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15 SC black creatives talk about their art as a form of protest

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Protests have not spontaneously combusted during the past week in Charleston, though it might seem that way.

Unrest has been rustling through the Lowcountry's oak branches, some of which have held the ropes for black lynchings, since enslaved people were brought to South Carolina's shores. Over the years, protest has taken on different forms.

Through the civil rights movement, it appeared as a downtown Charleston lunch counter protest, a hospital workers' strike on the campus of the Medical University of South Carolina and an activist refuge along the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor. At stake were human rights and black lives.

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Sound familiar? 

And throughout the years, protest has manifested itself in another important way: art.

Black artists, including visual artists, poets, musicians, actors and other creatives, have long portrayed their struggles with the state's history of slavery and its ripple effects. Their art has explored systemic racism in the form of political injustice, economic inequality, unreformed education and police brutality, among other concepts. In many cases, their art has simply portrayed the black Southern experience.

The Post and Courier reached out to more than a dozen black artists across the state to discuss what they think is at the center of today's protests and how their art has been part of the movement and catalyst for change.

Ment Nelson, 31

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Ment Nelson. File/Ment Nelson

Ment Nelson is an artist from Varnville, a rural South Carolina town with a population of about 2,000. His art often explores the experiences of his Hampton County ancestors and Gullah-Geechee traditions. In some cases, it addresses modern-day politics, like a watercolor portrait of Donald Trump and Kanye West that he has on the market for $1 million.

Inspired by Blackout Tuesday, when millions of social media users posted a black square in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, Nelson created a second painting with a price tag of $1 million just last week. It's a canvas he painted entirely black, and he says all the proceeds will be going to black causes. 

Ment Nelson's portrait of Trump and Kanye (copy) (copy)

South Carolina artist Ment Nelson's $1 million watercolor portrait of President Donald Trump and Kanye West. Provided

Nelson said he doesn't believe that just because he is black his art has to speak to black issues, though it often does. 

"I feel there’s nothing more liberating to a black man than to do whatever he wants to do," Nelson said. 

Protest art has the ability to reach the general public more than other art might, Nelson said. It's one powerful way to make a difference and incite change. 

"I don’t think art is doing more than the people out there protesting," he said. "It's just another way to help add gas onto the fire of change. Everybody is playing their part."

'I feel there’s nothing more liberating to a black man than to do whatever he wants to do.'

In addition to making art, Nelson has started a Twitter account called Black-Owned S.C., which identifies and shares information about black-owned businesses across the state.

What needs to change: "Let’s get to the voting booth as black people. Let’s fill out our census. Let’s invest in black-owned businesses in our community."

Joy Vandervort-Cobb, 59

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Joy Vandervort-Cobb. Diana Deavers/Provided

Joy Vandervort-Cobb is a professor in the College of Charleston theater department and an actor and director. She works with Pure Theatre, where the plays are political and social justice is at the forefront. 

"I want to push you and prod you and force you to think, to get past your own little worldview and perhaps honor someone else’s," Vandervort-Cobb said. "Theater is my hollerin' place. That’s where I get to do my work, where I can attempt to change hearts and minds."

She's been in local productions of "Chore Monkeys," "Last Rites" and "Citizen."

"My black body inhabiting whichever characters I choose or are chosen for me — there’s a political statement already being made," she said. 

'Let us breathe. Let our children and grandchildren breathe.'

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Joy Vandervort-Cobb in Pure Theatre's production of "The Mountaintop." David Mandel/Provided

In the past week, she's watched and wept. She's donated to bail funds and she's thought about what needs to change. 

"The pandemic has been here forever, and I’m not talking COVID," Vandervort-Cobb said. "I'm just so sick of having to prove my humanity over and over and over again. I need you to see my color isn’t a burden to you. Let us breathe. Let our children and grandchildren breathe."

