Asaan Brooks, aka Swamburger, was kind enough to allow me into his beautiful home in the cozy Thornton Park area. Being an artist, it must be pretty convenient for him to live so close to Sam Flax. His home property has multiple buildings with quite a few people buzzing around in them. I actually ended up parking in the wrong place and knocking on the wrong door. I’m sure that’s not the first time that’s happened.
Swamburger is primarily known for his involvement with the B-Side Artists group and the Solillaquists of Sound music group. He’s a man with a mission, and he leads by example. He’s driven toward positive social change and unification of our community. He’s someone who thinks a lot about his impact on the community and the potential that we have to get together and do great things.
His painting style is a notable trait of his character. Very few can portray the essence of urban attitudes as masterfully as he can. It is clear that he understands how to visually communicate the issues and questions that members of the urban community face.
We sat down in his spacious living room, just a few feet away from a work in progress. He got me a glass of water, and his cat, Edison, greeted me. I took out my notebook, and we got the ball rolling pretty quickly.
Rob Goldman: Ready?
Swamburger: Fire away.
What’s been on your mind recently?
Current events… Black Lives Matter Movement… Colin Kaepernick taking a knee. I’ve been hearing the outcry. Just a lot about all shades of brown-skinned folk trying to have a voice other than the ones the already have.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep; I came downstairs—not that this really bothers me, that’s not why I couldn’t sleep. It’s been to a point where…look. I’m 41 years old, man. Being on the planet for that long (not saying that’s old), and seeing two or three different times where you see that your people—your folk, your race, your culture—is in this outcry. Again, and again, and again.
I’m just trying to be a painter. I see myself as trying to exist in a different world. I’m not saying I’m trying to erase myself from my culture or my race, you know what I’m saying? But, as an artist, I’ve got totally different problems!
So, as you have these different movements going on, you’ll see, for instance, Public Enemy on the radio in ‘92. And they’re like, “Fight the power! Fight the power!” And everybody is like, “Yeah!! Word up!”
Then you have someone like Rodney King. My man comes back and says probably the most profound thing you could say, in that situation, “Can’t we all just get along?” I remember specifically, not just my race—it felt like the entire planet was…laughing! Like, “Hahaha! ‘Can’t we all just get along!?’ Yeah, right!”
Now, we’re right back in that same situation. I’m watching my people just repeat themselves over and over. It’s insane. So, that’s what I’m painting. I’m painting the mediocrity. The repetition. The blindness. That’s why usually when I paint, my characters have no eyes. Those features are not the most prominent. Not like the hands are.
You’re thinking about the insanity of things. Actually, Matt Duke and I were just talking about how there’s a really productive artist in us that hangs out right at the edge of this insanity.
Someone who can just say, “I need to embrace this insanity, I need to harness this insanity, and channel it into something good.”
Yeah, man. I’m trying to be at the forefront of that movement. Back in the day, you had Bad Brains, with their PMA (Positive Mental Attitude). There are always these movements, first, for our sanity.
Even with these shootings, with the mass killing of black people by cops. Again, that’s not to say that just that is the major problem with America. That’s just what’s in the foreground. You know what I’m saying? When I go to my Facebook, boom. That’s what’s on my feed.
And when I’m hearing some of these rappers, I feel like there’s this sort of bend toward trying to find some sort of truth. Locally, you really feel it. I don’t think there’s enough of it, and I wouldn’t say that we’ve found the right spokesman for it.
When it comes down to it, man, I want to be at the forefront of the next movement. I want it to start with the arts.
Yeah! There’s a huge discussion about art becoming interdisciplinary. It should be pervasive. Everything needs to be art. There is a dehumanization without art in a community. It leads to a mass depression.
Sometimes being sad is a good thing. But you have to go through the actual emotion. You have to live it, to come out saying, “I never want to feel that emotion for that long of a period again.” You have to know it. You have to get your back broken.
When did you move to Orlando?
How is Orlando different than where you’re from, and how is Orlando different now than when you arrived?
When I first got here, I got culture shock. It seemed very backwards to me. The big difference is the sense of community in Chicago. For instance, let’s say there’s trouble in Chicago. Everybody knows about it; everybody understands that they’re living with it at the same time. Another thing is that all your friends are friends for life. You can see each other years apart and still be like “Yo!! What’s up!?”
That’s everyone in Chicago. I don’t know how it is now, but that was how it was then. When I came here, it was more of a popularity contest. You had your little cliques, of course. It wasn’t the same in Chicago. It was a different culture, where hip-hop was invited, where all the classes would walk the streets together.
