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Brent Rollins

This week’s guest is a true creative changemaker. If you’re a hip-hop fan, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen his work somewhere over the past 30 years. He’s your favorite designer’s favorite designer. For our monumental 400th episode, meet the one and only Brent Rollins.

We have a wide-ranging conversation where Brent goes into some of his current projects and collaborations, and shares a bit about his creative process when starting on something new. Brent also talked about growing up in Los Angeles around the entertainment industry, how he helped co-found Ego Trip, and we have a great discussion around Black design aesthetics and defining success. Brent is someone who has been a huge inspiration to me as a designer and a creator, and having him share his story for this milestone episode is truly awesome.

Thank you all for supporting Revision Path!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Brent Rollins:
My name is Brent Rollins, and the short answer is that I’m a multi disciplinary designer, the long answer would be that I’m a creative who collaborates with people, organizations that are passionate and sort of driven in their mission to kind of spread their ideas and positivity to the world and to sort of create guiding paths for people.

Maurice Cherry:
How is 2021 been for you so far?

Brent Rollins:
You know what, man? 2021, I’m ready to go. 2020 was actually the year that I was like, “Let’s do this. Weird. I’m ready to make some stuff happen.” Well, we know how that sort of ended up. So I think it’s been… I think a lot of people, including myself have been kind of bubbling and if you’re driven and if you have ideas and you’re creative, you’ve been using this sort of sabbatical or this time or this kind of slower period to think about things and formulate things and come up with ideas and plan. Like the people that have passed unfortunately, I know a few people that have been affected by the virus and stuff. So my heart goes out to them, but for those of us who are alive, this is a moment for us to be alive and to embrace that, and to really like… This is a blessing in that sense, if we haven’t been devastatingly affected. This has been a blessing to have this moment, to think about what we want to do and what we want to accomplish into what’s a forced introspection.

Brent Rollins:
And I hope rather that people kind of use it to better themselves. So, that’s what I’m about, man, I can’t wait for this year, unlike I’m ready to go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I have talked to a lot of people that are saying that this is going to be like the new roaring 20s in a way?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man. Is it ever? This is going to be yo, roaring 20s, baby boom, it’s going to be crazy. I think, come June, July, this is going to be wild, bro.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, No. And I think even now, there’s this sort of like, I can feel this renewed energy in the air, especially as people are starting to get the vaccine. And even as some places are starting to relax restrictions, things are starting to open up again. So, people are anxious to get back out there and experience the world, whatever that may look like.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Some people unfortunately continue to experience the world and they didn’t really care, no shots, no judgment. But for the rest of us hopefully like I said, we’re sensible enough to kind of use it to our advantage and kind of make plans and sort of think about things. And it’s really funny because at the top of 2020, I distinctly remember thinking, I can’t tell you where it was, but I can distinctly remember thinking. I was like, “Man, the world is moving really fast. This thing needs to slow down.” It was like I felt just how much stuff was going on. Because I live in New York City, and I see construction going on everywhere. And I see all this stuff happening. And it just felt like things were kind of out of control. And so it was… Like I said, it’s been a weird, mixed, I guess, [inaudible 00:07:08] and kind of blessing that this thing sort of forced everyone to slow down.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. What does a typical day look like for you now?

Brent Rollins:
It’s funny, because I was never a very structured person, and I’ve become a little bit more regimented. And I actually really enjoy it. Or I feel like I need that. So, typical day for me right now is I’m in this kind of like new cycle. So, I’m actually implementing kind of new sort of regimens that I didn’t really do. So, I don’t know how typical it is. It’s only like maybe four months old. It seems like this has been Rollins’s day. But I typically go to sleep late, just because I’m a night owl. And I don’t get much sleep. So, I sort of wake up maybe about five or six hours later. And kind of like I want to read and sort of see what’s going on in the world and fix myself a little pot of coffee, and maybe take a little walk, get some air, get out the house, kind of just sort of take in what the environment has to offer, and start working on one of the multiple sort of projects that I got going on.

Maurice Cherry:
And what are some of those projects? I mean, as much of them as you can sort of talk about at liberty.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s really funny like… Because I was thinking about before this interview, I was like, “Man, you know what? I can’t really talk about the things that I’m working on right now.” Not because they’re secret, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. A few of the things that are maybe like projects for people, again, like people that are doing sort of very interesting, sort of passion projects, or things that have sort of a larger good, I think that’s the kind of stuff that I can maybe talk about, as far as there’s this brother Waajeed, who is a DJ based in Detroit, who is pretty well known. And Detroit as you know, has amazing music history. And so, Waajeed has got this fantastic opportunity to open. I don’t want to call it a school, but he is spearheading this project to create a… I think it’s called underground music academy. It’s sort of a place for people to sort of engage in musical creativity. And it’s on this Boulevard in Detroit, that has a lot of insane Detroit musical history. So, I’m working on the identity for that. And I’m very excited about that.

Brent Rollins:
Some of the other projects that I’m working on, are really entrepreneurial projects that have been in the works for the past year. One of them, I had to put the brakes on because of COVID, but is still moving and I’m super excited about it. And I really can’t wait to sort of show the world what that’s about. But the short story is that it’ll be a sort of a restaurant or cafe or something. And then the other project, there’s another entrepreneurial project that I kind of don’t want to talk about. But I’m also very excited about. Other than that, yeah, everything else is really working on stuff for people for short films and some album covers and things that… Or people that I’ve creative history with, people that really want to kind of put something out into the world that’s a little bit different. I’m at the point in my sort of life or career, or however you want to talk about it, or however you want to think about it, where I just want to be a little bit selective, and I’m okay.

Brent Rollins:
I need to figure out… Everything has to… You have to make a living. But I can be a little bit selective about things because I don’t want to depend on those projects for the things to make a living, I’d rather have the entrepreneurial things be the things that I use to make a living.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And that way, I have more control over the creativity, because it’s my projects. And then if I’m working with anybody, it’s going to be because I really believe in what they’re doing. There are people that have hit me up via social media. Man, people are like, “Yo, I’m doing this, would you do an album cover for me?” And I’m like, “Number one, you don’t talk to people like that.” You know what I mean? I also am like, “I’m not getting your hustle, but I’m also… I want to lend myself to projects that I feel that I understand and I feel have some sort of worth and value, and prove it to me.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how Twitter… And I guess you could say social media as a whole. But it’s amazing how Twitter has kind of almost flattened the… Like it’s flattened the hustle in a way. People will talk to you on Twitter in any kind of way. They don’t know who you are, and to that respect, I guess it’s that way with social media in general, they’ll just approach you on like some, “Hey, can you do this for me?” I get so many people that will… I wouldn’t even say that they write to the show, they tell the show, “I don’t know why you haven’t interviewed me yet.” Who are you? Person with no website and I can’t tell what kind of work that you do and you have 100 followers?

Brent Rollins:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. It’s interesting how social media kind of flattens out in a way. People just don’t approach you with the same kind of not necessarily gravitas, but just the same sort of urgency. It’s just like, “Hey, do this for me.”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Well, I mean, people don’t… I can get into my old man, I’m going to put my old man pants on right now. It’s a little bit of number one, you should just learn if you’re going to… Like I said, if you’re going to approach people, show some respect, if you really like their work, at least be like, “Hey, I really like your work, this is what I’m trying to do,” and come with some humility and be like, “I’m doing this thing, would you be interested in it?” Yes, no, if not, I understand. I don’t really appreciate this sort of informality. I think social media enables people to be in contact, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
But it doesn’t mean that you should abandon sort of what has been traditional decorum and sort of like, just respect in terms of like how you approach people. I wouldn’t talk to any of these kind of design heroes that I have, as though they were my peers, they’re not my peers. Those are people that I look up to, and they’re deserving of that respect. And you’re right, yeah, as far as flattening, I think most of the people or a large amount of people that are using social media, it is flat, because they’re all peers. So, they can sort of approach people like that, but then there are other people that are within that space that are old like myself, that are like, “No, man, this is not how you run up on folks.” I didn’t run up on people like that. I was very-

Maurice Cherry:
Respectful?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, respectful. But whenever I’d meet people that were in a particular state, I would just approach them [inaudible 00:13:57]. You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
I think that that’s… Not that I’m suggesting, “Yo, I’m better than you,” but I’m just kind of like, “Come on, man, I’m a grown man. Don’t talk to me like that.”

Maurice Cherry:
Right. And also, it’s clearly when someone’s approaching in that way, it’s one way transactional. Like, “What can I get?”

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
“Can you do something for me?” Not like, “How do we help each other out in that kind of way?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, yeah. But you know what? I mean, if you’ve been doing anything for a moment, and you’re worth, you’re like us all, you can filter out who’s real and who’s not.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). That’s true.

Brent Rollins:
And even the people that are not, maybe they haven’t found their tribe yet, but you can tell that, “Oh, you’re looking.” If you can identify the people that are like the junior use.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
Like, “Oh, yeah, no, I get it. Yeah, this person, they’re definitely on that vibe. And you know what? I’m going to put you under my wing because I can see that in you, and come along for the ride homie.” So, yeah. Oh, man, people hacked up on social media.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you’ve mentioned all these different kind of projects. First of all, I have to say I love the way you kind of just slowly was like, “Yeah, this is DJ in Detroit Waajeed.” You’re not talking about what Waajeed from slum village.

Brent Rollins:
No, no, no. Not at all.

Maurice Cherry:
Just like, “Yeah, this guy, he’s starting a school.” Doing the thing like, okay, all right. But when it comes to all these different projects that you do, what does your creative process look like when you’re starting a project?

Brent Rollins:
That is depending on the project, but I think that… I do a little research depending on what it is, one of the things that I try to tap into where… It’s really funny, because I have a great appreciation for sort of like, very learned kind of design approaches. But I think I’m really like a designer that came from an art background, I think, or more so just the act of creativity itself. And so I approach things in a way that’s more about emotion. And oftentimes, what is the feeling that I got when I encountered X? And so that’s what I’m trying to tap into in terms of like that sort of intuitive sort of feeling. I’m sure there have been moments in your life where there’s been some baby… I’m going to just use music, because it’s such a common denominator. When you… There was like maybe a club that you were just like, “Oh, man, that club was just… That was it. Because the DJ, the music was just right, and the vibe was right and the crowd, and the this and the that, and the…” All those kind of things.

Brent Rollins:
That’s a feeling. And if it’s done right, there’s a visual component to it as well. And so what I look towards is tapping into that visual trigger. That’s the thing because that’s my language. So, that’s the thing that whenever I was in any of these kind of environments, that’s what I latched on to, as my sort of like, this is my flotation device, this is what’s going to keep me up in this space. And I’m going to use this design thing or this visual thing and I’m going to sit back on my floaty and chill, while I’m observing the rest of the stuff that’s going on. That’s kind of like how I go. The creative process is about tapping into that vibe, that thing, that emotion that people get that is very subconscious. If you’ve been to the Caribbean, or certain countries, I don’t want to say third world countries, but just developing countries or something. There’s like the smell of like gasoline and burning jungle foilage. I was exposed to it as a young age.

Brent Rollins:
And then as an adult, I go back to those places and I’m like, “Oh, whoa!” It’s like automatically, it’s something that I totally forgot about, like, boom, it just triggered me. And I was like, “Oh, I’m back here. I’m ready to roll.” So, that’s what I’m trying to try to reach for, is to think about those kinds of things.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So yeah, you try to tap into a certain… You said like a visual trigger or a vibe, or a feeling and then you kind of build out from their sounds like?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it’s really funny man, the emotions and the memories. Like I said, people don’t necessarily… Sometimes people don’t remember them. But when they see them, they get excited. Like, I love remembering things that I’ve totally forgot. Sometimes there’s a thing that maybe happened to me as a child, or that maybe I went to, and someone else will bring it up and I’m like, “Oh, whoa! Oh, man, I totally remember.” I love that. That’s like the best feeling ever, because you’re taken back to something that you had kind of pushed in the… It’s like in the back of the storage room. It’s like if you have stuff in storage, and you kind of go through things, and you rediscover them. Like recently, I was going through my parent’s garage sort of cleaning things out. And kind of came across two boxes of old comics that I had left behind when I left Los Angeles from New York. And I hadn’t thought about those comic books in 20 plus years, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
It’s not that I… I knew that I had comics, but I had got to the point where I just sort of disassociated and attached myself to those as possessions. Comic books are really important to me, the stories and the illustrations were… Some of the artists were very significant to me, and rediscovering those comic books in the back of my dad’s garage, and kind of going through it, man, I got a little teary eyed because I was like, “Oh man, a few comics.” I was just like, “Oh, man.” Because I decided to sell them because I haven’t looked at these things in so long. What’s the point of keeping these things? I just sort of resolved to sell them. I was going through some of the comments, I was like, “Man, do I really get rid of this? Oh, this is so awesome.” And it was like, yeah, I reconnected with something that I completely forgot about.

Brent Rollins:
So yeah, when I do… So, take it full circle. So, when I do design, there’s a tinge of nostalgia I guess, in some of the things because I think that’s what people are relating to, in some cases. And then other cases it’s like, “Well, I want to do something completely new.” And how do you do that? Even when you make something new, it’s rooted in something because if you do something that’s too new, you lose people. So, you want to put a little bit of something familiar in it.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s interesting you mentioned that sort of tinge of nostalgia, because I feel like there’s… We’ll get into the work that you’ve done with Ego Trip and Rap Pages, et cetera. But there’s a very temporal quality to your work that is kind of evocative of the 60s and the 70s in different ways. I think one, there’s this sort of like collage, mixed media kind of thing that I see you do sometimes. But then there’s also… And maybe I’m thinking of the more visual stuff that I see on television, but it’s also like a nod back to projectors. And there’s an audio element of a film reel, or noise grain that you see on film and stuff like that. And then just even the playful way that you use typography, it’s almost like you see those old school horror movie title cards or something. I get what you mean about that kind of tinge of nostalgia. But I think that’s a pretty big theme in your work though.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. The thing about using that as a device, it’s funny, because I don’t know what… I really want to talk to some younger designers now and kind of get where their head is at, because when I would resort to those options, it’s because that’s what I know is familiar to people. And the idea of design, in my world design meaning kind of visual communications, graphics, that type of design. It’s really about I want to communicate with you. What’s our shared language? What are our shared memories? What is our shared sort of commonalities? And when I pull from those kinds of things, this is very conscious. Those are things that I want to trigger you. I want you to be like, “Oh, I get it.”

Brent Rollins:
I think there’s the idea of design as ornament and sort of fireworks, where it’s like, “Yo, I’m doing something new and this is [inaudible 00:22:39].” And you’re going to get about five people that understand what you’re doing, which is cool. I’m not against that. I love that kind of stuff. But the idea of design, my foundation, or my understanding of design is rooted in the old idea of what a graphic artist was, which was communication design. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
So the idea of, I’m trying to reach you, I’m trying to talk with you. And for me, the shortcut is shared experiences. For me, the shortcut is what I’d surmise as being the things that we grew up with. And that’s how we begin to talk to each other. That’s kind of where I’m coming from. When I was doing that kind of stuff, it was based off of… It’s not the nostalgia because it looks… Sometimes that nostalgia can be about the kitsch factor or whatever.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm, okay.

Brent Rollins:
I could… Man, I can go [inaudible 00:23:33].

Maurice Cherry:
I was actually careful not to use the word kitsch. So, I’m surprised you brought that up.

Brent Rollins:
Well, it’s sort of like the idea of… Well, when I say kitsch, I think… Let’s talk about the 70s for instance.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Brent Rollins:
And when you see things that are about the 70s and particularly black culture, it’s always expressed in these very kind of superficial, simple… It’s like the lettering is groovy, whatever that means.

Maurice Cherry:
Hobo standard kind of… I know what you mean. Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. You think of afros as kitsch. It’s a little bit kitsch, right? People don’t look at afros as… They don’t look at afros as what it was, which was like this assertion of black identity and being sort of proud of kinky hair and all this other kind of stuff. They look at it as being a style. Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
And how big it was, or how large your afro was. And sometimes there’s this sort of… There’s definitely like a silliness to some stuff from the 70s. I think that’s the sort of kitsch thing and it becomes like this kind of joke. I think about that movie, Black Dynamite, which avoided it because it was… That movie wasn’t… It took place in the 70s, but it wasn’t about afro jokes.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
It was, but it wasn’t. It was really like a very loving, sort of understanding about that sort of aesthetic. But it was deeper than an afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes. I don’t like afro jokes… [inaudible 00:25:10] my fist on the table. Yeah, it’s not about the kitsch today, kitsch isn’t about… It’s about like, “Oh, I remember that vibe.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to tap into.

Maurice Cherry:
So you mentioned Los Angeles, where you’re originally from. Tell me what it was like growing up there.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, what a weird place! I have a love and hate relationship with Los Angeles, because it made me who I am. So, I can’t hate on it. And there’re some really beautiful things about the city. There are some other things that I didn’t like, because I grew up around the entertainment industry. And so it was just sort of like a preoccupation that… Yes, it generates money and it generates attention. But sometimes I have to wonder why people sort of got into that world. But the world that I grew up in, was a middle class, black neighborhood called Windsor Hills, which I love to say, the Issa Rae’s character on Insecure, she’s from the neighborhood that I grew up. So-

Maurice Cherry:
Uh-huh (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
They got to her and when that show came out, I was just like, I just couldn’t believe that anything was shot in my neighborhood. I’m like, “Oh, my God, they’re shooting there, they’re doing a scene there or some other place.” And it just blows my mind. So, I have to admit, it’s like a place that I’m very proud to come from, even though ironically, when I was growing up, I wasn’t. It was very conflicting because it was a neighborhood that in the 60s, I would say was probably… It was… I think my understanding was predominantly white, predominantly… A lot of maybe Jewish people who lived also in the neighborhood of Windsor Hills, View Park, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, that area. And I think as black people started… I like to say or not like to say, but I kind of refer to the 60s as being like when black people actually arrived in the United States.

Brent Rollins:
That was when actual opportunities started opening up in the same way that other immigrants sort of arrived in the United States and they have to kind of scrapped their way, they’re at the bottom, but they still have this sort of legitimate way to sort of move on. In some ways, the 60s was kind of like that, finally being able to participate. And so a lot of folks who had been able to get like civil service jobs, or other types of sort of middle class jobs started buying into the neighborhood that I grew up in. And so, I think that was great to see. Some things I didn’t necessarily like, because I don’t… I had problems with sort of the kind of class segregation that was apparent and less about money, but more about social segregation. And the idea that… The idea society was something that I kind of struggled with. I grew up around people that… I want to make it very clear, I’m not knocking something like Jack and Jill or those kinds of organizations.

Brent Rollins:
I think at the time, I wasn’t part of those things and I didn’t understand them at the time. So, my limited understanding was, this was just a weird, boujee, kind of whatever, I understand it, or have a better appreciation of it now in the sense of… The way I like to think about it, is if your parents, regardless of the situation that they come from, they want something better for you. And so, that sort of situation exists because they want their children to succeed, or they want their children to have a guaranteed better life. But I didn’t understand that at the time. And so even though my father worked in or rather was trying to make his way in entertainment during that time, we ourselves were not probably as well off as maybe the people that were around me. So, that kind of gave me a different sort of perspective on things.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I remember Jack and Jill growing up, but I didn’t think it was just some boujee black people. Like, seriously. But then I grew up as folks who listen to the show know. I grew up in Selma, Alabama, and it’s like at the end of the day, we’re all poor black people in the country. I think when I was looking at it from sort of as like from a teenage perspective, and I don’t know if it’s this way for all of Jack and Jill, but it certainly was this way back then in Alabama. It was by sort of social class of course, but then also by skin color. Pretty much everyone in Jack and Jill was light skinned and I am not. And it’s like I would have people say, “Well, you would be so good at Jack and Jill, but you know.” So, if you were just a few shades lighter maybe and this other thing that we had, we’re like…

Maurice Cherry:
And this was in high school, I don’t know if this is even a thing or if this was just a thing endemic to our high school, but we had these high school fraternities and sororities that were based off of black fraternities and sororities. So, you had the mini Alpha Phi Alpha, we’re the African Knights, and like the mini AKAs, Alpha Kappa Alphas we’re culture Rama, and the mini Delta Sigma Theta, were delta teams. And I never understood any of it. My mother was in a sorority, my mother’s a delta, but I didn’t get it. Like, “Why are we doing this? This doesn’t make any sense. You’re just sort of lording this imaginary social position over someone else for what?”

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. It’s funny, I don’t… Again, I don’t really understand the motivation for that. I could say that as I’ve grown older, I don’t want to say I’ve grown more boujee. I’m not going to say that though. I’m not going to say that I don’t like nice things. Let’s put it that way. But I don’t really quite understand that point of view. An interesting thing that… And I don’t know how this connects, really. But what comes to mind is, I got the opportunity to work with Don Cornelius.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, wow!

Brent Rollins:
And one of the things that he said to me was, black people don’t recognize class.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
And which sort of defies what we’re talking about.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
But in some ways, I understand what he’s saying because at the end of the day, in the United States, we’re all black people. We’re all structurally, socially, second class. And so, that’s our commonality. And I don’t know, I just thought it was a really interesting statement from him. I think we are people in general, I don’t know. Sort of seek to separate ourselves. But at least in the United States, there’s still this thread, that we’re all on the same boat.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I think in the south, certainly there was probably just an additional… There may have just been an additional element of wanting to… I don’t know, maybe have what white people had in some way?

Brent Rollins:
Sure.

Maurice Cherry:
I wonder if that’s part of it. For example, like I mentioned the high school fraternities, we had both a cotillion and a beautillion. I had a beautillion that was stupid. But like you-

Brent Rollins:
Congratulations.

