photo by Jelani Thompson

photo by Jelani Thompson

What Yesterday Nite's Art Means To Black People

Yesterday Nite added me on Facebook 4 years ago. I had no idea who he was, but something about his name and his profile picture stood out to me. Yesterday Nite. Not Last Nite or The Nite Before. His clever way of challenging the English language piqued my interest. I wanted to learn more.

I realized that we had a mutual friend, one of my soul sistas from college. I decided that adding him wouldn't be so bad. Plus, he's an artist. I think we are all artists on the inside, and we express ourselves creatively through our actions, words, appearance, Some are just confident enough to express it on the outside and live fearlessly through their art.

Facebook introduced me to his illustrations. He has a weird, whimsical style: it's part black wonderland, yoga magic and Afrocentric attitude. He's gracefully unapologetic with his provocative strokes, his use of bold, vibrant colors, his shapes and his subjects. We are his subjects. In Nite's images, black women and men dance, frolic, bend, stretch, stare, scare, fight, feel. They exist. They come alive on sheets of paper, on large canvases, on phone screens, on greeting card sized prints. His characters are as audacious as the black men and women I surround myself with. As the ones I meet in the streets and see on TV.

For four years I watched Yesterday Nite grow on social media. We were like two distant but familiar friends, curious enough to watch each other's lives and leave polite comments, but not close enough to actually start a conversation. He commented on my photos (he is obsessed with black women. I think that's part of the reason he added me on Facebook), I commented on his drawings and paintings that were slowly evolving into masterpieces. And his statuses - where do I start with those? He asks the world questions at least twice a day. Sometimes these questions are comedic. Most of the time they are contemplative. But they are always conversational, leading to a long thread of comments from his eclectic friends.

I finally met him in the flesh at Afropunk 2015. I walked down the outdoor aisles filled with jewelry, clothing, makeup and Shea butter vendors until I landed on Yesterday Nite's stand. Being surrounded by his world of swirling colors and dancing shapes aroused a feeling of happiness and peace within me. I made sure I left the park that day with his book Planet Her.

Briefly speaking to the wide-eyed artist at Afropunk inspired me (even more) to interview him. When I did, it resulted in a sweeping conversation on identity, unity, beauty, art and of course, black people. Our words are below.


 Painting by Yesterday Nite,  "In Living Color: My Black History"  series

Painting by Yesterday Nite, "In Living Color: My Black History" series

  Painting by Yesterday Nite,   "In Living Color: My Black History"   series

Painting by Yesterday Nite, "In Living Color: My Black History" series

Alisha Acquaye: What was the first thing you held? A paint brush, pen, crayon?

Yesterday Nite: Definitely a crayon. The first thing I remember coloring in the lines was a brown bear. Brown was my favorite color for a long time. But brown is a terrible color for clothes. It isn't a good color for things other than people.

Tell me about your first experiences with art.

 I might have been in primary or preschool. My friend Andre, that I've known since I was three, told me that I used to be on this Mario drawing game all day. My mom said so too, but I don't remember that at all.

I used to love drawing - A.S: what happened? -  A.A I still love art so much. I can remember my first time with drawing and coloring. It was around the same time that I got into writing. I used to do some really fun shit in my notebooks. I wrote about these three sisters, who were 12, 14 and 16. They got into conflicts because they were so different. But they always had each others back.

I drew my own magical creatures. Black women turned into princesses, fairies and mermaids. And I had fashion shows between the different characters I made up. I made my last big piece of art a year and a half go, for my friend in Thailand. She had a coffee shop. She loved art, and wanted some in her shop. I painted her these huge pieces of silhouetted women, a mermaid, a phoenix, a minotaur, and an alien.

But art is one of those things you have to be really persistent at and talented in and you have to believe in your particular style. What does art mean to you? How have you found your own style and how have you persevered? Growing up, were you inspired to keep drawing?

  Painting by Yesterday Nite,  "In Living Color: My Black History     series

Painting by Yesterday Nite,  "In Living Color: My Black History series

It's funny. My parents never made me do anything. They let me pick whatever I wanted to do. I would draw, and if I messed up, I would stop drawing for two years. I hated messing up. As long as I got good grades, they didn't care what I was into.

I think it's a personality thing. I have blind confidence. I believe I can do absolutely anything, even if I have no idea what I'm doing at all. I was terrible at drawing from sixth grade to about junior year. I didn't get accepted to this middle school I really wanted to go to. I got accepted for writing, instead of art. I applied again in high school and didn't get accepted. The third time I did.

I just don't like people telling me I can't do some shit. Even if I suck, I will prove you wrong. All it takes is time.

I'm still developing my style as I go on. I think my style came from not wanting to buy expensive art supplies. That's one reason why I use all those crazy colors. It takes three or four browns to make someone's face accurate...that shit be like six dollars a tube just for one portrait. I aint got time to spend all that money! I will make your face whatever color I want to make it. As long as it looks like the person that's all that matters. I hate spending money on art supplies!

