Featured Soul: Charles Esperanza


Splish! Splash! Sploosh! An Afro-sporting little kid decides to paint an Elephant bright Blue! EleBooyah was the Elephant’s name and she wants to help paint too! Pretty soon the kid and her elephant are playing with all the colors of the rainbow. What do blue and yellow make? A funky green frog! And red and blue? An enormous purple octopus king! Discover all of the whimsical things one can create with a splatter of paint and be amazed by a twist ending that you’ll never expect!

Amanya Maloba: Why children’s books?
Charles Esperanza: My decision to pursue children’s books is very influenced by my former professor and mentor, Eric Velasquez. I realized how awesome children’s books could be—they are basically like very detailed, rendered movie storyboards. Through children’s books I could fuse my love of poetry with my love of painting. Also, I felt like my voice and ideas were very different from anything else in the children’s book field and people would recognize that and give me lots of money for it!

AM: I love that the main character looks like Quvenzhané Wallis (of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Annie)—how did you decide on who the main character should be?
CE: The main character is actually based on my youngest sister, Crystal. I wrote the first version of this story in 2007 for Eric Velasquez’s picture book illustration class. Crystal was seven years old, and one day I saw her running around the house with her afro and I was inspired! When I saw Quvenzhané in Beasts of the Southern Wild, which is my favorite movie of all time, I felt like it was the character in my book in a different story.

I tried to make the main character as androgynous as I could. I want my art to destroy the traditional ideas of gender, and I want boys to be able to relate to female characters and vice versa. Originally, it was just the little girl as the main character, but I soon realized how difficult it would be to sell a book with a black main character. I love elephants and coincidentally so does most everyone else in the world! So I decided to add EleBooyah, the elephant.


AM: All children’s books follow essentially the same rhyme pattern, designed to be musical and easy for kids to follow. Coincidentally, it is the same meter that many “great” (read 18th Century British white men) used and one that many rappers (most notably Jay-Z) employ in their verses. Beyond the meter, or flow, what commonalities do you see between hip hop and literary art?
CE: I think Hip Hop has more in common with children’s literature than many realize. One might believe comparing the two is an insult to the integrity of those who enjoy hip hop. But “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick is most obviously influenced by Mother Goose and it remains to be one of hip hops most impactful songs. Throw some profanity and hood references in any Mother Goose rhyme and it can become a certified hood classic. Here’s an example:

This is “Little Boy Blue” by Mother Goose

Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn.
But where is the boy
That looks after the sheep?
Under the haystack,
Fast asleep.

Now this is “Lil Thug Blue” by me, but it could’ve easily been by Too $hort.

Lil Thug Blue,
Come bust yo Gat!
Yah peeps is in the Pen,
The Beez in the trap.
Where’s the lil thug
That looks after his peeps?
Under the Jail cell,
Six feet deep.

CROCABUNGAAM: Did you pen the words to Red, Yellow, Blue and a Dash of White Too! to any particular beat?
CE: I was listening to “Oasis” by The Majestics, which is a jungle rock instrumental. But it’s got an awesome drum beat that inspired me. I am a big fan of the experimental hip hop group Death Grips, who are known to use very non-traditional experimental instrumentals. So that’s how I justify not being influenced by a traditional hip hop beat. I recorded myself rhyming along to it. Perhaps I should share it with the world one day.

AM: Generally I’m wary of people that sport the Basquiat crown in their work or as tattoos since it’s become the cliché reference to art by a lot of black folks (and a lot of non-black people!). However, I love your incorporation of it almost as a sample, the same way MCs sample beats from classic tracks. Is that what you had in mind when deciding on the image?
CE: That’s a pretty dope way of analyzing my use of the crown, and yes I think the comparison fits my intention. Basquiat’s work referenced a lot of preceding artists’ works, such as Van Gogh’s self portraits in his piece titled Head of a Madman or Jean Dubuffet in Pegasus. I think most artists practice some form of this sampling.

I do find it interesting, however, that art enthusiasts, who happen to be white and more well-versed in the illustration field, automatically recognize my style as being very influenced by J. C. Leyendecker (Norman Rockwell’s mentor and original Illustrator of The Saturday Evening Post). On the other hand, audiences who are Black and tend to be more familiar with the fine art world seem to notice my Basquiat shout outs more often than not. Everyone relates to the work in different ways because my influences are derived from so many different areas. That’s what makes it interesting beyond just an aesthetic level—I even reference Jackson Pollack in my work.

TRUMPETMONSTAHAM: You mention in your AFROPUNK post that the art world is not welcoming or supportive of hip hop (notably the silence on the destruction of Five Pointz). Do you hope for acceptance of hip hop artists by the art world?
CE: I definitely would love to see a fusion of both worlds, which I believe I am fostering with my work. Hip hop culture could make visual art much more accessible to the kids in the Bronx who were never exposed to the great work of Gustav Klimt or even Emory Douglas. High School kids are always amazed when I tell them that the guy who painted Drake’s album cover is actually a very prominent Black children’s book illustrator named Kadir Nelson. He also illustrated the best-selling picture book biography, Nelson Mandela, and even painted the cover for Michael Jackson’s posthumous album, Michael. They should know about this guy!

AM: Can you tell me more about your definition of “Visual Emcee” and what you hope to see happen between the visual arts and hip hop?

CE: A Visual Emcee is someone who can combine hip hop lyricism with a visual component that embodies the lyrics. Some might say, “Well that’s just an author/illustrator,” to which I would say, stop hating! Focusing on the aesthetics of hip hop and fusing them with the powerful images of picture books evokes a different energy than a simple illustration. And that is what I want to drive anyone who contributes to the Visual Emcee culture. Music videos are cool, but how about just having a series of paintings to go along with your new single? There’s something an oil painter can capture about your music that a film director cannot and vice versa. Kanye was on to something when he commissioned Marco Brambilla to compose a digital collage for his video “Power,” and George Condo for painting multiple works for cover art. I want to take it a step further than just cover art and digital collage. Although Brambilla’s video collage was very innovative, in a way it still feels way too similar to a traditional music video. Picture Books offer an image for every verse!

charles esperanza

AM: Who are some of your greatest hip hop and visual art influences?
CE: In terms of hip hop, I think early ODB influences the way I like to rhyme. He was very loose and melodic and used a lot of onamonapia. So anyone reading my new book should do so in ODB’S voice. Artistically, Leyendecker and Ashley Wood helped me define my artistic execution.

AM: Who’s one rapper that you’re dying to see release a picture book?
CE: I would actually love to work with Tyler, the Creator on a children’s book. Biz Markie would be an awesome collaborator as well. And of course, Yeezy.

AM: If your life was a picture book and each year was a page, what would the title be and what is the moral of this 27-page storybook?
CE: The title would be BANG, Splash, Splatter, None of This Really Matters. The moral of the story is that no one really knows what they are doing. None of this will matter in a million years, so don’t be discouraged about doing anything you want to do!

All Photos: c/o Charles Esperanza
Follow Charles at www.cgesperanza.com + on Twitter and Instagram @CGEsperanza.

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