It’s the first time since the 1970s that black art, history and political life have come together in such a broad, profound and diverse way. That convergence was evident in the farce of “Chappelle’s Show”; on the pair of albums D’Angelo released 14 years apart. You can see the imprint of the Barack Obama presidency on “Black Panther”; Black Lives Matter on Beyoncé; the country’s prison crisis on Kendrick Lamar. You can sense that convergence haunting the fiction of Jesmyn Ward.
The African-American Art Shaping the 21st Century
Over the past 20 years, a new vanguard of African-American creators has helped define the 21st century. Jordan Peele. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Kara Walker. Ava DuVernay.
For eight years, all sorts of black artists sailed through the White House, and shaped the depiction of black America, by thinking transcendently, trenchantly, truthfully. They adjusted the way the entire country can look at itself.
So we asked 35 major African-American creators from different worlds (film, art, TV, music, books and more) to talk about the work that has inspired them the most over the past two decades: “Atlanta,” “Moonlight,” “Get Out,” “A Seat at the Table,” “Double America 2,” and on and on. (These are edited excerpts from the conversations.)
From the start, black people have been at the center of American popular culture — essentially because white people placed them there, through imitation and mockery and fascination. Ever since, the struggle for black artists has been to wrest control of their own culture, to present themselves, in all of their complexity, diversity, innovation and idiosyncrasy, and represent one another, as rebuke, as celebration, as advancement.
So while the power these artists have attained might be a breakthrough, the primacy energizing their art is centuries old. Maybe these two decades of fertility and surprise constitute new territory. But, as these artists are about to explain, they amount to what someone like Beyoncé knows well: homecoming.
— WESLEY MORRIS
“Lemonade” — album and film by Beyoncé (2016)
KERRY WASHINGTON (actress): I think “Lemonade” really was so culture-shifting in terms of gender roles, in terms of fidelity, in terms of how we think about marriage today, how we think about hip-hop today, how we think about feminism, how we think about power. Visually, musically, but also sociopolitically, anthropologically, “Lemonade” is a game changer. It’s just so big.
It really was like a new version of womanism: What it means for a black woman to take on this role, and what it means for a black woman whose husband cheats on her — and she stays with him — to call herself a feminist. How she walked that was just tremendous. And what she reveals about being a career woman and being a working mother in that piece is also so profound.
I watched it the night it came out. My husband and I were on the couch, and one of my cousins from the Bronx texted me, probably 10 minutes in, and was like, “There’s no way that Jay-Z signed off on this.” And then later, there’s Jay in the bed, reading the newspaper, fully co-signed. It was a real testament to the vulnerability that is possible in black love, and what partnership can really look like, what healing can look like, what courage in a marriage can look like. Trust is so important.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
“good kid, m.A.A.d city” — album by Kendrick Lamar (2012)
TA-NEHISI COATES (author, journalist): So much of art is related to when you encounter it. I can never hear anything the way I heard “Illmatic” [Nas’ debut album from 1994]. That album spoke to the neighborhood that I came up in. I wasn’t the character on that album. I didn’t have the same envy or love or lust for the streets. “good kid, m.A.A.d city” — that sounds like me. Because, man, you got somebody that’s actually quite conflicted about the environment they’re born into. They don’t think the environment is that great. Maybe Nas didn’t either, but there was a braggadocio he had about it. The narrator in “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is a kid who is basically trying to cope with his environment. That just felt like me. If you strip the hood away, it’s not clear to me that this kid would be sad the hood was gone, or that he would have any longing to go back.
My son at that point was 12 years old. So he was only beginning to develop an aesthetic. That was the first album where he was like, “Man, this is great.” And I was like, “Yeah, it really is great” — not, “This is great and I’m just trying to be into what you’re into.” I didn’t have the same visceral feeling [as when I heard “Illmatic”] — that’s like falling in love. When I heard “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” it couldn’t hit me the same way, but goddamn, it did hit. It hit hard.
I think Kendrick makes the most emotionally mature rap I’ve ever heard. He has levels of vulnerability: Watching people get out of the hood and being jealous of them, because you think there’s only room for X number of people to make it out. I mean, who the hell confesses to that?
Sometimes you hear stuff that’s reminiscent of the ’90s and it doesn’t feel like it has advanced. It’s just redoing Wu-Tang or Nas. But Kendrick took what he was supposed to from all of that and did something totally different. I have a great admiration for him.
— WESLEY MORRIS
“Get Out” — movie written and directed by Jordan Peele (2017)
KERRY JAMES MARSHALL (artist): That was a phenomenal piece of work. It did everything that I thought a film like that was supposed to do because it seemed like real cinema. It wasn’t a movie; it was cinema. When you hear him talk about the film, you can see that he’s a student of cinema.