Why do you hate spending money on art supplies?

You ever seen those videos of people making portraits out of lipstick or salt and other weird, cheap materials, but it still looks beautiful? You don't need to spend a lot of money to make something beautiful.

 I feel like we need to listen to that in real life, outside of art. If you, as an artist, will find ways to make something beautiful without spending a lot of money, then maybe we as people should do the same? Maybe we shouldn't spend so much on how we look?

Yeah. But you know what, even with that, it's all about confidence. You could be dressed from head to toe, but if you don't feel that shit in your spirit, ain't nobody gonna pay you any mind. You may see somebody, and their outfit looks kinda crazy, but you feel drawn to them. Like Erykah Badu. She could wear a trash bag and be like "What's up? How you doing?" She's confident as fuck.

 I'm glad you mentioned her. Artists like Erykah Badu, Andre 3000, Beyonce, Janelle Monae, all have unique, individualistic and artistic style. But I love that the idea of being "walking art" is now seen in everyday people. Like at Afropunk! You were there this year. People are straight up sculptures. What do you think about that?

 My stance on that's frustrating man! Erykah Badu and Andre 3000 have "On and On" and "Prototype". Yo, they're creative as fuck! Them dressing like that makes so much sense. They're just weird, they're aliens. But some people dress like aliens and they're really dull as hell. I hate that, because it can be so misleading. But if you look at it from an artistic point of view, then yeah, they're just beautiful moving sculptures. But sometimes you're thinking, "man this person looks like they're an amazing soul singer, but in reality you probably just work at Staples with no dreams at all."

I wish I could look at somebody and know they're dope because they look dope. But sometimes people are shells of beauty, with no substance inside.

People can curate themselves to look so visually pleasing, but have no substance underneath it all.

 It's sad, because it works.

There's people who look amazing, and they're also amazing. Then people who look amazing but nothing is going on inside because they're spending so much time looking amazing to cover up what's inside. Then there are people who dress regular but -

But they're amazing as fuck! - they're amazing, because they're spending more time on their craft.

I read an article about successful people who are able to wear the same thing everyday because they're spending more time making decisions. On one hand, you have to reach a certain level of success and respect in society to be able to get away with that. It's something I think about often: how our appearance dictates who we are, and also how our personality and appearance may not align.

Someone once told me, "you're very should look like how you are." But I don't really care about clothes. I wear the same jeans I've been sitting in. Until something starts to smell weird, I don't care. And I like shirts that fit my neck well. I don't care what's on it, as long as the collar fits right.

If I were to wear the same thing everyday, it would be this smiley face shirt I have, some comfy sneakers and jeans. Because when you see a smiley face, you just smile.

That wardrobe would be about spreading happiness everyday!

Your art is very afrocentric and black oriented, obviously. (Laughs) Why do you find it important to focus on black subjects, especially black women?

Black subjects, because in school, we had to take art history and it was all white and it was terribly boring. How they painted their lives was so dull.

In the '70s, my mom was a part of some kind of Black Panther-like group in Delaware. She raised me very black.

Black people look cool no matter what they're doing. Kehinde Wiley paints in that old Renaissance style, but it just looks better because it was with black people. That's it. It just looks better because it's black.

And I draw women because I don't like drawing men that much. At first, I used to draw spot-on portraits. The first person I tried to draw was Alicia Keys. I realized it's so easy to draw a guy because you can draw them rough-looking, it doesn't have to be spot-on. But with women, it has to look clean, very precise. It's so much harder to make something look smooth than rugged. Women are a challenge to draw.

Also, black women are just...amazingly attractive! Afropunk was cool, but when I went to Broccoli Fest I was overwhelmed. At BF, they weren't even trying like that. Everybody was so attractive, it was kind of ridiculous. Black men are attractive too, because we come from black women.

Not even just attractive physically, but a lot more people are waking up and getting their mind right. There's so many dope black women.

How do you think black people have evolved? How do you reflect this in your art?

That's an interesting question. I don't even know if we have or not...because (in the past) everybody was natural and had their fros out and loved it..but then shit got changed around. I hope this sticks. I can't imagine people going back to perms. I don't know if this is an evolution or a cycle yet.

Definitely way more women making moves. Natural hair is awesome. I just miss when you could tell that a natural person loved black people and black things. Now that a lot more people are natural, you don't know who is really down or not. I miss when it was a symbol of being down.

Why is that a problem? If more people are natural but you can't tell who is "down" or who isn’t...

Because you don't know how comfortable you can be talking to them about (black) things.

I was up on the whole natural shit when nobody was natural. I would get into fights with girls cause I would tell them "yo you gotta go natural girl. You can't keep doing this shit to your hair." I knew one girl who said she would never stop perming her hair. Now she's natural (laughs) but I can't tell people what to do.

Delaware (where I live) is such a small place, that if someone is wearing an ankh or some shit, you know they know a lot about all that Egyptian shit.

