We have the ability to create stories in the palm of our hands. So let's just do it, and do it in a way that makes everyone feel loved and included.
Hello, hello, hello! Greetings from New York City. It’s Tony Howell, and on this episode of Conversations with Changemakers, we speak with Jelani Alladin.
He's most known perhaps for his performance as the title character in Disney's Hercules at the Public's Delacorte, but Jelani made his Broadway debut as Kristoff in Frozen the Musical, which earned him a Drama Desk and Drama League nomination for his performance. His work can be seen on CBS, AMC, Amazon, and more. But as you're about to hear, his heroic voice is finding new mediums through writing, producing, and activism, whether through traditional media, social media, or the new media that he creates with his production company, Dumont Millennial Productions.
I am so excited for you to hear this conversation. Enjoy!
Jelani Alladin, I am so excited you're here.
Yes! I made it. Finally, at long last. It's been a long chase, I know.
It's fine. You've been a busy, busy, man.
I'm trying to stay busy. I don't know if I am actually doing anything of service, but I'm trying to stay busy.
I am going to argue against that. You are totally being of service in the times that we're in, and that's why you're on the show.
Oh, thank you.
I am excited to talk to you. And for our listener, we both are in New York right now. Everyone's dealing with surprise circumstances. So Jelani, I know that you recently started a production company. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Yeah, so I have to take it back to when I was in Frozen. And I was standing on stage one night in the middle of the show and I was like, “What am I really doing? What am I actually doing here?” And I realized that I had to go. It was the moment I was like, “I have to leave this show. And I have to move on to actually pursue the creation of the stories that I really want to tell.”
And when I left Frozen and I was looking around for my next job, I realized in all the things that came across my way - in most of them - I didn't really find that project that I was burning to do. And so I picked up a pen and I started writing my own projects. And then I was like, “Well, I need a place to do all of this.”
And I'm not one to sit by and wait for the phone to ring. I literally never have done that. And so I said, “I'm going to make my own production company.” And the vision for it started, I guess, two years ago. Fast forward to 2020 and we're all stuck in our homes. I thought, “When else will I have the time to really do this and really do it well?”
And so I began with calling my mom, who's a fantastic business woman. And I said, “Hey, I want to start this business. You want to start it with me?” And we did. And we did all the paperwork. I had the mission statement and everything all drafted up and ready to go, because I've been sitting on this vision for so long. And now I am producing my very first artistic production.
Because I produced a webinar about a month ago for the program that I went to in high school called A Better Chance. And particularly about the racism and the issues that are facing New Canaan, Connecticut right now with that. So I produced a three-day webinar.
And now, my first artistic endeavor is a virtual reading of a play that I love so much called Goodnight, Tyler by BJ Tindal and it's going to be directed by Kent Gash. And I just can't wait to share it with the world. We're going to present it on the eve of the March on Washington, which I will also be attending. And I'm excited for this new venture, this new side of me: A producer.
Yes. Mr. Producer. I want to applaud your work. And there are a couple of things that I want to ask you: Is that webinar available for replay?
Yes, it is. So we do have the panels on YouTube. If you type in A Chance To Unpack, is the name of the series, and you can find the videos on YouTube. The first day we talked about A Better Chance and what that program actually is. And we spoke with alumni of the program and of other programs around the country. And then the second day we took a look at the high school, New Canaan High School, and what was going on inside their curriculum, social, and how the students felt before 2012 and after 2012. I chose that date because I believe that the world, our country, actually changed around 2012 ish with the murder of black men becoming more public and becoming a kind of a video reality show in a creepy, horrible way.
And so that changed our culture. And so the last day is called Allies and Friends, and it explores what is an ally, and who our allies were, and who our allies weren't. And we have conversations with those allies and with our friends as well, and try to unpack what exactly it means to be an ally. So those are the three days and they're on YouTube.
Well, I will make this easy for all of us and I'll include those, as well as information about your upcoming reading. Hopefully we can all attend that live, but I'll have all the resources underneath this conversation in one place for everyone.
You mentioned a mission and a vision statement. And one of the things I want to reflect on, that I even felt in my journey, was I think that we are creators, and interpreting someone else's work can only be so fulfilling. So I love that you're starting to create. So what is a little bit of the mission and the vision?
So the mission is, it's going to be a multimedia production company. And I say multimedia because I don't believe that we can no longer be confined to one art form. We must be versatile. We have to be able to work in the theater, work on TV, work in film, work on Instagram, work on voiceovers, work on video games. I mean, you have to be able to do it all. So it's a new multimedia production company and it's going to amplify the unheard voices of first generation Americans in particular, while exploring how we use new technologies and innovative forms of storytelling.
I'm interested in breaking forms and sharing the stories of these kind of new, millennial people who are now coming to - who are born of this country like myself - and are still reckoning with the history of the other places our families have come from, and with what it means to be American in this moment. So that's what the project's really going to be about.
That's incredible. And I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit about your history. I will also say I'm going to link to all the podcast interviews you've done, because I listened to them all and they're all incredible. So my intent was not to ask you the same questions in this conversation, but if someone's lazy, let's give them the Cliffs Notes version of your childhood.
