by Sarad Davenport | Photos by Photographer: Hunnus (IG: @hunnus)
We took some time to catch up with Darnell Lamont Walker, a writer for Netflix’s hottest new animated series by Ludacris, “Karma’s World.” Over the last few years, Darnell’s journey has taken him from the Sesame Street Writers Room to creating incredible content for children on global shows like Blue’s Clues & You, Two Whats?! And a Wow!, and many others he can’t currently mention but promises our kids will see very soon.
Darnell describes himself as ‘just a happy guy from Charlottesville.’ “I’m a creative. I’m an artist. A filmmaker. I’m just a happy person moving through life.” The truth is that Darnell is operating at the highest levels in the entertainment industry and is paving the way for young creatives from Charlottesville and beyond.
“I wanted to be something I never really saw,” Darnell said of not being able to see representation of what he wanted to be locally. But there was a key transition that happened in Darnell’s life that helped him see that being a professional in the arts and entertainment industry was a real possibility.
Terésa Dowell-Vest is who Darnell gives credit for helping him believe in himself as an artist. Dowell-Vest grew up in the Charlottesville and Covesville area and was the theater teacher at Charlottesville High School when Darnell was there. “She brought me under her wing,” Darnell said. Terésa herself went to James Madison University and Cal State Long Beach and brought those experiences back to Charlottesville and made lasting deposits in the psyche of Black students broadly but Darnell in particular.
“She took me to Los Angeles in 10th grade,” Darnell remembers, not knowing at the time that someday he would go there to live and further his career. But first, he had to make it out of Charlottesville.
“I was in the Drama club, ran track, and was in the German club,” said Darnell. According to Darnell, it helped him to see how Black students and other students were getting two very different educations—even in the same school. “My guidance counselor, Ms. Elder, believed in me and made sure I was on the right path to succeed, but there were other guidance counselors at CHS who were telling my friends that college wasn’t for them. They weren’t telling white kids that,” said Darnell.
Boyz N Da Hood
Darnell spoke of the inherent knowledge in the Black community that some kids have to escape to make it. He spoke of the nurture and protection that is given to certain kids that the community rallies around early on knowing that there is a sense of destiny about them. Darnell was one of those kids that always had a sense of destiny about him.
“My grandma lived in the Projects [Westhaven if you are wondering]. My dad lived in Garrett [Friendship Court],” Darnell said. Those who are from Charlottesville or know anything about its history will know that ‘the Projects’ [Westhaven] and Garrett Square are public and subsidized housing neighborhoods in Charlottesville. So when Darnell says he has roots in these neighborhoods, that means something. For instance, when the Vinegar Hill neighborhood was razed, a large number of those families were displaced and housed in Westhaven.
There is a rich culture and sense of belonging, yet there can also be excruciating poverty because of the lack of investment and resources. Early on, Darnell says that his cousins kept him out of the fray in the neighborhood because they knew that he was ‘going places.’ It was an unspoken code of protection because he would inevitably be able to inspire hope in others. “A lot of people recognize who can make it out. It created a hunger in me. I used to say to myself, ‘I want to be like Spike Lee,” he remembered.
A Different World
For Black people, Charlottesville can be a place where dreams are deferred or often come to die. Darnell said, “I figured out that I couldn’t be fed here. It’s crucial for my survival for me to be fed and I can’t get it here. I felt like I was dying here.” Darnell inevitably left Charlottesville to enroll at Bethune Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Darnell said he chose an HBCU because he remembered an episode of the sitcom ‘The Cosby Show’ where Clair Huxtable [Phylicia Rashad] went back to Hillman college to give a speech and said that “A degree from Hillman is as good as any degree anywhere.” Darnell spoke of HBCUs as a place where excellence is welcomed, nurtured, and developed.
Darnell noted that his HBCU experience helped him to see how mediocrity is often accepted in many professions, but HBCUs are designed to prevent mediocrity. Darnell said of the entertainment industry that, at times, “Some people are being rewarded for mediocrity,” and he said, he is quick to remind people when necessary that, “No, this is not that great!”
After Bethune Cookman, after Howard University, after the degrees and growth, all roads led Darnell to Los Angeles. And this is where things get a little tricky.
This hunger and desire to have his soul nourished and fed and share his art with the world left Darnell homeless and literally hungry. “It took a lot of sleeping on people’s couches for years,” he remembered.
“It was hard in LA. I remember only having a dollar in my account and eating tacos. Knowing I could go home, but I would die there and lose my mind.”
This literal hunger propelled Darnell to the space and success he now occupies and also the deep knowing that sometimes Charlottesville is a place that can crush the hopes of Black people desiring more. It was either starve in Los Angeles physically with hopes of becoming or spiritually and at a soul-level in Charlottesville—Darnell chose his soul.
As mentioned earlier, Darnell is now a part of the writing team for Ludacris’ Netflix animated series, Karma’s World. With this project specifically, after years of working and being patient, this opportunity is one that Darnell pursued. “I worked my way into the kid’s television space. I had Sesame Street on my resume. I hit people up saying I wanted to work for y’all.” While Darnell was randomly cold-calling studios, he expressed his interest directly in working on Karma’s world. To his surprise, they reached back and told him that they needed him to sign this NDA (non-disclosure agreement). This meant it was getting real.
“They sent me an early trailer and information about the show over 2 years ago.” What he loved about Ludacris’ Karma’s World project was, as he states it, ‘You see this dope Black girl with Big hair who’s brilliant, talented, and kind. She is black.” Darnell emphasizes this point because Karma is just herself, a little Black girl living fully and freely in the world. “I wrote my episode over two years ago,” he said. “Children’s animation takes a long time to come out.”
When asked whose work he follows and who inspires him in entertainment and in the world, Darnell lists Kirk Moore, Jenn Nkiru, Donald Glover, Tarell Alvin McCraney, Darnell Moore, Kiese Laymon, Barry Jenkins, Tiffany Black, Halcyon Person, and everybody Black. Darnell reserves his highest praise for the renowned writer, poet, artist, and activist James Baldwin. “Everything he said about the world, the people in it, about America, he said unapologetically, boldly, and beautifully. Because those things needed to be said long before he said them. Those words and him are timeless.”
As to the canvas of life, Darnell, this happy person moving through life says, “I want to leave nothing.” Every gift that is inside of him, Darnell wants to excavate it and share it with the world. He wants to continue to become what the people that believed in him always knew he would be. He says of his theatre teacher in high school, Terésa Dowell-Vest, “We are still great friends and keep in touch.”
Sometimes all it takes is for someone to see more in you than you may even see in yourself for you to find the courage to go beyond the limitations that the world has set for us. Such is the case with Darnell Lamont Walker.
To keep up with Darnell and to follow him on his journey, go to darnellwalker.com or @cleverbastard on IG.