Going natural is a lifestyle for some. When I went natural, my whole shit got turned around -

 You changed your diet and all that shit? -

Exactly. I eat better, I'm more aware of how I want to present myself, what I read and what media I ingest.  But for some people being natural is a style, a fashion sense. The whole outer image of being natural - afro puffs, the ankh, kente cloths - some people will adopt that fashion sense and not have the deeper meaning behind it.

I never got the whole ankh thing. I wouldn't rock it. I feel zero connection to Egypt, even though I know black and African people are there.

My intro to Africa is my uncle. My uncle was crazy, and he would carve these little masks that he made up. I didn't even like them until I saw one of his necklaces when I was 5. I needed it. Something about how it looked spoke to me.

I think that also influenced my art - those weird faces on the African masks he made. How I draw faces kind of looks like weird masks.

I don't ever see people in Egypt who look like me. I see people who look like me and my family members in Zambia. When I look at Zambians, I see all of my cousins. When I watch documentaries of people in Togo and Benin, I also see people who look like my family. But I don't see that in Egypt.

What is the relationship between your art and the current state of black people in America?


For instance, with your series "In Living Colour", with the different black pop culture figures; I haven't seen an artist take a couple dozen black people who influence him and paint them in a way that is so abstract, that shows a different illustration of how we are as black people. You didn't do it in a realistic or animated way, you did it in a way that is so strange but so beautiful...that's exactly how we are seen in America. It is how we feel about one another. It is how we are treated, whether that strangeness is a good or bad thing, that's who we are. We don't fit into one box. We have features that are unique and that cannot be painted precisely. So why not exaggerate those features? Why not amplify  those skin colors? That's what you did, with people we all grew up with and love, who inspired us and made footprints in our history and culture.

Something that is very dope that was unintentional: white people see the pictures and think it's just colorful portraits of random people. Black people see the pictures and almost immediately know who they are!

It's like a secret for us.

It's a fucking coded language! At Afropunk, this white guy was checking the pictures out and he called his black friend over to see them. The black friend is like "oh shit, that's Snoop! That's Lauryn! That's Busta!" And the white guy was surprised. He had no idea they were pictures of celebrities.

You captured how we recognize each other. That's  powerful.

(He tries to answer the question again. It doesn't work.)

 I feel like I answer this question by painting. That's probably why I'm an artist.

You know what? Imagine if you had Bill Cosby in the series, and then the scandal came out. The painting would've captured something special we know about him, but after the scandal that idea would be tarnished. That series in particular encapsulates something about each person that we all hold close. That's why they're instantly recognizable - because you painted certain traits about them that only we understand. Like Snoop Dog - he does not look like that anymore! But we remember when he had bubbles and twists and braids in his hair. Your series reminds us of our different personalities and our power.

(He was still stumped on this question, but flattered by my answers.)

When I say current state of black people in America I'm talking about police brutality, black Twitter, etc. We are going through a different kind of movement. Movements from back in the day were about voting, sitting in the front of the bus, equal rights, social issues. Now, we know we still aren't equal, and we are fighting for equality in other forms that are unspoken. We want to see ourselves in movies, in positions of power. We want to see ourselves everywhere!

If I go on Facebook and look at my timeline - our movement is mostly digital - and I see that someone posted an article about another black person who got killed by a white officer, that upsets me. But if I continue to scroll down and see one of your paintings, and it's beautiful and emotional and filled with movement, that will make me feel better. On one hand, we are reminded of how low we are seen in America, but on the other hand, we can follow a person who reminds us that we are beautiful and worth it. That's what your work does.

(It was then that I realized that question was for me to answer, not him.)

What role does music, movies and other forms of pop culture play in your work?

YN: There you go! This is one I can answer! I know I can draw, but I had to do something to get people interested. My whole plan was to start a series until people started paying attention. The whole premise behind "In Living Colour" was to show what Black History Month would look like in the 90s. Harriet Tubman was a G, Malcolm X was a G,  but I'm tired of seeing those same pictures every February. People would rather watch Martin Lawrence than Martin Luther King if they were playing on TV at the same time and if they are born in the 90s. Martin and Gina are our Romeo and Juliet! That's one of our ideals of what a good relationship looks like.

Every person in that series is more than a celebrity to me. I did Busta Rhymes because of "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See". That video is one of the reasons why I fell in love with my uncles necklaces! He made tribal shit look dope.

There's a pic of me when I was 6 or 7. I wanted some shit like what Eddie Murphy wore in "Coming to America". Tupac goes without saying. Me and my friends thought he was still alive until we were 17. I still don't feel like he's dead all the way. His energy hasn't left the earth.

Music, movies and television is everything, as far as black culture and what we think is cool. Like the "Fresh Prince" - so many guys can say that he influenced their style and humor. And even how they engage with girls.

Entertainment is what brings black people together. And even throughout all cultures. We gonna dance, play this music, we gonna eat and share these stories with one another. That's what culture is. We're a very festive people. Entertainment - I don't even know what black people are without it.

Black people are entertainment. Take that away and what do we got?