by Nadijah Robinson
Black art is not a free for all.
Black art is not a free for all.
Black art is not free for all.
It is free for none of y’all non-Black people. It is created for Black people to get their lives, to recover their wits, to see themselves and their stories reflected, and to be healed and uplifted. Black people need this. When we come home from surviving in the world where we are made to be small and hopeless, we need our Black magic. We need it to heal us from the daily soul wounds we are exposed to—from the humiliating assumptions and character assassinations to the public executions. Black art gives us back our dignity, re-affirms our right to exist, raises a voice and words to our anger, hurt, and frustration. Black art is our only potable water, our healing balm.
I know that Black creativity has saved your life many times before. I know, because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve listened as non-Black people in my communities raised on Hip Hop talked about how it was the only relatable, empowering culture they found that also educated and radicalized them as a youth. It was formational. I’ve watched people become politicized, shaping their new political identities after bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis and Frantz Fanon. I’ve watched as folks become activist celebrities using radical ideas from Black Power and Civil Rights movements to shape programs that do not benefit Black people. I’ve watched as people make livings and loads of social capital off of DJing Black music, dancing, walking and dressing like Black people, selling the Black aesthetic to others. I’ve heard that friends use Nina Simone and Sade to sing them back from depression, Rihanna and D’Angelo to get them in the mood. So many people in my communities, lately, have been using Octavia Butler to renew their hope for radical futures. Without Black people, what would your lives be? You might be thinking, you know, it’s so much more complicated than all this, race is complex, we’re all part of the human family, etc., etc..
Black art is not free for all damaged souls. When Nina sang about strange fruit, she was talking about a lynching…of Black people. When Black rappers say Fuck the Police, they speak to a state system of lynching…Black people. Your pain and isolation, however real it may be, is not the same as being Black. Your self-adoption into hip hop and djembe drumming and spoken word, makes our art forms all about you. You, however well meaning, have stolen Black labour and invention and used it for your own purpose. It warps the medium and changes the message, the magic, the healing. From now on, consider how the cost of consuming, appropriating, regurgitating, and getting your life in multiple ways from Black art, Black culture, and Black peoples’ creative genius detrimentally impacts our lives. Being Black in an anti-black world means experiencing daily attacks that threaten our dignity, our happiness, our freedom, and often our lives; and in order to enjoy Black culture, you’re going to have to take action to help get these back.
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But because Black people’s labour, language, intelligence, creativity, and survival arts have always been considered free for the taking, you probably didn’t feel ways about using it. You probably didn’t think twice. Black culture is the most pilfered, the most “borrowed,” the most thieved culture, and we’ve seen this happen time and tie again. Blues, Bluegrass, Country, Jazz, Rock, Hip Hop, RnB, and that’s just music. Our bodies were used to develop modern medicine, non-consensually. Our inventions, our intelligence, our accomplishments were and are continually erased, taken credit for, stolen and patented. Our labour, generations of our labour, were forcibly taken; and our lives, histories, and family connections were stolen during slavery. Our dignity is continually abused in the name of securing communities, maintaining market value, beautifying neighbourhoods, etc. All of this and more has always been considered free for the taking. It continues.
Have you ever given thanks for Black people? For Black art/Black creative production in all its forms, which comes from a continued experience of subjugation? You know who I’m talking to—do you consider that we face actual genocide and that your privilege relies on the denial of our humanity? Those of you who are so versed in the language of appropriation but continue to act like you don’t know any better, like you must be the exception… this is for you and your friends. Talk about it and then do something. Talk to each other because something needs to shift. What you’re doing now is not enough. Back arts is our power source, our oasis amidst the double standard of being Black. We know we must work twice as hard to get half as much; we are told this as children and we live it everyday. Even then, when we do the hard work we’ve been taught to do, we may still be killed, abducted, forced into inescapable poverty, incarcerated, and all the while blamed for every social ill and government failure imaginable.
Our art comes from this lived reality. Your relative privilege also rests on this reality. The stereotypes of model minority, of a born hardworker, model student, the guy who is out-of-luck but full of potential, even the exceptional success story cannot exist without the contrasting example of Black stereotypes—in all their ugliness. This shit is not free. For our art, we pay in our blood and struggle. What do you pay? If you are enjoying and consuming black culture in all of its manifestations and not giving up space and privilege, not taking lead from Black people and actively supporting our movements, not confronting racism from the individual to the systemic levels, then what you are doing is clear. You’re participating in our oppression and in anti-Black racism, while enjoying your non-black privilege.
What I’m saying is this. If you consume our culture, if you use it to your own spiritual, emotional, financial, social, or political gain, then you need to also be fighting for Black people’s lives. If you watched the new Nikki Minaj video and felt a tingle, then you can go ahead and pay up. You should be showing up in solidarity with Black people in Ferguson. You should be supporting Black movements where you live. Were you really gonna just take our creativity, wear it like a second skin clashing your own, watch us slowly die and be like “shit, that really sucks?” That’s some morbid fucking politic. You need to return the favour by giving up resources and privileges that will help Black people where you are to live less precarious, less endangered, and freer lives.
In addition to this, you need to talk to each other. You’re going to Afropunk as non-Black people? At the very least, you need to do this in a critical way. Talk about what it means for you to have access to this Black arts festival and to take up space there and for other Black people to not be able to. Talk about it, and then bring your Black friends with you. Organize to pay for the tickets of Black people who don’t have as much access to economic and class mobility as you do. If you just can’t pay for that extra ticket, consider giving away your ticket to a Black person with less access and just not going.
I know that this implicates a great majority of you non-Black people. Before you try to tear apart my points, humble yourself and list how many ways you can see that this is true. If it’s too humiliating to you to concede a few truths to me, then list it for yourself in private.
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Born and raised in downtown Toronto to Barbadian and Goan parents, Nadijah Robinson is an individual inspired by resilience, justice, and the infinite. She is a visual artist, and an art educator continually trying to rewrite herself and her communities into history, and in the process redefine history.