Rodney Rikai is full of grit, talent, and intelligence. No really, I’m not just saying this it’s true. Rikai has been able to work with some of the most notable names in the entertainment business and it’s all because he has this undeniable work ethic that drives him to push far beyond the limitations that society inevitably tries to smack us in the face with.
In this brief interview, Rikai opens up and shares his story. Speaking on being a father, hustling to accomplish his dreams, and also expressing the importance of not taking no for an answer. It wasn’t always so easy for him to get to his end goal but through his gratitude, tenacity, and persistence he’s been able to turn negatives into ultra positives. Now you might see Rikai, hosting a 300,000+ crowd music festival or basketball game, interviewing prominent Nike athletes, and/or reporting celebrity news for BET. Please note all of this is not by chance but only through rigorous hard work and dedication to his craft. Read below to learn more about this modern day renaissance man. Enjoy.
Who are you and where are you from?
I’m Rodney Rikai, father to Dylan, Son of Rod & Shirley. From Essex County, NJ. And I am an ever evolving entertainer.
You have a crazy extensive background in media production. Where did this all start and how did you manage to do it all? Tell me about your brand the heART Gallery?
I never set out to have a career in media. It’s something that just happened. I created this event series called The heART Gallery out of a void in the nightlife scene of my hometown. After I graduated high school I lived in NC, ATL, spent ample time in DC. And I always found myself in speakeasys and intimate live music venues. When I moved back home to get a job, because my son was on the way, I was just bored.
I’m not a club guy and haven’t been since High School, I needed something else. So I created this dope event series that incorporated every element of art that I appreciated. The centerpiece of it all was music, live music, by artists whose talent I greatly respected like Bilal, Jesse Boykins, Moruf, Bridget Kelly, Sonyae Elise, Emily King, Ari Lennox and many more. Then built around that, we incorporated live painting, vendors selling an array of products from clothing to candles, culinary artists, poets. I curated an event that every creative over the age of 21 in New Jersey came to. Then we did events in DC and NY. It was awesome. I didn’t make much, if any, money off of it, but it was self-sustainable. Initially, I took money from my job selling FiOS packages at Verizon and just invested it in this vision, not really knowing that I was creating this whole new branch of opportunities for myself.
In addition to curating the event, I hosted it as well because I’ve always been able to conduct myself in front of audiences and people tend to find me both funny and intelligent, which I appreciate. One day I’m hosting and some guy walks up like “yo, you’re a dope host man, you know BET is doing a search to replace Terrence J (who I went to college with) & Rocsi.” I was like “yea, I heard, but I’m pretty sure I’m not someone they’d look at.” He said he had a homegirl who worked up at the office, and he’d see. That was a Sunday. Monday like 9am, he hits me asked if I had any headshots, which I randomly did because I shot this short film that Charlemagne Tha God was actually in that my boy produced that never got released. I sent him those, then at like 11am, he hits me back like, “You got a reel?” I didn’t have a reel, but I had footage of my events, and me hosting them, and I would do a lot of our promo vids for The heART gallery so I was familiar with iMovie, and edited something together real quick. Sent it to him, around like 3pm, he hits me back like “Yo can you read off a teleprompter?” I never in my life had read off of one, but I know how to read pretty fluently without sounding like a robot because my mom just used to always make me read, so I told him yea. Then I got an email around 5pm from BET that said they wanted me to come in and do some screen tests, and it’s been on ever since.
That’s 4 years ago…There’s SO much more in between that occurred like getting fired from a job, getting laid off from another job, relocating to DC. So much time elapsed between my first heART gallery and the one that changed my life, a time span of about 3 years, countless money I invested into this passion of mine. I never looked at it like I was learning the business of entertainment (booking artists, talking to managers, handling logistics) and event hosting, I was just doing something I was passionate about, and the whole time The Universe, that slick bastard, was doing some Mr. Miyagi wax on/wax off shit. Preparing me for this amazing journey I’ve begun to enjoy.
You’ve hosted events for some of the most influential people (Kobe, LeBron, Spike, etc.) and brands (Nike, BET, etc.) of our time. Where’d you get your start?
Without sounding arrogant, my whole life I’ve always been pretty popular. Where I’m from, I’ve always been in the mix, throwing parties, playing ball, dealing with amazing women, etc. So out of these things we do in our life, we build connections with people, some of whom go on to do amazing things and hold phenomenal titles. The Nike thing began when a homeboy of mine became an executive at Nike, and they needed a host in a pinch situation for an event withSpike Lee. I think Ebro from Hot97 was supposed to do it, but couldn’t. Then my guy suggested me, and he got a lot of pushback because, and rightfully so, people were like “Dude we were about to use Ebro, and you want us to use Rodney… How do you even pronounce his last name?” lol. But he went to bat for me, and I wound up doing it and hitting it off great with Spike and the rest of the team and my relationship with Nike was born.
