Jason Lee calls out racism in reality television: ‘Viacom signed me to destroy other Black people’

Exclusive: Jason Lee walked away from a lucrative deal with Viacom and explains why

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When Jason Lee stepped on the scene years ago, many assumed he would be just another “here today, gone tomorrow” reality star. But in the last few years Lee has not only carved out a lane of his own – prompting many to refer to him as “the next Wendy Williams” – he’s also recently made headlines for walking away from a lucrative deal with Viacom.

This week, the Stockton, California native sat down exclusively with theGrio to explain why he made the decision to give up what many would consider an easy payday.

“I woke up one day and realized the only value Viacom saw in me when they signed me was to destroy other Black people, and that was not what I wanted to do,” he explains plainly. “They know the depth of my creativity, they have seen it, they have felt it, they have witnessed it when I talk about other issues, or interviews, or exclusives, or whatever. They’ve seen the radio show, the podcast, they’ve seen the growth.”

“They’ve had many opportunities to partner with me, but the only thing they want me to be is a gay, messy blogger. And I mean, I’ve evolved way beyond that narrative. And so it’s unfortunate, but I think that their optics for me, and for other gay people is that we are a token for their conversations that don’t do anything but destroy our community.”

Jason Lee thegrio.com
(Courtesy of Jason Lee)

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Lee also believes more collaboration is needed in the community as a whole.

“I think unless Black people continue to come together and collaborate on how to build more doors, the only doors that are going to open from white people at these networks are going to be those where they bring in people who are hungry for their big break,” he explains, noting that contracts that pay talent based on screentime, give Black creatives financial incentive to engage in behavior that glorifies “combat and conflict.”

“It’s what they believe all our community is interested in,” he opines. “And because we bought into it, it almost reaffirms them when they see the numbers that this is what that audience wants to see. Right?”

Ownership is the new Black

Jason Lee thegrio.com
Nick Cannon and Jason Lee on the set of MTV’s Wild ‘N Out (Courtesy of Jason Lee)

Many were introduced to Lee during his three-season stint on VH1’s Love and Hip Hop: Hollywood and five-season role on Nick Cannon’s long-running hip hop improv show, Wild ‘N Out. In 2015, he launched his own media company, Hollywood Unlocked, which has expanded into a podcast, radio show, and uber-successful  YouTube channel with over 49 million views.

Now the serial entrepreneur is hoping to inspire other content creators to take more risks in creating their own platforms.

“Nobody can tell our stories like we do,” says the host, who cites high profile celebrities like Floyd Mayweather, Cardi B, and Tiffany Haddish as close friends. “Nobody comes from the perspective and the point of views that we can, because we’ve lived it.”

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But he also notes that Black A-listers need to be mindful not to leave Black media outlets behind once they make it in the mainstream.

“Black celebrities who ride the coattails of our work need to stay engaged all the way through. So if you’re going to do an interview with Essence when you’re on your rise or Hollywood Unlocked or the Shade Room or theGrio, you should be doing it right when you win your Oscar, you should do it right when you win your Grammy, you should do it right when you win your Golden Globe. We should always be a part of your journey.”

“I took a stand when I didn’t have to,” he admits while discussing how the Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the death of George Floyd (and the current political climate) have impacted the way he does business.

“Me walking away from a three-year commitment from the network, where my bills could have been paid for three more years by Viacom should send a message that all money ain’t good money. And it’s no indictment on Mona Scott Young, or Viacom what they’ve done for me personally, because I know what I signed up for. But I’m becoming more woke on the fact that I’m smart enough to create other opportunities that don’t conflict with where my personal interests lie.”

When asked what this next chapter holds in store, the 43-year-old media mogul who recently launched Sutter Street Productions concludes, “I just hope that I continue to stay grounded in what’s happening around me as much as I’m reporting what I’ve seen. I want to keep evolving as an executive producer. I want to keep evolving as a show creator. I think that there are no limits on creativity, no matter who you are, no matter what you look like.”

“Not that there aren’t obstacles built for you if you’re a person of color,” he concedes. “But I really feel like if you have drive, determination, a strong work ethic and just an overall passion to win, you’re going to figure out how to make it just like I have.”

Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a colleague of Jason Lee on Hollywood Unlocked Uncensored.

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