What needs to change: Directed toward local theater companies: "Equity diversity and inclusion cannot be one person of color on your stage. Shake up your offerings and find a way to make people of color, who need to hear these stories, comfortable enough to come into your theater. If you don’t change the inner workings, it’s just a perfunctory nod."

Robert 'Papa Robbie' Ellington, 49

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"Papa Robbie" Ellington (front row, second from left) is part of local reggae band The Dubplates. File/Jonathan Boncek/Provided

Reggae music is rooted in protest and rebellion, harking back to Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up."

"I grew up listening to music in the key of protest," said Robert "Papa Robbie" Ellington of Charleston dance-hall reggae group The Dubplates

Though The Dubplates is often presented as a party band, the group has political songs. 

"Hold Em in da Road" samples Barack Obama's speech after the Mother Emanuel murders. "Breathe" is especially relevant with the nature of George Floyd's death. 

"I try to put medicine in the applesauce," Ellington suggested. "It’s up-tempo, it’s fun, but there’s always an underlying message in there. It's our responsibility to do more than just make people dance. We have to make them think."

One time, when he sang a more political song, Ellington recalled a white audience member came up raring to fight him. 

"The only reason I haven’t sung it recently is because of the climate," Ellington said. "It feels like it would go beyond that guy just wanting to fight me; people might do more than that, and that's sad I feel like that, that I can’t even play it because of that."

'It's our responsibility to do more than just make people dance. We have to make them think.'

What needs to change: "I would love to see a citizens' review board for police officers and would like to see it actually carry some weight. Also, psychological evaluations. We've got cops that have come straight from the military with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and when you put them right in the street, their first reflex is to attack or respond without de-escalation."

Aisa Blue #ThoughtsinBlue, 21

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Aisa Blue. Provided

As a young black woman, Aisa Blue (#ThoughtsinBlue) said she's on the front line seeing the rage, sadness and pain in people's eyes and seeing people who aren't black trying to understand how she feels. 

She's a rapper, poet and activist who has been protesting in Columbia. 

Her song “Insomnia” details a more specific narrative she's fighting against. It's about how black men can't sleep comfortably at night because there's always a target on their back and they can't escape the labels that society has placed on them. 

"I can say proudly my music has reflected everything I’m standing for now," she said. 

A powerful thing about art is that it shows you're not alone in the way you think or feel, Blue said. The art before her has paved a way, and she hopes she can do the same for others. 

In the meantime, she's part of a grassroots group that has set up meetings with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin to discuss change. 

What needs to change: "I want to see officers take off their badge and stand with us. Show me that you're a human, too, and I can love you, too."

Preach Jacobs, 36

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Preach Jacobs is a hip-hop artist, columnist and DJ in Columbia. Chris Charles/Provided

For Columbia writer, DJ and hip-hop artist Preach Jacobs, the pandemic has cost him his livelihood as his relied-upon freelance and concert gigs were canceled.

When the protests started up, it felt like another level of chaos, but one he finds justified. 

"Do you know how frustrated people have to feel that, during a pandemic when we’re told to socially distance, we don’t think twice about gathering by the thousands to protest?" Jacobs said. "That must say something."

There's an importance to being an artist, and especially a black artist, that shouldn't be taken lightly, Jacobs said. Music history records black artists who have always talked about the political and societal things that were going on.

"Unfortunately, we're seeing the same things over and over again, so there's not been as much progress as we think we’ve had," Jacobs said. 

Jacobs is tired of being looked at by white people to have the answers.

"I don’t have anything for you, because ultimately this is on y’all," he said. "As black people, we don’t have control over the institutions doing these things. It's exhausting to be the victims and also have to provide the solutions. It’s not on us. It's on y’all."

'As black people, we don’t have control over the institutions doing these things. It's exhausting to be the victims and also have to provide the solutions.'

What needs to change: "What has to change is appreciation of art by the community and a stop to the overt racism when it comes to hip-hop culture here. And for people who want to support black art, finance black art. Go to black-owned businesses and restaurants."

