An Homage to the Creatives, Entrepreneurs, and Change-Makers of Today's America

From left: Allison Michael Orenstein; Courtesy Uncle Nearest

This country has always been about open spaces—for business, for creative expression, for change. And the men and women below saw those spaces and claimed them.

Julia Bullock

Lending her world-class voice to the cause of racial justice. 

By Justin Davidson

Even before the pandemic threw live performance into suspended animation, the soprano Julia Bullock was prodding the opera and concert world to take a good hard look at its future. With her high-gloss technique, sinewy voice, and the kind of stage presence that can make a spotlight seem wan by comparison, she could have floated through a traditional operatic career, singing, sobbing, and dying onstage several times a week.

Instead, she has used her gift as an activist’s tool, mixing Black history, new music, and inventive theatrics into bracing performances about race. In her ever-evolving work Perle Noir: Meditations for Joséphine, Bullock treats Josephine Baker as a character as well as a forerunner, an entertainer/ activist who, beginning in the 1920s, served as one of Black America’s envoys to Europe. (Perle Noir’s music was written for Bullock by the MacArthur-winning composer Tyshawn Sorey.) “I didn’t go into this career looking to be revolutionary,” Bullock says. “I feel part of a lineage of artists who come before me.”

She describes another collective effort, “History’s Persistent Voice,” as “a quilting project”: She commissioned Black women composers, including Rhiannon Giddens and Jessie Montgomery, to create a repertoire of “21st-century slave songs” that are set to poems by Black artists and prisoners. In the works for years (and scheduled with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in June 2021), the endeavor is an expression of the same frustrations that recently boiled over in protest all over the U.S.

“Why are people having to use the same language to talk about the same struggles and the same torment?” she asks. “When will people actually be liberated?”

Related: How Devoted Creatives Remain Dedicated to Their Craft, Despite COVID-19

Fawn Weaver

Making America’s best new whiskey, while restoring a seminal Black distiller to his rightful place in history.

By Rima Suqi

If it weren't for Fawn Weaver, Nathan “Nearest” Green might have languished in obscurity, known to hard-core whiskey buffs, but few others, as the slave who taught Jack Daniels how to make liquid gold. But in the four short years since the real estate investor and best-selling author first became aware of his existence, Weaver not only convinced spirits company Brown-Forman to include a Nearest Green exhibit in the Jack Daniels visitors’ center in Lynchburg, Tennessee, but also created an award-winning whiskey brand that bears his name. She used the recipes of Green, the first recorded Black master distiller, and tracked down and hired Victoria Eady Butler, his great-great-granddaughter, to be the master blender.


A healthy pour of Uncle Nearest 1856, a blend of 8-to-14- year-old whiskeys. Paolo Ferraris

Six hundred and twenty-five thousand bottles of Uncle Nearest, the most awarded new American whiskey brand in U.S. history, will be sold this year. There are three expressions to choose from—the 1856, a blend of whiskeys that range from 8 to 14 years old; the 1884, a small-batch offering; and the 1820, an 11-year-old single barrel that sells out as soon as it’s released. Some profits will be contributed to a college fund for Green’s descendants. “The reason I do what I do is to make sure that five, six, seven generations from now, someone is not having to retell the story of Nearest Green,” she says. “We’ll all know it.”

Nicholas Galanin

Drawing from Indigenous traditions to create provocative contemporary art. 

By Gisela Williams

The artist Nicholas Galanin makes work that both engages with and radically questions modern-day Western systems, including the art world itself. Born in Sitka, Alaska, of Tlingit-Unangax ancestry, the artist, 41, began making traditional jewelry as an apprentice to his father, silver carver Dave Galanin, then studied jewelry design at London Guildhall University. It was at Massey University in New Zealand, where he earned a master’s degree in Indigenous visual arts, that he started to produce the kind of installations he has come to specialize in, combining mediums as varied as sculpture, video, and land art.


