Our History: Black Artists

Andra Day

Behind a podium stands a woman with red lipstick, large hoop earrings and hair in a tall, curly updo. She’s wearing a long and colorful dress as she graciously accepts Billboard’s Award for “Powerhouse” singer. This is Andra Day. 

Day is best known for her song “Rise Up” from her album “Cheers to the Fall,” a unique and artistic singer, her music style is described as R&B with her distinct jazz, blues and soul influences. Even her stage name, Andra Day, pays homage to the jazz singer Billie Holiday, who was often called Lady Day.

Day, born Cassandra Monique Batie, had always been musically inclined and was drawn to performance arts at a young age. Since she was five, Day had taken dance classes and later started singing at the First United Methodist Church in Chula Vista alongside her participation in musical theater. What really drew her toward music, though, were her arts-oriented elementary school and exposure to her biggest influences — the jazz singers Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington — at the age of 11. In an article from The New York Times by Alexis Soloski, Day describes the first time she heard Holiday sing: “I heard ‘Sugar’ and then I heard ‘Strange Fruit.’ It changed my idea of what a great singer was.”

She attended the San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts, however, it took her until 2010 to make her breakthrough when Stevie Wonder introduced her to producer Adrian Gurvitz, after Wonder’s wife at the time, Kai Millard Morris, saw a video of Day singing on YouTube. In an interview with Live Nation, Day described the first time Wonder called her: “I was living in a tiny little studio apartment with my mom…I didn’t believe it.” She ended up collaborating with Gurvitz for much of her debut album and was able to get an album deal with Warner Bros. 

Now a seasoned musician and actress, Day is still in contact with Wonder and she has many professional achievements under her belt. She performed at the White House, sang with Stevie Wonder and other artists  and received many awards in both her singing and acting career. Some of these awards include nomination for the 2016 Grammys Award for Best R&B album for “Cheers to the Fall,” nomination for the 2016 Grammys Award for Best Performance and a Daytime Emmys Award for her performance of her song “Rise Up.” She was only the second Black woman in history to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture for Drama for her debut as Billie Holiday in the movie “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” in which she was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. San Diego raised, Day was awarded the key to the city by elected officials in 2021. In an article in The San Diego Union Tribune, Day said “This just means everything because I love my city…I will always have San Diego on my shoulders, on my back and in my heart.”

A main reason Day makes music is to make an impact on people and help them through tough times. One strategy she uses to spread her message in her songs is to participate in campaigns.   . 

According to Day in the article “San Diego Native Andra Day to Appear on 40 Million Coke Cups at McDonald’s” in the San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, her song “Rise Up” is a “simple reminder to persevere.” Through the Coke Campaign, she can spread this same message with her lyrics and the QR code to a short film inspired by her song on  Coca-Cola cups at McDonald’s. This action carries out her purpose of helping others since “[“Rise Up” is] healing and encouraging and inspiring because I believe music in its purest form is a vessel of healing,” as Day said in an article from Billboard by Adelle Platon. 

This translates into her music through her distinctive and expressive voice and lyrics that convey true human emotion. Each song is filled with so much care and soul, making her discography worth listening to.

Kadir Nelson

Before Kadir Nelson could read, sing or spell he began his journey as one of today’s most brilliant oil painters. The Black Art Depot, an art gallery in Georgia that sells Nelson’s and other talented black artists’ work, briefly shares Nelson’s life story, where he states that “[art is a] part of my DNA”. 

Growing up, Nelson’s knowledge of the world of art and its culture was influenced by his uncle.

“My uncle gave me my foundation in art,” Nelson said on The Black Art Depot’s website.

Under his uncle’s wing, Nelson was able to experiment with many different forms of art, specifically in drawing and painting. At age 16, Nelson began oil painting, quickly growing attached to the art form.

Nelson also received mentoring from his high school art teacher at Will C. Crawford Senior High School in El Cerrito, San Diego. Nelson’s art was later recognized by the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York through which he received a scholarship to attend.

