Jamaica the Artist with two of his six boys in Oakland. Becoming a working artist allowed him to provide for his sons above and beyond his own upbringing. (Pendarvis Harshaw)
Jamaica The Artist recently cut his long locs, so I hardly recognized him at Lake Merritt last Sunday. But he caught my attention as I overheard him discussing the ups and downs of being an artist in Oakland, as well as being a father; not just a father, but dad to six African American boys.
When I looked a little closer, I realized I'd taken photos of him painting a mural, dedicated to the late rap artist known as the Jacka, on MacArthur and 94th Avenue in deep East Oakland. I also had photos of him painting by the lake just over two years ago. I can’t recall where I first met him, but I knew him, or at least his name.
I decided it was time I got to know his story.
Jamaica's real name is Brandon Ehieze, his last name attributed to his Nigerian lineage. A friend of his nicknamed him Baby Jamaica, because of the locs he had at the time. The name stuck. Now people know him as Jamaica The Artist, or simply Jamaica.
And people know him. He’s connected to a huge family of Bay Area based artists, maintaining a brotherhood-like bond with rappers like Shady Nate and working relationships with visual artists, like GATS. His networking ability and artistic skill means his work is featured all around town: on the old American Steel Building in West Oakland, on the walls of Complex Oakland on 14th and Broadway, or on the walls of Mistah Fab’s new Dope Era store.
He works constantly. Sleeps rarely. And is a firm believer in the motto: “You have to go through it to get to it.”
Jamaica’s studio is in the back of East Oakland, somewhere between the Coliseum and the airport, in a maze of warehouses and office buildings. Inside of his two-room studio, there’s ample evidence of his artistry. A pair of freshly painted Nike Huaraches dry on the windowsill. The T-shirt press sits stopped in mid-operation. On the table lay painted Warriors shirts, made in celebration of the most recent championship. And amidst the paint supplies and colorful creations, there’s Jamaica.
When I walk in the studio, he's deep in the art of cleaning, a self-proclaimed “clean freak”—something he probably picked up while incarcerated, he tells me. So we sit down in the second room of the studio—the cleaner side—for a little chat about art, entrepreneurship and being a father to six African American boys in Oakland.
Two box fans buzz in the background as I place my recorder on the lip of his weed-rolling tray, letting the tape roll as he does the same with his herb. Above his head is an abstract painting of Erykah Badu, which spans the length of the wall. The first thing he tells me is his fandom of Queen Badu, and how one time he almost fought a friend because they called Erykah a b-word that wasn’t Badu.
The second thing he tells me is the origin story of his artistic ability.
The first spark came when his mother’s friend, an Oakland fire captain, used to give Jamaica sketchbooks when he was elementary school aged, around the same time Jamaica used to hit hip-hop shows with his older brother and perform as a background dancer. His own creative impulse just needed to find the right canvas, is all.
“I had some Bugle Boy jeans, and a yellow highlighter, I’ll never forget it,” says Jamaica. “I drew some shit on my pants, my mom saw that, and was like, ‘Boy, what the hell is wrong with you!?’” His mom properly punished him, and left him thinking, “I’m not drawing on anything else ever again in life.”
That lasted until one fateful night during the hyphy movement, when a group of his friends were about to perform, and needed some cool shirts made. He charged them $15 each, and created his business right then and there.
The business, however, was short-lived. He was soon arrested for charges related to a robbery and kidnapping; the incident happened just months after his first son was born.
After his release from prison, he was searching for work when, sure enough, a friend pulled up needing another shirt made. He got to work.
“Now I’m tearin' stuff up when it comes to walls, shoes, canvases, clothes. And it’s like, damn, I got my ass whooped for this, and now I’m getting paid for this,” says Jamaica.
I ask the types of things he paints. “Shoes, shirts, walls, canvases, banners. Yeah, man, whatever you want, I’ll paint a car! Straight up, I’ll paint your house,” Jamaica says, rattling off the list without pausing for breath. “I’ve got to go finish my little cousin's fireplace in a minute.”
Jamaica literally sleeps in his studio, which may not seem attractive to most, but it's something he’s happy to do. “I’ve slept in trap houses with roaches, and rats, and heroin bundles, and coke addicts sleeping next to me,” Jamaica told me. “I feel good to be in an art studio I built from the ground up.”
And with support from his children’s mothers, his current girlfriend and his family, he manages to make sure his sons have more than he had as a child.
“I go back to the things that I didn’t like as a kid—did I even have the chance to say, 'Daddy, I want them shoes?'” Jamaica reflects, noting that he grew up without his father. “It’s not like I get (my children) every pair of Jordans they want, but I make sure they have fresh clothes.”
He knows he's not perfect. No parent is. Hell, no human is. With that in mind, his advice to his sons—Brandon Jr., Knowledge, Bomani, Sincere, Legend and another child due in September of this year—is almost perfection in verse:
“Stop following what your friends think is cool. I thought certain shit was cool, but it wasn’t. You can’t even claim your name if you aren’t living your truth.”
Jamaica continues, his fatherhood showing. “We live in a world where being you isn’t cool until you’re getting money for it. I always tell my sons to be the best you you can be. And then get paid for it!”
In other words: Go through it to get to it.
Pendarvis Harshaw is the author of 'OG Told Me,' a memoir about growing up in Oakland. Find him on Twitter here.