Hardly a day goes by that André LeRoy Davis isn’t drawing, but on the night of July 13, 2013, the culturally shrewd illustrator found it impossible to muster an ounce of enthusiasm to put pencil to paper. It was the night the not-guilty verdict from the Trayvon Martin case was announced, and Davis was overcome by crippling emotions.
“I was so, so angry, and in such a rage,” he recalls via telephone from his Brooklyn apartment. “I wasn’t calm enough to just sit and draw.” The next morning, a contemplative Davis (also known as A. L. Dré) wasn’t any less stunned by George Zimmerman’s acquittal, but once his anger subsided, he was able to manifest his heavy emotions the best way he knows how.
“I thought of doing a series of drawings to make a statement about this case,” says Davis. He commissioned 17 artists to help him honor Trayvon Martin and the countless other Black teens whose lives have been tragically cut short by racial violence in an exhibit titled 17: The Revolution Will Be Visualized. The exhibit opened at the Stratosphere Studios in Brooklyn on February 26, the two-year anniversary of Martin’s death. It will also be shown at The Art Gallery in Harlem on April 5 and close on May 10.
“It’s about African-American artists supplying our own visual to our story, as opposed to accepting a visual given to us by others, ” he explains. “I didn’t want it to just be sad. We manage to cover a lot of different perspectives that include anger, sadness, happiness and hope. One piece can give you hope and another can bring you back to reality with a slap across the face.”
Similar to his renowned in-your-face illustrations poking fun at hip-hop artists in his infamous Last Word column for The Source magazine (which ran from 1990 to 2007), Davis’s piece for the exhibit gets straight to the point. Only this time, he isn’t striving for laughs as he customarily does with his art; instead he hopes to raise our collective consciousness.
Titled License to Kill, the sobering drawing is of a hunting license with the image of a small Black boy crying and two James Bond figures with guns in hand. On the top right and left is the cost of the license ($25) and on the bottom, right beneath the boy’s image: NO EXPIRY DATE. “This is many people’s realities that have lost kids and there’s no humor to it,” Davis says. He pauses and adds, “That’s where I wanted to go with it, and I make no apologies.”
Davis is used to provoking strong reactions with his work. His signature laugh-out-loud, controversial spoofs for The Last Word ruffled the feathers of many MCs in 1990s. At the time, no one in hip-hop was drawing parodies of rappers that spoke specifically to their community. “There were magazines like Spin that were making fun of rappers, but I felt that it came from their misunderstanding of the culture,” says Davis, who stresses that his work was never personal.
“It may not appear that way, but I always made it a point not to ever attack anyone. The jokes wrote themselves. I just took actual words that people said or things they did and brought them to life visually,” he describes. One drawing—depicting ’90s West Coast gangster rapper DJ Quik (known then for sporting a perm) sitting in a beauty shop with James Brown in the next chair—got Dré banned from L.A. “He was one of the earliest people to threaten me,” says Davis. Others who voiced their discontent with their portrayal included Rakim, MC Serch, Erik Sermon, PM Dawn, Eazy-E and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad. “Once I had a one-on-one conversation with most artists, they were cool with it,” says Davis, who also penned hip-hop album reviews as A.L. Dré for Vibe, XXL and Rap Pages. As The Last Word grew in popularity, rappers recognized that getting lampooned by Davis was indicative of their prominent standing in the zeitgeist of hip-hop culture.
Seven years ago marked the end of The Last Word, and it was a bittersweet adieu for Davis. In addition to craving a hiatus from covering hip-hop, The Source’s changing management and unpaid work left Dré eager to break off his working relationship with the publication. “I was still drawing after I left. I was working on baseball cards and I started teaching at a charter school, a nursing home in Harlem, and an adult education class at John Jay College,” says Davis. He may have turned his attention to teaching but The Last Word was still heavy on his mind.
“Every month I would always have all these ideas for The Last Word,” divulges Davis, who decided to bring back the column independently on his website in 2012. It’s also been running in Frank 151 magazine for the last eight months, and can be seen at HipHopDx.com, HipHopWired.com, UrbanDaily.com, AllHipHop.com and Spiritualmindedmagazine.com. It doesn’t hurt that whenever he runs into fans, including Chuck D and LL Cool J (who holds the title for the most featured MC in The Last Word), they gush over the column.
While his subjects have changed, his sensibility has remained the same. Davis captured the infamous bottle-throwing row between Chris Brown and Drake at Club W.i.P in New York with a fight poster titled Take It to the Head. Mary J. Blige’s embarrassing, never-aired Burger King commercial where she croons about her love of fried chicken was also a target. (Davis mockingly placed the R&B diva’s face on a Kentucky Fried Chicken Box à la Colonel Sanders.)
Davis recently took aim at Kanye West’s questionable use of the confederate flag by featuring the rapper shirtless with whip scars on his back and the caption, “New Slave, No Glory.” West also makes an appearance in Davis’s second annual Who Failed Black History Month Nominees, along with Rick Ross (for his popping molly controversy) and Nicki Minaj (for the attaching the N-word to Malcom X’s image.)
“I have no editor censoring my work anymore, so I’m hitting folks in the head,” says Davis. “Right now I’m working on a new Rick Ross. He could use a new one.”
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she's not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she's writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and her blog, Fringueuse.