The NBA stuff started when I was up at BET and became a finalist to replace Terrence J, and Big Tigger was hosting the show the last couple of days. I built with him on the show and when I wasn’t chosen, he let me have a big role on his show in DC called Direct Access. Then he took a job in Atlanta and the show became mine. He was also the host of the Wizards at the time, so when he left that got vacated and I auditioned for it and got it. It’s funny how the dots all connect. Also, I have to credit my experience at my HBCU NCA&TSU. I met some amazing people who continue to look out for me, from my HBCU and others around the country. It’s amazing how many people from HBCU’s run things in entertainment.
How does it feel to be one of the in-arena host for the Washington Wizards? When did it hit you that what you are doing is impactful?
If I can be honest…Sometimes I think it’s pretty corny. I cringe when people refer to me as a hypeman, because to me, that’s clown shit. I’m intelligent, I have a way with words. Hypemen just yell random jargon. There have been times when I’ve been ready to just say “Hey guys, I can’t do this anymore.” But something about this season has shown me how incredible the opportunity really is. The fact that I can make a kid’s day by giving him dap or tossing him a t-shirt. When people ask me to come to their schools to talk to kids or I’m sitting courtside with Michael Eric Dyson, Wale, Jose Andreś, Ted Leonsis or David Falk it’s extraordinary. It’s not about what got you in in the building to be in this position, which is the “hype” stuff, but now that you’re in, what are you doing? Are you networking? If you don’t want to look like a screaming jackass, when you’re with people of influence or affluence are you showing them who you really are? When I’m in Miami, LA or Vegas, I personally call Jose Andreś and he hooks me up at his restaurants. I’ve hosted Wale’s The Album About Nothing pop-ups. I can hit Michael Eric Dyson [up] about anything. I’ve hosted dignitaries from Abu Dhabi and Etihad Airways, like it’s unreal. In this my third year, I can say I really appreciate what I have. I lost sight of that, and I think that’s why for a while, the things I wanted weren’t coming my way.
You are constantly finding new opportunities to host, curate, and plan events. How do you do it? When did you realize this could be a career?
A lot of wait and see. Which I hate. I’m actually starting to be more proactive in seeking out opportunities. I think my versatility helps, the fact that you can book me anywhere and I can host the hell out of it. I’ve done things with Planned Parenthood & Rock The Vote. I’m not just one thing which I think is dope but again, it’s my network. People who I have legit friendships/relationships with hit me up like “Yo we need you for this.” I’m so thankful. That whole “network is your net worth” thing is REAL. But then when those folks hit you, you HAVE to deliver. EVERY TIME. Can’t let down the people who entrust you with opportunities. It’s just an opportunity to you, but to them, their job can be on the line. I don’t know that it’s even fully registered that my career is being a personality. Because a lot of times when I’m working, it’s not MY personality necessarily. I have to take on the tone of the entity that booked me sometimes. Which I don’t mind. Whether you sell shoes or work in the white house, not everybody gets to be themselves at work. But I definitely have more room to show flashes of who I am than most.
Your roots lie deep in entertainment. What’s your connection to The Shirelles? How did that inspire you to dive into the entertainment world from a different lens? What’s your favorite The Shirelles song?
My mom name is Shirley…SoThe Shirelles broke up ages ago, and the rights were awarded to my aunt Bev, Beverly Lee. When she put together the new Shirelles, my mother was a part of that. So what Johnny Gill is to New Edition, my mom is to The Shirelles lol. But she’s been in since I was still wetting the bed, so that’s all I ever knew (and for the record I stopped wetting the bed fairly young). My mom is fearless, though. She had my sister at 17, living in the heart of Newark, NJ and somehow she made it out to be on stages in every state in this country and touched every continent but 1 on this Earth. That’s amazing. I’m not afraid to dream and go get it because I saw her do it. I saw the struggling artist in my home. By sheer virtue of witnessing her successes and failures, I am infinitely more comfortable and confident in my own journey. So, rightfully, Mama Said is my favorite Shirelles song of all time.
So talk a bit about your earlier days of growing up in New Jersey. What led you to decide to go to North Carolina A & T University? How did that assist you in your career?