From left: Nicholas Galanin; Things Are Looking Native, Native’s Looking Whiter (2012). From left: Will Wilson; Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery

“The work I created then,” alongside students and teachers of Maori descent, recalls Galanin, “was intentionally free from the romanticized frameworks that generally define what people think of as Indigenous art.” Examples of those early pieces include a series, “What Have We Become?,” that consists of books with pages carved into three-dimensional masks, a commentary on how Western literature has often erased Native narratives.

Galanin does multiple projects at the same time, from mounting a recent solo exhibition at Peter Blum gallery in New York to working with Tlingit tribe members on a dugout canoe project; from creating one-off jewelry pieces (Erykah Badu is a fan) to excavating a grave for a controversial statue of Captain James Cook in Sydney’s Hyde Park. 


Signal Disruption, American Prayer Rug (2020). Courtesy Peter Blum Gallery

Galanin’s success hasn’t prevented him from questioning the very institutions that have championed him: Last year he pulled out of the Whitney Biennial to draw attention to one of the Whitney’s board members, Warren B. Kanders, because his company manufactured tear-gas canisters and other weapons. On a call from Sitka, Galanin says that he strongly believes in having Indigenous representation in the room, from professors to curators: “Everyone is less without it.”

Related: These Young Entrepreneurs Are Taking Bespoke Travel to the Next Level

Brian Hirata

Honoring Hawaii’s history and preserving its ecological diversity, deliciously.

By Joshua David Stein

Chef Brian Hirata forages through the jungles and tide pools outside Hilo, on Hawaii’s Big Island, to gather the largely untapped bounty, and through the state’s history to harvest its untold stories. The result of his search, served at Na‘au, his nomadic supper club, is a delectably high-concept expression of Hawaii’s terroir. At an event earlier this year, before the pandemic forced him to suspend the exclusive events, Hirata presented guests with dishes like “Hawaii’s rainforest,” combining foods like wild begonia; wood ear mushrooms; hāpuʻu and hōʻiʻo, two varieties of fiddlehead ferns; river prawns; and bamboo shoots in a glass terrarium. Another is called “Waipiʻo Valley circa 1900,” a kind of black risotto topped with a silken white squid. “Between 1860 and 1920,” Hirata explains, “there was a large influx of Chinese immigrants who came here for the sugar industry. During that time, many Hawaiian taro farmers living in the Waipiʻo Valley shared space with the rice farmers. This dish represents those two plants.”


From left: Brian Hirata picks wild mallow to incorporate into pasta. Below: Hirata fishes for ingredients on the shore of the Big Island. Courtesy Andrew Richard Hara

The narrative is fascinating, but it wouldn’t be worth it to jockey for a seat at one of his $185-per-person dinners if the food wasn’t on par with some of the world’s best restaurants. Hirata is Hawaii’s answer to René Redzepi, who inspired a global foraging movement with his Copenhagen restaurant Noma. Rarely have the stakes for such an approach been as high as they are for Hawaii. The archipelago’s ecosystem is in danger of collapse. Though the landscape is gloriously, blazingly verdant, much of Hawaii’s native flora and fauna have proven no match for species introduced since the 1700s, such as the mouflon sheep and the axis deer. Nor has the destruction wrought by successive waves of colonization confined itself to plant and animal life. Many cultural practices have fallen into disuse as well, including the traditional hunting and foraging techniques Hirata has come to rely on.

Hirata has made it his mission to educate diners on the richness Hawaii has to offer and on what it stands to lose. But his cooking is not merely an act of resurrection. “I strongly believe that, no matter what culture it is,” says Hirata, “food needs to evolve. If not, it becomes irrelevant.”

Walter Kitundu

Creating instruments that reveal the unheard music all around us.

By Gisela Williams

Born in Rochester, Minnesota, artist, musician, and instrument maker Walter Kitundu spent the first eight years of his life in his father’s homeland of Tanzania. The absence of a TV, he says, forced him to create his own playthings. He credits those early years with developing his imagination, and nurturing deep passions for birds, airplanes, and turntables that would later inform his weird and wonderful work.


