Summary List Placement
Micah Johnson, a former Major League Baseball player, left the baseball diamond for an art studio. He is now navigating the art and non-fungible token (NFT) world with the animated character he created: a Black astronaut named Aku.
Aku was born out of a heart-breaking question Johnson heard nephew ask: “Mom, can astronauts be Black?”
“I created Aku as a form of representation, to show the next generation of dreamers that they can be
whoever or whatever they want to be, regardless of their race, gender, or upbringing,” said Johnson. “I
believe in a world where the most unimaginable dreams, like going to space, are attainable by everyone.”
In layman’s terms, NFTs, or “non-fungible tokens,” are digital assets that can be bought, usually with cryptocurrency, according to Forbes. While anyone can view these digital assets, such as a popular meme or a sports highlight, purchasing an NFT means gives the collector digital ownership (blockchain technology will show who the unique owner is). Putting work up for sale on NFT marketplaces is a way for artists and content creators to profit off of their work in the digital age.
Aku made his first appearance in the NFT landscape in February 2021. Little did Johnson know, his nephew quite literally posed a million-dollar question — two million dollars to be exact. The token — which is essentially an mp4 of Aku going to the moon to retrieve the flag that Buzz Aldrin wore on his arm in the moon — was sold on the NFT marketplace Nifty Gateway for $2 million.
Johnson is now partnering with Notables, an NFT marketplace, to auction off artwork of Aku that was transmitted to the International Space Station and orbited the Earth.
The digital piece was “beamed into space, relayed by satellites to commercial servers aboard the International Space Station, authenticated, transmitted back down to Earth, and minted,” according to a press release.
Notables announced an auction for Aku’s second drop on Wednesday. On Tuesday, August 10, Aku, the NFT that traveled into space, is up for auction. The highest bidder will own the first-ever piece of NFT artwork that orbited the Earth, and all bidders will also have the chance to win a Zero-G parabolic flight experience.
Net proceeds will be allocated to Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS), an international student organization that, according to their website, “promotes space exploration and development through educational and engineering projects.” From there, SEDS will dedicate 50% of funds to HBCUs and minority outreach in an effort to diversify the space industry.
Aku’s journey will go from space to the big screen, as the first-ever NFT piece to be optioned for film and television, as reported by The Hollywood Reporter. According to the article, Anonymous Content and Permanent Content will be taking on this project of bringing Aku to screens.
Insider spoke with Micah Johnson about the importance of representation in his art, how art has helped his mental health, and the transition from the ‘big leagues’ to the ‘big screen.’ This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell me about your choice to leave baseball to pursue art. I want to know about your transition from the baseball world to the art world, and the inspiration behind it.
Well, I had no experience with art for the most part until about 2016. That was when I got traded over from the Chicago White Sox to the Los Angeles Dodgers. And I was going into the spring training with a team that had a bunch of superstars on it — a bunch of people I looked up to growing up, my idols really. The manager brought me up in front of the team and asked me what I like to do. He was doing this a lot of the new guys and whenever they would say something like hunting or fishing, he would pair them with a veteran to go do it.
So I played piano and I don’t really have any other hobbies besides that. I was like, “I don’t want to say piano.” And right before I went up there — the spring training — I did a paint and sip class, like on a date. So the first thing that popped into my mind is “I like to paint.” So he made me do a painting of Maury Wills and present it to the team at the end of spring training. I got some paints from like Walmart and did this portrait. It was awful, but I presented it to the team. And the guys that I looked up to, came up to me and we were talking about how good it was and how talented I was. And that was all I needed. The rest of the year I kept painting, practicing. I became obsessed with the process of painting and watching myself get better. And that’s how I fell in love with art.
So, does baseball still have your heart?
Well, to be quite honest, it’s one of those things where I haven’t coped with it — like I don’t know how to cope with my emotions too well. I don’t cry and I can’t say the last time I cried, you know, it’s been years probably. So what I do is I block it out. I don’t try to think about it. ‘Cause I know that what that last year wasn’t like. It seems like it’s like another life to me. I don’t even watch baseball. I feel like that I, you know, I missed out on it. That’s not how I wanted it to end.
Can you talk to me a little bit about what you enjoy about painting?