Having a good idea doesn’t mean that the good idea is successfully realized, and so people tend to fall back on whether the thing was worthwhile to do, much less if it was successful in that. And I thought this was a particularly successful film, because it was driven by great writing and great cinematography. Now, I didn’t feel that strongly about “Us”; I thought there were a lot of weaknesses in that. But you understand that this is somebody who knows exactly what needs to be done. And in “Get Out,” he knew exactly what needed to be done.
Oftentimes you see a trailer for a movie, and you say, “Oh, I don’t need to go see that. Because I see where they’re going with this and I don’t need to spend much more time [with it.]” But there was something about the imagery that was projected in the trailers for “Get Out” that mattered. And of course, Daniel Kaluuya is no small part of it. He is a powerful presence on the screen. It was a kind of edge-of-your-seat movie. You didn’t know exactly where it was going to go. But every time it went through another place, it made perfect sense within the context of that movie, in the story he was telling. And it was never telegraphed so far ahead that you felt like you could write the end of the script before it even got there.
— WESLEY MORRIS
Black social media
DESUS NICE (comedian): This rise of black social media is kind of overlooked. Before there was Black Twitter, message-board culture in 2000 was huge. That’s where we were just hanging.
When you go to a job, you have orientation and you talk to everyone and then you see the other black employee. And then y’all do the head nod, and figure out the little culture right there — that’s kind of what we were doing on the internet.
Okayplayer, the website, was one of the most influential — people are probably going to go back and look at that as one of the most influential websites on the internet for our culture.
Questlove made Okayplayer. We used to call him Poppa on it. There were so many rappers, so many poets. People were making graphics.
But Heben [Nigatu] and Trace [Tracy Clayton] and a lot of people who are really popping right now, on Black Twitter, we all started there. We were babies! Just writing little posts.
And it’s not so much that website, but I think the experience of black people niching out their own little section on social media, that definitely shifted [things]. I would even say it made black culture more singular; before everything was more regional. New Yorkers had their own slang. But now you can have a meme and every black person in the United States — or in the world — can understand it, because of social media.
— DODAI STEWART
Toni Morrison — author
OPRAH WINFREY (media executive): I have Toni on the heart right now, and I can’t think of anybody else who actually has had the cultural impact that she has in the past 20 years, because I believe that she’s the root spring from which all other influences that I might name flow, like Colson Whitehead, Ta-Nehisi [Coates], Jacqueline Woodson. I think her work has resonated to other artists and nonartists alike for decades and I don’t think it can be measured or quantified, actually. Because as Maya [Angelou] taught me, your legacy isn’t one thing. It’s every life you touch. So, I think that from “Beloved” to her later works like “Love” and “A Mercy,” which weren’t as popular, up until her most recent essays, [“The Source of Self-Regard”], they stand as a really indefatigable testimony to the resilience of black life.
She spoke from a black woman’s voice that heretofore had been silenced and shamed; she was able to magnify and give voice to our stories about common folk whose stories would have otherwise stayed buried. She was on the front lines of the fight to make beauty and justice in a complicated world. I am so glad her work remains and the work continues.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
“Love & Basketball” — movie written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (2000)
ANGIE THOMAS (author): It’s probably my favorite movie of all time. The fact that we got a coming-of-age story about a black girl and it didn’t include violence, trauma or anything like that, that was just — one, it was mind blowing. Two, it was eye-opening. Three, it was reassuring. I often say “Love & Basketball” kind of gave me the green light to tell stories.
The film told me that somebody like me could tell a story about somebody like me. There aren’t a whole lot of movies or books about black girls coming-of-age. Let’s just be real. I remember seeing “Love & Basketball” on the big screen, and saying to myself, “Wow, somebody was able to make a movie about a black girl like this.” This black family, they weren’t in the hood. As somebody who’s written those stories, there’s nothing wrong with that. But she has a fully formed family. Her parents are together. I was seeing a story about a black girl and she wasn’t the sassy best friend; she wasn’t the ghetto girl.
And to see that, it validated me and it validated the stories that I want to tell. So when I was writing “The Hate U Give,” I looked at “Love & Basketball” and I was like, you know what? I’m going to put bits and pieces of that into Starr, so you have her as a basketball player. And I wouldn’t have felt like I could’ve done that if it weren’t for “Love & Basketball.”
