Decolonizing the narrative of dark art via the story of mankind.
With centuries passed and cultures lost along the way, the average individual is experiencing an adapted world where our perceptions and preconceived notions of what we believe things should be are subconsciously affected, such as with specific ways of living, art forms, music choice, and so much more. One could analyze this deeper through globalization, structural racism, and several other conduits of injustice, but one thing is certain, there's an ideological hegemony in contemporary art and society as a whole. In the case of art, Afro-Cuban artist Harmonia Rosales looks to challenge this white-dominant narrative by incorporating her own culture and heritage, a daring act that has garnered widespread acclaim with a mix of criticism by those who deem the skin color change of religious icons as blasphemous (see 'The Creation of God' (2017) by Harmonia Rosales below). Her work has caught the eyes of thousands, including the legendary Nasir Jones, who enlisted her artistic prowess for his thirteenth full-length, King's Disease.
Released on August 21st via Mass Appeal Records, King's Disease stands as an audiovisual achievement that bridges profound illustrative storytelling with soul laden lyricism. Like anything else throughout Nasir's renowned discography, the tracks on King's Disease are socioculturally sound, coming from a place of wisdom that was built by the rapper's lifelong observations as he evolved into the musical magnate of today. Rosales does the same on the artistic end, seeing herself as one with the cover painting through a seamless use of cultural symbols like the Orishas, the deities of the Yoruba. From color palette to imagery, there was plenty of emphasis on significant detail and not all is immediately apparent, which is why we bring you this conversation today.
We go Behind the Cover of King's Disease with artist Harmonia Rosales to dissect the cultural significance of one of the best rap album covers of recent years:
Upon the announcement of ‘King’s Disease’, audiences were taken aback by the symbolic brilliance of your cover painting. Visually, what did you look to achieve with respect to the themes and concepts that Nasir presented?
Rosales: Whenever somebody hires me for a commission piece, I want to take full creative control. He knew my background and how I incorporated symbolism and my African heritage. He went with it. All he said was that he had a vision of king’s disease, in the form of gluttony and that sort of thing. The rest was up to whatever else I could envision.
I wanted to incorporate the entire lifecycle just like a king would a leader. It goes from birth to innocence and the pearls, and then it’s to the knowledge, which is the snake, and then death, which is why you have the skull at the bottom. I included all of this and included the color red, which means sacrifice, not in the devil way that American society has adopted, but sacrifice metaphorically in all aspects of life, sacrifices to get to where you’re at. Whether it is sacrificing your fun time or luxury time in order to get what you want, or ‘putting in the work’ as they say, it’s all up to interpretation.
While incorporating these symbols that are very powerful in our culture, the Latin and African culture, American society thinks of it as more satanic in a way. That goes all the way back to colonization, where everything that was our culture was seen as evil or associated with the devil, like the color red or snakes for example, which were so powerful to us. American society has been brainwashed into thinking these symbols are evil, but they’re not.
Thanks for touching on that, which is a perfect segue into my following point. Color choice is as significant as anything else in the painting and in ‘King’s Disease’, you’ve utilized a radiant selection of hues to bring out crucial elements, like the angels and the Garden of Eden. Aside from the use of reds for sacrifice, what inspired the variety of the color palette?
Rosales: The colors needed to pop. Now, that’s a little bit of a struggle for me because I use a lot of neutral colors, so we went back and forth on that. For an album cover, there’s a different mindset. Since everything has a darkness to it, the angels had to pop with that red. I initially had them as a flesh color, but the red seemed to work and created a symbol in and of itself. The flowers, as you said, relate to the Garden of Eden and what that symbolizes, like the snake in the grass and all that.
This beauty and these flowers are all ‘smoke and mirrors’. These elements are all doing something. These souls, or blank souls you can say, are being mischievous or curious by picking at the crown, which people do. People pick at leaders. People want what they have not knowing the cost it takes to get there. That’s another symbol of the stone halo in the back that has a large crack in it. Even if you’re super tough, there are things that can harm you. It could be time or exhaustion. Same thing with the dagger, which is dripping blood oh so slightly on the papaya. The cover also incorporates, which I always have to include, some of the more familiar Orishas. You have the machete for Ogun. You have the bata drums for Chango. You have a lot of African symbols within the throne, and that is greatness and knowledge, things that a leader should have. It’s also contrasted by the flowers and pearls, which happen to be very significant because these are pearls of innocence lost during the process of acquiring knowledge. You have things from Nas’ life, like the wedding ring and the boar’s head. or king’s disease itself. You have grapes being made into wine. You could just keep on looking at this and find new things. I want everybody to see the artwork and find something in it that can relate to themselves. I hope that answers your question.