So, if you’ve got a graffiti artist going to paint, or a businessman going to the Sears Tower, they’re walking side by side. They acknowledge each other’s presence even without having to say a word. The city moved together.
That was the thing. We had too much in common. Everybody loved the Bulls, loved the Bears, and those were times when those teams were the best. We had the best. How could you not be all about that as a Chicagoan?
When I got to Orlando, there wasn’t that kind of pride. So that was weird to not be hyped about a city I’m a part of. That’s why I feel like when all these people come here, they’re always talking about the city they come from. I’d always say, “Well, in Chicago…” and I’d always get the same answer, “Boy, you ain’t in Chicago.”
Now, I’ve introduced so much of my Chicago-ness into it, that I can’t see Orlando without me. Without the changes that I’ve helped to make, and without the influences that type of attitude brought. So, now I’m seeing more of a driven community. For instance, with ARTBORNE—I don’t know if we would have been able to see this magazine come from, what is it, two cats? What would you say is the core?
Probably like three or four people?
There you go! Three or four people! I’m seeing that type of movement happen! It was just me, when B-Side started, so I’m seeing it spread like that. For me, being one person, and then, Boom! It spreads. Now you guys with four people, Boom! Spreading it.
I’ve traveled the world for music. Some of the best stuff I’ve seen has been here. The only difference is that it doesn’t get the support. That’s what still lingers. So, you do have your little communities, and they are so strong. So dedicated. So talented. But the outside world still doesn’t support them!
Do you think Orlando is a force outside of the Central Florida map?
It could be if people learn how to embrace it. I think it could start to happen more due to the recent tragedy. With Pulse, there is so much attention. Orlando is starting to look inward. You go anywhere and it says, “Orlando Strong,” “Orlando United,” and that’s what I’m used to, but prior to the tragedy. For me, that pride is built in!
Let’s about the B-Side. First of all, what’s going on with the B-Side artists?
Well, it started off as a core three. Me, Tobar, and Tre Harris. Tobar and Tre came into Culture Mart, which was a downtown store that I owned, at 225 N Magnolia. When they came in, Tobar was looking for a spot to be able to do his art show.
I guess nobody gave him the green light until I did. He brought like 150 people to the shop. The next week, I asked him, “What do you think about doing this full time?”
That’s when we started trying to gather all these artists. We had the core, but we knew a couple other cats that were down. At the end of the day there were about six folks. And I think there’s about 250 names now. That’s not just in Orlando. Some are in France, some in Chicago, some in New York.
If you were to ask me my thoughts on it, to me, B-Side is the exact movement of what it is that I was trying to implement when I first got here. Just with the arts. I believe it’s a progressive movement that basically dares to be…
The flip side of the coin?
Not just the flip side of the coin! I mean, yes, that’s the whole deal with the “B-side” thing, but…
We dare to be true to ourselves. The B-side of the record is not how we really think of ourselves. We think of ourselves as the main single. The B-side is just how we feel other folks perceive us to be. For most people, the B-side ends up being the best side anyway!
It’s about saying, “This is who I am. This is what I do.” When everyone is free to be themselves, you have inevitable change.
We’re all waiting for bigger opportunities to take it to the next level. Our next level was the streets. Can it get any bigger than that?
We took the hustle from Chicago. We all had, ingrained in us, this attitude to attack the world with our art. Tobar had found a spot that ended up being one of the most iconic spots we had painted. That was Urban Flats on Church Street.
Here, you have Donna Lewis approaching us and saying, “I need you guys to be in CityArts Factory.” Once we realized that we had been hand-picked, we said, “Oh! This is a great way to get to that next level!” You bring it to the people.
That’s really awesome, man. So, what was your dream as a little kid? And has that changed, or is that still the seed of your dreams?
When I was a kid, my dream job was to be a football player, but also always an artist, and a poet. My mother was an artist, and my father was a poet. I was always going to be doing some sort of art, and some sort of poetry. Now it has turned into music, as well.
So, what’s your dream right now?
Man, I’m living my dream. Straight up. I do art for a living, I do music for a living, I’m not really working any other job, but I promote. I am totally living my dream. The only thing that I could hope for is for everyone around me to live theirs. But, if I were to move further, I would be working with these local businesses, and we’d be putting on shows or events where people can benefit from that, pretty much weekly.
