A little over 15 years ago I unwittingly embarked on a journey that would forever shape who I am. For those of you who have been following my work for any length of time, you’ve probably heard this story—or at least bits and pieces—so I’ll try not to be too boring in recounting it for those who don’t know all the details. The story really starts in 1994, when I decided to make a documentary about blaxploitation. I had spent the better part of ‘94 and ’95 doing research for the documentary, which included watching tons of movies. After a while, I’d seen so many movies that I started getting confused. I couldn’t remember which Pam Grier movie had better nudity, Foxy Brown or Coffy. I knew Speeding Up Time was one of the worst movies I’d ever seen, but kept getting plot details confused with Nigger Lover, which was almost as bad, and The Bus Is Coming, which was terrible and boring, but in completely different ways from the other two. There were so many details to so many movies, and I needed to keep track of so much stuff, that I decided to start taking notes.
By the time 1996 rolled around I was chomping at the bit to shoot my documentary, but things weren’t happening fast enough. I had all this creative energy, and no place to let it all go, and it really felt like I was going to die. Unsure of when I was going to actually start shooting my documentary, I decided that I need to blow off some of this creative energy that was building up. I had all these notes about dozens of blaxploitation flicks I’d watched that were never really meant to be anything other than random observations and thoughts, but I decided to do something with them. And that’s how BadAzz MoFo was born. This was during the height of the 1990s ‘zine explosion, and there were a ton of great publications to inspire me (most notable were Shock Cinema, Psychotronic, and Giant Robot). Not knowing what I was doing, how to do it, or if anyone would care, I launched my own ‘zine. I wrote, edited and designed it myself, and after my good friend Von printed it up at his work (after hours at his job, which is how we all published our ‘zines back then), I collated, stapled and folded all of them myself.
Things were a lot different back in those days. For one thing, the Internet didn’t exist as it does now. There were still a ton of brink-and-mortar stores willing to do business with indie publishers. The first digest-sized issue of BadAzz MoFo came out in 1996, and by 1998 it had grown into a full-sized publication with distribution in worldwide. I was moving copies in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South and North America. I could walk into a Tower Books, or a Virgin Mega Store or a Borders in any city in the United States, and find a copy of BadAzz MoFo either shelved with the film magazines, or in the small press section. I remember being in New York City once, and walking into three stores with five blocks of each other, and seeing copies of BAMF at all three. And here’s the most important thing to keep in mind: I did it all for no money. Sure, I would get money from various distributors and retailers, but that money always went to paying for the next issue. I wrote the vast majority of every issue, edited every issue, designed every issue, and carried out all the other tasks an indie publishers must do—not because I wanted to get rich, but because I had this creative energy inside me. Over the last fifteen years, under the BadAzz MoFo moniker, I have published six digest-sized magazines, seven full-sized magazines, a calendar, two comic books and two regular books (and that doesn’t include Darius Logan: Super Justice Force, my Young Adult novel that I also self-published).
Some of you know the story of the last full-sized issue of BadAzz MoFo, but just in case you don’t, here’s the short version…my main distributor declared bankruptcy owing me a little over $4000. Although this wasn’t enough to kill my indie publishing empire, it crippled it. But my all-consuming need to be creative, even in the face of financial loss, was not completely deterred. I still managed to put of BAMF Super Digest #3, which I think is one of the best publications I’ve ever done. Utilizing print-on-demand I published BadAzz MoFo’s Book of BLAXPLOITATION, Volume One and Why’s The Brotha Gotta Die?!? without taking too much of a financial hit. Again, the reason I did all of this was because this is what I do. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’m a creative person. And all of this is stuff I’ve been sharing has been a build-up to what it is that I’m really getting at…some people who call themselves “creative” or “artistic” are really full of crap, and it’s time to shit or get off the pot.
In addition to the long publishing history I’ve just shared with you, there is also my work as a filmmaker. I actually did make that blaxploitation documentary. It took seven years to finish, only to get caught in a web of legal nonsense that kept it from getting a real distribution deal, but I finished it, and you can watch it online for free. I’ve written, produced and directed three feature-length films and a short, as well as having written some shorts for other filmmakers. And you know what? I didn’t get paid for any of that stuff either. In fact, I paid money out of my own project for all of my film projects. I went into so much debt making my documentary that I had to declare bankruptcy, and then I turned around and made four more films—including Damaged Goods and Black Santa’s Revenge. I’ve yet to break even on any of these films, but I made them because I wanted to make movies, regardless of whether or not someone was going to give me money.
Every time I hear some filmmaker or comic book creator or writer say, “I need to get paid,” my blood starts to boil. Yeah, getting paid is great, but if that’s why you’re doing whatever it is you claim to do, then just give it up right now. I’ve been lucky in that I have been paid to write, but I don’t write to get paid. I write because I have ideas that I want to share with other people, to inform them, or to make them laugh, or to simply help them get through the difficulties that come from moment-to-moment existence on this planet. I write because I love to write. I blow all my money making movies and self-publishing magazines, comics, and books because to not do those things would be a slow death.
I’m not a religious person, and for that matter I’m not even all that spiritual, but I do believe that creativity is a gift. And I believe if that you have a creative gift that you don’t use because you’re not getting paid to do it, then that is one of the worst sins of all. Think of that favorite song you have that inspires you, or that painting that transports you to a different place, or that film that always puts a smile on your face. That is the power of creativity. It transforms our mundane existence into an extraordinary one, even if it is only for a few fleeting seconds. And if you have it in you to transform the existence of another, even for a moment, and you’re holding out for a paycheck, then you don’t deserve to have the gift of creativity, because you are denying the world of a little bit of magic.
Earlier this year one of my best friends died unexpectedly. Barry was not only a great friend, he was one of the most creative and talented people I know, and an amazing musician. He never waited for someone to pay him to write and record his songs, and he never got rich off his music, but everyone who heard his music was better because of it. His music changed my life for the better. It made me happy when I was sad. It inspired me when I had nothing else to inspire me. And even though Barry is gone, his music lives on, not just as a source of inspiration, but as a reminder of our friendship. But it wouldn’t have been possible if he was one of those people who sat around and said, “I won’t do it if I’m not getting paid.”
This is my challenge to all of you who claim to be creative or artistic—and I know I’m stealing this from Nike—just do it. There will never be enough money or enough time to do the things we want to do, but we must find a way around those petty obstacles. If you don’t have the money to make that million-dollar indie film you want to make, make a no-budget film instead. You don’t need state-of-the-art cameras. You can shoot a movie with the camera built into an iPhone. Don’t believe me? Here’s a film I wrote for a friend that was shot on an iPhone over the course of about three hours.
Is it great? Maybe not. But it is done. It is an idea I had, that was made real because no one involved waited for someone to pay us.
I wish someone would pay me for the things I create. I’d settle for not having to pay to produce them myself. But that isn’t how things are right now. So I’m going to keep on keeping on. Into 2012 you will see a new book from me that I will publish myself, a new short film from me that I will also produce myself, and a new comic book that I may self-publish. But I would also really like to see the film that you produce, read the book that you write, hear the songs that you record. I want to be able to flip through the pages of your comic book while you tell me what a great feeling it is to actually have created something. If you have a creative gift, use it. Don’t put a price on it, or wait for someone to pay you to do something that you really want to do anyway. The bottom line is this: if you are a filmmaker who doesn’t make film, a musician who doesn’t make music, a writer who doesn’t write, an artist who is not true to the creative energy that fuels your soul, then you are, quite simply, full of shit.