitely think that if my passion was to write a novel, I could definitely make something great. But since my passion isn’t to write a novel, if someone came to me and asked me to write a novel for money, I could do it, but it wouldn’t be anything great. So I wouldn’t even want to attempt that. I have a very high standard for myself; I’m my own worst critic. So when I share something with the world it has to pass a lot of tests for me. But yeah, I definitely feel that I’m stronger visually, but I love writing too. When I think of films and comics, they definitely go hand in hand.

SK: Okay. Why did you title it “Diaspora Muzik?” Who’s in the diaspora?

CJJ: I think that particular mixtape represents…in America there are people that would only exclusively listen to Shawty Lo or exclusively listen to Nas or exclusively underground people you’ve never heard of. So I wasn’t saying it was a representation of Black culture…

SK: Yeah yeah yeah. I was just asking because when you tailor a playlist, you do it with an audience in mind. And with that title, that’s a big audience that you’re courting.

CJJ: Yeah, all of those songs that I like and love and have listened to over and over…

SK: You like “Murder to Excellence?” I hate that song. I hate that album.

CJJ: Really? l like it a lot. The album, I was a little disappointed in. But “Murder to Excellence,” “Gotta Have It” and “New Day,” I like them a lot. But yeah, I definitely I love all those songs and I felt that they were a representation of some of everything, as far as hip-hop. The most basic song is a song that Jelz Much did. It’s produced by Brandun Deshay and it’s called “Word Around Town.” It was her diss record to Kreayshawn, but the beat was so hot that I listened to it a lot. It was my guilty pleasure. And then you have the Nas song about how he made Illmatic and how he was broke after Illmatic and then he did It Was Written. So it’s just the different extremes of hip-hop. A lot of people get too worked up over the extremes; I used to be one of those people. I would only want to listen to Nas and Tribe when I was in high school, but I had to realize that it’s an art form. And hip-hop really started off as party music, so you have to embrace it.

SK: That’s something that I always try to emphasize to people. The whole narrative of “real hip-hop” is false.

CJJ: And I myself, I like to have a good time. But I also like to read a lot. But sometimes I’m not in the mood to hear someone talk about the misery in life.

SK: Kind of returning to the comics, I want to talk about the content of the comics a little bit. One thing that really strikes me is how much you talk about relationships, especially relationships between men and women – straight men and women. What interest is driving this exploration of relationships?

CJJ: Hmmm.

SK: You do this in a particular way. When you’re representing these young people of color, you really emphasize their personalities and you make them intelligent. You really emphasize that. Not like in a pretentious way, but these people are living complex lives.

CJJ: Yeah, again, I think that just represents my lifestyle and the people that I’m around. But also, it represents, especially at the time, what Wes Anderson called Moonrise Kingdom: “a memory of a fantasy.” So when I was in high school, these are the kinds of conversations that I wished I was having. And I did start having them as I got older, so it’s partially that but it’s also just my way of thinking.

But let me answer the first part. Relationships! When I was younger the comics that I was reading and really into were the Archie comics. And those aren’t superhero comics. Those are about friends hanging out and dating and whether Archie was going to ask Betty or Veronica to the dance or something like that. But I’ve always been interested in that type of thing and also just personally relationships with women, it’s something that I don’t just go with the motions. I reflect on it and think about it. So observing how relationships can change a person and that person’s friends and then group interactions, all of those things interest me, so I write about them.

Archie Comics

As far as intelligence, of course I’m aware that in the media, especially for young black people, there’s barely anything like the stories – I’m not trying to brag –  of Yeah You’re Cool or Asinine or KOBK.

SK: Yeah, these kind of characters are usually the token black.

CJJ: Or if it’s all black characters, these are the characters who think they’re better than everyone else. So I decided…Well I wasn’t really actively thinking about that, but I thought my experience is that if you or me are hanging with like-minded people, just because we’re interested in intellectual things, that doesn’t mean our relationships are going to go any better than someone who doesn’t aspire to talk about intellectual things. Whether your education comes from one of the best schools or you’re self-taught, that doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to move through life in a better way than anybody else. Because at the end of the day, things are complex. But yeah, these people are smart and they live comfortably, but you’re always going to have problems, no matter where you are in life. I try to write about characters that reflect upon themselves or talk about relationships with their friends.