Leo Twiggs, 86

Leo Twiggs

Artist Leo Twiggs of St. Stephen works on a piece of art about the Emanuel AME Church shooting. File

Leo Twiggs of St. Stephen has lived through the civil rights movement. He's seen people rise up, and he's seen change come. But this change feels different to him. 

This time, people of all colors are rising up in solidarity, he said, and that goes to show that everyone is tired. 

"I think what’s going on right now is the straw that broke the camel’s back after a continuum of events during an administration that makes people feel like they are OK to voice their prejudices," he said. 

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"Hooded" by Leo Twiggs. Provided

Twiggs has been processing the slayings of black people in his art for a while now. His Mother Emanuel series explored what happened in Charleston after the killing of nine people at a Bible study. The death of Walter Scott spurred his "Targeted Man" series, in which people were depicted with targets on their backs. 

"When something as traumatic as this happens to you, you have to process it," Twiggs said. "You have to think about it. You have to find a way to distance yourself from the anger and horror so you don’t let that get in the way."

He's working on something now, inspired by the death of George Floyd.

"As an artist, I deal in metaphors," he said. "The metaphor for this is not the compression of a knee on a neck. It's the oppression of a race of people."

What needs to change: "Intimidation is shaping the lives of human beings in a free country, and that should never be. ... Vote. That’s the way you change things in America."

'The metaphor for this is not the compression of a knee on a neck. It's the oppression of a race of people.'

AsiahMae, 28

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AsiahMae. Provided

AsiahMae, a Charleston poet and co-founder of artist collective and cultural hub IllVibetheTribe, is tired of facing tokenism and microaggressions while fighting for funding and spending emotional labor on educating white people in Charleston. 

"My art is simply political because I am a tall, fat, Black, queer femme in the Bible Belt," AsiahMae said. "Until this country changes, the way I look, the way I speak, the way I dress, the way I love, the art I put out — everything — is going to be looked at through political lenses." 

More people living their truths can make a difference, because in a way that is protest, AsiahMae said. Not everyone will agree with you, but that's all the more reason to be yourself. 

What needs to change: "Pay us what we're worth, pay us in equity, and leave us alone. Period."

Cookie Washington, 60

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Cookie Washington. Jean-David Parlier/Provided

Cookie Washington had a lunch date scheduled with the Rev. Clementa Pinckney the Friday after he was gunned down by a self-professed white supremacist at Mother Emanuel AME Church. 

She spent a year working on a quilt to honor his legacy, her way of paying him tribute. 

"In times of great joy or great tragedy, we make art," she said.

Washington, a Charleston-based textile artist, has faced her fair share of racism in this city. She's been mistaken for maids, store clerks and servers — "the help."

She was denied business from a white store owner after trying to sell her handbags in person, but then sold them anonymously through a white employee. At one art show, a white woman approached her who had assumed her son was in "in jail" because she had mentioned him but he hadn't made an appearance. He was deployed in the U.S. military. 

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A quilt created by Cookie Washington following the Emanuel AME Church shooting. Provided

'In times of great joy or great tragedy, we make art.'

Washington shared she was more worried about her son driving down Interstate 26 and getting stopped by a police officer than she was when he was overseas fighting for our country. 

"I'm just really sad and angry and hurt that in 2020, this is still the America that I live in," Washington said. 

Her Afro-centric art has depicted black people as mermaids and goddesses, lawyers and doctors. She's working on a piece featuring the first black female fighter pilot in the Air Force. 

In 2018, she hosted an art show at the City Gallery that paired 33 white artists and 33 artists of color, who made a piece together that centered on a variety of topics. She hosted dinner parties at the gallery afterward, where moderators led discussions and minds and hearts were opened. She wants to host something similar again. 

"We need poets and music and painting and art quilts and even interpretative dance," Washington said. "I think we need all of those things to help us understand."

What needs to change: "I can’t live in Charleston if I think there are bunches of people here who want to see me fail or hurt or want to see my children not have the same economic opportunities as their children. I can’t live in a world like that."

