An Interview with Artist Edreys Wajed

An Interview with Artist Edreys Wajed

By Susan Anglada Bartley

This is Edreys. Edreys is loyalty. Edreys is honesty. Edreys is visual art. Edreys is music. Edreys is poetry. Edreys is vision. Edreys is courage. Edreys is working on a series of murals throughout Buffalo, NY — some commissioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery for the Wall of Freedom, a public art project employing three Black artists and an Asian artist to portray twenty-eight Black intellectuals and revolutionaries in murals that are accessible to the community, and some on walls that Edreys pursues independently.

As I drive down Main Street in Buffalo, N.Y. to meet Edreys, listening to the great rock album Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs, my mind can’t help but wander back to the early days of my friendship with Edreys. More than 20 years ago we, a wild band of creative, rebellious, mostly lower-middle class or working class young people, lit the upstate New York Hip Hop scene. In the time before cell phones, we walked or skateboarded the economically depressed city in search of life, in search of music, in search of culture. Sometimes, we found a house or abandoned building where we could set up speakers, running electrical cords in through a neighbor’s house, in order to spin records and dance all night. Occasionally, the scene met in my Mother’s living room while she was out of town — the boom bip shaking the floorboards while kids from all over the city raged to the newest sounds. Now famous fashion designer Mara Hoffman (who, from-a-distance, seemed like an albeit brilliant upper-class girl with connections who would probably go to New York and make it big — and did) was the creative Queen of the Rave scene, showcasing her early constructions in any empty warehouse we could find.

I remember spending great lengths of time weaving fake hair into my own to create two giant Princess Leah buns that stuck out on each side of my head like Madonna’s conical brassiere, then covering my entire upper body in glitter. I remember waking up like that more than once. In those years before the movie KIDS added a critical lens to the life we were living, we lived a renegade life strictly for the culture. At that time, Edreys Wajed, Amilcar Hill, Jeremy “Cochise” Ball and a few others were the creative seeds, or shall I say Kings, of the upstate Hip Hop scene. Where they were was where the heart of the scene was. At that time, now multi-platinum producer for the likes of Eminem, Adele, and Lana Del Rey (to name a few), Emile Haynie was an eager, chill, skinny white boy who followed them around, learning everything he could about Hip Hop, and who I rode around with on my gold low-rider bicycle, looking for good walls for graffiti, Haynie’s early passion. As I drive toward Edreys, my mind flashing to the past, I am alerted by the lights of many police cars lined up on the street just before E.Amherst Street, where I need to turn to meet Edreys at the site of a mural he is creating on a wall (with Nick and Chris of Team Razorwire) in the Rent-A-Center parking lot on Bailey Avenue.

The site and sounds of the police cars are a visceral reminder of the grim socio-political circumstances that Edreys survives. While Buffalo is going through a period of tremendous economic revitalization, rates of incarceration and poverty for Black men are extremely high. As I trip back into the present from my Hip Hop reverie, I can’t help but note my mind’s own natural juxtaposition — Mara Hoffman dressing models on high fashion runways in Paris, Emile Haynie jaunting between his house in the Hollywood Hills to work in the studio with Adele, and Edreys — polymath, artistic genius, seed, and fertilizer of the Buffalo Hip Hop movement, standing with his Mother, his aunt, and his wife and fellow artist Alexa near the brick wall he is transforming on Bailey Avenue in Buffalo, New York. I look forward to asking Edreys how he feels race, class, and privilege both impact him as an artist and engender and deepen his perspective.

As I meet his Mother, Hawwao Wajed, I develop a lump in my throat just thinking about the courage required to raise a Black male in this society. How did her parenting produce such a successful person who not only continues to evade a system that we know intentionally hyper-polices, criminalizes, and imprisons Black men at exceedingly high rates, but also has the self-esteem to be an artist, a Father, a husband, a writer, and an educator? How does he view his upbringing, his role as an artist in post-industrial city? How does he define courage, self-esteem, self-confidence? How does he define the role of the artist within the context of oppression? What is his message?

