Meet @blackpowerbarbie – the artist behind the artwork of the Black Partner Network Playlist.

@blackpowerbarbie, is a self-taught illustrator and animator, known for her stunning illustrations of Black femmes. A compassionate and driven storyteller, @blackpowerbarbie aims to produce creative representations of communities who face a great deal of misrepresentation in today’s media.

@blackpowerbarbie partnered with Starbucks Canada to create the artwork for the Black Partner Network - Say it Loud playlist, and crafted the illustrations that accompany the “Behind the Green Apron” partner features for Black History Month.

Below, she discusses the path she took to becoming an animator, the inspiration behind her work and her partnership with Starbucks.

Q: Can you tell us about where you’re from and what you do?

A: I am from Toronto; I grew up in Toronto around the GTA, but I was born in Brooklyn, NY. And that’s where I live now. I’ve been living here for about a year and a half. I moved because I am a freelance artist, so I had the freedom to be wherever. I am an illustrator and an animator and a director.

Q: How did you become an illustrator?

A: Growing up, I had always liked drawing, and I didn’t think I was very good at it, but I was creative, so I found other things to do. I got really into musical theatre and performance art, and that’s what my main focus and unofficial first career was. Then, in university I had gotten into a performance art school in New York, but it was very expensive. I couldn’t justify the cost, so I ended up staying in Toronto, and I went to Ryerson for radio and television broadcast. The thought was that I’d train to be an on-camera personality. It was the most pragmatic way for me to achieve my goals. 

In my second year, I had a digital media course, and there was an animation unit. The professor for that class was a huge mentor of mine and very supportive. The class had an animation section that I really enjoyed. The project I created was the most fun I had had making anything for school in a long time. The class loved it; my teacher loved it and was like, “You need to do more of these.” So, from my second year of university until I graduated, I became a self-taught animator.. 

From there, illustration came through as a different outlet. I connected with it in a way I hadn’t connected with other ways of being creative, mostly because I was able to be independent. At the time, I was still trying to do theatre while I was in school. I was taking acting classes and doing shows and all that stuff, but it was really hard. You have to rely on other people to give you opportunities, and I found with animation and illustration, if there’s a story you want to tell or a way you want to express yourself, you can, from top to bottom, be in control of that production and create whatever you want without waiting to hear “yes” from a bunch of other people. That’s how it happened, and I eventually started charging people for my work. Four years later, it’s my full time job and I get to do cool stuff that I never imagined. 

Q: Why was it important to you to work with Starbucks Canada on this project?

A: To get to where I am, I took a very non-traditional route, and a lot of my work has centred around representing myself and my community. Whatever success or opportunities I’ve gotten, I’ve tried not to fold on my principles or do the easy thing or just make the things that people wanted me to. My community has been really supportive in making that happen.

I don’t think many people, at least not me, someone who, over the course of my teen years, consumed a lot of Starbucks, ever thought Starbucks would be interested in my work, or that the things that I like to make would be something that they would be supportive of. I think it’s really important, as brands evolve, to be a part of initiatives that bridge communities and expand the ways we think about certain communities engaging with certain brands. I was really honoured and flattered to be asked to collaborate, and I also thought it was important to make time to do it because it symbolizes a lot of growth for myself, and I think it’s important for other people to be able to make those connections when they see the work.         

Q: Can you talk through the inspiration behind the artwork you did for Starbucks playlist? Why did you choose this artistic representation?

A: I usually don’t do a lot of silhouettes. My illustrations tend to be more detailed, but with this, I knew different baristas and customers might be engaging with it, so I didn’t want the cover for the playlist to have representations of specific people. I wanted it to be more of an overarching representation of the Black community within the context of Starbucks branding, so people could project their own connections onto it. 

I still wanted to have very strong Black signifying elements in the illustration, like the hairstyles and genders. I usually don’t draw men, but I thought I should include male identifying people as well. What I wanted to do was take the branding of Starbucks, the waves of the Siren, and repurpose that in my own special way to subvert the Starbucks branding for a Black audience with my aesthetic.