Walter Kitundu. Courtesy Walter Kitundu

The results of his creative explorations, after a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship and several years as an artist in residence at the San Francisco Science Museum’s Exploratorium, include a series of one-of-a-kind handmade stringed instruments built from turntables. Though they look like sculptures—some are built in the shape of a bird in flight—they are fully playable, and make haunting otherworldly sounds. “I’m always outside thinking about music and the natural world and how I can take advantage of natural systems to build unique instruments,” Kitundu explains. With several of these instruments he performed with the likes of the Kronos Quartet and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello.


Cello/ Santor Phonoharp and Ocean Edge Device. Laurie Lazer

More recently, Kitundu has focused on large-scale public artworks, a direction he’s been heading for years. In 2011 he was commissioned to create a site-specific installation in SFO’s Terminal 2 that included a 27-foot-long mural of his bird photographs with a xylophone-like instrument built into benches; for the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, California, Kitundu installed a handmade rocking chair on a circular deck built on the lawn that, when sat on, activated a variety of intimate sounds piped in from speakers in surrounding trees. Now a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Kitundu has just been awarded a commission to create a sound installation in the Alameda Creek Watershed Center in California to highlight the history of the Muwekma Ohlone people, incorporating both birdsong and the tribe’s endangered language. He says he was fascinated by that fact that “when we speed up the singing of tribe members, it sounds like birdcall.”

Robert Bollinger

Building a rugged electric pickup truck, and infusing new energy into the Motor City.

By Brett Berk

Robert Bollinger always wanted to have his own car company. “As a kid, I drew logos and cars,” he says. But after studying industrial design at Carnegie Mellon, he moved to New York and ended up working in advertising. Then he cofounded a hair-care company. Following the lucrative sale of that brand, he moved to the Catskills and started an organic-grass-fed-cattle farm.


Robert Bollinger inside a prototype for the Bollinger B2 truck. Made in America

It was on the farm that he had his automotive epiphany. “I decided that I should start an electric car company,” he says. “But I realized that I didn’t need a little sports car. What I needed was a truck.”

He decided to build one. Though Bollinger Motors is headquartered just outside Detroit, it is not targeting the big domestic truck makers. “I knew there was no way we could compete with Ford,” he says. “So we decided, let’s build the truck Ford would never make.”


The Bollinger B2 truck’s exterior. Courtesy Bollinger Motors

His $125,000 Bollinger B1 SUV and Bollinger B2 pickup are designed for rugged utility and off-road capability, with massive ground clearance and military-grade portal axles. They have a boxy, retro-modern appearance, like a vintage Range Rover. And they also feature a 142-kilowatt-hour battery, good for 614 horsepower, more than 200 miles of range, and a 4.5-second sprint from 0 to 60 miles per hour.

Bollinger plans to produce only 2,500 B1s and B2s, beginning in fall 2021. But already they are restoring some of the high-performance swagger that American cars—and Detroit—were long known for.

Cas Holman

Designing gender-neutral toys to unleash children’s imaginations and open up endless possibilities.

By Gisela Williams

Growing up gay and questioning gender identity in remote Northern California, the designer Cas Holman had to learn to carve out her own world from an early age. Designing toys and games that would enable children to do the same became the motivation behind her practice, and in 2006 she founded the toy company Heroes Will Rise. Rather than toys that ask a child to fulfill a preconceived task, Holman creates gender-neutral systems that allow kids to exercise their imaginations. “Children today have very little freedom to play,” says Holman, who is also an industrial design teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, “but play is so valuable in developing curiosity and independent thinking.”


From left: Cas Holman; A sample creation made from Cas Holman’s Rigamajig toy kit. Beth Flatley

One of Holman’s latest toy kits is Rigamajig, a 265-part set of planks, wheels, pulleys, nuts, bolts, and ropes that can be put together in any way a child wants. But the project she is most focused on at the moment is an interactive indoor exhibition for New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center. If there were ever a time for children (and adults) to learn how to reinvent models and structures, both in science and in politics, she says, it’s now.

