Almost fifty years ago the revolutionary, black nationalist Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California. Its primary goal was to challenge police brutality, but it also provided social services for poor African-Americans — Free Breakfast for Children, and community health clinics — and it created a “Ten-Point Program” called “What We Want Now!”.
Among its demands: “We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Community,” and “We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.”
One of the beneficiaries of the Panthers’ Free Breakfasts was Tyrone Drake, raised in Oakland and now a graphic designer and adjunct professor at Art Center College of Design. He remembers stopping en route to elementary school for breakfast and a group sing-sing of revolutionary songs.
Now he has turned his typographic skills to creating a contemporary, visual reinterpretation of the manifesto, believing the ten points have a new relevance in the time of Black Lives Matter.
His series of posters, called “Hard Bop: Reflections and Interpretations of a Militant Manifesto,” which also includes portraits of Panthers’ founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale and members of the inner circle, is the inaugural exhibition in the new Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, dedicated to longtime letterform teacher Leah Hoffmitz, who died last year.
DnA went to check out the new center and talk to Tyrone about the exhibition. He tells DnA that while he greatly admires the work of Emory Douglas, the Panthers’ “revolutionary artist,” his own aesthetic draws on other influences –Russian Constructivism, album covers and modal jazz. He also explains why the Panthers were far more than simply “black men in leather jackets holding guns at the courthouse.”
DnA: Tell us about your interpretation of the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program.
Tyrone Drake: I grew up in Oakland, Calif., home of the Black Panther Party, and I was a beneficiary of a couple of their programs, including a free breakfast program. I went to elementary school two blocks away from St. Augustine’s church, which is where the Black Panther Party had their first initial free breakfast program. They would feed us and have us sing militant songs about “Free Huey,” and give us badges and things just to help put their platform out there.
As a typographer and graphic designer, this is something I’ve been working on for a while. I’ve taken the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program and done my typographic interpretation of what the voice of that program is all about — the platform itself.
A lot of people, when they think about the Black Panther Party, they look at it visually and see the power of black men in leather jackets and berets holding guns at the courthouse, but they don’t really take the opportunity to actually read the program, which is what they were really all about. I mean this stuff started in the ‘60s. So there’s a relevance to what the Black Panther Party started and what we’re dealing with today.
DnA: You also have some visual imagery that’s very different from black men in leather holding guns. It’s rather dreamy and poetic. Tell us about the visual imagery you chose.
TD: A lot of this is influenced by Russian Constructivists. When I was a student at Art Center in the early ‘90s I was introduced to El Lissitzky and the Russian Constructivist movement. As soon as I saw that work I knew that I was in the right place. The idea of Constructivism and how El Lissitzky took geometric shape and form and applied it to two-dimensional space to give things more of a sense of a three-dimensional space is what I wanted to do with this. And nothing’s more powerful than a circular form.
There is also a dual narrative going on in the panels. The COINTELPRO was instituted by then-F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, whose whole idea was to eliminate the Black Panther Party. So my idea with the dual narrative and also with the power of the circular form is that the power gets lost as you go through. So what I did was visually interpret that through the loss of intensity of the circular form as you go from panel to panel.
DnA: Did you have any in mind any connection between the Russian Constructivists and the Black Panthers, or was that just your aesthetic taste being overlaid on an unrelated philosophy and movement?
TD: I think most of it was instinctual. [But] I think when you come from an environment where there’s a lot of suffering and pain and people going through poverty and things of that nature as I did growing up in Oakland, I think there’s a lot of relationship between that and what was happening in Russia at the time, and I think the Constructivists basically interpreted that through their work.
So I don’t know that it’s so much dictated by what I really wanted to do as opposed to this sort of intuitive nature of how I design and how I see design.
DnA: I think people would love to know how you went from being a poor kid in Oakland being fed by members of the Black Panthers, to being a professor at Art Center teaching typesetting.
TD: When you grow up in a tough environment, either of two things happen. You learn to survive or you fall under pressure of some of that environment, you know, drugs, alcohol, whatever. Fortunately for me, I think that creative instinct inside me is what guided me towards this idea of what I want to be. I want to do something creative in my life and that kept me going from high school to San Jose State University, which is where I went originally, and then coming back to Oakland then coming to Los Angeles.
One of the things that was also an influence is that I grew up an environment with a lot of music. I mean, my parents and my brothers and sisters played a lot of music. I’m the second youngest of nine kids. I grew up in a big family, and we always had music in our house. And I would stare at album covers when I was a kid. I would look at all these vinyl covers and this beautiful artwork from the ‘60s and ‘70s. And I used to draw some of the album covers. I would sit there and just reinterpret them. No matter where you grow up, music is always that thing that can take away that bit of pain that people suffer from.
The title of the show is “Hard Bop,” which is jazz. And so I think what you’re seeing in this typographic interpretation of the content is my sense of rhythm and pacing. What I’ve always done with my work, which I think makes my work very distinctive, is my choice of pacing and rhythm.
DnA: Do you hope the Black Lives Matter folks get to see this exhibit? And would you like to help them with their design?
TD: I’d like for everybody to see this exhibit, not just Black Lives Matter. It’s been 50 years since the founding of the Black Panther Party. So what I’m doing is taking some content that has some years on it, and put it into a contemporary context. My goal is that younger people who are influenced by Black Lives Matter, college students, high school students, look at this content, understand how [relevant] it is, but understand that it’s been done in a way that is accessible.
It’s not all about what the Black Panther Party did visually, standing on the steps of the courthouse in Oakland with guns. It really [is] about what they stood for. It’s about people being able to look at this content, understand how it’s relevant to what’s going on in the country today, but more importantly what can be done to move this forward.
“Hard Bop: Reflections and Interpretations of a Militant Manifesto” opens this Saturday and will be on show through January 15, 2016, Martin Luther King’s birthday.