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5 Black Artists Driving Change that You Need to Know

Art provides a unique engine for driving social change. In its various forms, art can foster empathy through storytelling and provide a face for various issues. From poetry to visuals to music, art can reach new audiences in ways that touch their lives, give them hope and inspire them to take action.

So, here are five black artists driving change that you need to know.


Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
Visual Artist
Street Harassment

Artist and activist, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is a leading voice in the feminist movement. Primarily an oil painter and illustrator, she gained notoriety with her poster campaign “Stop Telling Women to Smile.”

For her campaign, Fazlalizadeh conducts interviews with women about their experiences with street harassment, and then paints their portrait. She then makes copies of the women’s portraits accompanied by quotes on their experience. These posters are plastered around the city as means for victims to fight back against their harassers and transform culture.


Prolific in her work, Tatyana strives to end sexism wherever she sees it.

“I had to be actively and boldly doing something to help push gender equality,” Fazlalizadeh said. “That could be simply calling out sexist comments, jokes, or microaggressions when you hear them. It could mean taking steps within your personal life to reject sexist norms. It could mean creating an art project to tackle the ways women are sexualized and mistreated in public spaces. For me, it meant beginning to do all of those things.”

Originally confined to Tatyana’s neighborhood of Brooklyn, the campaign has since spread across the United States with the mission to empower all women who may feel uncomfortable or unsafe.



Titus Kaphar
Visual Artist
Institutionalized Racism

Titus Kaphar, a visual artist, rose to prominence after the recent riots in Ferguson. In his work, he comments on police brutality, the cycle of prison that many black men face and the perceptions of race within society.

In a recent series Asphalt and Chalk, Kaphur painted portraits of victims of police brutality, overlaying their faces on top of one another to produce jarring images representative of the pain felt by the black community.

In another series, The Jerome Project, he used images of black men in prison with the same name as his father, who were also serving time. He placed these images on gold backgrounds covered in tar and gold leaves to represent the time they’ve spent incarcerated while creating a saint-like portrait. In each, their mouths are covered to represent their silence and the tar represents keeping them trapped in a perpetual cycle of imprisonment.

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Kaphar’s work has been featured in Art in America, the New York Times and The Observer. He was named by TIME the 2014 Person of the Year for his work on Ferguson. He recently finished a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem.



Phoebe Robinson
Race and Gender

Robinson is a stand-up comedian who skillfully weaves in social commentary into her work. In her well known blog, Blaria (Black Daria, named after the American animated television series), she shares her thoughts on topics such as feminism, the #Blacklivesmatter movement and her experiences as a black woman in general in a tone that is equal parts blithe and sarcastic.

The online magazine, Serial Optimist, said she “is brilliant and able to critique some really complex concepts in a sentence or two. Bask in it, people.”

Robinson is a consultant for the Comedy Central show Broad City and writes for MTV’s Girl Code. Many of her articles have appeared in publications such as the New York Times and The Huffington Post.

She’s appeared on Flavorwire’s list of “25 Female Comedians Everyone Should Know” and one of 12 emerging comics in SF Sketchfest’s “Next Wave of Stand-Up Comedy Stars” series. Huffington Post named her one of “18 Funny Women You Should Be Following On Twitter.”

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Robinson works to create a space for women of color in comedy. In reference to underrepresentation of women of color in comedy writing rooms, Robinson said, “It’s ridiculous I’m the only one, because I know 3,500 hilarious women of color that you’re ignoring. So I’m going to do my best to try and bring them along with me or represent for a range of colors.”



Danez Smith
Transforming Art

Danez Smith is a poet who delivers social commentary on a variety of issues, most notably on the prejudice against anything outside of what he describes as the “white, Christian, male, and/or female aesthetic or form.”

In his poems and spoken word performances, Smith highlights a variety of issues including racial injustice in “Dear White America,” and the violence against trans-individuals in “Genesissy” which can be found in his book [Insert] Boy.

In his “Open Letter to White Poets,” he calls for white poets to broaden the mind of their audiences and to be the “new guard” against prejudice and injustice.

“We write in an art form that has so much potential to impact change. If we don’t live up to that, we’re really doing ourselves and our genre a discredit.” Smith says. “For me, it’s about talking about the injustices that go on in our country so effortlessly and systematically.”

His talent has earned him several awards including the Lambda Literary Award, fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem and Voices of Our Nation (VONA).

He is a 2011 Individual World Poetry Slam finalist and two-time champion of the Rustbelt Individual. His work has appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares and Beloit Poetry Journal, among others. He is also a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective, a multicultural and multi-genre organization of spoken word artists.



Jasiri X
Conscious Hip-Hop

Born Jasiri Smith, Pittsburgh-based Jasiri X is an emcee and civil rights activist. As a lyricist, he provides political and social commentary through politically conscious hip-hop.

Jasiri’s music has become the anthem for several movements, including the Occupy Movement and the #Blacklivesmatter movement.

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In conjunction with the August Wilson Center for African American Culture and the Heinz Endowments, Jaris created the anti-violence group 1Hood. The group began the New Media Academy, which provides training to Black young men (14-19 years old) to “critically analyze media messages, broaden their experience of media, and develop the creative skills needed in creating their own media.” Specifically, the program teaches black youth how to use blogging, video and social media to amplify their voices.

A prolific artist, Jasiri X’s work has been featured on BET Rap City, Free Speech TV and Left of Black.

His debut album, American History X was named Album of the Year at the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards. Most recently, Smith was given the honor of being named an inaugural Robert Rauschenberg Artist as Activist Fellow for his work with local youth in Pittsburgh.



This month we will continue to cover leading black thinkers, artists and activists who are changing the world through their work.

Tell us, who you think belongs on this list?

Posted: February 11, 2016
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