Yeah. So I'm from Brownsville, Brooklyn. And I grew up in the church, essentially. I have a West Indian family, my family's from Guyana, South America. And the church was a huge part of my upbringing. And I think it instilled a lot of principles in me. And the most important principle that it instilled in me - and my family, and my mother, and all of my loved ones - kind of planted inside of me is that I could be anything I wanted to be. And I kind of really ran with that idea. My imagination was limitless. And I knew that through hard work I could really achieve whatever I wanted to.
And so my mother made me sing in church. I did not want to, she made me. And I came to learn to accept that, that's what I did. And then I decided to take choir in middle school and I was like, “Oh, this is kind of cool.” And then I was like, “I want to go away for high school. I want a better future for myself. And I feel like I can only achieve that if I get out of Brooklyn.”
So then I went to high school in New Canaan, Connecticut, which is the complete opposite of Brownsville, Brooklyn. I had never seen wealth like this ever before. And I had to insert myself into that space and kind of find a way to hold onto my authenticity and identity. And that was very hard. And I went through four years of that program, and there is where I found theatre. And I found the performing arts and I thought, “Is this something that you can do? Is this a career? What? Can I do it?”
And I decided to go to NYU for college to study acting. And I was convinced that this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. And then I started working regionally around the country doing plays at first. I did not want to do a musical because I felt that there wasn't a place in the musical theatre for me. And I was kind of proved wrong by the universe with that mentality, because some great musicals came my way. The first one post-graduation was Violet, a production of Violet that I did.
And I thought, “Alright, I can do this.” And I came back to New York and I went to an open call, got Frozen, Frozen happened. I did Hercules. Hercules happened.
And then I started doing a TV show, The Walking Dead: The World Beyond, which was supposed to premiere back in April, but we now have a premier date for October 4th. So be sure to check that out. You won't see me until the latter half of the series, but I'll be there. I actually can't tell you more than that.
It sounds interesting. There's a twist.
But it's a really fantastic show. And now I'm wanting to produce and wanting to write, and wanting to continue to reframe my artistic appetite and have an expansion of myself. So that's where I'm at. That's the summary.
Can I ask one question? I know one of the interesting things was that you got a full ride to University of Michigan, but decided to go to NYU. So can you highlight that choice?
It's funny, I feel like I've always been making really wild, bold choices since I was a freaking kid. I mean, I decided at 13 that I'm going to leave home and go to a place where I was literally one of two black students in the entire high school. That gives you a sense of how daring I really am.
But when it came time to apply to schools, I visited Michigan and I was not in love with the student culture there. I was not in love with the idea of being on this huge campus, the idea that these classes - and I sat in a whole day of musical theater classes for their program there. And I was like, this just feels so cookie cutter. I mean, I don't see myself fitting in here. I don't see myself expanding here. I know that it might be great for other people, sure. But it wasn't the right fit for me.
But I still gave my all in the audition process. And I got in, clearly, and I got a full ride. And I got into NYU, and that was being led by Kent Gash, and Michael McElroy, and Byron Easley, and all these amazing African American artists. And I said, “Sign me up for that.” To be a pioneer, to be the first class in a new program at New York University, with all black teachers, with people who are working in the industry, with Tony nominated directors. Sutton Foster was my first vocal performance teacher. You can't get that anywhere else. And I said, “I have to be there.”
On top of that, I knew that coming back to New York City, I needed to restore my authenticity. I needed to see myself reflected in the halls and in the streets, and at Michigan, I did not see that. And that would've been crushing for my soul after four years away already not seeing that. So I said, bring on the 90K plus in debt, let's bring it on. And I'm going to NYU.
Yes. Well, I want to just thank you for sharing that. And so boldly, like you do. And I think it highlights the importance of culture for everyone listening.
What I want to zoom in on and kind of try to connect the dots is you are a bold, fearless, pioneer and leader. You've been leading companies. You've been taking charge of your own life. So where do you think that comes from?
I think it comes from a very early age of me understanding that I was different, that I'm not like many people. I mean, even now when I have my friend circle, they’re like, “You're such a weirdo.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I am.” And rather than being seen as the weirdo, I want to be seen as the person that's exceptional.
From a young age I was like, “If I flip the narrative on that, then I have control and power over how it goes, rather than being subject to other people trying to pin me as something or make me something. I'm going to make myself into this other thing.”
I think that in spaces where you're the minority, you have to find a way to kind of be exceptional or you'll get stomped on in this society. It's kind of sad and I hope that that's changing. I believe that that is changing. But for so long when I was growing up, the narrative was, “Oh, what? You don't play sports? Oh, what? You're one of six black kids in this entire school? Oh, what? You sing? Oh, what? You can dance, too? Oh, what? You like to play Yu-Gi-Oh cards?” All these things that are so eclectic and I was like, “Yeah, I am all these things. I'm full of contradictions. I am many, many, many things, and I'm going to celebrate them all. And I'm going to show you that it can be great when you accept all of it. That I can be great when I accept all of it.” So that's kind of where that leadership quality comes from.
Thank you for sharing that with us and sharing everything that you are, which is exceptional and extraordinary.
