Photography by Fran Collin
Get Lifted Film Co. founders MIKE JACKSON, JOHN LEGEND & TY STIKLORIUS the honorees at this year’s Greenwich International Film Festival, are elevating underrepresented voices across film, television, theater and publishing with passion, integrity and, above all, love.
It was the day after Christmas in 2005, and Ty Stiklorius was going down. Cruising at 26,000 feet over snow-capped Mt. Rainier, a freak hole burst open on the fuselage of the plane she was on from Seattle to L.A. Wind shot through the cabin. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling. The scene was chaos, with passengers saying frantic last goodbyes to loved ones. As her spirit plunged along with the altitude, Ty did an inventory of her twenty-nine-year-old life. One thought emerged, and it made her more angry than scared: I haven’t done anything yet.
“As a first-gen kid from an immigrant father who came through Ellis Island, I took the safe route,” Ty tells me during a group Zoom with her Get Lifted partners, Mike Jackson and John Legend. Working for the CFO of a large media company in Los Angeles, it had been years of PowerPoint slides and spreadsheets. By all accounts, she’d made good on the Wharton MBA her father had desperately wanted for her, the fancy piece of paper that made it easier to be taken seriously as a young woman in corporate America.
But creatively, she was dead inside. And to die knowing you’re already dead? It couldn’t end like this. “As the plane was going down, it was very clear to me that I was not living my purpose,” Ty says. “I made a deal with God and with my deceased grandmother Thaïsa, whom I was named after, that if we landed, I would quit my job and I would go do something more meaningful.”
Minutes later—maybe lifetimes—the aircraft’s wheels grabbed ground in an emergency landing. Ty’s teeth and hands and gut unclenched. She blinked at the ambulances and fire trucks waiting on the runway. She exhaled. She was going to be OK. And she needed to make good on her promise. “Within a week, I quit my job,” she says. It was the right move, but the ambiguity of what came next covered her in a thick haze. “I was depressed. I spent three to six months on the couch, watching the world pass me by, wondering ‘Where do I fit in?’” Ty remembers. It triggered deeper questions: What was missing? When was the last time she’d felt fulfilled?
Suddenly, she knew what she had to do. Call her friend John.
LEGEND IN THE MAKING
Before John Legend was John Legend, he was John Stephens from Springfield, Ohio, a church-going, piano-playing child prodigy with diamond-chiseled dimples and a voice Fed-Ex’ed from heaven. Homeschooled by his mom, John skipped two grades, entering high school at age twelve, and graduated class salutatorian. By the mid-nineties, John landed in Ty’s orbit at the University of Pennsylvania. Two classes apart—he was ’99; she was ’97—they bonded as officers of Counterparts, the school’s oldest co-ed jazz and blues a capella choir. “All the officers were also members,” John says. “We all sang together, we traveled together. We all became very close friends. I’m still in touch with a lot of the other alums from the group. It becomes a big part of our college experience and social life.”
Counterparts also laid track for John and Ty’s future. “When I look back,” says Ty, “that was the beginning of our kind of professional relationship. Even though we were friends, we had responsibilities outside of just our friendship. We snapped our fingers and sang for our supper. We had a P&L. We had gigs that would pay. And as the president, I had to kind of negotiate to get the money in, keep us all going, and John was the music director, so he really set the sound and the songs that we would pick.”
Music director was a role John knew well, since he also led a gospel choir off-campus in Scranton. A fellow choir member was a former classmate of Ms. Lauryn Hill, frontwoman of The Fugees, and arranged for John to audition for Lauryn at her studio in New Jersey. He wowed her with Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” and on the spot, she asked the college junior to play piano on track thirteen of her 1998 solo debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. The song was “Everything Is Everything,” and it was everything. “People started calling me Track Thirteen at school because I bragged about it so much,” John says, smiling. And with good reason: Hill won a historic five Grammys for Miseducation. Her success was palpable, a prophecy.
Still, there were unknowns and future rent to pay, and John accepted a job as a management consultant for Boston Consulting Group after graduating in 1999. But not before Ty made a life-altering intro between John and her childhood friend, Mike Jackson. Native Philadelphians, Ty and Mike met at Friends Central, a Quaker K-12 school just west of Philly, where kids called teachers by their first names and were graded on their level of concern for the community. The two grew up with shared values and a love of music (Ty sang in a band; Mike promoted local talent), building a bond that transcended college. Now a Penn State grad with his own music promotion company, Mike could take things to the next level; Ty was sure of it.