Quite perfectly. That’s really the beauty in it, how engaged audiences seemed to be from the get go. If you scroll through the comments section throughout social media, you’ll find people providing their own analytical interpretations and dissections of the symbolism, which of course speaks to the power of the painting. In a time where it’s easy to become disconnected to art and music through the fast paced lifestyles that we’ve become accustomed to, how important is it for you to have your art spark this kind of reaction?
Rosales: I don’t really view my art that way. I don’t paint for other people. I paint for inclusion, inclusion for my background and my people. Growing up, I was so disconnected, even though I lived with my father who was born in Havana, Cuba. He was trying to incorporate himself in America.
In this society, there’s a bit more inclusion every day. When I was younger, there wasn’t. I couldn’t speak Spanish and didn’t go to a bilingual school. I was actually speaking Spanish English. I came from Chicago and went to a smaller town where they would tell my mother that I had to speak pure English because they couldn’t understand me. Otherwise, they would keep me back a letter grade. Going through this institutional system, I lost a lot. Now, it’s all about gaining that back. All my art and everything that I do includes my background, which I think everybody should. While including my background, it resonates with more people. I didn’t realize that initially, but now I do. I don’t focus on creating pieces specifically to create conversation. It’s more about seeing more of us. That’s what I dedicate my work to, just us. No matter what commission that I do, it’s going to include my culture and heritage.
As you should. That’s respected, especially seeing as commissions are essentially supposed to meet the artistic needs of the entity requesting them. Though ‘King’s Disease’ resembles the same cultural significance than that of your personal paintings, album covers aren’t your typical line of work. Was crafting the cover distinct to any of your personal works, even though you took full creative control on this?
Rosales: Yeah, and I like that he allowed me to do that. Even though I don’t do it, I really got into digital recently ever since I did an Apple talk and they gifted me an iPad with a pencil. I tried to stay away from digital for so long because it would take too long to learn, but then I had a knack for it once I figured it out. I actually liked it. It’s another outlet for my creative expression, especially if I can do it quicker.
First of all, it was an honor for him to ask me like, oh my god! I know he wanted it to be different. I know his lyrics and his history as an artist, and it just fits. I agreed to do it even though I hadn’t done it before. Now, I get a whole lot of people asking me to do their album and it’s like, “no, you don’t understand.”
That’s great because you’re already establishing a respectful boundary for commission work. For some artists, this is of course a livelihood and if 10 musicians reach out asking for a commissioned cover, they’ll go ahead and take it on because it’s how they pay their bills. For you, it’s different. You’ll take it on only if there’s a connection or if the project resonates with you in any way.
Rosales: Yeah, exactly. It has to connect back to my artist DNA.
Those who are looking to commission Harmonia for a project, please take note.
Rosales: There has to be a history behind them. Nas has a history. You know who Nas is. You know what Nas is going to produce. When other artists approach me, I need to know their background. A lot of people I may not know, so I don’t know their lyrics or haven’t listened to their music. If they do a single, I don’t know how they’ll transform as an artist. For Nas, this is who he is. He’s late in his career, he’s not going to change.
Another person that I collaborated with was a fashion designer, Fe Noel. Her background is West African and I connected to her right away. It was our conversation and how she approached me. I kind of go based on the feeling. It just worked. Her brand and how she uses her own culture to influence her fashion is exactly what I love. I try to collaborate and do commissions based on that, and if I have time as well.
Definitely, and that’s why said collaborations come about so organically. There’s value in that and ‘King’s Disease’ is testament to the camaraderie and understanding between you and Nasir. As we briefly mentioned earlier, the more you look at the painting the more details that become noticeable, which speaks volumes about your patience in adding detail. From inception to completion, about how long did the painting take to put together?
Rosales: I used some pieces from my original works. It was originally supposed to be 4 days, but it took around 2 weeks. These were 2 weeks of me literally working around the clock. I knew it had to be perfect, I guess because of the pressure. I took like 4 hours on little things like one part of the crown. Very intense.
The attention to detail is there for sure. ‘King’s Disease’ has now been out for a few months and is very well one of this year’s best rap album covers. In looking at the painting in retrospect, what about it speaks most to you?
Rosales: I just see it as another art piece. I don’t wish I changed anything because I didn’t listen to the music prior, which is great. I didn’t want to be influenced in any way. I had this idea he gave me and it just developed from there. It developed organically. I’m of course happy that I got to do it, but would I do something with that much work? I might, if it feels right. This felt right. It felt right because it was in sync. I wanted to do something like this to put my digital works to the test. Overall though, I see it as an individual, stand alone art piece. You can appreciate it with the album and without the album.
