Diasporic Reflections: Four Black Creatives Making Art Tinged With Legacy

Joshua Renfroe, Kuukua Eshun, Aja Monet, and Mike Abrantie tell MTV News about purpose and perspective in Black communities worldwide

Throughout history, many creative minds of the Black diaspora exchanged ideas and helped shape the world's culture. Resistance movements were soundtracked and visually represented by artists, writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, and musicians. As a result, Black art was used to illustrate societal issues, politics, and motivation, and to express hope and solidarity — as well as questions — during hostile times.

What is Blackness? Is there an actual Black aesthetic to be identified across all art forms? A burden of representation for Black artists to carry or embrace? These are discussions we often have with friends, not necessarily to reach some consensus but to realize that there are a variety of perspectives among us — not a limited, monolithic understanding. In turn, we learn to embrace and appreciate those differences that are indeed personal.

Points of view expressed by other artists of African descent from all over the world can hopefully showcase how those experiences manifest themselves in and influence the art we individually create. MTV News had conversations with four artists of the Black diaspora whose work celebrates and embodies the essence of Black communities. Below, Joshua Renfroe, Kuukua Eshun, Aja Monet (who styles her name in all lowercase), and Mike Abrantie discuss how they continue the legacies of the diaspora through visuals and soundtracks of our times. On the last day of Black History Month, we look toward to the future, as they recall moments of creative clarity, one that likely resembles many of your own experiences.

Joshua Renfroe: director, photographer, and author of 'Black Boy Fly'

Joshua Renfroe

Courtesy of Joshua Renfroe

On Black imagination and the Harlem Renaissance: One of my favorite photographers is James Van Der Zee, and he took these beautiful portraits of family and Black life in Harlem during the Renaissance era. I just love his work so much and the stories that they tell, and it inspires a lot of the ideas that I create. I've always been so touched by how much Black people have accomplished amidst all the circumstances surrounding us, and that Black people were producing such beautiful work in such challenging environments. Just seeing the excellence that's still exuded from that era spotlights the tenacity and the perseverance embedded in our culture but also celebrates the brilliance that has always existed within our culture.

Viewing this, carrying the torch, and being appreciative of the sacrifice and the contribution and how their actions and creativity have paved the way for artists like myself is something I think about often. It's one of the things that I think about when I create my art. It's always about looking back at the past, or honoring the past, knowing that, for me to even have the privileges that I have now, someone had to come before me to provide that, right? I have this information. Now, how do we build upon it? It speaks to the beauty and brilliance of Black imagination and how we can use our imagination and understanding of our histories to continue to build and pay it forward for the next generation.

On his book, Black Boy Fly, which captures "the unique makeup of Black male culture": Humanizing Black men and Black boys is what I hope to continue to work on. I'm very grateful to have found my lane and what I love to discuss in my art, which is primarily centered around the Black male experience, but ultimately also the Black experience. I think the Beauty of Black Boy Fly is that it's a timeless story. We're always going to be around. Within that storytelling, you can't talk about the life of a successful Black man without the impact and level of a Black woman. Black women are everything to me. They've helped shape and mold me into the man I am. Our Black women, who are integral to our lives, will always be around. 

On sharing space with legends: Something that I've been thinking about lately is that I don't really have a connection to my lineage past — maybe my great-grandparents — it instilled this curiosity to learn more and more about my roots. Even if they aren't direct relatives of mine, it's still just appreciating people who share the same grounds as you and have done so many outstanding things to benefit our culture and our community. Looking at the photos gives you that peace, that moment in time where it's like, wow, this was life before I was even here, but in an environment that I grew up and I know. That's a part of my heritage, a part of my legacy, and just invaluable.

Kuukua Eshun: Ghana-based film director

On finding home: A handful of creatives in the diaspora create from a place of rawness, I think because we are trying to find home. Wherever continent you are from, it always feels like you're trying to find home. I've seen that across the diaspora in people's work. I searched for home for so long, but I've come to understand that home is inside me, no matter where I am in the world. No matter what country or city, what I carry inside of my heart, soul, and spirit makes it home. We carry home. Home is inside of us. God created, and made us Black for a reason. We are home. You already have it inside of you. 

On creating from a place of unity: The entire world is telling you it's about you. It's about your gift and your talent; everything is me, me, me, especially in America, where the mindset is like, take as much as you can. The great leaders that worked before us, none of them created from that space. How are you gonna go with yourself to impact the world? I feel like even the universe itself is gonna spit you out. I create from truly a place of togetherness, of unity. I am doing this because I want to impact my brother and sister, not because of fame, not because of money, not because someone is gonna know my name, not because people are gonna mention me and give me credit for it. Truly, at the core of my heart, I care about the community, culture, and Blackness. If you have love inside, you're gonna receive love. If you are kind, you're gonna receive kindness. If you are about impacting other people and caring about your brothers and sisters, that's what you will continue to receive.

On "the root cause of life": Part of my biggest inspiration is emotions and the human race. Why do people feel angry? Why do people feel sad? I am inspired by the depths of who people are at the core of their hearts, and I'm inspired by their mindset. That's the root of everything. That's really what inspires me to tell the story that I do. Dealing with the root cause of life, the mindset of Black people globally, is not easy. You have to pay the price to come out of that limitation. It's painful. It's uncomfortable. It's like being a cocoon, and then you have to be a butterfly. I deeply admire people who have been able to break out of being a cocoon and becoming a butterfly. Only then can you impact the rest of the world. I have been on the journey to transform my mind to become that woman who can truly impact the world and create from a place of pureness and community, oneness and unity, love and power.