Maurice Cherry:
Thank you. But you’re like-

Brent Rollins:
Black tie.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s like, “Oh, you’re a distinguished man of a certain age.” And it’s a whole thing with like, they do a cakewalk and you have to be in a suit. A tux actually, be in a tux and you do the waltz. It’s so stupid, I don’t know if any other… I hope they don’t still do that. Because when I think back on, I’m like, “This is like some midnight in the garden of good and evil kind of shit. This is weird.”

Brent Rollins:
I’m going to offer the inverse of that. I think that there’s an opportunity to create expressions that are highly developed. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I think that, to your point, when it becomes about emulating the surface aspects of white culture, then that’s where it becomes problematic. But if you’re celebrating the things that are great about your culture, I think that’s a different point of view. And maybe that’s not the way we’re going to solve this problem, or be able to put a suggestion box to Jack and Jill, but maybe that’s how it transforms, or maybe there’s some other organizations or people who are less about that sort of take on things. And more about, “This is what’s beautiful about black culture.” And we should celebrate those things. And we should aspire to those things. I think that that’s the thing.

Brent Rollins:
There should be a quality and execution and decorum level that a lot of cultures have that are had been sort of codified and sort of expected like we were talking earlier about like, I go to Japan or something like that. I expect Japanese design to be kick ass. Or even like Scandinavian design. I expect it to be pretty damn good. And so that’s okay to me to be like, “Are you at that level?” No. And when you reach that level, dope, we’re going to knight you. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you did it. We have a sense of that with music in terms of it doesn’t matter necessarily what genre it is. And even if you don’t like it, you might be like, “Okay, I’m not really necessarily feeling this particular take, but I can tell that it’s the person behind it, they put a lot into it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah

Brent Rollins:
I think music is like one of the things that black Americans do very well, and is worldwide considered to be of excellence. And we have grown up and been exposed to something of excellence, that when it’s time for those who decide to participate into those avenues, even when they’re doing something new, they’re trying to shoot for a particular bar.

Maurice Cherry:
Right, right.

Brent Rollins:
And I think that having those kinds of standards, absolutely. I think that I see no problem in that sort of higher culture participation. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. Certainly, I get what you’re saying about when you’d look at another nation’s culture for example, there’s a certain expectation there. And I think that’s because that play that particular aesthetic, similar to what you’re saying with like black people in music, it’s been distilled and exported in a way where you already have a presupposition of what it’s going to be before you even know what it is. Like if you order… I’ll give you an example. I ordered some pants from, I forget what the… It was something I saw on Instagram, that was probably my fault. But I saw some dope pants on Instagram and I was like, “Oh, they’re like some Japanese, Myketo pants. So I expect when I get them, they’re going to have a certain flattering cut or something different than maybe you wouldn’t see with American apparel or something like that. Not the brand, but just apparel in general.

Maurice Cherry:
And like for black design, I think that’s a moving target in a way, because it’s going to depend on your experiences, where you grew up, where you pull inspiration from. I just had a German American designer on the show, Julian Williams, who is currently in Amsterdam. Young kid, 25 years old, has done design work for Karl Lagerfeld, Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, has this very distinct, bold graphic type of graphical design. But then he also pulls inspiration from voguing and the ballroom scene that he’s a part of. And so it’s all a part of his general design aesthetic. Is that black design? Because he’s a black designer? Yes?

Brent Rollins:
Absolutely. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
But I’m saying like it’s like a moving target, because then you could look at your work, and your work is definitely very steeped in like I said, these kind of references from the 60s and the 70s, and this tinge of nostalgia. And a lot of what you have done has kind of set the… I feel like has set the visual cornerstone for an entire culture when people think of hip hop design, it comes down to a lot of the stuff that you did with Eagle Trip, a lot of the stuff you did with Complex, these very interesting graphic styles. That also is black design.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, that’s the goal. Like I said, it’s not one… What you’re alluding to, it’s not one thing, it’s not one particular genre, but is when you enter that space, it’s going to be executed at a particular level. It’s going to be… It’s going to cover specific things. And there are sort of expectations that you get. Like jazz is totally different from R&B and is totally different from Samba, is totally different from reggae, is totally different from dancehall, but it’s all black music, right? It’s totally different from the blues, it’s all black music, they all sound different, right? But there’s this thread of expression and commonality. And when these genres develop themselves, the execution is you can’t deny it. So, that’s a goal, is to create things that even though they’re not in one particular space, or they may jump from place to place, which is what’s going to happen, you want them to leave a mark.

Maurice Cherry:
And I will say speaking about how kind of having black design being internationally recognized in a way similar to how black music is, a lot of your work has been exhibited in group exhibitions, both here in the US, as well as internationally. What does it mean to have your work kind of shown in that kind of fashion?

Brent Rollins:
When my stuff is recognized internationally, it means a lot because a lot of it was pre-internet and that means that the people that decided to talk about design or whatever, they’re seeking, they’re looking for. They’re looking for content like anybody like anything or anybody now, but they have a certain standard in mind. And there’s a filter that they have in their head. So, what I’m most proud of, I guess, is publications and people that have reached out to me. Yeah, like I said, particularly before the internet was popping. Because they were like, “Oh, I’ve seen this, I’ve seen a few of these things. I really was affected by this, or this was a music artist that really meant a lot to me. And I see that a couple of other artists that mean a lot to me were represented visually by this guy, Brent Rollins. And so let me look into it.” That’s a good feeling. And to know that people around the world who are on the same wavelength as you, and who are seeking out things, find you. That’s incredible.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brent Rollins:
That makes me feel good. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, we’ve talked about Ego Trip, just kind of briefly touching on it. But I want to go more in depth about that. You came on as our director, you’re kind of one of the co founders of this group with some titans in the industry, Sacha Jenkins, Elliott Wilson, Jeff Mao, take me back to that time. What did it feel like sort of coming together and building something like Ego Trip and the work that you all were able to do?

Brent Rollins:
Oh, sure yeah. And we have to remember the one titan who is always like never wants attention, was Gabriel Alvarez. Yeah. I mean, Ego Trip was kind of like… We were like a band. And in some ways for that world, we were like a supergroup. And I got to know… I started working with Gabriel Alvarez when I was working at Rap Pages, got the gig through very awesome, incredible woman named Sheena Lester. And Rap Pages was an early sort of competitor to The Source Magazine. And-

Maurice Cherry:
Larry Flynt.

Brent Rollins:
Larry Flynt, my man. Yeah. Enough respect to that guy, rest in peace. What a person to work for. I didn’t work for him specifically, but just to know that he was in the building, what a… Very bizarre to be early 20s and working for a pornographer. But yeah, he had started this magazine, Rap Pages basically to kind of reap some attention that The Source was getting. And Sheena had taken it over, after maybe a few issues, I guess. And we wanted to build an editorial team. I was one of the later people to join, and one of my compatriots, there was Gabriel Alvarez. So, between myself, Sheena, Gabe, Blau, Dorothy, and I apologize if I can’t remember Hannibal and some other folks that… Nikki, incredible person. We kind of were a little kind of a group who kind of wanted to take on The Source. At the time, that was like the main kind of hip hop music magazine. It was the first and undeniably significant. But we sort of had our take on things or whatever.

Brent Rollins:
But we had hired freelance writers, and among them was Sacha Jenkins, and Elliott Wilson, and I’m not sure if Mel… I believe Mel may have been hired as well, as a freelance writer, but that’s how I got to know those guys. Or that’s how I made first contact with them. And after a few years of working at the magazine, Gabe had moved to New York to work with Sacha, on Ego Trip. And Sacha Jenkins, who for people that don’t know, I would say in recent years, he’s probably known for producing these documentaries called, I believe it’s called Fresh Dressed, which is about hip hop fashion. He also directed this Wu Tang documentary on Showtime. And so he’s been… And he’s also in a punk band and all this other kind of stuff. And Sacha has always been doing all these kind of great self-started initiating things and had this sort of fledgling magazine, or zin rather, called the Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And Ego Trip was… It was coming from the perspective of mainly, mostly writers of color to talk about hip hop, with a love and reverence, but also an irreverence towards the subject matter, and also had interest in other music such as punk rock, indie rock, what have you. And so, as Sacha would say, it was like Rolling Stones, but the inverse. So Rolling Stone would mostly cover rock, and maybe occasionally do hip hop. And so, Ego Trip was the flip side of that. And so that’s how I got to know those guys, and I eventually moved to New York in 1997, because of having some contact with Sacha. Sacha had sort of said, “Hey, we need to step up our magazine visually,” sort of invited me to join the team for no money, but more just out of like an outlet to do something creative.

Brent Rollins:
I looked at myself, as the Terry Gilliam to everybody else’s John Cleese, and the rest of the Monty Python crew. As far as being the visual person, I understood editorial, and I also wanted to do sort of humor. We were doing a lot of funny, goofy stuff. And so I had my take on how to express that. And eventually, that became the collage. There were… The magazine itself was instrumental to me in terms of my creative development, because it was very DIY, it was like, “Let’s just take…” We used to do precursors to memes called Ego Trip Ads. So we would find these funny images from Jet Magazine or, or Ebony or something like that. Just older magazines, like ads of black people in Burger King ads and write funny captions to them. But the captions were always like hip hop lyrics. And then we would kind of put the little slug like Ego Trip.

Brent Rollins:
And so basically, they became ads to fill in the unused ad space in the magazine. But they were fun. They helped us sort of develop our creative voice and make the magazine more individual and sort of unique. And so, that’s how I kind of got down with them. I had myself this irreverent take on hip hop and sort of making fun of hip hop, but loving it at the same time. This was the vehicle for it. And so, once we got together, yeah, Sacha was working, I think at Vibe Magazine. Elliott was working at The Source, Jeff was writing for a lot of other music magazines and Gabe, he’s the glue and like I said, he doesn’t get the credit that he deserves because he’s very much behind the scenes, he doesn’t want the attention, but he is the funniest MF around the planet, and super creative.

Brent Rollins:
And so, collectively, yeah, we kind of just became like Voltron, like superhero group and looked at the magazine as a vehicle to express just how we… Just things that we were interested in, and also to try to put it to… Like every issue, I only did like the last three issues, but it felt like making an album. And each issue got more and more personal. Like there’s running… It’s a magazine literally with like running jokes. Because if you turn the pages, you’ll see a reference to something that came earlier, and we made it this kind of like goofy puzzle. And it became semi… Everything in Ego Trip became this… It started blurring the line between music, journalism and autobiography.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. How was it received at the time?

Brent Rollins:
I think you’d have to ask a lot of journalists maybe how they thought about it. I guess at the time, no one was doing what we were doing. And I don’t say that to sound like arrogant, I just mean in a sense-

Maurice Cherry:
No. Hey, talk your shit.

Brent Rollins:
But I’m not [inaudible 00:48:30]. It wasn’t usual for people to get together to be like, “Hey, we want to talk about this with this particular voice. That isn’t straight ahead. So, when we got together to do that stuff, we just had fun. We would just goof around and just make jokes and it was like one of the… Those guys were like my brothers, brothers that I never had. And so, like I said, it’s kind of like we were sort of a supergroup. Yeah, we used to do some stupid things. In my head, I’m thinking about this time we kidnapped this journalist.

Maurice Cherry:
Wait, wait, wait. What?

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. Yeah. So, there’s this journalist who writes for the New York Times now named John Caramanica.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, my God! Okay. No, I’m sorry. Go ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
Wait, do you know…

Maurice Cherry:
I know of him because of some of his shitty reviews. But no, go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
So, I can’t remember what he was interviewing us for, maybe it was for our first book. I can’t remember probably. But we were like, “Okay, this is how we want to be legendary.” So at the time, we used to have this one office on 16th Street in Chelsea Market, and we used to have this really dope… The fourth floor, we had almost all to ourselves. We were sharing it with this graffiti brand named Bullets of Brooklyn, but they were never there. So, we kind of just had the run of the space. And then for reasons that I won’t get into, we had to vacate that space. And so we ended up moving into the basement of the building. So, we wrote our first book in the basement of this building on 16th Street in Chelsea. And so, there were pipes of bolus than you’d hear like toilet flushing, and you’d just hear all this sewage going by and stuff like that.

Brent Rollins:
And then we have this room in the back… We only have like two rooms, we have this one room that was where, if you see the cover of our book, the book of Rap List, that was the room that we shot this in. And we were like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to get interviewed.” I think it was probably for the New York Times, and we’re going to get interviewed and we can’t just do a normal thing, man. We’re like, “We’re Ego Trip dude, we’re [inaudible 00:50:49] this shit.” So we told them to meet or show up someplace in the Chelsea Market, which is like this kind of food court now. This glorified food court in Chelsea. And we had this really cute girl who was a friend of ours, go meet him and she was like, “Are you John Caramanica?” He’s like, “Yes.” She’s like, “Come with me.”

Brent Rollins:
We wanted him to have a story to tell. So, she leads him… I can’t remember if she… We weren’t there. So, I can’t say exactly. But I believe she probably blindfolded him at this venue, and probably walked him outside across the street and then walked into the building took him downstairs in the elevator. He shows up, he’s blindfolded, we walked in [inaudible 00:51:39].

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve still a thought of the fact that he just went with this woman and got blindfolded, just went with her.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, man. It’s like, what is he going to do? Is he going to say no?

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true, yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. He did it. So, it was just funny.

Maurice Cherry:
So, you say kidnapping, I’m thinking like somebody got shoved in the back of a panel van or something. He sounds like a willing participant in this case. Well, go ahead. Go ahead.

Brent Rollins:
I can imagine that for someone in his position, it must have been definitely strange. He thought he’s going to an office to talk to somebody, he’s being blindfolded by some attractive young lady and brought to who he doesn’t even know where he’s going.

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Brent Rollins:
This white van as far as we’re concerned. She takes him into the back room and we have the lights down low. I remember exhaustion now, Jeff and I we’re back there. So we had turntables in there. And I remember because I was in the other room. I just remember Sacha had something… He had some record on the turntable, and he kept looping it. So it was just super creepy. He was just scratching it, [inaudible 00:52:50] just back spinning it. Super creepy thing. And then we instruct Caramanica to take off his blindfold. And then the guys proceeded to talk with the flashlight under their heads.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow!.

Brent Rollins:
And then they do the interview. And finally, it’s time to leave. I do remember Jeff going like, “It’s time to go.” And I do remember Jeff now going like, “Hey, thanks. Thanks for coming by, you know what you got to do now, right?” He’s like, “Yeah.” So we asked our friend to… The young lady to blindfold him again. We span him around a few times, and he exited the building. And the rest is history.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow! That’s a wild story. That’s a wild story. So, Ego Trip eventually evolved from this magazine to a book, to several television shows. I mentioned prior to us recording how I remember watching those shows on VH1 as a teenager, the White Rapper Show and Miss Rap Supreme, and Race-O-Rama and everything, and just being so… Well, maybe not so much the reality shows, but certainly, the visual elements from like Race-O-Rama and stuff like that being so enamored with… I had never seen anything like that before talking about black culture, hip hop culture, that kind of thing. I’ve never seen it done in that way. And it blew my mind. It was really… I have to say it was kind of an early design reference for me, I wanted to make stuff like that. I wanted to be able to kind of have that sort of tongue in cheek irreverence towards culture in that way, in a way that felt familiar, but also felt kind of new and fresh, unlike something that you haven’t really seen before.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, man, thank you. Thank you. Yeah. I think that was again, the… For me, that was a little bit of a Terry Gilliam in terms of all the crazy animations that you would see from Monty Python. That was my inspiration in the sense of the humor of stuff. And how do you express that stuff visually. And everything that we were doing in Ego Trip was really… It’s funny, because I’d like to think that we… I don’t want to say that we originated things, but there definitely wasn’t any sort of bigger reference. And it’s funny how meme culture has years later sort of assumed some of the similarities to what we were doing. So, was it a human thing? I don’t know. But it was in terms of like pairing these references and music lyrics to things and doing so like tongue and cheek, but I don’t know, but we definitely did it early. And so yeah, for Race-O-Rama, each episode, or there was three series, I’m sorry, three episodes in the series.

Brent Rollins:
And Race-O-Rama was this kind of fun house idea. And the idea that looking at race through this sort of voyeuristic lens. And so each of the shows was blackophobia, which used sort of the visual language of horror films, and pulp alien invasion movies and stuff like that. In Race We Lost, which was pulling from the visuals of like… I mean, I love this time square CD, porno theater graphics and all that kind of stuff. And the other one was, “Dude, Where’s My Ghetto Pass?” Which was kind of like this we call an urban safari. So this idea of cultural sort of, not necessarily appropriation, but this sort of… Everything was about the voyeurism of race, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
So, once we started thinking about those kinds of things, it was just like, it was just super fun to kind of riff off of them, because our take on on discussing race or presenting race was about the idea of not so much making fun of it, but at least making it less about some of the typical things or things that people would immediately associate when you’re talking about race. Particularly at that time, that series was based off of… Well, that series sprang from a book that we wrote called The Big Book of Racism. And that was a book that Dana Albarella, our beloved editor, who also produced our Ego Trip’s, Book of Rap Lists, she had moved on from St. Martin’s Press to HarperCollins, which was headed by Judith Regan, who was kind of a big shot in the publishing world, particularly at that time. And so we had the opportunity to do that book called The Big Book of Racism.

Brent Rollins:
And our thing about that book was that it was about race, because that was our secondary preoccupation after hip hop, the title and the premise kind of started off as a joke. And then we actually kind of started really getting into it. The thing about that book was we wanted to talk about race in a way that people could relate to, because generally, when people talked about race, they talked about sort of the history and we’re talking about the history of race from the arrival of slaves in America, up until the civil rights era. And so… And it tended to be very academic. And our lens as far as how we related to each other and joked with each other, was always through the lens of popular culture. And so the idea of doing a look at race through the lens of popular culture, was an interesting challenge. It was a crazy challenge for us.

Brent Rollins:
And on top of that, to bring attention to things and to make fun of it, or to joke about it, in that sort of sarcastic sort of coping mechanism kind of way. And it was really hard because we wrote it during 911.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh!

Brent Rollins:
Which really… Yeah. There was a point where we had started writing that book, The Big Book of Racism, and then 911 happened and we were just like, “Man, we don’t hate anybody, we’re critiquing things.” But it was very difficult. But we kind of decided if we’re going to do this, it’s going to be… If we’re going to fail, it’s going to be a magnificent failure. We were just like, let’s… Man, I’ve never doubted myself as much. I don’t edit and perhaps I’m speaking for the rest of the guys when we were doing that thing because we were just like, “Should we do this at a time when people needed unity?” And we’re just writing, not so much a divisive book, but a book to sort of in our minds, illustrate why people of color feel the way they do based off of the treatment that popular culture has presented. And so that was always my interest personally, was understanding how popular culture affects the perception of people. And so like I was saying, a lot of the academic books spoke to a very specific audience. And our goal was to be anti-academic.

Brent Rollins:
Chock full of information and intended to be sort of ingested sporadically wherever you want to enter it, but also for you to walk away to understand like, “Oh, damn, this country is built on race, there’s so much race in this country that people want to not acknowledge. And here’s our sort of listical way of doing it with jokes.” With comedy, but trying to make it apparent. That’s the role of an artist, is to make you see things that are right there in front of you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Wow! During 911. Yeah. That was certainly a very interesting. I think that was definitely a pivotal point in the country as it relates to race relations. Because aside from that, you got the formation of the TSA and how that has changed. Just so many things around screening in airports and stuff like that. But it really turned the dial on how race relations were in this country.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah, there was a lot of internal examination going on. And that tragedy. Tragedy sort of expose what you’re made of, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Brent Rollins:
Even just the recent craziness that we, as a country have been going through the past few years, it’s ultimately I guess, a good thing because it’s being brought to light. And then you see where people are trying to reach out and where people are trying to find those commonalities, and that common ground, and where they’re not. And so that just reemerges.

Maurice Cherry:
I know that you have worked with Ego Trip for a number of years, but during that time, you also were the creative director at Complex for a while. What were some of your memories from that time?

Brent Rollins:
I was creative director after Ego Trip, we had sort of kind of fizzled and disbanded.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. So there was a period where I was kind of back to sort of doing… I was always kind of working on independent projects concurrently while doing Ego Trip, when Ego Trip was in sort of in full rev, that’s where I spent the most focus on. But there were always opportunities to do album covers, or things like that during that time. But complex kind of came about because actually our former Ego Trip intern, Noah was an editor at complex and he sort of, he needed, I like to call myself a substitute teacher, because the previous art director had left, and they needed to finish a few issues. And so that’s when I kind of came in to work on the magazine. And then what was interesting about working there, was I came in and sort of helped finish the issues. And I was like, “Okay, cool, this is fun.” Got to work with some younger designers, and really start to exercise my kind of delegation, and start to teach in some ways or pass along whatever information that I could and knowledge that I could to other people, and to learn how to shape things.

Brent Rollins:
Because when you’re creative, you tend to keep it to yourself and you do things that you don’t need to do. Like you don’t need to scan, you don’t need to… If we’re talking about graphics, you don’t need to do the silhouetting. You don’t need to do that stuff. Maybe you do it sometimes out of necessity, and maybe you might get really good at it. But the bigger thing is just really putting all those pieces together. So it was a great exercise to learn how to orchestrate a symphony. And that’s kind of what I refer to myself as a creative conductor, because at a certain point, it’s less about my actual hands and more about my actual thought and how do you put all those elements together. And so Complex became from a magazine, and this is during start of the decline of print as a popular media form, and the ascension of the web as the dominant media form. And so Complex, all the business heads behind it, were very perceptive in terms of growing that business.

