#WelcometotheOldBrooklyn

Moe Verneau, Money & Violence, and the roots of the realest series on YouTube

After their assistant calls to tell me that their normal hangout—the Brooklyn Tap House—is closed, I meet the Cloud9TV crew at a Mexican restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. The place is empty when I arrive, save for a few people at the bar and a couple of indifferent waiters near the kitchen.

A few minutes later, three men enter. Moe Verneau—the visionary behind the out-of-nowhere popular Money & Violence web series—hangs back, circumspect. He’s the last to shake my hand. As we sit down, while the other men make small talk, I have the feeling Verneau is watching me, trying to feel me out.

The Tap House (which is featured in the series), like the Mexican place, is part of a familiar landscape for the crew—part of a neighborhood depicted in the series that is obsessed with neighborhood. As we go down the menu, they recommend some dishes and warn me away from others.

Soon after we’ve ordered lunch, I start asking questions of the group, expecting to interview all three of them: What’ve you been up to today? What’s next on the horizon for the show? But as I begin, Verneau’s cohorts excuse themselves politely. “You’re just dealing with Moe,” one says, and they move a couple tables over.

Verneau is impeccably dressed in a freshly pressed, white shirt, his hair and beard carefully edged. When he finally speaks, his words are considered. Some you can tell he’s used to repeating—slightly canned-sounding truisms reminiscent of those spoken by the characters on the show. The series is laced with one-liners—sometimes inspirational, sometimes funny, which Verneau later admits to creating intentionally in order to further the series’ message: There is more to life than what happens in the streets. For the viewers whose environs resemble those of the show, Money & Violence is a cautionary tale. For outsiders, it’s an attempt to humanize people who participate in crime as a means of survival.

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Strip away the tough guns-and-gangsters exterior, and Money & Violence is a fairly typical drama—on the soapy end—with a motivational core. The show features an ensemble cast of interconnected characters, most of whom are involved, either directly or through friendships or romantic relationships, in street life.

The cast of Money & Violence has achieved a mode of success unique to our era. They are YouTube stars, with fans numbering in the tens of thousands, and views for the series in the tens of millions. When I meet them, they’ve just come from a meeting at New York City hip-hop station Hot 97, where they were discussing their appearance at the legendary Summer Jam Festival. When I ask him if he’s attended the festival before, Verneau says that he went once, in the ‘90s—he recalls a pre-Beyoncé Jay-Z during his “Izzo” phase—and promised himself he wouldn’t return until he was featured. He pauses, genuinely in awe, when he realizes he’s fulfilled that goal. 

Money & Violence has also received acclaim from critics, and an honor from the Tribeca Film Festival. But, as of yet—and in no small part because of Verneau’s skepticism—they have yet to convert that exposure into money and mainstream recognition. “I never thought this far ahead,” Verneau says, “I saw something that was wrong in my community, and this was my effort to do something about it… and all of a sudden it just took off.”

Offers have come in—including $250,000 for the rights to the second season from an independent film and television production company—but they’ve turned them all down. When I ask Verneau why, he says that he’s more focused on achieving what he set out to do: deliver his message to as many people as possible, without a studio or production company diluting it. “If the right deal comes along, great. If not, we’ll just continue to do it on our own.” And doing it on their own, without establishment media investment, means crowdfunding the second season.

In the early going of their campaign on the film-specific crowdfunding platform Seed&Spark, Verneau and the rest of his team were finding difficulty converting their legions of viewers into funders. Some people complained on social media about being solicited for money, at which Verneau, understandably, seems perplexed. His crew has funded the entire operation and made it available for free. Asking for a $1 or $2 donation seems reasonable in exchange for all his viewers have gotten—a 27-installment first season—for nothing.

It wasn’t until the cast of Money & Violence began holding social media-promoted meet-and-greets around New York, from Times Square to Flatbush, that support began to pour in. Their foray into crowdfunding, which eventually raised nearly $100,000, may be the first six-figure campaign to collect a big portion of its goal in paper cash, dropped into a bucket passed around IRL events like the offering plate at a church service.

Cloud9tv.net, which Verneau launched in 2014, hosts original videos (Money & Violence is the site’s first scripted series), the “Moetivation” blog, and hip-hop gossip. It was always meant to be the core distribution platform for a broader brand—“A way of life,” as the intro page expounds. Then last summer, Verneau got the idea to make a feature film to host on the site. After some consideration, the idea evolved from stand-alone movie to episodic—in part because web series have the potential to build up an audience gradually, but also, Verneau insists, because it would put pressure on his team to produce new content every seven days.