Now let's look - you have been leading for a long time. But specifically in our industry, you've been leading musicals, plays, TV, film. What needs to change for future generations of storytellers that are coming up behind you so that we can make these work cultures better for, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, etcetera?
What needs to change? I think that hopefully everything changes because if we're not evolving as a business, we're not evolving as a society. It's so interesting that some of the issues we're running into now is because people are still holding onto beliefs of the way the world was 10 years ago. You have to constantly be assessing, where's the world now, and how can that manifest in the art we create and the stories that we tell? And if those two things aren't meshing and matching, there will always be conflict. There will always be this kind of feeling of like, you're not seeing us.
And I think there's also a weird belief that there aren't audiences for BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, etc. stories, and you are so wrong. And in fact, those people are actually becoming the majority of Americans. And I think there's actually research that says that in time, that will be the case. So get on board with it, and share the wealth, and share the space to tell these stories.
And then we have to trust that those kinds of artists - and myself included in that mix - will produce great products. We'll make great art, we'll actually make compelling things. We are smart, intelligent, powerful, empowered people ready to do the work, and ready to do it probably better than you could have ever imagined.
I think there's something about that trust thing that is huge. If I'm talking through personal experience, I'm going to compare Frozen to Hercules. Granted, I was younger when I was doing Frozen. So I myself was going through a learning curve, but I still knew a lot. And I still believe that if I was given the trust and space to share the things that I knew, Frozen would've been a better product. Whereas when I started Hercules, I was like, “Ah, no, I'm going to put my foot down, and I'm going to assert my energy, and I'm going to bring all of me into the room. Because you need to know that this is the extent of what I can do. And this is the extent of the knowledge that I have gained over the years to bring to this form, to make something compelling. So trust me.”
So I think that we just have to trust that people will rise to the occasion when given the opportunity. Simple. Create the revolving doors. And if I can help do that, if I can help create more revolving doors for the people behind me to step into and grow and learn and execute, then that's what we need to do. And I hope others join me in that endeavor.
I'm with you. I'm like, “Sign me up. I'm on board as well.”
I do want to ask you, maybe, what would you say to Jelani who just got the call for Frozen, or a future Jelani who just graduated from a university and they're stepping into a big opportunity. What do you wish you knew then?
I wish I really understood how business works. I think I was so wrapped up in the ideal of like, “Oh my God, Broadway, this magical thing that we've always heard of, that we dreamed to get to.” But it's like, okay, let's strip that away for a second. And talk about the reality of how does the business actually work? I think that is not taught enough. I think that is not talked about enough, especially commercial theater, what that is really about. And theater by corporation, also, what that is also about. Because I did not really know anything about that. And I had to go on a learning curve about that and how limited the space is inside of that to be authentically you.
I would tell young Jelani to stop being shy. I think I was a bit shy. I would say, “Don't be shy. And trust that you are enough, and that you will be seen, and that people will respect you.” I think I feared not being enough to be in that room. And it wasn't necessarily an imposter syndrome. I think it was more like, I am young and I just am inexperienced in terms of this kind of high-profile work. But at the same time, that shouldn't limit how fully and vigorously I assert myself into that space.
Well, you were phenomenal in the show.
That is very kind of you. I'll be honest. I'm not proud of my work in that show. I don't think I ever will be. I think I am proud that I existed in the space of that character. Yes. I think that that was a huge win for the world. And for me. But I just don't think I will ever come to the day where I'd be like, “I was proud of that.”
Would you do the role again?
Absolutely not. I just think that there are just some huge flaws in how it was constructed. Because again, I did not speak up or fight hard enough for the things that I wanted to see.
Are you proud of Hercules?
Absolutely 1000%. 1000%. I am proud of every single breath that I put into that production.
I found it so interesting. And before I ask you this question, I want to take a moment to thank you for the courage, the bravery, the talent, the craft, the work ethic, everything that you bring to the table, but especially the vulnerability.
So I found it very intriguing, interesting, wonderful to know - and I want to highlight it here - that you got hired, and then fired, and then hired again for Hercules. And then slayed New York City and the world arts news. So can you tell us a little bit about your own hero’s journey with that project?
Yeah, it was kind of - they always say that art reflects life. And it was like, “Wow, this journey to standing center stage singing ‘Go The Distance’ on opening night was a hero's journey.” So I really had a lot to draw from.
But it's that thing where a great director, his name is Ken Gash said to me that everything you need is already inside of you. He would always just say that in college. And I never really understood what that meant. But this Hercules journey kind of proved that to me, that everything I needed was already inside of me. I just got to figure out how to bring it out, how to execute it so sharply that other people understand that, too.
And so the process of finally doing a title character, finally doing a title Disney character, finally reinventing a character and bringing my complete history of who I am to this narrative that was not created to include that, to learning how to sing, “Go the Distance.” And that was a huge journey. I could not sing that song in the beginning. And that's part of the reason why I got fired, really, is because on the final presentation day I cracked on the last note and it was just like, whoa, everyone's unsure, will this ever happen?
