How Joyner Lucas Flipped the Script on His ADHD to Find Success: ‘There’s No Better Way to Say F— You’
In recognition of ADHD Awareness Month, Billboard has partnered with All Day Dreaming, a community for talented ADHD artists and entertainment executives and its founder Hyla to host conversations with some of the creative ADHD brains in and around music.
Here, Hyla speaks with Joyner Lucas, who has embraced his own attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a tool to unlock creativity, so much so he named his 2020 debut album after it. As Lucas notes in the interview, ADHD hit No. 10 on the Billboard 200 chart, released on his own label, Twenty Nine Music Group — and he’s used his success as a “reverse Uno card” for anyone who ever made him feel “stupid” for his condition.
“People are going to make you feel crazy, make you feel stupid, make you feel less than, make you feel like you can’t push through and become great because you’re different,” Lucas says. “Use all your creativity and tap into your ADHD powers. You have something to bring to the world and they will love you for it.”
ADHD is a spectrum of presentations from struggling to focus, to being hyperactive and many are often some combination of the two. The innate otherness that comes with ADHD, will put people’s relationship with their condition on a spectrum: Some secretly carry it as a point of shame trying to hide and mask it from family, friends and co-workers, while others see it as a point of pride, quick to point out how it gives them a creative edge others only wished they had. After struggling through his childhood, Lucas has learned how to harness and embrace his ADHD and hopes to empower others to do the same. “Use me as an example as someone who was able to overcome and break through,” he says, opening up about his youth, his creative process, finding inspiration in his fans and the elements of ADHD he still struggles with today.
Hyla: ADHD is the title of your album and it’s an often-present theme in your art. Did you have any reservations about making it so central to your music? How did you come to that decision?
Joyner Lucas: I always knew that my first official album was going to be called that. Told myself that when I make it big, I’m going to brand ADHD and reverse Uno card it on everyone who made me feel like I was stupid for it. That album went top 10 on Billboard independently. There’s no better way to say “fuck you.” If you listen to the album, it’s really all over the place. There’s a central theme in place but overall, it’s a really random album. That’s what ADHD is like — like you’re all over the place.
You were diagnosed as a kid, I was too, but being Black with ADHD is very different than being white with ADHD. How old were you when diagnosed and what was that experience like growing up?
Well, they made me sit in a room and take tests that made me feel like I was crazy. All these tests, like push the button when it lights up green. Just tests I had to take at 8 years old that you would ask a 3-year-old to take. My mom didn’t know how to handle me when I was bouncing off the walls. She didn’t understand it. My sisters was real calm and collective and I was hyper as hell. She was a young mother that grew up in a trailer park-type household, so she wasn’t really as nurturing as I wanted her to be. But her mother wasn’t really nurturing either, so I guess she didn’t know how to be. Me and my mother’s relationship growing up wasn’t really good. I think there was a lack of understanding on both sides that made it that way.
I had a lot of resentment. I watched a lot of TV shows that made me feel like I was raised wrong. I felt entitled to be raised a certain way based off what I was watching, like Fresh Prince of Bel Air, The Cosby’s, Full House, Family Matters, just to name a few. Those TV shows made me feel like I was lacking a perfect family. On those shows it was all about compassion, empathy and understanding. I started comparing that life to mine. It made me resentful. When I turned about 18, 19 I started seeing life different. I started to grow and understand certain things I never understood before. I reached a new level of maturity and that gave me a new respect for my mom. We was able to talk about a lot of things I never got closure from and things I never understood before. She had took accountability for a lot of things she could of done better and vice versa. These days my mom has become my best friend.
Do you remember cracking the ADHD code? Meaning, it went from a disadvantage where you were getting in trouble at school/home/work to an advantage, like, “My brain is different, and I’m super creative, so let me go make a career out of this”?. What was that transition like?
ADHD absolutely got me in a lot of trouble at school. I got put in these behavior disorder classes that kept me in a small room every day. Every single class was in that one room by the same teacher. It was like solitary confinement. All the kids in that class had ADHD.
Although I was facing difficulty in school, ADHD made me very creative. I had a great reading ability and writing ability. English class was a breeze for me. I hated reading and till this day I hate reading books. I’m a visual learner which is how I become so good at directing and turning words to life. I guess that’s the advantage and my success happened organically.
How has your thinking around ADHD evolved? What books, philosophies, or mentors have helped you along the way?
I think a collective of different things helped me along the way. Meeting other people just like me who also became successful. My thoughts around ADHD have evolved a lot especially because several of my fans also have ADHD and I get to hear a bunch of cool stories during my meet and greets. You would be surprised at the amount of talented and cool people who have ADHD. I meet so many, but it’s inspiring.
You’ve become a mentor to a whole generation of neurodivergent kids. Black kids in the U.S. are 70% less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis than white kids. They are also less likely to receive any kind of help or treatment. I’d have to think that you’ve helped put a dent in that number simply by centering your art around the topic. What’s a story or moment you can share from a fan that this has had an impact on?