“The setup was basically like, ‘My friend Johnny Stephens just graduated from Penn three days ago, and he’s a musical genius, and you need to find him gigs in Philly,’” Mike remembers, chuckling. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll meet him. Whatever.’” Mike agreed to listen to John play some Stevie Wonder songs at Twenty Manning in Rittenhouse Square and brought a date. “But then he showed up, and he was like, he was John,” says Mike. “You know what I mean? His talent was undeniable. I called up my partner the next day and said we were opening a management division and I found our first client. His name is John Stephens. He’s going to be a star.” Needless to say, Mike and John outlasted Mike and his date. “That year I was his manager was the building blocks of us becoming friends,” Mike says. “Not collaborators but friends,” he emphasizes, “and we’ve built off of that every year since.”
For the fast friends, that post-college era kicked off a heady mix of work and play. By day, John was consulting at BCG, and whenever he’d visit his client in Delaware, he’d take night gigs in Philly. “A lot of the kind of most exciting time of what we call Neo Soul music was happening around that time with Jill Scott and The Roots and Erykah Badú and D’Angelo coming to town,” John says, “everybody working with The Roots and some of the adjacent musicians around them. It was quite a cool and interesting time to be in Philadelphia. And I would play at some of those same clubs where they were having open mics, like The Five Spot. Jackson would book me at those places with his partner. They helped me get my first record deal offer from a Philly label at the time. All of that kind of builds on top of each other. And more and more people start to get to know who you are.”
One of those people was Kanye West, whom John met in 2001 through his college roommate after moving to New York a year prior. The two began collaborating, trading beats and hooks while cutting their own demos. Things accelerated. Stephens became Legend. He left consulting. He signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music label. More doors opened, singing backup on Alicia Keys’ “Know My Name,” Jay Z’s “Encore,” and writing with Will.i.am. Along the way, he signed with a big-time manager who managed Wyclef and the Black Eyed Peas, culminating in a major deal with Columbia Records and his 2004 debut album, Get Lifted, which John released on his twenty-sixth birthday.
“It all kind of built a story,” John says. “I made more music, worked with more and more high-powered producers and collaborators and then eventually was able to get a record deal because of all that.” Get Lifted won him Best New Artist honors at the 2005 BET awards, where he performed a flawless “Ordinary People–My Cherie Amour” medley with mentor Stevie Wonder, who was now singing John’s lyrics. Three Grammys followed in 2006 in the R&B categories Ms. Lauryn Hill had won seven years earlier. It had all come full circle.
CALL TO ACTION
Despite Legend’s rapid ascent, when Ty dialed her old friend in 2006 from her couch in an existential panic, John Stephens was still on the line. And he listened. After all, he’d been the one to discourage her from taking the boring business school route in the first place. The more they talked, the more they wondered: Could there be synergy between the recording artist and the dynamic, empathic, grassroots innovator? Counterparts 2.0?
“He said, ‘You know, I want to think this through a little bit more. Why don’t you come to New York,’” Ty recalls. “And we got a few friends together—some friends of his who had been at BCG—and we white-boarded for like two days of just really thinking through what we could do with John’s career, if it really, really took off. We were ambitious. We were all former consultants. And we were like, yeah, if we could map this out and really manifest it, what would it look like? How do we change the world? How do we end extreme poverty? How do we engage in a lot of the issues that were happening in our time? Even back then, John was very clear that he wanted to make an impact in a positive way,” Ty says, looking at John. “Do you remember?” she asks. He nods. “I’d had big success as a new artist,” he says, “but I knew there was a lot more that I still wanted to do.”
With her entrepreneurial cylinders firing, Ty packed up and moved to New York’s Meatpacking District, where the two formed JL Ventures in 2006, focusing on brand strategy, business development, tech and programs that aligned with John’s message of positivity and social impact, like his 2007 Show Me campaign, created to end the cycle of poverty by giving every child access to a quality education. John had since parted ways with his manager, so Ty found him a new management company and joined it herself so she could work her way up to the executive ranks and manage John.