Brent Rollins:
And so that’s what also kept me there, was learning. I learned about media when we were doing stuff with VH1, but the opportunity to work with teams of people and to build a business really, was exciting. That was an exciting opportunity because now, I’m dealing with for the first time in my life, a generation of people whose references are different than mine. And I’m now in this position of also learning from them. So, I like to learn new things. And I get excited by new stuff. And I’m always looking for that new drug. Like, “Yo, I need to get high again, give me that design crack. Give me that culture crack.” That was an opportunity to stay plugged in and to learn new things. And also to be able to work with people. And also Ego Trip as “successful” as we were, we hit a wall in a sense, and going to Complex was an opportunity to sort of flex some different muscles and to see…

Brent Rollins:
Ego Trip was patronizing in the sense of that we had the VH1 give us money. VH1 gave us money and before that the book publishers gave us money. But we were not successful in the sense of able to generate money ourselves. So, Complex was an opportunity to sort of look behind the curtain and then kind of step behind that curtain and see how business, or how entrepreneurial minded business grows and develops and becomes like this media titan that it is today. So, that’s what kept me there, was to learn from the younger designers, to help shape them also, to pass on that information and that knowledge, and they would also show me some things or helped me… I used to say they helped me think. Because they would try different things and I’d be like, “No, no, no, no, no.” They would create these different options… I’m a good critic, I think. As a graphic designer or a communication designer, or that kind of visual designer, you’re taking these kind of existing elements, and arranging them versus an artist necessarily who kind of create something from scratch.

Brent Rollins:
So, they would create these things from scratch in some ways, or create these options and then I can look at them and be like, “Oh, yeah, no, no, no, no, no, this is not communicating, or this is not tapping into that feeling that we were talking about before. This is not communicating this thing.” And helping to shape them. So, that was immensely satisfying. And working with celebrities is interesting and fun. And traveling around the world is great. And so, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success now?

Brent Rollins:
Success is kind of about satisfying the need to create projects that actually propel ideas and culture. And I guess that’s maybe always the idea of success for me. I think the idea of monetary success, yes, I’m not going to say that that’s not important. But I’ve come closer to this understanding of when my time is up, for me, what am I putting forth in the world, or what’s my legacy? And so I can’t do everything myself, there are things that I’m working on that are about personal vision, but as a group, we can accomplish a lot of things. Ego Trip as a group, we accomplished things that we didn’t think we would ever accomplish. Working in Complex, we accomplished things that were in that… The metrics for that world, we surpassed them. And so for me, when people tell me that they’ve been influenced by something that I did, or they show some sort of appreciation for the things that I’ve done, and even more so when these things are attached to something that has some sort of cultural importance, man, that’s a great feeling.

Brent Rollins:
I want to keep doing that. For me, that’s the metric of success. Again, know how to make money, [inaudible 01:08:48] money, love me some money. But we’re put on this world to do things. And so I’m happy and fortunate that whatever mark I’ve made in the world, I’ve been able to do. I think the thing about it is, it’s also fleeting, and it’s also like you got to keep doing things. Success is also somewhat short lived. You know what I mean? I’m happy to inspire people, but I’m also like, I want to inspire more people and I need to keep doing to continue to be relevant, not because I’m trying to be the cool of the week, but because a large enough body of people are viewing and affected by the things that I work on. Right now, that would be the marker of success to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. That’s a very interesting answer.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I guess because I’ve been kind of dropping these little pins like throughout the interview like your work, and the work that you did with Ego Trip, the work you did with Complex, is really like been a cornerstone in the design style of when people think of hip hop culture, a lot of that boils down to work that you have done, whether that’s been magazines, we didn’t even touch on the album covers that you’ve done. I feel like a lot of people are inspired by your work, but they may not know that it’s from you, maybe.

Brent Rollins:
Oh, yeah. It’s funny. The thing about [inaudible 01:10:15] is because it’s still kind of being done in the service of whoever. And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who more or less are like, “Hey, Brent, I like your style.” I had to develop a style because the more you do something, the more people recognize it. And then if they like it, then they come to you. But in some cases, yeah. There’s been the suppression of Ego in the sense of, it’s not about me, it’s about I’m doing this for someone else. And so yeah, there’s been things that I’ve done that maybe people don’t see that thread, I have a good friend, Phil McMillan, who he was another designer. And he’s… Some people are really in tune with it. He’ll be like, “I saw this and I was like, yo, I think Brent did that.”

Brent Rollins:
So he sees it. And so whatever is the essence of me creatively shows up in those things and he’s in tune with that, and he can find that. And there are other people that can do that too. And so that’s a much more honest relationship, when you can work with those people, because that means you guys are on the same wavelength. And so that’s… I found that those have been the best projects for me, is when people come to me because they do know, because they are familiar with the things that I’ve done, and they’re like, “That’s the vibe that I want.” And it’s freeing because it lets me be me. I’m a designer in the sense that I’m problem solving, but I’m also an artist in the sense that I’m trying to express something emotionally and I connected with those people. And so, yeah. Ramble, ramble, ramble, ramble.

Maurice Cherry:
So, is there a dream project that you would love to do one day? I feel like you’ve done television, you’ve done magazines, you’ve done album covers, you’ve done a book. What’s next? What do you really want to do one day?

Brent Rollins:
There are many dream projects that I want to do. There’s personal projects that I’ve finally started initiating. One is really getting into furniture design.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, okay.

Brent Rollins:
Yeah. And so I had gone to Italy in 2019 to start that. I’m working with a friend of mine over there. And then just the nature of the project really meant that I couldn’t restart it until the warmer months. Totally happens and dashes those dreams on the Mediterranean rocks. That’ll still happen. And then I have a sort of a creative… The dream projects, yeah. I mean, it’s really more about when does Brent start putting his own voice forward more? Right?

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Brent Rollins:
My voice has been forward in people’s projects, and mostly because I’d never… I would probably say that there’s one critique with myself, it’s like I devalue what I think I have to say. I have an idea… I actually started this project during the pandemia, I’m going to is like Black Star Wars, and let people kind of go from there. But I started some stuff in making models, telling friends who are also creative, and they got super excited about that stuff. And they’re like, “Oh, man, I wanted the soundtrack.” And you got to have this character do this, and you got to do that. And it’ll happen. And I’m not afraid to say it. I thought about like, “Should I even talk about this?” But hall yeah. But really, just more personal projects are exciting. My father was a phenomenal creative person who passed away recently.

Brent Rollins:
And my mission I guess, is to let the world kind of see what this guy who inspired me, what he did, and with the hope that maybe he also inspires other people, so that’s also another project. Man, I got a lot of projects. God, I got a lot of things. Yeah. Like I said, 2021 let’s go.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I hear you. Well, Brent, just to kind of wrap things up here. Where can our audience find out more about you and about your work and everything online?

Brent Rollins:
I guess online you can look me up Brettrollins.com under my website that really needs to be updated. You can follow me on Instagram, my handle is Brentronic, B-R-E-N-T-R-O-N-I-C, and then at that point, by the end 2021, hopefully you’ll be seeing my name in a lot more places when you won’t even try.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Brent Rollins, I have to thank you. Just thank you so much for coming on the show. I guess prior to us recording about how much of a design influence you’ve been to me seeing your early work, and it’s been just such a pleasure to one just introduce you to the Revision Path audience, I have a feeling that people are going to listen to this. And they’ll be like, “Wait a minute, he did that!” They’re going to now know that you are the person behind so much iconic work out there. It’s just been a joy to talk to you, it’s been a joy to hear about the work that you’re doing. And I want to see what comes next absolutely, because I have no doubt it’s going to be hot. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Brent Rollins:
Man, thank you so much. And I know other people will say the same thing to you, man. But dude, you’re doing God’s work. Thank you so much for doing Revision Path.

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Joseph Cuillier

“If you don’t see it in the world, see that as an opportunity.” Wise words from this week’s guest, the one and only Joseph Cuillier. Joseph is perhaps most well known for The Black School, an experimental art school teaching Black/PoC students and allies to become agents of change through art workshops on radical Black politics and public interventions that address local community needs.

I spoke to Joseph fresh from his move back to New Orleans, and he spoke on how the city feels now in the midst of gentrification and other new developments. We also spoke on his work with The Black School and the school’s principles, the unique studio model that helps fund the school, and how he works to center Black love in such a unique learning space. Joseph is truly building upon a family legacy to help educate the next generation and beyond!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, tell us who you are and what you do.

Joseph Cuillier:
My name is Joseph Cuillier and I’m an artist, a designer, and the founder and co-director of The Black School.

Maurice Cherry:
How are you holding up these days?

Joseph Cuillier:
Good. I am good. I just recently moved from New York City. I lived in Harlem for about five years, and Brooklyn before that for about five years. I just moved to new Orleans after 10 years in New York, and I think I’m much better because of it for a lot of reasons. There’s been a pandemic and people have been trapped in small apartments, in cold climates, and it’s good to get away from that. It’s good to be closer to family, I see my family a lot even though I lived in a different part of the country from them. I would come home holidays and summers, and that was difficult not being able to see my family. Being closer makes it so much easier. And trees and sunshine man, that’s a long way. That’s long way, and good food, and good people, and good music. Everything that makes New Orleans great is healing me at the moment, at this traumatic moment for all of us.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to go to new Orleans so bad.

Joseph Cuillier:
Come through and let me know.

Maurice Cherry:
I will as soon as all this pandemic mess is over, and I feel comfortable jumping on a plane I want to go to New Orleans.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. Hopefully sooner than later.

Maurice Cherry:
I know you’ve been away for 10 years, but does the city feel different to you now?

Joseph Cuillier:
It is very different. To be clear, I moved to New York from Houston. I was living in Houston at the time, but both sides of my family are from new Orleans so I would always be here. Holidays, summers, things like that or whenever, a birthday party, it’s family reunion, just to come down and see family. I think new Orleans is going through a lot of the things a lot of black cities and black communities around the country are going through. There’s gentrification, there’s new things happening in this city for better or worse. And I think a lot of people feel frustrated because they’re not being included in the decision-making of the new thing.

Joseph Cuillier:
Or the new thing is coming and that means you have to leave which is messed up. There’s a lot of displacement in New Orleans, and in a way it’s a little bit more kind of celebrated due to the aftermath of Katrina, and the displacement that man-made disaster created. It is very different but in a lot of ways it’s still the same. There the blackness, there’s deep love, there’s deep creativity that is just baked into the city that I don’t think gentrification is strong enough to ever change that. Natural disaster or anything I don’t think is strong enough to change that.

Maurice Cherry:
How has it been kind of working and moving through this pandemic? Was that a loaded question?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s a layered question. A layered question. What does that mean to me as a husband and a father? What does that mean to me as a designer or an artist? What does that mean to me as a person that creates platforms? A person that brings people together to exchange knowledge? First it’s been difficult but not insurmountable. Our family, we found ways to make the best of it. We found ways to still have romance between me and my wife. We have our indoor dates or our out in the park dates. We found ways to meet with folks, meet up at the park, chill on the porch, chill at the patio, things like that. And as a kind of artists and designer it’s been a shift. For me it’s been less about making work and showing work and more about purpose, more about spirituality, more about laying foundations.

Joseph Cuillier:
And before the pandemic we were rolling, I talk in the we because I don’t do this work alone. My wife is my partner in life and in our endeavors, our ventures in the world. Shani Peters, she’s an artist very much in her own right doing really big things. And also just the work I do is very collective, I bring people together to work on issues and problems much larger than one person could address or transform. This slow down gave us the opportunity to refocus and think about the long-term vision for the work. The Black School was in New York, it was functioning as this kind of school that was mobile in architecture, so we would attach ourselves to host other schools, would be high schools, middle schools, youth organizations, art institutions, and we would do programming and collaboration.

Joseph Cuillier:
And now we couldn’t really do that, we couldn’t get people together. I mean we shifted some stuff to Zoom, but it’s only so much that could shift and keep going the way the world was turning. We shifted to thinking about where we wanted to take the organization. After all these years of programmatic success doing the art school, doing The Black Love Fest, doing the design apprenticeship, we felt like we really needed a space of our own. That meant sharing that idea with the people and be like, “What do you think? Is this something you would support?” The response we got was overwhelming yes. Folks came out of the woodwork, we ended up raising 300K to build the community center in my hometown of New Orleans. We’ve raised money for staffing the school, we’ve made all these connections of people who want to support in any way they can.

Joseph Cuillier:
Long answer, the shift, the slowing down, the re-jiggering we had to do to work in this moment meant that we had to do some deep thinking, and some deep listening, and have some deep conversations to really think about, “We’re standing still, how do we see the future? How do we want to see the future?” Because we have a moment now to really think about the future. And for us that meant moving to New Orleans and trying to build a school, trying to build a radical black art school in the Seventh Ward.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s jump more into The Black School, because I’ve been hearing about it for years now from different folks who I’ve had on the show. I was a mentor at… Well, I guess you could call it the mentor. I don’t know. I think they called it mentorship at NEW INC in New York City. I don’t know if that’s where I first heard about it, but I definitely heard about it during my time kind of mentoring and helping advise folks there. I really want to learn more about in essence what this radical black art school is all about. For those who are listening who may not know, can you just talk a little bit about the school and its mission? And we can sort of dive in from there.

Joseph Cuillier:
The Black School is an experimental art school that teaches young folks and old folks black history, design, activism. And the idea is radicalizing our people to envision a future where we’re not just tolerated, but a future that we create, that we build with our own hands so it’s a radical black art school.

Maurice Cherry:
And now there’s a lot of different principles that the school follows, among them self-love, prison abolition, environmental justice, LGBTQIA rights. How are these principles reflected to students?

Joseph Cuillier:
Well, the principles were developed by students. The first workshop we did was we did this community engaged research. This high school in Brooklyn, we went around the surrounding area and within the school. And we asked folks what you love about your community? What you want to change about your community? And what The Black School should teach? And based off of that feedback we got from folks we did this principle, this platform creating exercise, where we just went through the things, the issues, the ideas that folks are raising. And then we distilled them down into these overarching principles. And we’ve continued to add as we go, especially looking back to ancestors, the history, the things that were laid down for us before we even got here. And we took those kind of principles and built this larger kind of I guess rubric to learn from.

Joseph Cuillier:
And that includes self-love, it includes black love more specifically, and includes all the guiding principles of many different black radical organizations. We took inspiration from all these different ways black radicalism has popped up through feminist initiatives, queer initiatives, art movements. And that’s kind of how we came up with the principles, and we share those back in our card deck, we share them back in our website, we share them back in the topics that we explore in the school. Maybe a workshop will be based on this one principle or these two principles. We are making sure our young people know what we stand for, know something that possibly they can stand for, and are aware of a political language to describe the experiences that are happening in the world.

Joseph Cuillier:
They may see white folks from out of town moving into their grandmother neighborhood, they may see the cost of living in their neighborhood going up, they may see the bodega start to sell different things, but they may not know what gentrification is. And they may not know the history or the tactics that folks have used in the past to fight those issues. It’s our idea that we create learning tools, and learning opportunities to share that back with folks so they can know what to do, so they can know that they don’t have to recreate the wheel every time they see a problem. They can just build on what’s already beneath them.

Maurice Cherry:
And now the interesting part about the school is that it also contains a design studio, is that right?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. The Black School studio is full service design firm. We do client work. I’m traditionally trained as a graphic designer. It was a matter of seeing the teaching that I’m doing. Since I graduated that’s not just something I do on the side, but at the center of my practice. And the studio allows me to do that to the greater extent. We do client services, we have experienced upper level designers, but we also have apprentice. And the design apprentice are young folks, high school age who have no experience in graphic design. We teach them the basics, the fundamentals of graphic design, typography, image making, grids, all of those fundamental things. And then we teach them Photoshop, Illustrator InDesign. And then once they know just those basics, then we put them on actual client projects so that they’re learning on the job from seasoned designers.

Joseph Cuillier:
And we’re collectively creating too, because I mean what company doesn’t buy and sale, or trade on black cool? What company doesn’t use black youth culture to move their message forward or sell their products? It’s our idea that instead of having all these people coming into our community take the things we create and sell them back to us, how about we talk to our community? How about we communicate with each other in the ways we know how? And how about we harness the power and energy of black youth culture, a culture that has made it all around the globe and back? And right now black youth culture is the culture, so how about we harness that power? And that’s the idea, that’s the vision behind the design school being rooted in a school… I mean, that’s the vision behind the design firm being rooted in a black school.

Maurice Cherry:
And how do the studio and the school work together? Does the studio help fund the school or what are some ways that they work together?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s the vision. When you’re doing this type of work it becomes very easy to become very reliant on grants, donations. And that may be fine but what happens when funding trends change? Right now black people and black liberation is kind of a hot topic but 10 years ago it wasn’t, we were in a post-racial society. What if we go back to a post racial society quote unquote, and these foundations start funding other causes, other issues more aggressively. I mean is what we’re doing really self-determined? If that’s the case, in my opinion the answer is no. Not to say the money we get from foundations isn’t cool, that’s our money, that’s the money, the wealth our great grandparents have generated for this country. But being realistic we need our own.

Joseph Cuillier:
I believe in black nationalism. I think we need our own everything, but we definitely need our own sources of revenue if we’re going to run a sustainable organization. The idea from the design firm is the design firm can generate income, earn income and fund the school. Now it’s two years old so we’re not there yet. We’re still kind of trying to figure out how it works, how it functions but that’s the idea. But the school and the design firm they’re kind of tied together. And we have students from the art school that come through the design firm. Students that show a little bit more interest, students that maybe want to learn more about graphic design specifically, students that may need opportunity to make some money, need a job, or a seasonal job or something.

Joseph Cuillier:
This is our way of generating income for our community. Because it would be irresponsible to go to black youth and be like, “There’s economic future for you in art.” Because honestly I’m a professional artist, my wife’s a professional artist, and it’s hard to make money out of art. It’s hard for us. We do all these other things and generate income in all these other ways, so I wouldn’t feel comfortable setting some young people that come from disadvantaged backgrounds, that are economically oppressed. I would be irresponsible to tell them, “You know what, you can make a living in art.” I mean you can, but I need to give you the tools, I need to give you the map, and the pathways that I found to make a living in art. And design is one of those pathways.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. I mean, that makes sense, you want to definitely… Especially with kids at that age, they see a lot more than I think we think they do in terms of picking up on patterns and behaviors and stuff like that. And it is one thing to say, “We’re the black school and we want to do these things.” But then also… Or even as you’re saying, making money as an artist but then having to do these other things. You don’t want to lie to them essentially.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. I don’t want to send them out in the world unprepared like what we call real art schools do. Sending their students out in the world without necessarily the tools to do the most basic of things, sustain their lives. It wouldn’t be a radically black art school, it would be just an art school if we did that. We do pay our students. It’s a very different way of looking at schools. We pay our students to learn because we believe our students need it. If you’re not flipping burgers or stacking grocery sales, how are you going to generate income for yourself, for your household, if we’re asking you to come spend this time with us learn about black politics, learn about home design, learn about the nexus, where they meet. We have to be realistic about what the needs are of our young people while they are in our care.

Maurice Cherry:
And then this might… I don’t know, this might be a silly question. I think basing some of this off of my personal experience, but as you’ve been doing this have you been getting a lot of black community support financially?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. We did a crowdfunding campaign to go fund me. I mean, everybody supported, black, white, Asian, Latinx. Everybody supported, saw the vision, but a lot of our support was from black folks. Monetarily, just connections we made. The black folks at Adobe reached out, folks that work there. We found ourselves in very different places, and we find ourselves with a lot of resources that the story being told about us is like we all come from a lack. But there is a lot of resources in our community. [inaudible 00:25:25] showed up with those resources, made what we do even possible. If it wasn’t for the black community there would be no Black School.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, as we’re recording this, and it’s interesting because we were supposed to do this a while back. And I know you were moving and everything, had a bunch of stuff kind of going on. But I had written back then… And just so people who are listening, this was… When was this? About the fall last year I think we were supposed to record initially?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I wrote down about how several major cities in the US have been protesting against the death of black people at the hands of police. Fast forward to now, same thing. And then you of course have all these companies that are committing themselves to at least saying black lives matter. Although it’s now been shortened out to BLM and I feel some kind of way about that, how quickly people just sort of roll it off the tongue. How are you talking about these things at the school?

Joseph Cuillier:
That’s funny that you say it because there is this linguistic activism, insane black lives matter. I never thought about that, shortening it to BLM defeats the point. But you’re right, you got something there. But I’m sorry I was distracted by what you just put on me there genuinely. Say again the end of your question.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How are you talking about what’s happening now? I guess I could say two black people, but there’s a lot of shit happening to black people right now. But I’m speaking specifically about people protesting against the death of black people at the hands of police, companies that are now kind of coming on and giving their support and saying that they support black lives even if it’s just for show. How are you talking about these sort of metacultural thing at the school?

Joseph Cuillier:
How are we talking about it? It’s hard for me to say specifically to this moment, but generally it’s been a while now that the light bulb came on for me. And I realized that history is a cycle, and you say from fall to now we’re in spring, this cycle has turned over once more. And our folks are in the street, and companies are pandering pretty much to the movement the same way it happened this past summer. This happened when I graduated from Pratt around the same time while I was at school. I was in graduate school for design and Trayvon happened and it was there… It wasn’t there that happened. Everything that’s happening now has happened to a lesser extent. It’s more intense now but it was happening. Then Eric Garner happened a couple of years later.

Joseph Cuillier:
Well, I’m referencing George Zimmerman getting off, because that was a moment for me because I didn’t see him getting off. If I’d only looked at history, of course he was getting off. There was no way he was going to jail if I looked at history. But we get into these moments where we just forget about history, everything’s out of the window, we live in a new world. But history tells us this cycle of black people being brutalized comes to a boiling point and black folks said, “No more.” And white folks say, “Let’s figure this out, let’s make this right.” Then time passes, white folks stop caring, black folks continue to be brutalized, boom cycle continues. That’s why The Black School exists, to be 365 know.