“My art is inspired primarily by great stories,” Nelson said in an interview with Scholastic. “I really like the story of being able to overcome great odds, becoming the hero or the hero to ourselves that we know we can be.”

Nelson’s realist art celebrates and echoes African American culture, specifically in terms of his figurative paintings that focus on past and present Black narratives. His art is presented in places all around the world and in many different forms,  from magazines to books to album covers. 

“I feel that art’s highest function is that of a mirror, reflecting the innermost beauty and divinity of the human spirit; and is most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s highest self,” Nelson said in an interview with Reading Rockets, a national public media literacy initiative. 

Nelson concentrates his work on the illumination of the best in people, his work is comforting to people’s minds and souls, always highlighting a greater idea. This is executed flawlessly in one of his illustrations for Scholastic, “Read Every Day.” The illustration depicts a little boy reading a huge book with reverence. A sun shines from behind his head, symbolizing his mind “being brightened, illuminated by what he’s reading,” according to the same Scholastic interview.

As Nelson’s work began to reach the public eye, The New Yorker Magazine began displaying his work on their front covers that reflected the ideas of justice. 

His art is richly colorful and eye-catching and is beyond any words The New Yorker could ever put on their covers. Many of his portraits illustrate people in real time, which is why they are so eye-catching; viewers can relate to them. His portraits portray the way the world was, is, and will be. They speak both good and bad, but they also speak for change. 

Nelson’s work became world-renowned, so much so that he has illustrated album covers for both Michael Jackson’s “Michael” album and Drake’s “Nothing Was The Same” album.

Nelson’s illustrations have been presented in over 25 books, including one of his most famous, “We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball”.

Nelson endeavors to bring comfort to those that seek it, and joy to those that need it. A San Diego native, he has received worldwide recognition with awards such as the Caldecott Medal, Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Awards, the New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award, several NAACP Image Awards, and arguably the coolest of all, an Olympic Art Bronze medal.

Nelson has become one of the masters in his field, as he stands as one of today’s most noteworthy turn-of-the-century artists.

Brit Bennett

Fifteen years ago, just 24 miles north of TPHS at El Camino High School, the idea for her debut novel, “The Mothers,” blossomed in the mind of then 17-year-old Brit Bennett. She was the same age as her novel’s main character, Nadia Turner, and shared a similar yearning to leave her hometown — Oceanside. Just like Turner, Bennett had big dreams for her future, though she never could have imagined how far she would come. 

After high school, Bennett attended Stanford University where she received her B.A. in English before earning her M.F.A. at the University of Michigan, suffering through the brutal Midwest winters as a Southern California girl at heart. 

Bennett was completing a writing fellowship at Michigan in 2014 at the time of the separate police killings of the black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner. In response to the court cases absolving the policeman involved in the killings, Bennett wrote an essay for the website Jezebel, entitled “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People,” garnering more than one million views in the span of three days. Soon after, a literary agent reached out wondering if she was interested in writing a book. The rest is history.

When “The Mothers” made its first appearance on bookstore shelves in 2016, both critics and readers were immediately entranced by the tender story of young love in a contemporary Black community of Southern California. As an exciting new voice in literary fiction, Bennett was named a 5 Under 35 honoree by the National Book Foundation, and “The Mothers” was listed for the NBCC John Leonard First Novel Prize.

Bennett examined similar motifs of race, identity and womanhood in her second novel, “The Vanishing Half.” Not surprisingly, the book proved to be an even greater hit than her first, quickly rising to become a New York Times #1 bestseller and a Good Morning America June Book Club pick. 

All of Bennett’s success is utterly and completely deserved. She is a master of literary seduction, of creating a tale so enticing that a reader does not begin to notice their intense investment in the story till it is too late to look back. She drops hints and clues to how she will end the story, deftly disguising them as poetic metaphors and breathy similes. 