But at the same time I definitely think that there is barely anything that reflects the kind of people I hang out with, black people specifically.  I think that even among stories about young white characters, you barely see anything intellectual. I remember watching The Social Network and thinking wow, this is a film about young people who are all smart, and it’s done in a casual way without them being the ultimate nerd or the outcast…well I guess in a way [Mark Zuckerberg] was the outcast, but you know, he wasn’t that different. But yeah, that’s very rare, so that’s always a gamble since people always worry about alienating the audience. But again, that’s not something I worry about. I think it comes down to me writing what I really want to see.

But yeah, I was wondering, is that something that you felt made the story better or was it just kind of a forgettable attribute?

SK: What I liked about it was that it wasn’t very forced. It wasn’t like, “Wow, we’re all really smart!” It was something that was understood and didn’t have to be reflected on.

CJJ: Yeah, I think that’s my personal style, not commenting too openly on things. I prefer subtlety. Plus, if you’re in their world, this is natural to them.

SK: And yeah, why should that be rare? I feel like I should be reading this and be like “Oh god, another story about smart black people?”

CJJ: Haha. Yeah, hopefully we’ll get there one day. The internet provides that opportunity, but unfortunately, a lot of people make web series and independent films that are kind of like the same thing.

SK: Which might be indicative of another problem. I’m not sure what you’re talking about specifically, because I’m not in that circle, but when people are all making the same things, sometimes it’s because they all have the same problem, or a lack of the same thing.

CJJ: I really think that a lot of us are focused on doing something crowd-pleasing. And when you do that it’s not going to be very challenging. It’s not going to break any type of format or artistically go somewhere that hasn’t been explored or hasn’t been explored enough. Ironically, the 90’s were the last time that was happening. In the [early] 90’s, there was nothing like the internet where someone like me could just do it and have lots of people ultimately follow me. I just feel like our culture –American culture – is all about hustling and capitalizing and getting as much money as you can. But when you do that you’re dumbing down because you want to appeal to the widest demographic and the lowest common denominator.

I feel like with the internet you don’t have to do that, but if someone’s eyes are already on money, they aren’t going to use the internet in the same way as if they were having some meeting at CBS where someone was telling them, face-to-face, “I don’t really know if these black characters are going to relate.” They don’t have that pressure. So they’re censoring themselves in a way, which I think is disappointing. Again, I think that money, status and popularity still drive people.

SK: And also respect. People don’t really understand the struggle of being a creative artist and they don’t appreciate it until there is a final product. And I think that necessity of a final product is what drives people so they’re willing to do whatever and not really question their motivations and things just to get it out there. Because without that final product, no one cares.

This isn’t really equivalent, but sometimes I’ll be writing a blog post and it will be super late at night and I’ll think this isn’t really that good, but then I’ll post it right then because I finished, but I wouldn’t proofread it or check for coherence and I’d end up taking it down because I know I should have done those things. But the point is that it’s that same urge, that I’ve got to get something out there.

CJJ: Yeah, I agree. I think the challenge of doing something weekly, which is what I did with Social Skills, is the first time I had anything self-imposed. There’s definitely some stuff, especially in the beginning that I don’t think is up to par, but now I know how to rectify that. But sometimes it’s important to just vent and put it out there and see what happens.

SK: Back to relationships, you also explore the relationships between male characters a lot. I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but you really expose how casual how some of these really terrible things are discussed. For instance, in KOBK and Yeah You’re Cool, cheating is like this really understood thing and there’s even a logic to it. Knowing that, I was kind of shocked when I saw on Social Skills that you reposted someone who complimented KOBK then said that it didn’t pass The Bechdel Test as far as female characters. It was weird because that was precisely…

CJJ: Yeah, the reason why I posted that is because she liked it overall and I didn’t feel like that was a critique because if she was very serious about that, she would have missed the point of the story.

SK: That’s exactly what I think happened.

