Umar Rashid

The Artist Known as Frohawk Two Feathers

Interview by Evan Pricco and Doug Gillen

We are two minutes into our interview with Umar Rashid, famously known in some art circles as Frohawk Two Feathers, and he references the “malleability of history.” At this point, what you need to know about Umar is his adoption of a practice that is both loose and intricate, as if he is talking about the malleability of art as we know it. His research interprets the literal and figurative as he unearths new histories among our oldest stories and everything in between. It’s a rare capacity to speak freely about one’s identity and feel confident enough to challenge what that self is. But he is Umar Rashid, and he knows he has one shot. So while he’s at it, and luckily for us, he will decorate our world with a passionate sense of purpose and unique position of individuality. With a new solo show, En Garde / On God, opening at Blum and Poe in Los Angeles on November 6th, we look back at our Fall 2021 Quarterly conversation with Umar. 

Evan Pricco: We all live in countries with a history of unrest, but I wonder what insurrection most fascinates you.
Umar Rashid: There are actually quite a few insurrections. My number one, all-time favorite would have to be the Haitian Revolution because it was just… it needed to happen. If you want to talk about modern conflicts, I think the Vietnamese and the French, the French and Vietnamese war, Dien Bien Phu. That was just amazing from the military standpoint in terms of when they took the country back, which ultimately led to the Vietnam-American war. What else is there, man?
Doug Gillen: Why is that your go-to in a question that you probably get all the time?
I don't know, man. It's because freedom struggles happen all the time. The whole world is full of popular misconceptions and horrible shit, and I just bring it to light in a very loose way. I make it accessible because if we're at each other's throats all the goddamn time, if we're all like, "Fuck you. You did this to me," it's just like old school feuding. And that has to end.


Umar Rashid: The Man Known as Frohawk Two Feathers


EP: At what point in your research do you feel like, okay, I'm ready to challenge this, have fun with this, reinterpret this for my work?
I recently did this little workshop with the Hammer Museum about the malleability of history. I do believe there are certain times in historical record where, had things been done differently, we could have averted this modern crisis, But in averting that particular crisis, you invite multiple crises. The way I think, man, being a Libra, I feel there is no good, there is no evil, there's just a balance. Everything has to be balanced at the end of the day. Otherwise, Libras have a hard time making decisions because we only see the logical... I'm like a fucking Vulcan, man. I only see logic. I don't see anything else.
I'm not saying that I don't get upset about things, like the status quo, the world or whatever; systemic racism and shit like that. Yes, that bothers me, that affects me, but I mean, you can continue on a particular path and hope for the best, or you can try to just initiate a dialogue where we sit back and we find our tribes, so to speak. Because your tribe doesn't always look like you. Your tribe isn't always going to be you. You can go to any place, any world, and everybody has the same problem. 
I don't use the term white supremacy because I don't believe that white people are inherently supreme. I also believe in the power and the intention of words, and the power and intention of images. We all do this. We all go about things in a weird fucked up way because our egos get involved. Even I can't escape my own ego, like, "Yeah. I know a whole lot of shit." So, it's like, "I'm flawed too." I don't know. It’s just multiple perspectives. At the end of the day, you get this one life. Doug's going to be Doug one time. Evan's going to be Evan one time. Umar is going to be Umar one fucking time. It's not like we're going to be, like, "Oh yeah. Metaphysically, my soul age is a million years." Man, fuck all that. You're going to be you one time. You might turn into some other shit. I don't know how that works. I don't know anything about the end phases of human existence… 


