In 1955, when the death of Emmett Till occurred, it was the Black owned publication created by the late great John H. Johnson, JET Magazine, that shared the open casket pictures of his funeral. An incredibly bold statement for that time period, JET fulfilled the responsibility that all of Creatives have: to share our stories and ultimately, our truths, no matter how ugly it is. Drew of Enstrumental is on a similar mission to carry the torch, making sure we never forget those that have come before us.
The Founder and Creative Engineer reveals the story behind his film project ‘The Revenge of Emmett Till’, the power of timing and connection, and upholding a cause that’s bigger than you.
Interview by Melissa Kimble
“I would see brands that were putting out Malcolm X tees, and I’m like come on, you don’t know anything about Malcolm X. I grew up on that. That was my hero,” Drew shares about the birth of his clothing company, Enstrumental. “When Jay-Z started wearing the Che Guevara shirt I would ask people who is Che Guevara and they would be like ‘I don’t know’. So you’re doing it for the hype. I saw different brands doing that and I’m like no y’all perpetrating and fronting on the culture. That’s what made me put out the brand.”
It’s no secret that how we grow up, plays an intricate part in our development. not just as professionals but as Creatives. During a time where social media amplifies our distractions, it’s becoming harder to stay in your own lane while others are profiting off of gimmicks and get-rich quick schemes. For the Chicago native, his upbringing has been key to maintaining his authenticity and focus. Sustaining those key elements has allowed him to create a brand that speaks to our past, just as much as it does our present and our future.
When I put out the ‘Chicago Police killed Fred Hampton’ shirt, I wasn’t doing that to get some cool points. That’s coming from a family where my uncles were Panthers and growing up under that element. I came from that. So if I put Rosa Parks and Mayor Harold Washington on a shirt, I’m doing that to honor the ancestors. So that’s me and because it’s me it’s natural to put it on a tee.
And like many of us who create products and release it out to the world, Drew had to accept that everything we make is not for everybody.
I do that knowing that only a certain segment of the population is going to get it from a mental aspect and then that transfers to them saying, ok I’m going to consume this product. I know I have certain tees that only a certain customer is going to get. When I started the brand, one of the phraseologies that I learned is “For the rebels”. A rebel is not someone who just is rebellious all the time or rebellious against everything, just their nature is rebellious in a sense. I wanted to create tees for that. So if you felt– you felt it. And that’s how I feel now. If you feel it, you feel it and if you don’t you don’t. I don’t try to do a tee for shock value.
Pulling from a different breed of influences, Enstrumental was born June 2006. Since then, Drew has created conversation starters that push our history to the forefront. From the minute you begin to have your own discussion with him, you begin to see just how his commitment to his mission forces you to come to terms with your truth. It’s that raw energy that captivates you and leads you to his film project “The Revenge Of Emmett Till”.
MK: Can you tell me how that project came about? As Creatives we often wrestle with is turning ideas into action. If you can think about the key things that you had to do to actually get it done — what are they?
Drew: I was working on a series called “The Assassination of Assassination”. It was supposed to be four parts [MLK, JFK, Emmett Till, Malcolm X]. “The Assassination of Assassination” series was speaking to, from a revolutionary aspect, as it relates to the struggle for freedom and what not. Particularly as it relates to being a minority, you need to be more proactive as opposed to reactive because often times we’re too reactive. So injustice often times becomes the victor. When you look throughout the course of history you have injustice and the synonyms there of, a lot of times it takes that for certain triumphs or for individuals to overcome certain things. So it’s like ok, let’s be more proactive. Don’t wait until something kicks off, the proverbial S-H-I-T hits the roof to kick something off. You understand what I’m saying? And from a historical standpoint, that has happened far too many times. The series was called “The Assassination of Assassination” so it’s kind of like get them before they get you.
