You Can Survive Yourself
TV On The Radio helped define an era of New York rock and roll. Unlike many of the bands of its time, TVotR wasn’t nostalgic, but the genuine new cry of a nascent art scene struggling to be born even as Capital and gentrification closed its fingers around its windpipe. I was at Pratt when I first heard TVotR. Pratt in the late nineties/early noughties was where the countercultural dregs pressed out of downtown Manhattan mixed with the Black bohemian revolution that had been turning since the early nineties…or that’s what it felt like. TVotR sounds like what it felt like. As it turns out, Tunde Adebimpe, the voice of TVotR, was an art school kid of sorts too. Tunde and I hopped on the phone to talk about that experience and his art practice in general.
Interview by Ronald Wimberly.
Ronald Wimberly: So you’re a multidisciplinary artist. You have a lot of mediums. If you have an idea, you have a lot of different ways that you can express it, and you can also express ideas that may require multiple languages to express at once. It also seems like you’re continuing to produce works in and around the other things that you’re doing. One thing I have is a collection of drawings that you did while on tour. What was your last project that you put together?
Tunde Adebimpe: It was an issue of Frontier, the Youth In Decline magazine. I was really honored to do that. The thing I did before that was the one you have, the silkscreen tour sketch journos. That was the last one, and it was really good to get to do that because I was missing cartooning, and just generally making art in a form that was loosely narrative, if not entirely narrative.
RW: I just bought another thing you did recently, a record with a drawing attached. I think it was for charity. Dupes/Good Fortune, limited edition of 150.
TA: That’s a single from a project called A Warm Weather Ghost. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra did a series called the Liquid Music series where they approached different musicians and asked them if they had a project they would like to do that wasn’t a part of their band. They’d give you a grant to do it, and then you’d perform it.
We did three performances as A Warm Weather Ghost. It was me and six other musicians. Money Mark was on keyboards, Mia Doi-Todd was singing. It was a really good group of people to do it with. The whole thing was a live soundtrack to a film I made about someone dying and going through different levels of the afterlife, like in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, until they turn into a spirit in the cosmos. The first part of it is a live-action film, and as soon as the death happens, the whole thing turns to animation.
TA: I also figured out a way to do A Warm Weather Ghost solo, so I could travel with it. Last April, I played at a documentary festival in Copenhagen that also has musicians come and do special projects. It was great. I got to go to Copenhagen and get a costume made, and a mask, and I went onstage and did the whole thing with my computer and a sampler.
RW: It’s interesting that you have all these tools in your toolbox, particularly when you have a career where you’re accomplished. Generationally speaking, when I came to New York, how I remember Williamsburg was that TV On The Radio was the band of the time. So you have that, you have drawing, you have film, and you also have the most humble of all mediums, comics. [Laughs] And you keep coming back to it.
TA: I have to. It’s all I was ever doing. Even right up to when the band started, I was doing comics and animation. Then the band starts doing well, and you want to see something through, and two years later you’re like, “oh. I should probably do a comic now.” [Laughs]
RW: Then there’s the other way — you’ve been drawing comics for fifteen years, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “huh, I dunno, I did kinda want to have a family.” [Laughs] And you also have your acting career. It’s weird, I was watching HBO Max, and I was thinking, does this guy’s agent have a deal with HBO or something? I’m seeing this guy in everything.
TA: I get little things here and there. It’s very weird. Some things are like, you have a friend that’s like “I’m making a thing, you wanna do it?” and you’re like, “sure, I’ll do it.” The amount of hit and miss as far as waiting for someone to have a role, auditioning, getting it, to me that is something I could never do rigorously. If something happens, I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not gonna be like, “I wanna be the Black Indiana Jones!”
RW: [Laughs] Black Indiana Jones would be a guy who just did all this shit, and then they just made him white anyway, right? How could you get away with being Black Indiana Jones? He definitely would’ve gotten shot.
TA: Black Indiana Jones is actually a Black archaeology professor who breaks into museums and takes artifacts back to Africa.
RW: Right, doing all the work. [Laughs]
TA: The thing that I like about acting and comics is that you get to do the work, and then the work can go somewhere else without you. You don’t have to be present for it to be played or read. That was actually one of the hardest things about the band — touring, and having that be the main source of income, and having to be there every show.
RW: Have you done theater before?