Completely untrained, Verneau and his team learned how to film and edit from YouTube tutorials and Google searches. “I went and got the camera and just jumped into it.” Within weeks of hatching the idea, the first episode of Money & Violence appeared online.

One of Verneau’s clear talents, besides camera work—which, when I insist is impressive for someone completely untrained, he downplays—is linking an ambitious idea with a big audience and pursuing full steam.

Verneau, born Moise Verneau, grew up on a block in Flatbush, Brooklyn, that he describes as one of the city’s most dangerous. One of Money & Violence’s selling points—and the quality that has made it so popular with viewers—is its authenticity, its realness. The series is shot with a handheld DSLR camera and untrained actors. It’s filmed on the streets of Brooklyn on an open set—no permits, no street closures—so whatever’s going on that day goes into the series. One of Money & Violence’s most iconic episodes was filmed during Brooklyn’s West Indian Labor Day Parade. In that episode’s scenes, people stand watching, drinking, and reveling. They mostly ignore the camera, but some who do notice it glance at it with puzzlement. 

As Verneau and I talk, it becomes clear just how intertwined the series and his life are. Like any good artist, his experience serves as mining ground for the show’s main themes. He portrays one of the series’ characters—a sympathetic and sensitive tough guy named Rafe who, despite a mean streak, is clearly just trying to get by. And this, in the end, is the series’ main thesis: Often those we see as villains are good people trying to navigate desperate straits.

Nearly 40 years on, hip-hop remains a perpetually young genre whose culture continues to evolve rapidly. Its trends and language evolve at the speed of a tweet. What’s new is old the next day. And Money & Violence has gained favor with its audience in no small part because of its authentic hyperawareness of the lingo of the streets.

Money & Violence takes place in what Verneau calls the “Old Brooklyn,” the Brooklyn he grew up in. This is a place as yet untouched by gentrification (though in some episodes, a lone hipster can be seen wandering into a frame). For Verneau, “Old Brooklyn” was a place imbued with a moral code. “We’re now in a world where most people are morally bankrupt,” he says. “I feel the only way [to change things] is to revisit those old principles and values… I hate hearing, ‘There’s no honor amongst thieves,’ and things like that. There’s a code to everything.”

Money & Violence strives to represent a point of view rarely—if ever—explored in television and film. When I compared the show to The Wire, Verneau reacted knowingly, as if it were something he’d gotten used to hearing (we should all be so lucky). Characters like those portrayed in Money & Violence—those from the ghettos of America, involved in street crime—are often written about, but usually as stereotype-encrusted, cartoonish villains devoid of nuance. This is true, to some extent, even of shows as well written as The Wire. David Simon may have studied the corner as diligently as any middleclass white man ever has, but he didn’t live the life.

A recent article on Bossip entitled, “On ‘Money & Violence’ and the Importance of the Black Narrative” articulated Money & Violence’s place among black TV shows:

… As great as Black-ish is, it’s a show about maintaining Blackness in a wholly White world. Empire comes close but it’s so over-the-top that it’s insane to consider it even remotely realistic. […]Verneau’s story of street corner ethics is just as needed as Whitley’s story of discovering her blackness on a [sic] HBCU campus. We need Money & Violence just as much as we need A Different World. These stories make up the oeuvre of the Black experience. And if we don’t tell them, who will?

Taken in that light, the scale of what Verneau has accomplished begins to look enormous—even historical.

As we get deeper into the interview, I ask Verneau about his life before Money & Violence. He seems hesitant, and he lowers his voice. 

“I was a banker,” he begins, “for JP Morgan Chase… For about a year.” The transition from finance to the arts doesn’t raise my suspicions. After the economic downturn, many Wall Street brokers who lost their jobs started fulfilling their artistic ambitions, floating on their savings and long-suppressed creativity. An editorial assistant at a publishing house at the time, I fielded (and rejected) many of their projects.

“Were you laid off?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. “It’s a crazy story.”

“Can you tell me about it?”

It turns out that, like the Wall Street investors I crossed paths with in the publishing world, Verneau had also long harbored an artistic side. He says he wrote various novels during his time in the money world, including a directly autobiographical one about his time at JP Morgan:

The book is a story about a man who lives with his fiancée and his two-year-old child. He’s a banker, and his fiancée also works at a brokerage house. But after the financial crisis, she loses her job. Her firm actually goes under, and for the next four years she can’t find work. So, due to that—you know, three people living on one income—savings get depleted. And it just gets to the point where their finances are really dire. They’re backed up a month on rent and the next month is fast approaching, and car payments and insurance are due, and [Verneau switches from “he” to “I,” here] one morning I wake up and snap, and I go and rob a bank.

