Joél Leon Shines Light on His Journey as a Writer & How His Experiences Allow Him to Tell Stories for Black People

joel leon

Joél Leon, author, poet, and perfomer

Joél L. Daniels is a performer, author, and storyteller, born and raised in the Bronx, who writes and tells stories for Black people. His work has been featured on  BBC News, Sirius XM, Forbes, Insider, Medium, Blavity, the Huffington Post, The Today Show, and many other notable publications. 

He sat down with me to talk about his journey as a writer, how he’s merged his writing with topics about race, mental health, and masculinity, and how he is continuing to use his experiences as a Black man and father to create stories for Black people to be seen and heard. 

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1AND1: Let’s start by acknowledging how you do it all! You’re a performer, writer, and poet, and you’ve done work for some large companies such as HBO, Nike, Forbes, Huffington Post, and more. How did you get so involved with the arts? Was it something you’ve always loved? 

Joél: My mom put books in my hands very early. With so many books around, I just took to writing, and my mom told me that when I was younger, I would write sentences in a very short way and to the point. For instance, I’d write something like, “I walked the dog to the park.” And my mom would ask well, what’s the rest of the story?? I would struggle to expound on my writing.


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But once I had a decent understanding of the English language and enough to make things rhyme, I could dig deeper. So much of that was contributed to hip hop and my brother Dewayne. He’s eight years older than me and has been my conduit + source of hip-hop. He was always getting mixtapes, and I would watch Music Video Box, a platform that was really the first hip-hop-centered video platform before MTV Jam. 

I really let music lead me and took to it, and then I began writing poems and also wrote for the school newspaper in elementary school. Then, in middle school, I got involved in theatre, which pushed me to attend F.H. LaGuardia High School of Music, Art, and the Performing Arts. That, mixed with the culture of New York, all inspired me and helped to curate and cultivate this art craft for me. Everything I created was very interconnected to how I showed up in the world. 

1AND1: From there, how did your passion for writing merge into having conversations focused on race, mental health, masculinity, and more? 

Joél: The Ferguson uprising started on August 10, 2014. Looking back, a crop of writers were coming of age. I would throw myself on that list of writers in a different way. I wasn’t writing for publications, but I was writing essays because I needed to process what was happening then, and I couldn’t express that through rap or in 16 bars. I needed a bigger way to express my feelings about impending fatherhood as I was expecting the birth of my firstborn daughter, what was happening to our country, and what was happening within me as I felt suicidal. 


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I was really engaging with my internal battles, and I had to because I wanted to do the required work, especially if I was going to prepare for another human to come into the world. I didn’t know what being a parent would be like, and I didn’t have the language for it. But that ultimately led to the TED talk I gave in 2019. I’d always wanted to give a TED talk, and when they reached out to me, they wanted to talk about being a Black father. I knew I wanted to do something more with that, though, because statistically, Black fathers show up more than any other father if we’re talking demographically. So what I wanted to speak to was the lack of a serious conversation surrounding parenting that didn’t involve divorce or separation, but two people who aren’t together raising a child (as her mother and I were not together) and having a Black man share that experience because I couldn’t see that anywhere else.  


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That was a big part of my mental health journey. It was me being vulnerable with what I needed to be vulnerable about. From there, I kept writing more about my experiences and getting traction from the essays I was writing and posts I’d been sharing on my social media profiles. That’s also when the affirmations I was doing started getting more popular, and they all came from me examining myself and really getting deeper into my own process.

1AND1: Your messages are very empowering. Conversely, I’d imagine this work you’re doing doesn’t come without opposing views or conflicts from others. How do you face these negative comments or differing views while being true to yourself?  

Joél: Fortunately, I don’t receive a lot of negative comments. But when I see a negative comment, it’s interesting how the brain can perceive it. You could have 40 great comments, and that one negative comment comes in and cuts a bit. Because of our negativity bias, we’re wired to this and drawn to see the negatives because it’s our fear of being attacked. I am aware of this negativity bias, and it helps me correct my thinking and allows me to really be grateful and practice more gratitude for all things going well. When I receive a negative or combative comment, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting, I’m not immune to it. When these comments sting, I also have to ask myself if it’s my ego. This has helped me dig deeper into myself and continue to be authentic in who I am. 

Now, I have the awareness and strength to mute people sometimes. It doesn’t mean I have hard feelings; however, if this person is not saying positive things, I have the choice to decide if I want to see it or not. There’s so much good out there that I don’t want it to be clouded by people I don’t know making negative comments. I’m choosing peace when I do that. 

1AND1: The word is that you’re writing a book called Everything And Nothing At Once that’s set to release in 2024. Can you share a little bit about what we can expect from this? 

Joél: It is part memoir, part pop culture critique. That line comes from a line in the book, the first intro essay: What kind of Black are you? And in that essay, the line specifically is to be Black in America is to be everything and nothing at once. It’s me looking at the reimagined soundtrack for America. It’s about what America feels and sounds like to me. I’m reimagining a new way of being for us through the lens of masculinity, through the lens of love, through the lens of body images, how we position white women above Black women in media, and what that means/what it meant for me growing up, and more. 

It’s me doing a lot of self-examination and putting myself out there very honestly and as my most vulnerable self, and that’s scary. Still, I’m very interested to see what the conversation will be and look like once it’s released. 

1AND1: Lastly, what’s a personal goal you want to reach this year? How do you want to keep growing? 


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Joél: I want to continue to be more in love with life. I think I’m already there, but if I can continue on that path and lean into the present abundance and the abundance that is on its way, then I think I will have done my job. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.