Expecting Black Artists To Be Activists

If you’re a Black artist, do you need to speak about Black issues? Do you need to make “Black art” or art specifically about Blackness? Some would say we cannot afford to make art just for the sake of art. Some of us expect Black artists, particularly successful and well known Black artists, to “use their platform” and speak out about political issues or social injustice. You hear more criticisms about artists not speaking up about Black Lives Matter than we hear about politicians staying quiet about the same thing.

I am a Black artist. Much of my work can be considered Black art in the sense that it addresses Blackness, and social issues related to race. In fact, I am one who wants my art to serve a purpose. However, if anyone were to tell me I need to make Black art, or to dictate how “Black” my art needs to be, I would be pissed. What we forget is that art is self-expression, and artists are people. We cannot dictate what is affecting them or their interests and growth. Artists are going to express what they’re aware of and believe in.

Art is political by its very nature, whether it speaks on political issues or not. It is a mode of expression, it helps us imagine the world as it could be, helps us see things in a different way, it inspires discussion, emotion, even action. Even the choice of medium in art is political because it may not actually be a choice. Written art, spoken and sung art, visual art made with mixed media, or dance, speaks about access  – it’s cheaper to use your voice, write on paper, learn to dance on a piece of cardboard, reuse what would be considered trash, or obtain a can of spray paint to make art, than it is to purchase canvas, acrylic paints, brushes, instruments or ballet lessons. People in different socioeconomic classes have access to different types of art. How political is that?

If an artist is Black, and they are producing art that is true to themselves, their expression and experience, wouldn’t that be Black art? Why are we trying to pigeonhole our creators into one type of creative theme? Black people have diverse beliefs, experiences, lives and feelings to express. Not to mention, Black artists, like other general populations, have different levels of awareness and passion about issues of social justice.

There is a social science model called the “Stages of Change” that is used in the field health to understand behavior. It can also be used to understand social activism. I’ll apply it here and maybe it will help people understand what they are asking of artists without taking into account the artists personal journey and growth. The Stages of Change for individuals as applied to the issue of police brutality are:

Precontemplation: The person is not aware of the problem of police brutality or does not believe there is any disparity involving police brutality. If you ask someone to use their platform to speak about police brutality and they are in this stage, you are likely to be ignored.

Contemplation: The person becomes aware of the problem or starts to believe there is a disparity involving police brutality. Now the person may be open to understanding more about it, but may not feel empowered enough to do anything about it yet.

Preparation: Recognizing that police brutality is an issue, the person wants to do something about it. They prepare by learning more, gathering resources, getting information about what’s needed, working through their own personal biases or misconceptions, or developing a plan of action. At this point they may need support and guidance to move from preparation to action.

Action: The person has a plan in place to address the issue of police brutality within their sphere of influence and begins to take action. Action can be penning a poem or a song, creating a film or video, speaking about the issue at a public event, donating to an organization, organizing or participating in a protest etc.

Maintenance: The person has been taking action and needs to pace themselves so they can continue their activism  around police brutality and either maintain or build their influence or activity.

When we ask Black artists to speak on Black issues without taking into account their readiness, we are trying to use them as mouthpieces instead of trying to help them become ready to take action. Black artists, just because they have attention or publicity, are not our mouthpieces. They are still people. A better approach is to figure out who is already thinking about these issues (Contemplation stage) or learning and preparing themselves to address the issues (Preparation stage), support and work with them so they can naturally progress to the Action stage. Not everyone is there yet, and activism isn’t easy. It’s pointless to push people who are not ready for it, but we can support and encourage people’s growth and help or guide those who are ready.

We may consume their work and identify with artists, but they are not “ours”. They cannot be our mouthpieces. They can be our advocates and allies, but only if they want to and are ready to be. Not everyone is you. Not everyone would do what you would do if you were in their position. You’re not in their position. Play the position you’re in, every position is necessary. Do what you can where you are. Hopefully, your actions can inspire others to do what they can in their positions. Then maybe people in positions of power, people with “platforms” will be inspired to do more.

© 2016 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved