MOZIAH and Camrus Johnson on the Politics of Black Mental Health

The pop artist and the Batwoman star dive deep on George Floyd, asking for help, and more.

MOZIAH, aka Marcus Guerrier, is a New York City-based pop artist; Camrus Johnson is an actor, currently starring as Luke Fox on the CW’s Batwoman, and is creating his own comic book. Here, the two friends — and co-directors of the “Jerrymorganpark” video embedded below — talk the personal politics of Black mental health and representation. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

MOZIAH: First off, so good to see you again. You’re currently in Vancouver right now?

Camrus Johnson: I am. I’m chilling after my first weekend after shooting — Thursday and Friday was the first two days back on Batwoman season two.

MOZIAH: Awesome. And it’s been cool shooting during the pandemic?

Camrus: Yeah, man, it was chill. It’s not nearly as crazy as I thought it would be. I can’t go around hugging everybody like I did last year. 

MOZIAH: You mentioned you guys do kinda like a foot tap. 

Camrus: Yeah, we do, like, foot handshakes — foot shakes I guess. Sometimes we elbow, but we face away from each other when we do that so it’s not very personal. But it’s cool, everyone’s wearing masks all the time, and we have to keep a distance. I mean. it works, it still feels very intimate and we’re all so happy to be there with each other, even though we can’t be as physical as we were last year. But it’s cool. 

How are you doing over there?

MOZIAH: Dude, I’m good. I recently just started training for like a half marathon, which was nice. 

Camrus: You like to run.

MOZIAH: I like to run, and it’s something that didn’t start until the pandemic. I come in from New Jersey to the city for auditions and for work and stuff like that, so being able to work from home actually afforded me like, time to run, to pick up a hobby and figure out like, who the heck else is MOZIAH outside of entertainment, you know? So I’m happy I discovered it. It’s improved my mood a whole lot. 

Camrus: Would you say that working out has helped your singing at all? Because I heard that a lot [of] singers have to have a very strict workout regime, workout schedule and also diet heavy. Have you noticed yourself singing better?

MOZIAH: One hundred percent. So I was classically trained — I’ve been in acting school since I was 13, I did an honors theater arts program at Somerset County Vocational Technical High School, so it was like part of my curriculum to like act for, like, two hours in this class every single day. And then there would be a bus that would take me to a regular high school where I would only have time for, like, gen eds. But one of the things in our curriculum was voice and speech, and it was modeled after a conservatory and everything, or a college drama program. So from the beginning, every single vocal exercise that we’d do was very physical. So when we’re stretching, we’re stretching our intercostal muscles and everything. We’re touching our toes, doing different poses. Sometimes they’d encourage us to do quick high-knee running bursts, just to make sure that we’re warmed. It’s very holistic and I think it helped. I got into it around the same time that I started working out, so they kind of went hand in hand for me. 

But I would say it it is very directly related to each other. 

Camrus: I notice when I’m acting that, whenever there’s a word that I keep saying muddily on camera, I’ll squint one eye and somehow — I’ll do it really quickly so that people usually don’t notice, but it makes me focus on it.

MOZIAH: Oh, wow. 

To get into how we met, we met at the Tisch Gala through a mutual friend. I think I saw you on Facebook beforehand, like we were Facebook friends or I saw your page or something like that, and then I met you at the actual Gala. And then we kind of became homies from there. I remember I lived right at Union Square, and I think — did you ever have a job where you were, like, working outside?

Camrus: Oh, yeah, I had a lot of odd jobs in New York. One was, I would hand out coupons for a restaurant called Fresh&Co. People would walk by and I’d be like, “you want five dollars off your next panini? Get on in here!” 

MOZIAH: Yeah, I’d see you working that Fresh&Co. job, and you would pull up on me during commercial auditions that we’d both have. I think that later grew into like, “Oh, yo homie, would you want to read my character for this thing I’m working on?” It was for two scripts — the first one was Blue Bison, the second one is something that you’re developing for later on. 

Camrus: It’s funny, because so many people kept comparing us to one another saying that we we reminded them of the other. Remember that there was a time where a lot of people kept saying that we were the other?

MOZIAH: Camrus and Marcus have the exact same letters. I’m your word scramble. [Laughs.]

Camrus: [Laughs.] But no, it was funny how that worked out. Like whenever I came to the readings of my own project, I was like, I need someone to play me so I can like take notes. And you crushed it both times.

