In the first step of our Creativity with Purpose Toolkit, Yasmine Cheyenne explores the history of creative activism, what it means today, and how to start, before sitting down for a conversation with activist and Plant Kween, Christopher Griffin. At any time, head back to find all of our creative resources.
What do you see when you look at this photo?
For me, I see the very definition of creative activism. Artist and photographer Reginald Cunningham (@Kid Noble) took this photo at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest capturing a BLM protestor dancing, perhaps as a way of coping with all of the names that they’re marching for or perhaps as a moment of celebration for being alive. The contortion of his body representing the pain and discomfort Black people feel every time we’re forced to say another name. The dancing representing the reality that we must still move and try to find joy where there is sometimes immense pain.
When we look back through history, pieces like these found via the photographs, books, music, and even the artistry of fashion memorializes the place that we’re growing from as a community and where we hope to land in the future as a collective.
Creative activism has the power to create discussion about the parts of us we don’t want to talk about at dinner parties, or with our friends. Art often acts as a mirror, reflecting to us the pieces that we don’t see or perhaps don’t want to see. With creative activism, we’re immersing our art with the issues we believe need change and thus, creating a space where all of the people affected are finally seen, heard, and given space to be front and center.
Activism and art are a part of the same family because they’re brutally honest, in an authoritative way. When we’ve witnessed horrific acts it’s artists that always tell our stories. It’s also often art that helps us heal. At a time where social media, 24/7 news, and a constant influx of information can overwhelm, people seek art as refuge. As a creative, you help keep activism alive. This and more are the reasons art and creativity are coveted, protected, and ever-important in storytelling and activism relies on storytelling to survive.
Left photo: Steve John Irby (@stevesweatpants). Right photo: Andre Wagner (@photodre). Read 6 Photographers Capturing The Call For Social Justice.
What is Creative Activism?
When you read “Go Tell It on the Mountain” or “Notes of a Native Son” by iconic author and activist James Baldwin, you’re inundated with the way he weaved his hope for Black people and the LGBTQ+ community into his work while actively telling theirs stories of oppression and social exclusion. Or how the 1990 documentary, “Paris Is Burning” by Jennie Livingston helped to showcase the, at the time, underground ballroom culture (dance/vogue) of Black and Latino LGBTQ+ members while also bringing awareness to the racism, poverty, and as we look back, the misgendering and exclusion of their communities. And it’s impossible to ever forget the photograph of Ruby Bridges walking to her first day of school on November 14, 1960 at 6 years old with federal police as protection for her because white people didn’t want desegregation.
All of the examples above represent creative activism which uses art, in any form, as a way to bring awareness and also show where society needs change. You can be a writer, a clothing designer, an architect, a dancer, a musician or a painter because creative activism gives a license to all artists to bring attention to the issues that matter to them through their eyes. Creative activism is a form of expression that has been a big part of the backbone of activism, igniting people to become excited, motivated and then take action through voting, speaking up to friends or family with biases, and perhaps encouraging other artists to use their gifts for creative activism as well. Through creative activism, you also get an opportunity to uplift, inspire and create hope.
Where Do I Begin?
Start by giving yourself permission to create art, in the ways that feel most natural and alluring to you while telling stories that captivate your audience by expressing the truth of our times. The song “Strange Fruit” originally recorded in the 1930’s by the renowned Billie Holiday but has a remake by the iconic Nina Simone in the 1960’s uses the art of jazz to show the horrific reality of lynching in the United States. The song sold millions of copies and was often sent to legislators by their constituents when they didn’t have the words to say themselves.
The LGBTQ+ flag, which was created in 1978 by artist Gilbert Baker, is a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer social movements inspiring people to believe that love is love. It serves as a form of representation embodying acceptance, equality, and unification. When we witnessed the White House illuminated with the colors of the LGBTQ+ flag to commemorate the signing of the Marriage Equality act, this piece of art brightly shining on the nation’s home immortalized that historic moment.
The examples mentioned above were considered revolutionary at those times — and so today, I encourage you to be audacious with your art, because art has never held back. And, know that there can never be a saturation of creative activism. What you have to create and offer will speak to specific people, just like what I create will also attract a particular community. When we all invite ourselves to creative activism, we improve the chance that the people who are waiting to hear the right message for them to create change get exactly what they’re looking for.
It’s also true that creativity is an outlet for many of us and a way for us to breathe through the discomfort of watching the heart-wrenching news stories and tough-to-read articles. It’s one of the few ways that we can have creativity, art, activism, and self-care all in one activity because creativity is often a way to release. It’s unfortunately still radical to choose joy or self-care in lieu of suffering.
When I think of the mix of creativity, art, self-care, and activism being shown in a unique and engaging way, I think of people like Christopher Griffin. Christopher Griffin, also known as Plant Kween, is one of my favorite follows on Instagram because they use their platform as a way to share love, joy, and activism through the lens of Black Queer joy. You may go to their Instagram feed and see plants, which is one part of the experience. But I see a Black, queer, non-binary, femme activist standing in their power. Activism can be silent while still being wildly loud. And Christopher speaks on anti-Black racism and anti-Trans violence but also shares their undeniable joy in every photo. Joy is radical, and needed. It’s important that we see it through the people who are a part of communities that are being silenced. It’s important that we use tools, like social media, as a way to get our art and messages out to those looking for them, or perhaps those who aren’t. It’s important that we humanize all of our experiences.
Ultimately, the wonderful part of creative activism is that it doesn’t leave anyone out because we’re all creative in some way. We each have a way of interacting, through our art, that can spark new ways of thinking, being, and relating with the world. It’s a joy to know, that by being your creative self, by being brave, and by showing up you can help create real change.
