Photo: Josefina Santos

The LEVEL Man at 40

Desus Nice Proved You Don’t Have to Sellout to Sell Out

Daniel Baker developed his gifts. Desus Nice gave them to the world. Now it’s time to expand.

When your moniker is Desus Nice, you can’t afford to be mediocre. You’ve got to be quicker, wittier, more aware of and conversant with the surrounding world. You’ve got to be able to distill information, to disseminate your born knowledge to those not as learned or perceptive. You have to speak the language of your audience while raising their bar. A high-wattage smile doesn’t hurt either.

These are the attributes Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker had to accrue in order to make a living being himself. Now, three months away from entering his forties, the Bronx ambassador stands today as one of the most important Black voices of our culture.

Daniel was always supposed to be Desus Nice. He was bred to have a valued voice; to be an intellectual and cultural analyst. Critical thinking was ingrained in him. As was the hustle: His Jamaican parents came to America, like most immigrants, to squeeze more out of life for themselves and their children. The lion’s share of who Desus is today may be accredited to his mother, a librarian who nurtured an environment that prioritized study and discovery. Desus’s father was a principled man and landlord — quite possibly where his son inherited his blue collar work ethic, though that comes in a bit later. The point is, mind of young Desus bloomed so vibrantly that he became the go-to when friends or family needed their computer fixed. It’s actually where his professional name derives. During the dawn of the digital age, D’s cousin would often call young Daniel “Desus” because he was so nice at repairing desktops.

Despite his early digital wizardry, Desus let the right side of his brain dictate his professional aspirations. He started out a religion major in college before switching to computer science, but was teaching himself faster than his teachers, so ultimately landed on exactly what you’d expect for the child of a librarian: English. (Last year’s God-Level Knowledge Darts: Life Lessons From the Bronx, which he co-authored with his comedy partner Mero, only affirms that decision.)

It’s not insignificant that Desus’s come-up transpired in his mid-thirties. That’s the very fulcrum of the decade in which most finally learn to align their abilities and their purpose — when they figure out, then inform the world, who they’re ultimately going to be.

Forget the half-decade that Desus has been on television — showing up on viewers’ screens for anything longer than a few minutes gives the illusion of arrival. It’s assumed that the person has “made it,” that they can now simply show up and get paid. But Desus not only grinded, he did it publicly. Before Peloton and yoga, back when he was an uninspired writer for Black Enterprise’s business section, his daily exercise was working out standup routines.

But change soon come. From the moment Desus and Mero — already infamous for their Twitter fingers — went pro with their eponymous Complex-produced podcast in 2013, they’ve stuck to the acronym KIM. Dreams are quenched without constant motion, and anyone who has followed the duo’s continuous ascendance saw them do two things: drink lots of Hennessy, and never settle.

Within months, the podcast graduated to a web show. Then came MTV2, and appearances on programs like Guy Code and Uncommon Sense (the latter of which — fun fact — I wrote for in 2015). From the outside, Desus looked lit. But greatness isn’t concerned with optics, and Viacom couldn’t bottle the lightning of Desus & Mero. So in 2016, the two took their Bodega Boys brand to a home that both fit and elevated it: a late-night show on upstart cable network Viceland. By 2018, they had outgrown even that, and were tall enough to warrant a bigger spot on Showtime, and a bigger bag to go with it. Daniel Baker’s luminous smile now covers billboards in Times Square.

It’s not insignificant that Desus’s come-up transpired in his mid-thirties. That’s the very fulcrum of the decade in which most finally learn to align their abilities and their purpose — when they figure out, then inform the world, who they’re ultimately going to be. Desus had already laid the groundwork with his unending catalog of nicknames: Dark Desus; Boutros Boutros Gully; Mr. La Marina in a Mesh Merina With a Fresh Misdemeanor and a Cold Demeanor; Young Charcuterie Without the Coonery. In other words, he aimed to show the divinity, flavor, and brilliance within the Black experience — while shooting hot ones at the false narrative that it’s a monolith. All while wearing unlaced Timberlands.

Those many contextualizations are a cultural necessity. As old as hip-hop is, it still fights to prove its intelligence. It still feels its business savvy and political views are undervalued. It’s why Desus knew that MTV2 — which he later referred to as “community college” — wasn’t the arrival, but a pit stop. It’s why he and Mero knew although Viceland was their best look and check thus far, they were franchise players being paid like Danny Green. KIM was the only engine they needed. By his mid-thirties, no television executive or amount of money could tell Daniel Baker who Desus Nice was.

In his twenties, though, is where Daniel first found Desus. It’s the decade when one discovers their own grade of dope, that thing they offer the world — but before they meet the world’s insatiable maw. Right or wrong, one’s value inside the sphere of adulthood is determined by their ability, and talents are abilities of a higher stock. Those talents feel like gifts, and their wielders brighten the world. Serena’s drive and serve, Beyoncé’s ear and feet, Ta-Nehesi Coates’s perspective and pen. Desus’s voice and viewpoint always shined bright because they were never inauthentic. Even in their embryonic state, baking within the confines of 140 characters, they spoke louder than the noise.

Speaking of which: His twenties is also where Desus discovered Twitter, which would become his spaceship. The social media platform was the launching pad for his greatness; where he could shape his comedic writing; where he could not only floss his wealth of knowledge, but also his singular vision. He has the superpower to contextualize the most basic thing in the Bronx with a bejeweled global view — or crystallize a global view with a Bronx perspective. Back in his Twitter-superstar days, he would tweet out a warning for folks not to get arrested on Friday; his motivation wasn’t ethical, but practical: you can’t see a judge on the weekend, so a Friday arrest meant an entire weekend behind bars. A knowledge dart with a beating heart.

With a great voice comes tremendous responsibility. Desus Nice is the reflection that forgotten Black boys and girls in the inner cities desperately need. He’s living proof that we can sell the melanin without selling out. His construction Timbs and slumped baseball caps make him as valid as his position on where microaggressions live hidden. He is further proof that even during a Trump presidency, a Black creative can serve his people while remaining planted at the roots — all while maintaining that Trump took his trademarked phrase “facts don’t matter” and appropriated it into “fake news.”

What next, though? With Desus Nice arriving in his thirties, the march into his forties becomes about reverberation. About branching out, about building a foundation for legacy. It’s time for Desus to cover more land. His voice has already yanked checks from Disney and Netflix. The future needs more from his pen. Interviewing guests like AOC and Seth Rogan is nothing to laugh at. But Desus has the potential to be Judd Apatow. But no matter what he chooses, or what walls he breaks down, as his platforms and bank accounts swell further, one thing is true: Desus Nice will still be Daniel Baker, and the Bronx will be right there for it all.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, Brooklynite and 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Lab fellow.

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