Lounging on an office couch in INDI EV’s Downtown Los Angeles headquarters, Maynard Okereke is walking me through how it all started. The actor and overall creative’s current claim to fame is his Hip-Hop MD character, an excitable know-a lot whose pop culture-meets science content often goes viral. The bio on his Instagram page reads “Bill Nye Meets Worldstar,” which is pretty spot-on. Click on one of his videos and you’re likely to find a clip from movies like American Pie or a rap song by Cardi B paired with images of space launches or wildlife footage. Somehow, it all makes sense.
The child of a Nigerian dad and Cameroonian mom, education was of the utmost importance for Okereke growing up in Vancouver, Washington. He also had a passion for nature as a kid. “I used to love going outside and exploring at a lake by us,” he says. “We’d catch frogs, snakes, salamanders… I was always looking for insects. That was always a creative outlet for me. It was a sacred thing for me to do alone.”
Maynard was a grade-school rapper, too. “My first rap name was ‘Nautilus MC,’” he says, explaining that his moniker was inspired by his favorite animal, a cephalopod. Then he straightens up and recites a rhyme from his fifth-grade self:
“The world would cease to believe that this organism would exist/ until biological structures evolved in the mist/ Now scientifically classified as nautilus pompilius/ Only a few species in the world are actually known to exist/ Unknown to human physicists and biologists, it’s atomic structure can never be studied or split/ To witness this phenomena is like seeing God in front of ya…”
Basically, he’s always been like this. His parents wanted him to be a doctor or lawyer, “a job they could brag to their friends about.” And the high school valedictorian gave them just that, enrolling at the University of Washington and leaving with a degree in Civil Engineering, then nabbing a job at Turner Construction Company in Seattle. He was living “The American Dream.”
“Anybody else would’ve been happy to be in that position,” he says. “I had enough money to buy a condo, a car, a motorcycle, support my family. But it didn’t make me happy.” The issue was that he couldn’t be his full self at the office, which was a familiar problem for him. Since childhood, there was always a divide between Academia Maynard and Creative Maynard.
“Every time I was in one of my two lanes,” he says, “it was difficult to navigate. I couldn’t fully be myself in either of them. Growing up in Honors programs and then doing engineering in college, I didn’t see others who looked like me in that space. I wondered, ‘Am I weird? Am I the only one?’” He was scared to share his other Hip-Hop interests with school peers. And vice-versa with his music friends. But at least “they were more welcoming because people look like me.” The same went for when he became a professional.
“At work, I couldn’t show that side,” he says. “I’m lead engineer for different projects. I’m already working in this space with no minorities. I had to be ‘professional’ because my career was on the line. I had one persona at work. Then once I was off, I was going to the studio. I was recording.” What followed was a series of experiences, thoughts, and actions that led him to become the L.A.-based rising star he is today. Below, find out what he did.
Ask Yourself the Hard Questions, Then Answer Them
“I remember times where I’d drive to work and stay in my car,” Okereke recalls. He was starting to dread his 9-5 life and the routine. “Go to work, come home… It was monotonous. That cycle quickly became boring.” With that, he asked himself a key question: “What is it that I’m truly passionate about? Is this what I really want to do?”
“I still had this love for music. I was recording albums. I was still performing. But the division between ‘Businessman Me’ and ‘Creative Me’ became unbearable. As you get older, that weight of having to carry two different sides starts to bear on you. That’s what led to my breaking point.” Promotions and an amazing salary couldn’t quell his desire to explore his full self. “My job became such a repetitive thing for me. I’m the type that needs new things to look forward to. When I’d be in the studio, that motivated me. I felt trapped, like I needed to escape. I knew I had to make a change.”
Make the Change
For as anxious as Maynard was to leap into his creative endeavor, he was just as nervous about leaving behind the spoils of his dependable, well-paying gig. “What If it doesn’t work out and I leave this amazing job for nothing?” he thought. “I didn’t want to be struggling.”
He also didn’t want to spit on the work he and his parents put in to achieve as much as he did to that point. But despite being a decorated scholar and accomplished professional, “I didn’t feel successful. That’s what led to me resigning from my job and making a shift to being creative. I knew I had to pursue a creative outlet. I was already doing commercial and music work in Seattle.” However, he was always one foot in, one foot out. He never gave it his all. “I needed to focus on that if I was going to make it.” In 2012, he moved to Los Angeles.
Stay the Course & Control What You Can Control
Okereke arrived in Los Angeles with a good cash cushion, enough money saved from his engineering life to comfortably explore his new path. “At first it felt like I was on vacation,” he says of his early LA days with a smile. “Palm trees, sunshine. It was a big change from Seattle. But I knew I had to grind.” He continued recording music, networked with new and old friends in the entertainment industry, and auditioned relentlessly for acting work. Not much resulted from it.
