Vaughn Jefferson is a Black artist known as “The Cure Rater” from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, whose many different avenues of expression include music, acting, writing and murals. We connected to discuss how his murals impact his local community, the reality of Black men in America, and artistic expression. Read on for his wisest words, particularly for the Black community and those looking to engage in the medium of murals.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: As a Black man, how do you think that we reach a space in the community where Black men are more comfortable speaking about their mental health?
VAUGHN JEFFERSON: I think it starts with being able to look ourselves in the mirror and forgive. Forgive ourselves as individuals, then to forgive ourselves as Black men whether you felt you've been done wrong by any male figures before you. You have to understand that each person has a story that impacts you as an individual and be in a space to forgive them for any hardships or decisions that they made that impacted you. You have to come to a point of loving and accepting yourself for who you are, flaws and all. No one is perfect but I think that we as Black men should get to a space of living life righteously and living life righteously is not necessarily being perfect. We need to be able to look at ourselves as a whole and say “I would like help. I would like to make some transformations in my life to become a greater individual.” I started my self care journey in 2017 and I recently learned to love myself [at age 40].
How does the repression of emotions in Black males affect the Black community as a whole?
The repression of emotions is very detrimental to our health because that leads to not being vocal about what you're feeling, thinking or whatever you have going on internally. That leads to stress and the build-up of illness that can start showing externally. As young men especially in the Black community, we’re raised to be tough and not tap into our emotions. When you cry or show any signs of what they perceive as weakness, they try to steer you away from that because they feel it's not masculine. Being vocal about what you're feeling is a huge part of communication and being human. If you can't express what you're feeling, no one knows what you're dealing with or how to even support you in any way. When you hold back these things that you're dealing with at a young age and you carry it on into adulthood, you get to that boiling point it explodes because you didn't know how to express it. Now it comes out as anger, as violence, and that’s your active way of expressing it. If you had a conversation along the way about certain things that you were feeling and addressed it with the particular individual that you had a situation with, you could overcome the situation.
Holding things back and not expressing yourself is not good for us as a culture. [It leads] to mental issues like depression, anxiety and other terms that fall under that umbrella... You don't know how to explain and you don't feel comfortable to come to one of your closest friends or family and say “I’m hurt” or “What you did made me feel this way, and I don't like it.” That dialogue is extremely important. I would love for us as a culture to get to the point of facing some of these things that we have been burying. We need to establish a space to communicate issues. That's why the term “the Cure-Rater” is what it is because you have to try to cure yourself. If you've been holding something for many years let's look at that.
Do you think it's possible to truly heal as a Black community in a society that is fundamentally rooted in our oppression?
I’m imbalanced with that because the more I grow through life it seems far-fetched. Right now I’ve been reading the Bible more and doing some spiritual searching. In reading the Bible, I’m seeing how centuries ago violence existed amongst our own people. In today's society, even when you have leaders that try to inspire Black culture to do what they feel is best for us to move forward and create unity, they end up being killed. America knows that if we get in tune with our higher frequencies and vibrations, what we can do is endless. So they keep us on low vibrations and got us to a point right now where we're doing the work for America by killing ourselves and killing each other.
What I can say is I'm healing myself. I definitely want to thank God for the direction and allowing me to be the vessel to do his work. I'm hoping that what I'm doing for myself and the actions that I'm taking inspires one or two people. Then those people go on to inspire more people exponentially.
As far as a collective whole I still have hope, but I don't look at it as a peaceful thing. Life is about roller coasters, ups and downs, and how you handle the imbalances. Those imbalances actually strengthen you as individuals and collectively. So at a point we will get tired of the oppression and killing each other like that. Until that point, it's not going to change.
There has to be a spark, a seed being planted. It may not be my generation. However, these seeds that are being planted will trickle down to some form of healing and things will get to a balanced place. I have faith that yes, we will become healed as a collective.
What does it take to find peace as a Black man?
I want Black men to be okay with crying, because you have to release what you're holding, whatever demons, whatever pain, whatever emotions, you got to let that out. Tears [and] sweating [are ways] of cleansing... I was very uncomfortable with crying. I felt so weak. I felt less of a man to cry. I'm okay with it now. If I become emotional about something and it hits me, I can sit in whatever emotion or whatever feelings that I'm having at that moment.
I watched Malcolm X many times growing up, but as an adult, the scene where they killed him, it was weird for me that I had no control over my emotions and the tears started to flow. I realize that that's a part of my depression because I've been dealing with death for many years. I’ve seen people die at the hands of someone that looks just like me, so to see that movie as an adult, it registered differently. If crying is one of the true ways of releasing whatever is overcoming me, I don't fight it no more. I don't hold it back because I want to seem tough. I'm okay with it and I think that other people should become okay with it because you're human.
How have the many instances of police brutality within the recent years affected your mental health and possibly affected your art?
To me that's a systematic way [of] oppressing our people. It definitely stems back to the overseers on the plantations. In the streets where police brutality is happening in these communities, it's mainly happening to Black people. It affects me tremendously because you feel unsafe once you walk outside your household. I've experienced police brutality myself, detectives and police just randomly wanting to harass me, and it plays out in my art today. In the Bed-Stuy Landmark mural that I created on the corner of my block, there's the letter T. [Across the top of the] T there’s a word in Igbo, a Southeastern Nigerian language, the word kwusi. It means to stop or abolish. Down the shaft of the T [we] have different terms that we say we want to see stopped and abolished in our society: systemic oppression, gang violence, gun violence, and racism. I put that there before a lot of the stuff that we recently saw with George Floyd. I exemplified that in my art because it is subtly in their face, but you have to actually read it to see why this is beautiful.
I've been dealing with police brutality [from] a young age. The first time, in 1999, I had come from taking my SATs in the 12th grade. I had to go to the store for my grandmother and I stopped by a dice game on the corner of my block. I didn't touch the dice, [but] the paddy wagon came rolling by. Everybody scattered, but with me being so tall, I stood out and the officer was following me. Then I realized, I didn't do anything wrong, so instead of me running, I just turned around with my hands up like, “Okay, what's the issue?” and he automatically got very aggressive. In return I got aggressive back and there was a scuffle. I had just turned 18. That definitely changed the trajectory of my life, because I didn't get a high enough [SAT] score to get into Howard University for journalism, broadcasting and communication. I got arrested that March, then that July I got arrested again for hanging in the park with my friends. We were smoking; the irony is that the blunt didn’t even get to me. However, detectives came to the park and said that they saw me smoking so I got arrested. That was two times in one year. After that I decided I can't be on the street and I ended up going to a community college.
Seeing how police brutality affected other friends and people in the neighborhood when I was a kid and watching it now in mainstream media is very depressing. It’s very traumatic to watch this and know that there's a history of it. To know that America has killed our leaders as a systematic way of keeping us down. . Police brutality is just the surface; underneath that is so many things: the racism, the oppression that America is subjecting our people to.
Does the government’s past treatment of Black businesses and events like the destruction of Black Wall Street discourage you in trying to rebuild the community?
I am still actively moving towards what I intend to do. The narrative that all Black people can't work together was very prominent, but I don't believe that. I do think it's possible to get back to where Black Wall Street was. It’s happening, but it may not look the way that it looked with Black Wall Street. I deal with a lot of graphic designers, fashion designers, construction people, accountants, and bankers who are doing it with the experience that they have as individuals.
It’s going to take a group with the same mindset to fulfill this vision. Everybody cannot be rappers [or] athletes. We have to raise these kids to tap into their God-given abilities and teach them how they can utilize that to gain financial freedom. Teach them how to turn that into a business where they can employ people. We have to support their visions.
What do you want people to take from your murals?
At first glance, I want people to just observe the colors, the shapes and the message. Don’t even try to decipher what you're looking at, just observe the beauty within it. Then when you actually read the message process and internalize it. How does it apply to you? How does it impact you? How can I inspire you to go along your journey in life? . Everything may not impress you but there's something there that you can take a piece of.
I wanted to inspire hope, especially with the Big Daddy Kane and Frank Mickens murals. Those are people from the community that have walked these streets. When people see them, I want them to feel inspired by the fact that these people come from where I'm from. I want them to feel that they can do great things as well. Frank Mickens has passed away and Big Daddy Kane is still living outside the neighborhood, but I want them to understand the ideas of people from this community and that there's a culture here.
One of the reasons I did the Big Daddy Kane mural is because in our communities murals were usually painted when someone passed away and I wanted to give flowers while people are still alive. To do the mural in the building that Big Daddy Kane was raised in, then for him to actually come and see the mural, appreciate it and sign the gate where we did the mural, that's huge for me because he was here to witness it. I intend to do more murals in the neighborhood and I intend to do more than just celebrities because there are people doing groundwork that impacts the community. Those people need to get acknowledged while they're still here.
Where do you think you would be today if you didn't find art and music as your passions?
Dead, jail or just aimlessly existing. In the nineties I would always hang at my friends’ houses, including Art-1 who airbrushed my murals, and it was like a safe haven for me. We would go there, smoke, hang out, write music, and Art-1 would be airbrushing clothes. From hanging around them as opposed to my other friends [who] would commit crimes, put me on a path to tap into my talents. Initially it was music [and] creative writing. Art has definitely saved me as an outlet of creativity as opposed to being drawn to the street. Art-1 [and I are still] here today doing murals in the community. He actually did the Jam Master Jay mural in Queens. He’s a celebrity airbrush artist. You'll see him in The Cure Rater docuseries and he'll be involved with a lot more murals.
I think that the more we do these murals that are meant to impact people, you will carry people further in their journey. If you wake up in the morning on the wrong side of the bed and you're traveling to wherever you go, then you see something that inspires you, I think it can alter your mood. Art can shift your emotions and change your thought process. So that's what I intend to do within the process of preserving the culture and beautifying the neighborhood.
For more about Vaughn Jefferson and upcoming Cure Rater projects, follow @vonjeff_francmick on Instagram.
All photo stills from THE CURE RATER docuseries (C) Sam C. Long / Honeysuckle Magazine
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