Below is a video project featuring Jace Perkins and Keyana Latimer. In it they discuss their art, challenges they face as African American creatives, and most importantly encourage us all to follow our dream, connecting with the overall theme of Black Canvas.
Elijah Johnson is a piano playing student at Eastern Illinois University. After losing his aunt nearly three years ago he found comfort in music, piano music in particular. Although he’d been around the keys his entire life his family wouldn’t allow him to play and instead encouraged him to put his efforts into the drums.
It wasn’t until just a year ago that Eli began playing the piano seriously. Since then his talents haven’t gone unnoticed as he’s received numerous gigs including a team up with Keyanna, another artist on his campus.
Despite the short time he’s been playing, Eli’s ear for music has made him a quick learner and excellent player. He credits himself on having interest in an extensive range of genres. “Music is like food. It’s a buffet and every genre has a different taste.” Eli has no plans to stop playing and looks forward to seeing where the music takes him.
Despite the scarcity of dance studios in her Chicago west side community, Keyana Latimer, better known as KeKe, was enrolled in The Academy of Dance Arts at a young age. There she studied genres including ballet, contemporary, jazz, hip hop, and what would quickly become her favorite: tap.
“I had no idea what I was doing but I just started making rhythms on the concrete floor and I thought, ‘I should stick to this.'”
As her skills sharpened she went on to perform with Mad Rhythms, a professional tap company, where she trained with a host of artists including dancer and eventual mentor Brill Barrett.
Not wanting to neglect her craft after graduating high school, Keyanna performed in talent shows during her freshman year of college. The competitions were saturated with rappers and singers but her tap dancing brought a new dynamic to the campus and quickly gained her notoriety.
Soon her phone was ringing with performance requests. “I’m so grateful when people ask me to do shows…but I’m not the only person on campus who has talent.” With that mindset, she set out to assemble a group of creative students ranging from visual artists to piano players. In no time the group had several gigs and through this assembly Keyanna gained the confidence to share another gift with her audiences, singing.
“When I’m on stage I have the opportunity to express myself. I’m not a very outspoken person, but when I perform I feel free.”
Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and fraternity brother Jace Perkins.
Jace is an artist of unique sorts.
Born to hardworking parents, Jace’s art was not always valued as a child. Like many creatives, his talent was seen as a hobby rather than a potential source of income. Despite the lack of strong support he continued to draw, creating dazed bunnies and whimsical clouds.
It wasn’t until his trip to Costa Rica last summer that he realized that art was his passion and true calling. “I had so much time to think,” he said. During the trip he began to dream up his company Dream Collective in depth. The idea was to assemble a group of creative individuals with fashion being at the core of the company.
Today with the help of his team, his customized hand painted hats sale through the online store dreamcollection.co. With a strong social media push and word of mouth marketing the success of the business continues to grow.
This is only the start for Dream. As time progresses Jace plans to expand the brand, painting his clouds on a range of items including shoes, clothing, and cars.
I kicked off my week in the bridge lounge of our union this morning watching Disney shorts and listening to a piano player sing his heart out before my 11am class.
Growing up I thought of myself as an artist of sorts and even imagined working for “The Wonderful World of Disney” in their Pixar studios. As I got older the dream faded and I wondered what the likelihood of me as an African American male landing a job there would be. With this blog in mind I thought it’d be interesting to see if any Black men had not only made it into the animation industry, but excelled in it…
…And they have. Interestingly, Ron Husband is widely credited as the first African American animator and the first African American supervising animator for Walt Disney Studios. He supervised the creation of numerous characters and worked for the company nearly 40 years. He’s currently retired, working as an independent artist. Recently he published a book on animation and he continues to do illustrations on his blog.
Although his accomplishments as a black animator shouldn’t go without notice, doing a little more research brought me across Floyd Norman, who worked for Disney years prior to Husband. The now 80 year old creator has been involved in a host of Disney projects including Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book, and Toy Story 2. According to CartoonBrew.com, Norman is “one of the earliest African-American artists to be hired at the Walt Disney animation studio, and the first long-term African-American artist at Disney.” His work extends beyond Disney and includes animation for The Smurfs, and Fat Albert.
Like Husband, Norman continues to create art sharing it on his blog Mr. Fun’s Journal.
Ron and Floyd are just a couple of the many talented African Americans that have paved the way for the flood of diversity in the animation industry. With the recent #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the constant eye on Hollywood’s lack of inclusion it’s refreshing to know that this niche of the entertainment industry has grown to include numerous backgrounds and perspectives.
In her Fuse article, journalist Danielle Henderson hounds Hollywood for its “colorless landscape,” highlighting television and animation as being more diverse and representative of today’s society. She quotes writer and director Dean DeBlois saying: “Today, a visitor to a major animation studio will see men and women of every ethnic background going about their work. “At Disney and especially at DreamWorks, they seem to go out of their way to find international talent.”
However this wasn’t always the case. In the early world of animation, America’s climate of racial intolerance did not allow African Americans and other minorities to showcase their artistic talents in the creative fields. Instead cartoons depicted these groups negatively, showcasing stereotypes and demonizing them. A look at animation primarily in the 30’s and 40’s, also known as the Golden Age of Animation, bring to light America’s ugly past and how far we’ve come. Although these cartoons no longer air on television their existence can’t be denied and they mark an ugly blemish in the histories of Warner Brothers, Metro Goldwyn Mayor and other animation companies.
As time’s progressed so has change, with a major leap forward in the field being made in 2009 with the release of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. Princess Tiana took the big screen as Disney’s first black princess. Controversy swirled around several issues in the film including the New Orleans setting, the princess’s occupation, and the fact that the prince was not black. Despite the complaints the film went on to win several awards and be recognized as a positive portrayal of black women for young girls.
Nice work Disney, I’m sure Ron and Floyd would be proud.
As this blog continues to explore the lives of creative African Americans and the world through their eyes, it’ll be interesting to see how the field of animation continues to expand and include.
It was the beginning of the bustling lunch hour in the food court when I spotted him. Cool as could be, Kevin M. Graves (they call him K.G.) sat eating a tray of nachos.
“I’m into creative expression,” he told me, “I draw and make music.”
It all started when he was a kid. His cousin was a rapper and his uncle a popular harmonica player. “I wanted to prove I could do it too.” And he did.
With a growing love for music, he gave up his high school prom and graduation gifts for equipment to create his own recording studio. “My parents had me pick one and I picked the music… I started with a small speaker set, computer, and a $100 microphone.”
From there he began experimenting with beats and picked up a job at Beggar’s Pizza in Chicago to save up enough money to upgrade his equipment. Today his apartment is a music studio that boasts a $1000 microphone and $750 high definition speakers allowing him to create more content than ever before.
J Cole, Lupe Fiasco, and Trina are just a few of the artists he’s given samples to. “It was always a right place right time kind of situation,” he explained.
Although he loves music, K.G. is a physics major. For him problem solving is fun. “It alters your thinking…you can pull from knowledge and translate it into art. It makes you question what your limits are.”
His unique way of seeing the world shapes his work. “I want my art to say something…to make political statements about deep moralistic codes, right vs. wrong, racism, the government vs. the people.”
Beyond his art, K.G.’s self-expression extends into his style through his dreadlocks. “People judge you from the way you look…my hair is a Fuck you to judgement. I like to prove people wrong…I don’t feel the box, the standards, they have.”
“Ten years from now I see myself educating, doing art, living a productive life…Songs are pieces of you [and] I just want my content to be good.”