OZY Rules: The House Negro Gets It in the End
The now-defunct OZY's business chicanery conceals a much more corrosive narrative.
“And in regards to your little music thing…” It was both a dressing down, very possibly Dressing Down #37, and a pep talk. Or it was intended to be. “…If it was going to happen for you it would have already happened.”
Then silence and a look that was supposed to convey a Moses-like rendering of what was intended to be an incontrovertible truth. In this instance about the prospects of my band OXBOW as a vehicle for? Whatever he, Carlos Watson, believed to be professional success. That’s what the “it” was about. I guess.
“So I’m just asking you to give me, what? A year of your undivided attention, I want you all in.”
“I’m working 18 hour days, man. I don’t know if I could be more in.” I had started at OZY in September of 2012. I worked seven days a week, 12 to 14 articles a week, right up until I had to take a few days off to play some shows with OXBOW. Something I had emailed about needing to do before I had started. As a contractor.
“I can see you’re not committed to this.” His hand was pounding the table in front of him. He pushed back and regarded me. “So we’re done.” It was the end of October 2012 and I had been fired.
A few days before Thanksgiving 2012 I got a call from him. The chat was convivial. I had been warned/notified by board member Louise Rogers that he would be calling.
“After the holidays let’s talk. Again.” I was rehired immediately after the holidays and so began a pattern of slaps and kisses that most grown adults only have to deal with when explaining to a judge that they need an order of protection.
“I don’t believe there are many that love and respect you more than I do.” — Carlos Watson
And like someone needing an order of protection, someone deep in the tangle of the weirdest abusive relationship in the world, a certain kind of machismo kicked in. A masochistic machismo, and to paraphrase Henry Rollins, I would not take nor would I break.
Or like Alex said in A Clockwork Orange, I was fully mindful of the fact that this was just “the real weepy and like tragic part” of my story. A weepy and tragic portion against which I raged for nine years. To put a frame around it that would shock anyone familiar with almost anything I’ve ever done, from the FIGHT book to the long road to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu brown belt, he talked to me like no other man on the face of the planet without a gun in his hand would ever talk to me.
“Can you explain to me how you expect me to respond to the constant stream of bullshit I get from you?” He asked, glowering at me.
“So if you want to keep working here I need you to send a letter of apology to me and Samir.” Samir Rao was the now-disgraced COO, who has been identified as the voice changing grifter on the multimillion dollar call with Goldman Sachs, impersonating a YouTube executive. He and Watson were big on apology letters, these and other shows of ritual humiliation. Or attempted humiliation.
The infraction? My plane had been 12 hours late. I had to sleep at the airport in The Netherlands and showed up to work 12 hours later. Approximately right after lunch. I had been writing on the plane and had missed neither a deadline or a filing.
“And I’ll be docking your pay $5000.”
So: I wrote the letter of apology.
And when my next paycheck came, clearly having been adjusted to account for the loss of $5000, I promptly wrote another letter. My first letter of resignation (and, unsurprisingly, not my last). Then post-the slaps, some kisses and an early breakfast meeting at Bucks in Woodside where all of the Valley VC sup, sip and dine. The location was pointedly purposeful.
“Do you know why I asked you to meet me here?” His brow knit, in what felt to me like mock concern. I said I understood Bucks and the history of Bucks. “So then you understand what I’m dealing with here. Look, if there was ever a time when someone who did you a favor needed a favor, this is it.”
Though I was unsure of what “favor” he had done for me, I took back my building key and my ID badge and un-resigned. The $5000 was returned to me and we never spoke of it again. And then this, in what was an uncomfortably regular and confusing occurrence.
I won’t even get into him quizzing me about who I was having sex with.
“I don’t believe there are many that love and respect you more than I do.”
Something that might have been believed if anything I did at OZY, and outside of OZY, in fact, that was drawing notice wasn’t being slowly strangled. To death.
Case in point: being an OJA winner for a series called (not a name I thought up) Eugenius, saw the series killed when the video team had been disbanded and recreated around one of the many multiple offerings that were designed to foist Watson on the rest of America.
Not the Watson “I” knew. But this other Watson. The smiling, ingratiating, nervous and dead-eyed Watson that made Venture Capitalists throw millions his way (estimates by Crunchbase estimate to the tune of $83 million). This glad-handing bon vivant, like the Black sidekick in an action flick, made them feel good about whatever passes for “wokeness” in the Valley.
“You know what you do when one of your investors makes a racist joke?”
I know what “I” would do, but this was not a dialogue and Watson was admonishing me for an attitude of which he had said, “I can’t tell whether you don’t give a shit or are acting like you don’t give a shit.”
“You TAKE it! Because this is about making it.”
And I had seen him in action at OZYfest and other confabs. His attempts at wielding the kind of race ease that made people love Obama initially, on full display. And me? Well, scrawled above my family coat of arms is the provocation, “What’s THAT Supposed to Mean?”
That is, I’m not prone to taking much. I’m also not getting seven figure checks from anyone with a billion dollars for just about anything.
But in the end I was suddenly aware of how many billionaires I was now acquainted with. This I owe Watson. But he wielded this like a cudgel as well. I was repeatedly punished and was told I was being punished by being denied access to Steve Jobs’ widow (something she must get sick of being called) Laurene Powell Jobs.
“I’m taking Sean over to see Laurene,” he’d say to me to see if it had an affect on the not giving a shit.
He took Sean over to meet her many times, in full on Cain and Abel fashion, employee number 2, lounged around Casa Jobs. My feelings? More amused than anything since while I had worked with her husband and gotten along well enough with him and she seemed like a nice enough lady, spending social time with Watson outside of OZY was not my idea of a good time.
But all the time the numbers had started to creep. Numbers? The outward facing ones that the world had started to notice. The ones that climbed from 50,000 to 50 million. Readers. Twenty million reading the newsletters. Numbers that beggared belief.
At first they were scribbled on white boards in his office. Aspirational. Then they were part of marketing materials. Well beyond aspirational.
I had caught him fabricating numbers before. In a piece about the founder of USA Today, there were inflated numbers there. When I asked him about them he claimed that they were just “placeholders” and it was good that I caught the mistake and that I should put the right ones in.
No one ever asked me about the 50 mil or the 20 mil. And I never asked about them. As long as I could avoid the blast zone of rage, regular if not frequent, and I could do and have my people do stuff that we would do if we were given carte blanche anywhere else to do —music, martial arts, movie stuff, crime, drama — what did I care?
In fact, the frequent group meetings seem to indicate that there was no reason to care. Business was good. This is what we were told. This is what we believed. Though the rot at the root should have been a tip off to all.
Then this: “let’s meet and talk about some ideas I have. On Saturday.”
I had a scheduled appearance at a festival in North Carolina. I’d be reading and later that night playing with Jamie Stewart from the band Xiu Xiu at another. We had put out a record called SAL MINEO. I was being paid $5000 and consented to do them since I could do them both on Saturday.
“I’d prefer Monday.”
“Saturday is the only time I have. What are you doing Saturday that you can’t?”
“I have this thing to do in North Carolina.”
Something he, I’m sure, already knew. He had been stalking me through social media and while I made no efforts to hide my activities he had routinely acted like I had and had at odd times told me that he would stop me from doing those things. The MMA podcasts. The musical side projects. The spoken word stuff.
He had mused, openly to me, that maybe he’d ask me to stop Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, fer chrissakes, something I get up at 6 am to do, seven days a week. (And I won’t even get into him quizzing me about who I was having sex with.)
Though I had been careful to include these all on a schedule C when I signed the original contract, as he had pointed out, this covered past work. Not future work.
“Let me put it to you this way,” he said quietly. “If you go to play this ‘show’,” there was acid in his voice. “Don’t bother to come back to work on Monday.”
I went home to think about this. I canceled the show.
Saturday I showed up. Early. The meeting was for 9 a.m.
“You sleep well last night?”
I had not. It was a dark night of the soul. I could not afford to be jobless. And no one was rushing to hire a 50-something guy for very much of anything.