— CONCEPCIÓN DE LEÓN
“12 Little Spells” — album by Esperanza Spalding (2018)
ANNA DEAVERE SMITH (actress, playwright, academic): I’ve been getting in on Esperanza Spalding and what she’s doing. When we look at real life we see profound divisions in our culture. We see our people, my brothers and sisters, struggling, not educated, in the grips of gun violence and so forth. We can celebrate an artistic explosion, but I’m also very aware of the desperate situation of folks.
I did pay a lot of attention to “12 Little Spells.” I was able to read the text and talk to her about it. To look at that text up close, it’s incredible. She’s just a very good writer. It was great to be able to dive into that, to prepare to interview her [at the Strand bookstore] and look really, really closely at that work; I was able to see it twice as well. She wants it to be a healing piece, and I have to say that is something I’m hearing from younger artists — this notion of searching for ways that their work can be healing.
— NICOLE HERRINGTON
“Flavor of Love” — reality show (2006-2008)
“Scandal” — television drama created by Shonda Rhimes (2012-2018)
ISSA RAE (writer, producer, actress): One television show that influenced me in a negative way but now I feel had a profound impact was “Flavor of Love” [on VH1]. I remember watching it with my friends in college and getting increasingly angry that it was one of the few portrayals of black women in [pop culture]. But then I look back on it fondly in terms of how it influenced black meme culture. It was really impactful for me in terms of feeling like, “I have to get up and create alternative images.” But I also recognize the impact that it had just in terms of pushing black women’s voices to the forefront — I always feel conflicted about that.
The [first episode of Season 2 showed] a woman defecating on the floor during the elimination session. I was just like, “Wow, a black woman really defecated on the floor just because she wanted to win Flavor Flav’s heart, but also just to have this opportunity to be on TV.” But also the control that producers had in shaping her narrative is something that stood out to me.
I never watched “Grey’s Anatomy” [on ABC]. I was introduced to Shonda Rhimes just because she’s a black woman with a popular show. And I didn’t know what a showrunner was or what that meant. And then when “Scandal” came along, to see that impact and those skills, it was like, “Wow, she has a dream job that I want. She’s sitting up here and putting black women at the forefront in a big, different way, in a way that I respect and a way that people admire.”
“Flavor of Love” influenced me to write the characters that I wanted to see. And Shonda and “Scandal” made me realize that this is bigger than that. I can create worlds, and there’s a business behind it that can ultimately be positive. It doesn’t have to be centered around negative tropes.
— CONCEPCIÓN DE LEÓN
“Double America 2” — artwork by Glenn Ligon (2014)
KENYA BARRIS (writer, producer): It turns America on itself, abstracting it. That really struck me because I find that abstract art is something black people don’t really get to do. We’re not given the opportunity to do black art that way. And in this piece, Glenn turns that notion on its head. For me, the simplicity of it is radical and confrontational.
I had seen [an earlier version called “Double America”] represented in books and articles. But [this one] really stood out to me when I finally saw it in person at the Broad museum in 2014. There is something about seeing Glenn’s work in person that is essential to understanding it. The piece itself is active, and I think to experience it sparked something specific in me. I felt that it spoke directly to the black identity — the duality of the black experience and the access black people have to art itself.
— REGGIE UGWU
“Moonlight” — movie adapted and directed by Barry Jenkins (2016)
JABOUKIE YOUNG-WHITE (comedian, writer): It was wild seeing that it wasn’t until the mid-2010s that you saw black people being properly lit in TV and film — and lit to the point where it elevates the aesthetic, to the point where these people look so picturesque and painting-like. “Moonlight” not only represents a huge change in narrative representation and storytelling, but also visually it changed the landscape.
I went by myself to watch it when I was back home in Chicago, and I remember toward the end, the scene where he [Chiron, played by Trevante Rhodes] is talking to his mom, I was weeping because as a gay man I was like, “Wow, this is what everyone has been experiencing when they have been watching movies: They have been just seeing themselves on the screen, seeing something that’s happened to them — not having to do mental gymnastics or an exercise in empathy to be able to put yourself in a character’s shoes.” That character, it was already me, so that sensation was overwhelming because it literally was like I was seeing a new color that I had never seen before. It had been there the entire time and I didn’t know it existed.
