Hebru Brantley Shares Business Lessons on How To Survive As an Artist

Hebru Brantley is a visual artist from Chicago. His clients include Jay-Z, George Lucas and Lenny Kravitz.

How much does social media impact your business? How has it changed from where you started?
HB: Social media has a tremendous impact on my business. We're moving past Facebook onto Instagram where, it's all about the visual. You can create your own narrative around whatever that visual is. There's an opportunity there to set the tone or a balance for what that thing is and what you want it to be and how you want it to be perceived. Now with [Instagram] stories, you can see the process. It allows me to show more of what goes behind the creation, and inform my collective base. It's that immediacy. They have it right there. It's definitely a huge part of what I do. 

How do you balance creating, promoting and being present?
HB: Finding balance has always been a very hard struggle. Having a set schedule is important because it's the allotment of time I give myself to create. When it's gone, that's it. The rest of my time is for my family. It doesn't always work out that way but that's the framework I use. The time I set for the studio narrows my gaze and makes me hyper focused. Artists procrastinate a lot. This technique takes a lot of the procrastination out of it. It makes me get off my butt and do what I have to do.

How has your art changed in this political climate/crossroads? Is it easier to create or more difficult? How do you balance popularity with creating?
HB: Finding a balance for any artist, or maintaining a balance is always a hard thing to do. For me, especially right now, there's times where I want to be a little bit reactionary [to what's happening in the news] in what the work is saying and conveying. At times I take all of those things into account, with the work that I know will be seen or viewed by a certain audience. However, I'm an artist and I'm going to create freely. The final product boils down to what I'm going to show as opposed to what I'm doing. I'm always creating. In a way, I'm always lending my opinion to certain things. It's like having a conversation with a trusted loved one or friend, as opposed to having a conversation with an audience of folks. You're definitely going to have a different sort of vibe to the conversation, where you might be a little bit more free in this conversation and the gloves are off and you're uninhibited and you say whatever you feel, as opposed to censoring yourself for a particular audience and being very politically correct.

Where do you draw inspiration from?
HB: I've always wanted to do these things. I've always wanted to have this voice. In terms of what perspective my voice came from, I didn't know. At 16 I just wanted to express myself. Art was the easiest way to do that because it was the cheapest way. It was ‘grab a can and go figure it out.’ Anything else involved a production. Art is intimate and a solo act. I could just go, do what I needed to get done and figure my way through it.

The passion is reflected when things start to come together and by then, you’re hooked.

What advice would you give your 18-year-old self, knowing what you know now.
HB: Stop eating sweets and beer is gross. Avoid the “kicking it” BS with the homies. Stay focused, create and spend more time on your craft. That’s my only real advice to my 18-year-old self, but I think the avoiding sweets and the beer thing is also good too. 

Do you consider yourself successful?
HB: I still feel like it's so much to do. My only concern and worry is that I just will never have enough time. I feel very fortunate to be in the position that I'm in ,but I know a lot of it comes from hard work and having mental fortitude. I don't really consider myself successful or in that space where I'm sort of different in comparison to anyone else, I'm just a hard-worker. 

Not having a nurturing environment, how did you figure things out?
HB: Pursuing art, was a labor of love. The common narrative is that of a starving artist or an artist’s struggle. Most end up dead or don’t receive recognition for their work until later on in life. I grew up on the Southside of Chicago. I learned early what it was to hustle in one way shape, or form. It's going to sound funny, but a lot of my education in terms of hustling came from my peers in hip hop music.

Instead of waiting for somebody to tell the world [a product] was great, artists showed me how to take a product, blow it up and embellish it. I saw that you can take the power and bring it to the people directly.

Sell [your stuff] out of your trunk, out of your book-bag, hit heavily populated areas or festivals and push [your product]. We’re in an era where word of mouth can happen on social media and it helps. But growing up we didn't have that. That’s a luxury I couldn’t count on.

I didn’t have a blueprint or roadmap on what to do. I never really did well in school. I learned by doing and through trial and error.

Is there a business lesson you learned the hard way?
HB: Learning to read people in certain situation. In business, especially in the arts, you have folks who devalue what you do, who you are and the time put in. Learning how to deal with those kinds of people and when to say no was crucial. Just because it sounds good, doesn't mean that it's golden. My younger mistakes included entering agreements or having relationships with folks who wanted me to be the cool guy and not have a firm arrangement in place. A lot of people will take advantage of someone who's green. Those little hiccups made me tighten up how I do business. Even now, I think there’s people who half expect me to be that guy. Today, I’m very rigid in terms of how I do business. We handle the logistics and then move on to the fun and creative. But it’s always business first.

Are you still invested in Chicago as you were when you started? 
HB: Very much so, I think when I first started to where I am now, Chicago has grown so much. It's a very different city that varies from other major metropolises. Chicago is my home and part of my roots. There's a certain level of love that I have and will always have for the city. I've watched Chicago (especially in the terms of art) grow a love for the artists. They have their own roots, different divisions and lanes that didn't exist back in the day. There didn't use to be a space or community for young artists to grow and evolve. Now, the city fosters talent. As a result, a lot more people are staying and growing a community. There's strength in number. The city has evolved into something great and powerful. I wear Chicago like a badge of honor. 

What do you wish was different about the city?
HB: I wish the city wasn't as segregated as it is. That one hindrance Chicago, hurts us and will continue to hurt us. It's so segregated and leads to more closed minds. Unfortunately, this dichotomy has existed since the city's inception and I don't foresee it changing anytime soon. You just roll with what is and hope for the best. 

The video portion of this interview ran on Entrepreneur.com on August 21, 2017: What Growing Up on the South Side of Chicago Taught This Visual Artist About Hustling