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The black awareness ("afrocentric") movement remains

vital in Baltimore, and Kaki is at the center

of that cultural activity

 

 

Robert "Kaki" McQueen

Baltimore's #1 Ragamuffin Artist & Musician

By Rudolph Lewis

 

One of the most well-respected artists in the grassroots community today is Robert "Kaki" McQueen. He has been cranking out (so to speak) African-American artwork, at least one piece per week for the last thirty years. Anyone in the know in Baltimore has a "Kaki" on his wall. If they are fortunate they have several. What is even more marvelous is that Kaki cares more about you having his artwork on your wall than he cares about stuffing his pockets with your money. For Kaki, his artwork has a life of its own and a role to play in the future life of black people in America.

Kaki's art has two dominant themes: the beauty of blackness and the history of black life in America and the world in all its horror and greatness.

 

Thus portraiture is the dominant mode of his artwork. The setting of his pieces tends to be urban, tropical with palm trees, surreal, or dream-like states. It is Kaki's intent to paint black life so that black people will look at themselves with new and fresh eyes, so that they will gaze upon their blackness with wonder and be renewed.

The colors in Kaki's art have a brilliance the eyes usually overlook in nature. Kaki makes use of a special technique in representing the flesh tones of his black subjects, especially the brownish color tones of the face. But he also makes use of pencil and ink for black and white artwork. He uses wall paints and acrylics in his murals, which can be found in Baltimore, Atlanta, and in Tampa, Florida.

Kaki also finds his subject material or motifs in African sculpture, political heroes (such as Martin, Malcolm, and Marcus), jazz musicians (such as Coltrane, Dolphy, and Miles), R & B stars (such as James Brown, the Temptations, and Marvin Gaye), and in religious themes. Kaki paints not only the well-known, which he does with his own distinctive touch, but also unknown, everyday person, especially the youth. They are his primary focus. For they need to see themselves in more innocent and productive contexts than that of gangster and hoodlum.

A major historical project that Kaki has been working on for the last two years is a re-creation in art of the Pennsylvania Avenue area in its heyday (pre-1968), which used to be the entertainment district for Black Baltimore. He has thus been combing the pages of magazines and newspapers of the 1950s and 1960s. One of his paintings is of the marquee of the old Royal Theater, which hosted the major musical stars of jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and comedy and dance. The Royal was sold and torn down after the 1968 "riots." With the breakdown of segregation and the building of the Civil Center downtown on Howard and Baltimore, Pennsylvania Avenue as the major black entertainment district collapsed.

The black awareness ("afrocentric") movement remains vital in Baltimore, and Kaki is at the center of that cultural activity, not only as an artist but also as a drummer. He is invited to almost every program of the Black Year: Kwanzaa, Black History Month, Malcolm X Day, Marcus Garvey Day, Africa Day (in May).

There are few other occasions also: the new Equinox program for spring, the programs of the Left Bank jazz Society, and other programs hosted by various black consciousness groups, including the Soul School Institute, which is now stationed at Sojourner-Douglass College in East Baltimore.

Kaki and a number of other black musicians about town meet every Sunday in Druid Hill Park to make black spiritual music, like reggae. This tradition has been going on for over a decade. Many go to the Park every Sunday expecting to see and hear these brothers drumming and making their sounds, holding the fort against all fads and other nonsense.

I not only admire Kaki's artwork, I like him, the man, and what he has made of his life, coming from humble beginnings. 

His mother Nodia McQueen was born in Evergreen, Alabama; his father Wilbert McQueen was born in Maxton, North Carolina  Wilbert McQueen was a corporal in the Marines. Here in Baltimore, his mother was a school teacher, his father a skilled construction worker, a mason. 

Kaki, along with his four sisters, were raised in West Baltimore, not far from Pennsylvania Avenue. In those days, most blacks lived south of North Avenue.

Kaki received all of his public school education in Baltimore. He attended Samuel Coleridge, Booker T. Washington, and Douglass High School. He had some art classes at Douglass. But he was not impressed by them. He could always draw what he saw. The art teachers at Douglass, as he recalls, had little or no influence on his artistic development.

Kaki's favorite subject then was math. He, however, was not destined to pursue it formally beyond high school. Of course, he reminds me, that art is math, at least, it is useful in making art. So he has no regrets. Kaki was expelled from Douglass when he was in the 12th grade. Like many black boys then (and probably now), school tended (tends) incapable of holding their attention or inspiring. The boys of the streets and the activity of Pennsylvania were more alluring.

Young boys like young girls and they like running after young girls and they like catching young girls. Kaki did not return to Douglass. He got a job at Read's Drug Store. And he got married. For two years, things were going okay with him and his new wife. He had almost adjusted to marriage and to work.

