Keith “Keef” Knight is many things: cartoonist, rapper, social activist, father, educator and also the co-creator, writer and executive producer of the TV series WOKE that has 2 seasons available now on HULU. For nearly 3 decades as a part of a generation of African-American artists who were raised on hip-hop, infusing their work with urgency, edge, humor, satire, politics and race. His art has appeared in various publications worldwide, including The Washington Post, the New Yorker, San Francisco Chronicle, the Nib, Ebony, ESPN the Magazine, and MAD Magazine.
What is your “origin story”?
A lot of answers to that. I am a Black man who grew up in Boston, so that’s always interesting. I was lucky to be exposed to a lot of neat stuff as a kid, courtesy of my great uncle, who took me and my twin sister to New York City when we were kids. Plays, museums, libraries…
But the eye-opening experience I had as a junior in college was life-changing/affirming: My first Black teacher was my American Lit teacher. He assigned us James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison to read. When someone asked why was he giving us all Black writers, he answered, “I’m giving you all American writers…”
That revelation changed me. Because he was making the point that what we know as American Literature, i.e. Mark Twain, is limited at best. And I loved that he was working within the system, to subvert the system.
My comics went from being about keg parties, to being about growing up a Black man in America.
As a Black cartoonist, did you feel you needed to make comics about issues that POC face on a daily basis – or like Keef in Woke, did you ever want to just “keep it light”?
Oh heck yeah. When I began as a professional, the only time I got hired was for Black History Month, in February. So I’d do the assignment, get the check, and cash it.
Then I would write the editor a note that said, “I’m available the other 11 months of the year…”
I needed to show editors that I could do all types of subject matter. To this day I still draw Life’s Little Victories because I feel like people should celebrate the little things in life, and be grateful.
But that just helps me recharge so I can get into the trenches again…
Political cartoons have a long history – and have even toppled political careers. Do you believe in the power of humor to change people’s minds or beliefs?
Certainly so. I talk about that during my comic strip slideshows. I did a strip that got a ton of military people writing to me say that my work changed their minds about the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” rule they had in the military about being gay.
I know your Hulu series, Woke is loosely autobiographical – but much of it is fiction. Was working on the show like creating a comic about your life? What was that like?
I loved it because it was such the opposite of doing a comic strip. Drawing comics is such a solitary endeavor, where as doing a TV show is like being in a symphony. There are so many moving parts, but when it’s running well, it’s amazing. And there are so many talented people that make the project get better and better…the prop people…set decorators…costumers…writers…directors and actors all contribute to make something so much more interesting that if I had total control.
But don’t get me wrong–that’s what I love about cartooning–you do it all: Writing, drawing…you can set it anywhere…and the budget is the cost of a pen and a piece of paper!
Photo: Director Maurice “Mo” Marable in between WOKE creators Keith Knight and Marshall Todd
I love how Woke is a fun combination of live action and inanimate objects coming to life. I’ve read that things like the talking trashcan were actually puppets – where did this inspiration come from?
I credit director Maurice Marable for that. Mo came to us with a look-book that drew inspiration from Do The Right Thing, Amelie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Sorry to Bother You. He said he preferred puppetry over 2-D animation because it was more surreal. His suggestion elevated the show in ways I never imagined.
What advice would you give a BIPOC artist wanting to break into the industry, but also struggling between “keeping it light” and using their craft to highlight social injustices or any other cause they care about?
Stay true to yourself. Tell your authentic story. Do not try to anticipate what others might like. Make something that you’d want to watch. That’s all I did. And that’s the way I create my comics, too.
What’s next up for you? Any cool projects on the drawing board?
I’ve got some neat stuff percolating. Nothing is ready to share yet, but it’s coming…
You can watch Woke on Hulu, streaming now.