Shortly after leaving the scene of the robbery, Verneau abandoned the cash and emptied his pockets. But he was identified easily; amongst the items he was carrying were business cards and a cable bill. He says he called out of work for five days, and when he went back, the police came in and picked him up. He confessed to the crime immediately, and in his statement (which was three pages long), he explained everything: his struggles with money, and his feelings of inadequacy and frustration over not being able to provide for his family.

Verneau makes the point that if he genuinely wanted to rob a bank, he could have. He was in charge of a bank at the time. He had the key to the safe. He could have gone in and taken the money himself—quickly, quietly—and the chances of getting away with it—at least for some time—would have been much greater. And his message got through to the judge, who gave him only five years probation.

Verneau laughs nervously several times while he’s recounting the ordeal. And I tell him, rather cynically, that the whole story makes a great hook for the series. I point out that both his story and the series are linked by the theme of survival. He agrees, but adds, “It’s not anything that I’m proud of. As men, we try to give off this sense we’re depended upon… We show off our strength, but we lick our wounds when we’re alone.”

As Verneau has described it, the original goal of the show was to depict authentically the mentality of the people in America’s urban communities. The word “humanize” comes up often, both in our conversation, and in the articles written about the show—as does the word “man.”

The show’s gender politics, it’s fair to say, are a weak spot. The female characters, compelling and amongst the best acted in the series, are relegated to a separate world—as love interests and, occasionally, second-rate criminals who are used by men to execute their schemes. Verneau also buckles, slightly, when we veer into a discussion about sexuality. He admits that he’s been criticized for not having gay characters. And in his defense, he reminds me that the show is a depiction of the time he grew up in (‘80s- to ‘90s-era Brooklyn), when gay people—though obviously present in the community at the time—weren’t nearly as visible. Still, to break further ground, gender and sexuality are issues that the show must address in future episodes.

“I feel that there’s a void,” Verneau tells me, returning to what he frames as a need for moral leadership in the culture he’s depicting. “There’s no longer that voice of the big brother, or the guardian, or the father that has been through these things and can give advice.” He wants Money & Violence to serve as that voice, a teaching tool. He’s spoken at schools and detention centers hoping to spread this message to the people in communities like his own—the ones, as he puts it, that “need it.”

Verneau was raised by his mother. His father lived on another floor in the same apartment building, and Verneau remembers seeing him from time to time. But it wasn’t until he was much older that he found out the man was his father. Verneau says that growing up in the hood taught him to value the wrong things—namely street cred and reputation—over human life. Having a daughter changed that. Rafe, his character on the show, is sensitive and loving—motivated by the urge to protect as much as to survive. “That’s the real meaning of manhood,” Verneau says earnestly.

A few days after my talk with Verneau, I find an article in the Times Ledger that details his bank robbery, confirming his story almost to a “T.” The short piece mentions Verneau’s money problems, the note, and the confession. “’The weird part is that he worked at another bank,’” quotes an officer working the case. 

It goes on to say that Verneau got away with $1,000, but the teller also slipped a dye pack in the bag along with the stolen money. On the way to his car, the dye pack exploded, staining his clothes and enveloping him in tear gas. And that’s why he’d ditched his clothes. Workers from a nearby restaurant smelled the gas and ran to see what was happening. When they saw Verneau making a getaway, they jotted down his license plate number.

It’s possible that Verneau inadvertently left out the detail about the dye pack when he recounted the story for me. The business cards and cable bill could’ve been left in his clothes as well, and that, in addition, may have led the police to him.

I’m forced to wonder, though, if the omission is another part of his constructed image, an attempt to appear hapless and innocent. If he did mischaracterize the incident in order to manage his image, I struggled to decide if that affected the way I saw his work, and the positive message he’s broadcasting.

In the following days, I prepare for a frantic email or phone call from Verneau. I imagine that he’ll regret being so forthcoming with me, and beg for me not to include the bank robbery in my final article. But in the following days, I don’t hear from him. And I decide that the omission is minor, that accidental or intentional, it doesn’t take away from his achievement. None of it makes him less “real.”

Illustration by Marisa Reisel