Name: Jae Joseph
Profession: Art Director and Independent Curator, Multidisciplinary
I have changed/contributed to my industry by: Using new forms of social practice to engage communities in interactive exchange that provides fuel for collaboration, reflection, and thought leadership. My projects focus on the senses: sound, sight, touch, smell, and taste. These sensory points evoke emotion.
What is your inspiration?
I am inspired by the ancestral storytelling in my family: these familial memories are expressed in my life in the way that I approach my journey, interactions with my peers and in grounding me in a sense of knowing where I come from and that I come from a long line of community makers.
What do you believe is your greatest achievement personally and/or professionally?
My greatest achievement personally was the moment of my great uncle Bishop Milton L. Hall at his homegoing service and his son asked me to shine his shoes before they closed the casket for the service. As a young man who looked up to him, in that moment I lost all fear of his earthly body being gone. My heart was glad to have the prize of conditioning his shoes as he went on his next journey. That was absolutely my highest honor!
Professionally, I am most proud of having the foresight to build my own path in the world of art and design and not being conformed to conventional standards in the industry. Although I have a long road ahead of me, I have been able to carve a niche for the variety of mediums that I work in.
Explain your involvement in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
John D. Hall was born in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1927 on the eve of the Great Depression. The family had been carried North from Arkansas on the first wave of The Great Migration. Johnny was born to early Pentecostal pioneers whose vocabulary and genetic memory held the broken and bruised fragments of slavery. His mother had been born in 1900; her grandmother had been born into slavery. They withstood the pervasive brutality and terror of the black South and, fueled by grit, faith, and strong will to thrive, they crisscrossed the U.S. countryside establishing “planting” congregations in the early church. The family left the grinding poverty of East Chicago to set roots down in Kokomo, Indiana, bought property, and built a church and homes, joined the local industrial economy and flourished in the community. Pappy, as I affectionately knew him, was my great-uncle, but I was raised just as his grandson, close to his three granddaughters and grandson. In December 2012, gravely ill and five months before his death, the family recorded four lively hours of interviews with Pappy as part of the StoryCorps Griot Initiative. There was singing, talking, laughing and discussion touching on everything from his childhood in the early ’30s to his experience as a black marine and conscientious objector during the Korean War. The talk was interwoven with his experiences of artistic expression as a gifted vocalist and musician, which was undergirded by deep spiritual commitment. Supported by NPR and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the StoryCorps Griot Initiative is the largest effort to collect the stories of African Americans since the Freedman Bureau’s Slave Narratives project in in the late ’30s. Griot recordings are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and in a special collection at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC). The conversations recorded with Pappy very much live up to the name Griot, the storyteller who holds a position of honor in the West African tradition, and who is entrusted with transmitting the family and community history from generation to generation. We are in awe that little Johnny Hall, our Pappy, born to humble but noble beginnings will now take his place as an Elder, not only to our family and the church community he led, but also to all future generations who visit the museum.
Why is black art so important?
Art is the ability to express the deepest reaches of one’s soul in a way that one’s body accommodates. We inhabit black bodies, which hold the complex and rich history and beauty of our ancestors. Our bodies have been forged and refined through pain, enriched by our deep joy and spiritual grounding, into vessels of excellence. This translates to powerful artistic expression one that has enriched the world. Black art is as important as the black soul, which is priceless. Our voices, our existence, has always and will always enrich every particle it encounters. Black art enriches the ground from which many art forms have evolved throughout the centuries.
Artistic expression is in the tambourines that Pappy beat to “carry the service” in the early church when there was no organ, but only hand clapping, foot stomping, and rich voices in complex harmonies. The pre-jazz piano playing that interplayed with those voices, hands, and feet, which informed later secular artists in jazz and rock music. Black art is in the array of clothing and color that we were surrounded by in our family and community, pulling what should have been threadbare into something stunning. It’s the sophisticated church hats the Mothers wore, the confident crisp formality of the Elders; it’s in the turning of cornmeal, sugar a dash of salt and eggs into hot water cornbread, coupled with wild greens, making a feast from what looked like nothing; Black art is invention and movement; it’s the motion and music in the way our heads turn, the guttural moans and staccato punctuations and singsonginess of our speech, the words created to describe our way of being that make way into art, music, poetry. Black art, again, will always matter. It predates every other form of art. It is as important as the black soul.