Aja Monet: American contemporary poet, writer, lyricist, and activist

On self-discovery in artistic expression: It's easy for us to often be compartmentalized by identities and borders and what those borders mean to Western society. You learn more about your history so much as you seek it out, and you find the will to learn and the will to understand. I come from a movement of poets, artists, and thinkers who were always in conversation with the continent in awareness that we were global people, that we were African people scattered across the globe. When you think about poets like Amiri Baraka, or you think about Gil Scott-Heron, or Sonia Sanchez, or Jayne Cortez, a lot of them renamed themselves because in the process of learning who they were, they realize that a name is a thing. A name announces an awareness.

We come from that legacy; once you know where you come from, you know where you're going. What's unfortunate is that our education system is so broken, a lot of our young people aren't being exposed to some of the greatest writers of their time. Language is so important, not just for the sake of comprehension, meaning, and literacy, but even the musicality of language. What the heart of the sound of a word can do when it's gifted to you with the energy of love, passion, persistence, resilience, or even silence. When we deal with words as poets, we're really navigating silence. We're offering, we say words in between beats of silence, and we find ways to get people to appreciate those beats of silence so that they can actually better be present with themselves.

On being surrounded by storytellers: As a poet, I was hungry for language and for the experiences I was having. I learned over time that I was reading and perceiving the world in a way that maybe not everybody else was. I was more hungry to pay attention to certain things. I was eager to be in the midst of storytellers and people celebrating the poetry of our lives in very intimate ways. I was always fascinated by the great storytellers of our families and communities, the intimacy of our lives and seeing people laugh loudly and boldly. Hearing someone speak fervently and passionately in your family about an injustice that they felt that they were experiencing and being a child and being around the animated realities witnessing the stories of who we were and wanting to feed on that, wanting to feel empowered and encouraged and inspired by that, knowing that I've come from a people who are resilient and funny and imaginative and committed to existing and living fully.

On diasporic feminism: I've been talking about the return to the continent, and I'm trying to think through what a feminist return looks like, and what an acknowledgment of African feminism means for us as African people. The fundamental premise of feminism as an African concept is an African invention. It is an African ideology, an African way of being and moving in the world, which is truly a principle of love, dignity, protection of the land, and equal redistribution of resources. When I think of third-world feminism, that's basically African feminism, so this has been my understanding, Everywhere I go, there is a woman there writing a poem. There's a woman there cooking a meal. There's a woman there trying to feed a family. There's a woman there trying to keep the roof over her head. There's a woman there doing what needs to be done in the efforts of what I believe is a more truthful and honest life. That's one way to be inspired.

Mike Abrantie: filmmaker and visual artist

Mike Abrantie poses

Dennis Haze

On exploring fine art through cinema: Cinema is my medium of choice as an artist outside of being a cultural connector. Telling stories is my biggest passion and what I've devoted my life to. Being able to build worlds in my writing and directorial style is heavily influenced by the experiences I get from watching other people in real life engage and interact with their families, their communities, and their countries. I'm trying to find ways to merge and intersect film and fine art. On the cinema side, Andy Madjitey, a director and a photographer from Ghana, is one of my inspirations. He has a similar kind of visual style to me. The way he approaches his stories and the visuals is amazing, as well as another photographer/director from Nigeria, Meji Alabi. It's the beauty in the way that those two gentlemen are capturing us culturally. It often feels spiritual. I would also like to include Mia Lee, an artist I've known for some time who is having a huge moment with her unique character-focused art style. She's also from Chicago.

In talking about the diaspora, you get these Black experiences that are very different, and they look very different, and they're very colorful. The palette of the diaspora is very wide-ranging. It's only by talking to some of these people who are inspirational to the stories that I find peace in it or that I really find solace and know that this has an authentic breath. The same goes for any art medium I might be exploring. Seeing other Black people around the world makes you understand that the sky's not the limit, but only mentality. I'm inspired by the diaspora's styles, colors, and smells.

On sharing a global Black experience: When I'm trying to do projects that speak on the Black experience, I'm incorporating the Black international experience. That could be the European Black experience, Black Afro-Brazilian, the Afro-Cuban, the West African, the South African experience. These are threaded experiences that all tie us together. In Ghana, I'm talking about issues that Black Americans may face. I'm talking about nuances that Black Americans might be facing. I'm educating our brothers on nuances and situations they could relate to. You then find a thread of compassion that you would also want to be involved with and find ways to cause sustainable solutions.

On growing up and finding artistic perspectives: Being yourself and making sure people know you're proud of where you come from, your heritage, and who you are always takes precedence. It always shines brighter and louder than conforming to and losing certain things about your culture and background. When my Black American friends were growing up listening to Marvin Gaye, I was listening to Amakye Dede or Daddy Lumba. These were our R&B legends, but it wasn't R&B. It was highlife music, but it was the mirror of what you would have waking up Saturday morning listening to music. My music palette was completely different, but it was so impactful. Now, fast-forward to when people invite me to come into the studio and contribute musically. I'm coming with a different lens. Whether that be somebody from Big Sean's camp or Vic Mensa, it's gonna be the experience. It creates a well-rounded, artistic perspective where you now have a few different resources to tap into that broaden your lens of review and application to any medium of art.

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