An Interview with Christopher Griffin, a.k.a. Plant Kween
Was there a particular moment where you saw yourself as an activist?
I grew up with a lot of love in my life. The love of my family liberated me. So I think I’ve operated through life with that level of confidence because of that love, and I knew that that wasn’t the reality for everyone.
As I navigated through life, there was a point where I wanted to be able to be that love, or that light, for folks that may need it. During my undergrad, I had the opportunity to work with West Philadelphia charter and public high school students of color, showing them that college was an option. That was the first point where I felt like I was giving something back in an intentional way. That opened the flood gates into LGBTQ activism. Then it reached a point where my professional life became very heavily involved in activism, like with the LGBTQ work that I do now for New York University.
With Plant Kween in particular, there are so many different ways that we can engage in activism, whether that’s intentional: “I’m going to create a program,” or, “I’m going to put something out into the world.” Or, “I just want to exist.” Just by being, that is a form of activism, and it’s a radical act. It’s revolutionary.
How does self-care play a part in your activism?
I know that I can’t pour from an empty cup. If I want to be able to show up for others, I have to show up for myself. As an extrovert, I tend to rely on others to energize me, but since everything has happened with this pandemic, I’ve been forced to retreat and exist with myself in a way that I’ve never really allowed myself to be. What does that look like? I don’t know if y’all can see, but plants galore. I’ve continued to grow my garden because at the end of the day, I’m a nurturer.
When I’m on your feed, I feel you just existing joyfully as a Black person, as a queer person. All of those things are activism within itself. I don’t really have a question, more of a statement, but it might spark something for you. As a Black woman, I’m often asked, “What does activism look like to you?” and I’ve always felt like just being in spaces that I was in, was activism. Being the only Black person in the room, I’m an activist.
Yeah! Thank you.
Because you exist in the space that you do and you take up so much space, self-care would probably have to be a part of that, because it comes with a lot of responsibility. How are you learning to have that balance of, “Yes, I’m Plant Kween, but also”-
That’s definitely been a conversation I’ve been having with myself. I’ve had to contextualize things. Understanding that my Plant Kween presence is just one aspect of me that I’m choosing to share. It’s a place that I want to share joy. When I go back through my own feed, I get to read some of this stuff that I’ve written to remind myself of where I can be, because obviously I’m not always perky, happy, skipping around. That’s how I balance it out. I also know that I don’t owe anyone anything, so I’m just going to continue to do this if it brings me joy.
There are so many things that we are asking attention to be brought to, and so I would love to know what activism looks like for you with that. We often see or read from someone who’s actually living that life and choosing it intentionally and joyfully every day. What would that look like? Because activism isn’t always when one of us is hurt. It’s also learning and growing.
I think there are just so many different intersections when it comes to our identity. If you look at history, it’s always just one identity at a time. It’s like, “All right. We’re going to focus on race right now. We don’t have time to talk about gender. We don’t have time to talk about sexual orientation. We don’t have time to talk about class. We don’t have time to talk about…” We just can’t operate in that way – not if we truly want to get to the core of all of the various systemic pressures that so many different folks face.
I try to just be very fluid in terms of how I talk about my identities, whether you’re talking about my race, or my gender expression. Sometimes I don’t need to put words to it; I’m just going to be. I’m not going to explain to you why I like to wear heels. I’m not going to explain to you why I like to use he, she, and they pronouns. I’m not going to explain to you why I like to talk about the melanin in my skin and how I feel blessed to have melanin in my skin. I’m just going to say these things because they are fact. You’re going to take them as fact. I think that’s something that I had to stop doing. I was trying to explain to myself and give myself a reason, but I don’t need to do that.
It gets tricky because I think we’re still used to things being packaged in a certain way. Having worked in the nonprofit realm, I’ve seen that. Obviously, there’s great work being done, but behind the scenes, they’re packaging stories for privileged folks who feel guilty and want to give their money, but it has to be a clean story that they can comprehend, take in, and digest. I’m like, “Girl, I’m not here to be digestible. I’m here to be myself.”
Why is joy important?
As a Black queer person, finding joy in a world that was not made for you is revolutionary. It’s like, “This world ain’t for me and I’m still happy because I’m finding and making my own joy. I’m creating that for myself.” That’s powerful and important. It’s also difficult to do and something that I’ve had to practice. It’s something that you have to keep at. Just like a muscle, you have to keep exercising that muscle.
For the creative activists among us, or even for yourself as you were starting out, what’s a piece of advice that you would give?
At the end of the day, I would say have fun with it. Something that I’ve been taught growing up in a Black household, is that when you do something, do it well. So, obviously, I’m very intentional and strategic about what I put out into the world, but at the end of the day, I’m really just having fun with it. I have my nine-to-five that allows me financial security, and it’s work that I love. So I’m like, “I’m just going to do the stuff that feels good.” I’m blessed and privileged to be in a situation where I can do that. I would encourage folks to keep doing what they love. If it brings you joy, and if that’s something that you want to share, then share.
Become an Artivist
Put your creativity to action with Nikkolas Smith and Temi Coker in our Art for Change Workshop this month.
Yasmine Cheyenne is a writer, speaker, and self-healing advocate, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She helps people create and strengthen their individual self-care practices by teaching them the tools that empower lasting positive changes in their lives. An Air Force Veteran, Yasmine now focuses on her self-healing workshops as well as her writing. She is a published author and often shares on her Instagram. Yasmine currently resides in the Washington, DC area with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length.