Artist/Illustrator Akinseye Brown (pronounced Ah-KEEN-shay-yay) was selected to design the 50 Years of Hip-Hop commemorative library card for the Free Library of Philadelphia. Akinseye has over 20 years of experience in drawing and illustrating. His most popular work, How To Draw African Superheroes Volumes 1 and 2 won a Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. He recently completed a story about Philadelphia hero Father Paul Washington, which was included in the graphic novel, BLAM: Black Lives Always Mattered / Hidden African American Philadelphians of the Twentieth Century. Akinseye has served as the Education Chairmen of the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, Incorporated (ECBACC, Inc.) for five years and is one of the founders of the ECBACC S.T.A.R.S. (Storytelling That Advances Reading Skills) Program, which is an initiative to improve the reading skills of young people through the use of comics.
Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Philadelphia, grew up in the Mt. Airy section. My parents were artists. My father was a painter, graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Art. My mother was a fashion designer and a graduate of Drexel. I attended John B. Kelly School, Clarence E. Pickett Middle School, Morris E. Leeds, the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, and Cooper Union, where I earned a BFA in Painting and Drawing. Growing up, creativity and thinking outside of the box and producing artistic work was always around me. I don’t know how it happened, but I guess being blessed with the creative gene, I fell in love with comic books and creating characters — obviously from watching television and watching cartoons — but some part of me recognized it had to do with the influence of my parents. Somehow I always knew the idea of storytelling, creativity, and imagery was always going to be important to me and my life.
What are some of your artistic influences?
Of course, my parents were the primary influence of my love of art. Further, like many of my peers, Marvel and DC comics. Then there are people like Billy Graham, one of the first African American artists for Marvel Comics, John Byrne (X-Men, Fantastic Four), Bill Sienkiewicz (DC’s The Sandman), and Stuart Immonen (Amazing Spiderman). As a lover of comics, they influenced my character design, which led to making portraits. I also look at African culture with a tighter lens, getting into the symbolism of different motifs from across the continent. It all comes together to define my style.
50 Years of Hip-Hop, what does that mean to you?
Hip-hop music was always in the background: at school, on the bus, at parties, while my friends and I read comics. I remember the first time I ever brought hip-hop to my home. I was trying to memorize Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s "The Message." My father heard me and told me it’s not good to recite and memorize that stuff. I took that to mean, "Don’t do hip-hop in the house," but that didn’t stop me from liking it and loving it like everyone else. I grew up in a house where Nina Simone and Al Green played. What’s interesting about my journey with hip-hop is when those and other soul songs were sampled in popular rap records, that’s when I really became a hip-hop fiend.
How has hip-hop influenced your approach to art and style?
Hip-hop allowed me to take a magnifying glass to how Black people create art. When you look at hip-hop and rap culture, there is something that needs to come out from within: a voice, a statement. Then there’s another aspect of hip-hop that says I’m going to take a little bit of that and a little bit of this, blend it together, and make it my own. Black people in this country have always done that. We take our African sensibilities and blend them with the culture of the land, what was available to us, and make it our own. Hip-hop has that as part of its matrix, everywhere. For much of Black culture, there is always a blend, not a hard division between ideas and perspectives — religion, music, dance, books — and they all live together like gumbo.
What do you hope to convey with your design of the library card?
Philly has its own sense of electricity but smoothed out. With the card design, I wanted to make sure that when people knew and is aware that Philly is here. Other libraries and institutions who are also celebrating the 50 Years of Hip-Hop might create their own images, but whatever I can put into the card is going to let the people know that Philly ain’t no joke. It’s the real deal. I wanted it to be bright, have an impact to it, and be daring because I want people to say, "Wow…the Free Library went hip-hop. They went to the veracity that’s in the art, the music, dance, and style." The imagery is key, because the Liberty Bell is ours as well. That is hometown Philly. The overall design is going to be a talking point for people, because no one can claim what we do but us. It represents the bravado and self-confidence that hip-hop gives young people. It represents Philly.
If an alien came to Earth and wanted the one hip-hop song or album which represented all of hip-hop, what would it be?
BDP (Boogie Down Productions)... social commentary and the dance part, the beat. I don’t think there is anyone that would deny them their place in history and how much they influenced the culture.
Akinseye (Ah-Keen-Shay-Yay) Brown is an artist, illustrator, and writer that uses African culture, science fiction, and fantasy to tell stories. His books include coloring books like Vejo Capoeira, and Umoja Force, and comic books like Sannkofamaan and Dara Brown: 1996. He now serves as the event coordinator for the annual East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC), which celebrates Black images in storytelling while improving youth literacy. Brown sells his prints and paintings through his company, Sokoya Productions, LLC. Brown continues to inspire and educate through art and storytelling.