— LOVIA GYARKYE
“Room for Improvement” — first mixtape by Drake (2006)
MISTY COPELAND (dancer): I grew up in a diverse area in Los Angeles, but then entering into the ballet world, which was so white, I felt so isolated so much of the time and music was always that one tangible thing I had. Drake had a couple of mixtapes that really spoke to me. I think that black people are often put in this box. Black women have to be the caretakers. We have to be strong. You can’t really show vulnerability — especially black men. I am biracial and my husband is also black and Jewish, so to see this biracial Jewish guy speaking his truth, being open, vulnerable and honest, and making a space for black men not to be in one emotional box was to me the next level of where music should be going.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
Amber Hasan — musician, author
Shea Cobb — poet, musician
LATOYA RUBY FRAZIER (artist, academic): I’ve been on the ground here in Flint, Michigan, ever since I did my first photo essay about the water crisis, which was published in the September 2016 issue of Elle magazine. Amber Hasan, her rap song “No Filter” was a big hit here that helped people understand the intensity of the water crisis. Her song inspired my photo essay.
Shea Cobb also did a poem that ran online with the Elle piece, about her daily reckoning with lead-contaminated water and trying to protect her daughter. Cobb and Hasan formed an artist collective called the Sister Tour with artists, activists and entrepreneurs that advocate for other women, artists, activists and entrepreneurs. These have been the women on the ground, keeping the narrative out there and trying to get access to clean water. These are everyday folks that people are not thinking about because they don’t know they’re out here doing grassroots initiatives, and fighting for the quality and access to clean drinking water. As an artist, to stay with photographs and storytelling that lead to a solution, and to play a key role, and to be able to fund that solution, I couldn’t ask for more.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
“Glory” — song by Common and John Legend (2014)
Bryan Stevenson, author
HARRY BELAFONTE (activist, singer, actor):
Q: What interested you about “Glory,” that collaboration between John Legend and Common?
A: There’s a consciousness that [John Legend and Common] brought to the material, which I think was a bit unusual among high-profile pop artists — to do things that were dealing with social recall and definition. “Glory” was a kind of contemporary black — not protest, but black anthem, I guess is the best word.
I grew up in a time when music that came from the black voice was filled with reflections that deeply represented the black sense of life in America. The [Harlem] Renaissance gave us people like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday — a host of artists that became huge sang to the plight of black people and the black experience. And I thought that was a rich gift to American culture.
Q: And you see “Glory” as a kind of harkening to that?
A: Yes. It’s a kind of black homage to the best that’s in us.
Q: What do you like about Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy,” the story of his fight to appeal the sentence of a man convicted of murder?
A: I would identify him as a notator of history. What appeals to me about “Just Mercy” is that it relates to the human condition. He and a lot of the young men and women I’ve dealt with [as an activist] are moved by the sense of social responsibility and consciousness.
I’m thinking [of people like] Isabel Wilkerson, [who wrote] “The Warmth of Other Suns” [2010, about the migration of blacks from the South]. And James McBride, who wrote “The Good Lord Bird” , fiction about a young black kid traveling with [the abolitionist] John Brown. That to me was quite offbeat and unique and rewarding. [These three authors] are calling upon history to reflect on it.
Q: So they are picking up the baton from an earlier generation in terms of consciousness and activism.
A: Look, black culture has always reflected the hopes and the aspirations of black people. Take a great artist like my favorite of all, Huddie Ledbetter — Lead Belly. What I love about Lead Belly was his rawness, his directness. And I think that a lot of artists today are beginning to reflect social preoccupation. For a long time, we were just about the characters of pop culture. But now we’re coming back to looking at a deeper resonance.
— ERIC V. COPAGE
“Coconut Oil” — song by Lizzo (2016)
AUDRA MCDONALD (actress, singer): I was introduced to Lizzo by my daughter playing that song. The more I started to understand Lizzo and her art, and her embracing all that she is — and empowering women — it impacted me. It has had a huge impact on the way that my daughter sees herself and the way she embraces all that she is — I think Lizzo is leading a revolution in that regard. It’s a genius song! She’s saying, I thought I needed this man, I thought I needed that, and all I needed was coconut oil — basically saying, “all I needed was self-care.” That’s a powerful and necessary thing in our world today, especially for young women and girls and POC.
— JAZMINE HUGHES
“Atlanta” — television series created by Donald Glover (2016 to present)
LENA WAITHE (writer, producer, actress): “Atlanta” made me want to be better. Very few things that I watch fall into that [category]. I remember watching it in London on my computer, and being like, “Oh, OK, the game is no longer the same. The game has changed.”
Something about the episode [S1:E2] where [Earn, played by Donald Glover] he’s waiting to get bailed out [of jail], and there’s someone who is obviously mentally ill: The way it’s handled, it’s so nuanced, so respectful. I love how they drop in that [Earn is] very smart, and he had an opportunity to be something. But he’s a little lackadaisical, and he has no reason to be really sitting where he’s sitting. And there’s another person that we don’t really get to meet, but you know that that person is struggling mentally. What [the scene is] almost saying is, like, you can either be Earn or you could go crazy. It’s like the world still drives black people crazy.
