"You know, my whole life started turning around when it stopped being about me and started being about others."
Michael Payton is a man on a mission to help others, and he's skyrocketing into places he never thought he'd go. Public service, music, and film--he's had a varied career and has met a ton of influencers, working with Disney, AmeriCorps, Senator Kamala Harris, Mayor of Stockton Michael Tubbs, even the legendary record executive Irv Gotti. Michael graduated from San Francisco State University with his BA in Radio and TV Broadcasting, went on to receive a Capitol Fellowship and work with the Executive branch of the California State government, founded his business, CSUITEMUSIC, is a graduate student at New York University, and has been tapped to
serve as director of a major documentary film about the infamous hip-hop record label Murder Inc. Records and its founders Ja Rule and Irv Gotti, that will be released on a major streaming platform soon. The film is being produced by global entertainment conglomerate Live Nation Entertainment which produced the Academy Award winning remake of the film A Star is Born. Michael was offered the role of director after producing and publishing an unofficial
documentary about the rap record label on YouTube. Irv Gotti caught wind of Michael’s work and was impressed. He would ask the Oakland, California native to come on board as director and executive producer of the official Murder Inc. documentary.
We were thrilled to sit down with Michael and discuss his journey over coffee.
After graduating from San Francisco State University with his BA, Michael found himself in a place of "massive fear." Unsure of his future, missing his girlfriend who had gone to Micronesia with the Peace Corps, and with his career not taking off the way he'd like, he asked for a paying job from the radio station where he was an intern. After a lot of rejection in the radio business, he decided to just apply to every job he could.
"I was just lost, I was just lost, it was literally the worst time—financially it was hard, being a grown man in your mom’s house. Literally, nothing was working. So I decided to apply to grad school. I ended up getting accepted to NYU, but prior to that, I applied to several different grad schools and grad programs, and one of those programs was the California State Capitol Fellowship."
"A couple of my friends did it before. It seemed like they enjoyed and it had been a great experience. And then, I have always had this interest in politics and government. I had some experience working on campaigns and student government. So, I said, 'I’m gonna put my music to the back-burner and focus in this direction of policy and social forwardness.' I wanted to do something bigger than just focusing on making music. I wanted to make a change. This was around the time Donald Trump was elected. I wanted to use my energy to try to promote a more positive message and more progressive ideology. So I applied for the fellowship and I applied for NYU. I ended up getting the Capitol Fellowship, in the Executive Fellows category, and also getting accepted into NYU at that same time."
What went into the decision making process between the two?
It was financial. It was a number of things but financial definitely came into play because it was me and my mom. I had been with my mom my entire life. I decided how unfair it was be for me to just up and leave her in the hood while I’m in New York doing my thing. This fellowship would give me the opportunity to move to Sacramento; I could move my mom in with me. The fellowship pays a very modest but decent income for the year that you serve. So I was able to get an apartment in a much better neighborhood in Sacramento, save up some money for NYU and get this executive experience.
As a person who has always been keen on entrepreneurship, I thought, what better way to get that experience than through an Executive Fellowship in government and in politics where I also have this interest? So that went into my decision making. Everything lined up. And I got accepted into the fellowship program; I was really surprised.
So, I got in and I worked in California Volunteers, Office of the Governor for a year. It was just the most amazing experience ever because I was lucky that I had a mentor, Karen Baker, in my placement who let me be who I was. She recognized my unique perspective, my unique talents, and allowed me to not only do the day-to-day stuff in the office, but gave me a budget to build out and create a web series around volunteering and around public service. So I was able to do that and lead using my skills in media and apply it to public service.
I took my first trip to Washington D.C. from this fellowship. I got to work with Disney, because Disney was one of our private partners in the volunteering space. And they had strong partnership with AmeriCorps California, which my department oversaw. I got a chance to work with Disney on a project. And again, I am a media guy. It was like Divine intervention. So, I was really, incredibly lucky to have had this experience. I also had the very unique and bizarre experience of working with the Office of the President. The division I worked in was very non-partisan. This is government, not politics. So, we are talking about having the resources available to affect communities and helping put AmeriCorps boots on the ground. Working with the Federal Government is a major part of that; so we had to work with the Trump Administration to secure Federal dollars. It was a very eye-opening experience. It just gave me this broader world view, broader perspective on life. It made me so much better as a person, as a future and current executive.
“No matter what happens, no matter how dark things may be, if you keep your North Star in front of you, that’s what’s going to pull you through.”
On faith and finding meaning:
Without God, I could not be where I’m at. I won’t ever sit here and pretend that I am the most religious person in the world, but it’s a relationship. And throughout all my struggles, throughout all my being lost in the proverbial woods, somehow I had my North Star that everything was going to be ok. I knew that if I just kept working hard, and I keep working—you know, I’m not where I want to be at, but if I keep working hard I will get to the promise land because of my faith. No matter what happens, no matter how dark things may be, if you keep your North Star in front of you, that’s what’s going to pull you through.
