The first time I contact Just Mike the Poet, in June 2016, I’m sprawled out on my couch, feeling sorry for myself. I’d recently been ghosted by the guy I’d been dating for the last few months, and I was no longer furious, just sad and confused. How did I let this happen to me again?
But I don’t Instagram DM Mike a rundown of the situation and ask him for advice, like many women do. Instead, I ask if I can interview him. I’ve been wanting to write a story about him, the curious cultural phenomenon of his celebrity, a man who’s built a career by writing inspirational poetry for women and posting it on social media, and I decide I’m ready. Maybe he could give me some insight into my own situation.
It was a slam poet on the Philadelphia scene who told me about Mike. You have to check this guy out, he said. Here was a poet with an enormous — and near-fanatical — following. Women were posting photos of themselves reading his books and wearing his T-shirts, they were buying tickets to his shows, they were getting his logo tattooed.
His fans were a powerful army of brand ambassadors, flooding Instagram with their love and support for him. Even Halle Berry joined in when she posted a photo of herself last May, eyes shut and hair windswept, sporting a distressed version of Mike’s trademark “No more boyfriends.” T-shirt. “Summer’s coming… let’s shine up our crowns ladies! Let’s do it like @justmike_,” she wrote. Nearly 96,000 users liked it.
The slam poet pulled up Mike’s Instagram to show me.
It felt like a line from a smooth-talking “feminist” dude, a writer who was very clearly pandering to women. It was so over the top that it made me cringe. But, at the same time, I couldn’t deny that his writing spoke to me. All Mike’s poems offered pun-filled variations on the same message: Love yourself. Don’t settle. If a guy can’t see that you’re great, he just needs new glasses. These were the things I’d tell a friend when she was scorned by a man. They were lessons I had spent years learning, that I was still trying to learn, and for a guy to be advocating for them? It was powerful. Subversive, almost.
Except: was it really all that subversive if it was ultimately a man doing the empowering? No matter how much his message resonated with me, I felt skeptical of him, the way I’m skeptical of any man who speaks loudly about being a Good Man and especially one who’s selling a hoodie reminding me of the fact. Who was this guy whom so many women believed in? Was it all just a savvy marketing scheme targeting women who had lost hope in men?
I wanted to find out.
The story of how 33-year-old Michael E. Reid from South Philly became a writer begins with heartbreak. We sit outside of a restaurant not far from his modest two-bedroom rowhome apartment, and he tells me that when he was in his 20s, a woman he loved and wanted to marry left him. Devastated, he swallowed 30 Tylenol PMs, then he panicked and called his mom. Charlene Reid, the woman who raised him and his sister on her own while working and attending nursing school, was not having it. She laughed at him. (She later told me she was furious: “Are you f — — kidding me? You wanted to do that? Over a girl?” she remembers telling him.) Mike stuck his finger down his throat and his mom came to take him to the psych ward of a nearby hospital. The next morning, a nurse assured him he wasn’t crazy. He had just had a bad day. She gave him a journal and suggested he write about his feelings. So that’s what he did.
Mike is black, 6′2 and broad-shouldered, with a confident smile. He walks me through his rise to fame: in 2012, while he was working as a nurse’s assistant and going to nursing school, he started posting his poetry on Instagram. He was surprised to see that people responded. Women, mostly. His words resonated with them. They liked his posts and tagged their friends and before he knew it, Just Mike, or @justmike_, was an Instagram sensation. His followers wanted more. If you wrote a book, they said, I’d buy it.
So Mike did. He scoured the area for the best deal on a book printer, printed 100 copies of his first book, “Just Words,” and sold every single copy online in the span of one lunch break. But still they wanted more. Come to my city, they said, I want to see you perform. So he researched hundreds of venues in cities across the country, planned out a route and sold tickets to his shows.
In those days, he was a poetry machine. He’d churn out multiple posts a day, writing a poem on the 30-minute trolley ride from his apartment to the hospital where he worked, another on his lunch break and one more while he made dinner. On March 13, 2013, just a year after he started writing, he did something many poets only dream of. He dropped out of school, quit his job and made poetry his full-time career.
Since then, he said he’s sold more than 100,000 copies of his four books, including his most popular “Dear Woman,” executed several cross-country tours and hosted a series of sold-out “women’s empowerment workshops,” where he invited his fans to share a meal with him, drink champagne and talk about love, for $100 a pop. He says he made more than $200,000 in profit in 2016, including from his publishing business, Dreams on Paper Entertainment (D.O.P.E.).
Mike says it’s his mission to help as many women as possible. “I get more joy out of that than I would pushing IVs or changing wound dressings or being in another ER on Christmas Eve when somebody grandpa dies,” he later explains to me, via text.
