Durag Activist, Joel Leon
Durag Activist, Joel Leon
Interview with Joel L. Daniels
Joel L. Daniels recently released his second book, “God Wears Durags, Too, And Other Affirmations From My Twitter Feed.” AHUS had long been wanting to talk to the poet and author well before the release, so now it seemed like the perfect opportunity. We reached out to him in the only forum we’ve ever interacted, Instagram.
“[Joel], we’d like to chop it up with you about your new book.”
“Man, say the word,” he replied.
Six Degrees of Separation
In March of 2018, AHUS coordinated an event where we took over 100 Black and Brown girls to see Ava Duvernay’s, “A Wrinkle in Time,” because Representation Matters (obviously)! The event was held in Brooklyn so we reached out to as many local New York folks as we could. Support wasn’t too hard to find but the unique bunch we stumbled upon stood out. None, however, were as unique or stood out as much as Joel.
In my early (thirsty) days on IG, I DM’d Joel after I saw him comment on a post from poet, author and bad-ass, Elizabeth Acevedo (“The Poet X”). Sheepishly, I mentioned that Acevedo was wearing our Believe Women shirt. Joel fired back with a screenshot of State of the Union’s Scottie Beam also wearing the shirt. Before I could respond, Joel asked if Philaprint carried our design. At the time, I was a novice to social media and had never heard of the Black-owned, Philadelphia-based clothing brand.
Fast-forward almost a year later, the nature of our DMs have remained the same. Joel is always looking out. Though we’ve gone back and forth sharing each other’s works and wins on social media, Joel has a much bigger platform. And a platform he’s not shy to share the spotlight with.
“I want everyone to eat. Even those that aren’t ‘my people,’” Joel said during our interview. “That’s how you create a village; If I don’t have it, I want to connect you to someone who does.”
(P.S., our BW design is on Philaprint’s website. Thanks, Joel.)
Good Job, Boo-Boo
Last Wednesday, I messaged Joel on WhatsApp and asked if he could still make our 2PM phone interview.
“Hey Tareq, give me about an hour to put Lilah to bed.”
If you don’t follow Joel on social media (@joelakamag), well, you should. For the rest of us that do, we already know that he is a father first. Before the author, before the poet, before the rapper (yes, he raps, too). Before “God Wears Durags, Too” (“GWDT”), Joel authored, “A Book About Things I Will Tell My Daughter,” his first book. That’s how much it’s, Dad Over Everything. Accordingly, I had no problem reaching back out so he could put his three-year-old to bed.
“Hey, Joel. Happy New Year!”
2019 had just begun and he was recovering from a recent cold. “Nothing brother, how bout you?” He responded.
We caught up a bit before beginning, discussing New York, traveling and fatherhood.
(Lilah wasn’t quite asleep yet.)
“I have to go,” she said in the background.
“Sorry, Tareq,” Joel said, “I gotta take her to the bathroom.”
The interruption was no bother. I had three friends with kids all within the age of three. Interruptions and pauses were par for the course.
“Good job, boo-boo,” Joel relayed to Lilah after she mastered the potty.
Being a Black man to an Afro-Latina daughter, Joel knew there were certain stereotypes to take into consideration that Lilah would face. However, he wanted his daughter’s options to be open-ended. So before her birth, he contemplated the type of dad he wanted to be. It was important for him to be able to talk to her like an adult. He figured he could accomplish that and still be careful with her.
Joel notes that that approach has paid off. He regards Lilah as very independent as she often communicates to him, in her own way, “I got this”, whenever taking on new milestones. He concedes that it saddens him a bit to see how fast she’s grown. However, it allows him to appreciate the moments even more while there present.
“Not every moment is going to be the same,” Joel articulated. “First steps. Giant steps up and down New York’s train stations. Each day is different than the next so it’s important that I’m actively engaged.”
I'm Far From Being God, But I Work Goddamn Hard
On any given day, you’ll find a healthy amount of poems and affirmations on Joel’s social media. His posts touch all subjects. Whether he’s offering healing to those that need it or a nudge for others to pursue their passions, everything is packaged in love. What’s most impressive, however, is the amount of posts Joel makes each day.
“No, I don’t use Mail Chimp or any other device to auto generate my posts,” he says laughingly, as it’s a question he’s often asked. “Instead, I send out messages, or my truths, as they come to me. Nothing forced.”
“Sort of like ‘One-Take Hov’?” I asked. (A reference to the fact Jay-Z never edits his raps and gets it right the first time he records.)
“Yes, exactly,” he exclaimed. “Rarely do I edit my writing. They are a stream of consciousness. They come from my heart.”
Joel believes in quality over quantity. Fortunately, for his roughly 75k followers across Twitter, Medium and IG, he’s able to produce a lot of quality work. And as humble as Joel appears on social media, it’s mirrored over the phone. He acknowledged that he’s no perfectionist and that that was a good thing.
“The difference between perfection and mastery is,” he explained, “mastery permits growth and learning. It keeps me working on my craft.”
