William E. Ketchum III: Word To The Culture | The GOODS

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Q&A | On the record with Michigan wordsmith, William E. Ketchum III

A lover of music, community and the written word, Michigan native William E. Ketchum III has put pen to paper for years to deliver in-depth interviews and articles, and has used his social media platform to dive deep into critical topics that affect the culture.

Heavy in the game for over 15 years, the outspoken multimedia journalist has covered everything from music, radio, TV, film, pop culture, race, mental health, and social justice. Much of his writings have been featured in Billboard, Complex, Okayplayer, Guardian, NPR, MTV, and Ebony. 

Aside from national publications, William has also exclusively covered the music scenes in various Michigan cities such as Detroit, Flint and Saginaw, giving a much-needed voice to upcoming artists on the rise. Currently the deputy editor at VIBE, he continues to add value to the culture with that same supportive spirit.

We recently connected with William to get his perspective on the current state of music journalism, the importance of mental health, what good culture means to him and much more. Keep reading to get the goods on William E. Ketchum III.

The GOODS: So when did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer? 

William E. Ketchum III: "I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My dad is an English professor, so I was virtually required to be a competent writer my whole life; couldn't bring home bad grades in those classes. 

My dad was my first editor in that sense, so I developed writing as a middle schooler, and for high school I took language arts classes at Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy, a specialty school in my hometown that would essentially let you pick a major the way that you would in college. I would dedicate the second half of each school day to writing, which got me a lot more time developing that skill."

TG: What made you want to write particularly about music? Was it a certain article that stood out to you or a book that brought on that inspiration? 

WEK: "Hip-hop saved me twice. Once, when after my mom passed away, Puff Daddy & The Family's 'No Way Out' and its themes of grief and loss helped me cope. And then again in high school when it gave me a sense of identity and blackness after attending all white schools for so long.

Magazines like VIBE, XXL, and The Source made me realize that I could pair both of my loves - music and writing - into a career. I wrote an album review for my high school paper, and that was all I needed; I started freelancing as soon as I hit college."

TG: What are your thoughts on the state of music journalism at the moment?

WEK: "I think we have a lot of good and a lot of bad. The bad is that there are so many younger writers who are just writing or shooting personal blog entries about their lives instead of actually talking about the music. And as always, some people, young and old, just want to be around celebrities. 

Also, so many places are looking to go viral off of drama, and to rush out content to keep up with the news cycle, that there's no real substance to the work. Also, too many media outlets just focus on the artists who are already popular instead of covering the huge variety of less recognized artists. 

But on the other side, I think now more than ever, we have a variety of different mediums for content. We have the written word, we have podcasts, we have YouTube, we have social media, we have live events. You have journalists from these magazines who are producing TV, film and documentaries now. 

We also have journalists more willing to dig into mental health, more willing to share perspectives from LGBTQ people, more willing to show connections to real life that Hip-Hop had already been making. I think the ceiling for Hip-Hop journalism is much higher now, but it's up to us to strive for it because there's a lower nadir as well."

TG: What prompted the decision to make the big move to New York? And how has your life and/or perspective changed since the move?

WEK: "I had gotten laid off from my job at the Flint Journal after working there for four years, but I had wanted to move to New York for a long time. I always felt like I was supposed to be there and I had reached my peak at that job way before I left.

A couple months after I lost the job, my brother and my best friend - who both lived in New York at the time - texted me at the same time, telling me that I should move out here. With them texting me at the same time, I figured that they were hanging out talking about me. My brother and his wife offered to let me live with them for a few months, and I already had a lot of people I knew out here because of my freelancing, so I figured I would give it a shot.

I bought a flight that would leave in one or two weeks, just because I figured if I bought a flight for several months away that I would psyche myself out and cancel it. I didn't announce it anything because I thought that I wouldn't last more than a few months.

A lot of things have changed since the move. For one, I realized that I needed to take control of my mental health once and for all. I had always dealt with depression, but it was worse when I got here because I doubted myself. I saw so many successful people and thought that I couldn't measure up. 

Plus, I was living with my little brother, and I felt like I should be taking care of him instead of the other way around. I was getting more suicidal by the day, so I saw a therapist and it changed my perspective about how much mental health was important to actually address. It's not just something you let fester. You take steps to fix it every day. 

