Inspiring People: International Journalist * Social Activist * Political Consultant * Inspirational Speaker, Jeff Johnson
By Dana Roc
From the Hip-Hop community to mainstream media, Jeff Johnson serves as a trusted voice for information and opinions to a new generation. A social activist, political strategist, inspirational speaker, executive producer and an architect for social change, Johnson is one of today’s most gifted leaders in both the political and entertainment arenas.
Recently, Johnson was named by Source Magazine as one of the hip hop generation’s key political players. Johnson has spent the last decade carving out a unique niche of merging the worlds of politics and popular culture providing cutting-edge strategic and leadership-based consulting for youth and urban demographics.
Jeff has served as the National Youth Director for the NAACP and was sent by BET on assignment to the Darfur region of Sudan 2007. Johnson is also one of only two news correspondents to interview Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir within the past thirteen years. An established investigative journalist, Johnson has interviewed 2008 presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on BET specials regarding key issues facing the African-American community.
In every aspect of his political leadership, Johnson has been highly instrumental in representing and articulating the views of young people and galvanizing voters to the polls. Johnson’s powerful reputation as a political organizer caused hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons to take notice, leading Simmons to appoint Johnson as Vice-President for the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. In 2007, he testified before the Committee on Homeland Security regarding recovery efforts in wake of the devastation caused to the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.
In 2004, upon recognizing his socio-political influence and media adeptness, network executives at BET offered Johnson a unique opportunity to present his views to the hip-hop generation nationally through a consistent media vehicle. Thus, Rap City’s Cousin Jeff was born. Shortly thereafter, Johnson began producing his own show, the “Jeff Johnson Chronicles” addressing issues relevant to young people in urban America.
He was the only American reporter to receive an exclusive interview with the continent of Africa’s first female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia.
Johnson currently provides columns in leading urban lifestyle magazines, and serves as a contributor and international correspondent for news broadcasts such as XM radio, The Dr. Phil Show and CNN.
I imagine that Jeff Johnson would be the first one to say that he is more than the sum total of all of the many parts of his life.
What I find refreshing about Jeff is his willingness to simply tell it like it is without pretense or pause. What I find powerful about Jeff Johnson is that he talks “real good” and he in fact walks the talk, with a commitment to empowering the people that he meets along the way.
DR: Tell me about your life and your work.
JJ: It’s funny. I think people constantly try to put people in boxes.
The most difficult question that I ever have to answer is:
“What do you do?”
You know as well as I do that so many of us have defined ourselves by our jobs:
“What do you do? Who do you work for?”
In no way shape or form is that the sum total of who I am and what I care about.
What is that?
If we are really being who we are supposed to be then we are all much more complex than where we work.
I have a show on Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the fact that I am a bootleg journalist and I have had the opportunity to do some really incredible work — I am thankful for that. But, my work is not who I am.
I am an activist and an organizer. I am a Black man with concerns about the Black community and more importantly I am concerned about seeing young people from our community identify and walk out the call on their lives. That is what my focus is.
When I left college I went to work in Corporate America at Norwest Finance on their mortgage side before they merged with Wells Fargo. I hated it. I didn’t want to bee in Corporate America. I felt that the mortgage industry at large took advantage of African Americans in poor communities. I didn’t like that.
It was December 31st of 1998 when I prayed a prayer:
“God get me out of this job and give me a job that is consistent with my ministry“.
By ministry, I don’t necessarily mean from a church standpoint, but an understanding that all of us are called to serve in a given area or place. That is what our ministry is whether we believe in God or not. We have all been called to serve.
The next week, the first week of 1999, was when I got a call from the NAACP in Baltimore asking me if I wanted a job. From that point I recognized that I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to. I have been able to create a professional life that is consistent with what I personally believe. Sure I have made mistakes in navigating that. There have been good times and bad times but every way in which I have made money over the last ten years has been consistent with what I personally believe in.