MOZIAH: Both times it was a great script, so it was easy to crush.

I wanna ask you: You’ve done a lot of big screen stuff, and you’ve done small screen stuff. One of the first projects you did was There’s… Johnny!, and currently you’re on the CW’s Batwoman as Luke Fox returning for season two.

Camrus: Lovely!

MOZIAH: Call me IMDB. [Laughs.] What do you do to mentally prepare for shows? Because I think acting can be very emotionally taxing over time.

Camrus: They vary. Every character is so different. It depends on how similar to that character I am in real life. One thing that I pride myself on — when I was in high school, I would be joking offstage, cracking jokes, making the crew laugh while we were having an audience watching the play. And then when I heard my cue, I’d just go on stage and be in character. I love that because, it wasn’t really something to show off. I love doing what I do, but I also love the fun of it. Like, I love the energy of it. So I don’t have to be stuck in the brain of this character, I can just go out there. But then, you know, depending on the scene, I can’t just turn on tears, you know, after joking with my crew. It’s not that easy.

So, a question for you: Is singing your number one, or would you say that [your] voiceover [work] and singing are equal?

MOZIAH: I guess basically for me, being a part of dope stories is the thing. Being a part of telling amazing stories that can reach as many people as possible, and also can be a part of people’s lives — that’s the goal. I go about that mindset when I’m in the booth making music or producing, and I also go to that mindset when I’m in the booth for like, Pokémon, for example. That’s the thing for me, I want to be a part of really dope stories. 

I think also, making music is a way to be a part of really dope stories because it’s like, when people put my song into their playlists that they then give to the person that they like, or they put the song into their party playlist — it’s a cool way to be a part of other people’s story.

And it’s the same thing for like — I wrote a spec script I sent you that’s, like, me trying to pitch to be a part of a writers room so I could be a part of a really dope story. So I think that’s my that’s my goal overall, just being a part of really cool, dope stories that can reach as many people as possible.

Camrus: So, Mo. You’re black man.

MOZIAH: [Gasps.] I am! 

Camrus: I’m a Black man. A lot of Black artists get asked this question — and I’m sure you’ve been asked this before — but when it comes to creating art, do you feel the need to push Black stories and Black narratives? Or do you find yourself just making your art reflect the world around you, which might be a just a mixture of different races and colors? 

And I ask you that because, you know, a lot of representation nowadays can be either or both. People are saying that we need more stories of Black with Black people in a Black world, which I agree with. And I also agree with people saying, “I just want to see black people on camera not talking about being Black and just living,” because white people get to be on camera and not talk about being white. So I guess my question is, where do you fall in that line when you’re creating?

MOZIAH: I think that it’s a complex thing, because, frankly, what I’m doing is selling perspective. Like, no matter what, I’m just selling a perspective. My perspective could just be about the world around me, but I’m also seeing the world around me as a person of color. So I feel like acknowledging that is very, very important, first and foremost. 

The other side of it is, I also don’t want to be held down by the stories I want to tell. Some of the best stories don’t do that, and that’s something that white people don’t necessarily have to worry about. So I think it’s kind of sticky sometimes to be like, in order to make a Black movie about my life, I have to mention I’m Black. I’m really conscious about that when I make music actually. Like, I am a recording artist, I make a lot of different types of genres, I draw from a lot of different influences. But yet sometimes when people first see me, if I’m not careful, they’re really going to think, “oh, SoundCloud rapper!” No matter what I do. So I think asserting that for me in branding and imagery, and even how I run my Instagram page to the choices I make in the booth to the projects I choose to take on and devote time to. 

I think it’s all about giving myself a little bit of that freedom to be able to do the thing that’s going to be most effective, or do it in a way that is going to be most effective rather than the way that’s going to make people comfortable. 

To turn the question back to you, what are your thoughts on it? 

Camrus: I find it to be a mixture in my art, a mixture between creating art that is showcasing Black people in Black stories in the Black world and living in Black neighborhoods. I think that’s important, because we don’t have that. But also, I love when Black people don’t have to talk about their skin color, because it sucks that that’s what we’ve had to do for so long. You know, oh, I’m the black best friend, at some point I’m going to talk about how hard racism is, or police brutality

MOZIAH: Or making it general. Like to play the black best friend and that specific archetype, you’ve got to be the cool one, or you’ve got to be supportive one — you gotta be like, “I hear you,” or “mhm.” 

