Reach your hands to the sky and do a nice stretch.
It’s time to move our beautiful bodies with your weekly dose of Black Joy. Kicking things off with a video of Rachel Simonne performing an empowering, black-fist raising dance she dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement.
From September to mid-October, Simonne and her friends spent every Sunday afternoon practicing Simonne’s choreography. The Black Lives Matter mural at Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham served as the perfect location for the video, which dropped earlier this week.
Although the songs and dance moves focus on Black experiences, many of the dancers in the video are not Black. Simonne said that didn’t subtract from the video’s message.
“That unified front immediately brought me joy,” Simonne said. “Cultural unity and diversity are important to show it can happen. It’s the best way for lasting change to happen. In the wake of political division, racial tensions and social unrest, unity is needed now more than ever.”
Simonne has used performing arts to translate her emotions ever since she was awed by the theatrics of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” at age 8. Now, the 29-year-old is a dance and theatre director with Birmingham City Schools. As a resident choreographer with the Birmingham Black Repertory Theatre Company, Simonne snagged the 2019 BroadwayWorld award for best local choreographer for her work in the company’s production of “The Choir Boy.” Her post-pandemic plans include opening her own performing arts academy where Black youth and adults can learn the black-joy producing power of dance and theatre.
“Working in different organizations, there are so many rules, red tape, and stipulations,” Simonne said. “In dance, you make your own rules when you’re creating something. That is liberating and in liberation there is joy, peace and wholeness.”
Simonne was very intentional when choreographing the Black Lives Matter video. From Childish Gambino’s “This is America” to a snippet of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” Simonne and her friends performed to a mixture of Black works narrating Black pain and liberation. Simonne said dance helps her make sense of life.
“Sometimes the different stresses of life are so much at one time we can’t really understand it because we’re so busy going through it. We’re not in the moment actually internalizing it and analyzing it,” Simonne said. “Performing arts has helped me to explore the different emotions, narratives and aspects of life. So it is through performing arts that I have found healing, meaning and found solutions.”
Illustrating Melanin Magic
While Simonne is spreading her empowerment through dance, Bessemer, Ala., native Lauren “Lo” Harris is spreading it through her bold, colorful illustrations that mostly feature women of color. Fulltime, Harris works in New York City as an associate animator for NBC News. But the self-taught illustrator and Alabama School of Fine Arts graduate has produced commission work for many household names across the country.
She has designed the Ellen DeGeneres Show’s Fall 2020 Be Kind subscription box. She has illustrated the Black power behind Juneteenth by designing a multi-platform social campaign with Amazon Prime Video. She’s also sprinkled her Black Girl Magic over Cosmopolitan Magazine, Disney, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense Fund.
The boom of success over this past year alone is surprising to Harris. She made her Instagram account loharris_art as a space to just let loose and document her artistic growth, but her illustrations were impactful. Her “29 Queens” series was simply a daily challenge to illustrate inspiring Black women, such as Birmingham native and activist Angela Davis and Jamaican model Grace Jones, during Black History Month. The series caught many eyes and hearts.
Harris chatted with me about the explosion of her success, the healing lesson she learned while living in the South and how she plans to start taking care of herself.
What about art gives you Black Joy?
For me, celebrating Black joy is not about escapism. It’s about creating space for black narratives of love, empowerment, and happiness. And these are narratives that are just as crucial to our experience as those of struggle protest and trauma. We deserve to hold space for both.
The thing about art that creates a sense of Black joy for me is that through my art I am able to hold space for a side of the narrative that is required in order to humanize the entire conversation. You can’t just talk about the traumas. We are not monoliths.
I think Black Joy exists in all the work I create. That’s like my element – my chemical X.
It’s been almost a year since you started your Instagram account and you now have more than 24,300 followers. How do you think people are connecting with your work?
A lot of the characters I create, they are highly specific in a way that’s relatable. They are not particular people, but the hairstyles that they have or just the shape of their faces seem relatable. Like, “Oh, I can see this being a real person.”
Also, they like the content of the work as well in terms of empowerment, pushing people to be confident and be kind to themselves and enjoy the love around them whether that is through their friend groups or what not. It’s also definitely community-oriented, social-oriented art. I think that really speaks to people when we can’t even be close to each other because we have to socially distance. So to see these characters able to still kind of exhibit this closeness with each other, it’s kind of nice seeing that.
I do draw characters of different races and backgrounds. But my default when I’m drawing usually is, ‘OK, where are all of my brown skin tones.’ As a kid, I would always draw white characters and I wouldn’t think twice. Now, I mostly draw brown and Black characters. That is so powerful and revolutionary to me that my natural inclination and subconscious intentions are based in self-love.
I hope that it contributes to the future where Black children can expect to grow up with nuanced and diverse representations of themselves in art and in media and where the celebration of Black stories aren’t limited to a singular month out of the year or a particular media market.
I’m all about casual empowerment. Let’s see a future where we don’t have to have a summer of lists of Black artists. Let’s just make a future where we just automatically support Black artists.