TA: No, but I would like to.
RW: I’ve been thinking about the different qualities of theater versus comics. TV On The Radio has so many different approaches to the form, which must mean you have a crazy creative diet. I feel like there’s a through line, but there’s also a lot of formal experimentation. Like, you can’t just say, “oh, this is a great punk band.” Maybe if I were to draw a parallel, it would be like Wire or Mark E. Smith — like, it’s got a vibe, but you never know what’s going to happen. You must be pulling from so many things.
One of the things I’m finding myself forever going back to is Bertold Brecht, and his work particularly deals with his theory around theater, and the notion of the body being in the space. I’m also thinking about Walter Benjamin’s theories around the figure being there, and reproducing the essence of things. Comics is a medium inherently built around reproduction. The comic is the reproduction, you know what I mean? And the originals are production art.
TA: Yeah, exactly.
RW: And when you’re making film, as an actor, your body and your performance in front of the camera are production art. Whereas if you’re doing theater and are on the stage performing, or are a musician — in your music you do both, right? You put out the record, and put a lot of work and production into making an almost platonic version of the song, but then you’re going out and doing your own performance of it. It’s interesting. In comics I don’t really have that. You’ve probably seen Nick Cave perform before, right?
RW: One of the things I noticed when I saw you play — you’re super tight. There’s some variation, but with Nick Cave, if you’ve never seen him play, you’ve never really heard his music before. How do you approach your performance? As someone who works in both mediums where you produce an artifact and mediums where you perform, what’s your approach to that? Do you have a theory around that?
TA: When we started performing as TV On The Radio, I had just come out of doing comics and animation. We played a few shows in bars, and then they started to get bigger than bars. I don’t like being in front of a lot of people, which is an odd thing for the job I’ve had for the last fifteen years. [Laughs] I had a lot of stage fright, too. So I was up there the first couple of shows with my eyes closed the entire time. I never really saw or see myself as a lead singer — we were like, the band’s sharing a unified front. If anyone’s looking at anything up here, they’re looking at all of us.
The thing about reproduction is, if you’re going through a very emotional, transformative experience, and you’re fitting all that into a song, it can be really cathartic — but then you have the document of that pain which, if you’re performing it and going to that place again, can be very triggering. It’s like you’ve invented your own trap.
RW: You’re pushing the boulder up every time.
TA: Yeah, it’s like, I pushed the boulder out of the way, why do I have to bring it with me to the show? [Laughs] But then two things happened. We had a show in London where we were opening for Blonde Redhead, who are still one of my favorite bands, and they have a lot of songs that are very heavy. Their songs sound like, this person is in a place in their heart that they cannot escape from, and I was like, how do you do that? How do you break down every night?
I watched their set, and they turned it into theater. They were versions of the songs that you could tell the people who were playing the songs were involved in in a different way. They could play the song and have it be a presentation of the sadness instead of a demonstration of the sadness.
RW: Which is a different type of real.
TA: Yeah, definitely, and you can be more theatrical with that work. “You’re looking at me, so I might as well do something up here.” And I realized that, and went, oh, that’s a very important method to take in. That way you can keep going, and survive yourself, because the feeling is not locked into you in a place you have to get to in order to reproduce that feeling exactly.
The other thing that happened was that I saw footage of us playing some show in like 2004, and I looked at the stage and realized my eyes were closed. Nobody was looking at the audience. My dear friend Gerard would turn on his bass and then face the amplifier for the entire show. Like, “fuck these people.” [Laughs] But the thing that got into my head was, “nobody’s moving, this is fuckin’ weird.”
RW: Like Miles Davis.
TA: Then we had this show where we started playing — we were opening for someone — and everybody starts talking, the audience is not paying attention. My mind went back to basement shows in Pittsburgh, hardcore shows I went to, and all of a sudden I was like, actually, you are all now in my fucking room. Lock the doors, because you motherfuckers are about to look up here. I’m gonna jump into the crowd, and I’m gonna walk on top of people.
RW: Was that a kind of crucible, something that brought out another side of you? Did it give space to another type of Tunde?
TA: Y’know, I feel like it was always there, but suddenly I had a place to put it. It’s definitely something that was a catalyst.
RW: You mentioned before you focused on music, you were doing art and animation. I don’t even know anything about your animation background, so I’m curious, what were you doing? Did you go to school for that?
TA: Yeah, I went to NYU for film. I was going for live-action directing, but I ended up doing animation. All through grade school, I’d always done comics. I thought my path was that I’d be a cartoonist, or work for a comics company, Marvel or DC or whatever. And then when I got into high school, I found out about independent comics and zines, so I realized I could make my own thing and self-publish it. So I was completely on the path of becoming what at that point you’d call an indie cartoonist.
RW: Who were your indie darlings? That was the late nineties, right?
TA: Late nineties, yeah. The guys — it was mostly guys — that I grew up reading in comics were Dan Clowes, Crumb, Spiegelman. It was all the art comics.
RW: How did those things find you? Was that in Pittsburgh?
TA: That was in Pittsburgh. My best friend at the time, we were the two people who loved superhero comics. We were part of the lonely weirdo nerd club throughout high school. There was a comics shop called Phantom of the Attic in Pittsburgh — I don’t know if it’s still there. We would go there, and one day, we picked up the first issue of Drawn and Quarterly. We were hooked. My friend also had a lot of underground comics, and he would recommend them to me. I remember picking up the last issue of The Dark Knight Returns after reading these art comics, and going home and being like, “this is stupid. X-Men is stupid.”
RW: [Laughs] How old would you say you were?
TA: Fifteen, sixteen? And I’d already been drawing cartoons because I liked Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts and all that stuff. Did you ever know this comic called Milk & Cheese? Evan Dorkin?
RW: Of course! One of my first conventions, someone introduced me to Evan, and he gave me a comic — Jessica Abel’s ArtBabe, I think — and a card that said “Get Out Of Comics Free Card.” I wish I still had it. It was the early 2000s, so irony was everything, but fifteen years later, I’m like, “oh no!” [Laughs]
TA: So fuckin’ true. [Laughs] I loved Milk & Cheese. This is kind of embarrassing, but when I was young I did a comic inspired by Milk & Cheese, only in human form. It was a white friend and a Black friend. They were Peanuts-style adult kids, but they were also superheroes. They’d sit around and go to the mall, and then when they needed to do their superhero thing, the white guy would turn into Inferior Man, and the black guy became Kevlar.
RW: Inferior Man? [Laughs] Yo, the world needs this comic right now.
TA: It’s funny, because Inferior Man was actually the main character of the two. Kevlar was the sidekick, because he was the straight man and Inferior Man was just pathetic.
RW: That’s really interesting. Unless it’s subconscious internalized racism, maybe you felt like the straight man? [Laughs]
TA: That was such a big part of it — like, this motherfucker is just stupid, and needs watching. Very weird. Anyway, I had just gotten into underground comics in Pittsburgh when I moved to New York. I remember reading the comics page of the New York Press, and they had all these great cartoonists. Doug Allen did this comic called Steven, Tony Millionaire did this comic called Maakies about a monkey and a drunken crow, Carol Lay did biographical comics. It was like a Sunday funnies of all these underground cartoonists who I loved. I thought, okay, maybe I can do some stuff to get into one of these weeklies. By then I’d ended up at film school instead of art school. I thought, I wanna do film, I’ll do comics too. Why can’t I do both? They totally inform each other.
I was not good with people generally, especially things like managing for other people when you’re all eighteen years old, and you’re like “come to my shoot! I was at your shoot for forty-eight hours,” and they’re like, “I can’t make it, I’m so hungover, bro.” After three years of the live-action curriculum, I ended up going into animation, because everybody shows up if it’s just you. If you have to talk to an actor, and you’re doing stop-motion, it’s like, that actor is twelve inches high and you can break it and replace it. [Laughs]
So that was easy for me, because it linked up with painting, and drawing, and spending a lot of time in one place. I ended up doing music because I had a job where I was working in stop-motion animation, and everything to get a result took so long. So I just started messing around with a four-track in music so I could make something and have it finished in three hours, instead of being in a room for three weeks and having it equate to two minutes.
RW: Wow, okay. So what was the job? Were you at Viacom?
TA: I was working at Viacom. I was asked to leave NYU at one point, because I had stopped going to classes to work on my stop-motion movie in my basement. [Laughs] This was when there was a CGI boom happening, so everyone else in the animation department was focused on doing 3D. The people were like, “I’m gonna get out of here, I’m gonna work for DreamWorks, I’m gonna work for Pixar, and I’m gonna be set.”
After that, I’m out of school, and it’s like, what kind of jobs am I going to get? I worked in the animation department for a summer after I got out, and I would get bulletins — y’know, pre-internet, where you’re actually checking a message board for things that say, “we’re looking for animators.” So I heard from someone that MTV was looking for board people and character designers for a show called Downtown.
So I took my whole-ass portfolio that I’d put together to take to places like the Village Voice, the New York Press, wherever. It was all my comics pages, some illustration, everything I had. I took the entire thing up to MTV and submitted it to them for the Downtown call. One week goes by, two weeks, I don’t hear anything. Two and a half weeks go by, and I’m like, I can’t even go anywhere else. They have all of my artwork.
So I go up there, and I’m super pissed off. The person who was there went back to bring it out, and said, “oh, we were actually going to call you for a position, but production got pushed back.” And I’d already been sort of an asshole to them in the lobby of this animation building. Three weeks and I was demanding to get my portfolio back. I’m just some dumbass punk kid, I don’t know shit about how this works.
I walked out of there, thinking “oh, that was not professional, and I’m gonna get on the elevator with my shit and leave now, since I’m not gonna be allowed to work for MTV ever again.” [Laughs] Then I get a call from this friend, this NYU person who had just made this show called Celebrity Deathmatch, and MTV was about to do it. He told me, “you should send them your stop-motion movie!”
I shot that animation on sixteen-millimeter film, so this time I could actually make copies of it. I take this video copy up to the dude, and I got called in two weeks later. I walked in, and it was the director Eric Fogel, and he had a room filled with toys, dude. I remember he had a Boba Fett statue on his desk, and I was just like, “where did you get this?”
TA: We started talking about toys. I was being a dork, not professional, just saying “this is great!” I left, again thinking that I fucked it up, because we didn’t talk about animation or what he wanted me to do. Later that week, I got a call that they wanted me to animate for the show. So I ended up working there for two, three years.
RW: Get outta here!
TA: Nah, man, I animated a bunch of shit on that show.
RW: Were you working from boards?
TA: Yeah, when you go to your shoot room — basically an eight-foot-long by fifteen-foot-wide room with no windows, completely blacked out — you have the stage on one side of the room, where there are three rows of audience members, usually five inches tall, two inches thick. Behind your shot, there’d be rows, like fifteen or so crowd members, and the ring is right in front of them, raised to about the bottom of your stomach. There was a little opening at the bottom of the ring, so you could drill holes through the puppets’ feet and fasten them to hold them.
You’ve got all of your tools, all of your clay. It was basically a little movie studio. You set up your lights, you’d shoot, and you’d run your shots into Adobe Premiere, which I think was the first software that could take a frame at a time and run it as animation. On the wall outside the door, they’d usually leave two frames from the storyboard, so you’d look at the board with the dialogue under it, you’d go to your computer, and the dialogue for those two shots would be in the computer. Then you’d do the scene.
RW: So I’m guessing the director is organizing an entire small army of people to set everything up. Were they doing more than one show at a time?
TA: Yeah, they’d overlap.
RW: That’s crazy. Were you animating the audience at the same time?
TA: Yeah, it was fucking psychological torture.
RW: Was the audience storyboarded?
TA: No, unless it was a shot of the audience cheering or something. It got to the point where at the end of the show, we’d run an arm across all these clay figures to get them to move in the same direction at once. [Laughs]
RW: Animation is almost an Association of Misery, right? If you’re talking to someone who does this shit, you’re talking to someone who does real work.
TA: Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s your focus. I found the work super meditative, because I was right there in the moment. You’re usually working with a partner when you’re in these shoot rooms, so you’d have someone to talk to, you’re playing music, you’re doing it at the same time. It’s not just like they turn off the lights and lock you in there, and in twelve hours are like, “are you finished?” [Laughs]
I definitely had one job before that where I was like, “fuck this, I can’t work here.” It was a dark, smoky office on the third floor of an Upper East Side building. I was doing cel animation, and it lasted about a week and a half. I was like, this is some forties Tin Pan Alley shit, only it’s the nineties in New York and this is not cool.
RW: Well, the history of exploitation in animation is just the history of animation, right? All the union-busting shit, all the way down to Walt Disney losing that famous battle with his artists. It’s crazy that you’ve been around for so long — you were part of a class of New York artists, a certain generation of animation that ended when Viacom closed down that studio.
TA: Totally. That was the tail end of it. I feel like three years after I left, Beavis and Butthead was over, Daria was over, Celebrity Deathmatch was over, all of the big shows were finished. I don’t know what happened. It’s really lucky to have any kind of art job that is long-running. In animation, super lucky.
I also made my first comic during that time, in 1998. I made a self-published comic called Sticky Buns. It really overlapped with Eightball, Chris Ware’s stuff, and Gary Panter — all of the RAW artists that I was really into at that time. Ivan Brunetti, Julie Doucet, Drawn & Quarterly, that was what was informing me. Sticky Buns was like a one-person anthology — it was autobio comics, but also joke comics. Some stories were ones that could continue, but that never happened. It was only one issue.
RW: Were you publishing with an outfit, or were you just printing your own stuff and selling it on consignment?
TA: Yeah, I did it myself, and took it to Forbidden Planet, Jim Hanley’s, St. Mark’s Comics, Tower Records on Lafayette…
RW: Yo, that’s hip, man. That was smart to take it there.
TA: I never would have, but they had a little zine section. I remember it had all this Drawn & Quarterly stuff. It was a little bit hipster rock-and-roll-ish, but they had a consignment thing, so they had a lot of New York people. I was a big, big fan of Optic Nerve, Adrian Tomine’s book, and the first few issues of those were these handmade zines that were there. I was picking them up, thinking, “these are fucking great!” Then I found out how old he was and had a miniature nervous breakdown about my own cartooning skills. [Laughs]
I remember Tower Records itself had a zine, and I opened it, and he had done the back page comic. I was furious. Anyway, I dropped off Sticky Buns on consignment there. Remember how St. Mark’s Comics was set up, where there was a hall completely decked with superhero comics, and then a tiny room right before the storage room in the back with all the indie comics and porno?
RW: I remember that! I used to live in there. [Laughs] Hanley’s had a similar thing too. You always looked like a savage when you were back there looking through shit, ’cause there’d be a Manara book sitting there with all this perv shit. Heavy Metal, NBM lit, and fuckin’ softcore porn — that shit would be there, but also all this other stuff.
TA: Exactly — all the emo shit from Fantagraphics. Do you remember See Hear? A zine shop on 3rd Avenue?
RW: No, I don’t remember that.
TA: It was just a zine store. Zines and underground comics. So that was another big consignment place. But yeah, I mostly did it myself, sent it to comics artists I liked. Whenever there was a convention or a signing, I would take some. I also took a bunch to SPX.
RW: I’m glad that young Tunde’s band took off, and you did all the things that you did, which literally changed the music scene. It shaped New York music history for sure. World music history, maybe. But I also wish there had been a place where you could’ve got off your comics.
TA: You and me both!
RW: I feel like there wasn’t really a space for you, or a space for me. Not to cast aspersions, but there maybe was a place for Tomine, there maybe was a place for Tony Millionaire, but artists like us?
TA: You’re absolutely right. The story of why I stopped making comics for a very long time is directly related to that.
RW: Really? Let’s hear it.
TA: I took Sticky Buns to SPX, and I remember seeing a lot of my favorite indie artists. It was a cool show. There was this collective of Israeli cartoonists — Rutu Modan, who did this book called Exit Wounds, was a part of it — and I gave them my comic, and they said something in Hebrew to each other, and I was like “oh, man.” Then they looked at me and said, “oh, we were just saying how we’ve been telling people we like your stuff all day. Now we get to actually mean it.” Which is such a fucking nice thing to say to somebody, especially to some weirdo punk kid.
All these people I admired really liked it. Ivan Brunetti, Frank Miller — he was at SPX, isn’t that crazy? I made Frank Miller laugh in the men’s room in Bethesda, Maryland in 1998. [Laughs] I had a great time. Then I saw somebody I knew from MTV and came up to his table, and was like, “hey, man, how’s it going?” He was like, “well, this must be super weird for you.” I asked him what he meant, and he said, “you’re a Black man in a room with all these white people, is that weird to you?”
RW: Well, now it’s weird! [Laughs]
TA: I mean, in neon fucking letters, dude. Now it’s weird as fuck. Especially at that time, I was not equipped to turn that around in the way I could have or should have.
RW: Yeah, but how are you supposed to have some great wit about your own humiliation and alienation?
TA: Exactly! When you’re someone who draws and makes art, and goes to that place, it’s your refuge. You think, “there’s all of this other shit in the world that I don’t get, that’s hurtful to me, but this is where I know who I am and what I’m doing and why I’m here.” It’s where none of that shit matters. In comics, you’re all receiving each other’s work, but you don’t know who each other are, so any connection you have is a really internal thing that goes beyond any external differences.
But to then have the thought of being “other” in this place that I thought was my refuge, to have race come into it — suddenly I looked around the room, and realized, oh, right, I am one of three Black people here. I distinctly remember just saying, “oh.”
RW: And suddenly you look back and wonder, how many of these things that happened to me in my life are because of this thing that I haven’t been paying attention to? Or maybe I was paying attention, but thought this was a space that was beyond that. In hindsight it seems very naïve, right?
TA: I was like, “oh shit, if you’re thinking that, is everyone else who’s talking to me thinking that too?” I actually had to see that guy again because we worked at the same place, and it stuck with me. After that, I looked at the kind of comics I was making, and the comics I was exposed to that really did something for me were connected to music, and the DIY indie music scene.
Thinking about it now, most of the creators were white, most of the creators were male, most of them were American, and many of them were doing runoffs of these really good autobiographical comics, like Joe Matt, Seth, the Drawn & Quarterly stuff. But the runoff was like a ninth-rate Optic Nerve, you know? Some white dude with horn-rimmed glasses inking the page with his tears.
RW: I’m familiar with this guy. [Laughs]
TA: Like, you’re just bad, and the reason you can do this is probably because you have a lot of money.
RW: Right, exactly. This is not an excuse for all these wild-ass white people who do shit like this, but that guy you worked with was probably just a typical person in comics with bad social skills who’s completely unable to read a room. And the fact that you were the only Black person in the room was probably the reason he had no fuckin’ idea that was the wrong thing to say. And the art world — and the world in general — makes space and gives a fucking net to these people for them to completely fail like that. If you had that kind of social ineptitude, imagine the type of talent you’d need to have to get to where you are.
TA: For that shit to be passable? Yeah, of course.
RW: You happen to have that talent, but a lot of people don’t.
TA: At that time there was not a Black underground comics scene. The only other Black cartoonist that I knew at the time whose stuff was in that category was Keith Knight.
RW: Oh shit, he just got a TV show!
TA: He did?
RW: Yeah, he’s got a TV show called Woke coming out.
TA: That’s great! That dude is good. He’s a wonderful person. He was the only other person of color I’d seen doing comics about that experience. I related to his comics a lot, because they were very much about a Black person living in a non-homogeneous urban environment.
RW: But that’s also the identity as projected and sold to white people. It’s a Black guy living in the city, dealing with “urban issues,” you know what I mean?
TA: Yeah, totally. I felt like there wasn’t an audience for those kind of autobio stories. I didn’t know who I was talking to. Once I started to think about it, the bottom line was, if I was going to make comics, I had to get an understanding of myself in the world so I could make comics as a person of color that would get to other people of color.
RW: It’s unfortunate that you should even have to think like that. I think for a lot of these people who are making “my boring life” shit, it’s indulgent. It’s indulgent in a way that, at that point in your life, you were not allowed to be. It sounds like you were policing your expression because of what you had witnessed to be, not just the market, but the reality of the scene.
TA: I didn’t want to make something and have it be misinterpreted by this crowd of white people. I didn’t want to find out that everyone here isn’t cool. It made me stop, because I had to ask myself, “who am I talking to?” I suddenly did not want to make anything that was for a certain audience. But when I see certain comics now, I wish I had been born ten years later, because I would’ve just been making comics with the rest of these Black kids making comics.
RW: And that’s what SPX looks like now. But I felt a similar alienation too, and it took me years and years to work through it. I remember at one point Chris Kindred and Richie Pope came up to visit me from Richmond, and were hanging out with me in my studio, and they mentioned to me that they saw me as someone who had started out and come before them. And I was like, wow, okay. When I was starting, I didn’t see none of y’all. I felt completely by myself. Now everybody’s out there, and there’s so many different cartoonists doing stuff. I really feel what you’re saying.