Before we part, I ask him if he’s ever run into any sticky situations, since his fans love him so much. “Oh, you mean groupies?” he says. No, definitely not, he tells me, he’s never been romantic with a fan. That would be a conflict of interest.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t fall in love with Mike. Fall in love with the words.’”
In 2012, Perry “Vision” DeVirgilio watched as Just Mike the Poet took the stage for the first time at Philly’s largest open mic. Mike was visibly nervous and eager to please the crowd, but Vision, a respected poet and coach and one of the open mic’s organizers, noticed that the audience seemed to like that about him. They thought his nerves were cute. Not long after, Mike invited Vision, or Viz, as Mike calls him, to do a show with him in New York. To Vision’s surprise, 200 people showed up.
“I was like, ‘Damn bro, off Insta?’” says Vision, who’s tall and wide and has a curly mop of hair almost to his shoulders.
This was not how the poetry world worked. The spoken word hustle is tough. You’re constantly at the mercy of gatekeepers on the scene, Vision tells me. You vie for an invite to be the featured poet at a show or you perform at a group show for a flat rate of a $100 and try to hawk your CDs and books afterwards. Even then, you’re expected to be kind of bashful about asking for money in exchange for your work.
Mike was not apologetic about selling his products. The way he saw it, he was giving his followers what they wanted. What they asked for. And when it came to his business, he controlled all of it: he built his own audience and email lists, he booked the venues, marketed the shows and made sure the tickets got sold, which meant he kept all the money. Vision, a veteran of the business, had never seen anything like it.
“We don’t have to go to the Nuyorican,” Vision says, referring to the renowned New York City poetry club. “We’d go to a hotel conference room, we set up chairs, we dimmed the lights and we did poetry.”
Vision, along with fellow slam poet Jamarr Hall, started going on cross-country tours with Mike. They’d ask the audience and often find that most of the people there — usually black women, though Vision and Mike both said it varied from city to city — had never been to a poetry show before.
That’s the beauty of Mike, Vision says: he’s writing for “regular folks.” It’s a radical act given that poetry is so often thought of as an art form for elites, a storied tradition of dead white men (and sometimes women). Instagram has started to change that, with “Instapoets” like Rupi Kaur, Lang Leav and R.M. Drake gaining mass appeal, but some still rail against them, insisting that they’re hacks. Mike says he’s been a victim of this elitism.
To this day, he says, no one in Philly has invited him to be the feature at an open mic. Maybe it’s because they heard he sold out the Theatre of the Living Arts, a major Philly concert venue, he muses. Maybe they think Mike thinks he’s too big time.
“My reception gets like that, I’ve noticed,” he says. “Just hate, shade. … I think that’s how the poetry community has felt about me this entire time. Because as far as poets nationally, historically, nobody’s ever really done what I’ve done.”
But Christopher K.P. Brown, a veteran Philly slam poet who organizes open mics, says that it’s not a matter of Mike’s success as a poet. “He definitely sold out the TLA and we applaud that,” Brown told me over Facebook Messenger. The reason Mike hasn’t been warmly embraced by the poetry community is because he never made an effort to engage it, he said. Brown also takes issue with Mike’s writing, which he says “shames” women.
“As men, we don’t have the experience of being a woman. So who are we to dictate how women should carry themselves? Especially when we aren’t willing to admit our own faults as men when it comes to how we treat women,” Brown wrote. “Most of the poets I have talked to feel like this is something we’ve seen before. Because black women are the financial backbone of spoken word, some poets will come in, catering to women, but not in a way that gives them a voice.”
Mike’s writing, Brown said, takes advantage of “old school thinking” about gender roles that still largely pervades our patriarchal society. “So even when discussing women’s issues it’s okay for a man (Mike) to be leading that conversation. Instead of there being a woman using her experience as a woman to speak to these same issues,” he wrote.
Mike declined to respond to these comments, but his fans told me that they don’t find it problematic that Mike is writing about women’s empowerment, which may also speak to the fraught state of sisterhood. “Honestly, it’s less judgmental coming from a man,” said JaSonyia “Jay” Bridy, a 23-year-old fan based in Richmond, Va. “Women have a tendency to say certain things out of spite or use judgmental tones to shape their work.”
When it comes down to it, Brown says Mike is successful in business “because he’s far more concerned with the business of poetry than he is actual poetry.”
When I visit Mike at his apartment last summer to interview him again, we talk for more than two hours when I finally work up the courage to ask him about the quality of his poetry. I raise the issue that his writing can be kind of corny. In hopes of making my point, I point to the wooden wall art hanging behind him. It has a list of cliches: Be yourself. Take chances. Let go. It’s like that, I tell him, and to my surprise, he yelps, his voice cracking, “Yes!”