Who did you want to inspire with the “29 Queens” series and what did you want people to get from that work?
I wasn’t doing commercial illustration work for anyone at that point. I wasn’t necessarily recognized or recognizing myself as an illustrator. I was just making stuff. The intention that I had was purely something that was going to make me happy and something to challenge myself to explore my style and expression.
Looking back at it, it’s just my own expression of casual empowerment specifically for Black women. In my captions, I talk a little bit about each woman’s history, impacts and just what makes them boss ladies. Like, Marsha P. Johnson and the influence she has had on LGBTQ rights and liberation. Angela Davis would just stand up and really fight for what she thought was right even if people didn’t like her.
Sometimes we have to do that. People are very concerned about being liked, but it’s at the expense of what is right. If you don’t stand up for anybody, there’s not going to be anyone left to stand up for you.
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You have seen so much success this year. What’s next?
One thing that I am passionate about in the future, especially in 2021, is starting to build platforms either through a YouTube channel or online courses designed to help anybody, but especially black creatives, gain the language and the expectations of what they should look out for when they start freelancing as artists.
I do want to help people get into that mindset of being empowered artists who are able to advocate for themselves, advocate for their time and really create a career where they are being paid fairly and they are working with people they want to work with. There are a lot of artists who are able to perform at that commercial level but don’t have the business sense or ability to place themselves in a marketing sense to acquire that kind of work.
I’m looking forward to all of the ways my career will evolve. I am illustrating a children’s book called “Mama’s Home” that is currently set to release in 2022 and written by Shay Youngblood. It is definitely a story that’s relative to my own childhood growing up. It’s about a little girl who has a good relationship with her mom, but her mom works a lot. So she has six or seven “big mommas” who are different women in the community and the girl would go into each of the women’s homes and they would each do something different together.
It’s about nontraditional family structures and idea of the community raising the child. I’m very excited about that.
So, you have lived up north since you started college at Northwestern University in 2014. After graduating in 2018, you went to work in New York City. I wanted to know if there are concepts of the South that you will always keep with you.
There is a type of warmth in the way folks in the South approach each other. That’s one thing that I really need to get back into.
Living in New York, it’s really easy to rush through things and people and be fast, fast, fast. One thing that I recognize when I go home is like, ‘Wow, people walk so slow here?’ But clearly, they are just living life and I need to get back to learning how to live a little.
My goal for 2021 is to create a lifestyle where I am able to do more reflection and take more time with myself. I recognize that when I’m rushing through things and I’m getting swept up in the bustle of everything – especially while doing this work and my full-time job at the same time – it’s so easy for me to be hyper efficient to the point that I’m not happy or overworked. How in the world am I going to talk about joy and personal empowerment if I am not taking steps in my own life to secure that Joy and personal empowerment for myself?
So, I am going to reclaim that lesson from being raised in the South and I’m taking time with myself in 2021.
Well, it’s funny you mention that because we do recognize that part of Black Joy is self-care. How are you planning for that self-care?
So, I have been eating out a lot because there is a lot of work to be done. So in 2021, if I don’t go to the grocery store more, at the very least I am going to get a meal kit. I’m getting some fresh produce delivered and I am going to take time to start consuming full meals that aren’t like a burger or Chinese takeout. I want to have time to sit down and read a book.
Most importantly, I want to pour into my work as an artist more. I want to be able to create the YouTube channel and online courses and then step outside of myself for a moment to sort of really examine my work and try different things.
A lot of times artist can get stuck in kind of replicating the same things because that gets them more likes on social media and that may cause them to struggle to grow as an artist. I want to make sure I constantly trying to explore and push the boundaries of the world my art lives in.
So, you want to settle down so you will have the energy to challenge yourself?
Basically, yes. My life has changed so dramatically from this time last year. I paid off student loans. It is crazy to me that this year, I went from not drawing at all to literally going on the Ellen show, creating stuff for all of these amazing brands, having people email me and approach me to do work.
Everything is moving so quickly that I owe it to myself to take a step back and marinade on that and really appreciate what I have done and to reinvest in that.
You explained earlier how you want to help young artists. What advice would you like to give to them to get to where you are?
Take time to find your voice. I think when we first start drawing, it is easy to settle into an art style that isn’t really what you want it to be doing. You feel intimidated to try different things. But if you’re serious about art and you want to do commercial work and you do want to make a career off of it, take time to survey who you are a s a person.
What are the things that interest you? What are the things that matter to you? How can you explore that in your work? Who do you admire? Really ask yourself those questions to set the groundwork and say, “Alright, I am ready to start exploring and I am open to expanding.”
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Harris is preaching to artists here. But, as for me, I hope you keep exploring and expanding on your Black Magic as well. See ya next week!
Your weekly roundup of Black Joy is produced by the Black Magic Project, a Facebook group where we celebrate and discuss Black culture and community. You can join the group and spread your own melanin magic by clicking here.