Artists say hashtags aren’t enough in fight for social justice
Artists create art by responding to the world around them, they do not exist in a vacuum. The Black Lives Matter protests have flooded the streets across the country after the death of George Floyd to speak out against systemic racism, police brutality and the many black lives like Floyd’s like Ahmaud Arbery’s and Breonna Taylor’s who have been cut short.
Some artists have taken to the streets in protest, while others are taking a moment to reflect and some are creating so their work can open a dialogue.
Hartford musician Erica T. Bryan said art is vulnerability and has the power to change perspectives.
“A lot of people like to suggest to artists that speak out, ‘Stay in your lane.’ But what about my lane as a human being with personal experience? Artists have a special power to weave human ideas together, build devoted followings and galvanize entire generations with their voices, all while capturing the heart,” the West End Blend and The New Mosaic frontwoman said. “So many important issues of today are politicized and made controversial and, therefore, high-risk. So then speaking out about pretty much anything makes you an ‘activist.’ I wonder if that term has become a little overused; we are, after all, just talking about basic human rights and decency — shouldn’t we all be ‘activated’ by this?”
Norwalk artist 5iveFingaz who recently walked in a Black Lives Matter protest in Norwalk is also the creator of a guerilla street art movement called Love More Than Ever. His movement aims to put positivity out in the world and it also inspired a children’s book. 5iveFingaz said he created the Love More Than Ever movement after learning that white supremacy flyers had been circulated in the area around his hometown of Norwalk. This led him to take his stencil and share his Love More Than Ever message around Norwalk. “The message itself is to be uplifting, to uplift humanity, to uplift your fellow human being.”
Jasmine Jones, a photographer, writer and filmmaker said art is powerful because it can help generate a dialogue.
“It’s a visual language that can be seen and understood across a range of people who all speak different languages,” she said. “Since art can be found everywhere and has such a huge impact on society’s way of thinking ... it’s important that we pay attention to the messages being conveyed in the art around us, and in the art that we as artists create.”
Author, advocate and educator Patrick “Rico” Williams said he thinks art plays an important role in activism.
“Art is a consistent paradigm shifter which demands attention, it’s not saddled with the weight of redundancy. It also cuts to the quick, an arrow interested solely in empathy, it’s impossible to deny the feeling once it hits,” he said. “Art shapes and contextualizes movements; it serves as a rallying call and, in many cases, provides an entry point for larger conversations around activism.”
Musician and activist Ro Godwynn said art has always been able to shift perspectives because art moves people. “Art is particularly effective in changing hearts because it has the unique ability of bypassing reason and taking direct aim at our hearts and our emotions,” she said.
New Haven musician and poet Puma Simone said she thinks artists can be involved in social justice simply by sharing their work.
“Art, music, specifically penetrates a wall, it moves your spirit so it’s critical to have the arts as part of the movement,” she said.
Godwynn said in addition to creating, many artists are working to support protesters and their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. “A considerable amount of us are mobilizing our creativity in a variety of ways, many of which don’t even really pertain to our art forms, because we believe in the possibility of change,” she said.
Addys Maria Castillo is the executive director of the Citywide Youth Coalition in New Haven and a bombera dancer with Movimiento Cultural. She noted that bomba dancing is a Puerto Rican traditional dance set to resistance music. Castill said she believes art is an important tool in activism because it creates unity.
“It’s not a revolution unless the artists are painting and the poets are writing and the dancers are dancing and the singers are singing because they tell not only stories or pain but stories that connect us,” Castillo said.
Alicia Cobb, a Bridgeport painter, body painter and art educator, said she’s still processing how she feels about everything that has been going on in the news and said that she was angry. As the mother of two adult black children, Cobb said she worries about her 19-year-old son who lives in northern Stratford.
“I’m afraid if he walks down the street at the wrong hour in that neighborhood, somebody is going to mistake him for something he is not all because of the color of his skin, all because of the way he looks.”
Cobb pointed out how she feels the world has become desensitized to systemic racism and observed, “COVID-19 comes and it stops everything, but it doesn’t stop racism.”