This is Edreys. There is no Edreys without Alexa, fellow artist and high school sweetheart who is now the Mother of his children. Together, they stand at the site of one of his many Buffalo, New York murals. Together, they stand for artistic transformation inside a climate of post-industrial decay; their love is a redemption song. Together, they stand unified in hope for the children of their community, for the future, for artistic principles that Edreys defines in the interview I present to you here.

S: What do self-esteem and self-confidence mean to you?

E: Eeek…Man…Wow! Some people just have it! Is it as difficult to pinpoint as having artistic ability? I think we all may have it at an early age. Kids start to learn about what they can’t do. People impose what they can’t do — parents, teachers — then they believe that.

S: How did you gain self-confidence and self-esteem given the environment that you came up in, both the historical moment and the post-industrial urban context which often marginalizes and criminalizes Black men?

E: I exhibit it (self-esteem) from time to time, but I can’t say my self-esteem is at a clean bill of health…if I went to the self-esteem doctor, I’m sure they would prescribe me something! I’ll say this — my upbringing was very different than most. Like with my artistic ability — I was always very interested in the arts and I didn’t know that it was special because that is not something that I did with my peers. I did things with my peers that every other peer could do. I played basketball, played football, run…you know, climb. I did those sorts of things, but when it came to drawing, I usually did it on my own, sort of a silo by myself, but I assumed that everyone was capable of doing that. So you add on to that my name-Edreys. I didn’t like my name. Again, I wanted to be, kinda, normal. I came home one day…like sixth grade or something and told my mom I wanted to change my name. She was like, why? I told her because nobody can pronounce it. It was kind of embarrassing because it was so weird. People would look at you. Teachers would look at you — tear your name apart. My Mother asked me what would you rather your name be? So I thought Eric was always a cool name. My Mother was like, until you come up with a better name than Eric, get out of my face…that’s pretty much what she said.

S: Do you think your Mom was tough on you?

E: Um…yeah. Tough on me. Where should I start though. Here is what I didn’t understand as a kid. I didn’t understand what it was like to be a single, Black woman in, and you can put in any urban setting, I just happened to be in Buffalo, but take a single Black woman, raising two children, divorced. You add on to that the points of reference you mentioned — the climate. And then you add on to that, let’s see, my Mom was 31 when my parents separated. So take a 31 year old single Black woman working however many jobs. I remember her working quite a few. I mean she went to college. She had a degree and everything. You add on to that a long line of divorcees in my family in particular because when I was growing up, my Mom was like one of nine and I don’t remember a single person being married, but I had several cousins…so it was like the culture within our family. So what I didn’t know as a kid was how frustrating that could be, because all I knew was that I was a kid. Now, unfortunately, I think that I bore the brunt of her frustration with my Dad. You know….because she would say things — with or without harm — but they were harmful to me. She would say, “you’re just like your Father!” Most of that was genetic, I think. I wasn’t around my Dad to emulate him. You know? (laughs) I wasn’t around him to know that he chewed his gum in a particular way or made up songs all of the time as he washed dishes. I didn’t know that. So anyway all of that plays into self-esteem. I had to come to grips with that, yes. I was different in several ways. I really could never find my tribe.

(Of the hundreds of drawings Edreys posts on his Instagram page, many are meditations on Black masculinity through the use of line and high contrast.)

(Cont.) Outside of sports and stuff, I don’t really think I ever found my tribe that walked to the same beat as me, but the arts, music, visual arts, drawing, painting, those were the things that defined Edreys for me. You know. When people started to say, Edreys — oh the one that draws? That’s how I started to define myself. I knew those were the things that I had control over because I didn’t have control over much. The self-esteem part comes into that. When I’m in control of where my power lies, where my skills set is, of my time and what I’d doing with my time…wherever your strength lies, whether it is writing, or thinking, or dancing…most of the stuff is in the arts, some sort of art-related thing. There are no doubts there. The only doubts there are like I told you…when you asked me about self-confidence and esteem, I’m not quite sure that I have it, but at that point I am the only person that I have to get by. It’s me. There is no one telling me that I can’t do anything. And it’s especially tough if it comes from parents — I get parenting wrong all of the time. In my situation, I don’t think I was able to flourish like I wanted to because my Mom was being the best parent she could be. She had the same philosophy as everybody else. Go to school. Get a good job. You know that story. I remember when Alan (Drummer, Producer, Recording Expert Alan Evans of Soulive) said hey I’m going to New York City. I was like Damn, I should go to New York City. My Mother was like, No. You are going to Buff State. I felt fully confident that I could go to New York City and make a way. Now. We can’t go in reverse. Who knows. I don’t have regrets though. You know. It’s a learning lesson. Now, if my children say, Dad, at 18, I want to move to Oregon. Or, I want to move to California. I’m going to support that. I know how this turned out — I still ended up on the path somehow, I just took a long snaking road to get there. If I allow someone to be fully in their power…and I’m not telling them what they can’t do, the world will surely dictate that to them.

