Strutting across the field during this year’s Superbowl halftime show, Beyoncé shocked the nation as she and her all-black brigade of dancers paid homage to black power on national television. Shortly after, artist Kendrick Lamar poured his soul into a performance as he commanded the stage donned in a prison uniform demanding accountability and change at this year’s Grammys. Conscious art infected our televisions and left its viewers uneasy. The public became outraged at the audacity of entertainers for having something to say.
Art is often the extension of the human experience. Once publicized, it can frequently be perceived as controversial. Conscious art has always existed, but for marginalized artists it has served as an even more powerful tool for their voices to be heard. The condemning attitude surrounding the recent performances of both Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar became an issue with me. As an artist of color myself, I was concerned with the general public’s expectation for artists, specifically those of color, to only entertain. Lady Gaga’s recent performance surrounding the issue of sexual assault was critically hailed as one of the most powerful performances at the Oscars, but for black artists, even Beyoncé, to speak up was deemed inappropriate or in poor taste.
Comfortability should not be the reason that artists of color are silenced. Their experiences are diverse, important, and deserving to be heard. So what do they have to say? What is the experience of a creative person of color? I put out the call through social media and set up a series of interviews, my very first being with local Charleston artist, Anjali Naik.
Waiting tables brought this musician her first bass guitar when she was still in high school. From jazz band to the present as a junior at the College of Charleston, Naik creates a unique sound under the stage name Diaspoura. After a brief stint in the Charleston folk scene, she set out to find her own voice and style. Heavy bass, sampled vocals and a chill wave influence served as important elements of her signature sound that she describes as “woke chill.”
“There is way more pressure on artists of color to talk about their race, gender, or sexuality. It can be tokenizing,” Naik said. She questions why white artists do not face similar pressure to discuss racial issues in their work. She concluded that her white colleges required education and accountability concerning racial justice, which up until now, has been missing in artistic discourse. Often artists of color face pressure to remain thoroughly educated on all issues affecting them, according to signifiers of identity. The notion that artists of color are obligated to confront these issues is ludicrous, according to Naik.
As a volunteer with Girls Rock Charleston, a nonprofit organization that employs music to empower and educate the next generation of youth leaders, Naik actively facilitates dialogue on current social justice issues with the youth who attend. She carries this awareness into making her music.
“When I was onstage I liked the fact that I could say what I wanted,” Naik said. Her exposure to both misogyny and racism offers her material about which she may write. Music operates often as therapy to express her feelings concerning how these broader issues of oppression affect her as an individual. Asked about the role of the artist, Naik said, “Artists have somewhat of a responsibility to the public because they are an influence.”
Every piece of art—whether portrait, film, song, or dance ensemble—cannot always discuss salient issues such as police brutality or cultural appropriation, but the opportunity for the artist to educate his or her audience is still present.
“There’s some kind of beauty when an artist messes up,” said Naik. Sometimes, celebrities commit transgressions against progressive agendas and become, as popular culture calls them “problematic faves.” Desperation for representation of marginalized communities creates a consistently volatile relationship between artists, especially those of color, and their fans. Every slip up, differing opinion, or mistake has the ability to devastate a community that struggles to find someone new to represent them.
Naik finds singer Janelle Monae an intriguing example of this phenomenon. The musician discussed that Monae’s song “Yoga” perpetuated the American tradition of sexualizing and trivializing the spiritual importance of yoga. Naik actually has a song titled “Apology” that discusses the issue of a society that appropriates an important part of her own Indian culture. There is this notion that good art equates to natural talent, but education proves to be just as important. “Apology” wouldn’t exist without Naik’s awareness of her own culture and its relationship to American capitalism. Her identity as an Indian woman provides a necessary perspective on an issue about which many remain ignorant.
“When artists aren’t making comments, that’s the mark that they’re making,” Naik said.
Many local artists of color are coming forward wanting to discuss their experiences. Providing an opportunity to be vulnerable and honest about passions Is not common, especially for less represented groups. There is a need for these conversations. We underestimate the power of creating, of our own narrative, and the influences that can be had. What is it to be creative and a person of color? The conversation continues.