Michael Ajakwe

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Michael Ajakwe is one you may not know if you saw him on the street…

“Anytime you can do what you love for a living and get paid for it too! Now, that’s the job for you.”

–Magic Johnson, after being drafted No. 1 by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979

When Michael Ajakwe heard that statement by Magic Johnson, he was a freshman in high school. Those words never left him as he aspired to do what he loved for a living and get paid for it.

Ajakwe is the son of Nigerian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the early 1960s and had planned to go home after college, but got stuck in America thanks to the Nigerian Civil War (better known as the Biafran War). Mike grew up in L.A. where he attended Inglewood’s Morningside High (alma mater of Magic’s teammate and now Laker head coach Byron Scott) and, upon graduation, received the school’s Outstanding Service Award and a full academic scholarship to the prestigious University of Redlands.

While most of his college classmates were writing for the school newspaper for free, Mike was getting paid to write for the university’s public relations department, which led to more paid assignments at the city’s Redlands Daily Facts, and later, the Riverside Press Enterprise. By the time he left the UR, Mike was President of the Black Student Union, earned two degrees (English & Political Science), a fellowship to attend law school, was named Most Outstanding Senior of his graduating class, and had a job waiting for him at one of the local newspapers. But Mike turned down the guaranteed gig for a gamble; a chance to take his talents to greater heights by writing for the quintessential dream factory—Hollywood.

His big gamble paid off. As you will later discover, Mike’s prolific writing career isn’t confined to Tinseltown or even the United States, for that matter. Michael Ajakwe Jr. is global. With a resume so impressively massive you’d think that he has a secret twin, who wouldn’t want to know more about this dynamic, first-generation Nigerian-American? Hustle Mama had to put it in overdrive to catch up with this Emmy & 2-time NAACP Image Award- winning TV producer.

Story By Pam Baez | www.ipammedia.com

HM: What was it like growing up in the 1970s in the Ajakwe household?

Growing up in Los Angeles was great. At that time, most of the families on the block were two-parent homes. My parents were immigrants from Nigeria so my three siblings and I grew up as first-generation Americans. I had a great childhood. We played sports in the street, rode bikes and skateboards, cut lawns and dug flower beds for money. My siblings and I were teased in the neighborhood and in school because we had a funny last name, which is an Igbo proverb that means “People will underestimate your potential, but in the end they will know the truth”, which is a great message to have in your name. But when you’re a kid, you don’t care about “great messages”, you just want your name to sound like all the other kids in school: Smith, Jones, Johnson, Washington. My mother always told us to ignore those kids, that one day we would appreciate what our last name stands for, and she was right. I love my last name and the fact that it actually means something. I am the only Michael Ajakwe in the United States and the world. That’s a very special feeling. But more than anything, my last name essentially defines my path in life and my career. A lot people have underestimated my potential ‘til this day, and many are surprised by what I’ve managed to accomplish with and without them (laughs).

HM: How old were you when you realized writing was your calling? Do you see yourself working in the entertainment industry for the rest of your life?

I’ve had a passion for writing since elementary school. I would write essays or book reports and my mother and some teachers would suggest that maybe somebody else wrote what they had read of mine. I didn’t even know what plagiarism meant back then. I just knew that people would read my stuff and think I lifted it from a book or magazine which, I guess, was their way of saying I was a good writer. I didn’t realize it was a gift until later. But even with the praise, when I would read novels I noticed that I could not write like that mainly because I didn’t have the life experience and I didn’t have command of the English language. So, when I was 12 years old, I spent the summer reading the Little Brown Handbook and learning how to use commas, periods, colons, semi-colons, quotations, question marks, etc. That was one of the best things I have ever done because punctuation and grammar are the foundation of a writing career. Those are your tools of the trade. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but what I learned during the summer of ’78 helped prep my writing career. As far as entertainment goes, I’m not sure if I’m going to be in this industry my whole life, but I know I will be writing until my last day. That’s another great thing about writing. It has no term or age limits or health restrictions.