Fat Rat Da Czar, 43

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Fat Rat Da Czar. File/Thomas Hammond

Fat Rat Da Czar has been making hip-hop music in Columbia for decades, though he may be most well-known for founding Love, Peace & Hip-Hop and its annual Hip-Hop Family Day, a festival that celebrates hip-hop music and its role in the South Carolina music community. 

He compares hip-hop to punk in that it's the voice of the youth, "and the youth always have something to say." From N.W.A. and Public Enemy to J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, he says the genre has made people think differently and addressed politics in society effectively for generations. 

Locally, he references Benny Starr's "A Water Album" from last year, which explores several issues facing South Carolina's black community, from flooding to gentrification. 

In 2015, Fat Rat was part of the "Colorblind" album project that paired folk and hip-hop artists together and dealt with issues of race and equality. 

He said today's protests are centered on the same issues that have been around forever, but the response is more hopeful this time around. 

"It took 100 years to get from the Emancipation Proclamation to civil rights," he said. "It’s not necessarily a speedy trip."

What needs to change: "This fight is a constant fight, and this protest, call to justice, should be a consistent one. We need to look at ourselves and wonder where we fall and ask what are we doing to effectively move things forward."

Colin Quashie, 57

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Colin Quashie looks at his own mural called "Service," which depicts North Carolina's historical African American figures. It hangs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. File/Staff

Charleston-based visual artist Colin Quashie says he feels he's in good hands with the passionate multicultural mix of young protesters he's seen this past week. 

He's spent his art career creating protest art, from his "Plantation" series that blended pop-culture imagery and social media communication with plantation life to his "Linked" series, which pairs historical figures with artifacts as commentary. 

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"Rose Colored" by Colin Quashie. This photo illustration depicts Harriet Tubman, who figured slavers had a chance to get to heaven despite their sins because they were abiding by the rules of their time. Colin Quashie/Provided

In one of his "Linked" images, Harriet Tubman is given rose-colored glasses made from slave shackles. In another, he portrayed George Washington, who is known to have had dental problems, with an overlaid set of teeth likely pulled from the mouths of enslaved people. 

"I am unapologetically political," Quashie said. "For better or worse, it's been the hallmark of my art for a quarter-century."

Political art has always presented itself as a problem, he said, which is why a lot of people steer clear of it. Yet, more art is political than we may realize.  

'I am unapologetically political.'

"From the scribbled fonts on a cardboard sign stapled to a broomstick, to graffiti, to museum pieces the size of Picasso’s 'Guernica,' as long as it has something to say, it’s a form of protest," he said.

What needs to change: "You gotta realize that black folk have been talking about the same (expletive) since emancipation. The only difference I’m noticing is that white people are finally, for whatever reason, engaged and acting like they’re listening this time. We’ll see. Time will tell."

Tazz Majesty, 23

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Tazz Majesty. Provided

Hip-hop artist and activist Tazz Majesty, originally from Columbia and now in Charleston, says she has been told "no" to hosting local shows because of the kind of "company" her event would draw. 

"Being an activist comes from being told 'no' so many times," said Majesty, who was voted the City Paper's best "hip-hop artist/student activist" last year.  

Majesty said she's been critiqued for her appearance, has had to be extra cautious of her surroundings and sometimes is stifled for simply living her truth. 

Her debut EP "Validation" was just released, and it tells part of her story, a story of a system built against her, she said. 

"I worked hard every day because ... I wanted to increase the chances of crossing the finish line for every black kid like me," Majesty said. 

What needs to change: "I must say that I feel as if change is overdue. We live in the South, and there's every stereotype you can think of about race. Sometimes, I feel like I have to fit into a box in order to live and be OK in this world." 

'We live in the South, and there's every stereotype you can think of about race.' 

Carlos Johnson, 39

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Carlos Johnson. Provided

Carlos Johnson, a half-black, half-Filipino poet who goes by "Los tha Host," grew up in Dorchester County. He channeled his anger about abuse in his childhood into writing and used poetry as therapy. Then, he decided to give back to his community.

