The Exploitation of Black Art and Labor

by Lee Fleming

Before I began working as a freelance graphic designer, I weighed the pros and cons of being a Black self-employed artist. One major pro was that I would be able to maintain creative control over the art I produced and set the value of my labor, which is important to me as a Black artist and creator. On the other hand, I would lack the financial stability and legal protection from exploitation that often comes with working for a design firm. I decided that creative and financial control over the art I produced were the most important factors.

I’d heard many nightmare stories from several of my friends and fellow Black artists about their art being undervalued, exploited, or flat out stolen. Up until recently, I did not have any experience with my art or labor being abused until I began a project for a moderately popular French-themed art market in New Orleans. A little over two months ago, I was contacted by this art market about an opportunity to design a logo for an upcoming business endeavor. I was incredibly eager to accept the job, as this opportunity could give me further exposure and lead to bigger creative opportunities.

To remain competitive, I offer free consultations to prospective clients. My initial consultation went well. I felt comfortable discussing the terms of my labor. I would design 5 or 6 logos and they would pay me an agreed upon figure. The representatives from the art market who commissioned the logo options did not give me any design concept or creative direction. Because of this, my first set of logos was completely rejected and deemed “not exactly what [we] are looking for.” I took this criticism in stride. They then provided me with a creative concept for the logo options. I offered these revisions free of extra charges as a gesture of good faith. I submitted the re-designed logo options and waited…and waited…and waited for weeks for them to respond with either payment or feedback. When I did not receive a reply after 3 weeks, I sent them an inquiry:

They replied with:

I was perplexed. Why hadn’t they simply replied to me weeks ago explaining this change in direction and that my work wouldn’t be used? After a bit of thought, it occurred to me that they hadn’t responded because they had no intention on paying me for the labor I performed. I replied again expressing my regret that the logos wouldn’t be used and to request payment for my work. They responded:

Rightfully angered, I replied:

The market has not responded to my last missive. I am rightfully upset that I haven’t received compensation for my labor. Yes, I could benefit from drafting a written agreement to protect myself in the future. That does not mean that my anger is invalid or that I should cut my losses and accept no payment. 

You don’t go to a restaurant, eat until you’re full, decide that the food wasn’t up to your standards, and then refuse to pay. The same logic applies to my experience.

I am not writing to shame them. I am writing to examine how this experience contributes to a larger system that undervalues and underpays Black labor and exploits Black creators. Some people reading this may think to themselves that I am “making this about race” or “playing the race card” but my blackness cannot be divorced from the labor I produce. We live in a society where wage inequality persists among races and where mega-corporations benefit from prison labor performed by Black bodies. Refusing to pay a Black graphic designer contributes to this wage disparity and a system that underpays Black laborers. It is also a casual display of their true attitudes about Black labor — the opinion that we aren’t deserving of pay or credit.

My personal experience is just a small example of Black artists and creators being expected to labor for free, accept less pay, or receive no credit for innovations. This country was built on the backs of Black slaves and the further exploitation of Black labor. Not much has changed since the dissolution of legal slavery and Jim Crow. Our labor, in addition to our culture (music, food, art, vernacular, hairstyles, etc.) continues to be abused and devalued.

Look no further than the experiences of Black creators on social media. Last year, The Fader posted an article about how Black teens shape social media but receive none of the profits. They highlighted the story of Vine user Kayla Newman, a Black teen and creator of the word fleek. The word exploded into popularity and has since been used by mega-corporations such as IHOP in social media campaigns. Newman has not received credit or compensation for her innovation. Meanwhile, Chewbacca mom received $400,000 in scholarship money from Southeastern University for her contribution to social media. Daniel Lara of “Damn Daniel” fame, walked away with a lifetime supply of Vans Shoes and a visit to The Ellen Show. Black creators on social media continue to get paid in dust.

We can look at how white gay men continue to appropriate the vernacular of Black femmes and Black queers, strip the vernacular of its origins (we know you got it from Paris Is Burning), repackage it as “gay culture” (read: white gay culture), and have the audacity to claim that straight women are stealing their culture.

There is a long history of Black art, Black innovations, and Black accomplishments being appropriated and stripped of its origins or whitewashed. The 2015 Stonewall “biopic” erased the Black and Latinx transwomen who started the 1969 riot. Hardly anyone remembers or acknowledges that rock and roll was invented by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a Black queer woman. White people were outraged and felt some type of way about Beyoncé including a country song on her most recent album Lemonade, but conveniently forgot that country music traces back to Black Southerners.

We can look at how blackness is performed by white rappers and white soul singers to their benefit. The personas they put on, the clothes they wear, the voices they use (think Iggy Azalea’s disgusting blaccent), all point to modern day blackface and indicates that while Black culture and Black art is commercially viable and profitable, Black people are not.

Despite having our art exploited and our labor undervalued, we have remained resilient, innovative, creative, and magical. Our art and labor is something simultaneously feared and admired; undervalued yet stolen anyways. Our labor is expected to be performed for free or for as little as possible. Our art is dismissed when our Black bodies perform it but something to be admired when white bodies mimic it (see: Miley Cyrus and twerking). Ironically, when a Black artist or Black innovator becomes popular enough, they are said to “transcend race” (Beyoncé, Prince, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, etc.). When our art is transformative (which it often is), it’s “everyone’s culture”.

I don’t have a solution for how to stop the theft of our art. I don’t have the answers for how Black bodies can labor under capitalism and not be exploited. I don’t know how to navigate being a Black artist in a world that exploits my art and undervalues my labor. I don’t know how to protect myself from the art markets of the world that try to tell me that my art and labor are worth nothing. I do know that they are wrong and that Black art and the Black bodies that produce it have value. I do know that Black labor is worth more than our current economic system values it. My labor is not performed so someone can consider paying me for it. I choose the value of my labor. I have decided that Black art is worth more than its commercial viability. I have decided that blackness is not a costume. I have decided that Black labor and Black art are worth more than white consideration.

Lee Fleming (they/them) is a black queer/genderqueer, New Orleans-born social activist, graphic designer, and multimedia artist. Lee’s activist work is partly inspired by surviving Hurricane Katrina, when they experienced delayed and ineffective government response to the suffering of poor Black people. Fleming is a graduate student researching racial micro-aggressions, specifically pertaining to how hair politics create structural employment barriers.