If you’ve had the opportunity to set foot in Oakland, California since the brutal killing of George Floyd, I’m sure you’re fully aware of the outstanding “Black Lives Matter” artwork that has come to blanket downtown Oakland’s storefronts and buildings. It’s no surprise however, given that the Bay Area, and especially Oakland, are some of the most prominent hotspots when it comes to cultural diversity and racial tolerance. If there’s one thing the year 2020 has taught everyone, I hope it’s that racism is unfortunately still extremely present and alive throughout the world.
With mass pushes for change and progress being made, artists across the country have come together and used their art to combat racial injustice. Examples range from multimillion dollar rapper Lil Baby’s recent single “The Bigger Picture,” to murals painted by much less famous and often unknown artists. No matter how famous the artist may be, their art has the power to completely shift societal opinions on racial injustice, while simultaneously bringing attention to the issues at hand. However, with any form of mass-consumed art, comes financial injustices and wrongfully given recognition.
One issue that has been brought to light now more than ever is the simple fact that property owners are often commissioning white artists to paint Black Lives Matter murals on the walls of their buildings. I’m not saying that this alone is inherently wrong or immoral, but let’s look at Oakland for example. Sarah Hotchkiss, a writer for KQED’s “Arts and Culture” subdivision, puts it perfectly when she states, “White artists were being commissioned to write “Black Lives Matter” on boarded-up storefronts and Black artists were not being paid for their work. Not acknowledging the artwork as valuable, particularly the work of Black artists, Ekundayo says, “will continue to perpetuate this idea that artists will make art for free and that we can disrespect them.”” Going off Hotchkiss’ assertion, there’s no denying that there’s something unjust about the fact that people are paying the very demographic that is responsible for systemic racism to paint murals focused on the Black Lives Matter movement. While their intentions are surely wholeheartedly good, it’s things like this that only widen the gap between different races. If a black artist’s life’s work is to spread awareness of racial injustice, something he/she directly experiences every day, then that artist has every right to be infuriated if they aren’t receiving the credit they deserve for their work.
A few weeks ago, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I stumbled upon Ovrkast’s instagram story. Ovrkast is a lofi-rapper and political activist from Oakland, who has experienced the steady gentrification of the place he calls home first hand. Ovrkast’s instagram story documented an interaction he had with a white artist while she was in the process of painting a Black Lives Matter related mural on the wall of a corporate building. Upon watching the video, I was able to witness Ovrkast politely approach the artist, and simply ask her what exactly she was doing. After letting her speak, the rapper expressed his frustration with the circumstances of the mural. Ovrkast emphasized the fact that she was a white woman, getting paid to paint a Black Lives Matter mural on one of the very buildings that has directly contributed to Oakland’s gentrification and skyrocketing living expenses in his community. Furthermore, Ovrkast made the muralist well aware of the fact that the building she was painting on had forced out people from his own community due to the fact that they could no longer afford to stay, and called it a “slap in the face” to the African American community.
Ovrkast’s experience literally embodies everything I have mentioned throughout this article. The fact that corporations are attempting to side with the Black lives Matter movement while directly contributing to the displacement of Black communities is the epitome of virtue signalling, as well as hypocrisy and ignorance. It’s extremely important that we continue to uplift and publicize Black art, especially in the current state of systemic racism throughout the world today. Too many Black artists are being jipped out of what they are owed for their cultural contributions, and they deserve immediate restitution. Next time you come across a black artist’s work, consider doing whatever you can to support and share their work respectfully.