CJJ: I didn’t take offense to it. But if I had called it “The Disapora” instead of KOBK, and there was no narrator and I presented this as the black experience, then yeah that’s an on-point critique of why it failed. But Dashawn is the main character so you’re seeing everything through his eyes. I purposefully had all the female characters be introduced in a sexual way, because that’s how he thinks of women. 

Panel from Yeah You're Cool Part 9

Panel from Yeah You’re Cool Part 9

SK: And it’s a short story. If you really had time to explore his social circle, inevitably you’d have introduced a greater range of people.

CJJ: Yeah, and one day I will do something that explores everything. However, like you said, it explores male relationships. I’m a straight male and I have friends, so that’s going to enter itself into the work I do. But at the same time, I’m glad that you liked the female characters. Because if you look at it, those female characters are more developed than every male character except Dashawn. And even Dashawn, he’s purposefully like a cyborg. He has complexity, but he doesn’t really let things out because he likes his life that way.

Another thing is the casualness with which they talk about cheating…so often my experience is that, especially when I’m with friends, as opposed to a movie where there will be 4 friends and 3 of them will be like that and there’s this one guy who’s always like, “Come on guys, I love my girl. I would never do that.” I just feel like that’s not always true. Like-minded people hang together, so the casualness of talking about cheating is just a given, especially for young men that have thigns going for it. That’s just the reality of it. I understand that it makes people uncomfortable, but when I’m writing something [that’s realist] it has to be objective. It’s not even an indictment of that type of thinking, but it’s not an endorsement either. It is what it is. This is how things are talked about. I never worry about the content, but I do wonder about someone who doesn’t realize that I’m objectively writing this, especially these people who really dislike me and respond strongly to my work because they think it’s my personal manifesto.

Someone on Okayplayer actually started a discussion about Social Skills, but I didn’t see it until a month later. The guy was like, “I actually had a conversation with my boys like that. Damn we look like assholes!” He was responding to Yeah You’re Cool, but I think that KOBK is probably has the ultimate uncomfortable moment in the café scene.

SK: Yeah, there’s a woman in that panel.

CJJ: Yeah, the server. She’s overhearing it and you can see her reaction to it.

SK: That’s why I was really taken back by this person citing the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test – there’s actually a video from like 2010 where someone proposes that we update the Bechdel Test – is a tool to help us think about what’s going on in films and in the film industry as an institution. But the point of that video is that are multiple factors at play. Like if you watch Cast Away, you can’t apply the Bechdel Test. Or if you watch that really crappy movie that’s about to come out with Will Smith and his son in space (After Earth). You can’t just be like, “If two women aren’t speaking to each other in this movie, that’s sexist!” You have to look at the content. Because when I read KOBK, particularly that scene, it was really sympathetic to how women are treated by men. And how aware they are of it.

CJJ: Yeah, another thing people have commented on is the character traits of these women. Like with the youngest girl that Dashawn’s with, at first she just seems like she’s a bird, she’s annoying. But then you see that she’s really invested in him, but he’s really cold to her. But at the end, she made an impression on him and she said things that affected him and in her own right, ultimately she’s not getting out of the relationship what she wants and he’s not putting anything in it, so she’s probably better off without him. And he’s probably better off without her.

But like I said before, I definitely want to do a bigger piece. I would never do something definitive on black life, but I do want something where you have more characters that are from different socioeconomic backgrounds. But yeah at the same time, if I want to say something about women, I’d rather it…If I had to choose between a male writer who’s really great and a female writer who’s equally great, I’m more interested in what her story will be like just because it’s coming from a really unfamiliar place for me.


Thanks for reading. CJ can be contacted here.
To view more of his works, visit CJ Visuals or Social Skills.
To purchase KOBK (Kill or Be Killed), his graphic novel, click here.

False Symmetry: Illmatic vs good kid, m.A.A.d city

I wrote a piece for RESPECT. that I’m kind of proud of. In it, I address the burgeoning (and annoying) discussion about whether or not Kendrick Lamar’s debut album will be as “classic” as Nas’ debut album, Illmatic. I argue that the discussion is silly in terms of the albums’ actual contents and in terms of “classic” as a useful or possible designation.

You can read it here.