Granted, it was the first day of winter and it was 10:00 AM. And “Go the Distance” happens in the first 10 minutes of the show. So I was like, yeah, I don't think it's going to be that pretty, but okay. And trusting that other people on the creative team kind of understood what exactly my vision for the character was and what I was trying to do. That I wasn't actually trying to be malicious in any kind of way. I was just trying to bring the story to my story because you hired me. If you hired me, you have to actually accept all that I am. And that includes the history of what it means to be a black man in America on stage. Period. You cannot delete that from my existence. So therefore, you cannot delete that from the character.
And so all those things had to come along. And I feel like certain people on the creative team weren't sure if that was the things they wanted to bring along to their project. But in my head, I said these are the things that will make your project actually special. These are the things that will separate this from the work that this company has done before.
And so I was getting ready to move to LA to continue my TV and film career and be like, “Alright, there really is no place for me in the theater, especially the musical theater. So let me get out of here.”
And I remember the day - I was going to grab my keys to go to my managers and say, “Alright, in two weeks we're going to do this.” And I get a call being like, “Hey, we want to cast you as Hercules.” And I said, “That's crazy, because I completely let y'all go. I completely moved on.”
It was like, I had no vision of ever doing that show on stage. And it came back to me. And I said, “Okay, time to reassess, and time to really come to the table with exactly what I want to do with this show.”
I mean, even in the rehearsal process, things would get choreographed and they would leave me out. I'm like, “No, no, no, no, no. I'm going to do this dance with them. I'm going to be center with them. I want to push myself to the furthest limits. Let's go.” Otherwise, why do it? Why?
“Go The Distance” for me is about all the black men that have been enslaved, incarcerated, murdered, held back, and them finally feeling that they are gods that there's a place for them. That black is king. That is really what “Go The Distance” was about for me. And I was not going to ever let it be about anything else. I stood up for that.
That's amazing. And I'm excited. I know we don't know what's happening with the project. You might.
I do. And I'll be honest I don't think I see myself playing the role ever again. I think that part of the responsibility is like, if I really want to create revolving doors, then actually I have to step aside. I do have to step aside and let the younger person - who actually will probably be better for the role because he's supposed to be 18 anyway - the younger person do it and be better than I could ever imagine the role being.
I want to thank you for everything that you brought to the project. And I want to bounce off of what you just said. There are two things I want to react to. You said Kent Gash said, “You have everything you already need.” And I love that. My version of it is the gay version of Dorothy Gale. She had everything she needed all along. And then the second thing that you said, the other thing I want to react to, I feel like you've said twice that you didn't think musical theater had a place for you. Do you still feel that way?
That’s a good question. I would say no. Because I've proven myself wrong that I can create my own space in this industry.
Growing up, you have idols, especially in the musical theater business, there's only about five other black leading men that I can really name for you that I looked up to. There was Ben Vereen, there was Joshua Henry, there was Leslie Odom, Jr., there was Brian Stokes Mitchell, Norm Lewis. Those were the sounds of what a black man was supposed to sound like if he wanted to be on Broadway. And so in my training, I was like, “Then I have to sound like that.”
And that kind of messed me up a little bit because those people didn't think that, they kind of just went in and did their thing. So why am I here now trying to recreate their thing, when the thing that's going to get me the jobs, the thing that's going to create the space for me is my authenticity, my individuality, my personal sound. I don't need to sound like nobody else, period. So once I actually realized that there being no space for me was actually just code for stop trying to be like somebody else. Then I realized that there was space for me.
I heard you say, when you did the Cat in the Hat - this breakout role for Jelani - that you were interpreting, that you were mimicking in a way. I feel like there's something there - there's a through line, and maybe a lesson for the listener - because if you are in an interpretive art form, what is your advice to find that authentic self within a character that has already had?
I do think there's a journey through that. There actually is a little bit of mimicking, if you want to use that word, that happens in everyone at the beginning. Because you're like, I actually don't know what I'm doing. So I actually need to watch someone who knows what they're doing. It's like watching a Meryl Streep film and me like, “Oh, I see what she's doing. So let me try to kind of do that for myself.” You actually have to see it to kind of understand it. Especially because it's a visual art form. Period.
So I think there is some "mimicking” that happens. And then at a certain point you realize that, “Okay, if I mimic everything that actually doesn't work for me. What actually makes me feel good? What actually makes me feel like, oh yeah, this fits.” I can't even put into words what that feeling is, but there's a tangible feeling that happens when you're like, “Ah, the, a glove fits, I have found my way in.” And you just know it when it happens.
You can't really describe it in terms of execution of work, like do this, do that, do this and that equals that, you can't actually do that. There's no science to that. But there is that affirmation, that feeling that you get when you're like, “Nah, I've put in everything that I am into this and it's now authentically mine.” And there is a journey to that. And so you try, you try, you try, you fail, you fail, you fail, then you succeed once or twice, and boom, you understand what that thing is.
For me it's bringing all my contradictions to the plate. I'm a black man born and raised in Brownsville, but went to high school in waspy, rich New Canaan, Connecticut, but then also went to NYU and studied musical theater. But also I love acting. And then I played sports for a little bit, but then also I did theater. There are so many things. I was on a step team when I was younger. You have all these things that contradict each other. And that's what makes interesting art, in my opinion. I don't know about anybody else.