How do leaders like yourself break through the static and make an impact among your peers?
Being resolute, being a keen observer of your peers and other humans. We must set examples, understand each other’s needs, practice communication and hold integrity. Education and exposure are key to knowledge and sound philosophy.
What is the key piece of advice you can offer to the younger generation and BE MODERN MAN hopefuls to cultivate a successful career?
Careers don’t blossom overnight; just like a gardener, it takes cultivation and tenacity.
You have to plan and nurture what it is that you would like to achieve. Results come through practice.
What, in your opinion, has been one of the most challenging moments that you’ve experienced and why?
The moment that has been imprinted with me the most would be speaking to a crowd of people during a Trayvon Martin vigil in Brooklyn. It pained me to see myself in each of these black men standing teary-eyed and full of rage, sadness, and unidentified emotions.
Do you believe that men of color are championed in the mainstream? If so, in what regard?
If we want to speak athletically, yes, we are championed, and even then, sometimes we are demonized for our actions. Young men of color often feel the burning glare of misperception early on in school, where teachers are more likely to perceive our actions as disrespectful or defiant. I read a story where Toni Morrison called this the “white gaze;” this is the cloud that our young men are living under because society has placed these stereotypes about what the “idea” of a black man is.
As a man with a strong character, how do you see your impact within your community?
For me, it’s all about commitment to service. I have forged and challenged myself to donate and volunteer to causes related to the arts, social change, and humanity. I am currently working alongside Pratt Institute to build a foundation/gift in honor of my grandfather that will benefit African American and Latino students applying to Pratt degree programs.
Mainstream media often paints people of color inside a box, one that limits them to a shortlist of stereotypes. How do you see your own narrative as enabling others to change the conversation and break free from the conventionality placed upon the African American community?
I’m just being who I AM. In all my complexity, contradictions, wonder, and shortcomings, I am a full human being. A black man who is a full person. Sadly, that is the most major challenge to mainstream media’s depiction of people of color. We are not one-dimensional, flat characters. We just ARE. Fully. That flies in the face of the ways in which society would like to box us and handle us.
Tell us why this type of exposure is needed in telling our stories.
It’s disheartening to me that the black newspaper is dead. We no longer control our image in the media. Accessibility, accountability, and acceptability are essential elements to a strong and relevant media presence within black society. If we are reluctant to acquire more conscious media outlets, the least we can do is hold those who purport to be “black media” accountable by refusing to accept the trashy caricatures of black people and the negative portrayals of black life that bombard us every day.
The BE MODERN MAN tagline is “it is our normal to be extraordinary.” What makes you unique and stand apart from the crowd.
I wouldn’t want to say that I just pride myself on being unique and standing out. What I will say is I am very keen on finding a commonality with every human I come into contact with in an effort to build a connection. Through art and literature in abstract forms, I transfer these points of learning and apply them to building relationships with humans, whom can sometimes be warm yet complex in nature.
What does BE MODERN MAN mean to you?
BE MODERN MAN is an example of extraordinary men of color that are building legacies, careers, and initiatives that will light the way for future generations. I spend most of every day thinking of more ways to step up my game and take things to another level. To this day, I’ve never come up with an easy way to do it. That’s OK because, if I did, it probably wouldn’t be very valuable anyway. To be remarkable means to take risks over and over again on difficult things that might not work. It means stepping outside the comfort zone that contains most people, and exposing yourself to danger.
So that’s what I try to do. I don’t always succeed; in fact, I fail quite a lot. Yet, I’ve never been upset that I tried. My end goal is to always push through any adversity, have integrity, and continue dreaming!
The Black Enterprise.com team congratulates Jae Joseph for his commitment to preserving, displaying and curating works for us, by us and ensuring that black body of works are relevant and impactful not only in our communities of color but worldwide.
It’s our normal to be extraordinary. Follow @blackenterprise and join the BE Modern Man conversation using #BEModernMan.