Nigel Degraff has visited a grand total of 33 countries, but he grew up in the notorious Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn. He spends the majority of his time creating content around his experiences with cultural festivals and exotic destinations around the world, but his first foray into content creation was through the creation of a hip-hop blog called RealTalkNY. Clearly, his life is all about plot twists.
Nigel lives life on his own terms, and has shown that he’s continuously unafraid to step into new projects as he continues to grow as a person. I spoke to Nigel about how he transitioned between very different creative hustles, obstacles he had to overcome in the process, and some of the coolest experiences he’s had as a world traveler.
“I shoot and edit everything myself. This is all a self-run operation. I didn’t go to school for any of this. I picked it up as I went along. I learned photography first, and then I started learning how to shoot videos. I don’t have to rely on anyone else.”
What inspired you to take the leap into creating your travel show?
I had a hip-hop site that I started called RealTalkNY. I ended up running it for ten years. I didn’t see that coming, but it happened thanks to a lot of hard work. I didn’t have any industry connections, or anything like that. I started a free blog on blogger.com, and started grinding from there. As I started to get more recognition and network with people, I grew it into a website that got over 100 million hits, and over 50 million views on YouTube. I didn’t make any money off the site for the first two years.
Most people quit before they become successful, because they’re not in it for the long haul. I didn’t start off thinking that I would make a career out of it, I started it because I was passionate about sharing my opinion on hip-hop. My life has progressed from that point. I’m traveling more and I’m focused more on the travel and lifestyle site. It only makes sense for me to evolve and start doing travel videos as opposed to doing artist interviews. I want to keep evolving and showing people different things."
Did you have any doubts about prioritizing your travel brand over RealTalkNY?
"I had RealTalkNY for about ten years. I had my good times, and my bad times. I got to meet all my favorite artists. I interviewed everyone from Nas to 50 Cent. I got to go to a lot of video shoots. I went on tour with Fabolous a few times, after being able to network with him through the website. I was his videographer for a few years. That’s when I started to travel more often. My first trip out the country was for a video shoot with Sean Kingston and Nicki Minaj in Jamaica. My first time in Europe was with Fabolous. We went to Paris for this international wrestling tour.
As I started doing the hip-hop site, it gave me more access to travel around the world, which increased my interest in traveling. When you start traveling more, you feel more confident about going places. A lot of people are scared about going to certain countries because it’s such a big unknown to them. They’re scared to take that first leap. Once you do, you feel like you can go anywhere. You can look at the news and see all of these stories and be scared, but you have to take risks at some point in life. If you don’t take risks, you’re not going to go anywhere."
"If you don't take risks, you're not going to go anywhere."
Given that you’re the experienced traveler, I think it’s only right to ask. What’s your favorite airline?
"International airlines crush domestic airlines. There’s no comparison. They spoil you. I don’t mind a thirteen hour flight with free wine and movies. You gotta mix it up sometimes. Watch a foreign film and turn on the subtitles. It’s a sixteen hour flight from Hong Kong to Bankgkok. We have so much technology now. You can read books, work on things, edit stuff, think about life. I flew United international one time, and I hated it."
What are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve faced as you’ve navigated this process of creating your show?
"Money. I don’t have any sponsors or anything like that. People ask me why I don’t have sponsors yet, but that’s not how it works. You have to get popping on your own, first. You have to build your own audience. I’d rather build my own audience and then approach sponsors. I put my own money up first, and showed people how dedicated I am to this. I’m showing people how serious I am. If people want to support me, and see me take things to another level, then they will. Budgeting will always be a major issue. I’ve learned how to travel for cheap over the years. I’m always searching for deals.
The other issue is that I can’t get certain shots when I’m shooting myself. Certain videos would be better if I could have someone else filming me. You can’t see me fully in my element. As of right now, I don’t have that option. I’m trying to do the best I can with what I have. Plus, I don’t want to rely on anyone else. A lot of issues come along with adding someone else to the crew. Promoting things is extremely hard.
Social media is a lot of smoke and mirrors. You could have a million followers and still see tweets get overlooked. The vast majority of your followers probably won’t see most of your tweets. It’s a constant thing. You gotta be like Diddy, selling Ciroc. He’s posting random things every day with his brands all over the place. I have to not only make my own production, but also do my own PR. That’s a lot. I have friends with video channels, but they don’t want to go through the process of emailing out their videos and promoting. But who else is going to do it? Unless you’re going to hire a PR person, you have to get to work. You can’t expect things to just work on their own. Creating good content is just half the battle. You have to figure out distribution. If you have the greatest video ever but nobody’s seen it, what is it going to do for you?"
Is your show profitable right now?
"No. You can’t really start things from scratch, and automatically think that you’ll be making any money. I saw a list of the top 100 travel bloggers recently, and there were no black faces to be found. It’s very different for us. These doors don’t just open up for us."
You have a strong social media presence. How have you built up such a strong following over the years?
"Things like twitter are weird to me. I don’t know how people get followers. It’s just happened over the years. I do I post a lot of exclusive content, and that always helps. People follow me because they can’t go to certain spaces. I’ve been to Drake’s OVO Fest concerts every year. They can’t make it out there, so they’ll follow my twitter to see what’s going on. I’ll post updates, pictures, and video footage. I’m the eye for people who can’t make it sometimes."
Do you have specific long term goals for your show?
"I want to establish myself as an authority in travel. I want to share my knowledge and fly people to go see the world. I feel like a lot of people block themselves from going certain places. They might be scared, or worried, and think that they can’t do it. A lot of people didn’t grow up seeing people around them traveling the world. They don’t think it’s possible for them. Black kids growing up in America see rappers and basketball players. That’s what they see on tv. They don’t see much diversity. When I travel the world, people act so surprised that I’m there. I posted a video eating a tarantula on social media, and somebody commented, 'I’m surprised that it’s a black man doing this.' Simple things like that. They don’t even think that black people venture out and establish new things.
I want to establish myself as a travel authority and create travel-based products. Guides, merchandise, tours. I can build up the show and get a bigger audience, and give people foundational information. I want to have guides for various cities. People always ask me what they should do in different cities, but I can’t answer that if I don’t know you and what your interests are. If I have a guide for that city, I can just allow them to pick what they like and build an itinerary off of that."
What’s the coolest place you’ve traveled to thus far?
"South Africa was a really cool experience - just to see how people live out there. You can still see the effect of apartheid out there. Their views on African-Americans are really interesting. I just went to Malaysia, and I went to this Hindu Festival. It was really interesting to see how these people sacrificed for their religion. I immersed myself in the culture. I enjoy being in different situations and being out of my element."
Do you have any specific advice for people looking to build something like this from scratch?
"You need to be prepared for the long haul. You need to be consistent for a long time before you see any returns. You have to persevere through those struggles. A lot of people quit if they don’t make money off of something in the first few months."
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