I will reflect that for anyone that's not an actor that's listening. Even in my own journey as an entrepreneur, there was some modeling or mimicking or looking to see who you could follow, but then you kind of have to find your own path and throw away the blueprint and say okay, here we go.
Throw away the blueprint. I love that. I love that moment when you're like, “Alright.” I think it's a moment of when you abandon your script in our business. It’s like, alright, this is the blueprint, it's all on the page. And now I'm like, “Closing that, and I'm going to start living, and actually understanding that I'm confined in this space, in this thing, but I'm going to find ways to get from corner left, to corner right that are far more interesting than what could it ever be on the page. Respecting that the page has given me the foundation.”
Boom. Sound bite.
Jelani what would you say - We're going to look back and we're going to look ahead - What would you say to young Jelani that are the misconceptions about this industry?
That it's not a fairy tale. I think that when you're on the outside, you really believe that, wow, it's a fairytale. Look at all these stars and how pretty they are. But they're real people, too. They eat and shit just like you. And they also have stresses and uncertainties and difficult decisions to make and hard times and sad times. And all those things exist within those people. So the fairytale that you get to Broadway, or you get a series regular job and a TV show, a hit TV show, and you get a Tony award, an Emmy award, and everything's great. Your life is perfect. That's not real. I don't think that exists in any business really.
So I think that's just a misconception about our business in general. And because sometimes our job is to make it look easy. You don't want to see effort. When I watch anything, I don’t want to see the work. I just want to see someone living through something. And that is a misconception that people think, “Oh, it's so easy. I can do it too.” But it takes hard ass mother fucking work to get this thing at a level that is great and exceptional.
I think that in the beginning, I was like, “Oh, this has got to be so easy. They're just on stage, running around, singing and dancing, or they're on screen saying a couple lines while acting out set. That's so easy.” It's not. And for some people it may come easy. But for me, it's always been hard work.
I have the same experience. Right now, today, in this present moment, what is your advice for the listener? What do you do to take care of yourself in the pandemic, in the racial injustices that are happening? How is Jelani practicing self care?
Oh, man. I love to eat. I'm like what could I eat my feelings away with today?
I also think that I'm taking time. In the beginning, I was really glued to the TV, to the news. I'm taking days to just step away and just be quiet. As much as you put out into the universe, you got to also listen to balance. This past weekend, I went up to my host family in Connecticut and I went to their home, after being tested and everything like that. And I had a few days away where I unplugged and I was like, “I need this kind of mental reset.”
Every week actually. I do this every week, every Sunday night. I'm like, I'm going to take a pause, take a reset, and prepare myself for whatever will come my way this week. Because things got so unexpected, especially around the murder of George Floyd, and then Covid actually not ending, and then now we're going back to schools, and people are saying what is that even going to be? So all those things - you never know what's coming your way, what's coming down the pipe.
So literally just breathing. I used to do this thing in the beginning of the pandemic where I take 10 minutes every morning and listen to a song or a moment from an old project that I did to remind myself that that was a good time. That felt good. And you need those moments. We all need the moments of, you got it kid.
I want to kind of look forward a little bit - and that's the scary thing right now, we don't know what the future looks like. But if Jelani could whisper in the ears of people at your level, veteran artists that are leading players in the industry - TV, film, theater, writing, producing - what advice do you think that they need to hear for 2021 or even November of this year? What do we want to plant as a seed?
I would say, let's go harder. Let's go harder. We have been doing it, let's push the limit. Let's go as far as we can and really push through those doors and be like, “We are here and you cannot deny anything about us any longer.” That's the mentality I'm walking into 2021 with, is that you cannot deny my existence, my individuality any longer, because I will constantly be throwing it into your face. Because that's what other people do who have the privilege to do so. So why not do the same? And then it's your responsibility to provide me with equality. Pay me what I am worth, see me, see my stories, share my stories, and just let's go harder. Let's go hard, y’all.
I'm with you. And I want to ask you - circle back to DuPont. Can you tell us a little bit about what you're working on so that if anyone's listening, including myself and we want to support the work, what all is happening?
So at the moment, on August 27th at 7:00 PM, we'll be doing a live stream reading of Goodnight, Tyler by BJ Tindal, directed by Kent Gash, featuring some amazing actors. We are about to lock up our cast in just, I think a couple hours. And it's a play about a young man who is - actually, wait, I can't give that information away, because I want someone to come to it with a fresh mind. But it's in benefit of the National Black Theater. And I chose that institution because one, that institution was founded many, many years ago by a black woman, which I think is incredibly powerful. And it's one of the nation's only institutions that really shares black stories and uplifts the black artistic voice.
And I want to do a benefit for them. And so we're hoping that people tune into the livestream and donate to the survival of this theater, of this institution that will help create further revolving doors for African American artists behind us. And now more than ever that is needed. I think that's one of the projects I'm working on.
Also, October 4th will be the premier of The Walking Dead: The World Beyond. So please tune into that. If you're on the message boards, be like, “I like that character that Jelani's playing, like let's keep him alive.” So that you can see me for many, many more seasons.