Jersey was so dope growing up man. Because my parents were divorced I grew up in duality. Irvington & South Orange contrast so drastically, that in my head sometimes, I think I speak two languages. I went to the same high school as Lauryn Hill, SZA, Rotimi, Elizabeth & Andrew Shue, Eric Hudson so many creatives came out of Columbia High School. And also some real tragic stories, drug kingpins, murderers. It may sound crazy to some, but, I loved both sides. I tended to associate myself with the more negative aspects of growing up in a diverse community, so I had my fair share of suspensions. My grades sucked. I applied to two colleges Howard & A&T. Somehow A&T let me in. Why? I have NO idea. But it’s there that I began to understand what it really meant to be BLACK and about Black Love. It was my oasis, I felt like I was on set of Love Jones sometimes. I embraced the culture and it in turn, freed me of a lot of bullshit and anger that was floating around in my head and heart.
How does it feel to work with so many influential people so early on in your career? What was the biggest lesson you learned from that experience?
Funny, everybody (Big Tigger, Richard Sherman, Kevin Durant, John Wall, etc.) you just [asked about] are the most normal human beings I’ve come across, regardless of profession. I’ve had hilarious, normal interactions with all of them. So I don’t view them any differently than I view the guy delivering my pizza. I don’t put any of them on pedestals, and I think that’s why I have the respect of so many people I’ve come across. I make the same jokes with them as I do anyone. And that’s the biggest lesson I learned: Don’t be intimidated by people based on their social or celebrity status. If I were to be in awe of everyone I have to interview, I’d never get my job done. People have to chill out getting drunk off of the celebrity of other people. John Wall watches YouTube just like anybody. Kevin Durant farts… Look at them as normal people. Not aliens. And also, chill out being pressed about the personal lives of people who don’t know you exist.
You’ve also managed to find a way to get on television with Music Choice? How did that come about and what did you bring to those platforms?
Music Choice came about after not being chosen to be the host of 106 & Park. In this industry, it’s hard to get work unless you’ve had work, and so I had on my resume the greatest platform one could have: I hosted the #1 countdown show in the country, LIVE, for weeks. You have to be able to properly leverage the things you’ve done. I kinda suck at it, because I don’t embellish as well as people with weaker resumes. But my resume is A1, so you kinda have to give me a look based on it.
Is it difficult for you to transition between host and actor mode?
Hosting at times can be acting. There have been COUNTLESS times when I’m at Verizon Center with no desire to be there, and have to act my way through. It’s the job. Be it because I’m sick, or had a bad day, nobody cares. The show must go on… I’ve been slacking on the acting tip, but I’m fortunate that I just enrolled in some classes off of the recommendation of my homie Tika Sumpter. I’ve taken classes in the past but none that I felt were rewarding or challenging, so I’m looking forward to it.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I’m more aware of my mortality now than I’ve ever been. And I think as a black man, we’re forced to think about our impending demise at such a young age, that’s why you see so many of us die young. Mentally we’re always preparing ourselves for the moment that we’re no longer here, more so than we prepare ourselves for long-term success…I just turned 30, and I’m finally starting to feel like “Ok, I may be here for a while, let me start planning some things.” My legacy begins and ends with my son, and any other children I may have. Who will they become? That’s my true legacy. How I can help them to become whatever it is that they desire that is healthy for themselves and their environment. From a work standpoint man, I really want to be another face that changes the way black men are viewed. I intentionally dress young, because I enjoy someone assuming the absolute worst things about me based on my presentation and blowing them away with my articulation and passion. I want them to see me the same as they see the kids they shield their purses from, so that they know, not every black person they see in distressed denim and Nike’s, with a hoodie and snapback is some homicidal maniac. If I can make even a small ripple in that regard, my legacy is fire.
Who are some of the people you admire in the business and why?
There’s a lot of people I admire like my brother Rob Hill Sr. who has a mind that operates in a way that I envy. I admire the spirit of my manager Fred Whit. Anybody who knows Fred, knows how amazing he is. My cohost Gia Peppers, who’s a littler sister to me, but I learn from constantly…But there are 4 people who are in my personal modern day entertainment Mt. Rushmore, and all for different reasons: Terrence J, Nick Cannon, Will Smith & Jamie Foxx.
Terrence’s work ethic is only 2nd to Kevin Hart’s, and even that’s arguable. He’s someone who I don’t think has all the natural talent in the world, but who digs deep for every opportunity and has a fearless work ethic.
Nick is just a hustler, with no shame. He puts himself in positions to be ridiculed and made fun of, and he doesn’t care. He just doesn’t. I envy that.