“I was very cautious, because he was my dear friend,” Ty explains, “not to put him in a situation where I didn’t feel like he was getting the best that he could have. And every time I left a firm because it wasn’t working out for me, I felt like, ‘John, you can stay with the firm, or you can come with me. It’s your choice.’ And every time he said, ‘I’m going with you.’ I felt really grateful that he trusted me and empowered me, and that we got to do this together this whole time. There’s a lot of changes in an artist’s arc of their career, but John and I had this relationship before all of that and a level of trust, and then we built businesses around it. It wasn’t just like, ‘Hey, I’ll be your music manager.’ It was like, ‘Okay, how do we think through the entire growth of all of your brand, and do it globally? Like, how do we grow it?’”
Part of the answer came in a phone call from Mike in 2012, who’d been working in TV and film at production companies in Philadelphia and L.A. “The more my career started to grow, and the more Jackson was learning in the TV and film world, the more he believed that we could create something,” John says. “And use all of our connections. Use my success in the music business. Use our fellow interest in great storytelling as English majors, use all of that. To be tastemakers in film and TV and then eventually theater and publishing as well.”
Mike breaks it down: “It was right when the market crashed in 2012. I started working at another company. And someone at that point said, ‘you know, the way you make it in this business is you write the check, you’re born into it, or you’re the one with the talent.’ And I was like, damn it,” he says with a laugh. “But what I did know was I had a lot of friends with a lot of talent, a lot of actor friends that were doing really well. And then my friend John Legend. And he was one who I was closest with, who I felt most connected to and aligned with. And I remember I called him from my backyard. And I was like, ‘I have this crazy idea, but I want to launch this company, and I want to do it under your brand and build something that we’ll be proud of, because tomorrow, you’re going to be a much bigger deal than you are today. And you already are a pretty big deal.’”
And just like that, Get Lifted Film Co. was born.
The mission of Get Lifted, in essence, is to amplify voices of color across film, television, theater and publishing in an intentional, equitable, impactful way. “I grew up in a house with Jet magazine and Ebony magazine and television shows like 60 Minutes, so Black excellence was always something that was preached,” Mike says. “But I never saw that content really translated onscreen. Very often I saw archetypes of people that look like me that didn’t fit the messaging that I was getting in my own home and the people that I saw in my own life. I’d look at 60 Minutes and I see Ed Bradley, who’s a Philadelphian and a family friend. But I never saw that type of character on television. And then knowing people like that, knowing John, knowing who he is and how he navigates the world, it felt very important to me and to us to highlight those types of experiences, and people that look like us who live differently than what’s been projected onscreen.”
Ty adds that Get Lifted Film Co. wants to change the narrative not just from the inside out, but from the ground up. “When you look at USC data about how few people of color are still at the forefront of storytelling and how few women are, on top of that, we have real intention about equity and inclusion, and how we think through what kinds of projects we want to do,” she explains. “We’re going to think about who we cast, who works on it, who’s behind the scenes, what jobs are given away.” It’s the same m.o. she uses at her entertainment man-agement and social impact company, Friends at Work, which manages John today. “We think about who’s going to produce the albums, which songwriters get in the room,” she says. “And John’s always committed to making sure we have women songwriters in the room, because the last data showed that only something like thirteen, fourteen percent of the top songs are written by women.”
As they set about acquiring content, Legend’s game-changing performance of his multiplatinum hit “All of Me” at the Grammys in 2014, along with his Oscar in 2015 for “Glory,” the song he co-wrote and performed with Common for the movie Selma, further raised their profile.
“All of it helps every time you win at anything,” John says. “It makes people feel like you have the potential to win at other things, and they want to be in business with you. And then Jackson always took the elevation of our brand, the elevation of people’s awareness of me and my taste and translated that into the actual work of production, which is taking meetings with different writers, taking meetings with different filmmakers. Coming up with ideas, developing projects together that will be outstanding enough and interesting enough to get made, get funding and be put out in the world.”