HM: What kind of dreams did you have as a child?

Like most kids, I dreamed of being rich and famous and being really good at something like baseball or tennis. But as time went on, I realized I was not good enough at either of those sports to go pro. The only thing I have really ever been very good at—better at than most folks—is writing.

HM: What early influences inspired you to become a writer?

What inspired me to write is the fact that you can literally go anywhere in or out of this world with your imagination.

It’s a way to live vicariously through other people who don’t exist. A big part of my growth as a writer has come through mentors. My interest in writing started when I was in junior high. Around that same time, I met an older kid from my neighborhood who had just finished high school and was embarking on an acting career. He lived next door to my best friend. Watching him book roles on TV and going to see him perform in live stage plays and just hearing him talk about show business every day while he worked on his car and what he was learning made me believe that it was possible to live your dream. That he actually made it as a working actor and has become a familiar name in film and TV just makes this story even more special. He’s been in a bunch of stuff that I’m sure you’ve seen over the years, but you probably remember him best as Tom Hank’s Army buddy, Bubba, in that blockbuster film Forest Gump. My childhood friend and first writing mentor whose success as an actor propelled me to pursue a professional writing career is Mykelt Williamson. And we are still homies ‘til this day. But prior to meeting Mykelt, I wasn’t interested in the industry. I wasn’t aware of TV writing and screenwriting or that you could make a living at it. I wanted to be a poet, a novelist. I can honestly say that if I didn’t meet Mykelt as a kid, I would not be a writer today. He inspired and encouraged me that much.

HM: We hear stories all the time of people who try for years and never make it in show business, and then we hear about those “overnight sensations”. How hard was it for you to break into Hollywood?

Though I started working in show business right after college, it took me eight years to land a job working as a television writer, which was my dream. This is a very tough business. Breaking into Hollywood will show you who you really are real fast. It will serve as a Litmus Test for your talent, your drive, your character, and everything else you think you know about yourself. It will make you or break you. That’s why you shouldn’t get into this business solely for the money. Not worth it. Go to law school. Go to medical school. You have better odds of becoming a lawyer or a doctor than a successful TV or film producer, director, writer or actor.

HM: What advice would you give to those who dream of being in the industry?

As I said before, don’t do this for the money. If you’re really good at what you do, become a student of the industry, network, keep a positive attitude at all times, help others along the way, become enterprising, keep your eyes/ears/mind open, and pray for God’s favor– you’ll eventually make your money. It will come. But, I repeat, DON’T GET INTO SHOW BIZ JUST FOR THE MONEY. Do it because you love it so much, it keeps you up at night. It’s also important to help others when you can as you climb and, definitely, when you arrive. If you’re only in it for yourself, it’s a tougher climb since, at some point and often more than once, we all need help scaling the wall of success. So it’s karmic that we help others along the way.

HM: What motivates you to do what you do in the entertainment industry?

I love telling stories, working with actors and seeing my ideas realized on stage or the big or small screen. I love living out my dream as a writer which, for me, is the ultimate fantasy. This is a business where you constantly have to prove yourself, even when you’ve had some success.

HM: How do you maintain your integrity in such a competitive, at times cut throat, and sometimes unscrupulous industry?

You have to make that decision early in your climb. I made mine at 23 after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I decided that I wanted to make it but not at all costs. I decided that there are things I would not do in the name of making it, in the name of becoming successful. I would not bullshit my way to the top; I would not backstab my way to the top; I would not disassociate myself from networking with or mentoring other Blacks that I meet along my journey as I have sometimes seen other ambitious industry African-Americans do in the name of “making it”, in the name of being “The Only One” (as in The Only Black Person) at the company to reach the summit. I knew being this way would likely limit how high I would fly in my career. But I’m ok with that because every day, when I wake up, I want to look in the mirror and feel good about whose looking back at me before I leave my house.

