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ART SPEAKS: Haji P on his new collaboration, creating socially conscious art

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Local artist Haji P does a chalk drawing at UNCW. Courtesy photo

 

Last year we spoke with Greyson Davis, a.k.a. Haji P, about his art show “Happyfangs” at Wabi-Sabi Warehouse. The GLOW Academy art teacher has been busy since, working with and being inspired by his students, despite the COVID-19 shutdown. “I get all my teaching energy from being able to engage with my students, so it felt a little like operating without a full battery [when schools closed,]” he says. “We weren’t able to do big elaborate art projects like we would having class on-site.”

The works his students have managed to churn out have impressed him nonetheless—especially those inspired by the worldwide protests spurred by George Floyd’s murder.

“One of my students (an eighth-grader) drew an original character with a speech bubble overhead, reminding people to be safe and love one another,” he explains. “In a second drawing, she did that same character, again with a speech bubble overhead, saying ‘Black Lives Matter,’ and letting people know there are fundraisers available to help George Floyd’s family. That stuff helps me to shed some of the resentment—being able to see that generations younger than me get it.”

Haji P also has turned to art in these difficult times, specifically in a collaboration with local artist Hey TVM. Together they designed a T-shirt that combines Haji P’s famed toothy smile with TVM’s signature cycloptic pineapple (described as a way to “keep an eye on your paradise”) and a simple message made loud and clear: “End racism!”

“[The design is] a reminder for young creatives that, no matter how big or small your dream might be, it is possible,” Hey TVM tells. “This personal paradise is way more possible when there is justice and equality for all.”

Tees sell for $25 each, with proceeds benefitting ActBlue—a nonprofit tech group that developed software for left-leaning groups to use as a platform for fundraising efforts.

 

 

“Our views on community and positive energy are completely in sync, so it was a total no-brainer to work together,” Haji P. says. “I already was donating profits from my other designs to the Black Lives Matter organization, so TVM suggested going through ActBlue. In doing that, we were able to contribute monies to multiple organizations whose primary goal was fighting for equitable justice.”

Haji P also has been doing chalk art across town, including on UNCW’s campus, speaking out against racism and even racist professors like Mike Adams. Plus, he’s been approached about helping with a possible Black Lives Matter mural that the city will decide on this week. We interviewed Haji P about his work, how he processes the world around him, and his experiences as a black man in America.

encore (e): Tell us how the collaboration came about between you and TVM. 

Haji P (HP): I’d long been a fan of TVM’s art, since the first time I visited his shop. I think it’s dang near impossible to not like the dude. He’s got Olympic-level affability. The first time we met, we’d talked about seeing each other’s work all over the place. I did caricature work at Sharks games, he was doing their promo posters. I would sell artwork through Memory Lane Comics, he was designing their T-shirts. There was so much crazy intersection. I’d just released a separate fundraising T-shirt design before I got an IG message from him, asking if I’d be willing to collab on another one.

e: You’ve also been using art as a voice for social justice with chalk drawings on campus and the upcoming (hopeful) BLM street art that the city is considering. How is art helping you process everything going on currently?

HP: Art is the difference between me keeping my cool and throwing trash-cans through pizza shop windows, screaming “Wakanda Forever!” I put a lot of effort into smiling. But I’ve been watching people who look like me get mistreated, beaten and murdered with impunity for 30 years. I’ve experienced it firsthand for 30 years. Having to watch people, my people, being murdered by people charged to protect us on repeat starts to feel like a scene from “A Clockwork Orange.” So I’ve been mad. Hella mad. Which is an emotion I try my best not to bake in.

There was a point where I was pacing around my house with a face full of boiling hot tears, punching pillows, thinking I don’t care if every brick in the city burns if it means rebuilding a better place for my daughter, my students and anybody else I love. Art helps me redirect all that Godzilla energy. It puts me in a place of emotional control, where I get to smile at the suck and create something that can be a catalyst for change.

e: Why did you decide to do the chalk art at UNCW? 

HP: UNCW was my first experience being inundated with white people. The first time anybody ever called me a “nigger” was at UNCW. It was during an intramural flag football game. In that same week, a white student moved her seat to a different lab table to not be seated next to me because she “didn’t feel comfortable.”

My first day as a freshman, I’d met another black student, and we’d played ball on the courts until night. Campus police rolled up on us and forced us off the courts, claiming we weren’t really students and accused us of stealing bikes on campus. After all that, I was 1 bajillion percent ready to leave the school—until I started working at the college radio station, WLOZ. I met a gang of dope people, of various races, and we all bonded over similar interests—people who I’m still close with today and who are directly tied to whatever modicum of success I have now. This showed me it wasn’t the entire student body that was prejudiced. It encouraged me to be more active in the school. Eventually, I’d come to love the school and felt like the school loved me.

