It’s hard to be a joyful Black creative on a good day; to pour your being into beautiful work amid ongoing injustices is already taxing. And during the current unprecedented and uncertain times, reclaiming and protecting that Black joy may feel particularly difficult.
As nationwide protests rage on and the public health crisis wreaks global havoc, designers and musicians Coco & Breezy, filmmaker and activist Tourmaline, and photographers Bukunmi Grace and Lynn Aurélie look to their art—and that of others—as a source for Black joy: a warm image of a young Black girl surrendering to the sun; a transcendent melody pulsing at 130 BPMs; a film transporting centuries-old, little-known Black history to 2020.
Grace finds that maintaining freedom of expression, maintaining joy, is an act of resistance against racist systems and stereotypical ideas of Black diasporic communities.
“White people are comfortable with Black sadness,” she says. “They're pleased with Black angst, Black trauma, even Black hatred. But we need to highlight the moments of joy that we've been able to capture ourselves and capture in other people by overcoming those dark moments, the midnight hours, the deep, dark sadness.”
Still, when joy escapes Black creatives, Tourmaline finds that rest, reflection and taking stock of the little things can be the most vital form of said joy, especially as the world experiences this collective downtime. “We don't have to work hard to earn joy,” she says. “Joy is our birthright.”
R29Unbothered spoke with Black creatives to discuss how they’re reclaiming their joy while navigating the pandemic, what their Black joy looks like, and what inspires it. Get to know the artists and their amazing work below.
How We Maintain Our Black Joy: We are using music and being creative as an outlet, and we're learning to be okay with doing nothing without guilt. In business meetings, for example, we're comfortable with being ourselves. Now, when I'm on these conference calls with folks, we can speak our truth and use our own language. We can wear our headscarves. We were on a Zoom call with a tech team in San Francisco about implementing new ideas on our e-commerce platform, and I (Coco) had on my headscarf. That brings us joy.
Why Finding Black Joy Matters To Us: We have been through traumatic sh*t just being Black in America, so it's embedded in our hearts and souls to find joy in every little thing.
What We're Doing to Inspire Black Joy: The electronic dance world lacks diversity, so Coco and I and Aluna and DJ Sliink are continually talking about what we can do to make a change. What kind of conversations do we need to have? There are many subgenres of dance music that don't get highlighted: Chicago Juke, Detroit Jit, Detroit and Chicago house music, New Orleans bounce, New Jersey Club, Baltimore Club. Why aren't those on the big playlists? That's an issue. We're only seeing one side of mainstream dance music, which is typically centered upon white men, and we're tired of that. We posted a cool video of five different dances and subgenres, dance music from different cities, and the one common thread that we have as Black people is that when we get together, we f*cking dance. That's joy.
Viral Black Joy That Inspires Us: There's a video of this white female teacher explaining to educators that if their Black students, for example, say "finna," don't correct them because that's part of their language. Black people [who use AAVE] are bilingual as well. It made us happy because, again, a part of who we are is how we sound, how we talk, so we're glad she was educating people.
Black Joy To Me Is: Resilience. Black joy is being able to overcome. I'm originally from Haiti, and my family immigrated here ten years ago. Being here from Haiti after the earthquake under traumatic circumstances, we came here and started over, but we're joyous.
Why I Capture Black Joy In My Art: My purpose, before trying to inspire other people, is to inspire my siblings—to appreciate their Black skin, to feel like they are enough, to love their hair, their skin color. I submitted a photo of my little sister wearing cornrows for a show, and it is one of the ten pieces to be featured in the Fitchburg Art Museum in Massachusetts. I just want her to be able to go in there and see it. That's most important to me.
How I've Maintained Black Joy Through The Pandemic: It's been challenging, but I've been reading and writing. At the end of May, throughout the month of June, I wasn't inspired to take photos. I turned to my journal and had to be very vulnerable to the anxiety and fear of everything that's happening. That's how my Quarantine Diary started. I had to slow down and check in with myself: How do I feel right now? What do I think about everything happening in the world? Do I feel safe in my skin?
Why I'm Sharing My Black Joy: We're so dynamic and complex that we create differently. We all have a different medium that we use to express ourselves, and it's just such a powerful thing to document. When we talk about Black people's stereotypes, creatives fight back against them and show who we are in full.
