When exploring cities around the world known for spawning creative communities, you can’t fail to mention Chicago. It is recognized as a breeding ground for forward thinking thinkers and pop culture innovators, one of whom is esteemed artist Hebru Brantley.
Brantley’s collectible works span various art forms including graffiti, oil, acrylic, watercolour, video and photography, many of which express the concept of Afrofuturism. He’s a world builder, and his inimitable narrative is showcased through his own set of playful characters. His Frogboy, Lil Mama, and Rocket designs all stem from his upbringing, his deep love for comics and film, and the Windy City AfriCOBRA movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and they are designed to evoke emotions of nostalgia, of hope and power. A-list figures such as Jay-Z, LeBron James, George Lucas and Chance the Rapper have all shown their admiration for Brantley’s artistic talents, with the latter even shouting it out in his song “Blessings (Reprise)” from his mixtape. Coloring book.
The Bronzeville native recently linked up with
HYPEBEAST caught up with the creative talent to discuss the importance of inspiring the next generation of creatives, the importance of brands giving artists a platform to create and more.
HYPEBEAST: What made you love sneakers?
HB: I am just a product of my environment. It’s not a cliché, but I grew up in South Chicago during the Jordan days, so it was a given. Growing up in Chicago at that time, you had two things that were a certainty. You were a fan of the Bulls and Michael Jordan, and you listened to R. Kelly all the time.
Your works are frequently associated with the streetwear scene, what do you think of the intersection between art, streetwear, fashion, sneakers and global culture?
It’s old. You look at Chanel and the pop movement of the 80s, there has always been this intersection where art and fashion live together in one space, hold hands and go. It’s no different right now, but it’s just happening in greater abundance and every time you blink there’s another collaboration with an artist or creative. It also gets much brighter through social media. Exposure is the biggest difference.
Before your collaboration with adidas, did you ever think that your creations could translate into shoes?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid. I come from a creative and athletic family, but I’m the only one in the family who stuck with it and pursued it beyond a hobby. But I remember the times when my cousin and I stayed up late and drew our own silhouettes, sketched some shoes, and then added our own colors and style. It was always something I enjoyed and wanted to be a part of.
Your art is centered around this concept of Afrofuturism. How did you land on this design language for yourself and what inspired it?
It just has to do with my upbringing and the things I was in without knowing it was forming. As I grow and notice the things that have intrigued me, the things I associate myself with, the movies I watch 100 times, and the comics I’m in, have built over the time. The hardest thing for artists to do is define their voice in any medium. When I was researching mine, I thought I had a good idea of my heritage and culture, but didn’t feel like it was completely representative of who I was as a person. It took a little time to figure out. I started finding that language and incorporating the things that I invented through the things that were really dear to me and my style grew out of that. I’m a big fan of the dark. I dress pretty understated and I think it has a lot to do with my height since I’m 6’8 and it’s hard for a 6’8 guy to be absurd or overdoing it. The people I’ve always looked up to are the ones who have gone above and beyond, like George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, Prince and guys like that. They are all part of my expression and how I want to move and add sensitivity to what I want to create.
Creatively, how did you approach the adidas Originals Forum collaboration?
As I do with everything I do. First it’s excitement, then panic, then conversations and comments. then finally land on something that feels good. I think one of the hardest things to do is design for an existing silhouette, especially something that has a story behind it like forums do. There’s been years and years where other people have come in and put their stamp on it, so it’s about figuring out how to do something that’s entirely original or leans towards my voice or sensibility without having the impression of leaning on something that has already come before me. I’m really lucky to have a situation where I can work with adidas who really care about what they do and really care about the artist. It’s not like I’m just here to fill in a blank and they tick a box, they really don’t care about my input and really care what I have to say. When you have that support, it really helps the end result.
The Forum is an iconic shoe. How did you honor its importance, while adding your flair to it?
I am a visual artist so it is difficult for me to transcribe what I do or to distill it into a drawing or two drawings. It’s about approaching it slightly differently and incorporating elements of things I’ve created in the past as identifiers for the silhouettes. The Rocket and Frogboy characters symbolize freedom, emancipation and escape. It’s also important to note being in a position where, for those who know, they know just by looking and not seeing my name appear on a shoe or the box.
Has working with adidas influenced your work or changed your view of what you do?
It helped me gain a sense of understanding and confidence as I grew in my art and expression, as well as having a greater sense of freedom in what and how I create. I also want to note that I was not held or pampered through this process or given all the “yes” answers to everything. Things didn’t work out every time and we had to try new things. The more shots you make, the stronger your game becomes. Thanks to this project, I found a renewed sense of confidence feeling like I had real ownership instead of feeling like a company just wrote me a check and gave me some coloring to do. And that’s important because with a lot of collaborations these days, a lot of companies just want you to hand in the homework and shut up.
Why do you think it’s good that adidas celebrates artists of all calibers?
This broadens the perspective that allows a wider audience to participate as these artists bring to their communities. It’s also something where I feel like adidas is one of the very few brands that actually celebrates creativity and puts creativity in a position similar to that of the athlete. It matters because it lives and dies with creation. The athletes put it on and make this stuff cool, but the creatives are the ones who actually see it since its genesis.
What do you hope this collaboration will accomplish for culture?
It’s important for those younger than me and those who follow me to know that there is no monolithic creative process. It can be shoes, clothes, loungewear, anything, and you can go all the way and do what you do. I’m a good artist but I’m not limited to galleries. There is always an intention to inspire in everything I do. It sounds corny, but I didn’t have a rhythm growing up, and I want to be an example so others don’t limit themselves and know that the sky is the limit if you’re creative.
Why are sneakers and their stories important to you?
For me, sneakers are the most important part of the fit. I am very attached to the culture of collectors and it is super intriguing. I also love how it’s a form of artistic expression and it’s a wearable form of artistic expression that is extremely and totally unique. Like art, everything is subjective, and a shoe can mean different things to different people.