To me, it’s saying either you live long enough to be a successful, contributing member of society, which is what people expect black folks to do, or society drives you crazy. We do everything we can to say that we’re worthy of the space that we take up. And we’re still told, “Well, you’re still three-fifths of a human being.” So what do you expect us to do?
— CONCEPCIÓN DE LEÓN
“Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” — album by Outkast (2003)
JESMYN WARD (author, academic): I was in my mid-20s when it came out. I remember that I loved it, of course, in part because I felt like the album pushed the boundaries of what we can express in our music — specifically black Southerners and more specifically black men. I’m thinking about “The Love Below,” André 3000’s part of the album. There’s this tenderness and thoughtfulness that I feel like there’s not often a space for in rap, maybe especially in Southern rap.
I was at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor at the time and I was very homesick. I lived most of my life in Mississippi and I was not accustomed to the cold and to being landlocked. When I went down to Best Buy and put [this album] in my car’s CD player, I was immediately home. There’s a sense of longing that is present throughout “The Love Below,” and I felt it. It echoed my own sense of longing, for home, and for love, and for tenderness.
— REGGIE UGWU
“Sorry to Bother You” — movie written and directed by Boots Riley (2018)
CHANCE THE RAPPER (musician): I think it’s one of the best films to be made in the last 20 years. There’s a lot of tropes in films nowadays that try to talk about black life, and it’s kind of a spectacle — we have to see a black person get killed or somehow demeaned in a way that gives white viewers added value to the black character.
And that movie just completely stepped away from it. There are scenes where they build it up to make you think that the main character is going to have a violent interaction with somebody, or something grave is going to happen and it never happens.
That movie showed capitalism in a way that I had never understood — how much it had to do with black lives or global blackness. The fact that it affects everyone in the world makes it seem as if it’s just a monetary issue or just a class issue or just something that affects everybody, but it’s really a part of the fabric of the subjugation of black people.
— AISHA HARRIS
MICKALENE THOMAS (artist): When I think about my life and my personal journey and my professional trajectory, I would have to think about Jet, as a cultural, social and political media entity that shaped not only African-American people but also American culture through entertainment, through images, through music and fashion and storytelling.
I think of Jet as being almost like the first form of what social media or Instagram is today. Especially like what its Beauty of the Week [visual feature] represented. These were everyday women, college girls, presenting themselves, submitting their profiles for a magazine, describing themselves and their interests, their hobbies, their likes and what they did. They were identifying themselves: “Hi. I’m Carol. I’m from Atlanta. I like to cook and I’m such and such.” It’s like the first sort of precursor to the selfie and how we share now. Jet was such a leader in this form of self-professing and self-identifying. It was so much of what we’re doing now. And it’s so incredible that there’s going to be this archive. [The Jet and Ebony photo archive were sold in 2019 and will be transferred to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute.]
— NICOLE HERRINGTON
Kara Walker — artist
JULIA BULLOCK (soprano): The first time I saw her work was at the Broad museum in Los Angeles. When I entered into the space there were these really dynamic silhouettes that seemed quite playful. But the closer I got, I realized what she was depicting. To say it made me happy is maybe a weird statement, but when I encounter any work of art that is talking about racism or anything that’s going on with blackness, I’m looking for something that is quite explicit. It’s something that I shied away from in my work for so long. Kara Walker’s work didn’t necessarily change what I was doing in my work, but it helped to reaffirm what I was already after. I really appreciate when the focus is super clear. When dealing with this subject matter, trying to treat it politely or quote unquote appropriately, there’s just no time and space for that.
— ERIC V. COPAGE
Ta-Nehisi Coates — writer
JOHN LEGEND (musician, producer): “The Case for Reparations” [an article in The Atlantic] had a big influence on the way I think about justice and the history of the harm that America has done to African-Americans and how its legacy is still so present and so clear in things like the wealth gap and other issues. [His books] “Between the World and Me” and “We Were Eight Years in Power,” and all the other great articles he’s written, influenced my art as a songwriter and my work as an activist.
We’re obviously in a moment right now where it’s just a boom for black creativity. I think things like #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter really emboldened a lot of artists. And they also pushed a lot of gatekeepers to allow black art to flourish in ways that I don’t think it had to this extent, maybe ever — at least not most of my adult life. Netflix and all these other streaming services and all these new networks, just seeing more opportunities for art to flourish. And Black Twitter and black activists and all these other groups have put social pressure on the powers that be. I think we just had a lot more opportunities to create interesting art that’s more diverse and more reflective of the intricate and beautiful tapestry of African-Americans and the diaspora.
