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From COVID-19 to protests, how 2020 impacted Black artists and creatives

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/26/2021 Bob Mehr, USA TODAY

For Memphis hip-hop producer James Dukes, aka IMAKEMADBEATS, music has been a lifelong passion, bordering on obsession. He could hardly recall a day where he hadn’t been in the studio, tinkering with beats or creating tracks. But in March 2020, that all changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“For the first time I’m not thinking about beats or mixing records,” Dukes said. “I was thinking about the health of my family — my parents, my son — and figuring out how to get groceries without getting COVID. That’s where my mind was. And just the fatigue and exhaustion from dealing with all that … it took me away from any sort of inspiration. I didn’t go into the studio for weeks. Which, if you know me, that’s like an eternity. It’s unthinkable.”

Like most Americans, Dukes spent several weeks last spring trying to find his place and priorities in a suddenly unfamiliar and unsafe world — while also trying to recalibrate his role as an artist, specifically a Black artist.  

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For Dukes, it was reading an old quote from Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning writer Toni Morrison about the critical part creatives play during a crisis that refocused him. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” noted Morrison. “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

“Reading that empowered me and inspired me and sent me back into the studio,” Dukes said. 

Dukes’ story is one just example of how Black artists were affected by the pandemic, as well as the widespread racial unrest and protests that were the dominant stories of America in 2020. It is also about how those artists — musicians, writers, painters, poets — responded, and in some cases, flourished amid the unprecedented circumstances.  

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'Your emotions are how you create'

For James Dukes, 2020 was supposed to be the year things broke wide open for his Memphis-based company Unapologetic. A multi-faceted creative “ecosystem,” Unapologetic is a label for musicians (including experimental funk virtuoso MonoNeon and rapper A Weirdo From Memphis) as well as visual artists (among them 35 Miles and Gabby). It’s also a media organization active in licensing music to film, TV and commercials, while also maintaining a clothing line, Unapologetic Garments, and its own Unapologetic World app. Unapologetic’s motto is “…where vulnerability becomes art and weird becomes genius.” 

The fast-rising, 6-year-old company was on track for a transformative year. “For us, 2019 economically speaking, was great," Dukes said. "We had flown past almost all of our goals. We were set up in 2020, to not just accomplish big things, but to do them on a much bigger level than we ever had.”  

a person using a laptop computer sitting on top of a keyboard: James Dukes, better known as the masked hip-hop producer IMAKEMADBEATS. © Justin Fox Burks James Dukes, better known as the masked hip-hop producer IMAKEMADBEATS.

Top of the list was a planned international multimedia tour, headlined by MonoNeon and A Weirdo From Memphis, as well as Unapologetic’s stable of visual artists, who would create unique exhibits as part of the shows. Unapologetic had secured a partnership with energy drink maker Red Bull and was deep in the midst of preparations for the ambitious excursion when the pandemic hit.

“I can’t think of a bigger disruption for what we had planned,” Dukes said. “It killed all our plans.”

As spring turned to summer, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd began to dominate the headlines, sparked massive unrest across the country and put a unique focus on the issue. 

“As Black people, sadly we’re very desensitized to these things because they always happen. But this time — because of the pandemic, because everyone was locked down and so focused on the news — the world could not escape it. Black people, we sit and live in that reality all the time. But because everyone was locked into that same moment together, no one could escape it. That’s what the pandemic did. More than maybe ever, we had a shared reality and experience.”

For Dukes what the lasting impact of 2020 will be — both the fallout from COVID-19 and the country’s racial unrest — isn’t clear just yet. But it has made him keenly aware of how it might affect his artists, their art and the future of Unapologetic.  

“There’s a heavy mental issue happening right now for everyone,” Dukes said. “In five or 10 years we’re going to learn how the mind was affected by everything that happened in 2020. Right now with the virus, we’ve just been focused on the impact to the body, but the mind has 100% been affected.

“The thing about being an artist — you have to keep your emotions right there on the surface. You can’t tuck them away. Your emotions are how you create, they are the fuel, the gasoline. So it’s a balancing act. This last year was overwhelming in a lot of ways. As an artist and the head of an artistic organization, I just want to make sure everyone can get through this and come out the other side intact and still keep creating.”

On the frontlines

For bestselling author, award-winning poet and noted essayist, Hanif Abdurraqib, 2020 was supposed to be a year to recharge and refocus. Following a busy 2019 — during which Abdurraqib released two books, an exploration of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest and his second poetry collection, and made nearly 100 readings and appearances in the support of the projects — he was planning to pull back from the road and focus on writing his next book in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio. 

With the onset of the pandemic, Abdurraqib had no choice but to adjust how he worked. “Like a lot of people I had to learn how to operate in a much smaller and more anxious space than I otherwise would have,” he said. “After a while, there’s also a feeling of reckoning with the loss of time and thinking through the loss of time. 2020 felt like somewhat of a lost year, even though I know that’s not true.”  