Umar Rashid: The Man Known as Frohawk Two Feathers


EP: You just said you're Umar once. I want to know about Frohawk Two Feathers and Umar Rashid. Is there a split? Is it the same?
It's the same. Frohawk Two Feathers, Umar, Hi-Fidel. All the graffiti names that I had throughout my life. I just like to, a little bit, embody a persona that helps me enter a different phase and also I use it as a marker of the passage of time. When people call me Hi-Fidel, I know they know me from rapping. When people call me Frohawk, I know they know me from making art. When people call me Kent Cyclone, I know they know me from getting drunk and probably saying some whack shit or getting involved in a bar brawl, giving somebody a Glasgow kiss and making music at the same time. I grew up in a theater. My father was a playwright. I grew up shifting characters. I had to embody these particular characters in order to come up with these personas that influence my worldview—but now it's like, the jig is up! It's done. No more dancing. It's just, like, this is me and all of my multifaceted self, but it could also lead to some horrible schisms in the brain, which might lead to multiple personality disorder down the line. I hope to God that if I ever get Alzheimer's, dementia or some shit like that, somebody just puts a fucking bullet in me. It was like, "Hey, do not resuscitate." Because I would be like, "Oh, I'm the great Merlin doctor from Yale." Shit. Don't let me ever get dementia, man. Just seal the goddamn blast doors, man.
DG: Do you feel that now with Umar Rashid, you're kind of at the final stage of monikers, or are there still more to emerge?
Yeah. It's definitely the end man. I can live with this, because Umar Rashid is me. It's the one that is me. It's the name that I’ve lived with since I was born, and with all these personas, Umar Rashid has always been the constant. So, I do believe, I mean, if I start a space rock band, I might be like Lord Galactic Cosmo Codpiece, some weird shit. I don't know.


Umar Rashid: The Man Known as Frohawk Two Feathers


EP: I’m pretty fascinated about your father being a playwright. That seems like a really great place to start in the way that you approach a lot of the things. What is it like to grow up with a playwright?

EP: I can imagine.
Because my father, not only is he a playwright, but he's also an actor and a painter as well. So I would have to see plays where my father dies. I'd have to see plays where my father is not such a great person and it was really weird; that made me realize that, "Oh man, we can be so many things and still be..." So that's what brought about my personal journeys. You can be so many things and still be you.
DG: Did that make it hard to understand who you were talking to at the end of the day? When you went home and you sat down for dinner, did you perceive a difference?
He did a play called Passenger Past Midnight where he played Marvin Gaye, so he lived through Gaye's whole life. He would come home and he'd be really feeling that pain that Marvin Gaye was going through. My brother and I, we would just say, "Okay, well he's going through another one of his things. Then the show will be over and he'll be onto something new." My mother was a thespian, too. Actually, my parents met when my father played Malcolm X and my mother played Betty Shabazz. It was a play called El-Hajj Malik, which is the name that Malcolm X took towards the end of his life.
So, I actually grew up in a woke family. I didn't have to wait until everybody else got ready. That’s another thing about the way that I look at things. I'll be 45 this year, so I'm looking at things from a 44-year-old lens already, because that's the life that I was born into. I'm not saying I have disdain for the infancy of most people's ideas, but I have had a longer time to look at it all, and so that's why I make the decisions I do with regards to race and politics and things. I mean, ultimately, I'm saying the same things that everybody else is saying, but there's just certain things that I realized don't work because I've seen it happen and I've seen it fail. I'm not a huge fan of marching, for example, and that's just me.
DG: Why?
Actually, I just really hate crowds, because you can't trust them. Every time there's some crowd activity and something happens, people get trampled. I don't want to get trampled to death. People have been marching, especially black people in this country, and we've been marching for a long time, since the ’60s. If you look at it, you can put the signs together. You can look at signs from 1965 in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2020, or whatever state, whatever metropolitan area in the United State, and the signs will be almost identical, asking for the same things. Now what has changed in 45 years? Not a whole lot. So what that says to me is that the situation won't be resolved in this particular manner. I don't advocate for violent reprisals because I think... It's got to be a better way.