HM: We hear stories all the time of people who try for years and never make it in show business, and then we hear about those “overnight sensations”. How hard was it for you to break into Hollywood?

Though I started working in show business right after college, it took me eight years to land a job working as a television writer, which was my dream. This is a very tough business. Breaking into Hollywood will show you who you really are real fast. It will serve as a Litmus Test for your talent, your drive, your character, and everything else you think you know about yourself. It will make you or break you. That’s why you shouldn’t get into this business solely for the money. Not worth it. Go to law school. Go to medical school. You have better odds of becoming a lawyer or a doctor than a successful TV or film producer, director, writer or actor.

HM: What advice would you give to those who dream of being in the industry?

As I said before, don’t do this for the money. If you’re really good at what you do, become a student of the industry, network, keep a positive attitude at all times, help others along the way, become enterprising, keep your eyes/ears/mind open, and pray for God’s favor– you’ll eventually make your money. It will come. But, I repeat, DON’T GET INTO SHOW BIZ JUST FOR THE MONEY. Do it because you love it so much, it keeps you up at night. It’s also important to help others when you can as you climb and, definitely, when you arrive. If you’re only in it for yourself, it’s a tougher climb since, at some point and often more than once, we all need help scaling the wall of success. So it’s karmic that we help others along the way.

HM: What motivates you to do what you do in the entertainment industry?

I love telling stories, working with actors and seeing my ideas realized on stage or the big or small screen. I love living out my dream as a writer which, for me, is the ultimate fantasy. This is a business where you constantly have to prove yourself, even when you’ve had some success.

HM: Your accomplishments read like a video game. They’re off the charts and cover PR, print journalism, electronic journalism, publishing, theater, TV, film and the Internet. You’ve done enough for two lifetimes. What is the source of your drive and how do you stay focused?

First of all, no matter how tough things might sometimes get from time to time in such an up and down industry, I know that I’m truly blessed to make a living as a writer. That’s a huge source of my drive, always has been. My drive also comes from my parents who came to America from Africa in the ‘60s, raised four kids, went to college, worked full-time (sometimes pulling double-shifts), and bought a house — all at the same time; never missed a parent conference meeting at the school, never too tired to cook so their kids could eat, never too tired to help you with your homework, and never too tired to beat you like a drum if you talked back or acted up (laughs). That’s an insane schedule! But they did it and I am here today because of the many sacrifices my folks made for our family. However, there’s also a cost associated with that type of drive. Both of my parents had high blood pressure in their 30s. I didn’t realize until I was grown that what they had done was not the norm. They were workaholics. My family, my woman and my close friends would probably tell you that I am too, minus the high blood pressure, knock on wood. My parents were the most driven duo I’ve ever seen so they were great role models for me because they came to America from a Third World country so failure was not an option. He became an aeronautics engineer, she became a registered nurse. For them, America was truly the land of opportunity—Disneyland for Africans (laughs).

But if you are fortunate enough to make it, to earn a living doing this, it’s one of the greatest jobs you can have. Anytime you can make a living doing what you love, where people describe you by your passion instead of your day job, that’s truly a privilege. I never forget that. I never forget what I saw Magic say on TV when I was 14 and he was a 19-year old rookie in the NBA. As for why some people toil and don’t achieve their goal in the industry, the easy answer is to say they did this wrong or that they didn’t network right or that they were too ambitious or not ambitious enough. Anytime you don’t make it, there’s always someone waiting to pin the blame on you.

In my 29 years working in Hollywood, I’ve known quite a few talented, worthy, hard working people who, for whatever reason, didn’t live up to their potential; didn’t reach their goal. And it wasn’t always their fault. Sometimes, it’s not in the cards. You’ve done your best, things just didn’t work out, and that’s okay. At least you took a shot. I’d rather be the guy who tried and never quite got there than the guy who played it safe his whole life and never took a chance.

