A young brother from Auburn-Gresham, Kalief crafts with his community in mind. His background empowers him without defining him. He shuns the tokenization that often comes with artists from humble beginnings, recognizing that he can’t be successful until we all make it.
“I’m motivated because of friends, family, and Chicago. I want to show kids and other creators that living off your craft is possible. Especially among all these representations of people that look like us and are doing it illegally. I want to show kids that you can do it without all that funny shit in the middle.
I remember the days when I couldn’t get out at 3:20 because they were shooting, but now in this environment (University of Illinois Campus) I don’t have to worry about the same things. I don’t like the idea of being looked at as the kid that made it out, because some stuff is still happening. I don’t like to let people use that as the narrative. It’s hard to accept that there’s no one who can relate.”
Kalief got his brush wet altering gym shoes for his friends at Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep. Initially a hobby, his work walked the halls and built rumors, blessing him with a local reputation as an artist and “that guy”. His artistic reputation coupled with his business acumen allowed him to build a path for himself, one of liberation through entrepreneurship.
“I went to Gwendolyn Brooks, and got started painting gym shoes (doing it for free), but it eventually got big and it became something fun I like to do as well as get paid for.
When I was growing up I drew celebrities. I learned that I can draw them pretty well, but so can the next person, and people will like both of our work because of the subject, but what really resonates with people is that they can see the image and relate to it. When you paint things that make people think back to certain situations, that’s when the artistry really comes out.”
Commercialism left its impression on his visual expressions. Once a subconscious backdrop of his childhood, Kalief quickly understood the impact of these symbols and brought them to the forefront, combining them with ideas and messages that are missed by many yet appreciated by few. I asked Kalief if he ever gets upset about people missing his message and purely focusing on the aesthetic but he’s learned how to handle it.
“It took me awhile to accept the fact that it’s the way it is. The first step is to accept that 95% of people only care about looks, not thought or time put into it. When I came to terms with that and found that 5% that understands, I do it for the 5%. I don’t want everyone to appreciate. That 5% keeps me afloat.”
Unbothered by the dogged realities of his profession, Kalief’s built an expansive portfolio ranging from leather work, to fashion, to good ole acrylic, uncompromisingly centered around themes of black beauty, love and kinship. His authenticity has allowed him to flourish. Yet, Kalief is no less subjected to the emotional highs and lows that come with an artistic career. His deep sense of introspection has allowed him to recognize his mistakes and learn from them by building a community that catches him before he falls too far.
“I’ve stayed up all night to paint, which felt good at the time but looking back it was the exact opposite. Now I don’t have to work everyday because I make enough to not have to worry about bills as much. Feeling like you have to work to survive is dangerous. The biggest thing that’s helped me at my lows is taking a step back to look at my things. Working ten hours straight was my worst habit, but soon I realized it won’t be the end of the world, you have your whole life ahead of you. When I started doing my thing I told my parents I didn’t want any help, but ultimately I learned to ask for it, being more self-aware and truthful with myself in the process. Everything takes time and it’s important to take a break.”
In an era of artists and entrepreneurs running after untold riches and a slot on Forbes 30 Under 30, Kalief is content with walking. Refining and honing your craft after years of practice, building an audience organically and authentically, Kalief’s employing old school principles and best practices trusting where it will lead him. With the ambition of a young man and the patience of an old-timer, the longevity of Kalief’s career is unquestionable. For his parting words to me and anyone else trying to build a creative career for themselves, Kalief had this to say.
“Be self-aware, have a support system, and enjoy the process; the lows will eventually become highs. Have conversations with people, especially those you don’t like because they will give you a new angle at the end of the day.”