Still, Mike says, there were challenges. “A lot of celebrities launch production companies, and historically they don’t succeed. They’re considered vanity projects. Typically, the celebrity doesn’t want to commit their time to the process. Secondly, we’re a Black production company, essentially, to multicultural content. And the bar that Hollywood allowed us was far lower than the bar we wanted to play in. So those are two major hurdles that we had to overcome. We did it by being smart and staying true to our taste. We did it by having John front and center. And being very active, going to pitch meetings, giving notes, giving his thoughts and showing them that their perception of what a celebrity production company looks like is wrong. And then we were going to stick by the stories that we wanted to tell and the voices that we wanted to back.”
Two critically acclaimed projects that proved this out were the 2015 HBO documentary Southern Rites and a 2016 historical fiction television series called Underground. Both are set in Georgia roughly 150 years apart and explore race and power through a deeply human lens. Rites takes viewers to the small town of Mount Vernon one year after merging its racially segregated proms and documents the divisive aftermath of the murder of a young Black man. Underground follows a group of determined slaves in Antebellum Georgia who make the dangerous journey 600 miles north via the Underground Railroad.
“Those two projects were like a really solid one-two-punch for us, which ultimately led to us being producers on La La Land as well,” says Mike. “It opened us up to a whole audience that wasn’t really looking for us. But once they started looking and they saw the Southern Rites credit, they saw the Underground credit married with this big La La Land thing, they really started looking at us as, like, ‘Oh, these guys are for real. They have great taste, and they connect on the highest level.’”
Not all of their ideas got an automatic thumbs up, however. “There were moments where some of the agents were like, ‘We don’t recommend that you play the Black Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, or that you do that project,’” Ty says. “And I remember the three of us had this call. And we were like, ‘We should do this. This could be really fun. And it’s a musical moment.’ But again, if you had a traditional manager relationship, there would have been a clash. And instead, we were all like, ‘I think we should do this one.’ And that led to not just an Emmy, but one of the more extraordinary experiences, I think, of our career. A lot of time and effort. John had to go to a million rehearsals and be hung on the cross over and over again, right around Easter,” she says. Mike is shaking his head. “Always very nervous,” he laughs, recalling the experience.
But no risk, no reward, right? Because in the end, Get Lifted Film Co. obeys gut-checks, not group-think, and the credo has served them well. Among other lauded projects, their collective intuition led to a revival of Jitney on Broadway, which won a Tony. It cooked up Netflix’s first rap competition show, Rhythm + Flow, which launched the Grammy-nominated career of first-season winner D Smoke, and is now expanding to France and Italy. It brought to life the 2020 film Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story, which puts a smart, vibrant Black girl at the center of a holiday tale. It opened the public’s ears to Loudmouth, a provocative documentary on Reverend Al Sharpton, and nurtured HBO’s 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed, a sensitively told documentary on mixed race children in America. It also birthed their first publishing deal, a novel called Rosewater, the story of a queer protagonist of color trying to find her place as a young woman in her twenties in the workforce, in her community, in her creativity. “It’s such a beautiful, amazing, sexy, fun story that isn’t just focused on trauma,” says Ty. “We’re very conscious of not wanting to just do the trauma porn storytelling over and over.”
Mike is nodding. “I’m a Black man living in America, OK?” he says. “And like most people that look like me, we’re just trying to find happiness in our lives. And find balance in our lives. Sure, we can highlight our traumas. We’ve done that tenfold in the content, but I just think it’s important to highlight our stories and highlight Black legacy in a way that is aspirational and positive and joyous. Those are narratives that our audiences want to hear.”
LEADING WITH LOVE
Out this October is Get Lifted’s second offering from its literary arm, Black Love Letters, a coffee-table-worthy collection of poems and illustrations, with a foreword penned by John. Film and theater projects are also percolating. “Phantom is a big one in the film space,” Mike says excitedly. “It’s a reimagination of Phantom of the Opera through the perspective of a young Black girl in New Orleans. And we’re really close to getting that green light. And we have some plays we’re really excited about, Imitation of Life and Basquiat, with John doing the music.”