Camrus: Exactly. For the comic book, I have three leads and they’re all different races. Their races, it doesn’t come up. When I’m with my Asian friend and my Latina friend, and my Black friend, we’re not all sitting around just talking about how hard it is. We just live our normal lives.

MOZIAH: I feel like Black people need a Bechdel test. It’s kind of expired now, thank god, but back in the day there used to be that thing where people aren’t “Black enough,” or are “too white” if you were a certain way. As an actor and as a musician, it weighed down on me to be “too white,” or “not Black enough.” It’s a toxic thing to tell a kid in general, but like it’s also kind of silly and not true, because, like, I’m still Black. If a cop is suspicious of me, he’s not going to pull up and be like, “oh, that guy’s too white, keep moving.” 

You can be Black, and it’s not a one-size-fits-all type deal. For example, Rage Against the Machine — the lead guitarist of that, [Tom Morello], is a Black dude. I think part of what I want to see happen, and part of what I love about this movement of elevated Black work in general that I’m seeing, is that we’re showing a lot of 90 percent of America — because there’s only 10 percent of us — almost how to treat us. For example, just because I’m Black doesn’t mean that I’m your hip hop guy or whatever. I like the theatrics of, like, My Chemical Romance, and I try to lean into that a lot — I could be your guy for that. I think that my challenge, at least as an artist, as an actor, is showing people how to treat me and where to put me with my own output.

We connected back in June, and that was the first time we connected in a little while. It was in between three major killings: Ahmaud Arbery happened that week, George Floyd happened at a very similar time, and it was just in between all that. We had a very interesting conversation, and then I felt like a couple of weeks afterwards, it kind of grew into a larger response from you, which I was very inspired by. You ended up doing the “Does That Sound Fair?” speech.  How was it hearing that news, processing it, and doing what you decided to do in the midst of everything else that you had going on? What was that sequence like, and how did “Does That Sound Fair?” come about for you?

Camrus: Whenever George Floyd was murdered — at first it didn’t even affect me much, because I’m so used to seeing Black men get killed. I was so numb. People were getting so angry about it, and I was like, yeah, I’m glad people are, but when you see another black man getting killed, you’re desensitized to it, sadly. And that’s how depressing it is, that’s how often it’s happened. It’s been happening way before it was on camera. 

But this one happened to strike a nerve because we were all stuck at home, jobless, still having to pay rent. People were dying. Some of those people that are dying were our friends and family. We felt helpless, stuck, we can’t leave the house. And then on top of all this, all the sadness and the world burning around us, quite literally and figuratively, another black man dies. Even now, during this, that can still happen. So people just lost their minds. They were just like, enough is enough. And finally, for the first time in a very long time, we can all take to the streets and we can burn buildings down and we can scream and we can fight, because it’s like, what are you going to do? You’re gonna fire me from my job? [Laughs.] There’s nothing you can take away from me anymore, because I have nothing. 

And because of all the silly people in the country that voted for this person to be the president, to be in charge of everything, things are even worse than they could have been with better leadership. So there is no reason not to speak up and not to fight and say how we’re feeling and and tell everyone else that this is how it’s been for centuries.

So, yeah, it was nice to see first Black people in the States getting revved up, and then every race in the States revved up, and then everyone around the world getting revved up. And then finally everyone started speaking up, not just about Black Lives Matter everywhere, [but like], why are we allowing police and white people to hurt us and talk down to us and beat us down over and over and over again, and be peaceful about it and not say anything about it when that hasn’t worked? It’s only getting worse.

So it was a roller coaster of emotions, because obviously this was a lot for the Black community, then all of a sudden all of our white friends are asking, “how can I help? I had no idea, what should I do?” I was sending a lot of websites and giving a lot of advice, but I got to a point where I was like, “listen, I cannot give every white friend of mine the secret key to not being racist. Like, research, figure it out. I’m here now, but you have to Google it.” Like, if you didn’t know anything about Black history, that is your job to learn. These books aren’t new; these movies, these documentaries, aren’t new. They’ve been around.

MOZIAH: For a lot of people, the relationship was like, “oh, this is trendy!”

