If artists capture the language of the times, Dawud West is fluent in visual conversation. West is the mastermind behind some of hip-hop’s most memorable album covers and the creative force that brought the BLACK LIVES MATTER (BLM) mural in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn to life.
After the tragic police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, large-scale Black Lives Matter artwork popped up in cities all over the country. The first, a strikingly loud yellow BLM sign, was painted along the road to the White House in early June. West was commissioned by the Billie Holiday Theater at Restoration Plaza and New York City Councilman Robert Cornegy Jr. as artistic director of Brooklyn’s interpretation of the message. As a Brooklyn born creative, West was enthused to conceptualize a 565-foot long installation in his city as an artistic affront to racism in the world.
“I got Google Street Maps, and I got the top down shot. I put Google Street Maps in illustrator. I got a font, which I ended up actually modifying the font, and I put it in there,” West said of his pre-production process as he plotted the project nestled between New York and Brooklyn Avenues in the borough.
When asked what kind of planning goes into creating a graffiti art piece of this magnitude, West responded simply saying, “Lots and lots of measuring.”
“It needs to be accurate, but graffiti writers are known for changing things on the fly,” West said.
Over two decades ago, West had to work on the fly to design the album cover for Jay-Z’s fifth studio album: The Dynasty. The Dynasty was a highly-anticipated Roc Nation compilation album, featuring one of Jay’s biggest commercial hits, “Give It To Me.” West served as art director at Island Def Jam when the project suddenly slid across his desk.
“Normally you get a lead—with Jay, not so much. It would be birds chirping in the morning and Jay would come down and say, ‘Hey, this album is happening today,’ and it was all hands on deck. Drop what you’re doing. Everybody’s on Jay.”
He began working with the photos snapped by famed hip-hop photographer Jonathan Mannion to come up with different looks and designs for the rapper. “I figured the dynasty, the name the dynasty, let me go into other languages. How would you say dynasty in Polish? How would you say it in Russian?”
The finished black and white cover features the word dynasty in various translations with Jay front and center, holding up the iconic Roc hand symbol.
“At the time, that style – the more ragged edge, the not really defined, refined cover – that wasn’t the thing. I wouldn’t say I pioneered that, but I was the first to kind of use it commercially in action.”
For decades, West stylized the look of urban sound through projects with Method Man, Beanie Sigel, Rick Ross, and numerous other rap notables and brands. With rap being born from the angst of inner city living, West was honored to return home to hip-hop’s capital to create art that captured the cry for justice in the streets.
Flanking the massive BLM message are the names of 150 victims of police brutality including Ahmaud Arberry, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, Philando Castille, and Tamir Rice. Billie Holiday Theater Director Dr. Indira Etwaroo explained the yellow bars in the design were to be conceived as an “open casket” to the world, in honor of Emmet Till, a 13-year-old who was lynched by white men in the 1950s.
Some supporters on social media lauded Brooklyn’s BLM artwork as moving, while detractors hailed the entire display as a show to distract from real judicial progress. West, however, doesn’t allow himself to be swayed by the critics, saying, “I just did it so Brooklyn could have something to honor the lost lives and the victims.”
Continuing, “Eric Garner’s sister rolled up while I was working on it, and that was a humbling moment. She rolled up, told me, ‘I appreciate you taking the time out to come out here and do this and do it in the manner in which you’re doing. This is massive,‘ That’s confirmation enough, you know?”
From Bleu Magazine Issue 68, The Fashion Issue.