He jumps up from his suede loveseat. “Because that thing,” he points to the wall art, “is universal!” He’s excited, like I’ve touched on something that no one seems to understand about him. “Ultimately, I have to find the perfect cadence that a girl from Southwest Philly and a girl from South Central and a girl from Southwest Asia all can enjoy,” he says. That cadence is simple enough that it’s accessible and vague enough that his readers can map themselves onto it. (A poetry critic described the same quality in Kaur’s work as “kind of genius.”)
“I could write poetry that knocks women’s socks off,” he tells me, “but what good is that if my overall message is to empower women, and the women who are in the most danger of their empowerment being in jeopardy are the type of women who couldn’t appreciate a well-written poem?”
“But why are you assuming they can’t appreciate a well-written poem?” I ask.
“I’m not assuming they can’t appreciate a well-written poem. I’m just not going to take the gamble with the communication.”
It is a gamble. As an artist who rose to fame on social media, Mike is hyper attuned to what his audience likes. He gets immediate data, in the form of likes, on every single poem he posts. So far, this kind of poetry, the kind he calls “universal,” is working. So why would he risk changing it?
On July 19, 2016, about 250 women, mostly black, pack a performing arts space in Philadelphia’s historic district to see Mike talk about his new book, “The Boyfriend Book.”
“How many people in here are single?” Mike asks from the stage. Virtually everyone, including me, raises their hand. Then we all burst out laughing.
Before Mike’s turn, his touring partners Jamarr and Vision sing love songs and read poems, fighting the stereotype that “real men” — especially black men—don’t show emotion or softness. “I don’t believe that men shouldn’t cry,” Vision says, “or that men shouldn’t tell people that they love them.” It occurs to me that it’d be useful for other men to see this, but I later find out that men weren’t allowed in room that night (Mike tells me he does this sometimes to give women a safe space to talk about their feelings).
Mike takes it to another level: “I wish I could love all y’all each individually just for a day so you know what it feels like,” — here, the crowd coos “aww” — “but since I can’t, I just really wanna make y’all strong enough to deal with the bullshit.”
Okay, but why do women have to be so strong all the time? Mike addresses that next: “As much as I wanna get out here and talk to some guys, y’all know it ain’t gonna work. They don’t even listen to y’all half the time, so you think I’m gonna get 200 guys in here to sit in here with me and teach them how to be better guys?” A woman near me softly says, “Maybe! Try!”
“The only thing I can do,” Mike says, “is to make sure y’all keep that bar right here and make them step their game up.”
Throughout my reporting, Mike is constantly compared to Steve Harvey, the comedian and radio host known for dishing “straight-talking” dating advice that has been criticized as sexist. Mike’s mom, Charlene Reid, says he’s following in Harvey’s mold of letting women know how men think, while Mike’s fans, as well as Vision, tell me he’s nothing like Harvey. He’s not telling women “here’s how to keep a man.” It’s “you don’t need a man.” But when Mike tells his fans why he won’t address men, it’s one time that he does sound like Harvey.
“Unless men change, I will not write a book for men, because I don’t want it just sitting on the shelves,” Harvey told Salon in 2010.
I think of how theorist bell hooks wrote in her 2003 book “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity”: “Individual charismatic black male leaders with a radical consciousness often become so enamored of their unique status as the black man who is different that they fail to share the good news with other black men.”
But this isn’t a radical project. It’s a business, which is what I hear when Mike (and Harvey) explain why they won’t write for men. The way Mike tells it, he’s created his whole career around giving his fans what they asked for: guidance, books, performances. That’s why he’s so successful, according to his accountant Rayce Rollins. Mike understands “the psychology of his customers.”
“He knows his customers. He knows women. He knows minorities. He understands that whole framework,” says Rollins, a self-described family man whom Mike calls “Uncle Rayce,” even though they’re about the same age.
I think of Mike’s fans, women who told me they had been cheated on and abused. They all told me the same thing: Mike’s writing makes them feel worthy of being loved. This is no small feat, especially for black women living in a structurally racist and sexist society.
“We beat ourselves up,” NYU graduate student Yvonne Winborne told me before Mike’s show in Philly, explaining why Mike’s work meant so much to her. “‘We’re too loud, too crazy, too extra.’ Especially black women. We’re not valued. We’re used and we’re taken advantage of. We’re taken for granted.” It’s like Mike was saying: I see you.
These factors, of course, play out in the dating world: In 2009 and 2014, OKCupid released data that showed how hard it was to be a black woman on the dating site. Men of all races consistently rated black women’s attractiveness lower than average. Pair that with how limited the dating pool can feel for straight black women because of factors like incarceration rates and educational attainment among black men, the fact that black women experience violence in intimate relationships more than twice as often as women of any other race and, because it bears repeating, the intersection of racism and sexism that black women face everyday, and it’s not hard to see why Mike is a star. He offers hope. In a society and a media landscape that has historically erased black women, his writing is a powerful acknowledgment of their pain, of their heart.
