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Sulyiman Stokes Visualizes Black Narratives

Written by on August 3, 2023

Sulyiman Stokes, a self-taught interdisciplinary artist hailing from Chicago’s vibrant South Side, utilizes his diverse skill set to weave enriching narratives about the community.

Photographer and musician Sulyiman Stokes is a creative force dedicated to portraying the narratives of the Black community through his artistic talents. Born and raised in Auburn Gresham on the dynamic streets of Chicago’s South Side, Stokes’ journey began with a profound connection to music, mastering instruments like the trumpet, clarinet and French horn throughout his upbringing.

Sulyiman Stokes by Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

It wasn’t until 2018 that Stokes delved into the realm of photography, receiving his first camera: a Fuji X400F. This marked a pivotal moment, igniting a passion that would soon lead him to showcase his works in a series of citywide exhibits.

While deeply personal, Stokes’s work transcends the confines of his individual experiences. Viewing his art as a vessel for the collective stories of the African diaspora, he harnesses his multifaceted skills as an artist to eloquently convey these narratives – a truth mirrored in his photography.

Beyond his artistic pursuits, Stokes actively collaborates with Music Moves Chicago, an organization committed to fostering artistic growth within underserved Chicago communities. Through a range of arts-centered classes, workshops and performances, he contributes to initiatives that empower and uplift those in need.

In this installment of “This is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Sulyiman Stokes provides insight into his musical origins, the transformative role of photography in his creative sphere, his complex relationship with Chicago and his ardent desire to amplify the voices of others.

Introduce yourself, and describe your work in a few words.

My name is Sulyiman Stokes, a cultural worker-slash-interdisciplinary artist. And this is what Chicago sounds like. 

What do you focus on in your work?

My sole focus is telling stories about Black folks. And everything else comes from that. I think the main thing is to have a radical love of the self, to have a radical love for your people, to have a radical love of the community. If you have that, then you always have the ability to organize around the thing, to organize around better living conditions, to organize around living with dignity. Recognizing your humanity, recognizing humanity in other folks that you parlay with. My practice only exists to serve that purpose. If I’m not doing that, then I really ain’t doing nothing. 

Sulyiman Stokes by Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Where are you from?

I’m from Auburn Gresham. That’s where I was born and raised. Just always been on the South Side. I kind of bleed it, specifically concerned with it as well. I was living in Pilsen for a couple years, I decided to come back. The building is owned by my grandma. That’s where I grew up, that’s where my mom and her kids, my auntie and her kids, we all grew up in that same building. It was a good chance to go back into this community, because a lot of my practice is starting to blossom and expand a little bit. And so I felt like I had different kind of resources than I may have had before, that I could parlay into potentially doing different things in that community. And potentially see about having that building as a primary space in this community to have folks come through. It’s like, “Yo, I want people to have to come here, and deal with me here like in this area.” I want them to have to come to the ghetto and interact with it. 

Tell me a bit about your creative journey.

I’ve been doing music for a very long time. Grammar school, I played clarinet, I played trumpet. When I got into high school, my main thing became baritone-slash-euphonium, that was like my main horn, but also played French horn. Sometimes I played tuba. I marched with the drumline a bit, and just kind of really expanded. I got away from the live instrumentation and got into music production. Being an artist, I was doing my rapping thing, dropped a couple mixtapes. Moved to LA, LA was terrible. It was awful. Came back, experienced some depression associated with just being out there for that time. And then I stopped doing music, and I pretty much just kind of sat still for two years. My son was born in 2015. And before my son was born, my homie Ricks had reached out to me and he was like, “Yo, you got to do your thing, because if you don’t, your son ain’t gonna know who you are.” And that was a huge deal. So I picked my music back up, like, “Man, this is for real.” 

When did you get into photography?

In 2018, I really discovered photography, my same homie Ricks, he let me borrow his Canon 7D, I was like, “Yo, this is… I like this. I like what this does, I like being out of the scene, and just documenting the world around me.” Bought a FujiX100F. It was crazy, because I sacrificed to do that. I was supposed to pay rent, I ain’t pay rent, I bought the camera. And I was like, “I gotta do this.” 