I listened to a podcast today that talked about the “Trayvon generation,” and it got me thinking what my generation was like. I remember the L.A. riots, I remember Abner Louima, I remember that cat who got shot like forty times — Amadou Diallo. I was nineteen or twenty. But I don’t think I had the Trayvon experience. The generation before me would’ve had the Emmett Till murder. Y’know, you’re a child and you literally see the broken body of another child. That’s pretty fucking crazy.
TA: It is fucking crazy. And think what that does to you, and what gets rewritten in terms of how safe you are. Even if you felt safe before, you suddenly realize that someone could kill you and no one would give a fuck. When Trump got elected, I was trying to place the feeling I had — it’s like your primal animal sense is saying a flood is coming, and you have to get to the top of the hill.
RW: For me, when the Trump shit happened, I feel like I already had the sensitivity rubbed off my heart from that second Bush election. The reel from Bush was like, “how did this happen?” That was the first time that I understood there are people who see things fundamentally different from me, and also the first time I realized that it didn’t even matter if more people supported Gore. I was learning about how our republic works, you know? So my Trump feeling was just, “okay, strap in. Here we go!” [Laughs]
TA: Right, right. [Laughs] And then when this pandemic hit, I felt — I don’t know what to call it — disconnected, far from it. For me, it was like, this is the time when all of my friends pull together and help people, and I should be there right now, I should be a part of that. It was a very weird feeling.
My mom had come over here for some medical treatments that she couldn’t access as readily in Nigeria, and so in the middle of February she came here for a three-month follow-up, and to visit us. She was going to stay until April. Then the pandemic shit happened. She was staying at an Airbnb without a TV, just watching Netflix on her laptop, and I was like, mom, we have to buy you a ticket out of here, because Nigeria was closing its borders to flights from the U.S.
It was so frightening. I had to fix her up in a mask and gloves and put her on a plane. I felt like I was sending her on a moon mission. She went through security, and I was like, she’s gonna die. She’s definitely gonna die, and I just have to suck it up and go back out into the fuckin’ apocalypse. But she got there, quarantined for a few weeks, and was absolutely fine. Nigeria got in line pretty quickly with the lockdown. It’s funny, I have friends in Rwanda who were like, “yeah, there are no cases here now. Also, the government will kill you if they see you outside.” I was like, “oh, right.” [Laughs]
RW: The American spin on that would be “individual liberty,” but there’s no such thing, because you live in a world with other people. If you’re expressing your individual liberty and it kills me, fuck you! The community is part of that spectrum.
TA: Exactly. Do you, but keep it the fuck away from us.
RW: So your folks live in Nigeria. That’s where your family is from?
TA: Yes. My mom is from Lagos. She grew up in a small village, but they moved to Lagos when she was a teenager. Two brothers, two sisters. Her dad was a magistrate at one point. There were people in the family who were educated in England, and came back to continue their lives –
RW: So a little bougie?
TA: [Laughs] A little bougie, yeah, definitely.
RW: Nigerian bougie is another level of bougie, though, right?
TA: You know what, though? I have not experienced the level of Nigerian bougie present-day. The last time I was there was in 2005 for my father’s funeral. There are always parties that follow anything in Nigeria, and so the level of bougie I saw there was 2005 bougie. I have seen 2020 bougie on Instagram, and it’s a whole other level.
RW: They keep elevating it, man.
TA: My dad grew up in a tiny village where the generation before were cocoa farmers. Missionaries showed up the next generation, and my grandfather converted to Christianity. I think my great-grandmother proclaimed she was a Christian like three hours before she died. My dad was a very good student who ended up getting a scholarship to a college in England, came in the top of the class there, became a psychiatrist, and moved to Pittsburgh. So he did it. He did it in such a fashion that whenever I complained about something as a teenager, he was like, “I grew up in a village.” [Laughs]
RW: It’s almost like the overachiever stereotype.
TA: Completely. Entirely. He helped a lot of people in his lifetime. He and my mom were kinda opposites. He was almost like a farm boy, and she was a city girl.
RW: There was this article in Africa Is A Country about Beyoncé. I think it was called “Beyoncé and the Heart of Darkness.” I don’t know if you read it, but it was talking briefly about the flattening of the continent culturally, and the essentialization that occurs from the Black perspective, both politically and ontologically — being Black over here, and the narratives that we tell each other about where we come from. And I’m interested in talking about that, but with you, I don’t know how much your folks and their background plays into your identity, and also being a Black American too.