To speak of it in business terms, as Rollins does, “he’s selling umbrellas and it’s pouring down rain outside.” Which brings me to this nagging feeling that, no matter how much Mike is helping women, he’s also, in a way, profiting off their pain. It’s a hard conversation to have with Mike because I know it sounds like an attack on his character. It’s not. I’ve spent enough time with Mike to feel confident that he didn’t devise an evil plan to profit off women’s pain from the get.
When I ask him about this, Mike gives me several explanations, rapid-fire. All artists do this in some shape or form, I don’t even charge that much, it was my fans who asked for this product and I was just answering the call. “I would’ve been bankrupt if I wrote the book and didn’t sell it,” he says. He’s eager to prove to me that he’s a good guy, that his intentions are good, and the more that he does, I realize that I don’t care. That’s not what I’m asking. I want to know if he’s willing to consider that despite his intentions, his actions might not be so cut and dry, 100 percent positive. That despite all the women he’s helped, there could also be harm in the narratives he’s perpetuating. Both things can be true. And though I understand why, I find his eagerness to dismiss my critiques frustrating. Isn’t this what he’s advocating for? Holding men accountable?
The day after I bring a photographer to Mike’s apartment for the story, we get into a fight. He insists I’m writing the wrong story.
I’ve been very conscious of making sure he knows that my story will include critiques, especially as the publish date nears. I hear my former editor’s voice in my head, quoting the late media reporter David Carr, “A journalist should never be a friendly dog when reporting and then go snake at the keyboard.” Mike hasn’t gotten mad at me yet, so I worry I haven’t done a good enough job of communicating that the story is not just a puff piece.
Until this fall afternoon, when I do maybe too good of a job communicating that.
We’re texting each other and it sounds like he finally understands the issues I see with his work—and he’s aghast. “yikes,” he writes. “oh no.” He tells me he thinks my past experiences with men and with writing are skewing how I see him. He is right.
“i also feel like you have spent a week in a cult, and just ‘don’t get it,’” he writes. “not saying I’m a cult at all, just that there is so much love in a room, that your [sic] in, that you don’t feel, but also don’t understand why.”
Again, he’s right, in a way. There are some things about Just Mike the Poet’s appeal that I can’t relate to. I’m not a black woman. I grew up with two parents in an upper middle class household. I am not Mike’s exact target audience.
But I don’t think that invalidates my critiques. “to be honest,” he texts, “i have never had a single person since i have started doing what I’ve been doing, who has felt like you have felt.” This is somewhat shocking to me. Then I remember him saying during one of our interviews: “Nobody checks Mike.” He seemed to think this was a problem.
When I ask Brown, the poet who shared his critiques of Mike with me, about this, he chalked it up to the “code of secrecy” on the Philly spoken word scene that protects poets who are potentially problematic. Critics are often dismissed as haters and ultimately alienated. “That happens a lot,” Brown said. “We point the finger at the person speaking whenever someone speaks up to state there’s a problem.” He was fully expecting a similar reaction to his comments. When I made it clear I’d be quoting him, he responded: “Lol. I’m going get some backlash when this comes out but I can live with it.”
My reporting seems to back up this theory. Throughout all the interviews I did, Brown was one of two people who would say anything remotely negative about Mike on the record. The other was a fan named Sydney Washington, a poet herself and one of the most enthusiastic supporters I spoke to. She had a Just Mike tattoo and opened for him on his Perfect Boyfriend Tour stop in Boston. Mike, she said, wasn’t like other high-profile poets she knew, those who’d say that a black woman was a “KWEEN” but then would call her a bitch for ignoring him when he whistled at her on the street. “They aren’t out here walking that walk, they’re just collecting checks,” she wrote to me on Instagram DM. Not Mike. Mike felt genuine.
Still, Washington, a 23-year-old middle school teacher, said she didn’t always agree with Mike’s work. “I’m not big on putting women down for sexual freedom and he does that sometimes,” she said. (When I asked for an example, she sent me an Instagram post of Mike’s that has since been taken down — Mike did a big account purge this fall.) She didn’t seem to hold any illusions that he was perfect. “Of course we all make mistakes so I’m sure he’s made his,” she said. But it didn’t matter that much to her.
Because in the end, Mike—or Mike’s words, if there’s a difference—were there for her when she needed it most: after her relationship fell apart. “Despite the way my insta looks I don’t really have a bunch of people that I hang out with so there was no one comforting me while I was going through my breakup,” she wrote. “And maybe that’s why Mike means so much to me.”