I first learned of Yung Yemi after stumbling across the song “Bad Habits” by Toronto artist a l l i e. The track’s artwork is hard to miss, consisting of various, intertwining layers but somehow remains easy on the eyes. Perhaps this is the most mesmerizing characteristic about the piece – the ability to remain fluid to the eye even through constructed of diverse elements. Luckily, just a few days later I had the opportunity to ask the artist and photographer about his approach to design, working with a l l i e, the inspiration behind some of the pieces he has created, and more.
How long have you been making art and what first inspired you to start?
I’ve been making art my whole life. It started out as just a means of affordable entertainment. My mom was a single parent and worked nights as a nurse, so she’d be sleeping during the day. She’d give me some color pencils and a pad of paper and let me do my thing. My path as an artist has gone through a lot of phases. I went from drawing to painting to making my own t-shirts. I did tattoos for a bit and directed a few videos for local hip-hop artists.
The last five years I’ve really focused on photography to build a career (@soteeoh is my photography name). I love photography but, as a commercial photographer, it’s always a balance between my perspective and the client. With Yung Yemi, I’m just using all the different skills I picked up over the years and just making shit that is 100% what I want to make.
How would you describe your work?
I would say it’s Afrocentric, first and foremost. But to be more specific, it’s Afro-pop, Afro-future, and Afro-hustle. It’s like equal parts hard work and vivid dreams. The feeling I really want to emote is power and black excellence.
How would you describe your approach to design?
I love to repurpose things, reimagine things, and just build layers. I draw inspiration from so many things. I love texture, I love urban environments, I love the 90s, I love sports, I love branding…so my approach to design is to just see how many of those elements I can layer into a piece without crossing that line where it becomes distracting.
Are there any graphic or visual artists you look up to?
Absolutely. I’m a big fan of Wangechi Mutu. I love Hush. Shepard Fairey is someone I definitely check for. Kanye West, too. He’s not technically a visual artist, but I like how he approaches things. He really values the visual aspect of everything he’s involved in. He’s definitely inspired a lot of my art over the years.
If you ever get a creative block, what do you do to get inspired?
I honestly don’t really get creative blocks. The only thing that really slows me down is just lack of energy at times, so it’s really just about paying attention to my health, mentally and physically. Meditating is very key for me. Staying physically active. If I do that, the creative takes care of itself.
How did you start working with a l l i e?
We actually were part of the same multidisciplinary artist collective called 185 Augusta in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood. I helped her with some video stuff for her first EP, so that’s how we first started hanging out. That was in 2013, and then we started dating. Now we live together and create a lot of stuff together so it’s been amazing to collab[orate] and work with someone so intimately. It allows us to really build concepts from the ground up.
What was the inspiration behind the “Bad Habits” and NIGHTSHADE artwork?
With “Bad Habits,” the track is really about getting held back by all your vices. With the cover, I interpreted that as a mask that conceals our real selves. A lot of it is cool shit, like partying and chasing material things. It’s not like it’s ugly or scary necessarily, which is why the mask is made of gold and jewels. But it still conceals our true selves, so that’s why you just see her eyes looking out from behind all this “stuff.” There’s also the snake and the apple in there, which is a biblical reference to the whole concept of temptation.
With the NIGHTSHADE cover, we really collaborated completely. We went to Chinatown and bought about $200 worth of jewelry—$200 goes a long way in Chinatown (laughs)—then she put the whole outfit together herself with the body suit, the layers of chains and bracelets, and the tiara. I took the photos of her in our home studio. The whole throne is a photo collage I created in Photoshop. It has a lot of elements that are personally significant to her, for example the turtle and the crystals. It’s a celebration of feminine divinity. Every woman has an inner goddess, so with this cover we just tried to imagine what that goddess would look like for a l l i e.
How long did it take to create those artworks?
Each one is about 20-30 hours split up over a few days. It starts with a photo shoot, so we’ll try out some different poses that I think could work for the concept. Then I just throw everything into Adobe and get busy. It’s a fun process though because when I’m sourcing the collage elements online I often get sidetracked on some random site and I end up watching a bunch of dope videos or getting an impromptu art history lesson or something. The challenge is really finding the right elements that fit together to make it work. I find a lot of stuff online, but I also shoot some elements myself and I’ll also scan stuff from books or magazines. It’s honestly a very peaceful process, though I usually just bump tunes or if its NBA season I’ll have like three games streaming on a separate monitor.
What are some of your hobbies besides creating art?
I love sports. I try to play ball at least once a week. I also love food, so I go to a lot of restaurants. That’s about it though. I spend most of my time creating stuff.
What songs are you listening to the most at the moment?
What’s the best piece of advice you would give to other creatives?
I guess the main thing is to remember that with art you’re always supposed to get better at it. There’s no finish line. You never know everything there is to it. So try not to get frustrated with yourself. Wherever you’re at creatively right now, that’s exactly where you need to be, and as you keep creating you inevitably will get better. It’s just a never-ending process, so try not to be impatient Just trust yourself and keep putting in the work. Sooner or later, you will make something that you love and that’s the highest achievement.
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