I'm writing a few projects that I'm not ready to quite share details and specifics about yet. And that's all that's really coming down the pipe for me. I mean, granted every single day, the world changes, and something new comes into my life and who knows what I'll be doing tomorrow, or in a month from now, rather?
It's exciting. And I want to take a moment to lift up National Black Theater. I saw a performance there from the American Slavery Project, also an incredible, moving institution. But watching Jonathan McCrory - I might be messing up his last name - the artistic director speak on the Broadway Advocacy Coalition - so powerful. And that's definitely - I think that they are leading the way along with Jelani. I hope that he's a future guest. Planting the seed Jonathan, let's chat.
He's amazing. He's amazing. I've known him for many years.
Yeah. He's wonderful, as are you.
So I want to ask you, I heard you speak on a podcast and one of the responses that you gave early, when people ask, “How are you?”, you said that you're a warrior. You always have been. So Jelani, what are your weapons and what does winning the battle look like?
What are my weapons? I think I've always believed that education and knowledge is power. And so me being the smartest, most in tune member of civilization is a weapon for me. Understanding history, understanding everything about politics, everything about systemic racism, everything about finance, everything about business, everything about love and relationships and all those things. That knowledge for me, knowing all of that is a huge weapon.
Also I think that understanding the psychology of other humans. I actually took a psychology course in college because I was so fascinated with the human mind and how we kind of understand each other. I think that I've always been able to relate to people and see people past where they are right now and see their potential. And sometimes that's a good thing and sometimes it's not a good thing because I don't see what's actually right in front of me. And then my shield is weak because I'm just seeing what the person can become. But there's also something to having that vision. I think having vision is another weapon. Of being able to be like, “I see where you are now, but I also see where you can be if you so choose to go after the best version of yourself.”
I think I have a good instinct. I think that comes from growing up in an environment where you were always on the watch, always kind of in tune with what was happening around you. And knowing, do I turn right on this block or do I turn left on this block? Knowing that one might lead to the non-safety of myself. Just an internal instinct of what is right, what is wrong.
And the principles that I was instilled with when I was younger. That you treat everyone with kindness. That you stand up for yourself and what you believe in. That you try to be of service to others at all times. That you share the blessings that have been gifted to you. That I could do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I mean, there are so many little sayings that we used to say to ourselves in church that have carried me and prepared me for the life moments where you're like, what the fuck do I do now?
Alright let's pause and reflect back to, “Is there anything that someone has said to me that kind of has prepared me for this moment?” There are some things you learn in life that actually aren't of service to you until much later, and you have to kind of hold on and bank them somewhere. And then when it's time, you're like, “Ah, I got it. That thing that person said to me 10 years ago, it now applies now.”
If you want to talk about an artistic example of that, Sutton Foster - I remember one of the first days of class, she was like, “What are you doing? Just stand and sing the song.” And I was like, “She doesn't know what she's talking about. She's such a hack. Oh my God.” And then flash forward to four years later as a senior in college, I was like, “All I have to do is stand here and sing the song. And actually just stand here and tell the story, she was right.” I didn't understand it until four years later.
So I'm a warrior and I have tons of tools that have been stocked up over time and I'm still sharpening my tools as I continue to learn and grow and expand. I have so much more life to live, to learn from. And I'm excited to continue that journey.
I think that that's brilliant.
There is a twist here that I want to ask you. You talked about stories that stay with you, and then they pop back up. This morning in my meditation, it was about letting go of things. We're so focused on acquisition. So do you have anything that you were able to let go of that you said, “Actually that's not true?”
You're right. It is a twist because you're banking and you're holding on, but there are some things that you actually cannot hold onto, because they're not good for you. For example, there were some moments in the process of me growing up and even up to the process of moments in Frozen, where people said some really nasty things to me and I can't hold onto that. I can't actually allow that to be stored inside of me and grow, because that will create sickness and heartache and angst. And I don't want those feelings to live inside of me fully.
And so I do have to forgive. Forgiveness is key. To find ways - and I personally find the best way to forgive, is to actually face the thing head on, to go to the person that said that thing to you, to go to the person who did that thing to you and say, “You did this and it hurt me. And I have to let you know that.” And kind of - actually, really, interestingly enough - one of the reasons I wasn't able to sing “Go The Distance” is because I was holding on to some hurt from my time at Frozen. And I had to actually go to those people and say, “Hey, you hurt me. And I have to let this go if I want to move on.” And that shedding allowed the space for my chakra, my heart chakra and my throat chakra to open up again, and then I'm able to do the job.
And thanks to Liz Caplan for identifying some of those issues. More so about the issues of what I was holding onto that I hadn't let go of, that I needed to. And so I think that letting go is incredible, a huge part of life and sometimes you can't do it alone. Sometimes you have to actually go to the source and say, “Hey, I'm hurt. I need you to know that. I need you to understand that for me to get better.”
You have planted some difficult seeds in my own garden. Now I have to attend to these. But thank you for that.
It's not easy. And I think that it's interesting. I said this quote so many times to my development team, for a chance to unpack when we were trying to identify the questions of how do we talk to these people who have done racist acts to us? And I don't understand how we as humans could build rockets, go to the moon and get to the moon and come back and then say let's go to Mars, but we can't turn to our neighbor, our family member, our friend, our coworker, our boss, and say, “Hey, you hurt me.”