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib standing in front of a mirror posing for the camera: Bestselling author, award winning poet and noted essayist Hanif Abdurraqib: "2020 felt like somewhat of a lost year, even though I know that’s not true.” © Megan Leigh Barnard Bestselling author, award winning poet and noted essayist Hanif Abdurraqib: "2020 felt like somewhat of a lost year, even though I know that’s not true.”

As it happened, Abdurraqib put the time to good use, completing work on his book “A Little Devil in America,” a collection of essays considering modes of Black performance (due from Random House in March). 

“I was probably more productive [last year] honestly, because I had to be in one place for a while. Traveling so much is hard because I do my best work when I’m at home, in this city I love and care a great deal about.” 

By the time the racial and social justice protests began to take shape in Columbus in the summer, Abdurraqib felt a need to be on the frontlines. 

“Historically, my writing work and my organizing work are two very separate things. So it’s not so much that the [protests] impacted my work, except that it took me away from my work. Which was fine and necessary for me. It felt like that was the work, more than writing was at that moment.”

For Abdurraqib, the pandemic created “an interesting set of circumstances, under which the protests could flourish.” 

“The pandemic also laid bare some of the nation’s many inequalities that fed people’s frustrations and reactivated and radicalized people,” said Abdurraqib. “The hope for me is that it carries beyond the pandemic. I think there are some doors that have been opened and things awakened by the failure of this country to care for its people. Hopefully, that’s a good thing.” 

'Burden of Respectability'

This past March in Texas, Dawn Okoro was in the midst of promoting an exhibit of her art called “Punk Noir,” when the pandemic hit. Born in Houston, raised in Lubbock and a longtime Austin resident, Okoro took a rather non-traditional rout in her creative journey, graduating from law school rather than art school, before launching her career as a painter. 

“But once we got into the lockdown I wasn’t in the mood to create at all,” Okoro said. “My first concern was whether my basic needs were going to be met. There was a period adjusting to all that. Eventually, I did start working again.” 

When she resumed, however, it was in a different way. “Normally I work on larger paintings. But when I started again during the pandemic I found myself doing smaller drawings and being attracted to different [mediums]. It really triggered some experimentations for me. I wanted to try sculpture, I wanted to try making wearable art.” 

a group of people wearing costumes: Visual artist Dawn Okoro saw her work shared widely and saw her profile grow in 2020. © Shane Gordon Visual artist Dawn Okoro saw her work shared widely and saw her profile grow in 2020.

In the midst of this creative exploration, the summer’s racial climate began ratcheting up. “After Breonna Taylor was killed, after George Floyd was killed, there was a renewed call for racial and social justice,” Okoro said. “Almost as part of that there was also a call to support Black business and Black artists. A lot more people started sharing my work on social media. By the middle of the summer I became overwhelmed with people reaching out to me, buying art prints and buying work.” 

For Okoro, the focus on race and what Black Americans were forced to deal with in 2020 would have a direct impact on her subsequent efforts, specifically a wearable art collection titled “Burden of Respectability.” 

“It’s about how Black people are expected to behave a certain way, adhere to a certain code of conduct in order to be accepted or even just be left alone. It’s something I’ve always had to worry about, something that my white counterparts don’t have to worry about. So, for me, everything happening last year did ultimately impact my art.” 

For Okoro, that impact has been positive in terms of raising her profile. In 2020, she signed with London-based Maddox Gallery to represent her work internationally. In February, her work will be the subject of a retrospective at Rice University in Houston. In between, she signed a deal with Pepsi to have her art featured on the company’s LIFEWTR brand products, something that will bring by far her widest exposure.  

a person sitting at a table with a knife: Dawn Okoro has become one of the most buzzed about African American visual artist. © Shane Gordon Dawn Okoro has become one of the most buzzed about African American visual artist.

For Unapologetic's James Dukes, whatever the fallout of 2020 was for Black artists, the ultimate imperative was simply to find a way to continue to create. After returning to the studio last spring, Dukes and his artists set to work recording at a furious pace. For 2021, Unapologetic has set an ambitious slate of projects, including a new label compilation, as well as the full-length debut from A Weirdo From Memphis, new records from soul singer Cameron Bethany and rapper PreauXX, a collaboration between Dukes and MonoNeon, and more. 

Dukes again cites the Toni Morrison quote, one that ends with notion that “the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.”

“It’s true — and you can’t feel any shame or guilt about wanting or needing to create,” Dukes said. “This is when we as artists, especially Black artists, are important. These are the moments that are necessary to do what we do. That is the duty — to tell the story of these times through your work.”  

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: From COVID-19 to protests, how 2020 impacted Black artists and creatives

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