Black creatives have carried us and, historically, archived our past, toned the present, and spoke prophecies of the future.
I didn’t grow up with an affinity for black art, nor was black ever an aesthetic; it was our life. But there was little to no black art in my home. By this, I mean there were no paintings or lithographs from Charles White on our walls. Names like Basquiat or Gordon Parks didn’t become household until I sought higher education. As an avid hip-hop follower, I didn’t learn of Chi Modu until his death. College was where art sprang out of me.
Being a black creative was a burden I needed but wasn’t blessed with— and I didn’t realize to be born black was the blessing bestowed.
Creating is not a gift but a universal liberty. Our drift toward art is instinctive as the arc of black identity bends toward creativity. Black creatives have carried us and, historically, archived our past, toned the present, and spoke prophecies of the future. Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is a disturbing metaphor for the lynching of black bodies, and its gravity still weighs on us. Black creatives anchor us at the moment, then nudge us softly when it is time to move ahead. We control the pace of history.
Our art strengthens our resistance. When confined to our wounds and trauma, our pain is only pain. When this pain breaks out and takes form— in the soulful sounds of the hip-hop south, the fluency, weight, and depth of a poet's voice, the hypnotic sway and bounce of the west coast, and the gritty posture of the east coast— they call it genius. The black creative genius is one of many things our pain has become, but it is more than that; our ingenuity is God-engineered, not a reactionary tendency resulting from historical trauma. And it will always be what moves us forward.
The Black Arts Movement emerged in the 1960s. It was inspired after the death of Malcolm X in 1965— and contrived by political activist Amiri Baraka, born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. Baraka moved to Harlem following Malcolm's death and discovered the Black Art Repertory Theater/School during this time, which became a mainstay for the early days of the Black Arts Movement.
The movement included black creatives, activists, and visionaries like poet Sonia Sanchez and Chicago-based writer Carolyn Marie Rodgers who was a poet, essayist, and contributor for the Negro Digest, one of the first black print magazines founded in Chicago. As well as her and others, Dr. Haki Madhubuti, poet, author, and educator. This includes Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. The presence and work of these artists in the movement can be similar to soft jazz floating in harmony with the strict boom-bap beats of the east coast, adding grace, wisdom, and tenderness to black militancy. In a 1968 essay, “The Black Arts Movement,” poet Larry Neal affirmed the movement was “the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the black power concept.”
The movement faded in the mid-70s with Amiri’s ideological(marxism, homophobia, and anti-semitism) and political shift, affecting it structurally and diminishing its power. However, many artists were swept away by mainstream and magazine publisher's efforts to co-opt their work.
One thing worth admitting is that it did not end with the change in Amiri Baraka’s politics, just as it did not begin with his ambitions. Although his initiative urged it to take a tangible form and garnered collectivity, the revolutionist nature of black art and thought was a means to our resistance before this. Since the blues and jazz music of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1900s, the soulful sounds of the Chicago Renaissance in the 1940s, and flowing into the birth of Hip-hop in the 70s, black creatives have been entertainers, storytellers, and cultural prophets. And our art does not have to be provokingly political to be restorative or functional. The stories are in our existence.
As well as this, the ideas, imagination, and politics have been transferred across a frequency that keeps them from decaying or being extorted— the soul and collective imagination. We continually find ways to preserve our political undertones. The sounds of the Native Tongues collective in the hip-hop 90s echoes the voices of ancestors who both marched and sang under the heat of oppression. Black artists and creatives are still moving us forward and continued to do so following the fall in the 70s. The revolution must not be tethered to one revolutionary's face, voice, or presence.
In light of today’s realities, and retrospect, our heroes can swiftly go from being celebrated to the threshold of compromise. But we outlive legacies and moments, just as Hip-hop doesn’t die with the moral decline of Kanye West or the venality of legends. Rap music’s impact does not rise and fall with the surge and drifting of mainstream approbation.
While our paragons leave us to bleed out, and their art becomes less black, and less loud and soul-stirring, or lacks the radical nature to carry us forward, the committed creatives will patch up cultural and historical wounds. Black lives matter, even when the phrase isn’t pressed onto cloth and sold or coopted as a pawn for capitalism—movements don’t bind up all of our wounds, and our existence is not tied to their subsistence, but vice versa.
The Black Arts Movement continued. Poets began reading off paper, and rappers watched their words take form and duel with beats and microphones. The movement’s break was a short generational chasm in which hip-hop gathered remnants, wore and tethered them to its rhymes and bravura to remind us who we were. Our politics didn’t stop when leaders drowned in their ideas or desire for riches.
The movement continued through the 70s and brushed against hip-hop in 73, ushered in by Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa, and Bronx club DJ, Pete Dj Jones. We heard the art and militancy in Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power,” which was a motif for Spike Lee’s film “Do The Right Thing.” We watched Kendrick Lamar perform “Alright” during the BET Awards in 2015 while using a cop car as a prop. Our politics are the silhouette of our poetry; our hermeneutics are done in the hood and classroom; we denounce and debate ideas that seek to erase us.
The Black Arts Movement is still active today. The idea that movements “end” makes us believe decades-long intermissions disrupt or discontinue the work. They don’t. We are ever-present in the moments, writing, rapping, spitting poems from our immediate conscious, and snapping images that package the era in one frame.
The movement is in the monumental photo in front of Trump Tower in 2020, captured by Mark Clennon. The movement is carried by creatives who’ve yet to break through, still learning the small rooms and sitting through the workshops as students. We are all the extension, if not the offspring, of the Black Arts Movement, bearing the work of legends in our skins and spirits, pens and tongues.
Black art is such an outpouring of the black soul, a flower that is not unfamiliar with its soil; it is, by nature, inspiring, poignant, and hopeful. There is no time traveling without black art— music and literature— and black creatives as the pundits. The role of the black artist is to, in the words of poet Sonia Sanchez, “Tell the truth. Show beauty and the beauty of the people you’re writing about. Show hope. Show love and respect for your people and all people.” It is up to us, black creatives, to constantly remind black people of who we are and create art that responds to the times.
Told by: Kwon