Another part of my perspective that changed was realizing just how hard I was working in the years before I moved here. There are so many opportunities in New York City that I only have because I live here, so it says a lot that I was able to build a career and a name for myself without being around these editors in person, or being at these events in real life. If I can keep that same work ethic while living here, I can accomplish anything."

TG: Over the years, you've met and interviewed many influential and legendary artists. Who would you say is your most memorable?

WEK: "I'm realizing that the answer to this changes constantly, mostly because my perspective on my work so often shifts. But I think that my interview with Yasiin Bey is going to be this answer for a while now. His album called Black on Both Sides, when he went by the name Mos Def, quite literally changed the way that I see the world. I named my first website after a lyric from that album; I listened to the song "Habitat" in my headphones to calm me down when I was lost in an airport overseas. The album helped me embrace my blackness, and was the first record to show me the full educational and empowering potential that Hip-Hop had.

Yasiin had a sound installation/art exhibit called Negus in the Brooklyn Museum, which is about 10 minutes away from where I live. I reached out to the museum requesting an interview and they said that he wouldn't be giving any out. But I heard that a colleague and one of my sister publications was getting one, so I figured that I would ask again. 

Someone at the museum said that she would ask on my behalf, but it might not happen; that at the most, I may get to talk to the producer of the project. I went to the museum the night that Yasiin was performing; he had two shows that night, and I was taken backstage after the first performance.

I got backstage and the museum representative asked again if I could speak to him. To my surprise, they said yes. I was initially given 15 minutes, we spoke in the museum's courtyard area. 

That 15 minutes went so well that he said I could speak to him again after the second show if I had any more questions. I thought he was blowing me off, but to my surprise again, we spoke for another 30 minutes after the show. I was barely ready for the interview at all because I didn't think I was going to get one, but in many ways, I have been preparing for that interview my whole life, and I think we had a mutual respect for each other that led to a good story.

Another candidate is Lupe Fiasco. In 2018, we published a review/essay of his album DROGAS Wave that he was unhappy with, and he spoke to me on the phone about why he disliked the story. I showed respect for his perspective, and I acknowledged the areas that I thought could have been improved, but I mostly stood my ground for the story and showed that I had immense respect for his talents and his contributions to Hip-Hop. 

Months later, I saw him speaking at CES on Instagram Live for a company called Zero Mass Water. I reached out to him asking if I could interview him about that. The rapport that we had built from the conversation we had before, along with this being something he wanted to talk about, led to that happening. 

Both of these guys were just extremely intelligent and focused on how they could express themselves and make the world a better place. I aspire to bring the same intention to my work."

TG: Do you see yourself writing a book one day? 

WEK: "Yes I do, but I won't share what it's about until I can find the bravery to get it started."

TG: If you could tell your younger writer self anything, what would it be?

WEK: "Keep working. At some point, you'll have a time where you're taking on a bunch of jobs you hate so you can just pay the bills. Don't be ashamed of yourself, and don't believe that those will dictate who you are. You are more than where you work. Just keep focusing on growing and developing your craft, and take opportunities as they're presented."

TG: Any shout outs?

WEK: "Marcus J. Moore, Kelley L. Carter, Jake Paine, Steve Juon, Andreas Hale, kris ex, Clover Hope, Jay Smooth, Jay Casteel, Kiana Fitzgerald, Alvin Blanco, Bill Holdship, Trent Clark, Carl Lamarre, Datwon Thomas, Christine Imarenezor, Desire Thompson, Camille Augustin, Natelage Whaley, Frannie Kelley, Craig Jenkins, Matt Barone, Aliya Ewing, Dimplez, Gene Demby, Ross Scarano, Alex Gale, John Ketchum, William E. Ketchum Jr. 

All of these people have inspired me by creating dope work for me to edit, allowing me to bounce ideas off of them, challenging me when I didn't think I was capable, giving me a chance, and being great friends."

TG: Bonus question: What does good culture mean to you?

WEK: "To me, good culture means knowledge of self and love of others. Realizing that you are a child of God, that you have a lot to contribute to the world, and doing all that you can to help the world around you without compromising your own happiness."

To stay up to date with William E. Ketchum III, follow him on IG and Twitter at: @Weketchum

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