It’s powerful enough to stand on its own. Something that immediately stood out to me in forming my own perspective of it, which we of course recommend everyone to do, was the duality present. As mentioned, you had the innocence, the red angels, the beautiful foliage, and more amidst a boar’s head, bloody machete, and a skull. It’s what one would consider dark art, though it wouldn’t normally fit within the predetermined notion of dark art. It’s bright and it’s beautiful.
Rosales: I see it as a balance of life. What is beauty? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Think of it like the seasons. You have the summer, fall, etc. Everything must die to be reborn and recreated. Everything is beautiful. I think fall is beautiful, and winter. Do you want to go out in winter? No, not at all because it’s cold, but a lot of people love winter. That’s their favorite time of the year. That’s what I wanted to show there. In life, not everything is perfect and not everything is going to be roses. Me having children, you can’t teach your child that everything is going to be like that. In real life, there are people out there that want to harm you and destroy you. You have to be aware of these things and can’t be blind to that. I think all that encompassing is beautiful. In my opinion, I don’t see it so much as dark. People always think of dark as blood and skulls.
I think we’ve changed throughout the ages. Back in the Renaissance age, a skull wasn’t seen as dark art. It was everyday life. They saw dead bodies out in the streets. We have become so sheltered and protected of those things that now we’re like, “oh my god, blood”.
Spot on. I guess what I meant to say was that you’re shifting the narrative. There’s a connotation with seeing skulls and nudity and automatically associating it with death, pornography, and all of these other negative connotations that come with certain symbols. You, however, are shifting the narrative and embracing that.
Rosales: Yeah, exactly, and people come up with a lot of things. The way I see nudity is pre-colonization, like with tribes. Nudity is not seen as oversexualized at all. It’s normal, but we’ve sexualized it so very much. For example, you have Lucumí, which is essentially the Yoruba religion but colonized. It has the same trajectory of having women required to be wearing dresses and men are supposed to be wearing pants. If you go back into the religion before it traveled the Atlantic slave trade, things like that didn’t matter.
Would you say, then, that ‘King’s Disease’ is a decolonization of the dark art form?
Rosales: Yes! I love that. You just worded it perfectly.
Excellent. That’s something that immediately struck me and whether you look at the cover illustration analytically or as a simple marketing element, there’s substance for everyone to explore. We approach art from a musical perspective here on the site and ‘King’s Disease’ introduced many to the record on cover artwork alone. Even if you don’t know who Nas is, and that’s insane if you don’t know who Nas is, the cover art is intriguing enough to catch an eye at while shopping at a record store. Do you recall a time when cover illustrations in particular had that same effect on you?
Rosales: Two things. When I was a kid, it happened plenty with children’s books. If it had a cool cover, I would get it. This happens even when you’re scanning through digital things like Netflix and you see all the recent movies, you’ll likely click on the movies or shows that have the cool pictures on it. That’s what I do, but nothing really with artwork unless it’s children’s books. Since I was so in love with children's books, that’s how I went about creating my work so that it tells a story. That’s what I want. I know children’s books had to engage the child, whether they knew how to read or not. They could follow the story. That’s how I do my paintings. You have a lot of scholars writing about African religions, history, etc. However, I like to tell those stories in painting form. Every corner of my paintings have to engage the audience. I’m sorry if I’m giving you five answers and all of them aren’t even the main ones.
It’s all good. I had about 20 questions lined up but you’ve been answering about 4 in one hit, but at least we’re getting great coverage here! As an individual who grew up brown in the hoods of Los Angeles, it’s refreshing to see the rise in black and brown artists across the country who are building an identity for themselves, expressing themselves through an artistic medium. As an Afro-Cuban artist who has built an acclaim through your own culture, what would you say to the artists who are trying to build themselves an identity by harnessing from their trials and tribulations?
Rosales: Paint what you know. People want to paint what they think is relevant or what they think they should paint, but you have to paint for yourself in order to really have your paintings speak. It can be anything. The way you see the world is unique. If you’re multicultural, you’re thinking it's normal the way you see the world. If you’re in tune with that and paint that, in actuality, a lot of people don’t see it the way you do. It could be the things you do, what you believe in, the foods you eat, anything. That is your background. By understanding yourself and growing within, your art will grow the same way, but just be true to yourself.
No one can tell your story better than you.
Rosales: Right! You don’t want to be somebody else because then you won’t grow as an artist. Your paintings will fall flat. You are your art.
And there you have it.
King's Disease is available now via Mass Appeal Records. Stream/order your copy HERE.