“It was defeating,” he says. “You’re seeing people that you’re going on auditions with getting opportunities. You know the opportunities are there, so that keeps you motivated. It’s just a matter of time. I like being in control. So that was tough. I had to learn to control what I could control. I stayed the course and kept auditioning, kept making music. I would see so much success around me. I’d go to auditions and not get the job, but then a few months later I’d see what the commercial was for and be like, ‘That was someone I auditioned with!’ I knew I was in the right circle and on the right path.”
“But that unknown, that constant rejection… It breaks you down. I got to a point where I wouldn’t be excited about the potential for certain opportunities. Like, ‘This probably won’t lead to anything. I’ve been down this road before.’ You don’t want to be a pessimist. But I couldn’t help it. I doubted myself. I thought, ‘Maybe I made the wrong decision. Maybe I’m not good enough. I had a great job and now nobody has signed me.” He did Lyft to have the flexibility to audition. But it still took him away from what he wanted to do, which reminded him of the one foot in dynamic he lived back in Seattle.
“Another draining thing was not having anything to show for all of the work you’re putting in. Before I was getting money, or you could see a new project I had a hand in. But now I’m hustling and no doors are opening.”
Create a Lane for Yourself
After a while, Maynard was starting to feel like a passenger on his journey–not the driver. He was relying on casting directors to decide whether he was the man for any given role.
“I was hoping for opportunities to open up when I went to auditions,” Okereke says. “Sending media kits out hoping someone would listen. None of that is in your control. You feel like other people are dictating your life. I got the advice to create a lane for myself. Create something that people will see you as and want to cast that or maybe open a door for you because of it, rather than letting someone control your destiny. So I asked myself, ‘What do I want people to see me as?’ That’s what led me to pursue science and music with the Hip-Hop Science platform.”
“It came organically. I was at a friend’s place and was thinking about mathematical applications while listening to music. People would say things and I’d wonder if that was actually true. That was the nerd side of what I usually do. I’d talk to people, drop some random scientific fact and people would be like ‘How do you know that?’ I don’t know. I was still watching National Geographic. That realization of what was authentically me is what inspired the Hip-Hop MD character. I’m this guy who’s into pop culture but has this nerd side who wasn’t embraced by other people and was thought of as weird. That was me! I was always trying to be one or the other. I just ran with it. You can accept me or not.”
“It was a sketch idea, a character who drops facts in different situations from a comedic perspective. But at the same time, you’re still learning something. I’d break down scientific elements that I’d hear in songs in a humorous way. I wanted to do something that was unique to me, that I enjoyed. Slowly, people started to connect to it. And it went viral.
Move with a Purpose
One of Maynard’s favorite sayings goes like this: “When you find your passion, it becomes your purpose and you can no longer be passive.” Once his videos began gaining traction, he wanted to ensure that he was doing more than simply becoming popular. The next major move he made was “running after it with a purpose.”
“What can I do to inspire others who look like me to be passionate about these subjects,” he asked himself, “to know that there’s a space for them?” That’s when everything transformed.
He identified his intentions and now with each video, he brings enlightenment to things we’d usually think of as normal day-to-day occurrences. “Let’s dig deeper,” he says. “How could this application help your life, help you understand something?” His energy matches his goal, too. “The bubbly persona I bring to the character is another way for you to connect and be entertained. That’s kind of like how I am. I get juiced up when I’m talking about things I love.” He figures that excitement sparks intrigue from the viewer. Like, “If he’s so amped, I should be, too! I’m missing something.”
Enjoy the Process
Maynard is a one-man band. “Everything that I’ve done with this platform,” Maynard notes, “I developed on my own. I shoot, record, write and edit on my own. I know what I want to bring to the table. I know what’s interesting to me.”
“If you watch some of my first Hip-Hop Science videos, they’re completely different from the stuff I’m doing now. I’ve learned more and gotten more comfortable on camera. Now I’m just trying to streamline everything. I didn’t know about the Science Communication world when I first started. Now he’s an Asteroid Award winner for Best Streaming Content.
“I’m in a position to develop a show around this character now,” he says, speaking his future into existence. In time, maybe we’ll all be tuning into his proper Hip-Hop MD TV series. It’s funny when you really think about it: Okereke came to Hollywood to knock on doors for opportunities. Instead, the best ones came to him when he decided to be himself.
Creative Direction & Writing by Brad Wete
Video and Imagery by Serrandon