Related: Black-Owned Businesses in the U.S. to Support Right Now

Jameel Mohammed

Bringing the African diaspora into the luxury conversation with sleek, modern jewelry.

By Gina Cherelus

Jameel Mohammed founded Khiry, a luxury jewelry brand rooted in the beauty, art, and culture of Black people and Afrofuturism, when he was a 21-year-old political science student at the University of Pennsylvania. Social justice was never far from his mind: two years earlier, while Mohammed interned at Barneys New York, a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed Black man—rattling the country and fueling the already growing Black Lives Matter movement. “It was a moment of consciousness-raising for the country, but especially for young, relatively privileged Black artists,” says Mohammed. “I got really focused on how to leverage the access that I did have toward addressing that inequity.”


Justin French

Mohammed, now 25 and based in Brooklyn, continues to weave together themes of the Black experience with inspiration from the realms of fine art, architecture, and dance. Early on, a retail CEO told the designer that “true luxury brands only come from Milan or Paris”; he has spent the intervening years proving that they also come from the African diaspora. One of his designs, a pendant, crosses a traditional West African mask with the sleek modernity of an early Brancusi bronze. His Khartoum ring is a flowing curve inspired by the big-horned cattle that are highly valued among the Dinka people of Sudan.


Khiry Mask pendant necklace. Courtesy Khiry

Khiry has always operated on multiple levels, and at a frequency that rings particularly true in our layered times. It is both a line of sculptural, globally appealing pieces and an attempt to disrupt the way high fashion consumers interact with Black culture. His work has resonated with cultural bellwethers like Michelle Obama, Solange, Serena Williams, Issa Rae, and Janet Mock, many of whom have sported the pieces for photo shoots and red-carpet appearances. “It feels great to participate, in even a very small way, in the lives and trajectories and histories, ultimately, of these women,” Mohammed says. As for how it feels that the world that he once dreamed up from a dorm room is now walking around on the figures he admires? “That,” he says, “is crazy to me.”

Buscabulla

Providing a perfect soundtrack for this moment in history.

by Laia Garcia-Furtado

Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo del Valle, the married musical duo who make up the experimental pop group Buscabulla, both grew up in Puerto Rico but didn’t meet until they were both living in New York City. “We met at a Puerto Rican friend’s party, because you know, the Boricuas always find each other,” Berrios says. “Recently someone asked me if music or love came first, but we fell in love while talking about the band, and that was it.”


Luis Alfredo del Valle and Raquel Berrios perform as the pop group Buscabulla. Mara Corsino

“It” means two critically acclaimed independently-released EPs, a marriage, and a child. This year, almost a decade after that first meeting, Buscabulla— Puerto Rican slang for “troublemaker”— released their first full-length record, titled Regresa (or “Return”). The album documents their decision to leave New York City and move back to Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria, and picks up and expands upon an eclectic mix of influences: R&B melodies, electronic beats, funky disco bass lines. The album’s deeply emotional lyrics are steeped in the colloquialisms of Puerto Rican streets, and are inspired by salsa romantica, a subgenre of salsa music that emerged in the 1980s and was popularized by artists like Frankie Ruiz, who spoke of love and relationships in everyday language. (The band’s 2017 song “Tártaro” is about Ruiz.)

Berrios finds writing the way people talk to be “more honest, like we aren’t trying to be bougie or highbrow.” Plus, it can also be very funny. Take the song “NTE,” where Berrios sings “no te montes, que no vas.” (This roughly translates to “don’t hop on, ’cause you ain’t going anywhere,” a way of telling off someone who is getting way ahead of himself.)

Regresa’s message—resilience in the face of life-shattering challenges— connected with a much broader audience than anyone had originally anticipated. Says Berrios, “People have written to tell us that this record has helped them make sense of this moment, and that’s so beautiful.”