There was a fan of mine who had been on medication for ADHD his whole life, but my album inspired him to stop taking the meds. He said the moment he stopped taking the meds his life started to change. Everyone made him believe that he needed medication to cope with ADHD, and the truth is you don’t. He said not taking the medication actually helped him finish school as well. I thought that was dope.
Do you take Adderall or any prescription drugs for ADHD? If so, how does it help? If not, why not?
One thing I thank my mom for is never letting doctors talk her into putting me on drugs when I was younger. She wouldn’t allow it and I’m so grateful for that. I have never took a prescription drug in my life and I’m happy about that. It may help some people. I have spoken to people who took meds and hated the way it made them feel. I always been personally against taking it because I feel like it would alter my personality and make me different.
I use to love smoking weed but came to the tough realization a few years ago that it hurt my creativity and my ability to focus. There is a lot of science to back this up but the topic around marijuana can be polarizing within the creative ADHD community. You’ve been outspoken about artists glorifying drug use but in your personal life what’s your relationship with marijuana and creativity?
I never really gravitated to marijuana because I smelled it so much growing up. I started to hate the smell. When I got older, I tried it and it didn’t sit right with my body. I know a lot of people that smoke, though, and I heard it does help with creativity. I never needed drugs to enhance my creativity. I always been the guy who votes against drugs and maybe that’s because where I’m from, I’ve seen a lot of people turn into junkies. Drugs have done some pretty wild shit to the people I grew up with. Not saying weed has done that, but I’m speaking of the heavier drugs. I’m good off all of it, though.
Describe your ideal creative environment? What’s the energy and location of your surroundings when you’re the most creative and productive? Are you more of a packed downtown studio at 2am kind of guy, or would you rather be meditating with Rick Rubin on the beach in Kauai?
I like to go to places I grew up and park outside and write. I go to my old apartment back on Dewey Street in Worcester, Ma. a lot. I think it’s nostalgic for me. Reminds me of where I was and gives me that feeling I felt when I was in the trenches trying to get out. I get flashbacks of what my life was. Sometimes I drive around to certain places I used to be when I would daydream about being where I’m at today. Sometimes, I park outside of old jobs I had and just write for hours.
What’s a typical creative day look like for you and what steps do you take to get in a flow state? What are your routines, meditations, diet, sleep, exercise, etc.?
I definitely make sure I take a nice long nap before I get in my creative zone. I listen to tons of beats until I find one that speaks to me. The beat usually tells me what the song will be about. Then most likely I’m already creating the video in my head and I’m using that as a reference when I’m writing. I never eat when I’m in that zone. Eating will make me tired and then I might get lazy. I’m almost always in my car when I write because it helps me from being distracted and doing things that sidetrack me.
Managing ADHD involves some level of organization and routines — the sort of things we typically struggle with. Nothing is more disruptive than touring, being on the road, and not getting good sleep. How do you manage deadlines and strategic planning when your day-to-day life is so disruptive and inconsistent?
I’m actually used to it. What really messes me up is when I go from East Coast to West Coast and vice versa, because I’m losing hours in a day or gaining hours every time. That ruins my sleep schedule more than anything. Luckily, I have my manager and my two personal assistants, Kayle and Marty, that take care of the planning and manage my day-to-day. Thanks to them, I’m not too stressed out.
What traits of ADHD do you still struggle with? What still gets you in trouble?
I have zero patience. I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere any time soon, but yeah, I have absolutely no patience. I don’t even know if that’s an ADHD thing or not, to be honest. I do bite my nails and I’m fidgety a lot. I also can’t sit still without moving a leg or an arm or something.
ADHD is in most cases hereditary and you have a son. Does he have it? If so, how are you helping him navigate it and avoid some of the trauma you faced as a kid?
My son definitely has ADHD. A lot of the things he does, I used to do as a kid. So, I can identify with it, and I know how to keep him focused and on point. He will never have to deal with any of the trauma I faced as a kid because I won’t allow that. His life is very different and it is my soul mission in life to make sure he doesn’t have the life I had.
One thing Joyner gets from me is that extra nurture that I didn’t have. I’m not as hard on him because I make sure I give him that extra love. There is an equal balance of discipline, but I make sure he gets as much love and patience as possible from me. He doesn’t know what ADHD is and I won’t tell him until he gets a lot older and can understand it.
A lot of people can be creative, but not a lot can make a living being creative. What would you say to a young artist with ADHD just getting started?
People are going to make you feel crazy, make you feel stupid, make you feel less than, make you feel like you can’t push through and become great because you’re different. Use me as an example as someone who was able to overcome and break through. Use all your creativity and tap into your ADHD powers. You have something to bring to the world and they will love you for it.
Hyla is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, interviewer and the founder of All Day Dreaming, a community for talented ADHD creatives and entertainment executives struggling with focus, productivity and burnout. All Day Dreaming hosts daily virtual co-working sessions, weekly Q&As with experts, a newsletter and a podcast. For more information and memberships go to AllDayDreaming.org.