I’d like to turn any city that I’m living in into a city that is constantly striving to be the absolute best that they can be. There’s a bunch of ideas that I have for that type of movement. But for me personally, I’m set.
What do you think Orlando’s goal should be, as a city? And also, where you think the art scene is headed?
I think Orlando should focus on the arts. Too many times we play this role of trying to be accepted. We need to be making bolder moves.
There’s this art project where people are painting on electrical boxes. I like that people are pushing to put art in different places…But for me, nah. Not electrical boxes. Give these people a wall. Give them something valuable. Let it be known that this is really important.
There was this whole movement of putting art on dumpsters. Really? You put me in all these nooks and crannies, just to “beautify” the city. But you’ll never put me in a place that truly matters.
So, I’d say we really need to push harder. Dare to be bolder. Come together. The same way that we had the vigil. That was a perfect spot. That was beautiful. It gave that Dr. Phillips Center a totally different feel.
But, how do we push people like that?
We have to get smaller businesses, like ARTBORNE, to build with some of these bigger businesses. If ARTBORNE links up with a few different dope artists from around town, then links up with Sam Flax, then links up with the Orlando Museum of Art, and the Orlando Magic, and Orlando City Soccer—we get forces like that behind us, and we push a big project together!
When everybody comes together, that’s when you start to see a real difference. People need to come together with their businesses to support each other. And make it known.
Why do you think art is important?
Oh, man…It’s an effective way of communication.
Just getting the message across in the most effective method possible.
Yeah. Because, a lot of times when people look at art, they don’t have that creator to speak to. It’s got a life of its own.
This kind of brings it full circle. You have people talking about the flag saying, “Don’t disrespect it!” Somebody created that shit. It’s a symbol and this is what it meant. I would love for my piece to be treated like a flag. That’s exactly how I’m creating it. I can’t imagine being the creator of a flag. I’d be like, “There are people dying for this shit!”
I’d be sleeping comfortably with that thought.
That artist is probably thinking it’s the greatest thing he’s ever created.
It’s practically a defining factor of their life. That’s crazy. That’s a really good note.
The other thing is, when people wave that flag, it’s representing. When folks wave that flag and then misrepresent it, it can turn into a whole different thing, and that’s when we start getting away from the art. Like I said, art is a great communicator of information, but if you don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate, then it ceases to be the art.
Art is dangerous when mishandled and/or misused and/or mistreated. So, folks burning the flag—I get what that symbolizes, but if you don’t know what the flag means, and I’m not saying to other folks. I mean what it was meant to be. It’s like the swastika, for instance. It used to be a symbol for peace and love! Then you have the problem of people who don’t understand it in the first place, then they change it later on as if they created it!
Right. You just get to observe; you are not the creator. Which brings me to my last thing, which is another thought that I’ve had in mind. It’s okay to be a guest in something. If you didn’t come in as part of that culture, but you’re learning that you love something about it, it’s okay to be a guest. But, as a guest, don’t act like you created it.
With the art culture that we build, that’s why we create our own. We stay true to it by enhancing the techniques that are already there.
Now, when a person starts to paint, they don’t have all that. They’re looking at an intimidating piece of blank wall in front of them, or a blank canvas, or a white paper, and that’s when they’re learning to be an artist.
Once they can master that actual canvas, they can fill it with images that make them think. That’s when they become an artist; they have transcended the walls or the boundaries of art.
It’s once you can define it.
Right. You have to define the art, yourself. You learn that all the time. That’s why I said it’s cool to be a guest. Because you have to adapt. And while you’re adapting, you’re learning.
If I was to say anything to folks who are learning, I’d be like “Yo, man, hang around with some masters.” Don’t be so quick to say “Oh, he ain’t no master, I could do that in my sleep!” and you’re still looking at that blank canvas.
I love where you went with that. So, before I go…what’s the recipe for a good Swamburger?
There’s an inside joke that says the recipe is just a piece of lettuce, but hmm…the recipe for a perfect Swamburger, is my acronym: Survival With A Mind!
Swamburger hosts a monthly lineup of musical talent at The Social. Upcoming events:
Swamburger Presents: “Advanced Listening” with DJ Abilities (of Rhymesayers) with E-Turn, Madd Illz, and Purple Kloud
November 2, 2016 at 9:00 pm
Swamburger Presents: Sage Francis with SKIP, Chakra Khan, and Sean Shakespeare
December 2, 2016 at 9:00 pm
You can see more at: Swamburger.com Solilla.com