Joseph Cuillier:
Every day of the year to yell that we need our own. How many times are white folks going to have to tell us no before we realize the answer is no. You want your freedom, you want your justice, you want economic opportunities, the answer has always been no. We ask they say no, we ask they say no, we ask they say no. And the cycle happens where the no’s are replaced to, “Maybe.” The no’s are replaced with, “Okay. Give us some time.” The no’s are replaced to, “Later.” But always behind all of that facade it’s always no. This moment still weighs heavy on my shoulders, it’s not like it doesn’t affect me anymore. But I know that this is just a cycle, I know they’re not going to stop killing us.

Joseph Cuillier:
I just know it and it’s not because I’m a psychic, history tells me. 400 years in this country tell me, if I opened up the books they wrote it’s going to tell me. I just got to take that note and say, “I’m going to build with my people. And my vision and what I would love to see in the world is a black nation for Black Americans.” Of course there’s a lot of black nations in this world, but a nation for Black Americans, that’s my goal. And if that’s not the answer, cool, but that’s the direction I’m walking in. We need all of it, it needs to be ours. What that looks like I don’t know, but we need our own.

Maurice Cherry:
What does it look like to center black love in a learning space?

Joseph Cuillier:
I think it looks like we all have seen it in our own experience. Maybe it’s learning from your mother over the kitchen table, or maybe it’s learning from a grandfather out in the garage and the driveway. There’s all these ways we learn in our community that are rooting in love, and rooting in care, and rotting in blackness. I think we can look to that, go back to history, we look at our personal histories and what kind of learning spaces felt loving, and felt effective? What kind of learning spaces worked for me? You’ll probably think of your living room, you’ll probably think of your kitchen, you’ll probably think of your backyard. That’s where we’re taking inspiration for the architecture of the school. Whether that be bricks or just how we’re structuring the curriculum, how we’re exchanging when we’re in this space, how we’re talking to each other, how we’re laying out the desks.

Joseph Cuillier:
We don’t even have desks, because when I think about the ways I like to learn it wasn’t in the desks. It was maybe over a work table, maybe it was an artist studio and it was over a work table, maybe it was in a circle on the floor. It’s all these other ways that are not being showed or even explored in the conventional school. One way is asking folks what they want to learn, not walking into a space with any assumptions. Before we start a workshop we ask our students what you love about your community? What you want to change about your community? And we may show up with screen printing supplies, or collage materials, we may show up with part of the workshop. But the rest of it, what we’re making, why we’re making it, who we’re making it for, that comes from the students.

Joseph Cuillier:
We are sharing the skills we have and the resources we’ve been able to generate and acquire, but it is an exchange. They are sharing their experiences, they’re sharing their needs, they’re sharing their passions, and that’s the learning community. It goes both ways, it’s not a teacher at the front, students lined up at the back. They are empty vessels, I have the knowledge, I put the knowledge into the empty vessels, they go out into the world [inaudible 00:34:30] repeat. It’s not like that. It’s really about you know about this very specific thing in the world, I know about this other very specific thing in the world, let’s put it together and what could we build?

Maurice Cherry:
Now there’s a third part to The Black School. I know we talked about the actual school itself, we’ve also talked about the studio. There’s this sort of third component to the ecosystem which is events. How have you been able to keep that going even with this sort of pandemic that’s keeping people apart?

Joseph Cuillier:
We haven’t kept it going. We have done workshops which is events, but specifically Black Love Fest, our music festival we do, we just paused it. Right now it’s going on the second year. We do it every summer, so last summer we didn’t do, this summer we’re not doing it. When it comes back it will be in collaboration with the New Orleans African American museum so it will be in New Orleans. The past three years it was in New York city two years, and then Houston at Project Row Houses.

Joseph Cuillier:
If you’re into the black school and the work we do check out Project Row Houses if you haven’t already, because they are the precedence that we’re working off. They’re the antecedent, they are the ancestors when we’re talking about ancestors that have done it, are still doing it. We essentially paused it, which was needed, we were tired anyway before the pandemic even came. And there’s no sense in getting people together and potentially hurting the people that the whole intention of the festival is to care for our people. It would just be a contradiction. And honestly I’m Zoomed out. I’m Zoned out.

Maurice Cherry:
I hear you.

Joseph Cuillier:
No more Zoom so we’re not doing a Zoom festival. I don’t think the intention behind the festival would even translate to Zoom. The intention is a barbecue, a cookout with some guiding principles behind it that we’ve talked about already. We can’t recreate everything in the digital space, we can’t create the real barbecue that we’re trying to create in a virtual space. It just makes sense to pause it, again do some deep listening, some deep thinking, some deep compensation. And then bring it back when we’re ready, when the world is ready for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, when we started doing… Or we were going to do a live tour in 2020 with Revision Path. I had been talking to a couple of AIGA chapters, and we had started the tour. I started in February in LA, did a show out there in Leimert Park with a local architect. It was great, standing room only. And when we’ve done past events… And I get what you’re saying, it’s the actual space itself that becomes this crucible for fellowship that you just can’t recreate over a Zoom call. Even when we’ve done events in New York, we’ve done events here in Atlanta. And for me the best thing about the event is when it ends, and people are still staying around talking for an hour, hour and a half, the venue-

Joseph Cuillier:
Stacking up their plate metaphorically.

Maurice Cherry:
… Right. The venue’s kicked us out, we’re standing outside and folks are like, “Well, let’s go to a bar and keep talking, or let’s go to a restaurant or something.” That kind of fellowship you just can’t do the same thing over Zoom. When the lockdown sort of first started happening and the chapters were getting back to me like, “Oh, well we can do a Zoom call and we can do this.” I was like, “I don’t want to do that. I’m already Zooming enough for work and I don’t want to have to try to do the same thing over Zoom.” One, because it’s just not the same. What I think the audience gets out of it aside from listening to the people, is to actually meet up with other black creatives in their city that they may not even know about. The fact that the event exists means that people are coming to it, and without that actual physical event then it’s just not the same.

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah. There’s a lot of things the internet can do, what you’re describing ain’t one of them. We haven’t figured that out yet with the internet. I think the intention is to love up on each other, the vision is to create this movement that will get us to where we need to go. When we’re doing the festival in Project Row Houses, Fox News actually came by. The local Fox chapter not the Fox News, but the local Fox station came by. And they asked me, “What is this about? What are you doing?” And I was like, “This is a movement. The purpose of this is to start a movement for black love, and to center black love at the center of what this country is.” Don’t we deserve it? Don’t we deserve to not just be tolerated, but to be loved after all we’ve done to literally build this country, to expand the freedoms and the rights of this country, to fight for them, die for them.

Joseph Cuillier:
I mean I was a little more and more crass. I was like, “The intention is for America to pay reparation, and dissolve, and reconstitute under black love.” I told Fox News that, they did not air it but that’s at the heart of what we’re trying to do. And we’re using the vessel that is the cookout, that is the street art, the public art, that’s some part of our culture, that is the performative nature. You dress up, we sing, we dance, we do all of these things that is just natural to our way of being, our blackness. And I think that it’s worth the wait, if it takes two years for the pandemic to subside it’s worth the wait. So we’re just going to wait.

Maurice Cherry:
Now kind of switching gears here a bit from the school which we’ve talked about for a good while now. You mentioned being in NYC, but you’re originally kind of between Louisiana and Texas. You kind of mentioned you kind of went back and forth a bit. Being in that sort of part of the South, I’m pretty sure art, music, and design were kind of a big part of your growing up, right?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it didn’t look like graphic design or fine art, but it’s definitely been with me since day one. The story I tell growing up in Baton Rouge, where I went to elementary and middle school. And my family we would go to Southern University football games, and it’s a HBCU so we had tailgate. All day before the actual game in the evening, we would barbecue or have a seafood boil. And this was every weekend which is crazy. The amount of food that we would buy, cook, eat with people, it’s crazy that we did this every weekend. I’m realizing that as I’m been growing up, and I am doing seafood boils now, I’m hosting them or I’m hosting a barbecue. But the funny moment that I always remember is maybe the week before the season started, my mom came home with a handful of clothes like the Polo’s and the Tommy’s. The things we were wearing at the time. And the other brands like the Sean John, and all that, and the FUBU.

Joseph Cuillier:
And it was such a moment of joy. I can see now that I was being brought up and cultivated into fashion design. I was being made a connoisseur of design. That may have been the intention consciously, or maybe an intention subconsciously, to have just a big stack of fresh clothes just thrown on my bed like, “Here, now you’re set for the whole season.” And as long as I can remember I’ve loved fashion, I’ve loved clothes, and I think that kind of introduced me to design. But when it came time for me to figure out what do I want to make myself as opposed to not just being a connoisseur but a creator. And I tried fashion, I tried street art, I tried a lot of different things, but graphic design was the thing that I don’t know, just came the most natural to me. And learning about it, learning the history of it, it was fascinating to read about the Bauhaus, read about the International Style, read about the shifts that were happening in art and design in a world that was creating these new ways of thinking, and these new ways of making.

Joseph Cuillier:
And technology too, also being so [cordially 00:44:20] in term with it. And that kind of put me to graphic design to study that. But even with that, the medium, the form making was interesting to me, but I think of myself as the designer that doesn’t really care about design. I know about the Bauhaus, I’ve been to the Bauhaus, I’ve been invited to the Bauhaus but I don’t care anymore. At the time I did, but right now I’m way more interested in learning about Orishas. I’m way more interested in learning about my family history, and how that relates to New Orleans. I’m way more interested in learning about black radical politics. The work I do is me just taking those ways of making and those ways of seeing, and just imply my interest to it. And as a result I think I look a bit different than most designers. Like my career, the things that I make, the things I put out and produce with these skills, in a lot of cases may not even look like design, period.

Joseph Cuillier:
But I think that’s my approach and it comes from those early influences, those early cultivations that my family placed on me. I come from a line of educators. My grandfather Joseph Cuillier, Sr, has a school named after him in New Orleans on the West Bank. There’s reasons for me to approach art and design from the lens of a educator. And it was kind of put into me before I even realized it was there, it’s been there. Growing up in Houston, being around Project Row Houses at the time that I was discovering fine art, it kind of put in pressure in my head like, “Oh, that’s fine art.” I learned about fine art in a city that took a very different approach to art. Thanks to the folks that Project Row, and Rick Lowe, and all the artists, and collectives that came together to create their vision. To be clear, Project Row Houses is a organization that started from this artists being challenged by young people in his community.

Joseph Cuillier:
They came to the studio, the folks from a local high school, and they saw what he was painting and they were like, “We don’t need you to paint about issues happening in our community. We know the issues. Who is this for because it’s not for us. You’re a creative person, how about you do something about it? How about you use your creativity and try to apply that to the issues and see if you could get some moving and shaking.” To have that down the street while I’m in college, and I’m just starting to go to galleries, and just starting to go to art spaces, it kind of made me think, “Oh, this is fine art.” When really it’s this ghetto eyes pushed it aside version of fine art that hasn’t really been supported in the same ways like an object maker is supported in the fine art world. Someone who makes paintings and sculptures. Long story long, the way I came up and where I came up has everything to do with the type of artist, the type of designer I am and I’m grateful for it. I couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. There’s been this thing that’s been going around lately around this concept of decolonizing design, where I think the notion is that you’re sort of introducing different sort of design cultures or things. It’s a person’s teaching practice or design practice in order to break them out of particular I would say just Eurocentric design sort of standpoint. Would you say that’s what you’re trying to accomplish with The Black School? Is something similar to that?

Joseph Cuillier:
Yes. And I’m just trying to decolonize not even in a metaphorical sense. I’m literally trying not to be a colony anymore. My wife was talking on this call and she was talking, and it was a group of folks from around the world. I don’t remember the country. Or I would’ve know the callers to even know the country. But it was an African sister and she was saying that decolonization has nothing to do with America. Africa we were colonized, what y’all got over there is something different. But really the opposite is true. I mean, not the opposite but we are still a colony. The colony never ended, we never decolonized. I feel like design, the tools we have to transform are tools that we can use to just de-colonize, period.

Joseph Cuillier:
I do believe decolonizing design is a part of that. We got to learn about the contributions of black folks to the design discipline. But we also have to learn about the contributions of black folks, period. We got to learn about the contributions of black folks to revolutionary thought. We’ve got to learn about the contributions of black folks to cultivating land, to building economic engine systems. And I think that will help you as a designer of course, but I think it will help us to the eventual goal is liberation, freedom, justice, these bigger ideas. Because I think design has that power. I have a deep faith in art and design, not the art world or the design world, but the actual mechanisms, methodologies, the act of creation.

Joseph Cuillier:
I think we can not only make it look sexy as far as revolution. I think we can make it look good because we have the skills to do that, but I also think we can do it if we use design in ways that are decolonized. It doesn’t have to be all about client services, that can generate revenue, that can generate income, that could generate economics in a community, but it also can be about… There’s an issue of gun violence, maybe we can design our way out of that, and it’s not going to be about typography. But there’s this certain set of perspectives and approaches that we use in design that can translate to bigger problems we see in our communities.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days? I mean, I feel like… And just for people that are listening to this, we’re recording this the week of April 19th, we don’t really know… Both Joseph and I don’t really know kind of what may transpire the next few days, that by the time you listened to this podcast might’ve already set some shit off. But it’s a rough time for black folks right now, which is an evergreen statement these days. But what keeps you motivated to keep going?

Joseph Cuillier:
Family for sure. Baby got to eat so got to get up and do what you got to do to make sure that happens. I just got this book and I just came back from Jackson, Mississippi. Freedom, by Edward Onaci, I think he pronounced it. And it’s inspired by another book of the same name, Dr Imar Obadele. And Obadele was a part of this black radical organization called the Republic of New Africa. And their vision was to take the southern states of the United States, so from Louisiana to Georgia and build a independent black nation. Which is one of the most creative, imaginative visions I’ve had or I’ve witnessed for black liberation. I’m super inspired by the work of those folks. At the moment that’s what I’ve been reading about. I just came back from Jackson, Mississippi, where they tried to get it going. And we obviously don’t have a black nation in the borders of the United States, but they got…

Joseph Cuillier:
Or folks inspired by that movement have bought all of these properties in West Jackson. We’re staying at this co-operative for New West Jackson that owns 67 properties in the hood. And they’re building farms, they’re building housing, they’re building economic engines in the space to employ people, to bring money to the space that has been all but abandoned. Isn’t crazy. Jackson is the capital of Mississippi, and if you drive around Jackson you come away with a clear idea that white folks in Mississippi don’t care. They do not care that it’s their capital, it’s like 90% black. And all you got to do is roll through West Jackson and you can see how much folks do not care. You would think, “Oh, this is a image of this state that we are projecting out to the world.” That does not matter, not to the white folks in Mississippi. And this cooperative has…

Joseph Cuillier:
Like you turn the corner onto a block and it’s like just walking into a oasis after walking through hundreds of miles of desert. It’s beautiful, the houses are beautiful, the land is beautiful, the people what they’re doing, and their vision for the world is beautiful. That’s one of the things that is inspiring me. I’ve really been into kind of reconnecting Afro spirituality, Afro spiritual practices like the hoodoos, and the voodoos, and Orisha based Yoruba kind of religious concepts. That’s been super inspiring to me today, I mean for the last couple of years. But right now it’s something I wake up thinking about, going to sleep thinking about, and it’s a lot of different things. My mind goes and gets pulled in a lot of different directions. Like yesterday my tufting gun arrived in the mail. You know what a tufting gun is?

Joseph Cuillier:
It’s a rug creating machine and it looks kind of like a gun, but the gun shoots yarn through a back in fabric you would use to make a rug. That’s one thing that I’ve been super inspired by. In that instance, buying that comes from my still love and interest in fashion. And it’s showing up in my practice as like I’ve been making these textile art works lately for the last few years now. I’ll create a collage, and Photoshop, print it out on fabric. And then sew it together, or make some new kind of construction out of it, some new kind of architecture out of it. That’s super inspiring to me, riding my bike is super inspiring to me, my wife and daughter. I lack no shortage of inspiration which is a good thing and a bad thing, because it distracts me from finishing one thing. Get super excited about something, then move to the next thing, then move next, but I’ll always come back.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Has there been a piece of advice that has stuck with you over the years as you’ve gone through life, as you’ve built out the school and everything?

Joseph Cuillier:
It’s hard to call anything to mind specifically. I think there’s lessons learned that may not be succinctly wrapped up in statements of advice. With certain lessons you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t, which sound depressing. But it’s taught me that you might as well just do what you want to do, because either way you’re going to end up at the same place. You might as well just say F it and be who you want to be, do what you want to do. Because I mean you could fake it, and be unhappy, and still not reach where you’re meant to reach.

Joseph Cuillier:
Or you could just live in that thing and deal with the initial discomfort of just being in your skin, and being who you are. But I think eventually you will end up where you need to be. I really believe in purpose right now more than ever, because I’ve been forced to sit down and think about that a lot. I believe what’s meant for you is meant for you, can’t nobody stop or take that. But it takes time for folks to really figure out their purpose, and it’s not just like a goal, it’s a moving target. I say figure out what that is for you, and live that unapologetically. Just go hard.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing? How do you want to… I imagine of course you’ll still be wanting to build out the school, but what does 2026 look like?

Joseph Cuillier:
Whoa, I think I need to put some pen to paper about that very soon. But hopefully the school… Not hopefully. What it looks like is the school will be built, will be functioning, doing art and civic engagement initiatives with our local community. That may look like our design workshops, or apprenticeships, or a community garden where we’re feeding ourselves food from the land. Hopefully it looks like me still creating, making things. I think of myself as a person who does two sorts of things, or artist or designer who does two sorts of things. I make things, object making, and I make experiences, platforms, producing and sharing knowledge.

Joseph Cuillier:
And I see those as two different kind of sides of a coin and hopefully I have a balance. Right now it’s real tilted towards the platforms, the community building, but I would love to spread it out a little bit more evenly. Hopefully The Black School is up and running to a degree where it’s second nature. We have our rhythm, we have our stride so it allows me, frees me up to do all the things, follow all those inspiration, and passions, and pursuits that kind of make me happy, and fill me with joy and fulfillment.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you, and about your work, and everything online?

Joseph Cuillier:
On Instagram, you can follow me at Joseph Cuillier first name, last name, or at The Black School. On the interwebs you can go to my website, josephcuillier.com or theblack.school. Not .com, not .org, .school, so theblack.school.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Joseph Cuillier, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Really thank you for talking about the school, and really how you’ve built it out, what you’re trying to do in the community. I’m glad that we were able to spend a lot of time really diving into what it’s about, and its structure, and of course what you’re trying to do in the community. I think it’s something that is super important and I really want to see kind of where this goes from here. Thank you for coming on the show, I appreciate it.

Joseph Cuillier:
Thank you, brother. Appreciate you, appreciate what you do. You’re building this platform for folks like us to just share knowledge, share experience, share space, it’s super appreciated.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

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Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

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Julian Williams

It’s a new month, and I am beyond excited to share with you my interview with Julian Williams. He may be young in age, but his impressive body of work rivals those of designers with years more experience. We talked a few months after he completed work on the Biden for American campaign as their lead opposition brand designer. Pretty cool!

We spoke about how he landed on the campaign, and Julian shared the differences between working with clients in the U.S. versus clients in Europe. From there, Julian took me through his history as a designer, including working for fashion designers Tommy Hilfiger and Karl Lagerfeld, a stint as an intern at &Walsh, and being a designer at Nike while in The Netherlands. Julian also shared how his passion for voguing and the ballroom scene helps influence his work, and he gives some great advice for graphic designers out there looking to find their own style. Julian’s motto is about making good work with good people — something we can all take to heart!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
So tell us who you are and what you do.

Julian Williams:
Hi. My name is Julian Williams, and I am a graphic designer and art director based in Amsterdam.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Before we get more into what you do, and your background, and everything, tell me how are you feeling right now? I know it’s late. For folks that are listening, we’re recording it’s 5:00 PM ish my time, but it’s several hours ahead where Julian is.

Julian Williams:
No. I’m feeling wonderful. We’ve had a lot of really good, sunny weather here in the Netherlands after the canals froze over about two or three weeks ago. And I think that’s been keeping my mood very, very high. I’ve been having some good work lately too. So I’m feeling quite happy and quite good.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. How has the year gone so far for you?

Julian Williams:
It’s been great, actually. I think now that kind of … in the Netherlands, we’ve been in our own lockdown. And we also have had for the majority of this year 2021, a curfew. But I think we’ve all kind of acclimated to that and are just kind of used to it. We can’t go out past a certain times and I’m just like I’ll get some projects done at home. I’ve been playing guitar a lot and writing some music when I’m not designing, or working for clients, or doing some personal work. So yeah, I’m doing pretty good. I think the year’s been going great so far.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. What would you say the general, I guess feeling is like in the city? I know that might be a little difficult to gauge.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. It’s interesting here. I’m in Amsterdam, which some people really look towards I think when they think of the Netherlands. And there’s a lot of controversy going on right now with the pandemic. There’ve been a lot of protests centered in Amsterdam of people who don’t agree with lockdown measures. And it is creating quite a bit of tension. There’s even been small instances of violence around the country based around lockdowns and stuff. So I think things feel a little tense. And also, people have kind of been doing what they want for a while and not being as careful I think, as other European countries. Like it took us longer to have a mask mandate than a lot of other countries. So yeah, I think there’s a little bit of tension in the air. But mainly, people are just kind of sticking to themselves and going about their days. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. I figured America would have a monopoly on people acting in public around-

Julian Williams:
I thought the same actually. I was like oh man. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was like, “I’m in Europe. We have everything together. We got it going.” And lately in the last few months, the Netherlands has also not been doing so great with their vaccine rollout. And I’ve been talking to friends in the U.S. who have gotten their shots and stuff already. And I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be August or something by the time I get vaccinated.”