Williams said artists need to pay attention in order to help promote social change. “Listen, learn, research, act. Movement work is holistic, there are several lanes to pick, every one of those lanes can be improved through art. I’ve seen artists share their platforms, donate percentages of art sales, capture our emotions through murals. Each of these approaches raises the public’s consciousness, it also brings in audiences who may have never been engaged in social justice work.”
Anne:Gogh is a Hartford multidimensional artist who feels artists should use their work to help create the change they want to see.
“Why not create art designed to make people think a little deeper about social constructs such as activism? Art is so powerful in popular culture thus having a direct role in activism,” she said.
Godwynn noted that she feels it’s important for the arts community to get involved in social justice because it has appropriated and oppressed the black community. “The arts community is not exempt from the ways it has historically exploited black people. As a musician, I can’t help but think about how white musicians have stolen entire genres of music, such as country, rock, and jazz from black musicians, for whom music was their entire livelihood. Even now, our fashion, our music, our slang, our storytelling, our culture, our art, is being appropriated by our white counterparts who often make more money off of it.”
Williams stated artists and the arts community have always been involved in promoting social change. “The arts community has always been involved in activism as minoritized groups have always been vocal about their minoritization, it’s the privileged who haven’t engaged. As an artist, my art is intimately tethered to my identity, there is no cognitive disconnect,” he said. “As artists, it’s our responsibility to record the realities of our times, to amplify stories, to show up.”
Art institutions can help promote social justice by “highlighting the work that highlights the problem,” Cobb said. Simone believes that art institutions can do more to be more inclusive of POC artists and local POC artists. “I think certain art institutions need to take a serious look at how they have traditionally functioned and really own up to the ways that they have perpetuated inequality in the arts — whether it’s access to funding or access to opportunities. I would appreciate it if they could be honest with themselves in ways they can support local and specifically POC artists better.”
Bridgeport poet, painter and educator Shanna Melton echoed Simone’s sentiment and said POC artists have a hard time finding space in traditional art institutions because she feels there is a stigma against art connected to a black, Asian and Latino culture.
“Artists of color create our own events and find spaces in storefronts, galleries, old warehouses and restaurants, anywhere we can find it,” she said. “We create our own spaces and we don’t wait for people to include us because it doesn’t happen.”
Simone added that to be more inclusive of POC artists and voices, arts institutions have to include POC on their staffs, boards and leadership. “I think a majority of the arts institutions can be doing better,” Simone said.
Thabisa, a South African musician based in New Haven, said she feels many art institutions are “places designed to entertain white wealthy people at the expense of the lived experiences of the indigenous, black and brown communities. They should strongly consider investing and training their staff, but also hire curators that represent the artifacts and stories shown.”
When talking about how the arts community as a whole can take steps to promote social justice, Simone noted that allies have the responsibility to make room for other artists and said it starts with recognizing their individual privilege and “recognizing how we all have internalized oppression.”
Eliza Kingsbury, a Ridgefield native and New York City-based comedian, chose to delay the release of her upcoming projects indefinitely as she feels humor is not what the world needs at this time. “A lot of white artists and comedians, such as myself, have recognized that there are voices in the black community that really need to be heard right now,” she said. “I now realize this is an important time to take action, reflect and unlearn. Someday there will be a moment to laugh, but now is a time for activism.”
Jones cautioned the arts community against practicing performative activism or allyship and act. “Simply hashtagging Black Lives Matter under your artwork isn’t enough. Donate and volunteer whenever you can,” she said. “If you suddenly decide to make artwork supporting the movement just to pocket all of the profits, that’s not benefiting the cause, it’s benefiting yourself. You do not get a pat on the back for marketing off of the death of others.”
Thabisa added everyone needs to be reflective and work on their biases on an individual level as well.
“We, as artists, need to work on our own biases, prejudice, learn to unlearn old ideas and untruths,” she said. “In South Africa, there’s a saying ‘umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu’ which means, A human is human(e) because of others. We need to DO BETTER for one another.”
Andrea Valluzzo contributed to this story.
This article was updated to correct a misspelled name.