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Local Artists Bring Personal Identity into Their Work

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten

“I refuse to say I can’t do something,” said Rashad Ali Muhammad, an interdisciplinary collage artist whose work spans assemblage, design, painting and non-narrative video.

That “never say no” sentiment resonated throughout “The Impact of Black Artists on American Culture,” Feb. 16 webinar sponsored by University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). The public event was organized by UMGC’s Office of Diversity and Equity as part of the university’s Black History Month activities.

Muhammad was one of three exceptional regional artists who shared their stories, challenges and advice during the one-hour discussion. The other regional artists on the panel, representing the stage and the written word, were Raquel Jennings, a singer and songwriter whose career has  taken her to Carnegie Hall, the Apollo Theater and the Kennedy Center, and Christina Wilds, a writer and children’s book author whose first book, Dear Little Black Girl, earned her national media attention.

Sharon Wilder, UMGC vice president and chief diversity equity officer, kicked off the event by recognizing those whose sacrifice inspired a heritage month. “We honor the African Americans who have helped really shape this nation and celebrate the rich cultural heritage triumphs and adversities that are integral part of our country’s history,” she said. 

Clockwise from top right: Christina Wilds, Rashad Ali Muhammad and Raquel Jennings.

The event was moderated by Natasha Rodriguez, director of Multicultural Training and Diversity Programs, who led the artists through their influences, professional hurdles and the realities of surviving as an artist. Experimentation, perseverance and the courage to take risks and expand emerged as common themes in their creative journeys.  

Jennings began singing as a young child in the church choir. Watching her father enjoy singing was an early inspiration. “My dad thought he was the missing Temptation,” she said, referring to the Motown group. “I just knew watching him up there that it was also in me to be a performer.”

Jennings started writing music in high school then expanded her repertoire.

“I started writing my own songs and performing across Washington, D.C.,” she said. As a student at Morgan State University, she began set her sights on musical theater. 

Wilds, meanwhile, kept diaries as a child and every year she looked forward to buying a new journal. She has written all her life, but it wasn’t until having children that she considered herself a real writer.

“I realized how many black characters we didn’t see growing up,” she explained. “Contributing to the black stories that are in a positive light, I love that.”

Muhammad found that a career in graphic design allowed him to flourish as a fine artist. “I could combine artistry and creativity with communication,” he said.

The panelists’ advice to young artists was similarly united around the theme of experimentation and courage.

Muhammad advised them not to gets waylaid by whether something has been done before. “Explore what you want to say to the world,” he said. “Don’t put goal of success on what you do, just play and let it come out naturally. Eventually it will grow and blossom.”

Wilds encouraged new artists to think about what their childhood passions. “A lot of us lose touch with that but that’s where it starts,” she said. “Think about what makes you happy; that will lead to success.”

Jennings echoed Wilds’ advice. “Tap into the thing that makes you feel happy,” she said. “Your talents don’t always have to super huge or mainstream, but your talent is your talent, and you’ll find a purpose for it in your life.”

Jennings’ final thought resonated throughout the panel discussion: “Embrace the fear of the unknown.”