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Posted under: Opinion

How I Decided Art Is Revolutionary

Expired beliefs about art’s value caused this writer to question its role in social justice.

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Let’s flash forward to later in the year. It’s Thanksgiving and you’re excited to be home with family. They’re angry with you because they haven’t seen you in a minute, but they know you’re doing great things. They’re not the only ones sizing you up though; that mac and cheese is practically yelling at you from across the table! The turkey seems to be just as heated, steaming and daring you to get close.

Everyone closes their eyes as your second cousin, who only knows your mom’s address on Black Friday Eve, leads the meal with grace. All is well! Just as you get ready to make that meal your bih, shady Aunt Tracy asks, “aye nephew you pick a major yet?”

And just like that, your meal is done off ...as you wrestle with the idea of telling the whole family that you are now interested in pursuing a degree in Fine Arts.

The reality is that art still struggles to be taken seriously by most people. I’ve noticed this within myself as I struggled with understanding what could possibly be serious about smearing paint across a paper for a living. After leaving a high-paying career in Information Security to “follow my heart,” it was easy to think that all logic goes out the window in an artist’s mind.

But we know not everyone considers money as their ultimate priority or driving force, myself included. Still, as I navigated this transition, I tussled with understanding what made my expression any more valuable than a 5-year-old creating a Mother’s Day card. After all, anyone could make art right?

The conversation becomes even more complex when you consider my background: a young, Black, immigrant woman living in an implicitly racist country. After witnessing numerous senseless — yet somehow “lawful” — killings of my people, I knew that I would die before choosing to sit idle as the hatred continued. But when the double major in Information Security & Criminal Justice chose to kill me quicker, I knew I had to find another way to seek justice. Yet I constantly wondered: if they don’t even take my life and right to live seriously, why would they take my #FreestyleFriday seriously?

I know I’m not the only one who's thought about this. Childish Gambino’s popular “This Is America” release, painted the picture of how easy it is for Black art to be dismissed as mere entertainment for those unconcerned with the life the artist came from. If art actually made a difference, then how come your favorite Tupac verse ain’t stop them from killing us? Or life from killing him? As upsetting as they seem, these were the thoughts stirring in my head as I considered my next career.

Like many other young Black artists, I came to a sad conclusion: dancing in a circle will catch the attention of those who hate me, and they will pay me for their consumption, but only by their rules. That wasn’t it for me, so I sought to create art that illuminated the truth. Yet I felt that if I wasn’t at the front row of every #BlackLivesMatter protest (or even just one) then I wasn’t making measurable impact in my community. I wouldn’t be “put on” or “make it” quick enough to contribute to the fight now

In this 18-month transition, I came to 4 conclusions about this topic. And they were so big, that I decided that art is in fact revolutionary, despite everything you just read.

  1. First of all, given all that was mentioned above, Art is valuable. I recently had to accept the value of my art, after accidentally leaving one of my original paintings in a scanner at Staples. I almost had a panic attack wondering who would profit off of it if I couldn’t get it back. Do you know why people pay for services? It's because despite how “easy” something is, they can’t or are not willing to do it themselves. Remember that: we all have natural talents and passion flowing through our veins, our fingertips and our coils that others would die to have.
  2. Art is a weapon, equipped with a message. From the moment Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five decided to rap about the issues in their community, they harnessed the power of truth into hip-hop. Movies like Higher Learning, Fruitvale Station and Hidden Figures are also examples of art that demanded the truth behind Black stories to be seen and spoken fearlessly. Which leads me to my next point.
  3. Art is a conversation, and sometimes one that people of color don’t get to have. Whether presenting different perspectives in a digestible, comical way like in an episode of The Boondocks or triggering never-ending dialogue in your heart like the ending of See You Yesterday, art has the ability to spark controversy and elicit a response from almost anyone. It helps us find language to express our inner lives using empathetic dialogue, thereby confronting the destruction in our experience that is so often silenced.
  4. And lastly: Art is Freedom. In a world where a Black person is consistently disrespected, dehumanized, and disregarded, the simple act of existing is revolutionary. In a world where black is seen as less than, creating art from unreserved expression is an act of defiance ...more than you could ever imagine.

So yeah, maybe there isn’t an ‘art’ in revolution, but there is a ‘U’ and there is an ‘I’. And as long as you and I show up in this world like the true works of art that we are, well that in itself is revolutionary. And that kids …is exactly what you should tell aunty or anyone who ever questions your unique contributions to this world. 

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