— KWAME OPAM
“Black Panther” — movie co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler (2018)
STERLING K. BROWN (actor): I remember walking down the streets of New York City and passing by a comic book store and Reggie Hudlin had done an update to the Black Panther series. I wound up buying [a bunch] because I had heard of the character but I had never actually read [the comic]. I was fascinated and thought, “Man, they ain’t never going to make a movie based on the Black Panther.” To actually live long enough [to see it] was this incredible pinch-me moment, like [studios] were seeing the value in diversity.
They were seeing the value and the power of a story well told, and it didn’t matter what faces were at the center of the movie. This whole idea that black faces don’t sell overseas got a chance to be demolished. To have a small part in that film [Brown played N’Jobu], which I think was a cultural moment and the beginning of a movement, where diversity is being appreciated not just because of the power of the story but because it’s financially lucrative as well — I love being a footnote in what I think was a history-making moment.
On Halloween I enjoyed seeing nonblack children dressed up as T’Challa. For such a long time, Hollywood had this idea that in order for everyone to see themselves in [a film] they had to make a character white because no white person would see themselves relating to a person of color. Now we have gotten to a place where that level of myopia — that small-mindedness — has expanded. People can see themselves in others regardless of their background. The universal themes apply whether or not you understand the exact cultural experience. Ryan [Coogler] and Marvel [Studios] made a movie that was unapologetically black, but you don’t cross that billion-dollar threshold just by black people seeing it; it’s something that is also universal.
— LOVIA GYARKYE
“A Seat at the Table” — album by Solange (2016)
BARRY JENKINS (director, producer, writer): I remember Mahershala [Ali, a star of “Moonlight”] leaning over to me and asking if I’d heard the new Solange. The look on his face told me that I needed to. When we flew through a storm over the Atlantic to premiere “Moonlight” at the London Film Festival, this album was with me. When I flew to Cannes for the 2017 festival [to be a jury member], this album was with me. I would not have survived the madness of our “Moonlight” journey without it. In a way, Solange Knowles saved my life. At the very least, my sanity.
— MEKADO MURPHY
“The End of eating Everything” — animated video by Wangechi Mutu (2013)
DEE REES (director, writer): It really jolted my thinking and reminded me of what’s possible when you let your imagination fly. It was a wake-up call to being more fantastical. I remember seeing her exhibition in Brooklyn [her first U.S. survey at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013] and just being completely mesmerized.
— MEKADO MURPHY
Saidiya Hartman — writer and academic
Robin Coste Lewis — poet
Tyehimba Jess — poet
MARGO JEFFERSON (writer, academic): I am extremely interested in artists. I’m speaking largely literary, but also the musical and the visual, artists who are simultaneously archivists, curators and linguistic creators. They’re using everything, and they’re creating these books that are simultaneously written, visual and oral texts. They are performing books in various media. And I like their sense of archiving because it can be anything from those historians’ formal documents to ephemera, all these little objects, ads and raw material culture.
So I’m thinking of, for example, people like the historian Saidiya Hartman and her book “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” where historical and archival research joined with imaginative recreation. Also, the poets Robin Coste Lewis and Tyehimba Jess. In “Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems,” Robin Coste Lewis creates an entire poem from descriptions of artworks. So, it’s artifacts and documents being used to create another artistic object entirely.
My particular favorite of Tyehimba Jess’ is a book called “Olio” [winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for poetry], where he uses everything from interviews, to dramatic monologues, to musical programs, to fonts and typography, to basically track the kind of art that was flourishing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ragtime, the Fisk Jubilee Singers. It’s really an amazing performative book. Jess’ “leadbelly” book is also remarkable because it’s totally grounded in research, but it’s a combination of lyricism and the dramatic monologue.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
Robin Coste Lewis — poet
AVA DUVERNAY (director, writer, producer): I read a lot of poetry and she’s been really galvanizing for me, instigating my own energy and ideas over the past couple years. Her work has a muscularity to it, yet it’s still very supple. She writes about a wide range of topics, a full expanse.
She’s the poet laureate of Los Angeles. She’s from Compton, the same place that I am. When I learned that her place of origin was in proximity to my own, her work gained a deeper resonance with me.
— MEKADO MURPHY
“In Search Of...” — album by N.E.R.D (2001)
VIRGIL ABLOH (designer, artist): There’s an interview where [Pharrell Williams] classically said, The album is too white for black radio and too black for white radio. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, skateboarding and finding my own identity, it resonated with me more than hip-hop on its own. [It said] that it was fine to be in between. And I think that has described a whole generation of young black kids and artists who have since been determined to be themselves and jump through that door that was opened by Pharrell.