In 2007, he founded the Speak Freely Foundation, a nonprofit program focused on stimulating positivity in the area's youth through the art of poetry and boxing.

His poetry is full of pain and struggle — his story. 

"There’s a lot of artistry that comes out of pain," he said. "Look at American art and music — black Americans were at the inception of it. Look at Michael Jackson's 'We are the World.' Look at Jimi Hendrix up to Beyonce."

Recognizing Charleston's history is important to uncovering the issues at the center of today's national protests, Johnson said. 

"Black people are woven within the fabric of historic Charleston, but so much American history has been whitewashed," Johnson said, before sharing the story of Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who escaped to freedom and became a successful businessman and politician in South Carolina.

'There’s a lot of artistry that comes out of pain.'

More stories like his need to be told to everyone, Johnson said. 

Johnson has an upcoming poetry book and album that will be dropping soon. 

What needs to change: "One solution is to stop killing black people. Starting there, increasing the education for people around here. People are kind of 'dumbed down' here and stuck in the position they're in."

Cody Dixon, 26

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Cody Dixon. Larry Dennis II/Provided

Cody Dixon, who goes by Slim S.O.U.L. (Sounds of Universal Love), has used his music to talk about brutality, as well as social and systemic racism.

He does it in a way that is motivational, yet also calms the soul, a dichotomy he also embraces with his nonprofit organization Soul Power Productions, which strives to bring creative, artistic and technological resources to Charleston communities lacking in arts advocacy and education.

Even though he has this local platform, Dixon said he still feels an overall uneasiness in Charleston that he's always felt. 

"I'm still educating and showing what I see and what needs to be changed, just like any artist before me has done," Dixon said. 

He recently teamed up with Abstract That Rapper for a new song "Keep On." "Make the music for the movement, I stay dedicated," he raps on the second verse.

What needs to change: "White gatekeepers who don't give black artists the opportunities need to step down. Refer someone with more diverse tastes. This is in all mediums. Black artists need to stop the competition mentality and build with each other."

Lisa Gilyard Rivers, 55

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Lisa Gilyard Rivers. Provided

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"Peace on the Left, Justice on the Right" by Lisa Gilyard Rivers. Provided

Lisa Rivers didn't start painting until she was 52. That was just three years ago. Since then, her Gullah-centric art has been featured at the Penn Center in St. Helena. 

She's created slice-of-life pieces that are inherently political, like "Right to Freedom," where segregated bus station lines are depicted. But she's also recently been motivated to create art that inspires people to go out and vote, the way she believes a real change can be made. 

"No matter what color, we all need to vote to have a voice," Rivers said. "We all are equal, but we all have not been treated equally."

What needs to change: "People just need to be heard. I think voting will help tremendously."

Tynishia Brown, 26

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Tynishia Brown. Provided

College of Charleston graduate Tynishia Brown, who has lupus, just wants equity for the oppressed. She's used her voice as a creative writer and singer to channel her feelings and portray her experience as a black woman fighting an autoimmune disease along with racism in the South. 

Her 2017 R&B-meets-pop EP "Experience" under her music moniker Saevi includes a song called "Emotions" with a lyric that's relevant to how she's feeling today: "How do you do the things that you do when you're a human being, too?"

"Being Black is a political statement by default," Brown said. "People become both enraged and inspired by everything we do."

She's used her art not as a means of protest, but as a way to get out her feelings. Why shouldn't black people be able to do that the same as white people without it being a political statement, she asked. 

'Being Black is a political statement by default. People become both enraged and inspired by everything we do.'

What needs to change: "Well, first and foremost, we need more Black art arenas where all talented Black people are welcomed, not just people that are cool with a certain 'in' crowd or people who are at the bars more performing. Because those same bars don't give grace and chance to (other talented Black people). I'm hoping to create a Black art district in Charleston with the help of the community."

Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.