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'Making space and bearing witness': Black artists at UNC discuss creativity, community

Junior Lansana Koroma raps for an audience at Linda’s Bar and Grill on Sunday, April 30, 2023. Photo courtesy of UNC Cypher.

For De'Ivyion Drew, art is a love ballad.

Their art is a way to reflect and uplift their experiences as a Black, gender-fluid person, as well as the experiences of their community.

Drew, a graduate student in UNC's School of Information and Library Science, said that various aspects of her identity influence her creative process. They are resonant in the art they create, through mediums such as sculpture, photography, painting and writing. 

"When I think about my personal art career, almost all of my work is narrative artwork," she said. "And I think that because I have that orientation, it allows me to not only dive deep into myself, but to dive deep within my community and where I find my support circle and really what makes me, me — in all of the different ways and all of the different wholenesses that shows up."

Drew was a collaborator and artist in #BlackOutLoudUNC, a project that included an exhibition of artwork by Black students in 2019 and aimed to uplift narrative art surrounding the experience of being Black at UNC.

Along with curators Jerry Wilson and Cortland Gilliam, she said that a large part of the project revolved around exploring the history of Black students at UNC through Wilson Library.

Their focus included the Black pioneers, the first Black graduates at UNC and the creativity that lies within the community of Black students at UNC.

Kolby Oglesby, a junior majoring in sociology and minoring in screenwriting, is a filmmaker who uses film to explore the intersections of his identity as a mixed-race Black man.

His sophomore year project was creating a show called Sunbather with UNC Student Television. It was a narrative, fictional show based on his own experiences navigating primarily white school environments, coming in contact more with his Black culture in college and navigating his experience with Black masculinity.

"The more vulnerable I am, the better I'm able to both recognize my trauma and my privilege and then navigate that and become a better human being through that," he said. "So my films are very much trying to capture that, very much trying to say, 'Here's a path forward for Black men to overcome their trauma and to be the best human beings that we can be.'"

Lansana Koroma, a junior majoring in computer science and minoring in film, uses rap to "push the bounds of vulnerability" within himself and his audience. He said he wants his music to elicit emotions within listeners, whether they're positive or negative.

"I want people to hear my music and feel things because I think that's the highest praise you could give to any artist," he said. 

Koroma began rapping and writing lyrics eight years ago and has been making his own beats for four years.

He said that he began rapping as a way to grow in something he wasn't initially good at, outside of academics.

"I just wanted that sense of adventure," he said. "I just wanted that, because I knew that I would grow for sure, no matter what."

Koroma said that "it takes a village" and has found a community of friends and fellow rappers who support each other in their music.

Groups like Earthtones and UNC Cypher have provided him with supportive spaces to create art. Earthtones, a collective for artists of color on campus, has hosted beat-making showcases and members of Cypher meet in the pit every Wednesday night to rap together.

As a film student, Oglesby has found community through organizations like the Carolina Film Association. He also praised organizations like Lightwood Entertainment,  Earthtones and Xpressions for providing spaces for people of color to make art together.

"UNC, for all of its flaws as an institution, I do love it," he said. "It's not perfect, its history is far from perfect, and the people who are leading it are far from perfect, but as a place, a housing ground for a bunch of young, thoughtful diverse people, I love it for my own experiences and for my art."

Oglesby hopes that his films intuitively make sense to the Black community and encourage the pursuit of healing and understanding through methods like therapy, particularly for Black men. 

He said that he also wants to encourage empathy among non-Black audiences through his art.

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Drew said that she hopes to reflect and resonate her experiences for the audience to connect to and digest.

"It's all about just making space, bearing witness and allowing time and space for our work, our methods, our art to show up in its full, authentic presence," they said.


@dailytarheel |

Eliza Benbow

Eliza Benbow is the 2023-24 lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer university editor. Eliza is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and creative writing, with a minor in Hispanic studies.