When word started coming out about Mike Adams, it felt like a slap in the face to the progress I thought UNCW had made, or that they’ve really just been fronting this whole time. It was hella personal to me. So I drew a huge picture of my “Underwear Bear” character in the amphitheater character holding a sign that read “Fire Mike Adams.” That dude is a butt spider that needs to be removed immediately. Same with anybody who shares his views. I hate being ashamed of my alma mater.

e: Have you always used your art as a voice for social justice? 

HP: I don’t know if it’s accurate to say I use art as a voice for social justice. I’ve always used art as a way to advocate for good humaning—specifically as a way to repel hate.

When I was making music, a large part of my songs were about calling out racism. I used to write a satirical blog, “Blackfacechicken”; the sole intent was to poke fun at the base-level ridiculousness and intergalactic absurdity of racism. I love being able to poke fun at it because it’s stupid. With drawing, I get to be a lot more playful and still communicate.

I recently did an art show at Memory Lane called “Affirmative Action.” I wanted to put a spotlight on all the “token black” characters from my favorite cartoons that were only included for stereotypical purposes. My favorite pieces were “Go Home, Franklin” and “White Rangers Only.” I remember watching “Power Rangers” as a kid; they used to hang out at this weird teen center/juice bar, and they’d always have Zack dancing around for no reason. He’d pop and lock to the counter and order a collard-green smoothie, or some other repugnant shuck-and-jive-like action.

“Peanuts” is and will always be my favorite comic strip, but I used to feel for Franklin. They would only highlight him when it was time for sports, dancing or elaborate soul-brotha handshakes! In the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving episode, all the friends are sitting on one side of the table, and he’s sitting alone on the opposite. It’s easy to say these are just cartoons, but for me (and other people of color) these are our representation! We see how you see us! So I drew these characters as I imagined they felt in the moment. Which is the same way I feel when I’m in those moments.

 

 

e: Why the cartoon-like work? How do you feel it enhances your message?

HP: I wish I had a more profound answer other than I just really love cartoons. My bad! Also, cartoons are disarming. Everybody has a character they’ve always loved that triggers a time when they were genuinely happy—a time when they weren’t too tough to smile. That’s the target I’m trying to hit. You can’t be a bigot and sing the theme to Scooby-Doo at the same time. What kind of supervillain does that?

e: Would you like to share any personal experiences as a black man in America that have impacted your caution/reaction to safety, freedom and justice?

HP: I have about 5 trillion and 12 personal stories, from subtle to severe.

Once, I was trying to get a job at this restaurant, and there were like three signs in the window saying they were hiring. It was a small spot. The host reluctantly gave me the application. I sat at the table to fill it out, watched her go back to the kitchen and then a manager came out, took the application from me, told me they weren’t hiring and ripped it apart.

Another time, I was jumped by a group of white guys calling me “nigger,” “black boy” and just singing all the hits! One of the guys stomped on my face 10 times, according to the Snapchat video he posted. I had broken teeth, a hole in my face, eye damage and almost bled out. It was a three-year-long court process. I had to listen to people on the stands call me a thug, gang member and accuse me of waving a gun (of which none is/was true). I even heard the defense attorney call me a monster from a horror movie, using sound effects to punctuate his claim.

There was also a time [a police officer] put a gun to my head while I was going for my registration, during a stop that I’m only assuming was based off the car and neighborhood I was in (because I was never given a reason why I stopped).  

e: Can you tell us about any local organizations you’ve worked with that help toward rectifying injustices toward black Americans?

HP: I’ve done a lot of work with Support the Port, but I pour most of my energy into working with kids. I’ve been a speaker at schools in New Hanover and Brunswick county, and that’s where I think I’ve been most effective. Kids haven’t turned into human canker sores yet. They’re still willing to be open to new ideas. They’re excited and unafraid. That’s where I feel best putting my hope.

e: What has been some of your favorite art to come out of the protests lately?

HP: It’s been like Christmas to see the artists I admire speak out about racial inequalities. Accomplished artists who are putting careers and fanbases on the line, to step up in defense of people of color. That speaks big volumes.

My favorite art, by far, has come from my students. I’ve been having students, of multiple races, emailing me with paintings they’ve done of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, [and] other artwork asking for peace and equality, poems, etc.

e: What’s next for you as an artist in 2020?

HP: Well, I had all these plans to work with Cameron Art Museum, the Wilmington Sharks [and] Comic-Cons that got punt kicked because of COVID. So, now, I’ve been trying to be more creative with how I put art into the community. I’d be real hyped to do another show though.

Also, I’ve been approached to help with BLM mural if the city passes it. My vision for the mural, very simply, is that it screams love and empowerment. I’m excited I was chosen to be a part of it, and I’m eager to collaborate with other artists and community members who share that vision.

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