Q: Can you explain some of the recurring themes of your work? What inspires you when you start a project?

A: My projects, especially my personal projects, usually start from an emotional impulse - a need to tell a story, a need to condense a certain feeling or experience into a singular image or animation. I try as hard as I can to keep my ego out of work and focus on what’s true, how I actually feel and what I’m trying to communicate to other people. 

As someone who goes by the name of “Black Power Barbie”, what I want is for Black women, specifically, to feel a sense of resonance with my work and to have an emotional connection to the pieces. So, being honest and being true is really important. The reason I focus on the community that I do in my work is because there are many misrepresentations of us that we’re not in control of. I think it’s important that people have control over their own stories and are participating in their cultural narratives. That way, for all the misrepresentations, at least we’re contributing things we can meaningfully see ourselves in. That’s always the place that I’m coming from, “Is this helpful? Is this honest? Is this true? How do I feel about this existing outside of my body? Is this a piece of work that is representing other Black fem-identifying people or queer people?” Those are the common themes that I start with. 

Q: As an artist, what have you learned about the power of representation in media?

A: The way that we engage with media is so instantaneous. So, when you don’t see things, you forget that they exist. Your world really gets siloed into whatever you’re watching on Netflix or whatever the algorithm feeds you, and everything that falls outside of that fades away into the background. When you’re part of a community where you feel you’re not seeing yourself often, and when you do, you’re not seeing yourself accurately, it has a negative toll on the way you perceive yourself and your social positioning as a human being. 

I think it’s really important that people are not only seeing reflections of themselves, but other communities as well. It’s important to engage in content that’s not just an echo chamber of what I am and what I see. The purpose of art, beyond just looking at it, is to share stories and information so people can foster connections with those communities. 

Q: What sparked your interest in the arts in the first place? Who are your creative influences and inspirations?

A: I feel like I’m influenced by a lot of different things. I would say, Basquiat of course, Kerry James Marshall, people like Solange and Janelle Monáe, folks who are unapologetically Black and creative and take opportunities to tell really honest and creative stories that centre around Blackness. Those are my main criteria, and there’s so many different people who fall into that category, who have that type of influence. 

Beyond that, I’m inspired by my own life, by music, by film, by dance. I think when I see other people having fun and being free and just creating for the sake of creating, that’s inspirational to me. No matter what the artistic medium is. I find the world around me inspiring. There’s always a story or something deeper to discover just from everyday life.

Q: What do you hope people will learn from your work?

A: It honestly depends on the person who’s engaging with it. If you find yourself represented in my work, or you think that you’re within the fold of the community that my work represents, whether that’s through your womanhood or femininity or your queerness, your Blackness, I don’t necessarily  hope that you learn anything, I hope that you feel something. I hope that you feel seen, and that your existence is affirmed and recognized in a loving and vulnerable way. 

If you don’t see yourself reflected in my work, I hope the thing you learn is that these types of people exist in these contexts. This is a representation of who they are and how they feel, and that’s valid. If you look at it and you appreciate it, what you’re learning is that you can appreciate things in people and forge connections with people who you have differences with. I didn’t assume that a lot of non-Black people would appreciate my work, but my Instagram following says the contrary, and I love that. If you can sit there and listen to me talk about the things that I talk about and appreciate the art that I make, even though you’re not the target audience, I feel like there’s some value in that because the work is the entry point into you having a connection to these folks and deepening your understanding of their humanity. 

I try to be as vulnerable as possible, and by putting myself out there, I’m trying to let people know that it’s okay to do that, and I encourage them to do that as well. You don’t have to put on a brave face or hide behind stereotypes people think apply to you when you know you’re so much more. It’s okay to be soft and open because the more we do it, the more normal it feels, and we can all feel a little less lonely. 

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