We can't actually have conversations like that. Why is that so difficult? It should be the easiest thing, far easier than building rockets to the moon, I imagine. And so I believe that open communication would be so healthy for our human race. It really would.
I actually want to say thank you as well to you again, because during the George Floyd protests and the awakening of so many of us - that the curtain was pulled and we see this systemic racism, we see the straight, white, heteronormative patriarchy that is grasping with white knuckles on their power - and your voice, your powerful voice on social media, really challenged me and inspired me to speak up. So I want to thank you for that.
And I also want to ask - Because, I'm in this business about digital marketing and such - So you're active on social. Can you share a little bit about how you approach it as an artist, as a human? What is your social media strategy?
I don't think I have a social media strategy. And I think that actually right now that's working for me in terms of, whatever I want to post right now and I feel like posting I'm going to post it. Because if you look back to why these things were created. They were a way in to see people's personal, cool, interesting lives. But also do they have to be cool and interesting? Or can they just be, oh, living? I think that there's this weird pressure - especially when the pandemic started, Instagram became everyone's little TV show. Everyone became performative on their Instagrams and started going live. And I myself started to fall prey to that. And I was like, “Whoa, whoa, wait, wait, this is not what this was meant to be. We all miss performing and we all want a place to perform. But is Instagram that place? I don't know.”
I think that some people who are well, well, well established performers - Look at Will Smith's Instagram. He goes in and creates really intensely edited videos and then posts them on his social media. He's basically making short films and posting them as content on social media. And that's cool, because that's what we know him as. We actually don't really get to see his personal, inside life. We're not privileged to that.
But for me, I was like, “I don't know if that's my brand.” Or whatever the fuck that word means. I hate that word brand. But I just used it. Did I contradict myself? Yes because I'm full of contradictions.
I think that I just wanted to share with people - reality. I always wanted to share reality. I'm like, “Yeah, today I have a zit on my forehead. Whatever. Today I'm emotional about watching Michelle Obama's documentary.” I'm going to post that. Yeah, I could post pictures where I look hot as fuck, sexy, whatever, whatever, whatever. But I also could post photos or a moment where I'm like, this is just me being human - unedited and raw. I think that those are important.
And so my habit is to post anything that I would find remotely interesting, or reminders of sorts. I like to repost those things. And I recently - through the pandemic - I started talking about people using their own words. And the same thing with video content. We have the ability to create stories in the palm of our hands. And so let's just do it and do it in a way that makes everyone feel loved and included.
That is what it's about. I'm going to circle back - You and I could have a talk about brand for a week, but one of the things that I think is successful for you is your authenticity, is your vulnerability, is your honesty. But reality - look at reality television or other people's social media - it does have a lot of strategy, planning, and rehearsed storylines and such. So do you ever find that you dance with that balance of strategy, or are you just like full out Jelani 24/7?
There's a balance. It's a really, really interesting thing, now that we're talking about it, I'm like, God, it really is fucking weird. Because I can't post, like, me taking a shit on the toilet on Instagram. I can’t do that. But at the same time, I do want to post myself in a real moment. But then I also want to be like, “Well who's the audience?” My audience right now is very small and it's mostly young people. And so do I really want to be influencing them with me swearing every five seconds? What really am I putting out there?
It's also a way of marketing for your business. So there is a way that people look at that and they're like - alright - they begin to identify whatever images you put into the world as this is Jelani Alladin. And so it's like, “No, this is Jelani Alladin on Instagram.” But then they're like, “No, I know you, I see your post. I know you.” And you're like, “No, no, no, no, no, you see my post. You don't know me.” So there's a balance and a responsibility then for the poster, for me to think, how can I make sure that whatever I'm posting kind of keeps people in line and keeps them understanding more and more of who I am.
Let's say what you are revealing.
Right, you gotta save some for yourself too at the end of the day. You can't put everything out there because then what really do you have for yourself? You gotta hold on to something for yourself.
I want to get you outta here and get you on with your day. But one question: We are literally in life and death times. And I just love you, that's why you're here, so thank you. But how are the current situations affecting how you choose to live every single moment?
It's been a journey. Because if we're talking about just the pandemic, that's the first life and death situation. I think there are many life and death situations. Let's talk about the pandemic first. In the pandemic, in the beginning, it was like, oh, lock up everything, protect yourself. Don't go outside. Don't even think about going outside. I was like, “I am going to be so safe with this. I'm going to wear gloves. I'm going to wrap my entire face up if I can.” And then at a certain point when you realize, “Oh, this isn't going away.” Back in March, I was like, “Oh, by my birthday in August, we'll be dancing in the street. I mean, we survived this crazy thing,” and it's now August - what - 14th, and we're still in the heat of all of it.