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like it might be that way here as well. I mean, I’m in Georgia. Which is I think as of our recording, the state that is the worst in terms of vaccine rollout. If it’s not the worst, it’s one of the worst. It’s circling the bottom, 49 or 50, something like that. So we’re not doing too great either. But I can wait. Really, I was concerned about whether or not my folks got the shots and my grandparents got the shots, which they did. So I’m like I can wait. I work from home. I’ve already had to do this for a year. I can wait-

Julian Williams:
That’s the feeling I have too. I’m very fortunate with the kind of work that I have as well. So I’m quite good being at home. A lot of the stuff that I like to do, I can enjoy in my living room. So yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Talk to me about what kind of projects you’re working on now.

Julian Williams:
Right now, it’s quite interesting because … so I have entered into the world of freelancing, which is not something that I’ve been crazy used to before, but it’s something I’m loving a lot right now. And I am actually working with a company called Meow Wolf that was started in Santa Fe, New Mexico where I went to university. And they have acquired some spaces in Las Vegas and Denver. And they make these kinds of insane, it’s so difficult to describe what I’m working on now. These insane interactive, almost museum spaces that are also story-based. Each place that they acquire kind of has its own narrative. And I’m doing work for their space that’s going to be opening later in the year in Denver, Colorado. And I’m really excited to be working on this because a lot of my colleagues are former professors and classmates of mine, who I saw all the time in Santa Fe. So it’s really been great to kind of reconnect with those people after so many years and make cool stuff like we used to.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. So you still kind of keep in touch with folks, and friends, and everything from back home?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. I definitely make a point to have conversations with former classmates, and friends, and teachers about things I think are interesting and design. Because when I was in university, I really believe that those were the people and the parts of studying that gave me the most. Just talking to people about things that they were interested in. And yeah, I make an effort to keep that going, even though we’re not in school anymore. And I think people feel really engaged by that sometimes.

Maurice Cherry:
How is the design scene for you in Amsterdam?

Julian Williams:
I love it. And I feel really happy that I had the opportunity to study American design in the United States, and then just kind of get thrust into this other design world. It’s interesting because I started my career in Europe, but I was studying in the United States. I feel like there’s kind of a seriousness to design in Europe that obviously in some parts of the United States exists as well. But there’s just something about the way that people approach the execution of design that I think is quite rooted in history and design movements from the past. I mean, in the Netherlands, you can see the influences of Mondrian and quite prolific artists and designers all the time in repeated and interesting ways. So yeah, it’s interesting. It’s quite cultural here. It’s quite serious.

Julian Williams:
And then I think I’m also fortunate because I’m in Amsterdam, and it’s such a multicultural city, that it’s great to see outsiders like me come in and have a play with that kind of design language, and kind of bring our own taste into that.

Maurice Cherry:
Now I know that you just came off of a pretty big design gig. You were working for the Biden for President campaign.

Julian Williams:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
Tell me about that.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Coming onto it was rather random. So pandemic is happening. I’m in my apartment in the Netherlands. I was sitting on my couch. And this person I had never met before in my life named Robyn Kanner sends me an email saying, “Hi, I’m creative advisor for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. And we’d like to talk to you about potentially coming on and working for the campaign.” And it was quite a process from that first email to signing the contract and being like okay, I’m part of the team now. But gosh, it was a fantastic, exciting, fiery, wild, interesting design experience that I feel so fortunate to have been part of. And I met incredible people working on that team on something that we all felt was so important.

Maurice Cherry:
Was it difficult working with, I would imagine the team is mostly U.S. based, but was it difficult trying to kind of acclimate to that?

Julian Williams:
Well yes, you are correct that it was U.S. based. I was actually the only person on the campaign based outside the United States. It was not difficult for me though, because I am quite used to adjusting my life to other time zones. My mom is German, and my dad is American, and we’ve always moved around the world as a family and had to talk to family in the states when we live in Germany, and talked to family in Germany when we’re living somewhere else. And I also told them I’m willing to adjust my entire life to work on this. If I need to sleep a few hours in the daylight and then be up all night, I will. It’s funny that’s what I thought it would be. And then it actually just ended up being I was just awake as often as possible to work on stuff. Because you never know what’s going to happen when the president gets COVID and then you have to make content based on that or not make content based on that.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And you were working specifically with opposition research, right?

Julian Williams:
Yes. So in my interview, it was funny. I remember Robyn Kanner asking me, “How would you feel about designing content that I don’t know, maybe attacks the president of the United States?” I was just laughing. I was just like, “I feel amazing about doing that. And I also have a bunch of content that I’ve been making for years on my personal platforms showing that not only can I do it, but I can do it quickly, and I can do it in interesting ways. So let’s get to it.”

Julian Williams:
And yeah, then I was hired as a middleweight designer on the campaign, and then I was quickly promoted to lead opposition brand designer. And I developed with Robyn the art direction for how the Biden campaign talked about the Trump administration and the things that the president had and mainly hadn’t done.

Julian Williams:
It was a really interesting opportunity for me because I have a large background in really graphic design, a little bit of art direction. But I loved this because I have quite a political background. Before I just decided to study graphic design, I actually wanted to go to West Point and study political science, serve in the military, and then go into politics. That was my plan. And I had been talking to my parents about it for a lot of time up until my last semester of high school when I did a complete 180 and I was like, “No, I’m going to be working with something visual for sure. Or I’ll go crazy.” But I’m so happy I got to do this because a large part I feel of what I was doing was strategy-based. Stuff would happen and we had to react to it quite quickly, especially around debate time. And I actually really loved the engagement and almost weirdly thrill of having to quickly concepts visualize and then execute designs based on things happening in real time. I loved it. It was quite interesting.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s quite a shift. And I’ll ask you what it was just growing up and everything. But yeah, that’s a go from wanting to be in the military and politics to switching over to graphic design, that feels very sort of left brain, right brain in a way.

Julian Williams:
In high school, actually I did a lot of things in high school. I was in theater, I was running cross country. I was in choir. I was like, “Let me do everything.” But my actual kind of baby was speech and debate. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the NFL, the National Forensics League.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Julian Williams:
So the National Forensics League is this thing in universities and high schools. It’s an institution in the United States that is the main program for public speaking debates and extemporaneous speaking in the United States. And when I was in high school, I participated in debate tournaments around Texas. And in my last year, I forgot if I represented El Paso or Texas in the national competition in Birmingham, Alabama. I loved to debate. And my specific category was CX debate, which is evidence based debate. And I loved it. And I’m really happy that I did that when I did, because I think that has made me quite comfortable going from verbal communication to visual communication. And then talking about that visual communication when I need to.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s interesting that you were able to kind of transfer those skills over like that.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Yeah. It really worked out like that.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at your time on the campaign, what do you remember most?

Julian Williams:
I remember working with really strong women and a really diverse team of people. A lot of colors on our team. A lot of gender identities, a lot of sexual identities. My bosses Robyn Kanner and Carahna Magwood are two amazing, intelligent women. Also just really inspiring. Carahna is a mom. She was deputy design director of our team. And now she’s working at the White House I believe as creative director. She’s running creative at the White House. I forgot what the official title is. But she’s raising a five-year-old and guiding an entire team of designers, reacting to content, driving her kid to school while on meetings with us. And I remember just thinking, “Gosh, this woman is Wonder Woman. Wow, I’m so inspired by this.” And it really became this little family. And it was also so interesting because no presidential campaign has ever been like this, and hopefully no one ever will be.

Julian Williams:
A bunch of us never met. I was on the other side of the world getting on phone calls with people who are just waking up. We had a morning meeting every day. We had an evening meeting every day, every single day. Every single day for four months that I worked on the campaign. And I’m so happy we worked the way … for something that serious, I feel like we didn’t have a choice but to work as a family. And I think the thing that I just remember is just how diverse, and engaging, and interesting, and fun, and exciting this family was.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Folks that have listened to the show knows that I’ve worked on a political campaign before. It was just a mayoral campaign. And I was on there for I think from February to November. So 10 months-ish doing design, and new media, and everything. And this was back in, I’m dating myself. This was 2009. So this was right after Obama got elected. And this was the first set of real municipal races in the country that saw what Obama did with social media, and with great graphic design, and everything. And they wanted that. I’d say every candidate that I had run across including the one that I worked for, they wanted that Obama sort of shine and everything. And it was so interesting trying to navigate that time because there was no handbook.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, the people that did that first campaign, some of them of course went off to the White House. But nobody really knew how to do any of this stuff. I mean, now it’s common. Now if you’re running, you have to have all these things kind of in your toolbox, in your campaign toolbox. But back then, I had found some girl on BlackPlanet that did custom MySpace pages. Again, dating myself. We had a custom MySpace page. We had a Flickr page and a Meetup page. We tried to get on every sort of social network that we thought we could find constituents on or at least try to connect with people on. And it was just such a different time from then and now.

Maurice Cherry:
But I know what you mean about those daily meetings. And you really get close with those people in a very short amount of time. I mean, I feel like any campaign, it’s like a little mini company in a way. And then of course once the campaign ends, everyone kind of goes their separate ways. Some go with the candidates, some don’t. For me, I was at that time also starting out with my own studio. And it was so beneficial to me afterwards. Because I had now this Rolodex of contacts that I could reach out to.

Julian Williams:
I do feel like that as well. It’s also interesting that you mentioned people wanting what Obama had on his campaign in their campaigns. Because I think in the world of design that happens, and it did happen for our campaign, with really simple things. Like after Obama’s campaign, everyone wanted to use the font Gotham. A bunch of people were using Gotham. And it’s interesting something that we did. So before I entered the Biden campaign, I hated gradients. Just gradients. I was like, “I’m not putting gradients on anything that I make. They’re hideous, no place for them.” And freaking Robyn Kanner made me fall in love with gradients, made our entire team fall in love with gradients. And she was constantly talking about how gradients were so she used the word luscious. It’s actually kind of an inside joke within our campaign, this thing of luscious gradients or something that we applied to a lot of the visuals that we made. And then kind of towards the end of the campaign and after our campaign, a bunch of other campaigns like the runoff election in Georgia, they were using gradients as well. Which is not something that’s very common to I think a lot of political campaigns before. So it’s interesting how this stuff becomes cyclical and these influences kind of trickle down. They wrote the book. So let’s work in the way that they worked.

Maurice Cherry:
Right. No, I think we’re starting to see a lot more … I mean, this is probably a weird observation, but we’re starting to see a lot more design in politics in several different ways. I think one, of course in the way that we’re talking about, which is for advertising a candidate or particular cause. Usually a candidate is using some combination of red, white, and blue in a very sort of discrete fashion where you don’t see things like different topography, or gradients, or halftones, or any of that other sort of stuff. But I think also what we can see from just what’s happened in this country over the past few years is how design can be used in a negative fashion to disinform people to have wrong information out there, all that sort of stuff. So I think it’s kind of always around, but it feels like it’s certainly become a lot more prevalent and known to more people over the past few years just how much design has been kind of a double-edged sword in politics.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. That was something that I had to, I feel I applied a lot of that kind of research into the way I went about creating the art direction for the opposition of the campaign. And it comes directly back to the debate world that I was talking about before. In CX debates, often there’s a topic every year. And at the time when I was a senior, it was transportation infrastructure. And the main topic for the entire country or all schools the entire year was should the United States increase investment in its transportation infrastructure? And you actually have to learn to both affirm and negate that statement. You have to play both sides. And I always feel like understanding that is so vital in getting your message across.

Julian Williams:
Often now, I find myself telling younger designers when they’re making something, like if they’re making a poster, don’t go to designers asking for the opinions. Obviously you should, you should get as much help as you can. But in a way, the people who aren’t designers are the ones who you’re communicating to. And that was something I tried to always keep in the back of my mind to think about it’s best if we get as many votes from everyone so it’s good to understand the viewpoint of everyone and the way that people view the current president, if I’m trying to create content that is attacking him, and decreasing his power, and making him look smaller than he is. That was something that my team and I felt maybe hadn’t been explored as much in previous campaigns.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And also, I have to say of course you all did a fantastic job. After the campaign ended, did you have an opportunity to work for the administration, or did you just decide to sort of stay freelance?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. So I actually did a little bit of work for the inauguration just for a hot second. That was really nice. And everyone had the opportunity to kind of apply to positions at the White House. I kind of wanted to get back to making more connections. And I think that’s kind of the way that I’m approaching the work that I look for right now. I say that my biggest dream is to make good work with good people. And I think this last year, that’s really become a reality, and I’ve had a taste of how amazing that is. And I want to just keep meeting more people and working on diverse things. And I do definitely see myself coming back to the political world in the future. Although, I think the thing that drove me to do it this year, with this last year was just the urgency of this campaign had to go the way that it did, or so much would have gone wrong.

Julian Williams:
And I’m really happy that they hired me because I brought a whole different perspective anyone else who was working on the campaign I feel, in the sense that I was telling my coworkers, “This affects the whole world. If this man remains president, there are people in the Middle East who are going to have a lot of problems.” My two countries had a fantastic relationship with each other before Donald Trump was president. And it actually really pains me to see the two leaders of the countries that I’m from having the conflict that they do.

Julian Williams:
So there was a whole lot of other things kind of riding on this election for me. And to have an opportunity to be a direct part of effecting that in any way was really important to me. So I feel myself being drawn towards working in politics in the future. I kind of hope that I don’t feel such a drive and need to be involved in politics in the way that I did last.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s probably for the best. I’m sort of speaking from experience. Again, not at the level that you have. But yeah, it’s good to have that experience to be able to work in that sort of crucible of creating work, but it’s so much better to be outside of it. You just gain a different perspective. So yeah. You mentioned Santa Fe. Is that where you grew up?

Julian Williams:
Where I grew up is a loaded question. Okay. How much time do you have? So I was born in the Southwest of Germany in a place called Kaiserslautern. My mom and I’s hometown is Ramstein-Miesenbach, which is right next to Kaiserslautern. And I lived there for five years. And then my family moved to El Paso, Texas. And El Paso has always kind of been what I consider to be my American hometown. We spent a lot of time in Germany and El Paso because my dad was in the army for 30 years.

Julian Williams:
So we were in Germany. Then we went to Texas. We were in Virginia a bit, we went back to Germany. And then high school time, ended up back in El Paso, Texas. So I was in the Southwest. And that’s kind of what got my eye towards Santa Fe. And Santa Fe, New Mexico one is my favorite place that I’ve been to in the United States. And I think it’s the most beautiful place. And it definitely was where I needed to be.

Julian Williams:
I have a special connection to Santa Fe, Mexico City, And Amsterdam. I also spent a lot of university time traveling to Mexico City. My school had a sister school in Mexico. And a lot of my friends live in Mexico City and got quite close to that city. But those three places, I just had this feeling. Whenever I was there, I was like, “I’m meant to be here right now.” And it’s not a feeling I’ve had about anywhere else that I’ve lived or been. And yeah, I feel really fortunate to have been in Santa Fe when I was there. It’s such an amazing place. And Santa Fe University of Art and Design, I kind of describe it as a lovely experiment gone wrong. Because unfortunately, the school closed down the year after I graduated. But for the time that I was there, it was fantastic. That such talented engaging students and teachers, we were kind of like this little artist colony. Just making stuff, just wiling out on some art. It was great.

Maurice Cherry:
How many people have asked you if you know the way to Santa Fe?

Julian Williams:
I feel like actually only people in New Mexico ask me that question.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. Okay. So with all of this kind of moving around and this really sort of melding and meshing of cultures, I would imagine that you were exposed to a lot of design probably just through all of these different stimuli.

Julian Williams:
Oh yeah. Yeah. And I think I’m really, really fortunate for that to be the case. I mean, I do kind of feel like I have to acknowledge that there’s a little bit of privilege that is associated with that. In the sense that me being a citizen of two countries has a lot of privilege behind it. I can work anywhere in the EU. I can work anywhere in the United States. So now in the last year, I’ve been giving a lot of talks to university students. And I always make sure that I mention that, because it’s not always so easy I feel for people to have some of the experiences that I’ve had. I mean, I definitely have things going against me like working as a Black person in the creative world obviously has its drawbacks around the world. But being a citizen of these places does give me some advantages of having lots of different cultural influence in my work, opportunities to meet people, and work with people, which I feel very fortunate to be a part of. And I hope the stuff that I’m doing is giving back to people around the world in some way.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I was curious about kind of your influences. Because when I look at your work, like the work that you have on Instagram, the work that you have on your website, it’s so strongly topography based.

Julian Williams:
That’s very funny to hear. Sorry, go ahead.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you heard that before?

Julian Williams:
No, it’s so interesting. When I was in university, everyone was afraid of topography. We had a wonderful topography instructor named Arlyn Nathan. Bless her. A fantastic, fantastic teacher. I believe she attended Yale. And all of us were always so scared of typography. Topography is like the most difficult part of graphic design. And I think I still feel some of that. I still feel quite intimidated by typography. But I often find myself engaging with things that intimidate me. So maybe that’s what you’re seeing is me being a bit of a masochist maybe.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean there’s that. I think the way that you approach it certainly is in a very kind of I don’t know if I want to say brutalist. First of all, I didn’t go to design school, so I don’t know these terms. But when I see it, it’s in your face. You don’t miss it. There’s no subtlety about it. Which I like. I like that.

Julian Williams:
My actual introduction to design and typography, when I went to university in Santa Fe, I barely actually knew how to navigate the internet. A home computer wasn’t something that … my parents were a little strict. So they were like, “Yeah, do something that’s not on the computer.” So when I got to university, I was quite intimidated because it seemed like everyone knew Photoshop, and people knew their way around the internet. And I definitely didn’t and didn’t even know how to hold a Wacom pen.

Julian Williams:
And actually when I got to university, the thing that I gravitated towards was graffiti and spray paint. My dad was in the military. I wasn’t running around at home with cans of paint, getting into trouble. Because I would have problems when I come home. But when I got to university, it was something I was really interested in. And I think that is kind of my first jump into the world of typography, and communication specifically. I was meeting graffiti writers in Santa Fe. I was spray painting legally, sometimes not so legally, and doing quite in your face messaging things. And I think that is maybe what I see in my work now. My relationship with typography is quite loud and informative, I think. And it’s been quite an evolution from those freshmen days of messing around with some cheap spray paint cans. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Graffiti. That’s interesting. I don’t know why I’m not thinking that there would be graffiti in Santa Fe, New Mexico. But-

Julian Williams:
It’s great. It’s great. And also, New Mexico has a large native population. and that comes into the work a lot as well. I’ve met quite a few native graffiti writers around Santa Fe. Really awesome stuff.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, one of the first design gigs that you scored right out of college was actually pretty big. You worked for Nike, or you interned for Nike, and then you later worked for Nike. Is that right?

Julian Williams:
Correct. Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
How was your experience?

Julian Williams:
It was really fantastic, interesting, challenging at times. I think definitely the hardest point in my career. I got interested in Nike as a student because Bijan Berahimi, a designer who runs a studio in Portland called FISK, fantastic design studio, came to my university and gave a workshop with his friend Chris Burnett based around Nike because they had both worked at Nike previously. And we made all this interesting work. I remember being really stressed out about the work for some reason. I was just thinking I have to make the most amazing thing. Because this is based on Nike, and they’re such a big place. And I stayed up until 4:00 AM working on this little poster I was making. And I left the lab crying because I just hated what I made. And I went back to my dorm room, and actually someone had set off like the water sprinkler in the dorm. And all me and my friends had to sleep in this brightly lit storage shed off the side of our dorm for an entire night. It was just the worst night of university ever.

Julian Williams:
But I talked to Bijan a lot at that workshop, and he actually reached out to me a little bit later to work on some freelance work for Nike. And my mind was just like, “Man, Nike. I really feel good when I work on this stuff. And I’m so interested in it.” And I saw that they were hiring a design intern in Europe. And I applied, I had an interview, and I got the job. It was so funny. When I got the phone call, it was 4:00 AM in New Mexico. And some number I didn’t recognize called me, and the person on the phone was like, “Hi, are you Julian? You’re going to come to Amsterdam and work for Nike.” And out loud on the phone I said, “Fuck.” It was the first thing out of my mouth. I was just like I’m in New Mexico right now. I’m about to get on a plane to a place I know nothing about.

Julian Williams:
But I did it. And I came to the Netherlands. Nike’s European headquarters is in a village called Hilversum a few minutes away from Amsterdam. And it was really challenging. I think I was still working on my thesis. I was halfway through my last year of university at the time. So that was another thing. I was still working on schoolwork while working for one of the biggest companies in the world as my first career thing ever. But I also feel like in that time, I was kind of relearning how to be European and how to engage with Europeans on a creative level, on just conversational level as well. I feel like I kind of in a way, had a little bit of an American handicap when I started working at Nike.

Julian Williams:
But there was a point where I just kind of pushed through and stopped worrying so much about this stuff, and was just making work in the way that I had learned to in university. My design professor David Grey, who he was kind of a mentor of mine in university. He really had us just kind of sit down and make things without worrying. Obviously we have to think about the process at some point. But our really early design practices revolved around making. And that was also something that we did in our workshop with Bijan. And I started working in that way and also bringing a bit of analog stuff in. And stuff just started clicking, and I stopped worrying about stuff. And all the things that you learn about how to present decks, and how to talk to clients and stuff just kind of came naturally.

Julian Williams:
It is difficult though, working in that kind of world. So I finished my internship, and then I was hired as a brand designer at Nike. I do feel that Nike has a very large hierarchy problem. I think that titles matter to people a lot. And I don’t think I realized it at the time that it was actually quite toxic. I think it still is quite toxic, which is unfortunate because Nike is my favorite brand. They produce some of my favorite design work in the world. However, yeah, just this kind of ranking stuff was not something I was aware of until I later left Nike and worked at other places and realized it’s not supposed to be like this. I’m not supposed to feel my opinion maybe doesn’t matter as much as this person because they have a higher salary than me.

