Ra’oof (TR7) – Curator, Performance Artist, Creative Director
Interviewed by UPA co-founder HPrizm (Anti Pop Consortium, Prizm Labs)
Raised and nurtured by a strong Islamic community in the late sixties, Raaof has navigated an interesting path to self-expression.
Our conversation explores his journey, from being raised in North Philadelphia to the varied trajectories that landed him at The House of Raaof – a creative umbrella for the multi-hyphenated projects that he helms.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent about Raaof is that there is a direct line between his design work, his personal fashion sense and his home décor – all of which convey a “fresh” quality.
In a much appreciated in-person dialogue, we discuss the importance of community, upcoming projects and his nuanced views on various creative topics.
Hprizm: Where does your story begin?
Raaof: I was born and raised in Philadelphia and I spent a few years in Camden in between. I grew up right after the gang era that was heavy in Philly during the early seventies. Though it had subsided to a large degree, it created an atmosphere that made it hard for young African Americans to move from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Despite the climate, I was raised by uncles who empowered me with the credo that I was “a free man of the city.” They encouraged me to go wherever I chose, so long as I moved without fear or malice. Learning to walk with dignity was instrumental in shaping my mindset as a creative. “God first” is how I keep it. Shout out to my uncles, grandparents and my mother. I’m very much a product of “community.”
I was raised Islamically transitioning from the Nation of Islam to World Community of Islam under the leadership of Iman W.D. Muhammad. Being a good human and being industrious were always emphasized.
HP: How old were you when you started to identify as a creative?
R: I was young. It was always like that because I was attending “happenings” and concerts with my family. Bringing maracas and hand drums to community events with my family was a regular thing.
Marvin Gaye, Cymande, Hugh Masekela and the like were on and there was a festive energy of love in the air.
We were also a family of street vendors. Street vending was a booming economy in Philadelphia at that time and my uncles were prominent amongst that community. I learned how to be a merchant from them.
Some years later those experiences inspired me to have my own gallery.
HP: What was it called?
R: Taji Modern Gallery on 3rd and Arch street (Olde City) from 1999-2008.
All those years of cultivating my creative and entrepreneurial spirit as a vendor made the roots for what culminated into the gallery.
HP: And who was the clientele?
R: Actors, entertainers, other creatives, a little bit of everybody. It was a hub. Interior designers would come through from all over the world. One of my noted customers was the late installation artist Terry Atkins.
HP: What were your interactions with him like?
We were friends. At first, he was like “YOU own THIS?” Because even among us, it can be surprising seeing “Us” own things.
While I never formally represented him, I was definitely one of his early supporters. I’ve bought and sold several of his pieces.
I was inspired by his tenacity. There were long periods where his work wasn’t in vogue, so to speak. He supported his family by teaching as a professor; but he kept creating.
I represented several artists that had moments in the spotlight but weren’t consistent. I learned from that.
A good friend of mine at the time named Donnell Walker would always say that I really was an artist, although I was more outwardly an entrepreneur.
I was “upcycling,” repurposing and reselling clothes before these things had names. This was the ethos of my fashion line called Animated Man. Once, while creating a commercial for the line, I was flagged by YouTube for “copyright violation” even though I had permission from the artist.
I was representing Jamaaladeen Tacuma at the time and I used his music with his blessings. When I told him about the incident he said, “Maybe you should start using GarageBand and make your own stuff.” Creating narratives and marketing them was something that I always loved.
HP: When I listen to your music, I hear a punk influence. What are your connections, if any, to punk rock?
R: Philly had arguably one of the most prominent punk communities in the country and I was part of it from the beginning. Being one of a handful of black punks in Philadelphia, I saw so many classic concerts from the spark of the movement. It’s very much a part who I am.
HP: And what are you working on now?
R: I’m working on my first full length LP called Evolution of A Calling, which will be available digitally and as a double cassette.
I also have an installation piece called Turn Of The Events. It’s a sculptural piece with a performance component that addresses social commentary on President Obama’s drone policy.
Pre-pandemic there was museum and gallery interest. Now I will present it remotely, thanks to a socially-distanced residency at the Icebox in Philadelphia.
HP: Any closing words?
R: Be blessed and stay safe.