To Whom It May Concern: The Perspective of the Black Mail Collective

Comfort zones provide very little opportunity for honest interaction. The process of being comfortable consists of complacency – a lack of desire to go beyond what has been presented to you. Truth at it’s very essence is uncomfortable, and a catalyst is necessary to lure people away from the many dishonest amenities that society is comprised of. Throughout history, art has always been utilized quite effectively as a catalyst and conveyor of topical issues. It is this notion that has inspired the work of the Black Mail Collective. The group’s members, Arrington West, Michael Covington, Chris Martin, Joonbug, and Muzae Sesay are all Black men based in San Francisco who banded together in an effort to highlight the social iniquities of their community through the utilization of each member’s respective artistic compositions.

In the past decade, the city of San Francisco has transcended from a culturally progressive safe haven to a gentrified cataclysm, rendering the everyday Black San Franciscan (whose population has now drastically depleted to less than two percent) to feel as if they have no place. The ultimate objective of the Black Mail group is to “bring Black back” to San Francisco, and provide a space in which members of the Black community can actively address current issues in the midst of a city that is becoming predominantly white, and is completely comfortable with not addressing the abhorrent displacement of countless people of color to benefit its predominantly white population.

The Black Mail Collective held a showcase at San Francisco’s Luggage Store Gallery (1007 Market Street) that began on October 16th. I was able to attend the closing reception, which was held on November 7th at 457 Haight Street. I spoke with three members of the collective (Chris Martin, Arrington West, and Joonbug) and asked each of them about their favorite piece that was featured in the show and how it pertains to a particular element of the Black experience.

"Break the Chains" by Chris Martin
“Break the Chains” by Chris Martin

If I had to pick one piece from the show that speaks the strongest to the black community it would be my “break the chains” textile banner because of the message behind it and the relation to injustice of how the black community is targeted and prosecuted for crimes in the United States. Even after being released, the charges are held to their record creating a situation of reverting back to the same crimes in order to survive. Causing a cycle that needs to be broken.”
— Chris Martin

selected piece by by Arrington West
selected piece by by Arrington West

This piece reflect not only to my own personal black experience but generally how one feels when they’ve almost given up. When you’re working really hard in anything and you just don’t see that light at the end of the tunnel that people exclaim is there , this piece reflects that if you’re doing the thing that makes you whole it’s not going to be easy. You might not even see it getting better , but if it truly fulfills you then that’s the reward itself. Just like in the desert is void of life , if you happen to see a cactus then you know that indeed life does exist and the water is the driving force behind that wonderfully complex plant ,and  like the water the life source that makes you whole propels you to persevere  through any though situation that might arise.”
— Arrington West

"The Messenger" by Joonbug
“The Messenger” by Joonbug

The piece I’ve chosen is The Messenger. The piece shows my subject dressed in spiritual attire and mask, rooted in African culture and appears to be speaking aloud. Recently, I stumbled upon a rare video of the late Gil Scott Heron explaining what his famous poem, The Revolution, meant and contrary to the interpretation of the general public, it spoke about the revolution of one’s mind in order to make true change possible; that inner working can never be recorded—get it? What that means for the world, especially minorities, is that we must first realize nothing is impossible and barriers can be broken, systematic and otherwise. Today, there is no excuse for ignorance, break free from the systematic conditioning and think for self. ”
— “Joonbug”

The show was a passionate effort, displaying the resilient potential of Black people in troubled times. However, the showcase also had a protruding flaw. The phrase “blackmail”, from which the group of African American men derived their moniker, refers to the extortion of something desirable by revealing information that makes people uncomfortable. The name of the show implied that conversations about issues that the Black community is facing in San Francisco would be extorted by utilizing the art of talented Black men to reveal information that makes the city’s excessively white population uncomfortable. However, if no space is provided to talk about Black issues, then San Franciscans will remain in the comfort of the fallacies that society has developed it to be.

The inclusion of opportunities for the community to talk with artists about the significance of their art and their role in the community would distinguish the Black Mail Show from countless San Francisco gallery shows, which are frequented by white hipsters and art groupies who have no intention of comprehending the significance of the art and would rather use it for superficial aesthetic purposes. White hipsters and art groupies, including those who attended the Black Mail Show, come to art shows with the intention of thrift store shoppers seeking a piece that they can treat like a trendy jacket. The art has no significance outside being popular for hipsters, and much like a trendy jacket, they lose concern for art when it’s no longer a commodity.

The Black Mail Show has too much potential to be rendered to a mere hipster commodity. The absence of a discussion panel, in which Black artists facilitate interactive conversations with the community pertaining to issues concerning Black people in San Francisco, serves as a disclaimer to the initially advertised intended message of the Black Mail Show. However, this is the collective’s first show, and like many initial efforts, trial and error is necessary to actualize the true capacity of potential. I have great hopes for the Black Mail Collective and the great possibilities that it can bring to San Francisco. Hopefully, the collective’s future events will consist of Black men using their polarizing art to lead conversations that no one is comfortable partaking in, but need to occur in order to obtain truth.