Yeah, I mean, for me, what I love about painting or what keeps me coming back is it’s one of the most tangible things you can do to measure your progress. If you do something like painting or drawing every single day, you’re going to see yourself get better every single day. And that’s really where I really find a lot of my peace and enjoyment. In 2018, when I retired from baseball to do art because I needed it for my mental; 2018 was really tough on my mental. And I felt like art was my escape. And so I was able to dive into something that, just like baseball, you practice every day, and you can watch yourself get better.
You said that 2018 was tough on your mental health. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Well, going into that year, I knew my career was on the other side and this was my last chance really, right to make the big leagues again and establish myself. I got traded to Tampa Bay and I thought this was a great opportunity. This is my shot. The year before I was hurt all year in Atlanta. So I go into spring training and I was doing my thing, but I wasn’t sleeping. And my mind was racing — a whole bunch of these dark thoughts. And so, I went into the team doctor and he referred me to somebody.
And then, he prescribed me lithium, a drug for bipolar disorder. And because I was not sleeping, but I was balling. So I was like, “oh, I’m good” — but it wasn’t really healthy. I’d lost a bunch of weight. For the rest of the year I played on lithium and it was the worst year ever. Lithium just sucked everything I ever loved about baseball out of me. So when the year ended, I didn’t even make a decision. I just didn’t call anybody. I didn’t show up to the spring training. That was it. And looking back on it, you know, I get sad because baseball is something I loved so much since I was three. By the time I was four years old, I could name everybody on the Cubs roster. Baseball was like an obsession for me and to have that just vanish, because of my emotions being numb from lithium — it’s hard for me to look back on.
Thank you so much for sharing that. Can you tell me how it felt to have your NFT character Aku transmitted into space?
Yeah. First of all, I didn’t know how rare this was. Like, there’s no internet. So you have to go through this very long, in my understanding, Bluetooth connection to send a file to the space station. And I didn’t know that that wasn’t a thing, so this is really cool. And it’s really special that Aku is like the first one to do it. Because I feel like Black content creators and curators in that sense in this space are often overlooked. And I think that a lot of times, I feel like I always gotta do something more. One thing I’ve realized was that I’m using Aku was like a diary, like a conduit. I have no idea about TV and film. I didn’t know anything about art galleries. I didn’t know anything about selling art, but I figured out a way. And here I am sending a character to the space station just pushing the limits. Like Mickey Mouse didn’t go to the space station.
I absolutely love that. So switching over to the topic of NFTs, how you were introduced to NFTs? What preparation did you have to do to get involved with NFTs?
I got into NFT because I wasn’t ready financially to leave baseball. I was looking for a way to make money. I didn’t have any art in any galleries, but I needed to make money. So I discovered crypto and I started learning about digital art. And then I just started diving into different communities and just asking questions. The one most valuable thing about the crypto and NFT community is that if some of the world’s smartest people and you have direct access to them and you get in, you can have the ability to reach them. And that’s really how I got into — out of desperation for a way to monetize my art and then it stuck because of the community.
I know you’re trying to shift the NFT landscape by using it for more than just revenue, but also for good. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you’re using the landscape for good?
I think that creators — more so than any other time in history — are small businesses. Now, content creators and artists have fan bases that they can push their content and their messages to that will then be organic evangelists for their messaging. My advice would be just to start diving in and learning a little bit about the power of NFTs and looking at how artists are like connecting with their collectors or their fans on social media. And you’ll start realizing that a lot of these people that are following these artists on social media are collectors. And because they paid money instead of like to photo like they do on Instagram, they’re invested in this artist, and their career.
And so they’re going to go out and talk about your work. They’re going to go spread the message because they feel like they’re that that’s driving value to their investment. I’m looking at this as an opportunity to allow participation from the audience in the growth of intellectual property. And that’s to say, people can buy the occupy chapter. People can buy the Aku token. People can enter in and invest in that way to support the growth of the IP while the IP grows and expands, their investment grows and expands. Now it’s a collective organization of people incentivized by a message — by an artwork.
That’s so interesting. Finally, I want to know: if you had three sentences to describe who you are, what you do, and why it’s important, what would you say?
I’m Micah Johnson — a person who’s obsessed with the process of anything. I’m a builder, an innovator, a creative. Everything that requires work, I gravitate towards. I believe that God has blessed me with a lot of great things in my life.