Another full-steam-ahead project that marries moviemaking and social impact is an upcoming HBO documentary on Hill-Freedman World Academy, a public high school in Philadelphia serving over 95 percent students of color with a variety of backgrounds, talents and needs. In 2016, the Academy created its own record label, Hill-Freedman Records, which has produced and published six student-led albums, thanks in large part to independent funding. Their fourth album features a powerful anthem called “Things That Matter,” written and performed by then-freshman Jehmir Nixon, whose chorus highlights the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to end the day that we become silent about things that matter.” Watching the music video, it’s hard not to get chills.
“Obviously, music is in our DNA,” Mike says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Philly. It’s music. It’s incredible. Let’s get involved on the producer side.’ Once we committed to the documentary, I had the opportunity to go to Philadelphia and sit with the kids and meet them and see the facility and hear them perform. And it was at that point that I also learned that they were losing their funding.” Mike being Mike, he got to work, combing his network and beyond, promising he was going to get Hill-Freedman money so the program could continue to thrive.
Serendipitously, the Greenwich International Film Festival tapped Ty, Mike and John to receive its Changemaker Award and will donate $100,000 to Hill-Freedman World Academy via Get Lifted at the Changemaker Gala on November 9.
“We were privileged to receive the Changemaker Award, and now we have this found money,” says Mike. “But again, that doesn’t stop us from our pursuit to continue to raise more money. It’s about giving kids a voice, supporting music education, supporting artistry and giving kids a purpose, giving them something to believe in when they’re trying to figure things out.”
John heartily agrees. “I think about how important music education was for me, having teachers who supported my vision. Having teachers who encouraged me to write and be creative. Teachers who encouraged me to sing and participate in musical theater. Teachers who encouraged me to create my own music. Having peers who I was able to collaborate with. All of those things help us become the artists we are,” he says.
“Investing in the arts is critical to the future of this country. The future of humanity. And we know how important it was for us,” John continues, with a glint of optimism in his eyes. “And we believe it’s going to be important for the youth of today and for them to be great future leaders, future artists, future businesspeople, whatever they’re going to do in their lives, we think it’s important to invest in that now. And we disinvest from those things at our own peril.”
It all ties back to Get Lifted’s core of supporting voices that need elevating. And the more it lifts up underrepresented talent, the more it will reach its own zenith. “We’ve gotten credibility in these verticals, and now it’s a matter of creating a multiplatform content studio,” says Mike. “Our goal is to eventually get to the place where we have such success in all these verticals that we’re going to be able to go out and raise some financing and then start to put our money behind the content that we believe in and the voices that we believe in, while also owning this content as well, and then providing the partnerships that we create with these voices to take ownership pieces as well.”
“We really want to build something with Get Lifted that is sustainable, that watches out for everybody,” Ty adds. “And that comes from John, because if you know anything about him, John leads with love in every element of his business and life. I remember when we met with our lawyers when we started the company, and they were like, ‘Listen, we’ve seen many of these situations fall apart because this person wants the credit or that person.’ And there’s something…I don’t know,” Ty pauses. “There’s something about people from Philly. And there’s something about going all the way back. We’ve always tried to stay grounded. That doesn’t mean we don’t have our hurdles. We’ve had our hurdles, as any people who love one another do.”
Mike says it simply: “We’re siblings, we’re brothers and sister. I was there in the room after Ty’s daughter Katell was born. John and I were in Ty’s wedding. I was a groomsman in John’s wedding. We’re a part of each other’s lives in ways that only friends can be. Has nothing to do with work. We love each other’s kids. We’re getting old together. I’m an old dad with really young babies, and they’ve given me sanity through all the craziness. And no matter how deep or dark we can get, potentially, we always know we’re going to come back to the light…” Mike trails off, and Ty finishes, “no matter how much the plane is going to crash. We’ve survived, and really mostly I think we’re having a good time. It’s not heart surgery. We’re telling stories. We’re playing music.”
But in many ways, it is heart surgery…isn’t it? “Ooh, right,” Ty says, grinning. “You’re right. You crack open someone’s heart, and then they actually want to make a difference in the world.” It brings to mind the lyrics of Jehmir’s MLK-inspired song, “Things that Matter”:
If I don’t speak up, who else is gonna do it?
If I don’t speak out, who else is gonna do it?
You can complain or you can make improvements
You can sit down or stand up and start a movement
Three old friends from Philly couldn’t have said it—or dreamed it—any better.