Film Producer Datari Turner Talks Growing Up Hip Hop, His Road to Self-Fulfillment, & The Importance of Giving Back
Datari Turner is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the entertainment industry. With twenty years of experience, that includes countless achievements and recognition in fashion and film, he constantly stays ahead of the game… all while remaining true to himself and humble, at the same time. Now, as the creator and executive producer of the white hot, hit show, Growing Up Hip Hop, Datari Turner utilizes the reality television phenomenon as a platform to showcase African-American families in a more positive light.
“Growing up, my dad always talked about legacy and I wanted to do something that was legacy driven and showed black people having generational wealth. When Hip-Hop first came on the scene, it created a lot of wealthy people, such as Diddy, Master P, Russell Simmons,” said Turner.
The show features the Hip-Hop/Pop Culture notables Angela Simmons (daughter of Joseph ‘Rev. Run’ Simmons, niece of Russell Simmons); Kristinia DeBarge (daughter of James DeBarge); Romeo Miller (son of Master P); Damon ‘Boogie’ Dash (son of Damon Dash); Egypt Criss (daughter of Sandra ‘Pepa’ Denton, member of female rap duo Salt N’ Pepa, and Anthony ‘Treach’ Criss of Naughty By Nature); Briana Latrise (daughter of music executive Kendu Issacs and stepdaughter of Mary J. Blige) and TJ Mizell (son of the late Jam Master Jay). In the beginning, Turner was initially only working with Angela; however, plans got changed and adjustments had to be made to his concept. “Angela was looking to return to TV and I took her around to the networks to sell a show based on her life. The networks were more interested at the time in ensemble shows with multiple people, so we went back to the drawing board and Growing Up Hip Hop was born,” he continued.
Being that each cast member was handpicked by Turner, himself, all didn’t mind signing on due to the great relationship they have with him. However, when it came to Kristinia, there was a bit of skepticism. Turner had to really fight in order to get her placement on the show.
“The network didn’t think the DeBarge family was Hip-Hop, and, ultimately, I had to give them a history lesson. Their music is the most sampled music in the industry. I had to prep her. I told her, ‘Listen, I believe in you and you make sense for the show. You have to go in there and convince them that you belong,” said Turner. After the second round of meetings, Kristinia was given the green light and, as a result, fans get the opportunity to get a closer look into her life as well.”
But, before Growing Up Hip Hop, Datari Turner had already made a name for himself, being a successful film writer and producer, with such movies as Video Girl, starring Meagan Good and Academy Award nominee Ruby Dee; Another Happy Day, that featured A-Listers Demi Moore, Ellen Barkin, and Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn; LUV, starring rapper/actor Common, Danny Glover, and Dennis Haysbert, and the 2017 film Gook, which garnered the Audience Award recently at the Sundance Film Festival. Turner is currently in production for A Boy. A Girl. A Dream., along with actors Omari Hardwick, Meagan Good, and Jay Ellis.
While movies have always been a part of Turner’s passion, one could say that he took the scenic route to get to where he is today. Born in Oakland, California, Turner and his family moved to the city of Richmond when he was eight years old. As a child, his parents instilled the importance of having a supreme work ethic—a value that he still holds dear and practices to this day. “My father worked for the government and my mother was with the school board. Whenever I wanted something, such as shoes or a starter jacket, they didn’t just buy it for me; I had to work for it. I was eight years old cutting grass to earn money,” he said.
By the time he was a teenager, Turner was in love with sports and movies, and, as a senior in high school, he was exceptional in athletics, gaining multiple accolades and, eventually, accepted a full scholarship at Oklahoma State University. At nineteen, he was asked to enter a modeling competition and, after winning, was signed to the Ford Modeling Agency. “They used me for Abercrombie and Fitch, which was a big deal because it was the first time they used a black man in the campaign. This was nineteen ninety-eight,” he said. And the modeling gigs kept coming—fast.
We saw his face everywhere—from Sean John to Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfiger. His picture even graced a billboard in New York’s famous Times Square. There were opportunities in the music video sector as well—being featured in R&B group Xscape’s “My Little Secret” and “Am I Dreaming” productions. All of this, one would say Datari Turner had the world at his fingertips. But, in reality, he was genuinely unhappy. After being successful and enjoying the fruits of his labor, at the time, he began to feel as if something was missing. “It was like a detour. I decided to take a leave of absence from school and told myself that I would only model for six months and then go back, but I went on to model for a number of years,” he said. I thought I was going to the NFL. When you come from humble beginnings and come into money, you create bills for yourself because you start spending it. I brought my parents expensive cars, and I had got sucked in the taste of a little bit of fame. So, now, you’re on this hamster wheel because you have to keep working.”
It wasn’t until the beginning of 2002, while home on his balcony overlooking the Hudson River, that a revelation took place. “I started to think, ‘Wow, it’s four years later, and I’m a real male supermodel. Man, this is my life. How did I get here? Do I really wanna do this?’ Never in a million years did I see my life in the entertainment business. I was depressed a little bit. I didn’t even like to take pictures as a kid. I just didn’t understand it; it was kinda awkward to me. I thought, ‘Why are they paying me all this money to take these photos?’ Everything you own is tied up to the way you look, how tall you are, things like that. I couldn’t see myself doing this at forty years old. I kept thinking, ‘What am I gonna do?’ It wasn’t the life that I saw for myself, so I went back to what I loved outside of football—movies,” he explained. After buying books on screenwriting, Turner decided to write about subject matters that he knew about, hence the birth of the movie Video Girl, since he had already known a lot of video girls and had experience being in them. And the rest is history.
Now, in its third season, Growing Up Hip Hop is now expanding to other cities. The Atlanta cast stars Shad “Bow Wow” Moss, Shaniah Mauldin (daughter of Jermaine Dupri); Reginae Carter (daughter of Lil’ Wayne and Antonia ‘Toya Carter’ Wright); Ayana Fite (daughter of DJ Hurricane); Brandon Barnes (son of Hip-Hop manager Ms. Deb Atney and brother of Waka Flocka) and Zonnique Pullins (daughter of Hip-Hop couple T.I. and Tiny, who’s also a part of legendary girl group Xscape). And, as this goes to print, more cities are underway.
“Obviously, God had a different plan for me. I wanted to create something that fits my mission in life. It shows black excellence in black families. The message is great at the end of the day.”
When asked what inspires him, Datari Turner credited his parents for laying the foundation for him. “I have good parents. They’ve been married for forty years. I was raised to have integrity, knowing that I have to work hard. It’s about just having faith. Believe in God. In everything that I do, I want to make my people look better. I speak at film schools all over the country and I mentor film students. We gotta give more than we receive.”
Growing Up Hip Hop airs every Thursday night at 10:00 p.m. EST/9:00 p.m. CST on WE TV. Tune in!