S: I want to go back, not too far, to where you said, I know how this turned out…because, I’m also not a stranger. In my perspective, when I heard you say that, I’m also thinking, it doesn’t seem like it has turned out yet. It seems like it still turning out. Do you think that having stayed in Buffalo and stayed in the center of post-industrial life — this landscape, it could be Cleveland, it could be Detroit, do you think that could benefit you — the fact that you actually are from here and are in the context, not of privilege but of hardship, how do your choice to stay could benefit you?

E: My vision was to gain influence outside of Buffalo in order to shine the spotlight on to Buffalo. All of the culture that people are gravitating to — people are coming from all over the world to see the architecture. People are coming from all over the world to see the canals. I wanted to provide opportunities for people like me, meaning creatives, not necessarily race-based, just artists. But what I learned is that I’m doing it in reverse. I thought I had to go out to bring it in, but instead it’s almost like meditation where the light is coming from inside and shining like a beacon out.

S: So is that self-esteem?

E: I think that is a good circle.

S: As an artist, how do you deal with negative self-criticism or self-doubt if those times come up? What are the techniques that you use?

E: I have several mantras. The very 1st thing I say to myself in the morning is: every day, in every way, I get better and better through positive thought, word, and action. So that means that those things need to be aligned, what I am thinking, what I am saying, and what I am doing all need to be aligned and that is the first thing I say to myself…it is about a minute and a half, like a strand that I say to myself. These murals are symbolic in the sense that a year or two years ago I would have said to myself-how? I can’t. I’m not good enough. I would say those things quietly in my mind two years ago. But now, just demonstrating through positive thought, word, and action, these murals are now the evidence of the action. There are still questions, but it is resolved by action.

I am working in my power. I look forward to coming here every day. I took a leave of absence to do this. We need money? Absolutely, but there is something that is going to stick about this, for many years.

S: I wonder if we can go inside the bus stop to get out of the rain?

E: Sure. Let’s go in the bus stop.

S: I think that brings me to, how can art deal with and heal generational trauma faced by Black people in urban spaces in the United States? I’m connecting to that question through the people walking by who all stop to admire your work — what about healing and trauma? What is the role of art?

E: Wow. Well there are several levels — the first is like when I’m teaching art, I try to remove the fear. Talking about trauma…beyond even being African American..or whatever, there is trauma in the conditioning of our society. I mean how many times have you been told to sit? How many times have you been told to be quiet? Shut up? You know, people learn differently, but the conformity and the constraints of education in general try to make everyone the same. That is traumatic when you have a brilliant kid or a brilliant mind. Recently a friend of mine texted me a picture of her son’s artwork and the teacher wrote on his drawing — wrote ON THE DRAWING — this is inappropriate. I didn’t pay attention to what was written. My concern was the disrespect of this person’s artwork. You can’t walk in the MET or the MOMA or the Albright and write on somebody’s artwork. You mean to tell me there was no better way for the teacher to resolve that? When I do art — teach art — I try to remove the fear. By high school, they are so conditioned to believe there is a right or wrong approach. No. You get to explore here…remove the fear of having to be absolute. Kids are conditioned by that trauma.

S: Every time I come to visit you at a mural site, there are people coming up to you. Why is it so powerful for people to see you transforming the neighborhood? Why is that healing? What does it do psychologically?