Bennett has the rare but essential talent shared by all literary greats: that of taking hard-hitting, raw issues and constructing stories that not only teach integral lessons but also entertain. She does not shy away from the gritty and hard truths. “The Vanishing Half,” for example, includes a recounting of the lynching of a black man. 

Everything about Bennett’s books is vibrant: from the colorful swirling designs pasted on her books’ covers, to the kaleidoscopic-like feeling of her novels that interweave a multitude of different perspectives and stories.   

Many of these stories Bennett pulls from her surroundings; a variety of the distinct personas in her novels are based on real Oceanside locals. Take a stroll down Mission Ave, and you just might meet a preppy blonde girl like Kennedy Sanders or a group of elderly women heading to church like “the Mothers.” Just like Desiree Vignes in “The Vanishing Half,” Bennett’s own mother was a fingerprint analyst for Oceanside county’s sheriff department. Her description of the relationship between twins Desiree and Stella Vignes in “The Vanishing Half” would not be half as heart-wrenching or convincing without her own experience growing up with two older sisters. 

Bennett says she grew up looking up to and still pulls inspiration from prolific black authors like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. It is not far off to say that one day her name will be up with these Black literary legends as well.

Brian Lambert

In an art-clad building in Balboa Park, something “super” lays in store for passersby. Inside is an explosion of vibrant color from tables teeming with comic books filled with epic tales. This is Black Com!x Day at the World Beat Center, an event to celebrate black comic book artists from across the country. Speaking on a panel with fellow comic book artists is Brian Lambert, award-winning author and founder of Wingless Entertainment, enthralling the audience with his views on the realm of comics. When prompted to speak on the topic of representation in storytelling, Lambert emphasized the disconnect between the representation audiences want, and what is actually produced.

“We’re not in control of what we see,” Lambert said to the crowd. “Audiences are looking for representation of facets of themselves, and that doesn’t necessarily have to be race.”

According to Lambert, the way for audiences to have control over the media they consume is to produce that media. This idea led him to found Wingless Entertainment, a multimedia company that champions diversity in all forms. They accomplish this through their comic series’ like Immortalis, the tale of the fall of Constantinople, and Her, the story of an immortal living in San Francisco.

“Wingless was started with  a very broad idea of creating a new mythology in its own world. If you research mythologies across the world, Egyptian, Norse, indigenous, there are a ton of commonalities,” Lambert said. “So we use those mythological bases to pivot and tell our own stories.”

According to Lambert, diversity and inclusion lies at the heart of these stories. 

“In addition to people seeing themselves in front of the camera, we’ve always wanted people to see themselves behind the scenes and creating the material that they’re also consuming,” he said.

For Lambert, cultivating this diversity means creating comics he would read himself.

“I have to come from a standpoint of, ‘I’m a consumer first, and what do I want to see?’” he said. “So then I write the story that I want to see.”

Lambert’s dream of creating his own comic company began with the founding of Image Comics, a collection of artists that broke off from DC and Marvel Comics. Seeing this company’s success from a young age gave him the hope that a “normal person” like him could do it too.

“I was able to see a black-owned company, so that meant I could do it, and [it was a] fledgling company that started with no backing, so that really let me know ‘Oh, I really can achieve this,’” Lambert said.

Now, years later, Lambert works with fellow creators to produce comics that underrepresented audiences and writers can truly see themselves in. Perhaps Wingless entertainment will inspire a new generation to enter the comic industry. Lambert encourages young creators to put themselves out there, and appreciates Black Com!x Day as an event that can support these budding artists.

“You can have real face-time with people who are doing what you want to do. You can take the time to actually ask the questions that are necessary,” he said. “Everybody’s welcoming, and you’re going to learn so much.”

Lambert recognizes that the fear of failure can stop aspiring artists, especially marginalized communities. Yet, to those who hope to create their own comics one day, Lambert says to “do it, because everybody sucks.” 

“Everybody who’s out there has failed. Everyone who was out there has done something that was subpar. Everyone who was out there has been in your position,” he said.  “The only person stopping you, is you.”

Read on Issuu.

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