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I was a hip-hop dude performing in Columbia for more than 20 years. I quickly discovered that being a young Black artist, I could always feel that things seemed to be more difficult for me to have outlets to showcase and share my art. Some venues had a “we just don’t do rap” policy. Other spots over the years got flat out caught using racist tactics and not wanting any Black folks. It’s something that’s gotten better but there are still challenges.

I think about it after DJing an event in town, SCAiA (South Carolina Artist in Action), by founder Ce Scott-Fitts, the deputy director of the South Carolina Arts Commission since May 2022. It was a fantastic experience for me to see African American artists gather to showcase performances, get informed about ways to get grants and, of course, an impromptu therapy session for people who understand the same challenges.

A group of four artists started the event after they met the year prior, Scott-Fitts said.

“We felt that we could identify the needs of Black artists in South Carolina and that we had an opportunity to work together, with the support of SCAC, to address those needs,” Scott-Fitts said.

“In the future, this may include things like professional development programs, workshops, mentoring opportunities, gatherings, access to space to present, etc. This has never been done before in South Carolina.”

Through the event, panelists and attendees discussed the ups-and-downs of being a Black artist in Columbia and South Carolina at large.

One of the panelists, Michael Murray, known in town as a poet and photographer at a host of events in Columbia, gave his insights on being a Black artist in the city. I asked him about the chorus of people during the Q&A sharing their stories of struggle.

“The biggest issues I’ve both witnessed and personally encountered involve cultural barriers that leave a substantial number of Black artists feeling stifled, pigeonholed, ignored or flat out rejected from major opportunities,” Murray said.

He also mentioned that Black artists must be concerned about displaying a “particular part of Blackness,” fearing that if not digestible or making White culture uncomfortable can be another speed bump when trying to be a part of the scene.

Murray’s comments hit me as familiar. These are some of the same challenges I experienced years ago. Thankfully, Black creatives are still creating for various reasons.

Painter Anthony Lewis, known on social media as AlewispRoject, began drawing at 45-years-old 10 years ago. He talked about his motivation for creating.

“I was out of work because of back surgery and in the beginning stages of losing my marriage, my kids and life. Depression, anger and resentment was becoming a daily occurrence and creating was a way for me to cope with all the life challenges that were being thrown at me,” Lewis said. 

Even at 54-years-old, Lewis said he still struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, but he credits being able to create art as a lifesaver.

His years of creating have seen ups and downs in trying to find places to exhibit his creations. He expanded on what he sees as a unique aspect of being creative here.

“Being a Black artist in Columbia, the South is a beautiful thing,” Lewis said. “Artists are being overlooked because of who you know vs. what you know. But I say if you’re an artist to stay producing, find a mentor, become involved in your community to bring awareness to yourself and never give up.”

Thankfully we have seen more exhibits, murals and expressions of Black art in Columbia. Yes, some of it feels like a response to 2020 after it seemed as if another Black man was killed by the cops every week (I remember invitations to be on every news show, podcast or guest columnist. Since then, not so much).

Still, we choose to be here for a reason, and having a chance to create is essential to artists of all mediums. Michael Murray agreed but had advice.

“If we do not further structural change on a societal level that gives Black creatives the time, space and money to freely dream … I think you will continue to see more Black artists leave Columbia in order to truly ‘make it’ with their practice. I believe that change would be revolutionary.”

This content was originally published here.

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