The prototype at the time was that you had to be a thug or an athlete or a rapper. And then he came along with a different panache as a producer, an artist, a tastemaker, an individual. That sort of held a mirror up for me — it was a new prototype, and it came with a new sound. A lot of the freedom that exhibits in my practice is of that same sort of risk-taking.
— REGGIE UGWU
D’Angelo — musician
KYLE ABRAHAM (choreographer): He’s an artist who pays so much attention to detail. And I think he’s always had his own individual vision for what he wants to put out and share with the world. I’m really drawn to the soulfulness in his music. And not in the generic way that one might reference soul, which is related to an artist. I think that there is a real connection to love, and to something that’s a higher power even if that higher power is the love that his music exudes. It just draws me in. It gives me hope. It gives me solace.
On his most recent album, “Black Messiah,”  I can hear plenty of lineage in the album. There’s even one song where in my mind Prince is playing on that album but it’s still very much a D’Angelo album from top to bottom. “Betray My Heart” is just such a beautiful love song. It’s a song for a couple that has been together for generations and lifetimes. It’s seemingly so simple, the chorus, to say, “I will never betray my heart,” but it’s also in some ways maybe thinking about yourself and self-love, or what you mean to yourself or what someone else means to you. And all that is the beauty of good songwriting. You can listen to a song and find different connections that help you heal, and inspire you.
— ERIC V. COPAGE
“BLKNWS” — video installation by Kahlil Joseph (2018-ongoing)
TRACY K. SMITH (poet): It’s this video essay that uses two screens to depict images — from the news, from pop culture footage, from YouTube, from cinema, from the sciences — that speak to or just show central moments from black life. So we have some of the very familiar — like films, like clips of major speeches by Martin Luther King. But there are also images from seminal movies from my generation, like “Boyz N The Hood,” or news clips that depict some event happening in black communities.
I think I sat there for about almost an hour, taking this stuff in and each element speaks to you. What I feel it’s doing is creating this almost large-scale sense of black humanity and what resilience it has, what forces working within and sometimes against it have looked like.
I found it to be one of the most coherent and compelling examinations of blackness and of America that I’ve ever seen. I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about it. In some ways, I don’t think it could exist without Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death” [which uses a wide range of contemporary imagery to trace African-American identity]. But it builds upon that, in part because it has these dual screens and in part because it’s also bringing us right up to the present. And we’re thinking in the broad sweep of history. We’re thinking in public and private terms.
— CONCEPCIÓN DE LEÓN
Kendrick Lamar — performing “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” at the Grammy Awards (2016)
RHIANNON GIDDENS (musician): I sat there in the audience and I couldn’t even speak for I don’t know how long. You could almost feel the heat from the fire onstage. It was so intense. I was blown away by the size of it, and by what he was saying at what was essentially a commercial evening.
I’m a very activist musician in my own kind of way, but the way he did it — the way he was working within a very popular art form but still being willing to really go there — really stuck with me for a long time. It was a reminder that there are many different ways of making change as an artist, whether you’re outside of the structure or within it.
— REGGIE UGWU
Issa Rae — writer, producer, actress
Donald Glover — writer, actor, musician
WYATT CENAC (comedian, producer, writer): What I found inspiring more than anything is that there’s been a creative drive that I’m seeing in people who have just tried to forge their own paths. To me, everything that’s been interesting in the last 20 years is just hearing people say, “OK, I can create my own path toward my goals.” Seeing them do something that they built from the ground up. It has allowed people to not just be creative in what they’re writing but also how they take that to an audience. That’s freedom.
Whether that’s somebody like Issa Rae, just making a web series [“The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl”] — she didn’t go the traditional route. She self-produced something, and used it to cultivate and grow an audience, so much so that a network like HBO would be not just willing, but hungry, to take a chance to give her a voice and platform that can reach an even broader audience [with “Insecure”]. Donald Glover did that same type of shifting, both musically with everything he’s doing as Childish Gambino, but also [television]. It would have been very easy for him to stay on a network show [“Community” on NBC] and continue collecting a paycheck, but he wanted to create his own path with “Atlanta.”
— KWAME OPAM
“The Will to Adorn” — composition by George E. Lewis (2011)
TYSHAWN SOREY (musician, composer): “The Will to Adorn,” based on an essay by Zora Neale Hurston where she talks about embellishment as crucial to black people’s self-expression, deals with this notion of adornment in a way where he is decorating decorations. Through the way the chords are fashioned and varied, Lewis’ music speaks to this concept in pretty much all of his work, whether it is electronic, electroacoustic or acoustic.
