Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of the legendary group The Roots interviewed photographer Devin Allen at the Kennedy Center for a conversation called “Streams of Thought.”

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

The Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater stage turned into a powerful thinktank where legendary artist, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter of The Roots and photographer Devin Allen spoke about their artistry,  the inspiration behind their work, Blackness, and continuing to create artwork with the conversation, “Streams of Thought,” on Oct. 9.

“Streams of Thought,” which is also the name of Trotter’s studio albums, have been occurring during the COVID-19 pandemic, featuring artists such as DJ D-Nice.  However, with the pandemic making it unsafe to meet in-person or with a live audience, Trotter noted that the Kennedy Center’s “Streams of Thought,” was the first iteration of the conversation in-person and with a live audience.  The highly touted emcee, actor and producer praised Allen’s work and artistry.

“It’s rare that I look at the work of a photographer or an artist and I’m able to see myself from both sides of the lens as a subject and observer,” Trotter said. 

For about an hour, the emcee asked thought provoking questions about Allen’s photography, philanthropy, inspiration behind his work and future artistic plans.

While the 30-year-old photographer can tout two Time Magazine covers, the West Baltimore native shared that his road to photography  was far from linear. 

“Art wasn’t accessible for me in West Baltimore,” Allen said.

As a young adult, the photographer got a loan from his grandmother to get a camera from Best Buy, and the rest is proverbial “history.”

Allen began taking photos of his community and surroundings- and then Freddie Gray died in police custody.

Gray was arrested on April 12, 2015 for possessing a knife, about an hour after his arrest he was in a coma and hospitalized, and a week later he died due to a spinal cord injury sustained under police custody. 

Serving on the frontlines as both activist and photographer, Allen captured the horrors of what was happening in Baltimore as police and some mainstream media criminalized the protestors outraged at what had occurred to Gray.  

“I didn’t think anything of it, but my camera took me there,” Allen explained.

Allen’s photography during the Freddie Gray protests is what led him to his first Time cover.

“I feel like my career was built on the broken back of Freddie Gray,” Allen said somberly.

Although self-taught, Allen, who is inspired by celebrated Black photographer Gordon Parks, has spent a great deal of time since the 2015 protests working on his craft as he continues to tell stories of his community.

Noting that, “when people think of Baltimore, they think of ‘The Wire,’” Allen said he is working to change the stereotype. With his camera, he said, he can capture “intimate moments,” that properly share the “narrative of community.”

He said Baltimore’s strength inspires him to stay at home and relay its truths.

“Baltimore is a very resilient place.  You know the old saying, ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,’ but for me if you can make it out of Baltimore, you can make it anywhere.”

Allen also noted that photography is not his whole life.  He is a father, he gives back to the community by giving away cameras and teaching photography and is a multi-faceted artist working on writing, painting and film.  In addition, Allen, whose first book, A Beautiful Ghetto was published in 2017, just finished his second book.

After the conversation between Allen and Trotter, the audience was allowed to ask questions.  Both multifaceted artists shared inspiring messages.

“If your heart moves you to create it, create it,” Allen told the aspiring artists in the room. He also had a message for all the photographers present: “You’re only as good as your last picture.”

Trotter, who has been entertaining audiences for more than three decades, is constantly creating new work and even has a new musical, “Black No More.” He encouraged all the aspiring artists to keep pushing.

“Now is a better time than ever to embrace the multiplicity in your creativity,” Trotter said.

Finally, Trotter, also known as Black Thought, noted that everything he does is a way of speaking to the African American experience and educating the Black community.

“I feel like everything I do speaks to the soul of Blackness and education,” the legendary emcee said.

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Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor