Dialogue Keynote: Kerby Jean-Raymond

The MCA’s 2020 Dialogue series asks what inheritance means in the public sphere. In this culminating keynote, designer Kerby Jean-Raymond addresses the audience with a presentation on inheriting creative legacies and leads an immersive discussion that imagines our collective future. This event was livestreamed on Zoom and Facebook Live on May 20, 2020.

Hi, everyone. Good afternoon. I’m Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and I’m delighted to welcome you today to this keynote conversation with visionary designer Kerby Jean-Raymond.

Today’s program is the final event in our annual dialogue series, which has over 11 years welcomed innovative thinkers doing impactful work on issues of equity and access in open conversation with our museum public. I truly thank each of you for joining us today in this virtual space to discuss topics of urgent concern in our world, and embrace social connection in these times of physical distancing.

This year’s dialogue is focused on the concept of inheritance and what that means in the public sphere. This year, we bring together artists, scholars, and audiences to consider the riches, debts, and cultural realities we all inherit as social beings. Museums are also holders of creative legacies. They care for optics and ideas in service of community. We must constantly balance thinking of what has come before with the current needs of our community, as well as anticipating the wishes of generations to come.

I look forward to joining you all in listening to Kerby Jean-Raymond and learning from his experience honoring creative and cultural legacies, while at the same time innovating in a field with entrenched and often inequitable systems and traditions.

Today’s format is a discussion between Kerby and the MCA’s chief curator, Michael Darling. They’ll speak for about 40 minutes, during which time we welcome you to add your comments and questions in the Q&A box if you are in the Zoom room. Following the conversation, senior curator January Parkos Arnall will moderate a Q&A, sharing your questions and comments with Kerby.

Before we start, I want to express my gratitude to the supporters of our dialogue season: Julie and Larry Bernstein, Gene and Karen Harris, the Zell Family Foundation, Carol Prince, John Hart, and Lois and Steven Eisen.

I want to point out that Julika Lashay will be providing ASL interpretation for us today. Hi, Julika.

For those of you in the Zoom room, our technology is being handled by the MCA team of Casey Von Warner and Matt Test, and we thank them as well.

Now on to today’s program. Kerby Jean-Raymond is an American fashion designer who uses his label, Pyer Moss, to address larger concerns in society. His American Also collection has been recognized for its powerful messages and groundbreaking fashion shows. In addition to designing for his label, Kerby has collaborated with several brands, including Sean John and Tubu.

Michael Darling is our chief curator at the MCA Chicago, where he recently organized retrospectives of Virgil Abloh and Takashi Murakami, two of the highest attended exhibitions in the MCA’s 50 year history. Please join me in welcoming Kerby and Michael, and don’t forget to join in with your questions and comments in the Q&A field on the Zoom room or in the comments on Facebook. Take it away.

Kerby, thanks so much for being here with us today and joining this amazing virtual audience that I think is well over 500 people, but who knows, maybe it’s even grown since we first started counting earlier this morning.

Amazing. Amazing. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

You’re welcome. So one reason of course that we wanted you to be part of this dialogue, which is in this series of talks that’s about inheritance, is of course your role in really leading the fashion industry to a new – to rethinking a lot of its systems and methods. And so I think there’s a lot of ways that you’re questioning and rethinking inheritance, in a way. But I was wondering maybe to start with if we could talk a little bit about the things that you have found to be especially generative in your cultural inheritance, that other designers, other makers that may have been particularly influential in helping to pave the path that you have followed yourself.

I think I come from a long line of very powerful people who have influenced the fashion community, the art community, music, the film community, who were often – who flew under the radar, and not given their just due. And one of the things that we did with American also was not only highlight things in popular American culture that make us – that were created and/or taken from minorities and people who were overlooked in this culture, but we also used the opportunity and used the platform to highlight specifically fashion designers that paved the way before Pyer Moss.

So in the past three collections, we’ve collaborated with Sean John, FUBU, and Cross Colours, high grossing brands from the eighties and nineties and early 2000s, who I feel weren’t given their just due when it came to certain privileges that I enjoy as far as like being in Vogue and being in all the magazines and winning all the awards. Besides Sean John, none of them were recognized by the CFDA and other governing bodies in fashion. So as like this new generation crops up, which I’m proud to be a part of, with me, Telfar, Shane from Hood By Air, Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo, Samuel Ross, Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose, and just like a wealth of like just designers coming up and not afraid to speak their mind and not afraid to like authentically be them. I think it’s important that we highlight our forefathers, and give them their roses while they can still smell them.

That’s great. And would you say that your collections thus far have been kind of in a way building on those legacies? Or do you see yourself kind of adding to what’s always in culture? Or do you see yourself as – and your collections as more of a disruption and more of a pointing of a really more uniquely new path?

I think it’s a two prong – there’s a two-pronged approach to this answer, where it’s like physically, like as far as like what we create, the actual pieces of clothing, they do build on the lineage of Ross _____ and streetwear that was very popular and prevalent in the nineties. There’s a lot of draping and couturing that – and a lot of use of color that stems from what we learned from Patrick Kelly and Willi Wear and things like that from the eighties. There were a lot of like independent couturiers and a lot of drag culture and LGBT culture, club culture from the sixties and seventies, that we draw inspiration from.

Our last collection was built upon the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Black woman credited for – often miscredited or not credited enough for her invention of what we now know as rock and roll. So there’s a lot of expansion of the legacy and the lineage, not from just those brands that I collaborated from, but just from the culture at large. And I do believe that we place a lot of emphasis on them, but we – at the same time, we are disrupting and creating a lot of things that are new.

And I think the one thing that Pyer Moss creates that’s – that is unique to the space is – the one thing that we do create that is unique to the space is the way that we communicate. This is a very new way for brands to communicate with people. And I think that’s like the one – if we had nothing else going for us, it’s the fact that we’re very disruptive in the way that we speak to our consumer and our onlookers.

Yeah. I mean, that’s definitely something I wanted to get into, because one of the things that you’ve become known for is not following the normal fashion season, for instance, in terms of when collections are dropped. You’ve kind of created a single body of work each year that then you kind of disperse throughout the year, so there’s kind of a consistent story that you work with over the course of the year. Could you talk a little bit more about how you arrived at that, and other ways that you’re trying to do things the way that makes sense for your business and your brand, and not necessarily follow these external factors, like buyers and fashion shows and things like that?

You know, part of it is foresight and understanding that a lot of like the systems that are in place from the time that we got into business were eventually going to be – were going to implode, you know, just to put it brutally. It’s like a lot of those systems were going to implode. They depend on too many people’s opinions, and not enough on consistency, longevity, and building relationships with brands and consumers. So we just for the most part ignored the traditional wholesale system.

As far as like the calendar, the calendar was created at a time before social media, you know, and a time before celebrities were invited to the front rows of runways. And you have to look at how in the – the idea, the notion that we should remain obedient to a calendar that was created 60 years before our time that doesn’t speak to our values now, you know, we – the calendar was created – the fashion calendar, if anyone doesn’t understand, was created to – these shows were private. So these shows were private, and they would invite press and buyers, and the press and buyers would take their orders from the seats. And they would, you know, have like little notecards. If you look back and a lot of old fashion shows, you’ll see like everyone in the audience, that you see have like these little notecards.

So they’re taking – they’re writing down, look, I want look one, I want look two, I want look three. The press is taking _____ because they’re going to take photographs of that stuff, and six months later, with those issues on stands, the clothes would also be – would be coming out. The buyers will be taking their orders and placing their orders, and within a short amount of time, and that stuff would be available in the stores six to nine months later.

Now, when you look at pictures of the fashion show, what’s everyone doing? They’re not sitting there with – they’re not analog. They’re not sitting there with pen and a pad. They’re sitting there with their phones. And a lot of them are live streaming or taking pictures and posting that to their millions of followers, especially if you have celebrities in your front row. They’re posting it to their millions of followers immediately.

And now that stuff is instant for the consumer. So they’re looking at this, and they’re seeing that the celebrity is liking this or putting a fire emoji on it or something like that. So you want it now, and now you’re going to tell them like you’ve still got to wait six months. By that time, you’ve already lent it to all these celebrities. You know, it’s – your samples have been all around the world, and the production piece is going to hit the stores, and you want the same kid or the same young adult, the same young woman, same young man, who’ve been paying attention to this single piece for the past six months, and have like internalized what it looks like, what it feels like, and have seen so many different people in it, now you’re telling them, now it’s your turn. They don’t want to be last in line. They want to be part of the conversation.

So it was a stupid – I hate to call anything stupid, but it was a stupid thing to take past 2009. And when we came in in 2013, I was always questioning – but I had an old school publicist and I had people who were doing things the way that they had learned. They had been in business for 20 years, and they were doing things that – but for me, it never made much sense. I was like, why am I – I’m throwing good money after bad. Why am I not just showing people stuff that they can buy now? Why am I showing people stuff _____ later?

So this method works a lot better for us. It allows us to incubate the product that we want. It allows us to focus less on putting dollars behind quoting buyers and quoting price, and more dollars behind putting the best product possible out, making the best shows possible, putting all of our energy into one singular _____ and then following it up with smaller moments, whether it be campaign videos or micro content, is what we call it now, or just things to incubate this.

Because like, if this sweater costs $500.00, which it doesn’t, but if it did, if it costs $500.00, that’s a significant purchase. And no matter how much money I have, I just moved into my house, and like no matter how much money I have, I’m like online staring at the same chair maybe 40, 50 times before I spend a couple hundred bucks on it. So I can only imagine what it’s like for most people, and for me, when I’m buying clothing, I have to like get a rhythm with it and pay attention to it. It’s not enough to see it on the runway for seven minutes, and then again later on, six months, and that – and expect that to work.

So this method with doing one show a year and subsequent micro content and subsequent micro pushes to the things, have helped us achieve really high sell-through. We don’t go on markdown – we rarely go on markdown. Sometimes we might choose certain things that we won’t bring back, and we put those on markdown. But for the most part, we haven’t had to. So all of our things usually sell at full price, and we – because we spare ourselves the pain of putting all the dollars into like all of these courtships of buyers and press, we’re able to put the dollars into production and able to keep the cost at a reasonable price. You know, people still complain _____ too expensive [inaudible].

That’s great. Well, another thing that you’ve become known for – I know some of the peers – the list of people that you mentioned at the top of that comment is an incredible class of new talent that are out there really changing the fashion world, and one of the things that you’ve done is to really take the fashion show and turn it into an event. I think your last fashion show had 3,000 people there and a 75 person choir. Can you talk a little bit about – again, maybe from a business standpoint, what those events like that do for the brand, and how you see them fitting into the rest of your creative activities?

I mean, naturally, for me, I’m like – I like to be a host, and I like to bring as many people together as possible, so it was always my intention to make what I do so valuable that I can trick the entire fashion industry to come to my neighborhood, which is what we did with the last show. So we got – typically, in New York, all the shows are held downtown Manhattan, and I got everybody to come for collection two to Brownsville, and then for collection three I got everybody to come to East Flatbush, where I’m from.

And that was the most important part of it. It was less of a business decision, but as it – but ultimately, it works, because the way we do it is we’re able to create enough content there to last us a year. We’re also able to get as many people front facing and interacting with us and partying with us, and be part of our environment, because we really respect the community that we built around us, you know.

We joke a lot that Pyer Moss is like – Pyer Moss is like what – we could host spring break if we wanted to. You know, we could be – we could just become party promoters at this point. But we have a really cool way of curating like-minded people into spaces, and it starts from what we give off with our brand. We convey a message that’s well-researched, educated, timely. We care – we naturally care about people, and the people that we attract also share in those values. So it makes for great celebrations when everybody comes together for our fashion shows and for our parties and things like that.

I mean, the way you talk about that, it sounds to me almost like a redefinition of what people maybe used to talk about like a lifestyle brand, where maybe that might have been just the image of what you felt like you were presenting to the world when you were wearing a piece of clothing or carried a certain handbag. But what you’re talking about is much broader. It sounds like it incorporates community, incorporates music, and is that sort of where you’re going, where this is not just about this cool hoodie that you’re wearing, but it’s about a bigger ethos that can invite more people into the vision?

Yeah. From day one, I’ve been trying to create worlds, and in order to create a world, you have to start somewhere. You have to build – we’re essentially building an ecosystem, and eventually, it’s going to transcend COVID, and that’s really my hope. Like I’m a – I’m a good fashion designer at best, mediocre at most, but I think ultimately, like what we want to bring together, what we want to do is build a community around us, and that community can partake in all types of art forms. And the shows are just _____ of what that’s going to be. Like when we debut our documentary in September, I think people will get to see like the world behind, and the world behind Pyer Moss, and the thought process that goes in it.

The company is not actually called Pyer Moss. The company is called Your Friends in New York. And Pyer Moss is just one part of it. And Pyer Moss is the part that we have to incubate first with love before we show the other parts of what we’re doing, and the charities that we’re giving to, the community centers that we’re going to build, and all these other things.

But I’m comfortable having this conversation now because I respect the audience that MCA brings, but it’s not something that I would go out and say to the press and be like, oh, yeah, Pyer Moss is one part of the idea, and – because that becomes very tumultuous in people’s heads, like you’re trying to do too much. And I also hate the word lifestyle brand. Lifestyle brand feels very – it feels very – you know, back in the – I remember like back in like 2006 when I started one of my first brands was Mary’s Jungle. Everyone was calling themselves a lifestyle brand, even True Religion. So I had like a bad connotation of it, because I knew they weren’t really truly lifestyle brands. They were just like, oh, we took a picture, and now _____ friends sitting on a beach, so that was a lifestyle brand.

This is a – this is more of a ecosystem, similar to what Apple’s built, where you can’t have the Apple Watch without the phone kind of thing. We’re doing that, not with a product base, but with experiences.

Yeah, no, I totally agree with you, and that term is kind of creepy, but it seems like you really kind of give it a new way of thinking about it, and I like your idea of ecosystem as maybe much more encompassing and ambiguous and loose, and maybe even much more positive in the end.

And just for – you mentioned a minute ago this film that’s coming out. Just for folks out there in the audience, it’s a feature length documentary about Pyer Moss, right? And the two-year development of the collection that came out in 2019. Is that right?

The movie is about the Jedi mind trick.

Okay. You’re keeping it close to your vest. I know there’s a little trailer out there on the web if folks want to check it out.

I’ll say this. I’ll say this. I think for as long as I can remember, I think – I used to live in Bed-Stuy towards the end of college, like in 2007, and I started doing this film about gentrification with my friends. And that’s all I’m going to say.

Okay. Good enough. Well, we all have to stay tuned for September when you drop it. And I know that also you’ve hinted that maybe it might be part of a special – like a drive-in format fashion show, or event.

Yeah. Someone who is really, really, really close to me said, you should do this as a drive-in movie. I thought about it for a second, looked back at her, and I said, okay, then we’ll do it. And we came up with the idea a few weeks ago, and we just decided like we definitely don’t want to do a runway show. We definitely don’t want to do something like that, because it feels _____, and we also don’t want to at this time, where everyone is in this together and everyone’s like suffering together, put a focus on product.

So we definitely do want to put a focus on the experience, the community, the black experience, and everything else that we’ve championed, and put it – and roll it all together into this one film.

Right.

So _____ we’re planning on premiering it in New York and LA, and then depending on the popularity of how that goes, we’ll probably expand it to other cities.

Super. Look forward to that. Well, before we got on this public chat, you and I had a chance to talk, and one thing that we thought could be interesting to explore a little bit is, especially getting back to the topic of inheritance, is the kind of elitism and even classicism, and even if you want to say the kind of racism of the fashion industry. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that, especially this problem in a way of how to make great, cutting edge, highly crafted clothing that if you make it that way, it’s going to be expensive, and how do you still kind of reach the audiences that you want to reach, and just that inherent problem.

It’s something of course that when I was working with Virgil, really kind of wrestled with that, too, this idea of luxury and the idea of young, creative kids on the street that you want to also reach that are going to be the next Kerby or the next Virgil or the next Martine, and how to reconcile that cost difference in that equation.

So I’ll answer the part about inheritance first, and then we’ll get into the price thing, because the price thing is – it’s a whole – it’s a whole clusterfuck.

But we – my friends and I went to Ghana, as do most black people, for New Year’s, and we went to what they call slave castles, but they’re actually slave dungeons, right? Putting the word castles in relation to enslaved people is also – is also a trick that we become comfortable with.

And so we went to these slave dungeons, and we’re touring where slaves were held before they were ported off to the Western world. And one of the things that Duray pointed out to me – Duray’s one of my oldest friends, my brother. He was like staring at this wall for like – uncomfortably, like maybe 35, 45 seconds, and staring at this wall. _____ what were you thinking about? He’s like, do you ever think about how deep this is? And what we’re looking at is that they kept – so the ocean’s here, right? The ocean is the first – right here. The women’s caves where they held enslaved women were right here. And the men’s cave was back here.

And the reason why they did that is because when the – because of the way the waves came in, the sound flowed this way. So the women were screaming and crying, and they – it was designed this way so that the men can know that they can’t protect their women. And when you think about like this – this is like 400, 500 years ago, right? You think about these systems of white supremacy and how deep rooted and how sinister they are, and you think about racism today, and how like this is just like a simple – it’s a simple byproduct of like these _____ way before us, and how deep-rooted the conspiracy is.

It’s like I don’t want to come off and start to sound like Dr. Umar Johnson or anything like that. That’s not my schtick. But I’m definitely harping on the fact that we’ve become so comfortable with white supremacy, the concept of whiteness, the concept of blackness, that we believe it. The thing about white supremacy is that black people believe it. And that’s why it works.

So one of the things that we do in our work constantly, it’s like holding up this mirror so we can see how ridiculous this thing is, and hopefully, you know, one by one, like with whatever we do, whether it be like owning our own music or championing our own brands or championing our own accomplishments and things like that, to start to like take our power back internally, just _____.

And obviously, the systems – and all the systems – the systems that are around us and the systems that are in play are so much – they’re collapsible, you know? They’re collapsible. And it requires a level of like – it requires a level of just like not caring about them, and not having any respect for those systems, and for us to like finally get past them.

So we’re in this like weird conundrum constantly where we’re like who’s in charge? Who are we inheriting from? Like why is – why are these conversations important? Should artists be having these conversations?

Well, I think if we want a different future and a different outcome, then yes, we do have to have these – we do have to have these really uncomfortable conversations that I hate having, but – and we also have to understand that these things started before there was navigation. It was before – you know, people were steering their ships to go kidnap people before there was navigation systems. Can you imagine making it to like an unknown grocery store right now without your phone? So imagine how sinister you’d have to be to find a continent. You know what I mean? Like there’s a drive there.

And these systems continue today, and we have to like take our power back. And what we do constantly is just like drill in that these things are fake, and that these we don’t have to buy in, you know. Like they’re going to keep working as long as we keep buying into them. So oftentimes, what we do, and as flawed as this statement could be, but oftentimes what we do is kind of like just show us – I just use the platform to show us and show ourselves, and sometimes even to remind ourselves, how ridiculous these systems are, and how powerful we can be if we let them go, and we let the notions and the beliefs in them go.

So what we’re constantly doing is battling the head start. So now we’re getting to pricing, and you’re getting to why things are a certain way, and why we’re constantly being criticized. If you search for name right now in Twitter, and you search my name, and you search Jerry’s name, Sam’s name, anybody’s name, somebody’s probably going to say, love the clothes, but it’s too expensive. That idea and that question doesn’t come up for established brands and established white brands and things like that. It only comes up for us.

And it’s like we don’t have the head start, and we do have to pay a little bit of a luxury tax to each other so that we can build this. It’s not just like – the other thing, too, is that this concept isn’t just me. There’s 20 people working at Pyer Moss. It’s not just me. You know what I’m saying? So like imagine if, okay, if I make this – if I make this tee-shirt for $15.00 and I sell it to you for $20.00, now I’ve got to split that $5.00 up between 20 people, and how the hell am I ever going to move forward so that we can at least get to third place in the race? You know what I’m saying? Or at least get to second place in the race. Like how are we going to do that unless we like – we catch up?

So it’s a loaded – it’s a loaded concept, and – but I think ultimately, we have to think about where we started and how do we catch up.

Yeah. That’s a great point. And the other thing of course that’s looming in the background, too, is the, you know, sometimes near slave labor conditions that are used in order to make cheap fashion, right? So is that something that also enters your thinking, too, about ideas about sustainability and kind of who’s harmed as products are put out into the world at certain price points?

I remember – I won’t say any names. I remember one of the companies I used to consult for, one of – the owner of the company went to Vietnam to do a surprise inspection in one of the factories, and saw that two women were chained to the – had their feet – had their ankles handcuffed to the sewing machines, because the foreman of the shop said that they kept on taking cigarette breaks.

So you’ve got to think about who are those people, right? These are brown people. These are black and brown people. These are – whether they’re Asian or what, these are not – these are not the majority. And in order for us to like catch up, we have to break out of those systems. Those systems that made other people rich can’t continue to enrich us, because then we just become the oppressor.

So we have to be cognizant of sustainability. We have to be cognizant of slave labor and all these different things. Everybody who works for us gets a fair wage. You know, every collaboration that we do has to donate back to our community. Like all of these different things we have to pay attention to, because ultimately, we have to keep chipping away at the head start.

So we can’t keep playing – we can’t keep playing like the, oh, you know, I’m going to go over there because it’s $5.00 less game. We don’t have the – us as black people don’t have the luxury to do that to each other. Like we should be paying for our favorite artists’ records. We should not be streaming those things. There’s a reason why the Black the black community. It’s not because we don’t want to spend with each other. It’s a lot of times the businesses don’t sustain long enough, and we don’t trust in each other’s businesses enough, because we know that they’re not going to sustain. But how do we change that? We have to like patronize each other long enough. We have to make sure that the only businesses in our community that survive are not just the mom and pop restaurants and the discount stores. We have to make sure that we have our own things, our own luxury brands, our own fashion brands, our own plant stores, our own movie theaters, our own Starbucks, version of Starbucks, whatever those things are, so that we can have a say in the conversation.

And I know capitalism is not the end all, be all of what’s going to officially erupt these systems that slavery has brought on, and that supremacy and racism and all the other things have brought on, but it’s a start. You know what I mean? It’s a start. And each one of us could pick our poisons, like whether it be academia or whatever the case is. But there’s – we have to collectively do more for each other and be there for each other.

When COVID-19 started, the first thing that I did was – when the pandemic started, the first thing that I did was check on other businesses like mine that were owned by people like me, whether it be daycare centers, whatever the case is, restaurants. I took – I’m not rich. I’m relatively – but I’m not like rich rich. You know what I’m saying? So the first thing I did was took $50,000.00 out of my account and spread it amongst businesses that I want to stay live, and then we did a more public-facing thing. I was blessed that Jan Rubio, a good friend of mine, matched my donation, and we were able to do that, and help businesses owned by people of color and by women who I knew were going to be vulnerable when the economic crash comes, so that way, when this is all over, we’re not starting all over again. We’re not like – we’re not back at square one. And that was super important for me.

And it’s interesting that through those questions, and especially as we started getting into the ideas about white supremacy and things like that. And I think it’s a great segue to this amazing video that you just did, which I think is your first directorial effort. But you made this amazing music video for the hip-hop artist Wale. And could you talk a little bit about that, and what – the response that you’ve gotten so far actually is really what I wanted to know, too.

You know, I spent a lot of time on YouTube like watching car videos and watching like – lately, I’ve been watching a lot of like Pit Master videos, because I’m at home, so I’m barbecuing a lot. And one thing I noticed is that all videos have like really bad comments, like YouTube is like a cesspool of terrible comments. I thought _____ was bad. YouTube is awful.

But like for whatever reason, we’ve had mostly positive – I looked at the first week. I don’t know how bad it’s gotten now. But it was mostly positive. And everything that I was receiving from black and white people were all positive, because I think what we did was we like focused on the normal – the role reversal. We didn’t like – it was the mundane aspect of life, and that was specifically important to see.

Like, you know, when you go back and think about it, for me as a black man, like I didn’t have – all the products we had didn’t have black people on them, except _____. So when you started – when we started the video like that, just like showing the Quaker Oats and Crest, like why – I remember asking – this is – and I was maybe eight years old, seven or eight years old. I remember asking my dad if this toilet paper worked for people like us. Like stuff like that, you know?

And then you get out into the world and you realize that the world’s kind of pushing you around. You’re always secondary. You’re always like a second class citizen. And you’re always like trying to dress up the fear. So you put on the chains. I wear a lot of jewelry sometimes. And you put on the chains, you wear the – buy nice cars, and sometimes it’s not for you. Sometimes it’s just so you can feel safe. It’s like a hey, like, hey, a lot of times, like – we were literally just having this conversation. I remember for me, I’m a car guy, but a lot of my friends are driving nice cars because they feel like this is a indication to the police that, hey, I know somebody. I know – I have a good lawyer. Don’t pull me over. I never get pulled over in hyper cars or super cars. I get – if I was driving like a normal car, which is the reality of a lot of people, you get pulled over more.

So that’s just my personal experience, you know? Without doing anything. I also grew up in a neighborhood where I was being stopped and frisked constantly. So you have like this mundane reality of just like what everyday looks like. And I just wanted a normal day of him dad. I didn’t want to make it into a thing about – a indication of the society as a whole. I just wanted to get like just a day in the life of someone we all know, and what that looks like, what those everyday challenges look like, what this lack of representation means. What does it mean for you getting ahead, and what does it – what does mass incarceration mean to the family structure?

And what I wanted to do was not leave it on the note where it’s like, okay, like this is just some revenge fantasy. I want to actual, like a montage of footage, which my editor was really, really good at finding. And we ended it with the video from Elkton Prison, with our brother being locked in prison with his cellmate who was obviously suffering from COVID-19, and no one cared enough to move him out of there and put him in the cell. And ultimately, he was in solitary confinement for having a cell phone. And his health wasn’t checked. He wasn’t ever tested for COVID-19. We had to get permission to use the video from his family.

So I wanted to like show – I wanted to show what the everyday reality is of a generation who lacks representation and who has to constantly deal with over-policing and things like that.

Right. Well, we posted a link to the video in the chat for anybody that hasn’t seen it, but just the quick recap is that you basically filmed kind of a day in the life of a young man, but sort of flipping the white dominated culture, and turned it into a black dominated culture. So this white man, young man, wakes up sharing a bed in the projects, goes through his daily life hassled by the police, kicked out of the Starbucks, _____ that happen to black people and brown people on a regular basis. And you’ve just – it’s a super simple concept, but it’s amazing how provocative and thought-provoking it really is in watching it, so I congratulate you for just a really beautiful piece of film-making.

Thank you. And now I have to _____.

Yeah. Well, I mean, I can sit here talking to you all day long, and I hope that we’ll have a chance to talk again later in person, but I think we’ve come to the time where we can open it up to some questions for our audience. So I think January is going to join us and help pitch some questions primarily to you, Kerby, because you’re the one that we all want to hear today.

Hey, Kerby. Hey, Michael. This has been amazing. So I’ve been trying to read all the comments and questions while I’ve also been listening to you, so I’m going to try to synthesize some of these because we have many, many questions coming in, as I’m sure you can imagine, which such a complicated and beautiful set of thoughts.

So one of the main questions that a lot of people are asking is just about the process and of course about especially right now what you recommend people be doing who have a creative process or are trying to break through. The importance of mentorship is something that Shelton Hawkins was asking about, and what that looks like right now in this COVID era. Brooklyn Phelps was remembering that you talked about being locked in in an interview with Jeff Staples, and what locking in looks like to you in this quarantine time. So what are these young designers – what should they be doing right now? Mentorship seems difficult in this time.

So I’m blessed to be part of like a really wide artist community, and I just got off the phone with Wale. Like I was on the phone with _____. Like we talk. We all talk. So I think the conclusion right now is that we should all just take a pause and accept the pause for what it is. I don’t know – if you feel compelled to be creative right now with things coming out of you, amazing things, but I think as artists, who we are is translators, and we have to live in the world before we can repackage it and contextualize it and give it back to the people.

And we don’t know what this world is going to look like yet. We have states opening back up, people getting re-infected. We have China opening back up, and then they’re having like a resurgence of the virus. We don’t know what this is going to be _____ yet. We don’t know how people are going to change or what people are going to take from it. Our hope is that everybody is going to come out better and more reflective, but some people might just come out worse.

And we don’t know what the world is going to really look like, and we have to take a pause and be accepting that we are creators, not prophets, not physics – some of us are prophets, but not psychics. And we have to be easy on ourselves. We can’t like be like, okay, well, this is my time off from work, so I should be creating this other project, and I should be doing this. When it comes to you, it’s going to come to you.

And when Pyer Moss and like the idea of this fashion – you know, this company came to me, it was a two-week like lightning, just like – and I saw the next three years. And this was in 2012, and I saw the next three years. And then in 2015, towards the end of that initial cycle, I had like another awakening, and then I saw what you’re seeing now, but I didn’t get to get to work on this iteration of Pyer Moss, this collection of one, two, three cycle, until I was completely locked in, completely like spiritually sound.

And it takes a while, you know. It’s like people want to tell you that it’s easy and that we should just be creative all the time, and you can’t. You can’t. Like you have to actually go in the world.

So my best advice to you is to go walk. Go walk. Go pay attention. Like go take some pictures. You know? That’s what we’ve been doing. Like we work in – we’re working on Joey Badass’s album right now. I’m not trying to create a new concept. I’m trying to just take pictures of the world. And we have two great photographers and great director working on his project, and we’re bringing on like Micaiah Carter to work on this project and other people. But everyone is just let’s like recontextualize what we’re seeing in the best and the most beautiful way so that we can repackage it for the people, and we can be keepers of the time. That’s what we really are. It’s like Nina Simone’s famous quote about the time _____ look up, but we have to reflect the times, and we have to live in the times in order to reflect them.

So don’t feel so much pressure on yourself to say, oh, I have these three weeks off from work, and I should go be building a brand new clothing line or putting out a brand new album or something like that. You’re just going to drive yourself nuts, because that’s not the way – that’s not what an artist means.

That’s incredible advice that I am going to personally take to heart. Thank you. And hopefully many of our other viewers will as well. LNO is talking about this ecosystem that you were just mentioning, this creative ecosystem that you’re a part of and that you thrive on, thinking about how do other organizations in the community think about building those bridges. How are you doing that right now? How are you staying in touch with that creative community?

It starts with having a genuine friendship with people. It starts with – you know, I – one of the women who raised me when my mom passed, my aunt, she died in the beginning of this, and that was really hard for me. And I was shut off from the people who naturally check in on me. Those are the ones that I started to dialogue with first.

And it’s this organic thing. It starts with a real friendship and a genuine care for people. Don’t force yourself to speak to people because you’re used to seeing them at the party. Now is the time to just like really take inventory of actually who made you feel good, you know? Like when you were out in the real world, who made you feel good? Who made you feel anxious? Who made you feel bad? Who made you feel like you need to get better clothes? Who made you feel like what you had wasn’t enough? Who made you feel like you were great? Who made you feel like you were king? Like focus on those things first, and then build off of that. Build a community off of people who actually made you – who championed you, and then deal with the rest later, you know.

And the best thing that can come out of this is you can come out with a soul army, you know, people who actually really give a shit about you, because now is the time to have those two hour long phone conversations, and just say, how is your mom? And where are you really from? Tell me what it was like on the block that you grew up on. You know? And those are the types of conversations that I’ve been having with people.

And in the end, after like getting to learn people a lot more, at the end of those conversations, then we talk about work, or we talk about what we think the next phase of – the next iteration of Earth is going to look like, and whether or not Mother Nature is giving us a message. Like some people believe that, some people don’t. Some people – you know, some people think this is a bio attack. Whatever the case is, like talk about those things. Dialogue. Get everything off your chest. And those communities that you’re building around you will strengthen because these are people when you go back out in the world that will really know you and really care about you.

I’m going to take that image of the soul army with me on this, and I’m sorry to hear about your aunt. That’s awful. I’m glad to hear that you’re rallying in that community.

Maxwell Murray is a student here at DePaul. Thanks for joining us, Maxwell. And majoring in African black diaspora studies. Wondering how significant research, knowledge, and truth is in the process of building Pyer Moss. you’re obviously building community so much, and we often talk about the community you’re building, but how are you thinking about that black diaspora? This is something that also Teresa _____ is mentioning in terms of how you’re showcasing community and advocacy and social construction and the relationship to race. So Alexa Scaggs is pointing out there’s a centering of blackness and black people. That leads to a lot of heavy topics. But how you’re sustaining that.

So research, the centering of this very specific community, and what that is doing as it leads to some pretty heavy topics I’m sure in this research that you’re doing.

Yeah. You know, so I’ll start by talking about the research process. We also joke that we’re a research company sometimes. We tend to want to believe one thing or another. Even within our research, we have our own innate biases, but we try to be as factual as possible, and try to connect what we’ve learned to where we are today, and what we try to research the most and put front and center more than anything is the powers that we’ve always had, inherently had, and how they can benefit us today and the issues that we deal with.

Centering the black community is just what I do, because it’s the only community I can speak to, because that’s what I’m of. If I were to be talking about the Asian community or Native-American community, I’d be a fraud, because I don’t know – I don’t know that world, and I was never – I was never amongst that world. Besides being black and West Indian, the closest I’ve ever been to another group of people is probably Latinos, and I’m not going to go speak on their problems, unless they overlap with ours.

So it’s this constant need of – it’s this constant like desire to be true to who I am and not speak out of turn for everybody else. But that just opens up a lane for other creatives to speak about those cultures.