Julian Williams:
I also feel like sometimes if you’re a minority working in creative at Nike, sometimes your expertise in certain cultural things might not get taken advantage of in a correct way. I mean, I was 21 and 22 when I was at Nike. I was the target audience. Young, male, interested in street wear and sports. And I don’t know, I wasn’t trying to go around being this loud intern like, “Listen to me. I know.” But I feel like maybe it’s just the thing of missed opportunities.

Julian Williams:
I also feel like, and just to be quite candid, I think it would be difficult to work as a creative at Nike if I were a woman. Without getting too into that, just Nike is a boys club. It’s a straight, cisgender white boys club. I mean I worked in the European headquarters. I witnessed it there. But I actually heard it echoed heavily in Portland where the global headquarters is. And I think it’s a big problem. And I think it’s come to light a lot in recent years. And I hope that things are being done to change that.

Julian Williams:
And also interestingly enough, I lost my job at Nike. I was fired actually. Which at the time was really devastating. And now, I’m actually very thankful for it, and thankful for the opportunity to talk to young designers about this. And the reason I was fired interestingly enough, I had been about 10 months into working as a brand designer. And I was asked to give a design talk to a university in the United States. And my Instagram at the time was all personal design work. I was making a lot of posters based around political things that were happening in the world, stuff that Donald Trump was tweeting. Or just poems songs, honestly whatever I felt like. It’s just a typical design Instagram. And I gave this talk, and the talk was about me studying in Santa Fe, getting my job at Nike, the way that happened. I actually made a poster based on that phone call I mentioned earlier where I was like, “Fuck.” And I took the word fuck, and I put it on top of the Nike swoosh. And I posted it to Instagram. And the caption I wrote was, “Just finished wrapping up a wonderful talk with my former professor and his new students at university of so-and-so about my wild life at Nike.” And I tagged Nike.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no. I think I see where this is going.

Julian Williams:
So I think I gave the talk on the Thursday, posted that on Friday, came into work on Monday, worked all day, got asked to come into the back Nike office, and was just told, “Yeah, we have a zero tolerance social media policy. We have to take your laptop. We have to take your hard drive. We have to escort you off campus, and we’re terminating your contract.” And I was 22. Yeah. In hindsight, I do sometimes kind of wonder. Because at the time, it was wintertime, things were really busy, and the environment was quite tumultuous. And I wonder if there were other things that maybe influenced a decision. Because my team was devastated. They were actually talking to our leadership basically saying, “This is ridiculous. There’s no reason why you can’t give this person a warning. They obviously love this brand.”

Maurice Cherry:
Did they even give you a chance to explain the context?

Julian Williams:
I was shocked and I said, “You can read this caption right there. It’s very obvious that I have no malicious intent with this design.” At the time, it really sucked. I asked a random person to take a photo of me standing, at the time, Nike was having their just do it campaign with Colin Kaepernick where he says, “Stand for something. Even if,” I forget the phrase of the campaign. It won a bunch of awards, it was brilliant. But there was a big poster of Colin Kaepernick. And I was being escorted to the main office to be taken off campus. And I asked some random lady to take a photo of me in front of that for some reason. And I actually show that photo when I give talks. Now it’s just me looking devastated in front of Colin Kaepernick because I just lost my dream job.

Julian Williams:
Now though I have to say, I am extremely thankful that that happened. Because I think when you’re a student, sometimes people look at Nike as the end all to the design world. It’s the top of what you can be. And then when I got into it, I realized no. The thing that I love is working with cool people. And I’ve met some cool people at Nike, and I’ve met some not so cool people at Nike. So I want to see where the other cool people are. And I think if I hadn’t been fired actually, I would probably still be in that world because I didn’t know any better at the time. And yeah, nowadays I feel really thankful that that happened, because some amazing stuff happened after that. [inaudible 00:43:44] first though.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I told you kind of before we started recording that I’ve had a few other black designers that worked at Nike on the show before. And they’ve all kind of pretty much said the same thing about just how the work culture is and everything. So it’s sad that that’s the case from such a prolific brand. But I have to say, you said you were 22 when that happened?

Julian Williams:
Yep.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s the best time for that kind of stuff to happen in your career is. No seriously, at the beginning, that is the best time. And I don’t know what it is, and I guess I’m sort of looking at my own story here too. I also got fired from a job for it wasn’t a social media post. It was a blog. Actually, it was several blog posts. I’ll tell you after we stop recording. But yeah, I got fired in a very similar fashion from a job. And I wasn’t a designer. I was doing customer service or something like that. But it was after I got fired from that job that I got my first real design gig that then sort of kick-started my career. So I mean sometimes, you have to have a setback to have a comeback.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. And I also really established my own personal design practice at that time. Because to be honest, after I got fired from Nike, for a few months, life got quite hard. It just so happened that the time I lost my job was also the time the contract for the apartment I was living in was ending. So I wasn’t job secure. So then I became not house secure as well. And I ended up couch hopping for a few months. And I hated being a burden to other people. My friends were quite helpful. And to them, it wasn’t a big deal at all to have me on their couch for a week or so. But I just felt so bad.

Julian Williams:
But what I will say is in this time, I was making design work like crazy. And just for no reason at all. And the kind of mindset that I had, I was giving myself ridiculous design briefs. I was like I’m going to design a passport for the moon for the future when we colonize the moon, and I’m going to create a rave poster for the planet Venus in a made up language. And the kind of mindset that I had, because I had only worked for Nike. So all the work I had to show was from Nike. And I didn’t like that. I was like if I’m going to interviews and stuff, I need to be able to show some different kind of stuff. I mean, I can make a bunch of different things for Nike, but I don’t want to just have swooshes all over my portfolio.

Julian Williams:
And going into interviews, I was showing this personal work actually as if it were real work. I wasn’t even mentioning, “I just made this one.” I just showed the things. And I was like, “Obviously, no one’s asked me to make this. But I’m showing you that if someone did ask me insanely to design a passport for the moon, I would be able to do that. And if I can do that, I can do whatever you want me to do for your brand. I can design a website for you. I can design a clothing line. Let’s get to work.” And I was making stuff like every single day. I was like if I’m not going to be working, I’m going to be working for myself. And I’m going to have some tools in my back pocket to show people what I love to do. And yeah, I’m really happy that I did.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s good that you kept on kind of designing and sort of honing your craft at this time, even when you sort of had this other insecurity, just in terms of where you’re going to stay and where money is coming from. That didn’t deter you from still creating.

Julian Williams:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now you also have worked as a graphic designer in the fashion industry for a few well-known designers. Was it different doing design work for a fashion brand versus more of a sports brand like Nike was?

Julian Williams:
Definitely. Actually, the first job I did after losing my job at Nike, I worked as a freelance designer for Karl Lagerfeld for quite some months. I have an interesting story about that as well. I got the interview with Karl Lagerfeld. I had actually used the last of my money to move everything I own into a storage unit. And I was staying at a friend’s place. I ran back to the storage unit, got whatever the nicest outfit was that I could put together, which was quite nice if I do say so myself. I had some Nike shoes and some things. They were just in storage. I went to Karl Lagerfeld office, had my interview.

Julian Williams:
A few days later, I get a phone call. “Hi, we loved you. We’re looking forward to work with you. We’d love for you to come in and start on Monday.” I said, “Fantastic.” This is not a lie. I put my phone down. I went to use the bathroom. I came back, I picked my phone up. I opened Instagram. The first thing that pops up, Complex News, Karl Lagerfeld has died. And I was like, “Is it me? Am I cursed?” That is not a lie. It happened exactly like that. A few minutes later, I got a phone call back from the project manager saying, “Hey, don’t worry. We still want to work with you. Can we move your booking by one week? Because everything is on fire.” And I was like, “Yep, completely understand. Let’s do it.”

Julian Williams:
I loved working for Karl Lagerfeld. I got to do a lot of things that I hadn’t been introduced to before, like art directing some product photo shoots. They gave me a lot of creative freedom because they at the time wanted to revamp a lot of digital and social content. And I think that’s one of the reasons that they went with me. I think that like you said, it’s a fashion brand. It’s not sportswear. They might have some sportswear items every now and then. But I think they were looking for someone like me who had had a different kind of experience to bring a bit more interesting content.

Julian Williams:
And then I went on to work for Tommy Hilfiger, which I felt kind of walked the line of the two worlds that I had worked. Sportswear, and then a bit more fashion-y stuff. And I really loved working for Tommy Hilfiger. I think they did the opposite of what I was missing at Nike. They appreciated who I was as a person, the interests that I had. And thought how can we apply this to our work? An important part of my life actually outside of design. So I Vogue. And maybe some people don’t know what that means when I say that I Vogue.

Julian Williams:
But voguing is a community and a culture of people that was started by people of color in New York, in the United States. And these people gather to have kind of these competitions/performances called balls that incorporate a bunch of different things like fashion, and dancing, and creating outfits, and sometimes drag. And at the time, I had been voguing for about a year or so, maybe a year and a half. I had started voguing because voguers have things called houses, which are basically groups of people who compete together at these competitions, at these balls. And the main house of the Netherlands is called the House of Vineyard. It was started by Ms. Amber Vineyard who came to give a voguing workshop at Nike, spotted me. And she came up to me. And when you participate in these balls, it’s called walking. And you walk different categories. There are categories like face, and you have to show your beautiful face. Or there’s body. And you have to show that you have a luscious or muscular body. And there are performance categories like Vogue femme, which is a fantastic expressive dance and performance style.

Julian Williams:
And Ms. Amber Vineyard spotted me at her workshop and in the crowd. And she came up to me and she said, “You need to come to my balls. You need to come to my classes and meet my ballroom children. I see you walking this category and this category.” And gosh, it just thrust me into this insane, fantastic, beautiful world of queer Black arts. And I met so many talented people, and it became such an important part of my life. I really see a lot of these people as family who I see all the time, we confide in each other. We actually have we call them mothers and fathers. They’re the ones who kind of like lead the houses and the ballroom children. And that is something that I became quite comfortable talking about in my work.

Julian Williams:
And when I have interviews with people, when I went to interview at Tommy Hilfiger, my eventual bosses who I was interviewing with asked me, “What do you do?” When I worked at Nike, it had also kind of become known that I Vogue. And at the time I was a little like I maybe don’t like so much that everyone knows that I do this. So I was going to try to kind of keep it a little on the down well when I started working at a new place. But I was like, “It’s an interview, whatever. It’s fine. I can tell them.” And I told them, “I Vogue. And I vogued around Europe and around North America.” And on my first day of work, a bunch of people came by my desk and they’re like, “You’re the voguer, right? You do this and this.”

Julian Williams:
And Tommy Hilfiger head of influencer marketing actually came to my desk and was, “I need you to tell me who the interesting people are in Amsterdam right now. Because we want to work with these people in the correct way.” Which I appreciated so much. Because I feel like in the world of fashion and these brands and stuff, ballroom is becoming quite popular right now. .It’s becoming quite marketable. And a lot of times, people do it the incorrect way. So it makes me quite comfortable when people approach people within the scene, so that they make sure that they’re doing it the correct way.

Julian Williams:
And when I worked at Tommy Hilfiger, I managed to get some really close friends of mine booked as models for campaigns. Because they actually came up to me and they were like, “We want you in the campaign.” And I was like, “No, no, no, no. I’ve been voguing for about a year and a half. I know people in the scene who this has been their life for years. And if you want them to turn the party, I have some dancers set up for you, and some performers, and some beautiful, fantastic people. Let’s go.” And I can’t describe how amazing it feels to go to a fitting and see your friend who is perhaps queer like you and maybe a person of color like you. And we don’t always get these opportunities that other people have. And see them smiling back at you in full head to toe gear from this world famous brand. And then the next day, they’re on a photo-shoot voguing doing the thing that they love. And they’re getting paid for it. That to me was, I was just like this is what this is all about. When stuff like this happens, I’m so happy about the field that I went into.

Maurice Cherry:
Look at you putting on the homeys and everything.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. I keep people booked and busy.

Maurice Cherry:
So basically, season three or Pose is going to be about you.

Julian Williams:
Can we talk about it? Can we talk about how Pose is ending and it’s just so sad? Actually, Tommy Hilfiger, right before I left Tommy Hilfiger … gosh, I really feel thankful for my team at Tommy Hilfiger because they wanted to hear what I had to say about things. And it feels so good when you’ve come from somewhere where maybe that hasn’t always been the opportunity. And we were doing a campaign when I was there that was honestly based around working with underrepresented voices and amplifying those voices. And we ended up working with people in the ballroom scene. We worked with Indya Moore. The campaign is live right now actually at Tommy Hilfiger. We worked with Indya Moore who plays Angel on pose. They’re a fantastic part of the ballroom scene and a queer icon. And we worked with [Kittie Smile 00:55:26] who is also in the ballroom scene in Paris and throughout Europe. And my team was asking me the correct way to reference things that they didn’t know about. Spent a lot of time talking to my team about the correct use of people’s pronouns. It’s just great when people, and it always felt authentic and genuine. It never felt like a cash grab. Because the stuff we were making was cool too at the end of the day. And I think people appreciated that as well. It was really an experience that I enjoyed.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s awesome to hear because oftentimes when you see, I think probably from the consumer standpoint, when you see brands start to venture into, I don’t even necessarily want to say venture into what’s cool. But I think certainly when they end up venturing into ethnic or queer content or something like that, people always sort of wince like, “What is this going to be?” One, because I think they’re just protective of their individual communities. And two, they just want to make sure that it’s done right and with respect and homage. And it’s not a cheap knockoff or something like that.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. One thing that was interesting in one meeting, and I’m really happy that people listened to me on this. So we were doing this project to amplify certain people’s voices. And it was kind of brought up. Someone was like, “Yeah. And if we work with Indya, maybe they will want us to put on a ball. And we have all these ballroom performance.” And I told them, “You know what? You need to ask this person what they want to do. Because in your head, what you’re doing right now is projecting. You may have a projection of what you imagine this person will want to do. And you may think Indya wants to put on a ball for this community. And then you go and talk to Indya and they say, ‘I want to have a talk show where I bring on queer people and talk to them about what they think needs to be changed in the world around us to make their lives better.'”

Julian Williams:
I was like, “You never know.” And that was another thing that I felt comfortable voicing. And people were comfortable receiving that feedback, and applying it, and making the work better. And I’ve been gay and Black my whole life. I think I know this world. So it’s great that people recognize that and understand that maybe, I have something to offer. It also feels good that the fact that being a queer Black person in Europe and the United States has not always been easy or fun. And it’s great when it is. And it’s something awesome. I mean to me, being queer and Black is fun and great all the time. Maybe not to other people, but that’s their problem.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I should also mention that while you were doing this at Tommy Hilfiger during the day, you were also interning somewhere else at night. Is that right?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Sorry. So I was working for Tommy Hilfiger. And then around February of 2020, I was contacted by Jessica Walsh of the studio &Walsh and formerly a part of the studio Sagmeister & Walsh. And Jessica Walsh and Stefan Sagmeister have honestly just been huge inspirations to me since I started studying design. I feel like when I was a student, I was like, “These two are pushing communication to where I want it to go. They’re doing interesting things.” Also a thing that I really respected and that inspired me was that they would make projects just because. They would make projects not to get paid for anything, just because they want to do stuff. And I always felt that that’s so important to just make things because you love design. I hope if you’re in the world of design, you’re doing it because you enjoy doing that.

Julian Williams:
So I was sitting on my couch. I had been working at Tommy Hilfiger for quite a long time actually. And I got an email from Jessica Walsh asking me if I wanted to intern remotely for &Walsh. And I jumped about 10 feet in the air and emailed yes back immediately. So for about three months, I would work during the day for Tommy Hilfiger. And I would come home and remotely work for &Walsh as an intern. And it was fantastic. It was just like wow, what an amazing team. what an intelligent team. What a diverse team, which I already knew this before working for Walsh. But working there really cemented in me that diversity breeds better creative work. It just makes sense just to have that many cultural, and intelligent, and visual backgrounds coming together to make awesome stuff. Yeah, it works.

Maurice Cherry:
Your inbox must be the place to be. You’re getting all of these amazing offers and stuff. This is wild. And then of course after you’re working with &Walsh, that’s when you started with the Biden campaign.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. Yeah. And it was another one of those kinds of, I was on my couch and I get this email that changes your life. I actually later found out that Robyn Kanner my boss at Biden approached Jessica Walsh asking for a designer. Because I interned for about three months. And then I freelanced for a little bit of time for &Walsh as well. And Robyn approached Jessica asking about a designer, and my name came up. And I think that’s what led to me interviewing for the position of designer with Biden for America. And I feel very thankful for people who just kind of put my name out there and stuff. I really love designing so much. And I love getting to make work with great people for great causes whenever I can. It’s not always possible, but I try to strive to be a part of that stuff as often as I can.

Maurice Cherry:
When you look back at the entirety of your career so far from interning at Nike, to Lagerfeld, and Hilfiger, &Walsh and everything, and even the Biden campaign, what did those experiences teach you as well?

Julian Williams:
Again, I get to talk to students now. And I’ve been having … oh God, I really love these talks because the questions that these students have just get more and more interesting and more and more personal and engaging. And I think that it would be so crappy of me to give a talk and then not give someone something that they can work with. I’ve had this in the past where I’ve been to a talk with a creative, and it just kind of feels like them talking about themselves the entire time.

Julian Williams:
I actually have three things that I tell people. One is to make things. And I feel like maybe the three things I have to say are quite obvious things. But I’ve met so many older designers who are just like, “You’re going to get older and you’re just going to get tired of design.” Because they see me making all this personal work and they just … and I just do not accept that. I love what I do. And I feel that just because I work, doesn’t mean that I can’t also make things just for the hell of it. Make stuff for no reason. Make stuff not to sell something. So I tell people to make things as often as I can, as often as they’re able to. Something else I say is to, and this is something I … I always was able to do this even before getting into the professional world.

Julian Williams:
But it’s worth it to invest in learning how to talk about yourself and your work. And I also, I always add onto that, I know that it’s not easy for everyone to get on a soap box, and talk about themselves, and things that they’ve done. But what I think is maybe a little more within reach for a lot of us is talking to our colleagues, and our friends, and our classmates about the things that we’re interested in, the things that we’re not interested in. And then that facilitates language about the way we think about work and maybe kind of guides us towards talking about our work. Because you can be the best designer, the most creative, innovative designer in the world. But if you aren’t able to kind of put yourself out there and talk about yourself and work, I think sometimes that may lead to problems.

Julian Williams:
And the last thing, which has honestly become my design manifesto in recent years is people matter. So don’t be an asshole. That also may seem quite simple. But I think one of the most important things I realized is that lots of the time, I feel the people matter more than the work in multiple ways.

Julian Williams:
One thing I tell students is, “When you go in to an interview, the people have seen your work. They know it. They’ve seen your Instagram, they’ve seen your website. The thing that they’re looking for is who you are. Because you’re essentially making a contract with them to be with them for a long period of time. So they want to see if you’re going to get along, if your values align.” And I think understanding that is important, and also just understanding that we should always carry ourselves with empathy. And I don’t know, just not being a jerk. That seems really simple.

Julian Williams:
But this isn’t related to the question that you just asked, but I do want to mention it. Something I end with is another kind of fortune cookie kind of lame thing to say. But it’s never too late to do anything. And I actually usually end my talks with students talking about my dad. Because my dad, he served in the Army for 30 years. He retired from the Army two years ago at the rank of command sergeant major. And I really feel appreciative of my dad. I mean, he supported his family for years. And I really think that my dad is an example of what a soldier should be.

Julian Williams:
I’m not a very pro military person, not a very pro United States military person. I think that my dad embodies what a soldier should strive to be. My dad was like, “My country is a world superpower. I’m here for my country if I’m needed. And I’m here to educate young soldiers about the ways that they should carry themselves with respect and treat other people with respect around the world.” And my dad has been so helpful to women within his ranks, and people of color, and queer people. And I feel so happy that people like my dad are there, because they often aren’t in the United States.

Julian Williams:
But my dad originally joined the Army to get money to go to art school. When I grew up, he was always drawing in sketchbooks and stuff. Well now that he’s retired, my dad has started studying graphic design at the age of 50. And I can’t begin to talk about how amazing this is. I was actually invited, so my dad is studying right now at community college. I think he may transfer to university later. But I was invited to give a talk to his class. And it was just the most incredible thing ever. And having conversations with my dad about what I do and giving him advice on work is … I think he tells me he’s inspired by me, and I’m just incredibly inspired by him doing what he wants because he loves to and understanding that it’s never too late. And he doesn’t care if he’s in a class with 19 and 20 year olds learning about design. He’s so excited about everything. And he’s learning some stuff that I don’t know about. My dad knows more about after effects than I do now. I need to catch up to Command Sergeant Major Williams.

Maurice Cherry:
Look at that. So you even had an opportunity to speak to your dad’s class?

Julian Williams:
Yes. And it was fantastic. And the questions they asked were really great. They were asking, because we’re living in this Zoom call world right now. And they were really asking me ways to kind of stay inspired and what I make content about. It was just wild to having my dad be my student for an hour.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, have there been any kind of particular challenges that you’ve had to face, I would say as a black designer in Europe. But aside from that, you’re working between Europe, between the United States. I would imagine even just the volume and the quality of work might be different. Have you run into any challenges thus far? I don’t want to say thus far in your design career, because you have, because you’ve mentioned them. But I guess as it sort of breaks down among certain identities, like you mentioned you’re Black, you’re queer, you’re American, you’re German. Have there been particular challenges that have come with that for you as a designer?

Julian Williams:
Yeah. I think I’ll kind of just start talking about from racial, nationality view. So I always grew up between United States and Europe. And the way that racism exists in those places, their origins and the way it exists now is different in different ways. I feel that more outright directly racist in your face, things happen in the United States. And I’m actually nowadays quite fearful of those things, because they’re amplified by things like people being able to purchase weapons. So in a sense, if someone’s racist to me in the United States, I may hold my tongue about it because my mind is kind of like, “Well, they may have a gun if I say something.” Really, I fear for my life.