Photos of Music Moves Chicago, by Sulyiman Stokes. Courtesy of the photograpgher.

Fast forward to now, and those images that I was taking in 2018 with the X100F, I was in my first exhibit last year. And since then, I think it’s been between five to seven exhibits that I’ve been a part of. I was able to go to London last year to both photograph and be able to work on my album. And that changed the entire dynamic of how I approached my music, too. This was the first time there were actual resources applied to something that I want to do musically. Also got into filming, so I’ve been doing the filming thing. I’ve been composing this ballet since 2016. And I want this to be kind of the thing that speaks to all the different mediums that I engage in. Me as a sound practitioner, a composer, but also I want to do these large scale portraits of dancers and musicians. It’s in the style of this dancer, Pearl Primus. But then also I want to film this ballet, do a short film that’s a ballet. On the opening night of the exhibit, I want to do the live ballet, live adaptation. And so after that opening night, throughout the rest of the exhibit, you got the large scale portraits, but you also got the film that plays. That’s where I want to go next, is to be able to combine all of the different things I engage in. 

What do you take photos of?

I do a lot of work right now with Music Moves Chicago, the organization. For years that’s been some of my favorite work that I’ve engaged in, I think any kind of image-making that establishes or reestablishes humanity or the ability for a person to tell a story or community to tell a story, that work means the most to me. I was reading an article that a homie of mine, Mel, he sent over to me. In the article, it was saying, “I don’t consider myself a creative, as opposed to that, I utilize the term culture worker.” They were talking a lot about the Black Arts Movement, and how those artists regarded themselves and really talking about the importance of, well, you’re doing a specific type of work. You’re doing the work to just advance different things, for your people. Providing culture, or different foundational elements to change the lives of the people. There’s a level of seriousness associated with the work that you do. 

And so I saw that, and I was just like, “This is how I want to do it. This is how I want to regard my practice.” When you express things, I think there’s a declaration that comes with that. Carving out space for yourself in a world that minimizes us so often. We live in a sick society, we live in a capitalist society. We live under like pressurized conditions all the time, it’s not often that we get to take a second to consider who we are. My practice, being concerned with doing that when I document folks, when I film them, the practice is specifically about liberating oppressed folks, telling stories about myself, the people that I’m around, the people throughout the diaspora, all of that stuff. 

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What do you associate with the victories and triumphs of Chicago?

I got a love-hate relationship with Chicago. This city, this city really pisses me off, but I love it, too. How you can drive down Ashland, and, literally, you can see a change because it goes straight through the city. And so, when you get from the north side to the south side, as you go, the deterioration, the disinvestment, you can literally see it. And I think that’s such an insane thing. But then, because these conditions bring out the resiliency of folks. And so that’s what I love about Chicago, is that Chicago has the ability to band together as a community, to fight and to engage in a struggle against these oppressive systems in the city. I’m engaged in the struggle against a corrupt political landscape. One of the things that I love about my practice, or even how I consider photography, is that it’s like, “Yo, this isn’t my work. This work kind of belongs to us all, and I consider it to be a community-based work.” 

I don’t direct people, I don’t do anything like that. Everything is in us, for real, that we want to tap into. And the process, like my old mentor said when I was 14, 15, he was saying, “Learning is bringing something out that you already knew, it’s unlocking something.” And, you know, I always think about that. I was scared to do that for a long time. But at some point, really, in 2020, it’s like, “But why not?” I want to capture this moment exactly how it exists, because I feel like this moment in life is perfect. You know, life is for the living, right? It’s such a blessing, all that kind of stuff. And so, regardless of whatever that feeling is, they’re allowed to do just that. And I think that has the potential to blossom into something else, or expand into something else. 

Sulyiman Stokes by Ari Mejia/Vocalo Radio

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Interview and audio production by Ari Mejia

Music by Sulyiman Stokes

Photos by Ari Mejia, edited by Omi Salisbury

Additional photography provided by Sulyiman Stokes

Introduction written by Omi Salisbury

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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