Joel’s modesty may be another reason why he’s popular among the literary community and beyond. Folks from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Angela Nissel and others have praised his new book, while director Ava Duvernay tweeted that she’s picked up a copy herself. But getting support now from others is a given for Joel. It was not, however, the catalyst for him to pen his second book. A call from a King gave birth to GWDT.
Joel was never short on content to write GWDT. He posts material daily and probably could’ve written two books. But there was something that didn’t sit well with him about constructing a book from his past tweets, he confided.
“Folks were encouraging me to do this for a while but I felt sort of guilty about it. Like, I was cheating people because they could easily find this material if they scrolled through my feed.”
Ever in Joel’s corner, I chimed in, “That’s true but not everyone’s on Twitter!”
“Right! And even if you are, who is going to scroll back to see everything written?” He punctuated.
But Joel had someone in his corner who did not need to scroll back through his feed to keep up. Someone that believed that GWDT deserved to be given life.
“When the daughter of Dr. King tells you to write a book, you write the book,” Joel chuckled.
On August 8, 2018, Bernice A. King, the Minister and youngest child of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tweeted out to Joel. She told him to compile his tweets into a book, to which he immediately responded with: “If you are telling me, then I have no choice. So it shall be. From your mouth to God’s ears.”
Whatever I Was Going To Do, It Was Gonna Be ‘Black’
It’s likely Joel may not have known which affirmations to include in GWDT. (The man has well over 88 thousand tweets and posts.) But what he did know was the compilation was gonna be Black.
“‘God Wears Durags, Too’ was actually a poem I’d written before,” Joel highlighted. “Because I wanted the content of this book to be both multicultural and multiracial and incorporate both Black and hip-hop language, this had to be the title.”
Ever the p̶e̶r̶f̶e̶c̶t̶i̶o̶n̶i̶s̶t̶ master of his craft, Joel researched if the title had been used before. It hadn’t! However he found an image on Twitter of Solange at the MET gala, donning a durag with the inscription, My God Wears a Durag on it. “No idea is original,” he snickered.
Hip-hop has greatly influenced Joel’s life. Some of his earliest followers may remember that he came up as a rapper (and still records and performs from time to time). Moreover, it was covering hip-hop that helped him to get known.
In 2014-2015, he wrote for The Smoking Section, a (now defunct) music blog curated by John Gotty. At first, his intentions were to get his bylines up. The more essays he’d get published, the more people would get to know him. However, through his writing, something else clicked for him.
“A large segment of social media wants light and positivity,” Joel shared. He had always written affirmations but they were for himself. He ultimately found a home (Twitter) where his writing could be seen and appreciated by more than just him. He has not turned back since.
There’s Value in My Words
Where he grew up on Crestone Avenue in the Bronx, feelings weren’t discussed. Deep introspection was nonexistent and unparalleled to conversations he has today. This was no knock on the borough. Instead, it was a reflection of how things were in general. Toxicity among Black men was higher in the 90s/early 00s than it is now. Expressions of fears, doubts, and even ambitions, would expose you to ridicule by your very own community.
“There’s value in my words,” he said. “I’ve been given a gift with words and phrasing things.” Now he’s able to write on behalf of friends that were embarrassed to share their intimacies and is a voice for those that might’ve felt shame to ever speak up.
Joel professed that he’s not the typical social activist like Brittany Packnett or Johnetta Elize, two women he deeply respects. But his form of activism is just as necessary. Also, his words matter. His words heal thousands and helps folks cope with trauma. He knew by penning GWDT, he would be releasing good art at a time where there’s so much bad art out there.
GWDT provides readers with the above and so much more. Joel created more than just a self-help book. The 75 page collection of affirmations are as authentic as he is. Written with the purpose to elevate others in the most poetic form. The book additionally offers readers a guide for what they can use the affirmations for.
When I asked him what his favorite piece was, he said he didn’t have one. Instead, he emphasized that each affirmation was constructed purposely with great intention. “The book is an extension of myself. And I only know how to be transparent so I shed light on issues where others can’t,” he remarked. If I had to guess, they’re likely all his favorites.
It was important for Joel that the book be handy, “I designed GWDT so you can carry it most anywhere, keeping it short and somewhat pocket size. Folks can easily toss it in their pocketbooks or book bags.” Affirmations on the go.
So What’s Next? Everything
2019 is already shaping out to be the year of Joel. Releasing GWDT was only the beginning. He’s about to snap!
The follow up, of course, will be a GWDT book tour. Joel’s also working on a theater piece, where he’ll be starring in a one man show, “Jamal Wanna Build a Spaceship”; a podcast with longtime friend, Tyron Perryman, “Joel + Tyron Go To White Castle”, and he’ll soon enough be recording music in the studio again.
The internets will be flooded with all things Joel, which include Blackness, Love and Mental Health. And honestly that’s a good thing.
To purchase Joel’s book, please head to Bunksybooks.com