Home · 2017 ESSENCE Festival


Beyond entertainment, the role of an artist is to provoke with their art, offering reflection and interpretations—amongst many other roles.

But when that artist is Black, their role is a heavier load. Black artists must use their talents to amplify, agitate and question mightily. This is why art and activism go hand-in-hand to fight against injustice and fight for equality.

This is the reason artists like Nina Simone, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte and James Baldwin remain dear to us, because they used their art to fight the power. We now have activists like the legendary Lynn Whitfield, new brilliance Yara Shahidi and woke directors Spike Lee and John Singleton, who use their art for activism. During an empowerment panel at ESSENCE Festival 2017, these four activists gathered to offer attendees a little hope about the marriage of art and activism.

What does woke mean to you?

Yara Shahidi: My personal definition would be the process of being open to educating oneself constantly. I think it’s being okay with your personal evolution. And I know, as James Baldwin said: The paradox of education is precisely when one begins to educate themselves. They begin to examine the society in which they’re being educated. And so I have to say, when you’re open and receptive to educating yourself constantly and never feeling satisfied with how much you have constantly, I think it leaves space and purpose and motivation to continue to work and to continue to be active.

John Singleton: Woke is about preservation of the soul, first and foremost. Because we live in a society that traditionally has tried to steal everything about our souls. Anything about us as people has been made as a commodity and then sold and bought by other people. I think from generation to generation, because we are a very, very creative people, and very powerful in our ability to create and cull the tide of whatever is thrown at us, sometimes we don’t really value that.

Spike Lee: Woke means that we all have to understand we’re descendants of slaves. Our ancestors were stolen from mother Africa, and we built this motherlovin’ country. America is based upon the genocide of a native people, and the free labor of our ancestors. We built this. We’re not going nowhere. Understand your history. Know where you came from. We came from queens and kings. Folks don’t know how we built the pyramid, or The Sphinx and still haven’t figured it out. We didn’t build a nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb kills people. Black peace. We’re about peace. And we’re the most creative people on this earth.

As artists, do you feel that you have a responsibility, not just to be change agents but to make sure that you are inspiring agents of change?

Singleton: I think that for me, it’s just really valuing who we are as a people. And that drives me on creative-wise, because I know exactly what gives us, as a collective, power. And that makes me more powerful as an individual. And it helps me as a storyteller, because I can look at the minutiae of what makes us different, and what makes us very, very empowered in who we are. And so that’s what I draw on all the time.

Lee: Back when I was young, I used to criticize a lot of African-American artists, for what I thought they should be doing. But now in my more wiser years, I understand everybody has a different route and a different viewpoint. We have to understand, Black folks, all don’t look alike, think alike, talk alike. So, everybody has to choose the way they want to go. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them.

Lynn, you’re very deliberate about the roles that you choose. So now, as you’re moving into the next phase of your career, how are you choosing roles? Are you thinking about not just the art, but the activism, or what you’re representing in that art? 

Lynn Whitfield: My job as an artist, I first have to read a role and see that I can add something. My southern mother from Baton Rouge said, “Honey, does it add?” Well, if I can add to the story, if I can see where I can bring something to push forward the story, then I can attach myself to it. Secondly, my job is to present the truth as I see it about that person. And it may not always be the prettiest thing. It may not be the best part. I’m not one of those actresses who goes into roles, “I’m going to glorify this person and make her a big she-ro.” No. You know, Lady Mae Greenleaf, I mean … sometimes she’s nothing nice. But I still think people attach to the meaning of her being.

Example, Greenleaf I chose it because I thought it was time that we look at leadership of the church. Part of my activism with Greenleaf was being able to talk about black men and a fear of sharing the truth of who they are. In terms of…not even homosexuality, but questions about their sexuality. That was important. To really look at a sexual abuse within the family, because we all know it happens. So, Greenleaf for me is full of platforms and issues that I could put my artistic activism to.

Shahidi: Well, the journey of Black-ish has been amazing because Kenya Barris, the creator of the show, and the show runner Jonathan Groff, and the writing room really did want to tell a story that was accurate not only to their lives but the lives of the people involved. And so, with the creation of Zoey, she was a blank slate that we were allowed to build up. And it wasn’t so much to make her the perfect person, but rather to make her a real person, to make her multidimensional.

And so, that carries over into that other show. I think what’s so beautiful about starting the pre-production process of this next show College-ish with Kenya is that there’s this understanding that art isn’t meant to be mass-marketed, capitalized, and commercialized upon, but rather to tell the truth. Because it is the difference between truth and distraction. For so long, art, especially art that’s been made for mass audiences has been a matter of distraction rather than living in your truth, and I think that truth is … to tell the truth is to be in revolution and live in your truth is to be a revolutionary.

And so, to be able to move on to this next show in which we’re so willing to tell the truth as it is and as ugly as it can be and as pretty as it can be. For so long we have been on this earth to just focus on surviving and we deserve this space, as the Black community, as a community of people of color, to be able to thrive in this world.

Singleton: On this show that I have, Snowfall, on FX, there’s a thing that we say. We have these levels of what black people go through in this country. You go through slavery, then after slavery, we went through Jim Crow. You know, trying to get over that, and then we had, from heroin and crack, you know, drugs. And each one of those, I feel is a war. It’s like a war against our people. And we had to surmount … first we had surmount those different, the frustrations through family, through community, through various things with ourselves. And it would be to try to get over these humps.

I’m always trying to give something, pass up the way that hopefully, people that are watching it, which is mostly us, they have some type of emotional identification with the story we’re telling. And so … and Spike can attest to this, because you know, he’s made history. And he inspired me. Our narrative … we have only been able to control our narrative for, I feel, the last 37 years. Before that, you know, there were some people that made films and they were doing very good jobs but there was always people trying to control that narrative. And even now, for us, it’s really about us being able to control the narrative, representing what we want. To tell our stories how we want to tell our stories, and the unique way of how Black people roll. And that’s who we are. And I think that’s something that everybody on this panel can attest to, of really, really holding on to. That’s something that I really take hard. So that’s what it is. No?