“Yeah. You look tired. I tell you what: go home, get some sleep, and we’ll see you on Monday.”
This was the nadir. This was also when I realized that we were in a fight to the death. Anything I had done that had even the smallest promise was extinguished — OZY Confidential, Sex With Eugene (first the live events, then the actual column), Eugenius — in favor of kind of legacy panel shows that had him as a host. All expensive. All failed.
And through it all, increasingly rosy outlooks shared with us in meetings. Six figure ticket sales for the festivals in New York. Investors investing millions.
Then? Then COVID, 19 percent salary cuts and no more office time. Which was just fine. The office was turned into a studio for the execrable Carlos Watson Show and my job tasks had slowed to editing the transcripts of his shows where I got to see him try to insuinate himself into the lives of a steady stream of celebrities, all while asking the same questions. (Hats off to Werner Herzog for telling Watson who was making a play to “hang out” that they could meet in “400 years.”)
I was confused as to how the show could be a success. In a universe of Kimmels, Fallons, Eric Andre, Trevor Noah, Bill Maher for g-dssake, how were people even thinking choosing Watson made sense. But the billboards seem to attest to this.
And then one day everything changed.
“I know about your substack.” It was a substack I had been encouraged to start by my managers. Seemed to be a good place to publish my OZY stuff that they were never going to publish. “Pull it down.”
A heated argument ensued. I was finally asked to write a letter justifying my continued employment. I did so and in the letter, in essence, I said that arbitrary rules are not meant to be followed and I would not be doing so.
Samir Rao called me and the ground rules had changed. “If you want to stay employed, we’ll need a letter of apology and you to pull it down.”
This was on a Friday. I published again, as is my habit, on Sunday. The phone screamed to life first thing Monday.
I’m not sure what he was screaming but it was full-on Carlos hector, a tone that Rao had readily adopted.
“You have to run your business the way you see fit. And we’re going to disagree here,” I said.
“Well, then you’re fired.”
The severance negotiations went on for months. Then Ben Smith called from the NY Times and the discussion went way down the rabbit hole. Apparently, Rao and Watson were running a grift and the FBI, SEC and the IRS were now involved. Did I have any comment?
I told him all of what I knew, in the meanwhile my phone was lighting up with letters from my lawyer. OZY was denying my claim unless and until I removed a negative Glassdoor review that they believed I had written. My lawyer wanted to know if I had.
I said, truthfully, that I had not, and said so.
And this before I had finished chatting with Smith just the Friday before last, eight days ago by my rendering.
“Unfortunately, OZY believes that Mr. Robinson is behind the review. For that reason, we cannot move forward with our settlement discussions,” their lawyer wrote.
My response to Ben Smith then: “And you can quote me on that.”
The public response was swift and violent. It took five days, during which, despite counterpunching, Rao who was dodging behind a mental health defense and Watson who was dodging behind Rao, succumbed. To ignominy.
And just like that, OZY exists no longer. All that’s left are the investigations.
You know I’ve had many bosses over my life but I’ve only had one boss who looked like me, and curiously, this was the worst boss I ever had. In fact some of the African American employees felt that there were two OZY’s. The white OZY and the Black OZY, where like America, employees were treated worse.
The great thing about America though has to do with the mechanics of the melting pot since by the end everyone there was treated like shit. Good, decent people struggling to do a difficult job under the worst circumstances while the CEO and the COO recklessly ran a game so audacious that the story has drawn almost immediate film interest.
At this point in time I have been called by three interested parties who want to capture the crooked way, the lies, half-truths and Silicon Valley weirdness in technicolor. I’m answering all the calls and without a glimmer of sarcasm and in light of me having a Screen Actors Guild card offering without reservation: “if you’re looking for someone to play Mr. Watson, you’re looking in the right place.”
I probably won’t get the gig, and don’t get me wrong here, I desperately need a new gig unless you all subscribe beyond the FREE level. But I feel somehow…free. In fact, free at last. Free at last. Thank g-d almighty.
Free at last.