Camrus: When a movie about it comes out, it always seems to people that aren’t Black that it’s a new thing. That’s why whenever a Black person is put on camera, it always is a thing for a few weeks, maybe a month, and then it disappears, because it always seems like it’s one problem. Like, “oh, that’s so bad for that guy, that’s so bad for that girl, that’s so bad for that family,” when it’s like, no, the entire community is is at stake here. We’re all in danger all of the time. Just because you see this one doesn’t mean that the two that also happened today in other parts of the country didn’t happen. You just don’t know about them.

So anyway, I was in Vancouver for the first three months of Covid, and there was a smaller protest of about 2,000 people. I heard some incredible speakers, and what I loved about it was, they were almost all young people. The guy that put it together was, like, 23, 24, this young Black dude. It was great, and then when I heard there was going to be a second one, I reached out to him and said, “do you mind if I speak at the next one?” I thought it was going to the same thing, the same place, same turnout, same everything — just, like, people speaking on megaphones. He was like, “yeah, of course, how long would you want to speak?” I’d practiced the speech, and I was like, “I think maybe seven to nine minutes.” 

When I showed up, it was completely different. It was 10,000 people, and it was a microphone and speakers and security and caution tape and all kinds of stuff — because, you know, we needed safety, because the police would show up and make things bad, or racists would show up and make things bad. A white guy ran up on stage while someone was speaking, and he had to get escorted off stage by security, but he was like walking toward one of the speakers. It was wild.

I went up there, and I wrote a speech called “Does That Sound Fair?” It was a very healing moment to be up there. It’s interesting how, talking to my dad about it — not to put him on blast or anything, but he comes from a different generation, so I think him seeing me up there speaking did not sit right with him. Which was a bummer because, you know, as my Black dad, you’d wish that he would only be like, “good job, I’m glad you went up there and you were brave enough to speak on how you feel and cry in front of 10,000 people.” But instead he was more so wished that I didn’t do it. I think he was worried about a bunch of stuff, like all the things that could go wrong from you speaking out — he thinks that the chance of them going wrong, will go wrong. And I get that, because Martin Luther King. A lot of people who tried to peacefully speak their mind got murdered. And a lot of what the people in the streets right now that are going on jobs or walking home or driving get murdered for not doing anything.

MOZIAH: I [currently can’t] run past 8PM at my house — I took a nighttime run, and [when I] came back, and [my dad] was like, “I don’t feel safe with you running at night.” I live in a rather safe area in Neptune, New Jersey with a diverse group of people. There’s no violence here. It’s calm, and it’s still a thing, though. Anything  can happen anywhere.

Camrus: It sucks that no matter what it is, people will put a twist on it. No matter what happens when a Black person gets killed, somebody will always try to make it sound like it’s our fault. Like if you were to go running at night after 9PM and you got shot, someone would have been like, “well, why was he running that late in the first place?” People need to realize bad is just bad, period. If a Black man gets murdered, it doesn’t matter who he [is] — he got murdered! Murder’s bad, period. That’s it. If you murdered somebody, you did a bad thing. You have to get consequences for that bad thing, period. 

But anyway, I’m glad I got to go up there and speak. It was a very healing moment for me. And then because of that speech, Quinn Shephard — a friend of mine who is a phenomenal young filmmaker and actor — she reached out and she was like, “yo, I’m writing two episodes of this podcast called Day By Day, and in the second episode, a character, the Black male character, has a speech at the end and it’s going to be centered around Black Lives Matter stuff, and after listening to your speech, I was wondering if not only would you be down to co-write the entire episode and the speech, but if you played the character in both episodes.” And I was like, “oh my gosh. Like, first of all, Quinn, I love you, so of course I’m down.” And also, what a blessing that she heard the speech and then wanted me to write a second speech. I felt so energized because I was like, I said so many things that I wanted to say in the first, I wonder what else is weighing on my heart that I would love to say

It was great that in the story, they were high schoolers, the class of 2020. So I got to sort of do this new version that I’ve never done before, where it’s sort of half-speech and half-conversation. 

I’m glad I got to cement my place in a grander conversation when the opportunity rose.

