Felix Hampton Brown calls himself an activist and a renaissance man. He sings, acts, draws, sculpts, and even designs his own clothing line. Taking a cue from rapper KRS-ONE, Brown’s been known to call his work “edutainment,” a style of art making that intends to inspire social change through educational entertainment. His paintings and drawings address the exploitation of black people in America through images drawn from his own time in jail, prison, and workhouses, along with the darker years of his addiction to drugs. Most of his sculptures are made of objects he scavenged while living on the streets of New York City and East St. Louis. With his first degree in higher education nearly complete—an Associate’s Degree in Fine Art—at 57-years-old Brown has spent his life on the fringe of mainstream culture.
After enlisting in the Army when he was 18, Brown performed the orations of Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Armed Forces Radio Network. He was promoted to Youth Director of Programming for Special Services and won top honors in art competitions hosted for American soldiers based in Germany. Brown was slated to advance within the Special Services until he was caught dealing hashish on base. He was denied promotion and sent to Iraq during the first Gulf War, where he saw no action, and was removed from military arts programming.
Brown’s next brush with success came when he moved to NYC to perform with the National Black Theatre in Harlem and was introduced to Robert Mapplethorpe. He modeled for what would become the photographer’s “Black Book” and was paid with signed prints. After a stirring performance in an original one man show at the Apollo Theatre in 1985 called “King, Malcolm, and Me,” Brown caught the attention of Columbia Records and was days away from stepping on stage for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He was forced to walk away from the opportunity when his agent propositioned him for sex and held the show opportunity as hostage in the ordeal. Unfortunately for Brown, his wife, instead of being reaffirmed in their relationship, refused to support his choice, and the two separated. Appalled and devastated by the fallout and his future prospects, he fled to drugs. In the 1990s he moved to East St. Louis and returned to his old occupations: scrapping metal, using drugs, singing, and making art.
Brown began nailing his paintings and sculptures to utility poles all over town. “I was drowning,” he recalls. “My mom died, I had nowhere to go. I was living a repetitive picture of my own life. I had to send an SOS to the world. My SOS was my art.” Made from material he had found in dumpsters and abandoned buildings, Brown’s SOS found an audience.
In 2006, Brown saw a curator ripping down his work to add to an exhibition in Belleville, Illinois. He confronted her, and she agreed to attribute his work. The show garnered Brown an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who published an article titled “Artist Who Kicked Crack Habit Hopes Paintings Will Pave Way Out of Poverty.” Yet at the time Brown hadn’t actually achieved sobriety. “I took this as a reason to kick the habit, to prove them all right, and I started drawing something new, something I called ‘The Weird Herd’.”
The series now has a growing cast of over 100 distinct charactersFdr living an allegorical fairy tale of America’s War on Drugs. This Dr. Seussian tale of environmental damage and corporate gangs follows a tribe of animals whose bodies and behaviors have all been distorted and abused by their spoiled resources. Brown has since turned “The Weird Herd” into a coloring book to make it more accessible for children living at the cusp addiction.
Brown sees his entire practice as a tool for activism. With help he built himself a ladder, and climbed out of the hole he had dug for himself. Now his music and art helps others to build their own ladder out of addiction or crime or mental illness. He designed his recent series, “Drawings from the Workhouse,” as a guide for audiences who might otherwise neglect the stories of America’s criminal-industrial complex. He compares his work to signs by the side of a road–the billboards and directional we see as we find our way. “You go down a one way street because the arrow said it’s only this way. You go down the highway looking for billboards and what exit to take. When it comes to my work, I’m there with my sign, saying, “Look what you’ve done’.”
Some of his earliest paintings address his troubled experiences with Mapplethorpe. Consider “Free (After Mapplethorpe)” and “Red Tag Sale (After Mapplethorpe).” By appropriating scenes from “Black Book”, Brown uses his paintings to crack their seductive beauty and showcase Mapplethorpe’s exploitation of black bodies. He designs his own art to be more sustenance than decoration, more education than entertainment.
His imagery is immediate and his style inconsistent. On his website it seems that every other image could have been made by a different hand. His work is prime content for genres like outsider art, Art Brut, and even so-called primitivism, the conversations of which elicit words like urgent, raw, and, of course, unrefined.
But glorifying these attributes can serve as a reissue of cultural segregation. The words used to describe art like Brown’s keep dangerous narratives embedded behind popular rhetoric. The word “raw” can code for “yet to be colonized,” and “unrefined” connotes “natural” and “exotic.” Artists like Brown remain “outside” not simply for their styles but because they tell stories with signs that some audiences find easy to neglect. By producing through so many styles and mediums, Brown constantly retranslates his signs for shifting audiences.
Music is perhaps the most fitting medium for Brown’s version of edutainment because a song’s rhythm invites and entertains while its lyrics offer insights. To reach new audiences, Brown has returned his attention to song by joining Joe Davis and the Poetic Diaspora, which recently won first runner up at the Battle of the POC Bands in Minneapolis. He has also been invited to sing with folks from the Million Artist Movement, an activist group based in the Twin Cities. Like a lecturer with backup dancers, the signs of educational entertainment are harder to neglect.