With Emmett Till we wanted to switch it up and make the imagery similar to a blaxploitation film. At two in the morning, one night with Hebru Brently, we were coming up with the concept and he was like look “You remember JD’s Revenge? You remember Shaft and how the posters looked?” He pulled it up on his phone and he said ok this is how we are going to do it. We’re going to show him kind of getting some get back and revenge. The concept of revenge is just a metaphor for the visible and invisible fight for injustice. We did that in 2010. 2013, my sister works at a library in Summit, IL (Emmett’s people were from Chicago but moved to Summit and Hargrove,IL). Emmett’s two cousins walk in – Wheeler Parker, who is a pastor at a church out there, and Simeon Wright a second cousin of Emmett Till. She said you’ll never guess who walked into the library–Emmett Till’s cousin. 2013, I go to the church to interview them. I found out he was the cousin that was laying in the bed with Emmett when he got snatched up. He gave us the entire story. We had that and I told Hebru, I want a larger painting of “The Revenge of Emmett Till”. I had the original 8 ½ x 11 sketch that he did. We said you know, what we can work out a little 8 minute video story to mix in the time lapse as the cousin is talking about the story. I thought, let me put my spin on it–so the Hebru painting time lapse, with the interview, with my own story – my people having a similar migration story as Emmett Till and his people. My grandparents being the first blacks on the block in Englewood (in Chicago) and they ended up having to move- they moved the year after Emmett Till left. They had the same migration story from Mississippi to the north that a lot of Blacks can tell you. So that’s kind of the concept on how the film came about. It was a shirt, then once I met the cousin it turned into the painting, then towards the final product.
MK: It kind of just took a life of its own after awhile.
Drew: Yeah, so remember 2013, we did the painting. It costs money to do films and I didn’t have the money and at the time to do a film. So June of 2015, somebody hit me and said you know the 60th anniversary of Emmett Till is coming up–because he was killed August 28,1955 in Money, MS. I was like, oh no we got to finish it. I called Hebru, I called Lupe, called the directors who filmed in 2013 and said we got to finish this. We did a trailer back in 2013 but I just didn’t have funds at the time to funnel to the movie. I decided that I was just going to use my own money to pay for this, to get it done. A lot of film is editing, we had a lot of footage we had brought and I gained a whole lot of respect for the editing process.
MK: In between these different moments over time, how did you continue the momentum to carry out your project?
It’s one thing to have ideas, it’s another thing to have the means. What’s more crucial than both of those elements: how then do I execute this? A lot of people have the money or the idea but don’t know how to execute it. Do you have the will? Do you have the level of enthusiasm and diligence that it takes to actually bring the project to fruition?
I just saw it as – from a legacy standpoint, I need to do this project. I did it as a task to myself and really just paying homage to the ancestors. A lot of people don’t know the story. I wanted to talk about the revenge concept but I break down the story of what actually happened. I wanted to get the story out there.
With Emmett Till, yeah he died, we know that, we saw it in Jet Magazine, we saw his picture. But who was Emmett though? He was a boy that like to joke, liked to play, stuttered, whistled at a white woman, died–but who was he? What came as a result of the killing of Emmett Till – the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act. December 1955, the Montgomery Bus Boycott which King and the individuals who are essential or crucial to that development and action – which we could never recreate today because Negroes ain’t that unified– but all that was sparked by the outrage from Emmett Till. This is how a tragedy became triumph and that’s why it’s called “The Revenge of Emmett Till”.
MK: How do you stay content and patient during that process?
Drew: I’ll be honest, it’s been a few times I wanted to shut the brand down because you do want to make money at the end of the day. Money shouldn’t be the goal if you will — but in order to stay afloat and continue to produce. You want to continue to put out a dope product which sells and you want to make a profit– so you can go from month-to-month to year-to-year. Me, you know I’m content in knowing that one I’ve been able to develop mainly through some good products. I’ve had some good collaborations (Little Brother, Lupe). and the celebrity attachments the- Robert Glaspers and DJ Premieres and things of that nature– so through that and relationships with stores — I’ve been able to develop a nice database of customers.
Now when I do put out a product and I disseminate that via email that will lead to certain sales. And because I have a lot of customers that really like what I do, that really is the driving force behind keeping me going. Because a couple times, I’m like you know what, people just don’t get it. And I’m not sitting on my high horse saying people should get it. As far as my mindset and what I like I know a lot of people are not really into that. It’s just too much frontin going on. What keeps me going is just being myself and having that nice core of customer support, where I know once I put out something they will really feel it.
MK: One thing that I really appreciate about your work, is that constant integration of culture and history, but then also community. How do you build those relationships and partnerships while maintaining them?
Drew: Well a lot of people who I’ve collaborated with I knew before, some of these relationships I already had, so coming into the t-shirt game I liked the art of collaboration. I just think in life you need good friends that can spread your message, share your work. and vice versa. And I think that will help to elevate everyone’s mission and sales.