Then in 1966, he was drafted, nineteen years old. At age 20, he was in Vietnam. He qualified and trained to be a clerk in the Air Calvary mobile unit, a helicopter unit responsible for supplying and feeding 10,000 troops.

He was also involved in search-and-destroy missions thirty miles from the DMZ. He recalls a number of firefights, rockets raining down. When Viet Cong fire began, the foxhole was not segregated. He saw numerous Navy guys carried away in body bags. Kaki was there during the Tet Offensive, when all hell seem to throw open its fiery gates.. Kaki reached the rank of Buck Sergeant (E-3). He did R-and-R in Bangkok, Thailand.

After his year of war duty was completed, Kaki was not only ready to come home. He had not only. seen Vietnam and Thailand, but also Guam, Hawaii, and Japan. What excitement did Pennsylvania Avenue had to offer in comparison? He, however, had the good sense to come home. He came back to the States by way of Seattle to avoid the anti-war protest. He did his own paperwork, and took two weeks to get back to Baltimore. He had seen the world and he now wanted to see the world for which he went to the war. He took the train to Louisville.

Kaki discovered he was unable to adjust back in the world, that provincial world that is America, with its smallness and pettiness. Nevertheless, he returned to his job at Read's Drug Store. They refused to recognize his seniority based on his military experience. He went to the Labor Department to make his complaint and won his case. But with his employers he "fell out of grace." His marriage began also to unwind. In Vietnam, he had become "kind of wild." War and the spilling of  blood will do that.

In 1969, Kaki was arrested and spent a month in jail. It was a case of mistaken identity. But it was a blessed fall -- for it was during this time, 1970, that Kaki experienced an "awakening."

He began drawing again. He had drawn a portrait of a Mexican while in Vietnam, but little else. Kaki explained  this change in orientation, "I became aware of my Creator, my God, the first artist. I decided to make art my life. I have since then followed that path."

Kaki left Baltimore. He no longer wanted to be around the place and the persons he knew too well. He wanted to challenged himself. So he decided he would make his living off his art. He went to Atlanta, Georgia. He concentrated on portraits and learned to draw and paint quickly. "There was little or no black art or black artists then around us," Kaki recalls. "They're overflowing now. But the people are not going for originals, but for prints."

For Kaki painting is "all about culture." Kaki wants to make art accessible to all those who would enjoy it. His artwork represents some face of black culture (African, Caribbean, black American). 

According to Kaki, he tries, "to do work people can afford." His, he asserts, is the "artwork of the people." While in Georgia, one of Kaki's portraits won first prize at an art fair. He spent two years in Georgia and then returned to Baltimore.

Sometime between 1972 and 1975, Kaki met Walter H. Lively, who was then the leading Negro activist in Baltimore. Some thought then Walter would be the city's first black mayor. During this time, Walter was developing the idea of a Black History Museum. To that purpose he bought the abandoned Pratt Library building on Broadway, near Madison. Walter also bought some of Kaki's work. The museum, however, never fully developed.

Kaki was stilled filled with adventure, researching the world he lived in. He wanted to know things first hand; he wanted to see the world fresh, through the eyes of an artist. Kaki and a friend drove across the country in a Volkswagen. They stopped in Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago. He left artwork all during the trip, just spreading it out for people to see and marvel. They went to San Francisco, MacArthur Park, LA, Watts, Compton, and Hollywood. "We wanted," Kaki explains, "to touch both oceans--the Atlantic and the Pacific."

With his fill of California, Kaki headed back East by bus. He came back through New Mexico and saw the Indians. In one trip, he saw snow, rain, and sunshine. Every night, he saw the moon. Often he wanted to lie down and just look up at the sky, at the stars.

In 1981, Kaki was in Haiti for nine days. He said he found out what Voodoo was all about. He was in Florida from the mid-1980s into the 1990s. He spent time in Tampa and Ybor City. He enhanced the surroundings of both places. His work could be viewed across Ybor City -- Columbia and 22nd Street (mural), 4204 34th Street (storefront), Cauldron Restaurant at 7th Avenue (interior), and other sites. His murals were his most visible work.

I have known Kaki for about seven years. He has been natty dread during all of this period, with locks hanging over his shoulders, his beard dreaded down over his chest.

Some say he is Rasta when they see his dreads. I don't know whether that is true or not. He has never been to Jamaica. Of course, like everyone, he is a lover of Bob Marley. This fallen hero, who left us too soon, is the subject of many of his works.