E: The first thing is that there is a reflection. They see themselves in me. Or they see their nephew. Or their son. So that is first. That is the connection. Because how often has it been imposed on everyone…that the Masters were all white? Like all of the Masters of the arts, were all white, from Europe…America..not knowing that many of those artists traveled to Africa, studied the art, became geniuses. You know or were seen as geniuses. So I think when they see me creating art, it’s twofold. They probably haven’t seen a young Black man creating art and clearly working in his power. I’m clearly doing this because that is what I was kind of cut out to do. A cab driver just drove by…so if somebody saw me driving a cab, the thought would be — oh he is driving that cab because he has to. Oh he is driving that cab because he needs the money. They don’t know what the exchange is when they see me making art. They don’t know if I am out here doing it because I am earning money or because I am sacrificing a salary to create something beautiful that is going to last for a long time.

S: Hip Hop in the broader sense — including all of the pillars from the early days that people don’t understand — including the visual arts. Hip Hop moves inside the capitalist system including around and underneath it, but often glorifies wealth. Is there a deeper focus you would like to hear and see?

E: It’s always been a glorification of what people don’t have but what they are aspiring to be. Like for me, (Car horn beeps: Hey, What’s up man? You see that mural right! Good to see you Bro!) So I think the people that are benefiting now are really the benefactors of the dreamers of the forefathers. So it’s almost like, imagine, envisioning these things for themselves but it may not come in their time. And somehow, the children get to reap those benefits because of what the parents put out. So that is what is also shameful because people are reaping the benefits of this multi-million dollar industry, but they have no idea what was sacrificed. You line that up with civil rights, for example. How many people think of the benefits that we have based on what other people have sacrificed? How many people think when they walk into a diner — I wouldn’t even have been allowed in here sixty years ago.

S: Or the two of us right here.

E: I was going to get to that. So, how many people of these generations after are reaping the benefits of the blood and sacrifices of those who could not be benefactors of the fruits of their own labor?

S: How does that thought impact your work? It seems like a deep place in you. And who gave you that consciousness? Was that your Mom?

E: I think…I think yes, you can attribute to that to my Mom…because yes, as an adult, I was able to look back and see the things that she sacrificed to take care of my sister and I. So maybe Mom had aspirations of being an attorney, a seamstress, an athlete. I don’t know, but I am sure that she put something to the side to provide for us…so in that aspect, although it may have been painful the way I was raised, because I was always just told No. She always imposed her own fears on me…and again I didn’t know it until I was older. As a kid, I would just see and hear No. I remember one time I told her that I wanted to be an architect…and she was like an architect? Ain’t no money in architecture. So again, from the wiser person who I think knows, their word is golden to me. Without me having the ability to go and speak with an architect to see if that was not the case, I took her word, as my guardian, my Mother, the elder, I said Damn — I’m not going to do that. There was a shut down — you can’t do that, you can’t do that. Then you fast forward to a time where, now I’m going to graduate — what are you going to do? Now there is a long period of self-discovery — of what do I want to do? Now I am going to allow myself to do it and not care about what even my closest relatives say.

The irony is, one of my greatest cheerleaders today — you met her — my Mom. However, as a guardian, as a parent, she was more like a warden.

S: So it’s a paradox.

E: Big time.

S: You and I have both known people who have died in these streets…or have gone other directions whether it was Crack Cocaine or being a “Father” to many children, but not a Father, so I’m just going to get down to the word — Warden — that word, for me, it strikes of the whole prison industrial construct. Do you think that she had to do that? Or she felt she had to do that, in order to save your life?

E: I thought about that. I pondered that. See, but here is the thing. The protective part of it, was not related to the street factors. I was out several nights in places where she may not have known…so in the aspect of her being protective or overprotective in regards to the street culture, I never got that sense from her — like I’m worried about you when you go outside — I never got that sense from her. Where she was extremely protective, which may relate to something she wasn’t able to do, was she was almost protecting me from failure. She said no to things that I wanted to aspire to — as if to say that’s only going to lead to heartbreak.

S: So I can hear her voice coming through you like a powerful mantra — this choice is only going to lead to heartbreak — the way that you say that is almost in her voice. So you developed other mantras of your own to counter that voice which might have been the fear of a Mother?

E: Fearlessness. That’s what I had to gather — fearlessness.

S: Do you ever feel like you actually were in danger in the streets more than she knew?

