Debbie Allen. The New Yorker. Steven Spielberg. Michael Jackson. Drake. These are just the FEW accolades that award-winning illustrator and author Kadir Nelson has acquired over the span of his outstanding career. He joined us at the 2019 Miami Book Fair to discuss his artistry in Kwame Alexander's latest release, The Undefeated.
Originally performed by Kwame for ESPN's The Undefeated, this poem is a love letter to Black life in the United States. Paired with Kadir's beautifully painted portraits, it highlights the unspeakable trauma of slavery, the faith and life of the civil rights movement, and the grit, passion and perseverance of some of the world's greatest heroes.
In this book, Kadir brought Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and other greats back to life with the stroke of his brush. Offering deeper insights into the accomplishments of the past, Kwame and Kadir made sure to also bring stark attention to the endurance and spirit of those surviving and thriving in the present. At the end of this tremendous journey, the book offers historical context and additional detail for those longing to know more.
Having the honor to sit down with someone as accomplished as Kadir Nelson had us a little star struck, but you'll be pleased to hear that we kept our cool. Haha! As he walked into the room, he calmly sat down, ready to talk about this creation he had a hand in.
Check the Vibes: You're here for the very powerful imagery you painted in The Undefeated. As a Black man living in America, what does that mean to you, being able to share those visions?
Kadir Nelson: I love it. Whether you're a creator, author or illustrator, you're pretty much working in solitude. So, it's great when it's time to go out there and share your work with readers, and this is a prime opportunity to meet the community and share the work with them.
The thing is, it's not just for African-American people. It's for all Americans, because the African-American story IS an American story. That's what we're highlighting in The Undefeated. It's a story of excellence, triumph and tragedy. It's truly the whole story, summed up on 36 pages with illustrations, paintings and an incredible poem by Kwame Alexander. My intention was to celebrate the heroic journey that us African-Americans have taken from 1619 to 2019.
CTV: You dedicated your art in this body of work to your grandmother. How much influence did she have in shaping your creativity and your world view?
KN: My grandmother, Verlee Gunter Moore, she passed a couple years ago, but she was the matriarch of our family. She was the rock, and she was a really incredible example of fortitude and faith. She took our family from sharecropping in Georgia to moving and creating a family of seven kids. All of them are workers, and they all went to college. She gave us a great example, and I think that not only her children, but her grandchildren are following her example of striving to be all that we can.
CTV: The imagery of this book and seeing prominent Black figures presented in such a creative way, is something most Black kids don't see too often. What do you hope that a Black boy or girl leaves with after picking up this book.
KN: I want kids of all ages and all backgrounds to appreciate and identify with this story of overcoming any obstacles that may be in their path. I want them to appreciate the history and appreciate the journey that Americans have made. Kwame wrote the poem in part, because of the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and he wanted to give his daughter an appreciation of the journey we went through. By teaching his daughter this, he's also teaching children all over the country to do the same.
CTV: We saw a previous iteration of this piece on ESPN’s The Undefeated back in 2016. How long ago were you two working on this project or did the video created for ESPN had any part, among other things, for your interest in being involved?
KN: I think the ball was rolling before I became involved. Kwame wrote the poem several years before the video, an after the video was created, his editor contacted him and told him he thought this could be a book. After that, his editor asked Kwame who he would want to illustrate it, and he stated I was the number one choice for it. After I saw the video, I really connected with it. I've told the African-American story many times throughout my career, but this was something new. This was a fresh approach to celebrating this history. So, for me, there was no way I could not be involved. I really enjoyed this poem.
CTV: Your site has a myriad of vibrant and diverse portraits. Spring Blossom, The Cool Ones and The Undefeated bundle just to name a few (these are clearly the ones we'd love to own). I know that every single one is a labor of love but if you had to pick one portrait that was your favorite or has the most significance for you, which one would it be?
KN: No, I can't say that I have one favorite. I say that my NEXT work is my favorite. Some of the artwork in The Undefeated will be on a national tour beginning in 2020, so, I'm very proud of that. I'm currently working on a book on the story of American music, and the history of basketball!
He's pretty amazing, right? Speaking with Kadir Nelson and reading The Undefeated was an experience like none other, and we highly recommend you join the conversation by purchasing Kwame Alexander's poem book below!
About the Illustrator:
Kadir Nelson (b. 1974) is an American artist who currently exhibits his artwork in galleries and museums nationwide and abroad. His paintings are in the private and public permanent collections of several notable institutions including the Muskegon Museum of Art, The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, the International Olympic Committee, and the US House of Representatives.
Nelson has created artwork for a host of distinguished clients including Sports Illustrated, The Coca-Cola Company, The United States Postal Service, Major League Baseball, and Dreamworks SKG as the lead conceptual artist creating for Steven Spielberg's Oscar® nominated feature film, "Amistad”. In December of 2014, Nelson’s striking painting of the late Nelson Mandela was featured on the cover of the New Yorker magazine. Within months, Nelson was asked by the magazine to create an updated painting of the magazine’s dandy, Eustace Tilley which was featured on the magazine’s 90th anniversary cover in February 2015. He also created artwork for Michael Jackson’s posthumously released album, “Michael,” and recording artist Drake’s, “Nothing Was The Same.”
Nelson has also authored and illustrated several award-winning NYT Best-Selling picture books including, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball” and “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans.” Nelson states, “I feel that art’s highest function is that of a mirror, reflecting the innermost beauty and divinity of the human spirit; and is most effective when it calls the viewer to remember one’s highest self. I choose subject matter that has emotional and spiritual resonance and focuses on the journey of the hero as it relates to the personal and collective stories of people.“