I was notoriously frustrated with a publication a few months ago – it feels like years now, but it’s like a few months ago – we won’t name that publication, but I wrote an open letter to them, and like – and the main criticism was focus on – to the editor, was focus on your own people. Like why are you putting black choirs in your stuff, and like why are you milking black creatives _____ just to create content? And you have this amazing platform, and if you want to highlight cultural experiences and not just make tragedy porn, why not highlight who you are, whether it be Eastern Asian or Islamic, whatever the case is? But focus on your own thing.

So I try to stay true to that, and like – and take my own advice, and focus on what I know versus trying to be a mouthpiece for every problem that’s happening in the world.

Yeah. I love that. By being so true to your own voice and really speaking from your own perspective, you are in fact so relevant to so many that in that truth there is such relevance found.

Zachiah _____ is also asking about your work being in conversation with history, and what you’re thinking about black design history in particular, and how you’re reestablishing new ideas with fashion at large. So how you’re thinking about the industry and those community connections, as well as the history and legacies, creatively.

Yeah. That’s often – we do the collaborations, and in my interviews, and every time I have a platform, I try to highlight other designers and other people and other creatives and artists and musicians and things that I feel like are doing work as it pertains to highlighting the positive parts of our existence, and not just the positive parts, but the truthful parts of our existence.

But ultimately, I think we’re going to need something more permanent than just me talking about it. We need a collective conscious, a universal – a universal understanding that it’s up to us to uplift our ancestors. And I hate to say ancestors, because there’s like some _____. Because like – Cross Colours guys, they’re like texting me, they’re not ancestors, bro, you know. They’re – but you want to – we need a – we need – whether it’s a retrospective, a permanent foundation, something like that, that highlights our work so that we never forget it. But I think it’s starts with the universal consciousness and for us to uplift them with our words and uplift them with the modern-day flowers that we can give them from afar.

Yeah, that’s beautiful. I think this is going to be our last question. There’s so, so many more, and comments, in the Q&A, so thank you all for all of your participation. Lew Herin is asking from Facebook, how does cloth contribute to anti-capitalist revolution? In Gil Scott-Heron’s "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," he refers to a red, black, and green liberation jumpsuit. Do you think a specific performatist cloth or costume could be created to stop the system from shooting us down on the street? And would black folks have to pay for that product? So what can it do? What can cloth do here?

I love that question. What’s his name?

Lew Herin.

Lew, I love that question. I love, love, love that question. All right. Let’s put it like this. He’s essentially asking like is there a shield or is there a cloak that we can wear? And I know that Gil Scott-Heron he’s referring to would that – I guess like the – I guess like the question to his question is us being easily identified, does that make us more of a target or less of a target?

You know, if we came together with this – a performative cloth, what’s so different than all of us wearing black hoodies? You know? So it’s a – it’s a two – it’s a multi-pronged approach, and it’s a very Afro-futuristic way of thinking, but – and in its face, it has a lot of flaws, because our constant – the question for our existence is do we want to be seen or do we want to live.

Michael, I’m going to send this back to you. Kerby, thanks so much for spending all of that time on the questions that our participants are asking, and thank all of you for joining us with your incredible thoughts. We’ve sent several of them through so that other people can at least see those questions, even though we weren’t able to address them all. Michael, handing it back to you. Thanks, Kerby.

Yes. Thank you, January. And I just want to second all the incredible comments and questions that have been coming through. I’ve been also trying to track through some of them. And Kerby, thank you for taking the time to talk to us and give us so much to think about today. We really hope that we can welcome you to the physical MCA someday soon, and of course, really will be following what you do next, and we’ll all be tuning into September when we can see the documentary as well.

So thanks again, and be healthy, be safe, and hope to see you soon.

Thank you so much.

Thank you. Bye, everyone.

Bye.

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Dialogue Series 2020: Inheritance

When one thinks of "inheritance," images of passed-down wealth and privilege may come to mind, but what does inheritance mean more broadly to the public? The spring 2020 Dialogue Series brings together artists, scholars, and audiences to consider the riches, debts, and cultural realities we inherit as social beings. We will discuss the status of accumulated art objects as treasures in our public institutions; life in a capitalist society built on colonialism and slavery; the generational experience of migration; and the inheritance of a global environmental crisis for future generations. The 2020 Dialogue Series asks how we contend with our cultural inheritance, and what are we leaving for the future?


The Dialogue Series is a museum-wide commitment to sustained inquiry about museum practice, access, and inclusion. Each annual series includes eminent speakers presenting innovative work happening across disciplines, panel discussions, and opportunities for open dialogue between local arts professionals and audiences. Dialogue is organized by Curator January Parkos Arnall with the Performance and Public Practice team.

Funding

Major support is provided by Julie and Larry Bernstein, Zell Family Foundation, and Carol Prins and John Hart/The Jessica Fund.

Generous support is provided by Lois and Steve Eisen and The Eisen Family Foundation, and Caryn and King Harris.