I just got off of a conference call with a group of college students that are trying to be a part of this heightened national response to HIV and AIDS. Earlier today I was meeting with a book agent about a book that I am writing on Purpose and Calling. I was on a conference call earlier about getting ready to cover Super Tuesday at the Clinton Headquarters in New York. Just this week I have been at six college campuses speaking about everything from the election to leadership. Right now I am with Miles, my six year old because he didn’t have school today. We’re hanging out until I have to go pick up my daughter from her third grade class. All of this is my life, what I do and who I am.
I think that too often as people and as professionals we are too willing to allow other people to put us in boxes that limit our capacity to do the things that we want to do, let alone the things that we are capable of.
When people ask me what I do I think its funny because at the end of the day -
I am me.
DR: You mentioned that you appreciate the opportunity to be able to do work that is consistent with what it is that you “personally believe in”. What is it, at your core, that you personally believe in?
JJ: The ability to define one’s own destiny.
By that I mean, for us as Black people to be able to define our own destiny without relying on government support or hand-outs is something that I believe in. For us to build the kinds of communities and institutions and infrastructure that will allow us to educate own kids, to raise money for ourselves and to create an economic infrastructure for ourselves, is critical. That is fundamentally what I believe in – creating an environment of self sufficiency where we can take care of ourselves, by ourselves, even in the midst of being a part of a broader society.
DR: How do you see yourself in relationship to the world and world issues?
JJ: I think that we all directly impact the world.
As we personally grow, our capacity to impact our environment grows. Ten years ago I was a student leader at the University of Toledo, representing 2000 Black students as the Black Student Union president. In 2007 I hosted a show Hip Hop Vs. America that clearly over 2,000,000 watched. So, 2000 people at one point and 2,000,000 people ten years later – our capacity grows as we grow and, the more we are dedicated to our personal growth, the more that we will be able to affect more people in more places.
I also recognize that we live in the world and not just in a country.
I was born in Great Britain, and before I left high school I had already traveled throughout Europe. Then during college I started traveling to Africa. I recognized early that I am a citizen of the world and not just a citizen of America. What that has done for me and how I serve and how I function is that I don’t allow myself to be put in a box. I won’t box myself into a narrow scope of what it means to be an American.
At the end of the day:
We are the most ignorant and isolated country in the world.
We often believe that if it doesn’t happen in America, it doesn’t happen. That is incredibly dangerous when we make up a very small minority of the world’s population who all interact with each other on cultural levels, economic levels, trade levels and even recreational levels in ways that we don’t.
I have never had the view of “my world” as the five block radius around where I live.
DR: When you look at the world today, is there anything that you would change about it, if it were in your ability to do so.
JJ: I would change what I see as a spreading and ramped disregard for humanity.
For example we can look at Kenya and see the rash violence that is going on. We can look at Sudan and Newark and Atlanta and understand what causes some of this violence and hatred as a result of economics and politics and social issues.
My daughter goes to a Quaker school. What is interesting about Quakers is that they observe a non-doctrinal religion. They believe that the God in me should see the God in you, which is simplistically profound because it doesn’t deal with a lot of mumbo jumbo. It simply says that because we are both created by the same thing, we should value each other.
If there is anything I would change it would be:
That when we look at each other as human beings, as much as we may not understand each other, we might not even like each other or want to be around each other, but that we wouldn’t destroy each other because of those things. That we would be able to see one another’s humanity and to at least have enough respect to allow us to be on a quest to enjoy life as opposed to destroying it.
DR: Your work really speaks directly to young people. What is it that you want them to hear from you?
JJ: I want to be a catalyst that encourages them to understand that they have been created for more than just getting a degree or a job or a girlfriend or boyfriend or playing with Play Station.
The fact that each and every one of us woke up today, means that there is a purpose for us to fulfill. So often we have been so doped into focusing on the stuff that doesn’t matter, that we lose sight of the reason that we were given life in the first place.
I want to encourage young people to understand that they were created for something great that nobody else has the capacity to do, and that if they don’t achieve whatever that is, there will be a void in the universe that nobody else can fill. I don’t think we talk to our kids like that. We have encouraged them, on many levels, that mediocrity is acceptable; that just getting by is okay and that surviving is what we have always done. We don’t expect them to build.