TA: I think of myself as a Black American with immigrant parents. So I grew up aware of both sides of it — being aware that you are a Black American but also from Nigeria. One of the funny things was, I lived in Nigeria when I was little. I was born in St. Louis, moved to Pittsburgh, and then lived in Nigeria from the age of six to ten. We moved back because there was a military coup, and my dad was like, “we gotta get the fuck out of here.” We did, but it was one of those things where you’re oblivious to it as a kid. I remember doing fine in Nigeria with tanks rolling down the street.
RW: That goes back to the Trayvon thing, right? These traumatic experiences you had that you didn’t even see as traumatic at the time.
TA: Exactly. It was just what was going on. We came back when I was in sixth grade. When I’d gone to Nigeria, people were like, “oh, you’re the American kid, how funny is that.” Four years after that, going back to Pittsburgh, it suddenly became, “oh, there’s the African kid.” I distinctly remember wanting to draw R2-D2 and not talk to anybody. [Laughs] I couldn’t choose a side, I was on my own.
RW: Had you been building your craft before then, or was that the time that you really started to embrace drawing?
TA: No, I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, because my dad would also draw. He showed me how a little bit, and then I was like, “why would I ever want to do anything else?” I remember something I’d drawn that was hilarious to me — I drew a character kind of based on Calvin and Hobbes, this punk kid with a mohawk and his family. All-white family, because that’s what I was immersed in.
RW: Wow, so when you were drawing these characters, was that common in your work? Were white people your subjects?
TA: Oh my god, yeah, but this was when I was like ten. Definitely, because that’s what I’d seen in Calvin and Hobbes. I didn’t see any Black families in the Sunday comics.
RW: And in Pittsburgh, what was the environment like? Was it mixed, or was it predominantly white?
TA: We lived downtown, which was where I was around the most Black people. I feel like it was mixed — it wasn’t dyed-in-the-wool segregated, but it was pretty spread out. I feel like the vibe I got while I was there was that people generally got along. I don’t know — I’d love to go back to Pittsburgh. I have no idea what it’s evolved into since I left.
RW: It’s an interesting place. I love the way the city is, I love to look at it. Beautiful isn’t the right word — I’m not interested in beautiful so much.
TA: Definitely. It’s got that old steel town thing going on. Yellow bridges, late eighties skyscrapers — what I like to call the Nagel skyscrapers.
RW: That’s kind of an era that passed, right? Because I remember seeing those paintings everywhere growing up — it was an aesthetic — but something crazy happened, like, he died from a stroke while running for a heart disease marathon. He had the most tragic death, bro.
TA: Oh, no! [Laughs] I remember when the style was high-end, like American Psycho Wall Street, when soulless fashion art was huge. But then whenever it jumped the shark, it just ended up on the front windows of hair salons.
RW: Exactly! Everywhere. I’m not even sure if it’s his, ’cause it’s so reduced. It’s as if someone had a tiny JPG of his work, turned it into vector art, and blew it up. The fidelity of the image is very low — a scan of a scan of a scan. But I have to say, Nagel is a distant cousin to all of the flat work that informs my work. I’m pretty sure he was into all of the ukiyo-e stuff, and the old Simplicissimus illustrators — all the German people who were either exiled or became Nazis, so we don’t know who they are anymore. But I love all of those. It’s funny, the poster people somehow managed to survive — like, you still see the German posters and stuff, but they were all Nazis.
TA: Yeah, exactly.
RW: French Nazi sympathizers kind of survived too, which is interesting to think about. Somehow we forgave them more than the Germans.
TA: You mean like Hergé?
RW: Yes, absolutely! That’s who I’m talking about.
TA: Yeah, at first I was like, “this is a very complicated comic, wow, the Congo one is completely fucked up,” and then I realized, oh, he was Hitler Youth. Hergé was a boy Nazi.
RW: Well, the thing is, I forget where he was, but he was at some paper, and it got taken over, and he decided to keep his check coming. It is what it is. I feel like in our lifetime we’ll see the same thing.
This interview originally appeared in LAAB Magazine #2: Eat/Shit, published by Beehive Books, 2021.