Black Trailblazers in the Creative Industry

Black Trailblazers in the Creative Industry

As a Black creative, I can honestly say that the past few years have been interesting and encouraging.

Since the pandemic’s beginning, when more people were on social media, there was much more emphasis on following Black creatives online, especially during Black History Month. What I thought was a gimmick initially connected me to many people I consider ongoing friends today. My follower count on Instagram went up, and more people are engaging with many of my online history lessons.

Part of my “brand” (if you even want to call it that) is uncovering the history of Black Americans and telling their story. I see an awful lot of that, especially this time of year, with articles highlighting the accomplishments of many stellar African Americans of the past.

Now, I LOVE my predecessors. I talk about them constantly on Instagram. But what of the NEW trailblazers, though? The “disrupters” of the status quo; working to break existing barriers? No love for them?!?

As a firm believer in “if you don’t see it in the world, create it yourself,” I asked RetroSupply owner Dustin Lee if I could write an article highlighting not only the past group of trailblazers, but also the present-day creative heroes that are conquering pervasive struggles of Black people and many others in the United States.

For the sake of this post, let’s call it “Reflect (on where we’ve been) and Connect (to folks in the right now).”

Here are a few folks (out of a WHOLE bunch) we will focus on today…

Visual Arts

Jean-Michel Basquiat pictured outside wearing a red and black shirt and tan felt hat.
A painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat representing a Black figure among a plane of doodle and letters.

Photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat (left) and Untitled [Pollo Frito] (right)

Past: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist who rose to success during the Neo-expressionism movement of the 1980s.

Basquiat used social commentary in his early graffiti art and his late period as a fine artist. His paintings exhibit introspection, discussion of shared experiences in the Black community, and attacks on power structures and systemic racism.

Present: Rob Zilla

Robert Generette III (Rob Zilla) is an award-winning illustrator and educator in self-appointed “vector art Monster.”

Even though he is known for his ability to create compelling sports illustrations and portraitures, he doesn’t shy away from the topics he feels demand change.

His recent work with Adobe to uplift the message of Black Lives Matter - pulled no punches and is told through a personal lens. He and his son even make an appearance in the artwork!

Robert Generette III headshot. He is wearing a white shirt and black hoodie.

Robert Generette III (left) and 2018 NBA All-Star illustration for ESPN (right)


Animator Floyd Norman seated at an animation table.
A sketch of a snake from the movie The Jungle Book.

Floyd Norman (left) and sketch for The Jungle Book (right)

Past: Floyd Norman

Floyd Norman became the first African American artist at The Walt Disney Company in 1957 (at 21 years old).

Given the racism in the animation industry and America in general, Norman's hiring was a huge deal at the time. Norman contributed the likes of Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, and The Jungle Book.

In 1966, Floyd Norman left Disney to co-found Vignette Films, Inc., one of the first companies to make films about Black history. Later in his career, he returned to Disney and worked on films such as Mulan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He even worked with Pixar on Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc. and still is active in the animation industry today!

Present: Taylor K. Shaw

Taylor K. Shaw is the founder and CEO of the studio Black Women Animate.

The studio's website says it's the first and only animation studio "designed to improve the representation of Black women in the animation." The company consciously hires women of color to bring much-needed diversity into the industry. It trains talents, offers production services, creates original content, and has partnered with animation companies such as Cartoon Network.

A trailblazer in her own right, Taylor K. Shaw is a visionary who is changing the world of animation for the better.

Taylor K. Shaw seated outside wearing a red top.
An animation still of a person in a yellow room with text boxes behind them.

Taylor K. Shaw (left) and still from We Have the Receipts (right)

With such a similar creative process, it is no surprise that music and the arts go hand in hand. The hardships of breaking through racial barriers, like with the Harlem Renaissance (check out my history brief on that), helped forge the two fields into lifelong partners.

Whereas the Harlem Renaissance was more "urban" - could you imagine pursuing a career in a musical genre primarily considered "White"?

No need to imagine.

Read on…


Musician Lesley Riddle standing outdoors and holding a guitar.

Lesley Riddle (above.)

Past: Lesley Riddle

The unlikely partnership between Lesley Riddle, a young African-American blues musician, and the “first family” of country music (the Carters) had an extraordinary impact on American music.

A.P. Carter, the Carter family patriarch, asked Lesley to take him to African American communities all over Appalachian, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina to find new songs for the Carter Family band.

Lesley would memorize the tunes and words before returning to the Carters, later teaching them the songs.
He also taught his unique guitar-picking style to the Carter Family, which became known as the widely used “Carter picking.”

Present: Tray Wellington

Tray Wellington’s banjo skills started with Scruggs-style bluegrass that has since morphed into several styles of bluegrass, blues, and jazz on the five-string banjo.

One of many music magazines had this to say about him: “Taking cues from his musical and geographic forefathers, his take on banjo music blends progressive experimentation with traditional influences, making for a debut album that’s, well… fun. Wellington shows off his instrumental chops at every turn, fusing elements of jazz and bluegrass with occasional bursts of simple, singable lyrics.”

He studies the past and builds upon it, winning awards and accolades.

Tray Wellington photographed in a church holding a banjo.

Tray Wellington (above.)

Ready for your "Call-to-Action"? Here you go...

    • Study the past. ALL of it.
    • Follow and support a diverse group of creatives online.
    • Engage with people in person and online.
    • Be your OWN trailblazer and create what you don’t see in this world.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask others for help.
    • Contact any of the people mentioned, ask questions.
    • Find a mentor.

The creative industry has become what it has due to the contributions of all of its participants, including the Black trailblazers, past and present. Let’s continue to acknowledge, encourage and ally for all those who fight to make what we do better - for ALL.


Dameon S. Williams is a illustrator and designer from Raleigh, NC.

His path from design-to-healthcare-back-to-design is kinda a long story, but essentially, it made him better. A better dad, husband, designer, etc. He learned what empathy really means, and tries to issue that to his clients and everyone checking his various posts out on Instagram. He loves history, gaming, pen & ink…and is really starting to dig folk music.

You can see more of his work on his Instagram @dameonwilliams.