I don’t want young people to feel that just because they have a job that pays the bills that that is enough. Or, that just because they have a European car and some custom made suits that they have “made it”. I want them to understand that they can have all of that in addition to being able to do something with their lives that they can wake up everyday and be excited about. That
“My family is enriched“,
as a result and that
“My community is transformed“
even as I am making money. I don’t mean to suggest to young people that they should be on this mission of altruism where they sacrifice everything and get nothing in return. But, even the greatest servants in the world have understood that they have been enriched as they have served somebody else. I don’t hear us talking about that enough.
DR: That is pretty wise…What is one of the wisest things that anyone has ever said to you.
JJ: Two weeks before I left for college my father said to me
“Women are here before you go to college and they’ll still be here after you leave college.”
I know that is not where you expected me to go with this…
DR: No, no. I am just waiting to hear the rest…
JJ: The reason that was so profound to me is that so many of the mistakes that we make are based on the desire to have a relationship with somebody that we were never supposed to be with. Sacrificing time, sacrificing energy, sacrificing spirit, sacrificing emotion, sacrificing money – to be with somebody that NEVER was worth our time in the first place…
DR: Are you saying “as opposed to patiently discovering who we are?”
And honestly, it ain’t that serious.
If I would focus more of my energy on being who I want to be for me as opposed to being who I want to be for somebody else, then I would be much happier. Again, when we start talking abut that young people thing — I think that we condition young people to look for mates and not embrace friendship. How can we ever have really enriching relationships when we claim to be in love with somebody that we don’t even like?
I don’t know if that is the wisest thing that anyone has ever said to me but it is the first thing that came to mind. And, I haven’t thought about that in years.
DR: Is there anything that you have that you don’t want or maybe that you don’t have that you want?
JJ: I have stress and I don’t want that.
Hmmm…What do I want that I don’t have?
I think that the one thing above anything else that I am on a quest for is peace. Stress is connected to a lack of peace. Peace is the absence of stress.
I am on a quest to create a space in my life where I live in a place of integrity. All of us would have to admit that we have done things that we haven’t liked or that we are not proud of. Where I want to be in my life at 34 years old, is less concerned about what the reviews say about my show. I want to be less concerned about what the audiences think about my speeches. I want to be more concerned with the way that I feel about myself when I look in the mirror. In many cases I am just getting to a place where that is a priority. I like applause. I like being appreciated but I recognize that having that but not liking what you see when you look in the mirror is torture.
I am much more concerned, at this stage in my life, about being able to wake up everyday and know that I have treated the people in my life the right way and that I have been honest with the people who I care about and that I have had a level of integrity with the people that I deal with. So, that at the end of the day, I love myself and that I can believe that I am operating in approval with the creator that has given me every single gift that I have.
That is the quest for me.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
JJ: That I gave of myself, such that -
the life of my family and my community would be better.
Jeff Johnson’s Speech Topics
Unclaimed Legacy: Who Will Lead the Next Social Movement?
Johnson discusses the importance of finding a new leader to reclaim the mantle of luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. He encourages students and audiences to help their communities and each other by continuing the legacy of great social leaders and rising up to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Empty Prayers: The Rise and Fall of Church Leadership
In this speech, Johnson talks about the lack of quality leadership in the church today. He discusses what is needed to fill the void, and why ministers are important for spreading positive messages to the youth of America.
Pulling Back the Sheets: Sexuality and Hip-Hop
Johnson discusses the exploitative nature of some popular hip-hop today, and why there needs to be a movement towards more positive messages in the music. It is time for hip-hop to stop treating women as objects, and he believes that positive influences, like more female rappers and MCs, can help change the direction that hip-hop is headed.
BECOME Activists: Building Effective Campus Organizations and Maintaining Excellence
This lecture emphasizes the importance of activism on campus. By joining campus groups students learn how to become effective leaders. Johnson discusses how becoming a campus activist can help create a better future for individuals, but also for the campus and the world itself.