By Brian H. Marston
In the end, a city is as vibrant and interesting as the people who live there. The Commonspace recently caught up with two rising stars in a growing constellation of creative people who are doing their thing and making our city a cool place to live in the process. C'babi Bayoc and Blake Brokaw aren't likely to be invited to join the RCGA Leadership Circle (although they should be), but they're doing more to put St. Louis on the map than a lot of the executive directors and CEOs around town.
Talking to C'babi, Blake and others like them, you get the sense that exciting things are happening just below the surface and will come bubbling up from the underground, that salvation will come from below, not above. These interviews left me wanting to run through the streets shouting, "Yes! Yes! It's going to be all right. It's going to be great!" I don't know how, but it is. How can we possibly fail when people like this live here?
C'babi Bayoc, 29, is a painter and illustrator who has worked on some very high profile projects from his studio on Arsenal. His artwork graces the cover of the Violator (Vol. 1) CD compilation, which features artists represented by Chris Lighty's Violator Management company, including LL Cool J, Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes. C'babi also created three point of sale posters for Coca-Cola, and one of his paintings will appear on the cover of an upcoming album by Prince. According to a bio on one of the many Web pages about him, "Through his artwork, he is able to show the beauty in black faces to all faces."
Is "C'babi" the name you were given when you were born?
No, it's an acronym for Creative Black Artist Battling Ignorance. "Bayoc" is an acronym for Blessed African Youth of Creativity." I legally changed my name in '97.
Were you born here? If not, what brought you to St. Louis?
I was born in Fort Dix, New Jersey. My dad was in the Air Force. He was stationed at Scott, so we settled in O'Fallon. I attended Belleville Area College for two years before going to Grambling State University in Louisiana.
How did the Prince album cover come about?
Prince bought eight of my originals. He decided he wanted to use one of them the Reine Keis Quintet as his next album cover. I'm not sure what the release date is.
How about the Violator cover?
They saw some of my illustrations in Rap Pages magazine and hired me.
And the Coca-Cola ads?
I was doing a mural live at the Funk Jazz Kafé. A woman from Coca-Cola was there and asked if I'd do an image on the spot at a presentation about the new cultures Coke was trying to reach. She picked me as one of four artists from around the country. Later they commissioned me to do three posters for their African-American points of sale. I got to work with some really great artists like Michiko and Derrick Kahn.
When did you paint the mural at 9th and Locust?
That was in '97. It was a beautification project. They figured they might as well have some art there instead of a stain in the middle of the city. I did it for free; they donated the paint. It was my first mural, so I needed the exposure. It took about three or four weeks to complete.
Do you identify your art with hip-hop culture?
Yeah, I guess. I don't call myself a hip-hop artist, though. Some people call me that because I've done caricatures of a lot of rap artists, but I paint way more than that.
How would you describe your style?
Rhythmic, colorful. I care a lot about composition, probably more than I should. I'm obsessed [laughs]. It's all about characters and trying to put expression into them. I've never been good at categorizing my work.
How did you develop your style? What other artists have influenced you?
I started out doing caricatures for a season in '97 at Six Flags. Looking at Sebastian Kruger's work from Germany inspired me to take what I was doing in the park to another level. A lot of other artists have influenced me Charles White, Maurice Evans, Elizabeth Catlett, John Biggers.
Where could someone buy one of your paintings?
You can get prints at the Portfolio Gallery on Delmar or Hughes Fine Art on Euclid. I'll also be selling them online at www.bayocstudio.com, hopefully soon. Schmoo Creative is doing my site. I'm really interested in selling more originals, but I know not everybody can afford them. I want to make sure there's something for everyone.
Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
I'm really pleased with the work I did for Coke. I don't usually enjoy doing stuff on command, so that was a challenge and it turned out really well. I'm also glad Prince is a collector.
If you could change one thing about St. Louis, what would it be?
I don't plan on leaving. That's a hard one ... I wish there were a tighter art community across the racial board instead of a pocket of black artists here and a pocket of other artists there. I wish I were more a part of the art community. That's something I'd like to change. Quite a few people here are doing quite well. I see them in magazines and I know they're out there, but I haven't met them yet.
What's something you like about living here?
I like that we get good concerts. I've been in places that didn't have any music scene. That's important to me because I love music. I'm glad the Pageant came. We get a lot of jazz here too, not just popular music.
Blake Brokaw, 35, owns a trio of St. Louis' hippest restaurants and bars. Tangerine opened in 1996 followed by LO in May 2000 and Hungry Buddha in November 2000. Blake grew up in Kirkwood and went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
What brought you back to St. Louis?
St. Louis has so much potential. It's not a very competitive market for what I do. You do something a little outside of the average and all of a sudden you're totally unique. It's almost impossible to fail here. You just have to have a good idea and be willing to work at it. There's a captive audience here. It's not like the rent is killing you. It's an easy place to live.
What have you learned about what makes a bar or restaurant successful?
I've learned that keeping it small is better for me. Having a specialty, a niche, is important. And don't take yourself too seriously. Have fun. That's the main thing.
Do you see a connection between food and music?
Yes, I do. I'm creating a restaurant group called Simple Syrup. The tagline is "Flavor, sound and light." I've got a couple of new concepts that should come to fruition in the near future. I'll be marketing myself and what I do as a consultant.
Tangerine is an experience. It's adventuresome dining, interesting dining. Sometimes someone comes in and asks us to turn down the music. We won't do it. One thing I hate is background music.
I don't come to your house and tell you how to do things; don't tell me how to run my business. You have a choice. You don't have to come here. I've been around for five years saying "no" when people ask me to turn it down.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Being a businessman who makes money doing something he loves without destroying himself in the process. You have to walk a thin line to avoid becoming too attached to the lifestyle of a business like mine. My accomplishments on the business side of things have been easy compared to the trials and tribulations of my personal life.
What's your take on the situation on Washington Avenue?
The club owners need to become more civic minded. I think I'm the most concerned owner because I live down here and all the other owners live elsewhere. I'm not looking to make a huge amount of money in a short time, unlike some other owners. I'm going to be here eight years from now.
Washington Avenue is going through some growing pains. That's to be expected. I was part of the growing pains on Delmar in '83. I was the young punk hanging out and giving trouble to the business owners.
I think the street's going to happen. It's the best chance for urban growth that the city has a real urban center. But if we're not careful, it could end up like the Landing just a play space without live and work space.
If you could change one thing about St. Louis, what would it be?
Sprawl. I would make boundaries so that St. Louis would have to grow inward, not outward. Something that perplexes me to no end is why you would live in St. Ann and work downtown. Why would you spend ten hours a week in your SUV when there are houses three blocks north of Washington on Delmar going for next to nothing? We should raise the price of gas to $4 or $5 with exemptions for truck drivers and public transportation.
What's one thing that makes you feel good or hopeful about St. Louis?
The potential. I'm hopeful because people are starting to see what I've seen for the last six years on Washington Avenue and because people are starting to keep their promises.
There's opportunity for greatness here. It's a blank tablet waiting to be written on by creative types.
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