One of my favorite pictures is Marley at his favorite sport -- soccer, a child nearby. Yet it is clear from the painting that Marley's interest is the next generation. With his foot under the ball, the child looks out at the viewer of the painting quizzically.

According to Kaki, his works speak for him. Indeed they do. He says he paints not so much for this generation, but for those yet to come. On this go around, however, black people cannot allow others to speak for us -- to tell our story.

Kaki says there will be lots of portraits, a lot of stuff that will stand after he has gone. "I am rich in the stuff I have spread. It's going to flow. It has some wisdom and knowledge that cannot be taken away. I found power in it."

In the time I have known him, Kaki has been consistent. He is still spreading his art across the city and beyond. He lives still on his work, though he takes a part-time job now and again, when things are slow.

His living is near subsistence. He gives away priceless gems for a farthing. Recently, he gave me a beautiful piece of Miles for just $10. I gave him $15.

But the work is worth much more than the pittance I gave him. He wanted me to have it because I wanted it. He does that not only with me; he has done it for hundreds, if not thousands. My personal view is that he allows people to take advantage when he should be receiving more. I know artists who do not have a tenth of his talent and soul, graduates of Maryland Institute, who are selling works for hundred of dollars that don't measure up to Kaki's genius.

Kaki is not about the business of art, for which he needs a good woman; but rather the culture of art, so that people might rediscover, redefine their humanity in a changing world that has little love for blackness and the contributions blacks have made to this world we inhabit.

I present him because he is a man of the people -- for the people. I present him because he is worth knowing and appreciating. I desire for him wide recognition and the respect he has earned. I wish too that those who have money will pay him an artist's price so that he can have a bit more comfort in this life. He has made many sacrifices and brought much joy and broadened the horizons of many.

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Photo right: 

Sista Inora McQueen, Kaki's sister. She provided the family photos above and to the left of their parents, Nodia and Wilbert McQueen.

I send her much thanks.

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AALBC.com's 25 Best Selling Books


 

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Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
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#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

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#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

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Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls

By Dorothy Sterling

Dorothy Sterling’s biography of Robert Smalls is Captain of the Planter: The Story of Robert Smalls (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1958). In most history books, the contributions of Negroes during the Civil War and Reconstructions are ignored. Robert Smalls was one of the heroes who is rarely mentioned. He was a Negro slave who stole a ship from the Confederates, served on it with the Union Army with distinction, and finally served several terms in Congress.

All this was accomplished against the handicaps first of slavery, then of the prejudice of the Union Army, and finally of the Jim Crow laws, which eventually conquered him. Besides its value in contradicting the history book insinuation that the Negro was incapable of political enterprise and that the South was right in imposing Jim Crow laws, Captain of the Planter is an exciting adventure story. Captain Smalls’ escape from slavery and his battle exploits make interesting reading, and the style is fast moving.—Barbara Dodds

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It's The Middle Class Stupid!

By James Carville and Stan Greenberg

It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! confirms what we have all suspected: Washington and Wall Street have really screwed things up for the average American. Work has been devalued. Education costs are out of sight. Effort and ambition have never been so scantily rewarded. Political guru James Carville and pollster extraordinaire Stan Greenberg argue that our political parties must admit their failures and the electorate must reclaim its voice, because taking on the wealthy and the privileged is not class warfare—it is a matter of survival. Told in the alternating voices of these two top political strategists, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! provides eye-opening and provocative arguments on where our government—including the White House—has gone wrong, and what voters can do about it. 

Controversial and outspoken, authoritative and shrewd, It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! is destined to make waves during the 2012 presidential campaign, and will set the agenda for legislative battles and political dust-ups during the next administration.

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Aké: The Years of Childhood

By Wole Soyinka

Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perceptiona lyrical account of one boy's attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spiritswho alternately terrify and inspire himall carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that "God had a habit of either not answering one's prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward." In writing from a child's perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack.

*   *   *   *   *

Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school's hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell's fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard's president and all of the school's black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.

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Hopes and Prospects

By Noam Chomsky

In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky surveys the dangers and prospects of our early twenty-first century. Exploring challenges such as the growing gap between North and South, American exceptionalism (including under President Barack Obama), the fiascos of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli assault on Gaza, and the recent financial bailouts, he also sees hope for the future and a way to move forward—in the democratic wave in Latin America and in the global solidarity movements that suggest "real progress toward freedom and justice." Hopes and Prospects is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the primary challenges still facing the human race. "This is a classic Chomsky work: a bonfire of myths and lies, sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky is an enduring inspiration all over the world—to millions, I suspect—for the simple reason that he is a truth-teller on an epic scale. I salute him." —John Pilger
 

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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