In the beginning we were like, “There's no pressure to create art in quarantine. If you want to sit on your couch, sit on your couch.” But as months go by, you're like, “Whoa, maybe this thing is never going away. Maybe I actually have to learn how to live with it. How to readjust my life to make space for now the coronavirus.” And now that means social distancing outside. It means, sure I'll go to outdoor dining, but I'll wear my mask until the moment that I'm eating. What are the negotiations that we have to go through now as humans because we need coexistence. I mean, we need it. But also it's like, I want to live. I don't want anyone to die. And I don't even want to be a person that gives the virus to somebody if I'm an asymptomatic person, but I don't have antibodies, so I have never had it.
So that's the negotiation of life and death. And that moment, is really now deciding, how do we continue to pursue our lives with this new threat? Kind of like how once you're born as a black man in America, you could be killed at any moment. So you have to learn how to live your life with that threat. I grew up in Brooklyn and then went to New Canaan, Connecticut. And there are some moments I’m like, “I am seen now as the threat. How do I live? How do I completely find a way to have equal value of life as everyone else around me knowing that there is a microscope on my existence to wipe it out.” And so that's why in the face of the pandemic, it's actually now become a little less scary to me because I'm like, “Oh, I know what it's like to live with the fear that your life can end at any moment.”
And so the two mirror each other. I think it's no mistake that we're in this perfect storm right now where people are suddenly waking up to racism because they understand what that feels like for just a second. They understand what it feels like to be stripped of all your humanity and not able to express yourself or live your life as fully as you want. Understand that. Because my people have been understanding that for hundreds of years.
And then if we want to talk about politics, it's like my people, over 150,000 Americans have died from this man's - by this man I mean this president, because he is our president, we have to say that he is - accept the fact that he's the president right now and it's his responsibility to take care of this nation and he has failed.
And if you want to continue to have life - period - you must stand up for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Period. If you want life - because if we continue on, there will just be more death. And then you'll have to learn with living with the fact that your death is inevitable.
Even though it already is - because it’s the end of every story, so it's coming for you at some point - but it could come for you sooner and faster than you ever expected if we continue under this current president. That is not opinion, in my opinion, that is fact. In my experience, that is fact.
And so we have to really see our life in this high stakes ultimatum - life or death. And reminding Americans that at this moment, it is a choice. We often say, like, “Oh, it's not a choice.” Like, being LGBTQIA+ is not a choice. Being black, Asian, Latino, Middle Eastern, that's not a choice, right? You're born into the world as those things. Being disabled is not a choice. This moment, life or death for our country, is a choice. So make the right one.
Thank you for that. And I want to land and bounce up now in a visionary, optimistic - Where do you see yourself 10 years from today?
Oh man, I can't even see myself 10 minutes from now. What do you mean 10 years? 10 years from today. I'll be at the end of my thirties. I would've hoped to have told many, many, many, many, stories of the black experience through the art forms of theater, television, film, and beyond. I see myself with a family, whatever that family looks like. I don't know. I don't really have particulars, but I do think I want a family. I see myself running a studio possibly - like a Tyler Perry, almost. That level of ownership of your craft is admirable. I think about Oprah and her journey, I think about Lena Waithe and her journey. I think about Donald Glover and his journey, I think about Issa Rae and the journey she's on. And Lin-Manuel Miranda. I want to be on that kind of a journey.
Now, as we said before, that may be the blueprint, but then I'm going to find my own way through it, and I'm going to discover my own way to do it. And I'm going to discover my own authenticity within that.
Jelani, thank you for being on this show. You're amazing. And I can't wait to see all this happen.
Me too, one day at a time. Well, actually one hour at a time, let's be real. One hour at a time. And I have faith. I have great faith in humanity. And that might be naive of me. But I really believe that we will come out of all of this stronger, better, more connected, more understanding, more empathetic. Because that is what we were created to do. In all earnesty, I think that that's what humans were created to do. We're the only species that can really relate to each other like that and develop and evolve like that. So I have faith. I have great faith that all will be well.
Thank you, Jelani. You are an inspiration to me and I look forward to watching your voice reach new places.
We are at a global time of life and death, and I hope that Jelani's words inspire you to make good choices. I want to highlight how storytelling affects people. Beyond the business of creating and telling stories, examine the personal stories that are passed on in your family and home, through your teachers and the education, your colleagues, and the work experiences or culture.
Self care and psychology is your responsibility. Speaking up, practicing forgiveness. But recognize the fact that stories have the ability to not only change lives, but change culture. And as Jelani said, if we're not evolving as a business, we're not evolving as a society.
Jelani and I would love to hear what you thought. So take a screenshot right now and then share your favorite takeaway with us. Be sure to tag @JelaniAlladin and @TonyHowell to make sure that we see it. If you want to learn more, then click on the link on the description of this episode, because I've gathered a large list of resources that Jelani’s mentioned - videos, photos, and so much more.
And then as a heads up, next month we do our second annual #DigitalWellnessChallenge. So if social media and email and all of these things stress you out, I hope that you will join us. Hop over to TonyHowell.me and join our Changemaker Community.
There is a global community of actors, writers, dancers, producers, coaches. And if you join, you can get started right away with my free brand bootcamp, or hop over and take a look at our Digital Wellness Quiz - see how you currently rate yourself.
Thank you so much for listening to Conversations with Changemakers. Now, please go out there and use your work to change the world. Maybe you and I can have a conversation about it very soon.