Will Smith is iconic. His talent knows no boundaries, and he’s not limited by his race or his upbringing. He lives a free life, or at least that’s how it appears. One of the videos that I frequently watch on Vimeo is “Will Smith’s Wisdom.” Everyone should.
Jamie is the greatest talent of our generation, bar none. There are swiss army knives and then there’s Jamie Foxx. A person who can do it all. Still speaks on social issues and cops a new hairline whenever he feels like it lol. Jamie is amazing, I’m not in awe of anyone but him. Oh, and my guy Michael B. Jordan, I’m beyond proud of him! A kid from Newark, NJ who despite his success, is still faithful and committed to a greater mission that I don’t even think most people are aware of. That’s my guy.
Are there any new upcoming projects that you are currently working on? What’s next for Rodney Rikai?
Always new things, but I’ve learned not to speak on them until I see the marketing roll out being prepared. I spend my summers in LA, that’ll continue. And I plan on really taking the next step in my acting career, and you may even hear music from me one day.
Who are some of your mentors? Why did you select them? How have they helped you so far in your career?
Mentors are a funny thing, because the same people you want to run to for help, are the ones who may feel like you ultimately may overtake them. There’s this huge misnomer that there’s only room for 1 or a few of us, and that’s not true. I credit Terrence and Tigger for always picking up my calls and letting me search their wisdom. Tig especially, he’s done so much for me, he’s the reason I can put “Emmy Winner” on my resume. He’s given me a fair amount of opportunities and I’m forever grateful. Terrence is a special guy, he’s mentored me from afar without ever really knowing it probably lol. I study him, meticulously. We share the same manager, so I see his business acumen, his attention to detail and I try to replicate it regardless of how small the job is. For my 30th birthday, I didn’t go to the club and turn up. I went to Terrence’s house and asked him 1,000 questions about life and work.
What do you know now that you wish you would’ve known when you got started?
The best quote I’ve ever gotten from anyone in the industry, was actually the barber up at BET, Carlos who told me in year 1: “If you can’t be used, you’re useless”. Our whole lives we’re taught not to let people use us. But why? If we have something useful to someone, why would we withhold it? Don’t let them deplete you, of course. But be of use and service in this world, without always worrying about how you’ll get it back…But to everyone out there, there is no blueprint for success. How Tig made it, is not how Terrence did. How Jamie Foxx got on, has no bearings on what Will Smith did. People say there’s no such thing as a dumb question, that’s bullshit. The dumbest question you can ask someone (in entertainment anyway) is “How did you get where you are” IF you’re hoping that that
How Tig made it, is not how Terrence did. How Jamie Foxx got on, has no bearings on what Will Smith did. People say there’s no such thing as a dumb question, that’s bullshit. The dumbest question you can ask someone (in entertainment anyway) is “How did you get where you are” IF you’re hoping that, that person’s journey is somehow going to help you figure out your own [your bugging].
With all of the people, you’ve worked with who inspired you the most? Why?
Jamie Foxx is the guy who I look at with amazement. He inspires me to not settle or put limits on myself…I was the official host for Nike during ASW 2015, and had to host a workout, celebrity game and dinner for 24 or so celebrities from J. Cole to Ansel Elgort, but Common stopped me and said some of the realest shit any virtual stranger has ever said to me: “Yo, you’re something special. But you gotta figure it out. You gotta figure out what you want to do, what path you want to take. Because you can do whatever you want.” I’ll never forget that…But Terrence is probably the most inspirational because I’ve seen it from the ground floor. His journey is tangible to me. From walking around campus in college and being a part of SGA when he was SGA president to now hosting the Sprint Pre-Game Concert for NBA All-Star Weekend with him twice, I see it. Up close and personal. It inspires me to know that I’m within an arms reach, of someone who I admire so greatly.
Quick name your top three favorite athletes of all time.
What music are you currently listening to?
BJ The Chicago Kid’s new album is amazing, I play his song Jeremiah 50 times a day. Chance The Rapper, J Cole, Kendrick, Wale, Joe Budden, Logic…Anything that’s not this current wave of trap music and makes me think, I’m with. I’ve also been listening to a LOT of old Beanie Sigel. He’s in my Top 5 rappers of all time.
What makes you a Stereo Champion (Bonafide Winner)?
I’ll never stop. You’ll never have to wonder what’s Rodney Rikai doing these days? Just know, I’m somewhere, working, planning, plotting. Even if it’s not the thing I set out to do or be, it’ll be a derivative of that initial dream, the one that started years ago in New Jersey: The heART Gallery. I’ll be somewhere chasing a passion, relentlessly, and evolving on the journey. They say you can’t lose if you never quit.