July 26, 2021
by Kaschelle Thiessen
read bell hooks.
When Naomi Gracechild printed this on a shirt ahead of a speaking engagement, she was hoping it would spark conversations. “I feel like you can’t really feel ambivalent about her,” explains Naomi. “The hope was that there would be one of two reactions. One would be, ‘Oh, who’s bell hooks?’ and the conversation would start there, or ‘Yeah! I really like bell hooks. Let’s talk about some of her work.’”
It worked. Not only did people approach Naomi, they started requesting shirts of their own. Supported by her community, a small print run snowballed into a social enterprise, and Melanin Rising was born.
“Melanin Rising is an apparel company that celebrates the contributions of Black creatives,” explains Naomi. But more than that, “It’s a vehicle for inspiring creativity, and for Black history education. It’s meant to connect, incite conversations, and inspire.”
Why Melanin Rising? Naomi points to the work of revolutionaries like civil rights leader Marcus Garvey. “Garvey talked a lot about Pan-Africanism and joining through economic infrastructure,” says Naomi, “which was one of the goals of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia as well.” Garvey, credited with coining the phrase ‘Black is Beautiful’, promoted financial independence from white society, while Emperor Haile Selassie spoke to a free and united Africa. “Many of us were separated from the actual land of the African continent. But that’s where our roots are from,” says Naomi. “There is a global spiritual awakening that’s happening, people are starting to remember who they are, remembering their indigeneity. When you know yourself, you’re able to liberate yourself. I see that happening in a number of different ways.”
One of the ways Naomi sees this happening is through the development of Africa as the next global superpower. Future Agenda, an advisory firm that helps organizations identify emerging trends, predicts that Africa’s workforce will be the world’s largest by 2040. When Naomi learned this, she was inspired. “The youth are quite innovative, and they’re early adopters of new technology,” says Naomi, “and part of the innovation comes from rebuilding the economy post-colonialism. They have ingenious, creative ways of problem solving.” In North America, Black entrepreneurship is booming. A recent study from Babson College found that 17% of Black women have started or are running a new business, compared to 10% of white women and 15% of white men. Rise Up, a Canadian study on Black women entrepreneurs by the Black Business and Professional Association, found that many women were inspired to start their own business to “address the race, gender and class inequalities they faced in society and meet the needs of their communities.” Naomi explains how these trends contribute towards liberation. “In so many spaces where Black women have been historically excluded or denied access . . . now we are owning those spaces. We’re kicking ass,” enthuses Naomi, “that’s the idea of Melanin Rising.”
Naomi is one of those Black women kicking ass as an entrepreneur and, like her contemporaries, sees Melanin Rising as a way to celebrate Black culture and communities. “I’m an interdisciplinary artist, intersectional activist, entrepreneur, and a medicine maker,” says Naomi. “It’s about reclaiming creativity as sacred, rather than a monetizable business. You can’t fight capitalism with capitalism.” This ethos drives Naomi to approach her work in a relational and artistic manner. Not only does her apparel feature the names and words of Black revolutionary writers and feminist raconteurs, all her models are also Black creatives. “Expanding the online community to platform them and garner more interest in their work” is one of the ways Naomi envisions herself contributing to a larger movement for Black liberation. “I want to generate enough revenue to not only fund my own artistic endeavors, but also fund the artistic development of other Black folks.” Naomi points to the oppressive and nepotistic nature of non-profit arts organizations as a barrier to Black creatives. Many arts organizations “withhold resources from not only Black folks, but for people who aren’t cis, het, white, wealthy, or somehow privileged,” explains Naomi, “so I want to not only fund my own art, fund the art of others, but also encourage people to understand that there are other ways we can support art. This is really a social venture to fund art.”
Art and artistic expression are the crucial underpinnings to Naomi’s work. “Art is integral to the functioning of a healthy society,” says Naomi, but “under capitalism, art and creativity have been reduced to their monetary value,” which is part of why the celebration of Black creatives is important to Naomi. “Creativity is the most human thing,” says Naomi, “it’s at the core of our humanity. It’s what all of us do. It’s impossible to find human beings that don’t create art.” If the drive to create is universal, so too is taking inspiration from art. Referencing reggae and soul music, Naomi explains that art has a spiritual purpose. “It’s meant to guide our consciousness to a particular direction,” says Naomi, “it’s called soul music for a reason, right?” Which is why reclaiming art from capitalism is healing. “Reclaiming the sacredness of art and creativity, seeing and recognizing it, honouring it as a vehicle for spiritual health and wellness . . .” says Naomi, “Art is medicine. I’m an artist.”
Naomi is drawn to storytelling as a form of art. Storytelling “reminds us or teaches us about how to be human beings from other human beings,” explains Naomi. Melanin Rising’s newest shirt which proudly proclaims MARSHA P WAS A G invites people to learn the story of Black trans revolutionary, Marsha P. Johnson. “I’m always astounded when I learn that people don’t know the history of Pride,” shares Naomi, “that the Stonewall Riots were riots, and that the people on the frontlines were Black trans women.” While many queers remember Marsha P. Johnson as the woman who threw the first brick at Stonewall, her legacy as a lifelong liberationist has been erased. Along with Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson founded STAR – Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, an organization largely funded through sex work to house and support LGBT youth and sex workers in New York. “The way that she lived her life, was a life of service,” explains Naomi, “to take care of queer youth who had been kicked out of their homes and were living on the streets? That’s huge, you know.” Naomi wants people to know that Marsha P was a G, not because of one action. “She wasn’t a one and done,” says Naomi, “she lived her life for the cause, for the liberation of not just Black, trans sex workers. She lived her life for the liberation of all of us.” Naomi expresses frustration with the idea that revolutionaries from historically excluded groups worked only for their own liberation. “Liberation is for everybody,” explains Naomi. She hopes that Marsha P was a G incites conversation and invites people to talk about the good work done by our ancestors, and the good work we can do. “It’s a reflection on us, tells us who we are and what our potential is, our potential to live our lives in service of one another and our collective liberation,” says Naomi. “Marsha P lived her life for the liberation of all of us, and that’s fucking badass. That’s badass.”
A life rooted in love is what initially drew Naomi to bell hooks. The work of professor, author, and activist bell hooks explores the intersections of race, class oppression, and gender. “Her writings are rooted in love,” says Naomi. Revolution is often depicted as a violent uprising. While “sometimes violence is a rational reaction,” muses Naomi, “it’s important for us to envision a revolution with love at the core . . . her writings are deeply rooted, deeply rooted in love. That’s an important thing to keep sight of when we’re talking about creating social change.” Naomi feels that the world would be a better place if everyone read a little more bell hooks. A self-professed self-help junkie, bell hooks writes about “creating a different internal landscape or understanding your own internal landscape as a foundation to move forward.”
Whether it is through anti-racism consulting, artistic practices, or Melanin Rising, Naomi blends creativity into all her work to move forward. Naomi wants us to know that we are all creators. “Oppressive structures take us away from our humanity, they’re about dehumanizing,” says Naomi, “creativity is our birthright, creativity is what makes us human. That transcends ability, transcends race, transcends economics, transcends gender.” This ability to create is powerful, a vehicle for change. “Creativity is about honouring life, is sacred and powerful,” says Naomi, “oppression is about making life profane.”
Naomi believes that creativity is sacred, powerful, intentional, and ours to claim as our own. Art is healing, and a way forward. Through Melanin Rising, she hopes to start conversations that encourage learning, sharing, and action.
And also, that you will read bell hooks.