Yesterday people across the country found out that a white graffiti artist, Chris Devins, profited off the hard work of a Black woman, Gelila Lila Mesfin, who goes by @thick_east_african_girl on Instagram. Her bio says that her work is commission and she has an entire portfolio at @galilee_art with her work. The social media timestamp for her post with the image demonstrates that she clearly created the art prior to Devins’ idea. So this is understandably a problem. He raised nearly $12,000 for his nonprofit by replicating Mesfin’s image of Michelle Obama for a mural in Chicago. None of those dollars went to a Black business. Although he likely has the means and the platform to enhance his voice, it demonstrates the need for communities to support Black businesses and reinvest in our authentic voice.
Gelila Lila Mesfin deserves the money that Chris Devins raised profiting from a Black business and the strong support for her is clear. But this is nothing new. White people have stolen ideas and profited from Black people for generations. Lewis Lattimore, a Black man, invented the light bulb although it is credited to Edison. Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, another Black man, performed the first successful open heart surgery that was made widely known in the medical field. His feat is often credited to white people. The Statue of Liberty also serves as a prime example of Black ideas where white people ended up profiting and changing the image to appease white people. With social media, more business acumen, and community support, we must be the change and reinvest dollars in our communities.
Devins raised funding for a mural to have a large image of a positive role model for students in Chicago. But there is no reason Devins should have erased Mesfin’s voice, the amazing Black female artist who actually designed the art, from any profit or mural-project based on Mesfin’s ideas. Indeed Mesfin should have helped to lead any mural effort. Investing in Black business lowers the economic disparity for Black people in this country. And creating a Black cycle of wealth will foster the financial freedom necessary to remove additional systemic barriers for Black people’s ability to thrive.
To be sure, Devins reached out to Mesfin to offer a licensing fee. But he also tried to delete the tweets where he took credit for her idea. Demonstrating that we are not sure if he had pure motives in how he tried to “fix” this issue.
Without community support, we will miss opportunities to reinvest our dollars in our community. The talent and ability is there, we just have to back it with our dollars.
Some next steps? Black Lives Matter runs BackingBlackBusiness.com, a new site that will help with connecting people to Black businesses and TREE offers financial literacy programming to keep the cycle of wealth in our community.