What Does It Really Mean to Support Black Artists?

Anyone who knows me that I am all about supporting black artists. I love all kinds of art from music, film, photography, sculptures, theatre, paintings and even handmade goods. This was the initiative behind last year’s Black Swan Artist Collective project in which I tried to find a black woman artist to support and blog about each month. Overall, the project went well for me and I was able to find a few awesome artists to write about and support.

What I was most excited about was that I actually financially supported these artists. I contributed a little here and there. I bought music and I bought art. Finding cool things like my wooden purse was simply an awesome perk and part of my dreams of living in a way I always hoped. I would love to buy things from black artists and have my home filled with the work of so many talented black art, some that does not get the mainstream recognition it deserves.

However, there were a couple of months in which the budget had to be tightened and there was no room for “frivolous” spending, so I had to go with products that were available for free as well as my own work. While I appreciate that artists like Res have made their work available for free in order to continue building their fan bases, it still bothers me to no end that at times I am unable to support artists like her with “buying power” if there really is such a thing.

Still, I sometimes ask myself if supporting black artists always has to translate into buying their work. For me, this is the ultimate goal, so when I am unable to use dollars to translate into support, I wonder if I am doing enough. I know that many artists appreciate any support they can get even if it is a tweet from a fan raving about their work. But I also wonder if sometimes they feel like the violinist Lisa Simpson meets as she laments “Damn, that felt like a sale” when Lisa compliments her but leaves without buying a CD.

I also ask myself this question when I choose to write or blog about a non-black artist. I tell myself I have no obligation to devote myself exclusively to black artists because I like what I like, but that sometimes does not do enough to quell the guilt that comes when I think I may be doing something at the expense of a black artist. Silly dilemma but a very real one.

I would love to do more to support black artists. I still get to know black writers such as Octavia Butler, but I know she is not the first and only name in black sci-fi. However, I have not been able to get work from N.K. Jemison even though she is all the rage right now and I have only read an anthology that Nalo Hopkinson edited. I know I can find their works at the library, but I literally have nearly 100 books in my home right now that I have not read and, at the rate I collect books I cannot read right away, it may be another few years before I get through them.

I would be largely unaware of black female rappers making a resurgence without sites like Tumblr and I would not be exposed to musicians outside of the box without sites like AfroPunk. The last time I purchased something from a black artist was a few months ago when I was finally able to buy Nasimiyu’s album from Bandcamp, but she is now working on new materials. In other words, I am always a few steps behind and playing catch up is a bit discouraging at times when wanting to offer support to black artists, especially those who are still up and coming.

I know that words of encouragement and the like can be great ways to help black artists get through the day. But at the end of it, when do we know we’ve done enough? Most of us do not work for instant gratification, but we all do what we do to survive. I want to help black artists survive, but, in the meantime, I tell myself that doing only what I can will be enough.