MOZIAH: That’s amazing. I will quickly say, I think that a lot of what you said is correct. I think around that time, especially when it came to Black mental health — when I heard the news when we first checked in, I was going through a very, very, very, very rough time, and I just started my fourth month of, like, actually getting like legitimate help for it. Going to therapy, journaling, you know. That’s why I started running, because I was like, I need a balance. I just want something that’s not work related. Like, when watching TV and listening to Spotify both became tax-deductible, I was like, I need something to do

This has been like an ongoing conversation for centuries now, so I think the biggest thing that came out of it was resources — let’s share resources, let’s make this as easy as possible for you to help. I felt like that was important to do. I was also just trying to figure out my relationship to Instagram. I want to use the platform that I have to share this out with people, to just make sure people get this and make sure people have access to all the other resources that are going around. That’s the powerful thing about social media right now. Before, there were a group of people who would just give you what you watch, give you what entertains you. Now I think that it’s amazing that celebrity and pedestrian cross over on Twitter. The best voice is going to pop off. It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity — you could be a celebrity and not have a viral tweet, but you could be so-and-so and say something really, really true that represents a group of people and immediately get a lot of attention for it. A lot of honest things are getting to the forefront.

Camrus: I think that’s a great way to wrap it up, because over the past year-and-a-half to two years, the Black community has talked about the fact that we don’t talk about mental health. You know, the simple conversation of not talking about it just became the conversation.

And as we were slowly inching toward our solution to that, we got this major hit again. And not only did we lose another one, but then we lost another one, and then we lost another one. We also had all the people in our lives talking to us about being Black every single day for months. So right now, it’s it’s great that people are sharing resources, but it’s always good to remind the Black readers of this that taking care of your own mental health is not a weakness. It is actually the exact opposite, it’s extremely important. Whether that means therapy or meditation or whatever it is that you have to do, talking about how you feel is important. As I said in my speech, we’ve been taught that not talking about our mental health is as a form of strength, it’s something to be proud of.

MOZIAH: And mental health stuff is like a point of shame.

Camrus: And it’s really not. We live in this world where the cards are and have been stacked against us for a very long time, and folks just don’t want us to talk about how we’re feeling, because people don’t want to know. Because people know the world is dark and they don’t want to be reminded. And also, since we’ve already gone through enough, they don’t want us to talk about how we’re feeling about it, because then it almost makes people need to find a solution. And that’s what we need to do, is find a solution. And the only way to do that is if we start being open about how we’re feeling, because then once we all find our own center to figure out what we’re going through and how we’re feeling, we can share the wealth. We can make sure our Black brothers and sisters also feel good about themselves mentally.

MOZIAH: Absolutely. I love those tweets that say like, “yo, Black people don’t need to do anything right now.” The most productive thing that you could do is take care of yourself. You’ve got to do. 

I talk about mental health a lot — I’ve had an album to do so — and I started writing about it before going to therapy. And it was like, alright, this is just an honest way to do it. Professional help actually came along and it’s changed my life, but I think the biggest thing that people should do is, like, meet yourself where you’re at. Invest in meeting yourself where you’re at and seeing how you feel and being aware of what you’re going through, and stuff like that.

Camrus:  And also, helping yourself isn’t necessarily having to go out and do something. I mean, just sitting in bed and crying for the day — that’s just as good as long as you are being in touch with what you’re feeling and you’re not, like, pushing it down into this bottle and putting that bottle on the shelf. As long as you are understanding what is going on and learn more about yourself, it doesn’t matter what you do. You got to do something that’s healthy.

MOZIAH: I think the biggest thing is that, it takes a village. The time that we caught up, I had asked you for advice about something. That was the first time I asked for help in a long time. Just because it feels like we’re supposed to have everything figured out, we’re supposed to be strong — especially as a Black man, you’re supposed to be the stong silent guy. If there’s a problem, you just deal with it type of mindset. And so I just did not ask for help for the longest time.

I really encourage people to make room for their mistakes, make room for depression. If you’re a Black person, give yourself a room to fail. There’s a lot of pressure to succeed, and I think the real bag is just giving yourself the chance to fail and become better at everything, and making sure that when you fail, you’re good. Because it’s not about what happens, but how you respond to what happens. I think a big cultural divide, a big class divide is that more people just had space to fail, so they just became better, you know what I mean? 

I think the biggest thing for your mental health is just to ask for help and give yourself space to give yourself space to be wrong. Be vulnerable with someone who has earned your vulnerability.

MOZIAH, aka Marcus Guerrier, is a New York City-based pop artist. His EP sweetboy is out now.