Umar Rashid: The Man Known as Frohawk Two Feathers


DG: Was religion a part of your upbringing? What was your relationship with it, if any?
That's a very interesting question. So, growing up, even with my name, I grew up primarily Christian. My parents were into various African spiritualties, and that's another thing about black people in the United States. It’s the reason I have the name that I have, because my mother and my father used to travel back and forth to Nigeria, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, and Ghana. So my father and my mother were hanging out with Fela Kuti and some of Fela's friends. They were like, "Hey, if it's going to be a girl, you should name her Rashida and if it's a boy, you should name him Umar." I was a boy, so they named me Umar Rashid. So that's my whole first name. I'm not going to tell you my slave name, the name that was given to me by the captives of my people. Two reasons.
So they named me this name even though they were raised in a Christian tradition. I went through all the denominations of Christianity, from Baptist to Catholic, which is where I ended up. The thing about Catholicism that I really enjoy is its gilded nature. It's very showy in its forms of ceremony, which I really liked. So when I was getting out of high school, I converted to Islam,  so I was practicing that, and I took the Shahada. I was practicing Muslim for some years, but then I met my wife who's from Japan. She introduced me to Shinto and Buddhism, and so I stopped practicing organized religion after a while. I respect all faiths.
DG: Did you find a common thread between the major religions you practiced?
Yeah. It's just like Abrahamic religions. Definitely, there's a commonality, especially between Christianity and Islam; it's like the middle and the end, because it all begins with Judaism. All the Abrahamic faith comes from Abraham, who identified as Jewish, or whatever Jewish was back in those days. The Abrahamic faith is the Torah, the Injil and the Quran, the three books that hold these faiths together. Then again, at the end of the day, I couldn't say that any one of those faiths represented me, or how any one of those, any of my personas, became the complete me. I needed to understand them. I needed to practice these faiths in order to understand them on a personal level.
Nowadays, the world is pretty much known. You can be anywhere in 24 hours on this planet. The journeys that we take these days are more introspective. There're more journeys into ourselves rather than the journeys of exploration and finding new lands and, "Oh, this sea moss is great. Perhaps we will figure out some way to cure cancer," said nobody ever. You go through these phases, and I wouldn't say it was a phase, because when I did practice religions, I was very devout. I used to sing. I loved going to Jumu’ah with my friends at the Mosque that I went to, and we would have discussions over a meal, especially during Ramadan. 
DG: Can you tell us about the process, and how you arrive at that final image in the painting?
Usually it starts with the research, but if I'm not doing a show about anything specific, I usually do six months of research and six months of execution. For now, I've already researched the vast majority of the hard points, so I will just get into the intricacies later on. Right now, I'm trying to finish this narrative about the American West and also parts of New Spain. So that's been the focus for the past five years. Five years before that, I did New England.


"You can be anywhere in 24 hours on this planet. The journeys that we take these days are more introspective."

Umar Rashid: The Man Known as Frohawk Two Feathers


EP: How often, as you look through history books and research, do you think, “I did not know this." And when this happens, how does it change your perception of where the show's going or where your consciousness goes?
Every day I find something new to be wowed by, and that's what keeps me going, finding new things.
EP: With all the ways you approach your practice and make art built into these stories that you're researching and telling, has anything changed in terms of the attention and collector bases having changed in the last couple of years?
Yeah. I think what I'm doing is kind of leveling out. Normally, my M.O. was always to create, to just move so far in the future. My friend, the rapper Serengeti, once observed something about me that I felt was very accurate when he said, "Umar lives in the future and comes back to the present to give his own power presence." So I literally don’t live here. I'm so far, I try to stay so far ahead because I don't want to be caught in this wave of... reactionary shit. I hate reactivism. I want to be able to come from a position of strength and to come from a position of absolute, to talk about these things in a way in which they need to be talked about right at that particular time.
I think that the problem with most revolutionary activities is that they are always reactionary. You can't be reactive. You have to be proactive in your revolution. You can't be reactive in your revolutionary ideals. So I'm being proactive. I'm taking a stance. I'm not saying that this is the only stance that can be taken, but I just choose to show people what can happen, the possibilities that can happen, and also illustrate what has occurred, and get people into history and knowing what our history is, and to try not to fucking repeat that shit.
Maybe not much can be said for us. Maybe we're fucking doomed. I have no idea, but we're going to have a good time because, like I said in the beginning, you're going to be Evan once, you're going to be Doug once, and I’m going to be Umar once. Everything comes back full circle at some point. But, as far as collectors go, I think that's more of a market thing than it is about my work. I don't think anybody's just like, "Oh man, this guy's brilliant,” or, “This guy's a total fucking dick,” or, “This guy really loves Himalayan rock salt." But who knows? 
DG: Was this idea of revisionist history something that's always been with you, or was there a kind of a Eureka moment? 
Writers get writer's block, artist’s block, and I just wanted to have something that I made that I could do for the rest of my life, and this is what it became. So it was a Eureka moment, but it was also a moment in which I just kind of planned out my future. I made something that I could do forever and ever.