HM: How do you maintain your integrity in such a competitive, at times cut throat, and sometimes unscrupulous industry?

You have to make that decision early in your climb. I made mine at 23 after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I decided that I wanted to make it but not at all costs. I decided that there are things I would not do in the name of making it, in the name of becoming successful. I would not bullshit my way to the top; I would not backstab my way to the top; I would not disassociate myself from networking with or mentoring other Blacks that I meet along my journey. That’s where the tricky part comes in. No matter how well you scrutinize your friendships or relationships in this business, you won’t really know who is who until you… 1. ) Lose your job/status, or… 2.) Land a life-changing one. It’s a true test for your friends and for you.

HM: Define peace and success.

PEACE is when you can leave your house without looking over your shoulder. Peace is living with as few regrets as possible. Peace is being healthy physically and mentally. Peace is having good friends around you and being able to help others without the expectation of getting something back. Peace is when you can pay your bills. SUCCESS is being lucky enough to do what you love, whether you’re making a bunch of money at it or not; success is being able to give qualified, deserving people jobs who might not receive such opportunities without you; success is working your butt off, reaping what you’ve sowed, and always giving back.

HM: How does a self-proclaimed “workaholic” maintain a balanced life?

It’s challenging. I find that a lot of the most ambitious people that I know are divorced or have no children, probably because of the tight rope you have to sometimes walk. I really admire people who have found a way to do both– have a successful career and family life because I haven’t. It is the most glaring omission on my “resume”, so to speak. Sometimes, it feels like this business wants your soul… demands it. Well, don’t give it to them. Keep your soul. Keep your balance or at least never stop trying to maintain it.

HM: How about friendships and relationships? How do you handle that?

Working in entertainment can be tricky if you’re in the same business as your friends or lovers. You want people to be your friend for who you are rather than what they feel they can get.

HM: How do you unwind? Relax?

I love to read, walk, bowl, play tennis, go to movies and plays, and travel. I think you learn so much about yourself and people in general when you leave your comfort zone and travel to other parts of the country and, especially, other parts of the world. I love to listen to good music and spending quality time with my friends, family and wonderful lady.

HM: When all is said and done, what legacy do you hope to leave behind? What do you want people to remember most about you and your work?

I want people to remember that I lived my life doing what I loved; that I tried to do things a little different in my work and tried to show how people are more alike than different. I want people to remember that I often tried to help others who I felt were deserving of a blessing whenever I was able. I want to be remembered as a good son/brother and friend 7irst; a writer second, producer third, director fourth, and a festival organizer 7ifth. I want to be remembered for believing in the power of independent online storytelling and for starting the world’s 7irst web series festival in Los Angeles and that I tried to support other webfests around the country in Atlanta, Texas, San Francisco and in other parts of the world like France, Italy, Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Spain, Mexico, Brazil, China, Korea and Russia.

Whatever my legacy, it must include my supreme faith in God because I wouldn’t have a legacy to leave behind if not for God’s favor and grace, which has allowed me to be one of the lucky ones when it comes to living my childhood dream.

HM: Speaking of dreams, name one you most look forward to seeing come true?

Getting my TV comedy, “Basketball Wife” on the air and making 100 episodes would be the crown jewel on my career. It would 7inally give me a chance to share my unique voice with the American TV audience and, in the process, showcase some very talented actors and give some gifted behind the scenes folks a chance to work on a memorable show. I’ve already produced nine episodes; just 91 more to go! (laughs). That’s the No. 1 dream right now. I also want to see my web series festival continue to grow because some of the work being made on the Internet is just incredible. All they’re looking for is a chance to compete and make a living doing what they love, which I can totally relate to. I want to help them by creating a potent revenue stream for the most entertaining shows that have come through LAWEBFEST. I’d also like to 7inally settle down and start paying more attention to my personal life. Gotta have that balance, right? Hold up. That’s three dreams, huh? My bad (laughs).

Photo By: Ian Foxx

~HMM~