The Creative: Tourmaline (Film)
What I Want Others To Know About Black Joy: Sometimes, I can feel hopeless. I can look around and notice the big problems, and it can feel overwhelming. And then sometimes I'll get furious about something. And that will be a powerful way out of the hopelessness, meaning I'll get mad about historical erasure, and I'll start from that place and help me move out of despair. And that's okay. If you can't access your happiness right now, that's okay. Black trans elder Miss Major, who fought back at Stonewall, talks about reaching for pleasurable things—a cool drink of water—in the hard moments. Can you just kind of soak up the appreciation for these everyday things around us and their pleasure? When I learned that, I started seeing the flowers on my block, seeing how people come together in really challenging times to love each other and support each other. I see laughter. I see joy. And in that, I learned we deserve to be moving around with our joy, with our cool drinking water. We don't have to work hard to have earned that. Joy is our birthright.
Art That Has Given Me The Most Joy: I just finished a film called Mary of Ill Fame. It's part of a suite of work about Seneca Village and Mary Jones, a Black trans sex worker in New York City. After she got arrested for stealing someone's wallet, she came to court just so decked out, so in her truth, her power and beauty. It felt so pleasurable, so joyful to recreate that and to recreate the vibe of Seneca Village, which was the only place in New York City, during the time when slavery was still illegal, where Black people could vote and own land. It felt so joyful to share it with the cast and the crew and soon with the world.
Black Joy Inspiring Me Right Now: Kimberly Drew is doing interviews on Instagram Live with brilliant Black people. And the Black Trans Femmes in the Arts is a collective that is inspiring so much joy. I'm also working with my friend Thomas Lax, a Black curator at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), on pleasure gardens, places for us as Black people to come together and feel joy and ask questions without expecting answers from each other. Questions about abolition, about the world that we want, about the world that we have that we want to make more of as a way just to get deep. It's so joyful to see everyone dreaming right now, and we want to make more of that kind of space.
The Creative: Bukunmi Grace (Photography)
How I Reclaim Joy Through My Art:
At the end of last year, I felt as if I was entering a dissociative state, so I chose to reanalyze my motives for creating by revisiting the origin of one of my favorite portraits. I went back to South Africa to recall the magnitude of sacrifices that have paved the way to my creative freedom. I landed first in Johannesburg, and as I would visit designers, artisans and early collaborators, I would walk away incredibly inspired by their designs, visions and — most importantly — their perseverance. Our casual conversations resulted in valuable collaborative productions that brought joy into the lives and work of everyone involved, even up to this present time. For me, reclaiming my joy in art has always been by identifying that joy in the stories of others but also in admonishing my own joy.
Why Finding Black Joy Matters To Me:
My first IG Live was in collaboration with @supportblackart and featured artists Dana Scruggs, Ciarra Walters, and Ivy Coco, who all produce uplifting and empowering art in their own right. During our hour-long chat, a recurring topic was the weight of internalized pain and trauma we bear as Black women fearing the stigma and perceptions that are attributed to emotional revelations. However, what I love about these women is the way they’ve harnessed their negative experiences into positive will and propelled it towards creative energy, which is distinctly visible in the vibrance and depth of their creations. Finding Black Joy is important because it empowers all to move beyond trauma and transgressions, as Black women and men have done uncompromisingly before us all.
Black Joy That Inspires Me:
I’m inspired by pure, unfiltered, unadulterated expressions of love and camaraderie. Intricate moments that go beyond verbal comprehension. For example, the other day, I heard a Jamaican woman on the phone chatting it up with her family. When she was hushed by an observer, she responded that, in that moment, she felt fully free to express herself, so those hushing her needed to grab headphones. That moment deeply resonated with me because it reminded me of my moms and aunties, joyfully catching up to their relatives overseas in Yoruba while maintaining a stoic silence in public corporate spaces. Those moments of pure joy and laughter are absolutely priceless because they are often limited.
We are navigating unprecedented times. And while Black Americans are no strangers to struggle (see: the timeline of the last 400 years), things feel particularly catalyzing this time around. Protecting our joy feels especially vital. This is why R29Unbothered is teaming up with VSCO for the #BlackJoyMatters project to debut a series of first-time joint programming to amplify the Black experience. Black people don’t just deserve to be alive; we deserve to be happy. So we’re doing what we always do, and we’re leaning into the reasons we have to celebrate — no matter what.