“Empathy is the Tool for Change:” Jarrett Key for Breakthrough VOICES

Breakthrough U.S.
May 28, 2019 · 3 min read

Artists and cultural workers are pivotal contributors to social change. They are catalysts who help us to imagine communities rooted in equity and radical love. Breakthrough VOICES is a space for artists to not only amplify their own talents but to use those talents to inspire others.

In the latest installment of Breakthrough VOICES, Jarrett Key creates an installment of their Hair Painting series.


Jarrett Key is a Brooklyn-based artist whose work integrates movement, heightened language, and music predominantly. They are a recent grad from Brown University, where they double concentrated in Theater Arts and Public Policy.

Jarrett is primarily a Producer and Director/Choreographer for theater, music, and dance. Since their arrival to the city, Jarrett has integrated visual and literary art into their body of work. Jarrett enjoys telling stories and engaging the community in the moments they create in their work.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Breakthrough: What is your Breakthrough VOICE?

Jarrett Key: I think finding your voice is an important journey for everyone. I definitely am still on that journey. I’ve come a long way, though. I [found my voice] starting with church and singing in the choir and understanding that I could take up space when I was a kid in that way. Being a queer person in that environment is sort of complicated. But finding some sort of agency and satisfaction in the things that I was saying and the way that I was enjoying my performance of myself was kind of exciting.

BT: How did you come up with the inspiration for your Hair Paintings?

JK: The Hair Painting series started about four years ago. I lived in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, and I really started getting my teeth into painting. I went to bed around 2:30 in the morning, because I was working full time and I was painting from like 9:30 until 2:30. And then around 2:30, my grandmother woke me up in the middle of the night with her voice saying, “Jarrett, your hair is your strength, paint with your hair.” My grandmother used to say that a lot. She passed away in 2007. But she always said, “Your hair is your strength.” And I woke up the next day and I did it. I put paper on the wall, played a song that I liked at the time, straightened my hair with a hot comb like she used to do, and began. It began as a way to memorialize her life.

BT: Who are some of your inspirations?

JK: My grandmother is definitely a huge inspiration for me. My brother’s an artist, Jon Key. We’re twins, actually. We inspire each other. And I surround myself with a community of queer, POC, QTPOC artists, whose stories and lives and art processes continue to encourage me and help me find the strength to pursue my own voice in art.

BT: How do you think of art as a tool for social change?

JK: Art as a tool for social change is how I live my life. I think that art and its ability to bring people together teaches empathy. Empathy is the tool for change. We find ourselves in such polarizing places where we’re not even trying to put in the effort to see the other person’s place. Art does that. Working with artists does that.

BT: What do you want to say to young people who are still finding their VOICE?

JK: If you believe something, pursue it. Tell everyone around you that you want it. And it will happen for you.

Breakthrough U.S.

Breakthrough is a global human rights organization that…

Breakthrough U.S.

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Using #media #art #tech & #leadership to build #humanrights #culture where everyone enjoys #dignity, #equality, & #respect.

Breakthrough U.S.

Breakthrough is a global human rights organization that uses a potent mix of media, arts, and technology to dismantle cultural norms that lead to violence and discrimination.

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