When I first heard about a one-off art show and serial online publication called Young, Colored & Angry, the name really stuck with me. There really couldn’t be a better moment to discuss such a fraught label. The term might not be instantly recognizable, but the implications are all too familiar particularly in the label’s application to protestors in various cities as of late. It can be used as a way to dismiss, delegitimize, and patronize grievances related to race relations in the U.S., particularly those between people of color and the police. But Young, Colored & Angry the publication–which, by the way, is run by two self-proclaimed young, colored, and angry individuals, 22-year-old Ashley Rahimi Syed and 21-year-old Elliott Brown, Jr.– is less explicitly about the now-politics of race and the police and more about the artistic expression that is inevitably steeped in similar experiences and other instances of discrimination.
“It’s so sad that reclaiming our own narrative is radical and subversive,” Syed said. Though the magazine certainly contains some radical thinking, the founders insist the publication itself is not a radical one. “Just having a bunch of young people talk about racial identity scares people,” Syed pointed out. “We’re angry some of the time, but the work is very nuanced. We feel a whole series of emotions about our racial identity and all of those are valid.”
The online magazine features visual art, poetry, and essays exclusively by people of color and people living in the developing world. See: Harleen Kaur and Rasna Neelam’s project dealing with “articles of faith” and Sikh female identity.
Ryan Moody, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, contributed “Rules to Live By,” a piece recounting a series of rules. “My whole life I have been indoctrinated into playing by the rules. I truly believed that as long as we all mastered living within the arbitrary boundaries of what a Black person ‘could’ be, we would be protected because of it. But that just isn’t true. These white lies just try to hide the fact that under white lies one thing: fear for white lives.”
Among the “rules” Moody lists are, “When going out with your Black friends don’t walk together in a large group. Make sure there are several feet between every pair of people so others don’t feel threatened” and “When shopping, always carry the items you are considering purchasing far away from your body, so salespeople won’t think you might steal them and have you arrested, or worse.”
When I first met the founders of the magazine, two friends who came together over the project initially dreamed up by Syed, at Syed’s apartment on the Lower East Side, she apologized for being late. She’d run into an issue with a potential landlord. “Sorry, I just had a very young, colored, and angry moment,” Syed said in a huff. Apparently a landlord had pushed her for some invasive information regarding her parents’ immigration status.
“It was a few experiences I had, not unlike this apartment situation, where I felt I was being treated differently than my peers who were white Americans, especially in class when I would try and point out when I felt I was being discriminated against,” Syed explained of the major impetus for the magazine. “I felt like I came off as being young, colored, and angry– it’s hard to control your emotions when you feel discriminated against.”
While both are upper classmen at NYU, Syed is a young woman of Middle Eastern descent and Elliott is a black gay man. “We’re not at all trying to blur the lines between blackness and Middle Easternness,” Elliott explained. “People of color is a very large, blanket term that essentially means non-white, that isn’t to say all of our issues are the same, even though there are similarities, but a huge part of this magazine is the politics of difference.”
The two reasoned that bringing together people from a variety of different backgrounds would not only help showcase a diverse range of work by young academics and artists of color, but it would also help create a network of artists who could connect with one another not just over their common interest in art, but through a baseline of shared experiences.
“This magazine is more of a necessity than we initially thought,” Brown said. “Being students at NYU, an institution that is primarily white and upper class, it’s very rare that you’re able to find both students and professors who are able to relate to the content of your work or who are able to help nourish it in the way that it needs to grow.”
He added: “And it’s not just NYU, it’s the entire higher education system, globally.”
Both Syed and Brown said they felt their art education was lacking something that was made available to their white peers. “I mean, we’re paying the same money as everyone else and we want this art education, but it’s just totally unavailable to us,” Syed said. “This is a really common thread that unites a lot of us who are participating in this project.”
Initially, they planned to make a small publication that focused solely on work by students in their class at NYU. But after speaking with professors and friends, Syed decided to expand the scope. In just a few months, word of mouth had spread like wildfire and even without an official call for submission, the partners received an overwhelming response from people all over the world.
“We were just flooded with responses from other young people of color who wanted to take part in this in some way,” Syed explained. “We realized we’d hit a niche, something a lot of people wanted to find in New York but that didn’t exist.”
Contributors are based all over: “London, Ghana, Colorado, Michigan, LA, Chicago, New York,” Syed named a few places. “And every day we get emails from new people who want to be a part of it.”
Syed and Brown are both extremely enthusiastic about the project, though they’ve only released issue #1 and have held one successful Young, Colored & Angry art show at Holyrad Studio in Bushwick. But the duo genuinely seem to feel like they are at the head of a movement here, and it’s hard not to agree with them considering the overwhelming response from young people just like them who felt left out of their own educational experience.
Brown recalled one of the artists he recruited to contribute to the magazine, a photographer whose work really stuck with him. “We had this really in-depth conversation about her work and it being racially motivated,” Brown recounted. “I felt a little overwhelmed because that’s not something I’m used to, I’m used to being isolated within these spaces and having to tell everybody about myself whereas she and I could automatically communicate.”
Syed could relate to this experience — she also found in-class critiques difficult. “It just comes down to aesthetics, but what I want is the conceptual discussion,” she said. “This show was so great because, as artists of color, we were able to pick up on each other’s work and critique each other and be inspired by one another, it was this amazing thing none of us had ever experienced in a classroom before.”
When I caught the two, they were getting ready to sit down and discuss finances. “We’re going to need an administrative team because it’s just snowballed,” Syed explained. The next step is monetizing the publication (mainly so artists can be compensated for their contribution) and planning the next art show.
But Syed continued on about what else she thought the publication should do. “Eventually we want to create small print versions that break down bigger terms like what the fuck is settler colonialism? Or what is the BDS movement? What is systematic oppression?” she said. “This is our first step in a long trajectory and it’s not education, because people are smart, it’s just giving people the tools to involve themselves. Because no one else is doing it, these big structures aren’t making ways to meet them, so we have to put in the legwork and do it ourselves.”
Our conversation finally turned to what’s happening right now with race in America in light of Ferguson, Baltimore, and the seemingly endless stream of unarmed black men being shot or otherwise killed by the police. It’s undeniable that something is shifting and the conversation about how systematic oppression is alive and well is louder now than it’s ever been in my lifetime at least.
I wondered if Ashley and Elliott as creative, highly educated people of color who are clearly adept at organizing and getting things done even as undergrads, see themselves as having a specific roll in the demands for change.
“With Baltimore, I kept thinking about this every day: how am I an artist? How is this actually helping eliminate these structures that allow for this? I still don’t exactly have an answer,” Elliott explained. “I read this article in The Economist about Latinos being an ‘untapped labor market’ so they want to target these communities for education now as a necessity for the American economy to stay strong. Reading that, I thought wow, The Economist just looks at people as business models and as business plans and they don’t really understand people culturally or socially. That’s why art is necessary, because it takes people’s lives into consideration and their perspectives and their subjectivity as an individual. And that’s why this magazine is important.”
He added: “It can be disheartening because people are literally losing their lives over what’s happening and I get to sit around and take photographs. But I’m actually thinking about this, I’m an active person contributing in this space, trying to make it better.”