Julian Williams:
And I also tell people, because people in Europe ask me about my experience as a person of color in the U.S. And I tell them I feel like I think about my race every single day that I’m in the United States. In Europe, I don’t think about it every day, but I do think about it often. And also, the ways that racism happens to me, especially in the Netherlands is different. Do you know what Black Pete is?

Maurice Cherry:
Yes.

Julian Williams:
Yeah. And that’s such a weird thing that is always a conversation here in the Netherlands. So yeah, just in case people may not know, there is a caricature here in the Netherlands. In Dutch, he’s called Zwarte Piet. And he is basically a Golliwog. He is a Black person who kind of accompanies the Dutch version of Santa Claus. I’m mixing languages. Santa Claus is called Sinterklaas. And it’s tied to the origins of slavery. And people here in the Netherlands will cover themselves in blackface, draw on red lips. White Dutch people will draw on red lips, put on an afro, and gold hoop earrings. And it’s really ingrained in the culture here and is a conversation every single year. And black people in the Netherlands and decent people are explaining, “No, this isn’t okay.” There’s a whole campaign called Zwarte Piet Is Racisme, which is Black Pete is racism, that comes up every year. And there are people who say, “It’s part of our culture.”

Julian Williams:
So here, it’s funny. That is not life-threatening racism to me. But in a sense when stuff like that happens, often the excuse that people use is, “It’s not so bad. We’re not the United States. Our police aren’t killing Black people,” even though they are in lots of places in Europe. So I’m kind of told to silence myself a little bit.

Julian Williams:
I’ve also in the professional world have had experiences here. I mean, I’ve always physically worked as a designer in Europe. I had a little bit of freelance work when I was a student in the U.S. But for example, something that I really vividly remember, I went to have an interview for a little freelance gig in Amsterdam. And I was waiting in kind of the main lobby of the office building. And I could see the person who was going to interview me come down, but she didn’t know what I looked like. And it was raining outside. And a man came into the building, and you needed a key card to come in. And he buzzed himself in. And he was a white man. He had an umbrella, he had just gotten into the building. And the woman who was interviewing me came down and she stopped. She looked at me and then she looked at the man who came in and she said, “Julian?” So I was already like well, I’m obviously not her visual representation of what she thinks someone who would fill this position is. And I’m pretty sure it’s because of my physical appearance, because I am a Black man with dreadlocks. And somehow, that means that I can’t accomplish my job.

Julian Williams:
Which now I’m kind of like, “Well, that’s their loss.” But it’s unfortunate when you realize that kind of stuff. When you realize that that is the way that people go about … and it’s rancid to me because I definitely don’t ever think like that. I don’t think that someone’s physical appearance is going to affect how they can accomplish work.

Julian Williams:
So it’s interesting my kind of experience and relationship with racism in the countries that I’ve lived in and am a citizen of throughout my life, and the kind of give and take that I have to deal with personally and professionally. But one thing that I refuse to do is silence myself anywhere.

Julian Williams:
So actually, it was interesting this last year, Black Lives Matter protests obviously, I won’t even say erupted because I was in Black Lives Matter protests in Santa Fe when I was a student. But I feel like they were on quite a global kind of stage last year. And we had Black Lives Matters demonstrations in Amsterdam and in Belgium. And I made sure that I was a part of those because I felt that it’s important. Especially here where the kind of relationship with racism is, “It’s not as bad as in other places. So deal with it.” And the POC communities here are fed up and we’re like, “No, we need to have these same conversations.”

Maurice Cherry:
You mentioned earlier when you were talking about your work with Tommy Hilfiger being into voguing, being in the ballroom community. How has that influenced your work?

Julian Williams:
So ballroom has a lot of interesting language that has kind of shifted through various communities. I feel like a lot of terms that maybe people, adopt or appropriate, different people might say different things, come from ballroom language. Like for example, the phrase reading. If you read someone, you’re kind of insulting them maybe in a roundabout way. That’s something that comes from ballroom. There actually used to be a category called reading where two people would stand apart from each other and they would just say vicious things to each other. And whoever said the most vicious things won. That’s a kind of like mainstream phrase now. I hear more people saying things like reading, what’s the tea, oh girl. And this kind of language, it’s very important to ballroom. But it’s also vital to queer people. Throughout the world, queer people and Black people have created coded language to survive. That is a fact dating back to the days of slavery. It’s a fact dating back to the ’80s in England and the United States for people to survive.

Julian Williams:
My relationship with the ballroom world and what I’m really thankful for about the ballroom world is that the seniors, the teachers of ballroom who are older, who lived through that nonsense, who lived through the AIDS epidemic, are doing a fantastic job of making sure that the young people entering into the ballroom scene understand where they’re coming from. That this is not just a competition. It’s not just us dancing. This is about us being alive and living our truth.

Julian Williams:
And I try to reflect that language and that communication in my work. Something else I’ll say that’s important about ballroom is the entire idea of ballroom. I maybe mentioned this a bit earlier, is that minority communities don’t often have the same opportunities that straight, white, cisgender male dominated people enjoy. And ballroom is kind of a play on that.

Julian Williams:
For example, there’s a category called executive realness. And there are categories called realness, which are about … realness is kind of like, a category called male figure realness is about a maybe gay, effeminate man who goes up and portrays himself as his straight counterpart. And that is a direct commentary on the fact that gay people in the real world outside of the ballroom very often have to do this to stay alive. They have to pretend to be heterosexual to be alive. So ballroom is always kind of about embodying the lives that we don’t have the opportunities to have as queer people of color. Executive realness is a category where you walk up to the judges dressed in a suit. Maybe you have a briefcase. You’re trying to show yourself as an executive, as an owner of a company. Which I mean we can see what the owners of companies and CEOs look like. They don’t very often look like people like me. And ballroom kind of challenges that, and gives us an opportunity to show that if we have the same opportunities as you, I could be an executive. Because I can dress like this, and I can walk the walk, and I can talk the talk, and I can present myself that way.

Julian Williams:
And it’s made me have some interesting thoughts about how I apply language to my work, how I apply typography. It’s also given me an interesting relationship with fashion. I’m very interested in fashion. My interest in fashion has evolved through my life. When I was living in Texas and stuff, I did not know anything about Jean Paul Gaultier or Saint Laurent. And it was actually kind of a joke when I joined Nike and other fashion brands that I didn’t know this. But I came from this world that kind of wanted to touch that. And ballroom people also are people who want to touch that fashion world, but maybe can’t because the lives that they live. So we’re driven to create stuff ourselves, to create amazing outfits that could be on the runways in Paris. And now we’re seeing with things like Pose and a lot of ballroom people are walking fashion shows in Paris and New York and stuff, that now it’s coming back. Now people want us. Now they’re seeing they’ve had it right the whole time. And we’re like, “Yeah, we’ve known this. It’s nice that you’re catching up.”

Maurice Cherry:
What’s the best advice that you’ve been given about design?

Julian Williams:
It’s funny. Something I think about often kind of contradicts some of my own advice. But I think there’s kind of give or take with both of them. One of the piece of advice I was given is you can stand next to your poster. Basically saying once you make something as a visual communicator, ideally, someone will look at the thing that you’ve made and understand the message that you’re trying to convey. So you can’t stand next to something you’ve made and explain it. Which maybe goes a little bit against how I’m saying you should be able to talk about your work. But that’s, I think can apply to different things like the process and stuff. But that is an idea that I often come back to that you can’t stand next to your poster. You can’t stand next to your work and explain it to someone. So create always keeping in the back of your mind that this is for someone who knows nothing about what you’re making.

Julian Williams:
And kind of an offshoot of that, another good piece of advice I got at Nike actually was sometimes we would be in meetings. And when you work at Nike, you drink the Nike Kool-Aid. Everyone knows the brands. We all have our little acronyms for different stuff when we work there and stuff. Something one of my bosses said in a meeting that I found to be quite profound and I ended up saying it in other companies I worked for was, “Guys, let’s take the Nike glasses off. Let’s look at this as if we weren’t working here and we knew nothing about this.” And I think that is super powerful. And I’ve actually found myself in meetings with places I worked on in the future saying this. And I think it has a power to change a room, to have people look at projects differently. And understand at the end of the day, we are visual communicators. We have a job to accomplish. We have messages to communicate. And if we don’t do that successfully, we aren’t doing our job.

Maurice Cherry:
What is it that keeps you motivated and inspired these days?

Julian Williams:
These days? I already talked about my dad. And that is something that lately I’m just like, “Oh my gosh, that’s amazing.” But I think talking to younger people and seeing the way that they engage with social … oh my God. I’m saying younger people and I’m 25. Just to put that on there. Oh my God. Am I saying younger people already? Oh man. No, I am a millennial though. And the way that Generation Z interacts with technology, the fact that they have access to so much information so early is, I think other people are afraid of it. I’m like, “Hell yes, let’s turn the party. Make some cool stuff when you’re five years old.” That’s awesome.

Julian Williams:
But also the way that they’re involved with social things. Like after working in politics and stuff, I do wish that it would speed up a bit. But I don’t feel so much worry for when I’m 40. Because I know that the people behind me have their heads in the right place. They know what’s wrong and what’s right. And they understand how the world should be. And I think that they’re really making an effort to educate one another about what’s right and wrong, and the barriers that they need to break once they kind of get to the ages that we are at, where we’re more able to make some of that change. And some of them are saying screw that, we’re going to start making change now even though we’re 10, 12 years old. Because the internet and technology allows us to do that kind of stuff, to communicate with like-minded people. That’s what keeps me inspired. Maybe that’s not so much on a design level. But on a social change level and maybe creating content in the future, that’s what inspires me.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? It’s what, 2026. You’ll be 30 years old. What kind of work do you, I didn’t mean to scare you there. But what kind of work do you see yourself doing?

Julian Williams:
I react to whatever is happening. When I finished the Biden campaign, I didn’t know what the next step was. I think there’s two things I’m interested in. One of them will definitely happen I know for sure. The other one I’m not so sure. The one I’m not so sure about is I would like to have a design studio of my own with other people. I’m also quite curious in that studio being a remote worldly design studio working with people all over. I’ve seen in the last year how common that’s become now because of the world that we’re living in right now. And it works. And I think it’s creating some interesting work. So having design studio might be interested.

Julian Williams:
The other thing that I definitely will do at some point in the future is I want to be an educator. I want to be a teacher in the field of graphic design. I actually feel like I have an ethical obligation to do so. I think it would be incorrect, I can say I’m quite happy with the career that I’ve had so far. I think that I’ve gotten to do some amazing things. I’ve definitely done some things that have been dreams of mine. And I feel so humbled, and fortunate, and privileged to have been able to do those things. And I think it would be incorrect for me to not pass on what I learned or the ways that I came to do that kind of stuff to other people. I actually feel like I need to be teaching at some point.

Julian Williams:
Even though I feel like it is an obligation, I also am very, very, very excited to do that. Especially after talking to students. I’ve never really given a proper design talk until this last year after I finished with Biden. I talked to my dad, I talked to some schools in New Mexico. I just spoke to the University of Arkansas who have some wonderful students who ask some really engaging questions. And it’s making me so excited. Because the best way to learn from people is to have conversations about what interests them and stuff they’re working on. That was the way that I learned about design when I was at university. No syllabus, no lesson plan is ever going to be more valuable than talking to your mates I think.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know what you mean there. I mean, I’ve got this podcast where I get to talk to people from all over the world, which is great. So I definitely get a chance to … I have to say that’s the one thing that really kind of helped me get through even just this whole pandemic is being able to still connect with other creatives and talk about their work, and what they’re doing, and things like that. So, yeah. Well just to wrap things up here Julian, where can our audience find out more about you and about your work online?

Julian Williams:
So my website, which maybe it’s due for an update is J-O-O-F-W-O-O-F .com. That’s where you can find my kind of portfolio stuff. If you want to see the really fun stuff, follow me on Instagram @joofwoof. That’s @ J-O-O-F-W-O-O-F. You can find some voguing there, mainly design. I post a lot of my personal work on there. I talk about Phoebe Bridgers a lot who is a musician that I love and am a bit obsessed with. And I often find myself talking about her in these talks I give to students, and there’s always some students who feel the same way I do. So that’s really exciting. And you can follow me on Twitter @joofwoof J-O-O-F-W-O-O-F as well for some fun, maybe weird wild content.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well Julian Williams, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Even just as the time that I spent just researching and finding out about what you do and about your story and everything, I’m like, “This young man is so talented.” I cannot wait to see what kind of work you are doing in the next five, 10 years, whatever. I mean, even just the work that you’ve done so far, the fact that you have all these cultural references and experiences that you can pull from. I mean, I’m captivated by your story. I hope that people listening to this are captivated as well. So just keep on doing what you’re doing. Because it’s working, man. But again, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Julian Williams:
Oh gosh. Thank you so much. [German 01:25:51].

Sponsored by State of Black Design Conference

State of Black Design Conference

Texas State University’s Communication Design Program and the Common Experience are excited to announce the State of Black Design Conference, presented by IBM, April 9-10.

The theme of the conference is “Black Design: Past. Present. Future,” and the event will bring together aspiring designers with academic and industry professionals for networking opportunities, career development workshops, and important panel discussions with leaders in the field.

If you are a company looking to diversify your workforce, or a designer of color looking for your next role, be sure to attend the State of Black Design Conference. Recruiters have until April 5 to register.

Get your ticket today at https://txstate.edu/blackdesign, and follow the event online on Instagram or Twitter.

The State of Black Design Conference is presented by IBM, with additional sponsorship from Adobe, Civilla, AIGA, Texas State’s College of Fine Arts and Communication, and the School of Art and Design.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world.

We accomplish this through graphic design, presentations and workshops around I-D-E-A: inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.

If you’re curious to learn how to combine a passion for I-D-E-A with design, check us out at brevityandwit.com.

Brevity & Wit — creative excellence without the grind.

Azarra Amoy

We’re back across the pond this week and having a good ol’ chat and a spot of tea with one of London’s most brilliant artists — Azarra Amoy. It was a good time to catch up with her since she just got a new studio!

Azarra spoke on how art is like her diary, and she walked me through some of her inspirations and talked about growing up in London and even spending time in Bangkok before transitioning into her current artistic career. Azarra’s colorful, kinetic designs are a welcome sight during these times, and may also inspire you on your creative journey!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Azarra Amoy:
My name is Azarra Amoy, and I am a multifaceted RS and designer, creative thinker and a student of this crazy world we call life. Or shall I say, yeah I work as an artist, and I’m also a part-time designer. So I work with presentations for a creative agency called Empire. So I do that three to four times a week. And then the rest of the days is all for art.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What is the feeling in London like right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Quiet because we’re back in lockdown. So we’ve been in lockdown just before Christmas, which was a bit mental because it was literally a last minute thing. They were like, yeah, you can spend Christmas with your family. And then literally three days before they’re like, no, everyone’s on lockdown. Basically all the presents you bought, send them back.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh no.

Azarra Amoy:
You aren’t seeing your family. So I don’t know how many people actually stuck to that. But right now, I feel like a lot of people are fed up because this is our third lockdown. And it’s just like in and out, in and out. But I’ve just been trying to keep myself busy personally. And check up on friends, family, and try and find some normality in this.

Maurice Cherry:
How have you been doing just kind of overall this year so far?

Azarra Amoy:
So far this year it was quiet. I literally took time out for myself. I was like, before everything gets a bit crazy or if it does get a bit crazy, I just want time for myself because the end of 2020 was a bit nonstop crazy for me work-wise. So it’s just been nice just to just chill, let me think. Write down some goals that I want to achieve personally and professionally. And just take time, eat right, detox from all the drink and food that I ate over Christmas period and just yeah, just reboot.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you I guess … Can you talk about just some of those goals you might have for this year?

Azarra Amoy:
So one of the goals was to sort out my studio. So I moved out of my last studio just before Christmas, and I needed to find … It was a bit last minute.com. And I’ve been trying to find places, but it’s really hard because we’re on lockdown. So it’s through video calls and just trying to work out through pictures if it looks okay. But luckily yesterday I got the keys to a new studio. So I’m really excited to get in there and just fix it up and make it my second home.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice.

Azarra Amoy:
So it’s a bit hard sometimes working from home, separating from work and personal time.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, congratulations on the new studio.

Azarra Amoy:
Thank you. I’m really excited.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s one thing that I’ve been thinking about over this whole pandemic quarantine thing, is I got to get my own space. I like my apartment where I’m at. And I’ve worked out of my apartment for a long time. I’ve been doing the working remote thing since 2009. So I’m not unfamiliar with it, but the difference is that I had the option to leave the house.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
I could go and work from a coffee shop or work at a client location or travel or something like that. And granted, right now our restrictions aren’t super strict at all. I’m in Georgia, which honestly has been open since last May. There’s been … We had three weeks of lockdown in April. And then we’ve kind of been open. To that effect, our rates are super high because people have been traveling and just coming and going as you please. But as I’ve been working, I was out of work and then got a new job. And I’ve just been thinking, I really want my own space. Granted, my apartment’s nice, but I really want to have that separate workspace that’s just for creativity.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. It does make a difference. I miss having my studio space. I was like, I just need to get something.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
But luckily I found a place that’s really nice. It has a balcony and all sorts, so I’m just really happy.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh nice. So what do your days look like now with lockdown and the new studio space and everything?

Azarra Amoy:
So I usually have a routine, I get up early, do a little meditation, work out. So I’m addicted to spin at the moment. And I login to work at 9:30, so I work three to four days a week depending on how busy they are. And yeah, I login and I usually have schedules set out for me already. So I just crack on with the work. And my team is really small, they’re really lovely. We all have game nights and stuff, and just try and make it as normal as possible. And yeah, I do that until 6:30, and then I usually eat and then spend time on personal projects, whether if that’s just me just trying to do a sketch or a digital collage, those are sort of my go-to things that I do.

Azarra Amoy:
And I do them without even noticing that I do them, if that makes sense. Some people chill and watch Netflix and stuff. But for me, doing a little sketch, a little doodle on something is my chill time. And not everything that I create, I show. So basically I always say that my art is like my diary. It’s like what I feel in the day, or something that’s on my mind because I’m not really … I feel like I’m not a great communicator with words, but I communicate well when I draw. So that’s my output.

Maurice Cherry:
I got you. What are some of the projects that you’re working on right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Art-wise or work-wise as a designer?

Maurice Cherry:
We’ll say art-wise. We’ll say art-wise.

Azarra Amoy:
So art-wise, I’m working with a publishing company. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to mention them yet, but looking to do some illustrations for a children’s book. So I had just recently done a mock-up of stuff. So I’m just waiting on feedback if they’re liking the direction that it’s going. I’m trying to do some personal paintings because fingers crossed with COVID, I will be able to have a solo exhibition, which has been on my list for forever. And last year was meant to be the year, but obviously with what happened, it was a no-go. So I’m hoping come October, that will happen. So I’m just slowly putting their stuff into motion.

Azarra Amoy:
And I’m going to be on a panel for a studio space that’s in Brixton, London. And I’ll be on the panel for their residency. So I’ll be helping select who gets a year’s residency with them. So I’ve been working with that team just discussing a few things. So that’s what I’ve been doing art-wise.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, you’ve got your hands full with a lot.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. I try to keep as busy as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you usually have sort of a limit of the number of projects that you try to take on?

Azarra Amoy:
I listen to what my body tells me, if that makes sense. So if I feel like I’m really run down, then I have no problem just saying no to whatever project comes. It’s like, no, sorry, you need some you time just to just relax. So I just go off on how I feel, and that’s how I take on the work.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So these are … Just the projects you mentioned between a book cover, personal paintings, doing this panel, talk to me about how you approach a new project. It can be any type of project. What’s sort of your thought process when it comes to that?

Azarra Amoy:
I guess with a lot of projects that do come my way, they usually come to me because they know my style of artwork. So for example, I feature a lot of black … All the women I feature in my artwork are black women. Me myself, I’m a black woman. So yeah, I think it just comes from … I’ve been lucky enough to be able to navigate where the direction of the artwork goes because they know my style. So they know that’s the sort of direction, and what I’m trying to portray and uplift black women in the artwork that I do. So that sort of is usually the base. And then from there, I just then add on what the client wants, if that makes sense. And yeah, and then from there I usually do a mock-up. And then they give feedback.

Azarra Amoy:
So that’s how I’ve always really done it. So and usually I research into certain stuff. So right now, I’m really interested in the black Madonna, which is religious, the black Virgin Mary.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
Let’s put it that way. And I’ve been looking to the history of that, which is really interesting because these countries that are really popular with the black Madonna are not exactly the most black-friendly places. So it’s really interesting how they worship this idol of this black Virgin Mary. But in day-to-day sort of experiences, they’re not like that with people of color in real life. It’s just a weird, she’s allowed to be worshiped, but if you put a black woman in front of them, they’ll do anything to put them down, if that makes sense?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
I just go off of what surrounds me, what comes to mind, stuff that I see [inaudible 00:12:42], things that I see in movies, magazines, blogs that just trigger something, and I’ll just start researching.

Maurice Cherry:
We’ve actually got a church here in my neighborhood here in Atlanta called Shrine of the Black Madonna. It’s a church, it’s a cultural center. They do events and stuff there. So I’m familiar with the concept that you’re talking about. Do you usually try to have some religious iconography in your work, or is this just a particular … Or is it a particular figure I guess you’re kind of obsessed with right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah, it’s just a particular figure that I’m obsessed with right now. So yeah, not all work features, but it just … I don’t think I have any religious features, no, in my work. So this is just something new that I’ve come across that I find really interesting, and we’ll see where it’ll take me.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Is there anyone out there that you would love to collaborate with?

