The Crossroads of Creativity and Activism: A List of Fully Expressed, Politically Active Artists

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I am an artist. I want to put stories into the world. Stories to connect, to influence, to convict, but mostly to express. I live in an imperfect and unjust world and to create a better future, it is important that I lend my voice and my actions to ethical causes. This sometimes feels like a dead end. Like maybe it is selfish for me to want to create something as frivolous as art when lives are at stake. 

I am complicit in so many unjust systems–economic, national, political–and at the same time I am targeted by a host of other systems that control our world. I think politics and activism are necessary parts of each of our lives but I also believe that they must be present at varying degrees depending on the person. Maybe you don’t organize the march but you go to it. Maybe you don’t march the whole time but you hand out refreshments. Maybe you don’t go at all but you donate to the cause and raise awareness. All are necessary parts of liberation and progress. 

I also take this idea a step further. Activism is directly correlated to art in that art and expression are directly correlated to life. I do not see creative expression as frivolous but in fact life affirming and an ordinary facet of being human. So implementing activism into art or into one’s life as an artist is a very natural and intersectional progression. 

When I am uncertain about exactly how to balance my artistic inclinations with my political beliefs, I look to a host of entertainers, artists, and public figures who I feel are exemplifying this process of marrying art and politics. These people prioritize their creative gifts in a way that also uplifts and highlights their activism. 

Here are a few of the artist-activists that I look up to…. 

Bob the Drag Queen

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Bob uses he/him or she/her pronouns and has been a professional drag queen, performer, and public figure for over a decade. She rose to popularity after winning Season 8 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since then she has gone on to co-host an award winning podcast, Sibling Rivalry, and co-host the HBO reality series We’re Here. Above all else, Bob is an activist. She is outspoken about LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement. In June of 2021 she hosted a 24 hour virtual charity stream in order to raise money for Black Queer Town Hall. She raised over $60,000!

Kendrick Sampson

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Kendrick uses he/him pronouns and is an incredibly talented actor. He has appeared in several television shows including two of my favorites, Insecure and How To Get Away With Murder. He is also a community organizer, activist, and liberator. He co-founded BLD PWR, whose mission is to engage “pop culture, education, and activism to build and train an inclusive community of entertainers and athletes to advance radical social change.” He is an active dissenter of the current police state and seeks to bring about intersectional justice especially in regards Black lives and the US justice system. 

Jonathan Van Ness

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Jonathan, affectionately known as JVN, uses he/she/they pronouns and is a grooming specialist, podcast host, and reality star. I came across JVN on the popular trailblazing reboot of the reality series Queer Eye. On the show JVN is a force of positivity, light, and fierceness. On their podcast, Getting Curious, Jonathan explores all sorts of topics related to social justice and political awareness. JVN has interviewed an incredible cache of guests from Bill Nye to Stacy Abrams. 

Jane Fonda

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Jane Fonda uses she/her pronouns and is an actress with a repertoire that is too extensive to list. My generation was introduced to her through the fantastic comedy series Grace & Frankie. Jane is also a huge activist, feminist, and environmentalist. She is well known for attending climate awareness protests and for getting arrested at them! She also co-founded the Women’s Media Center, “an organization that works to amplify the voices of women in the media through advocacy, media and leadership training, and the creation of original content.” This is only a small portion of her life’s work and accomplishments. 

Titus Kaphar

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Titus uses he/him pronouns and is a painter and multimedia artist. His work revolves around the representation of Black bodies in history and the act of taking up space in high art and historically white environments. In his 2014 work entitled “Beyond the Myth of Benevolence” Titus does the work of revealing suppressed histories; the piece is a portrait of Thomas Jefferson rolled back to reveal a Black woman previously concealed beneath the first canvas. His works shift the gaze of history and show viewers a colonial past laid bare.  

I could go on and on. These are just a few creatives that inspire me. In my own life I take their lead, working to incorporate my values into my artistic endeavors. As creatives we must find and follow our passions. Then we must take the next step and find a way to marry our passions with our politics, letting one fuel the other or participating in art and politics simultaneously. It is possible. We can let art be a respite in the most fearsome and discouraging times.

By: Taylor Custis

Taylor Custis is a recent graduate of NYU where she made her own major because it sounded like a cool thing to do. She enjoys stories of all kinds, ethnic foods, and spiritually charged candles. She is currently located in Queens and is embarking on a career in written and visual storytelling.

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