E: More than she knew. Yes. Far more than she knew. And I still don’t know how she did that. We never had that conversation — like Mom, how did you feel when I used to go out. I was all over the city. I was by myself. I would always leave and come by myself.

(Edreys portrays the timeless and enduring brilliance of Black women in his many line drawings showcased on Instagram @edreys)

S: Do you think that she knew you so well that she knew she needed to keep you in an intellectual challenge, regarding your future?

E: She knew I feared disappointing her. No question. With her being able to rest on that — that he is not going to go out and do anything that is going to embarrass me or disappoint me. Which is why she would allow me to go. There was no wardenship there. I never let her down in that aspect. I never came home with kids all over the place. The police never brought me home. I’m glad that you are asking me these questions because it allows me to analyze it myself. When I think about the hardship that I had to go through — it was all around dreams, in a protective sense, like, whatever trauma she had as a kid with her Mom, I think it had to affect her deeply enough that those were the points of our discord.

S: How are you changing that as a Father — and as I understand, one of the first patriarchs in your generational memory? Also, from the early days of Hip Hop — the Father Figure, Big Daddy Kane to Big Poppa, that’s an extremely important role that is sometimes missing in the community that can be filled or substituted by the Father Figure archetype as represented in popular culture.

E: I agree.

S: Do you think that you have a message for young men? How are you healing that?

E: That’s what I always try to message in my music. My music, since 2002 or earlier, has always been profanity free. There are two reasons behind that. I said I’m not going to make music that I would be embarrassed to show my Mother. Then, when my first son was born in 2001, that was all the more reason. I wanted to encourage and inspire. For whomever heard my music, that was what I wanted them to get out of it. One thing I dislike most about Hip Hop is when artists can poison our environment and our culture, poison the minds of our community. Poison. Capital poison. And not see themselves as a patriarch, but dismiss themselves by saying I’m not a role model. That’s disappointing and disgusting to me.

S: I know in the new pieces for the Albright Knox Wall of Freedom, speaking of matriarchy and patriarchy and history, who are your representing through mural?

E: I have seven pieces — the women are Fannie Lou Hamer, Dr. Lydia T. Wright, and Harriet Tubman. The men are Malcolm X, W.E.B. Dubois, Frank Merriweather, and William Wells Brown. They lived before social media. To be able to take ownership of what people think you are. That’s the Black Moses. Just think about that, if Harriet Tubman said, “I could have freed 1000 more if only they knew they were slaves”. Now imagine if she took a role of a Hip Hop artist — freed herself and didn’t become an abolitionist, but became a supporter of slavery. That’s what that is. What if she said, “I ain’t no role model”. Come on! Think about that man! What if she said, “I ain’t no role model — free yourself, that’s what parents are for”. When you have eyeballs on you, it’s my opinion that you should uplift people.

S: I am reading this book by a Russian Anarchist about the theory of Mutual Aid — how animal societies, from ants to sparrows, have mutual aid. What you are saying reminds me of the theory of mutual aid — the natural tendency toward helping one another.

E: Anytime you have a platform, statistics to back that people are watching you — 2 million, 10 million, 50 million records sold. I’m just not a person who had been able to separate entertainment from duty. This (pointing to mural) is duty. I’m not into entertainment. I’m into duty. It’s clear that the people who are benefitting from our forefathers are into entertainment. I’m playing Public Enemy It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold us Back right now in my car. Duty. He is doing duty. I can get on this wall right here and paint 40 ounce bottles. No. I’m not going to agree to do something that doesn’t fit with my morality. It comes back to self esteem. Way back when I was younger I had to become very comfortable doing what was unpopular. It’s just that simple. One of two kids fasting during Ramadan while running track. Why are you fasting? What’s that? It prepared me to do what was uncommon and unpopular.

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As the rain comes down in torrents around the bus stop where Edreys and I converse in the humid NY afternoon, I ask him a final question about how his art is priced and how dealers may get in touch with him. As we say goodbye, I forget to thank him for inspiring me when I was young. Thank you, Edreys. I also fail to ask my final questions — have Hoffman and Haynie purchased work? Has the Albright-Knox purchased work for their permanent collection? How about MOMA? Serious inquiries can be made to edreyswajed@gmail.com, instagram @edreys.