Azarra Amoy:
Oh. I guess right now it would be interesting to … I have no one in mind, but there are a lot of people that I have collaborated with have been London-based. So it would be nice to collaborate with people from different countries to gain their experience, to understand their experience and how it’s similar and how we can collab. Does that make sense?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Azarra Amoy:
But I can’t think of no one from the top of my head right now.

Maurice Cherry:
From looking at your style, your style actually reminds me a lot of another mixed media artist that I had on the show. God when was that? That might’ve been about two or three years ago. This guy in … He’s in New York. His name is Kendrick Daye, D-A-Y-E.

Azarra Amoy:
Okay.

Maurice Cherry:
He does kind of this similar collage mixed media kind of work. So your art reminds me a lot of what he’s doing. You all have very sort of similar styles in terms of I think the color and the elements. I think your work at least from the work that I’ve seen, there’s a lot of play on symmetry.

Azarra Amoy:
Yes.

Maurice Cherry:
With portraiture and things. You try to have a lot of symmetry, which I think is really nice.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. I like the whole kaleidoscope kind of effect in my work. So there’s always some sort of symmetry as much as possible.

Maurice Cherry:
What would you say is the hardest part about what you do?

Azarra Amoy:
Knowing when to stop. As an art issue, always something try to over-perfect. And I speak to my cousin every day, and there’s this painting that I’ve literally been working on for about two and a half years. And I just don’t know when to stop. I’m like, no, it’s not right. It’s not right. And he’s just like, it’s never going to be right. Just show the world. The art is amazing. I’m just like, no, it’s not ready. And just know when to say, okay, that’s enough. It’s never going to be right sort of thing. And you can always add … The beautiful thing about art, you can always add to it. Just because you start and you show the world, doesn’t mean that, that’s the end of it. You can add on to it. You can take away. You can make it into something completely different.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s true. That’s true.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
So kind of switching gears here a little bit, were you born and raised in London?

Azarra Amoy:
Yes I was.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, tell me about that. Did you kind of get exposed to a lot of art and design growing up?

Azarra Amoy:
Most definitely. My parents are both creatives in their own way. So my dad paints. And well, he enjoys painting. He’s a painter and decorator by trade. And my mom just dabbled in everything I guess. I guess that’s where I get a lot of my creative talent from. So she was a hairdresser. She was that crazy mom who had the bright hair, then green hair, and then orange hair. Every time she turned up to pick me up from school, her hair was always different colors. So she was the crazy, cool art mom. And she’d done fashion, yeah just around the house little DIY projects. Whenever she was sewing, she always used to set me little tasks to do. So I’ll make a pencil case from scratch. Make little bags for myself.

Azarra Amoy:
Just stuff like that. So and I think she got that from my grandma because my grandma’s like, “You must know how to sew. It’s a key thing because you don’t have any money or you don’t have anything, at least you can sew the clothes on your back.” You can make curtains, you can make a chair, you can do whatever. As long as you can sew.” So that’s one of the skills that was drummed into me from a very young age.

Maurice Cherry:
So it sounds like being exposed to all this so young, did you have a feeling that this is what you wanted to do? Or was this just a part of your world?

Azarra Amoy:
It was just a part of my world to be honest. I didn’t even think of it as a career choice or anything like that. It was just a way of life, and it only hit me that actually this is what I really want to do as my career choice was not until I moved to Bangkok and I went there to work in doing something completely random. I was working as a governess, which is like a nanny almost for a family out there. And I was just getting really down. I was like, no, this is not being homesick, this is something else. And it just wasn’t clicking to me. And then one day I was just sitting on the sofa and I was like, I know. I know why I’m so down. I know why I’m feeling a little depressed.

Azarra Amoy:
And I was like, I haven’t picked up a pen, I haven’t drawn anything. I haven’t made anything. That’s what it is. So as soon as that popped into my head, I jumped in the bike taxis, I went to the nearest shopping center and bought up a whole load of art supplies. And it just that feeling of just being creative again, I was just like, yeah, I’m coming back home and this is what I’m doing.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Were you studying abroad? How did you end up in Bangkok being a governess? That seems like such a random kind of departure from what you were doing.

Azarra Amoy:
So my friend was actually working as a governess out there. And she’s like, oh, there’s this family that’s looking for a governess. I’m going to put your forward, do you mind. And I was like, I have no experience in this. She’s like, it doesn’t matter. Go interview and if they like you, then come over. And I was like, well, this is a bit out of my comfort zone. I was tempted to say, no. But I felt like it was one of those things that in a few years time I’ll kick myself like, why didn’t you just take the opportunity. So I went with it, and I had about three interviews with this family. And they’re like, yeah, just we’ll pay for your ticket. Apartment’s paid for, just come over.

Azarra Amoy:
And I was like, oh okay. And I stayed there for a year, and yeah, it got to the point where I was just like, this is not where I’m meant to be. But I absolutely love Bangkok. There’s a place in my heart for Bangkok.

Maurice Cherry:
You are the second person that I’ve interviewed recently that has had some tie or connection to Bangkok. That is so … Yeah I just interviewed an artist in Washington DC here named Reggie Black. And he spent four years in Bangkok as a designer and doing talks and stuff like that. You let me know because you were there, was Bangkok a really creative city?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. There’s loads of stuff to do. It’s like the city that kind of, it doesn’t sleep. Which is not like London. London, people always think that London’s busy and stuff. But come a certain time, things just shut down. But Bangkok’s just, they have a night market. There’s just lights, there’s culture, there’s just artwork everywhere, music. It’s just a really nice atmosphere. So yeah, definitely I would love to go back to Bangkok under creative or creative reasons anyway.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now you went to the University of the Arts in London. Can you tell me what your time was like there?

Azarra Amoy:
Oh, I was there for a while because the University of the Arts, they have different campuses.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Azarra Amoy:
So, well different colleges under the University of the Arts. So the first one I went to was the Art College in Camberwell. Camberwell Art College it’s called. And I had done a foundation art course there. So that course is just to help you build your portfolio and understand which direction you want to go in creatively. So you do a bit of fashion, a bit of graphic design, a bit of sculpture, painting, et cetera. And then from there you branch off into which field you’re more comfortable with. So that was my first college, and I actually went into graphic design. And now looking back at it, I was like, why did I do that? Because I was really interested in sculpture, but I thought, oh, how can I make money as a sculpture?

Azarra Amoy:
I’m just thinking, I think people are in your ear like, how can you make money from being a sculpture. Graphic design makes more sense. So I went down that route. And then I ended up in London College of Communication, which is where they do mostly sort of graphics, digital courses there. And I had actually done a foundation degree, which then turns into a full degree if you did the final year. So I had only done two years of that. So I have a foundation degree in graphic communication. And I was like, I actually absolutely hate this. So I was like, but I want a full degree. So I managed to sort of blag my way onto another degree course, which was something completely different, magazine publishing.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Azarra Amoy:
So I spoke to the head of the course. I was like, “Yeah, I’m really interested in doing this course. I have experience.” which was not true. I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “Oh okay.” She looked at my grades. She’s like, “Okay, you can join the course, but over the summer you have to do some coursework to make up.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s fine.” And she’s like, “Okay.” And I made it happen thank God. And from there, I graduated in magazine publishing, which is a weird course because it’s a bit of design, a bit of PR, marketing, all of the stuff that you need to know basically of how to run a magazine.

Azarra Amoy:
So by the time I graduated, it was that weird shift between print into digital. So I was like, this course was mostly about print. And now I’m graduating and everyone’s transitioning to digital. I was like, what is going on? I was like, all the places where I had done work placements at, their print … All the prints of their magazines were being shut down the department, the print department of their team. So I was just like, everyone’s just shutting down. I don’t know anything about digital. So I think that kind of scared me and I just sort of was stuck for a while thinking, what am I going to do next? I don’t know anything about digital. Should I take a course or something?

Azarra Amoy:
And I think I was stuck in a rut for a long time. And I just continued at my job that I was doing during uni, which was working in retail. And that, that’s when … After that, that’s when I went to Bangkok, and that just opened my eyes.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Well, it sounds like that trip to Bangkok was what you needed, if you were at this point where you had went through all this school and you were feeling stuck.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
A change of scenery will do it.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah, because over here I saw they sort of sell you a dream. They’re like, yeah, once you leave uni you’ll be able to get a job. And that’s what I thought. I was like, yeah, as soon as I go through it, I’ll be able to get a job easy. No. Not like that at all. Everyone I speak to, they’re like, yeah, we saw the same dream. And then it hits you. Life hits you.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I know that feeling all too well. I graduated … Well, I didn’t go to design school, but I graduated with a degree in math. And I really had no career prospects lined up after school. I was still working like you. I was working the job that I was working while I was at school, which was just selling tickets at the symphony. Just selling to old white patrons that wanted to hear Chopin or whatever. Telling them where to sit and stuff.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And it wasn’t until a few years after that, that I sort of ended up falling into design. But yeah, sometimes that’s how it is. School’s … And that’s not really I guess the fault of … I don’t want to say it’s the fault of the schools. It’s really the fault of the market.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Just because you come out with a degree, doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re ready to go right into working somewhere because maybe you need a portfolio or maybe the school that you have has a different reputation that this company doesn’t go for. So I don’t know, it can be tricky. I know it’s tricky here in the States. I can imagine it’s the same way overseas as well.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah, definitely. It’s not easy. And as you said, it’s true, you can’t blame the institutions for the lack of opportunities once you leave. But I think with the course I was saying, the foundation degree course, that was meant to be heavily work experience-based. And when we joined, everyone was like, where’s this work experience? Because we were meant to have industry teachers come in every week.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Azarra Amoy:
To teach us from different companies and stuff. And we literally had one the whole year. We’re like, this is not what we signed up for. And we were all meant to be allocated sort of a mentor from the industry, which they were going to provide. So there was meant to be a mentorship scheme and stuff. But yeah, it didn’t work out that way.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Azarra Amoy:
But here I am. I found my feet.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So you went to Bangkok, you worked there as a governess. You didn’t like it. That sort of sparked you wanting to become a designer. And you came … Did you come right back to London after that?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Straight back to London.

Maurice Cherry:
So what was your plan once you got back?

Azarra Amoy:
I had saved some money whilst doing this job because I didn’t have to pay rent or anything like that. So I had saved, and I was like, okay, I’m going to give myself a year to really try and get this running. And if there’s no progress, then I’m going to have to really rethink this. So when I came back, I was just applying for sort of any artist call-outs and stuff like that. And I was just … I just began painting. And luckily I had a friend who used to do an evening called Arts Meets Music. And he was like yeah, why don’t you display some of your artwork at one of these events? And I was like, amazing, jumped on it. And then from there, that’s how I met people. And someone told me about, oh … Some of my artwork [inaudible 00:27:32] murals.

Azarra Amoy:
Because my paintings are such large scale paintings. And they’re like, why don’t you do murals? So I was like, oh, I never thought of that. I just thought street art is murals. Spray paint, I’d never touched a spray can in my life. How can I do this? Well, let me just apply for a call-out that I saw, which was local to me. And I actually had a dream that told … People think I’m crazy when I say this. I actually had a dream about it. And I was like, I woke up from this dream and I was like, yes, let me do the application now. And I actually won. And I was like, oh, this was a sign. So I had done it, I was like, okay, I’m going to literally win this because I’ve never spray painted in my life.

Azarra Amoy:
And the mural actually came out really nice. And it’s still there in Brixton until this day. And from there, people just started contacting me. “Oh yeah, do you want to do a mural here?” “Do you want to do a mural there?” And I was like, wow, I was really not expecting this. And I found a new passion for something else as well. That’s how I got into the murals.

Maurice Cherry:
And speaking of which, that’s the mural that’s … People can see that in the cover art for this episode. The one that you’re standing next to.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s quite a mural. So you worked on all of that by yourself? Or did you have a … Did you work with another artist or anything?

Azarra Amoy:
Yes. So this, the mural that you’re talking about, I worked with another artist called Lynette [inaudible 00:28:49]. And I worked with her on two other projects as well. So the person who created the project, [inaudible 00:28:57], she knew both of us. So she knew that we worked together, and she wanted two artists who had a good relationship who can work well together. And she’s more of a calligraphy artist. And I’m more of a sort of paint now, visual graphics. So both of our styles just seemed to work together. So she commissioned both of us to do the project. And yeah, and it worked out amazing. I’m really happy with the outcome.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s a beautiful mural. It’s a beautiful mural.

Azarra Amoy:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
And I’ll make sure that I will link so people can see the full thing because with the cover art it’s just sort of cut off in that square. As I was looking through your website and looking at your projects, one project I saw that I really liked was the work that you did with MTV. How’d you end up working with them?

Azarra Amoy:
So they contacted me last year about the award. And they’re like, it’s a really short turnaround. But we really love your style, and really think that it will suite … My art style will suite the award winners. So all the award winners for the … It was … Let me get the name off the award. Generation Change Award. All the winners are black female women or women of color, sorry. And I was like, well, I paint women of color and I paint women. So I was like, yes. All these women who have won, so it’s Raquel and Willis, [inaudible 00:30:23], Louisa Brazil, Kathea … She’s going to kill me for pronouncing her name. [inaudible 00:30:32] and [inaudible 00:30:33]. Sorry, my pronunciation of the names are terrible. And yeah, these women are amazing. They’re doing so much for our generation, for the future generation, fighting. They’re all amazing activists within their field.

Azarra Amoy:
I was just so excited just to be asked just to create something personal for them. So all of the awards … Each of their awards is hand-painted and customized to them. So it was a very special project. I was very happy to be selected and honored.

Maurice Cherry:
So these days when it comes to big, high profile projects like that, are the projects coming to you, or are you seeking them out?

Azarra Amoy:
Luckily they seem to be coming to me. I have no idea where MTV saw my stuff from because when they contacted me, they showed me some of the artwork that they liked. And I was like, this is so random. It’s literally just random artwork that I just posted on Instagram, not thinking anything of it. Just, oh, this is what I’ve been doing during lockdown. Here’s a painting sort of thing. Just didn’t think about it. And those are the ones that they selected. So it was interesting because I would’ve thought it would be something that … Like another big project that I’d done before or something like that. But no, they contacted me. I was very lucky.

Maurice Cherry:
Who are some of your influences? Like I mentioned, the work that you’re doing, this sort of collage work is very vibrant. And certainly very unique. Who influences you or what influences you I should say?

Azarra Amoy:
As I said before, a lot of the collages and painting that I do are stuff that I do daily. So they just represent my mood. It could be influenced by a song that I’ve just had on repeat all day that makes me feel good. I’m like, oh, I’m going to do a collage on that. I know it sounds typical, but literally the women that I have around me are amazing from my sister, my mom. A lot of the other artists that I work with are mostly females. So yeah, they push me and inspire me constantly.

Maurice Cherry:
At this stage in your career, you are doing these large scale projects and things of that nature, what does black art mean to you?

Azarra Amoy:
Black art for me is a place to be free. It’s a way for me to share my experiences and also hopefully uplift other black women. I think that’s important because representation especially in the art world … I don’t know about in the States, but over here the art world is very white male-based. These institutions are very white man, paint a sculpture sort of thing. And that’s even projected in the education within the art education when I was at uni and school. So for me, it’s about representation, authenticity, and just uplifting. That’s what art means to me. It’s just being free.

Maurice Cherry:
What is sort of the London design scene like for you right now? Being on lockdown, are there ways that you’re able to connect with creatives?

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. So I’m part of … What’s that group’s … I sign up to online courses. So one of the courses that I use is Black Blossoms. So it’s an online art school. And you sign up and there’s different art courses. So every week there’s a different course. And I’ve been literally killing those. I’m right now, the course that I’m on is the Art Revolution in China, which is really interesting. Just opening up my eyes to different genres of art that I just wasn’t exposed to. And having these other women in these blossom art groups, and all of us just sharing opportunities like oh, someone’s contacted me to do this, but I just don’t have time. Any of you sort of have any idea of someone or if you want to do it? And we’re just sharing contacts, sharing opportunities because everyone’s just trying to eat. Some people have been made redundant from jobs and stuff. So I think, I feel like there’s a real sense of everyone coming together and just trying to help each other out.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. That’s a good thing that you’re able to kind of use technology as a way to reach out to people and to sort of have that fellowship and that … Also the ability to kind of work together. I don’t know if you collaborated with anyone solely on a virtual level with any work?

Azarra Amoy:
I worked with a team who I had done murals with in the past. And I was actually scheduled to do a mural with them summertime last year, but it didn’t work out. So in the end, it ended up being a digital project. So from there it’s just, it was all online-based having to work from that sort of platform, I wasn’t able to research how I usually research sometimes. So especially if I’m doing artwork in a certain location or reference if it’s referencing a certain location, I usually go out with my camera, take photos. I just spend the day there, really just take in the atmosphere, but being obviously locked in the house, I’ve just had to find other ways. So YouTube, and watching old documentaries on the area, just trying to gain as much information. Trying to put out contact people via Instagram, which is a bit wild. But just people who you see off on the area and you can try and, “Hey, this is a bit weird, but I just want to get an understanding what this location means to you.” Or get as much interviews and stuff like that, which I’ve never really worked that way.

Azarra Amoy:
So definitely even after we come out of lockdown, I think I’ll be using those forms definitely to my practice.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Sounds like you picked up a new skill over the pandemic.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Which is cool because I’m literally … I’m a person who keeps themselves to themselves. So it’s definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone having to talk to people. And even doing interviews, I don’t like my first Instagram Live at the end of last year. And I was like, I’ve never done this before. I was so nervous. And just doing radio shows as well I’ve been doing. So it’s been practice. I’m not great at interviews, but I’m getting there.

Maurice Cherry:
Practice makes perfect, let me tell you. Just the more that you’re able to do it, the more comfortable you’ll become. That’s really the best way to do it. You get more comfortable, you end up kind of being able to pull on … Particularly if you’re talking about different projects that you’ve done. You’re able to kind of pull those narratives out really easily. So if I could give any advice, I would say, take all the opportunities that come to you because each of them is just a way for you to get better at it.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. Definitely. And it’s just fighting the inner demons as well because it’s so easy to sort of self-sabotage. Be like, oh, I don’t want to do this. It’s out of my comfort zone. But you just … I just push myself all the time, and just be like, come on Azarra. Come on. Do my little speech to try and motivate myself and be like, you’re going to look back at this and think, oh, what was I panicking about? It’s so simple.

Maurice Cherry:
Because the flip side to it especially I think with doing a podcast interview is that the audience is vast and varied and diverse. There may be someone that’s out there listening that is like you. And is like, oh, well if she’s doing it, then I can do it.

Azarra Amoy:
Yeah. And I hope there is someone out there. You can do it.

Maurice Cherry:
How do you define success right now?

Azarra Amoy:
Success for me is doing what I love. Yeah. Doing what I love and getting paid for it, which is the dream. So I’m always selective as well on what I work on. If it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t sit right with my core, or if it doesn’t feel authentic to me and feels forced, then I try to avoid it in a sense, but not restrict myself at the same time. So for me, it’s just what brings me joy at the moment because especially in times like this, you have to be selective with your energy. Even though you’re not being around a lot of people, it’s draining. So just trying to find happiness in everything.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you think your life would have gone if you weren’t a working artist? What else do you think you would’ve been doing?

Azarra Amoy:
I can’t even imagine that life. Something creative definitely. But maybe in a different field. For ages, I wanted to be an architect. Which is completely random. And I was actually so close, I applied for it at uni and everything. And I just last minute changed my mind and done the art foundation course because I was like, I haven’t explored all that’s out there creatively. So for me to just rush into being an architect doesn’t feel right at the moment. But yeah, probably an architect or maybe something with children. I love kids, so a teacher. There’s one. I probably would’ve been a teacher.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What sort of work do you want to be doing?

Azarra Amoy:
So I would love to be working full-time as an artist, and hopefully have my own creative agency and be doing what I do full-time. Even though as much as I love being a presentation designer, I would like to have more time to do projects that I really well. Whereas, working as a presentation designer, you’re restricted by what the client wants, Gram brand guidelines and stuff like that. It’s very sort of corporate, I would say corporate design. Whereas, as a creative, if I had to … My agency, I would be able to be selective and really push the boundaries and collab more with other people. Which is definitely on my list of things to do. Just get myself out there and just learn and work with other people. That’s the big thing for me, learning new skills as well. And just bringing that all together.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find more about you and about your work and everything online?

Azarra Amoy:
So you can check out my website, which is azarraamoy.com. And I’m also on Instagram @AzarraAmoy. And also on Twitter, which I don’t tweet that much, but just in case. It’s, ThisisAzarra. That’s my Twitter account.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds good. Well, Azarra Amoy, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you really for kind of sharing your creative journey and showing how you can really sort of find creativity in sort of the most seemingly unlikely of places. You were a governess like you said, in Bangkok. And you decided, oh, this is what I want to do. But no, the art that you’re creating is so vibrant and beautiful. And I’m just really excited to kind of see where you go from here. Hopefully one day we will be hearing about that exhibition that you’re planning.

Azarra Amoy:
Yes, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Azarra Amoy:
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

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Camille Selvon Abrahams

Camille Selvon Abrahams is a trailblazer in the animation industry. Not only did she co-found the first outsourcing animation studio in the Caribbean — Full Circle Animation Studio — but she also heads up animation studies at the University of Trinidad and Tobago and is the founding director of the Animae Caribe Animation Festival! And she’s still making history!

We had a pretty wide ranging conversation, and talked about her creative process, networking with other Black animators in the industry, the power of the African diaspora, and how she uses of storytelling to help with her work as a digital activist. According to Camille, we don’t need to ask permission to tell our stories, and I couldn’t agree more. Learn more about Camille and tap into your inner creative!