My whole life started turning around when it stopped being about me and started being about others. When I said, you know, I’m gonna start this company, because in between the time of me graduating and going to the fellowship, I started my company, CSUITEMUSIC, it was no longer about me, about Michael Payton. It was about bigger idea. And the core of my company has always been about service. Inspiring others to think differently. Helping other people tell their story. When I took [the focus] away from me, all these amazing doors opened up.
Stockton Scholars: Mayor Michael Tubbs
I have a great partnership with the Office of Mayor Michael Tubbs, who is the Mayor of Stockton, California. He is the youngest Mayor ever elected to his City, and the first African American Mayor elected to his City. He was elected the same year as Trump. 2016, the same year I started my company—I remember seeing that he got elected and thinking I would love to interview him and help tell his story. And that fits my brand, it fits what I’m trying to do: trying to elevate the conversation. I thought, let me go out and tell stories like that. So I reached out to his office, and the were gracious enough to let us come in and do an interview. We had a great conversation. I got talking with the Mayor's team about the other work that I do in media and digital, and from there we helped him tell these really important stories in his city around economic inequality and education. My company helped him build out the initial website for his program called Stockton Scholars, which gives a scholarship to every high school student in the city of Stockton, making sure that kids have the opportunity to go to college or trade school.
Winning and Learning
I took the conversation away from me, and I made it about serving others, whether I help a city or I’m helping my fellow citizens. This idea of service, and the whole idea and concept of God, is how can I be a vessel to try to improve other people's lives in some way? Honestly, I don’t think I've taken an “L” [loss]. I don’t look at it like that anymore... You win or you learn. Right? You win or you learn. I’m either successful at what I do, or it’s a lesson. And those lessons then turn into blessings. But honestly, I think the idea of service and giving to others is the reason why I’ve been able to move out of the dark space that I was in to where I am now.
I don’t mean to be preachy, but I do believe that when you are in the space of needing nothing, everything comes to you, everything really comes to you and that’s really the place where I am at.
All I want to do is be of service. There’s nothing else I want. I don’t care about cars. I want material resources in order to help somebody else. I want to start a foundation in my mother’s name to help encourage other kids to pursue higher education or to pursue things that are going to make their lives better. It may not be higher education for some kids, it may be a trade school or learning or developing a trade. But, I want to put my resources into things like that. You know. It’s not about me, its about we.
So, what’s next on the horizon for you?
What’s next for me is that we want to do well with this Murder Inc. documentary. There are a couple other documentaries I have in development which are just my pet projects I’m working on... I won’t disclose what those are going to be about just yet. I’m developing a foundation. I am also writing a book. I think it’s so important to tell my story, and I think a lot of people may say that it is presumptuous to want to write a memoir very young, and very early. But I think I’ve had such a wealth of experience and such a unique perspective. It's not about me, it's not like "listen to how great I am" but it's more about looking at what I came from, what I’ve been through, and how I used those experiences to keep pushing forward. I want to give other people that encouragement—look, I don’t care what you’ve gone through, where’re at, you can come out better at the end of it.
You know, this has been a rough year for me; I lost my mother unexpectedly this year while I was living in New York. I’m a momma’s boy, I‘m a proud momma’s boy, I have no problem in saying that...The relationship I had with God is because of my mother, she was my conduit to that. To lose that is a huge devastating blow. But somehow through the grace of God, I have been able to still move forward. And I’ve still maintained my sanity to some degree and my passion and keep moving forward. I still want to do the right thing and do good and not become bitter or selfish saying "why has this happened to me, why me, she was such a good person, things were just beginning to turn around"—instead of doing that, let me turn my pain into progress, my sorrow into service. That’s where I am at.
Shout out to mom:
I will say that my mother was—I mean, we all think that we have the greatest mother in the world, of course—but my mother was. Whatever good there is in me, it's all because of her. All the other stuff, that's all me. The other stuff, all the ego and problematic stuff I may have, that’s all me; blame me. But all the good stuff, you got to give credit to Alma. She raised me to be strong. With a lot of wisdom. She had this incredible breadth of wisdom that lingers with me today. She raised me to have faith. We didn’t go to church every Sunday, but she read the Bible to me every night growing up.
She gave me the freedom to be who I was. She never limited me. If I came to her and said, "Mom, I want to be a wrestler.” “Go head baby.” “Hey mom, I want to be a rapper.” “Go head baby.” “Hey mom, I want to start a company and do this.” “Go ahead.” She gave everything she could to raise me, and she got to that point.
And now moving forward, you ask what’s on the horizon... —Only God truly knows. I have these ideas where I see myself going, but I know ultimately it's in the space of service. I had the most amazing 28 years of my life; it had its ups and downs, but I look back on my life and say, because of Alma, my mother, it was just a period of grace. Almost 30 years of pure grace. I was able to go out there and be foolish and do stupid stuff and explore all these different ideas. And just be a kid for 28 years. Now it's time for me to be a man. Now it's time for me to take those lessons and those blessings she gave me and to do something for others. It's not about me anymore... It's not just about my own vainglory, it's about first of all, always giving glory to God--without him none of this would be possible. And also contributing to the world in some positive way. So, I don’t know. I have such a vast level of interests. I do know that service is where my heart is. Whatever that is, that’s what I want to do. It sounds corny, but I just want to make the world a little bit better than it was before I got here.
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