Rather than time, George does it with the concept of timbre, instrumental timbres and things like that, and how they can all group together to create this otherworldly soundscape.
It’s interesting how this work of Hurston’s was re-imagined in George’s music and now I am starting to see these parallel histories between them. And I think that’s what a lot of our music does, especially black music.
If you have a chance to hear it, you’ll see what I mean. There is a normative way of playing an instrument, but here, George reinvents and repurposes that sound. I think it’s going to be definitely a classic work for decades and centuries to come.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
“Grace” — dance piece by Ronald K. Brown (1999; performed in 2000)
TARELL ALVIN MCCRANEY (playwright, actor, academic): I saw the Alvin Ailey dance company perform it in [March] 2000 in Chicago when I was an undergrad at DePaul University. It’s a piece that I show to my students [at Yale]. It’s ahead of its time because it is one of the first pieces to celebrate the syncretism of Afrobeat and the way legacy lives in African-American culture. The jump off is “Blood Memories” [choreographed by Donald McKayle], and the sacred dance that we find in works like “Divining” [by Judith Jamison] and Ailey’s own “Revelations.”
Then, “Grace” explores the moment of the sacred getting into the secular — even down to its music, which combines house music, which was born in Chicago. But it’s also Fela Kuti [“Shakara”] and the song “Come Sunday” [by Duke Ellington] and how those things are interconnected with the body of black people. It’s just a momentary celebration of how the political, the social and the spiritual can exist at the same time.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
Beyoncé — self-titled album (2013)
JANET MOCK (writer, director, activist): She’s my pop teen idol. I was able to grow with her into womanhood. As a teenager in Hawaii, I watched her, a teenager from Houston, performing black girldom on a popular world stage. Through that album I saw her come into her own voice. Centering herself on stages with “Feminist” behind her and making that proclamation for herself. For so many others who may have been trepidatious about the label, a label most often assigned to white women, to see a young black woman take the stage and say, I too am a feminist and these are my beliefs: I am growing, I’ll be even more bold in my voice, more courageous in my work, take more chances — that was truly [inspiring].
Another thing about that album that I love so much is this sexual awakening for her. She did things early in her career where she was very much [saying], I’m sexy, but not really sexual. [On this album] she expressed a side of her sexuality that I hadn’t seen before and it didn’t feel performative. It didn’t feel as if someone was like, “You need to do something racy.” It felt very organic. It came out two months before my first memoir [“Redefining Realness”] was going to be published. I felt so free because I too was constrained by respectability politics, by the idea that I shouldn’t center my body, my sexuality and my voice in this way.
— SALAMISHAH TILLET
“Lens” — song by Frank Ocean (2017)
“ELEMENT.” — music video by Kendrick Lamar (2017)
YARA SHAHIDI (actress, activist): When I look at “Lens,” the one thing that I really appreciate is the cover art, which is actually an appropriation of a Kerry James Marshall portrait. It’s a self-portrait of a shadow of a man, maybe in his past life. In regards to “ELEMENT.,” not only is that entire album [“DAMN.”] priceless, but the “ELEMENT.” video is an homage to the photographer Gordon Parks. And so seeing that culmination of the way visual art and music are so intertwined, but also just as a form of storytelling, I gravitate toward those pieces because they are an amalgam of mediums.
The one thing that “Lens” revealed [to me] right away was that this was “Giovanni’s Room,” by James Baldwin, in song form. It’s about what it means when there’s this kind of farce of a relationship or just reckoning with your sexuality in whatever position that you’re in. Lyric by lyric, it feels like there are parallels between the stories. It’s so steeped in what it means to be yourself and what it means to be yourself in practice. Any art that touches on that has the ability to extend past identity. In a way it makes sense why black culture is central to just mainstream culture. The ability to have that conversation in particular was kind of unprecedented.
— CONCEPCIÓN DE LEÓN
“Pose” — television series created by Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk (2018-present)
BILLY PORTER (actor, singer): Without being self-congratulatory, for black queer people in the past 20 years, it really is “Pose.” Visibility is the key. The conversation between the black community and queer POC is very, very fraught, and prior to “Pose,” we have been largely dismissed, completely invisible by our own, and that’s really difficult. People of color were already dismissed by the larger world, and then you turn around to your own community and they have nothing for you, either. “Pose” calls that out and makes that issue and puts that conversation at the forefront and it’s really empowering.
— JAZMINE HUGHES
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .
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