NMV Sit Down: Shala's Time Has Come
Updated: Feb 4, 2019
Two-time Award-Winning Solar Artist, Shala sits down with Steven Mainzer for an in-depth interview.
Still relatively underground, Nigerian artist known as Shala broke out this year with two awards: 'Artist of the Year' and 'Creative Person of the Year' which were received from the African Diaspora Awards. He also completed a national endorsement partnership with Nissan that showcased his solar art work including his Bronzeville Solar Pyramid, which was featured in a national commercial for their new Nissan Kicks, as that campaign also garnered a public nod from controversial Chicago Mayor, Rahm Emanual.
SM: Steven Mainzer
SM: Hey, Shala. I saw you won Creative Person of the year at the prestigious and international African Diaspora Awards? How was that experience? What helped lead to that?
Shala: Those awards are based on nominations so someone nominated me. They just hit me, you’ve been nominated and you won and we need you in New York to come get your award. It’s a big event; there are about 400-500 people in attendance every year, internationally broadcasted online and streamed. And it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal to be recognized by my people.
There is something powerful about being Creative “Person" of the Year. At first, I rolled my eyes when the movement for non-gender based awards started to really pick up steam. I felt like the liberal movement was doing too much by complaining that the gender-based categories were unfair. I felt like it just allowed for more award recipients and the categories were not necessarily based on gender.
But now I get it. Somehow using the word “person” (instead of “man” or “woman”) gives the award more power. Being the Creative “Person" of the Year means I beat a whole bunch of women too! (Laughs) It felt good. It’s not about being a man or a woman; it means I’m a creative person. To be recognized nationally and in New York meant a lot to me, too. With my Nissan endorsement partnership, I became a internationally-recognized artist this year.
SM: What have you been up to lately?
Shala: Working on my new gallery collection and building my team. Demand for my work is turning me into a business and that is an interesting transition for me. I’m currently building a studio; a movement. I have always been inspired by cultural movements and I am getting another opportunity to lead one; merging art, tech, culture and music. We’re different. It’s scary . . . but I’m ready.
SM: What motivated you to start experimenting with solar powered art?
Shala: I think being born to practical parents who maybe didn’t understand their kind-of-weird art kid. So my answer would be an urge to combine my creativity with the practicality I was raised with as a first generation Nigerian kid born in Chicago. I wanted to do something that makes an impact; not just make pretty pictures and stuff that makes you say “oooh, ahh,” you know? You know the kind of stuff that people come to your gallery show, say ‘That’s nice! I like that!’ and then they turn around and go chase a lady or get a drink. I never wanted to make just art. I always felt like it wasn’t good enough, maybe that’s my overall issue in life. I guess, at least I use that dysfunction or that issue to constantly push my work forward. I think I have finally got to a point where my work is meeting my calling. I think my calling is to inspire progress and move humanity forward.
I’m a catalyst and I think my creativity is finally culminating into that calling. That service or urge to move things forward and bring progress to the world.
I did music for a long time, and I also worked in the design world. I did a bunch of stuff that never really satisfied my soul. They were cool but there was always something missing, and when I look back now, I did put a lot of little nuggets in there that were about social commentary and social progress, so I think I have embraced that 100 percent and in that urge or yearning to do so, I started looking for mediums that would actually provide some sort of practical benefit.
Solar is amazing because it provides energy! I’m about empowering people so it’s this tongue in cheek way of empowering people, because it’s real. So when I say I’m empowering people I can say I do it for real! And other than that (for a reason and an answer) I would say being lazy and not wanting to make murals in the cold all day.
SM: When did you realize that you had an urge to help move things forward and progress?
Shala: When I had to pretend to be ignorant. I had to pretend to be a savage. Growing up...I’ll never forget it was my freshman year of high school, we’re in the back of the bus and we’re laughing about being on the back of the bus, so we’re talking our s**t and everybody is like this “This b***h that hoe, this bitch” etc.…and I decide to be the one dude in the back that’s like “Yo man, “Why do we call women bitches?” and the whole place erupted. They were clowning me for a whole month.
I’ve always thought like that, I've always thought differently; even if it’s just to be “anti" or rebellious. It always served me in some way to question what's going on and when you do that you start to question problems and things that are dysfunctional and things that don’t work. Those are the juiciest things to question. So it makes me a catalyst and a progressive. I naturally have always been a progressive, my father’s a thinker, he's always reading, he’s always questioning and I just naturally became a progressive. I think it works because i’ve always been a rebel. I’m an artist. It serves my creativity to go against the grain and question the way things are.
SM: Can you talk about the Bronzeville Solar Pyramid?
Shala: I think I had to build something that I thought would be an icon for empowerment. I wanted to make art that empowered people practically and spiritually, and a solar pyramid is the epitome of that. Where ever a pyramid is erected, it’s believed that it develops the area and creates a powerful kinetic energy that brings prosperity. I wanted to do that and create something that would be an icon in my own neighborhood. On the practical side, I wanted to increase my property value because I live in the neighborhood, so it all made sense. That’s why I erected the pyramid in Bronzeville. It was known as the Black Metropolis and it’s getting back to that now. I think it will be more mixed this time, as White People, Latinos, and Asians move more into the neighborhood. You can see that our culture isn’t going anywhere. I think mainly because there are a lot of black people with old money here. As they mix with us we’ll start to look more like some New York neighborhoods look . . or used to look! It will be gentrified but it won’t be because the black people have been displaced like a lot of areas up North. I wanted to be a catalyst for that. Art is always a catalyst for progress.
SM: What was your initial lane within the creative world and how did it transform into art? Solar art?
Shala: Art is all encompassing, I’m a multimedia artist. That’s the best way to say that I don’t have one particular medium. I think most artists are multimedia-artists. We just embrace sound, sight, textures and whatever medium we want to use in the moment. I have always been drawn toward experiential mediums like movies, technology and music.
To be honest, I started in music/ hip-hop first because I thought if I was a rapper I could easily pivot to something else later; but if I was a painter and I wanted to be a rapper, people would laugh at me. They wouldn’t take me seriously. You know how we put limits on ourselves and then think we have the right to put those limits on other people. That’s why I went with the music-calling first. My bigger calling is as an experiential artist. Someone that can soundtrack an experience that contains visual art. Art that affects people. I think that’s my ultimate calling.
I think at some point I’m going to make a movie because I don’t think I'll be satisfied with just making sculptures. Every time I make a piece of art, a sculpture or installation, I can hear sounds. I hear music around it. I don’t think I'll be satisfied with just making public installations for the rest of my life. I think life is always conspiring to grow you into what you want to be. We cock-block or vagina-gate it. I stopped getting in it’s way and I got a Nissan endorsement deal!
SM: What is your end goal for your platform?
Shala: (To) Change the world. Or at least make enough of an impact that I inspire the person that changes the world. It's not that hard to do. I think we’re changing the world every day. But I really think I’m going to do it. I know people who have done it so hell, why not me? I think that's the ultimate goal, it's like how many ways can I change the world? And I want to change culture and provide something practical that changes the way disenfranchised people live. I’m focused on my legacy and if you really love yourself, the most selfish thing you can do is be good to people.
"You know how we put limits on ourselves and then think we have the right to put those limits on other people."
SM: What motivates you?
Shala: Culture. Things that are progressive motivate me. They inspire the f**k out of me. I could say technology, but it’s not just tech. I could say new music. I could say art, new ideas, or subcultures. I love subcultures because a lot of societal norms come from subcultures. Progress often comes from the stuff that we were laughing at, or attacking, a few years before.
SM: What is the biggest problem you see within the creative industry now?
Shala: Focus and laziness. (There are) Too many distractions, so artists are not able to hone in on what they truly want to say. I am not into the merch movement going on right now. I don’t hate the hype beast movement but it seems like wasted energy to me. It's like wasted potential; like a bunch of kids being exploited. Spending so much money on future landfill content. They deserve better. All the fast fashion bulls**t coming out right now is not going to last. It can’t.
I use to like street culture but what we’re doing right now is really exploitive. It’s DIY right. We don't have the access or we didn't have the access or ability to make all the quality stuff that the high-end designers make; but now I don’t think that’s a valid excuse. There are just too many people making bulls**t. Now real artists have to sell bulls**t to people who are addicted to bulls**t. I think their are still people making great work -- I just think there's too much subpar, underdeveloped stuff making noise in a lot of our genres; music, design, art and fashion. Time for the DIY, street and punk movement to move to a new level. Quality and purpose.
SM: What music do you listen to right now?
Shala: I’m Hip-hop forever so that's the foundation of everything I listen to but now I’m pivoting back toward Afrobeat because I’m Nigerian. I lost interest in Afrobeat for awhile because I thought we were making a lot of disposable music; but now, as it matures, the music is getting better, and I’m starting to like it more. I’m listening to Burna Boy, Patoranking, Snoh Alegra, 21, Travis Scott, Jorja Smith and Vince Staples. I’m also f**king with classic Chicago hip hop. The unsung street s**t that influenced the South and gave birth to Trap. I’m also fucking with The Internet, Preast and The Black Pxwder, and Mac Miller’s album Swimming.
SM: What would be your dream job? Are you doing it right now?
Shala: Yeah, hell yeah. My dream job is not having a job. Yeah I’m doing it. I’m a social impact artist. People give me money to inspire them and get my dreams out. That is my dream job.
SM: If you had advice for up and coming artists, whether it be music or visual arts, what would you suggest they do in their path to success?
Shala: Stay curious. Stay consistent. And build on your small successes. The real secret to success is you just keep going because if you’re headed toward something you're going to get there. You may f**k up, you may slow down, you may skip, you may crawl… Just don’t stop. I know the whole “Don’t stop” thing has become a cliche but it’s very true. It’s one of the best pieces of advice anyone can give you. Don’t stop! If you don’t stop you eventually figure out how to win.
SM: My partner once told me “if you remain consistent and never go away and if you undersell and over deliver you’ll be the king.”
Shala: That’s always the case, and its funny because a lot of people always say I didn't see ‘em coming’ You just weren’t looking. You see it coming. Success is built. Success is a journey. Every moment you're successful you go to another point in your life. It’s not this event we make it out to be. It’s a saga. A lot of times we cheapen success by looking at it as an apex or phoenix moment.
SM: That’s true a lot of people want to just summarize it, it’s a journey. Nas once said that so many people want to be on right now that they forget about the journey on the way.
Shala: Man there is so much to it. It is! People just want to matter, man, people aren’t necessarily chasing success… they want to be comfortable and they want to matter. So that’s why they’re not concerned with the journey, and that's why those statements don’t impact people. They’re not really chasing success, but they don’t know it. I think that’s what the problem is. That’s why wise words, like that statement from Nas don’t really resonate with people. We do not take the time to really address what people need to hear. That produces a lot of victims, man.