Around the city of Nashville, there are few stars in the realm of entertainment that are rising faster than Josh Black. The basketball star turned firefighter turned comedian has garnered a loyal fan base over the last few years through his work with Nashville Scene, shows at Zanies Comedy Club, collaborations with Mayor Megan Barry, and appearances on the Raw Room. While Nashville residents have come to know that he’s the man that can make anybody laugh, they may have just realized that he’s an artist in every sense of the word. To be honest, Josh Black may have just realized that himself.
During the first week of February, Black added to his creative repertoire and opened up an art exhibit at the Julia Martin Gallery. As quickly as it opened, collectors began to purchase his work. Truthfully, this is something that even Josh may have been surprised to see just two months ago.
“I was doing collages at first before I did my paintings. I was just cutting out sh*t, gluing it and I loved it. Then, I drew something and I thought that it sucked, so I threw it away,” he explained.
“Julia Martin, the gallery owner, grabbed it out of the trash and said, ‘This is great.’ I asked, ‘Really?’ That moment inspired me to paint 20 pieces.”
As Black’s exhibition at the Julia Martin Gallery comes to a close, he sat down with Def Pen to talk about his artwork, comedy career and so much more.
As we discussed before, you have a number of different jobs. You work as a firefighter and you recently opened up an exhibit at the Julia Martin Gallery. You are also a talented comic. How do you balance all of those different jobs?
I did music originally. I did music for about seven years and I had the same work ethic, but I wasn’t rewarded at all. I did it at a time when you still needed [the help] of gatekeepers a little bit. You had to know somebody to get in [back then], but now you can kind of make your own way.
Back then, the gatekeepers didn’t like me for whatever reason. I don’t know if it was personal or whatever, but I couldn’t get in. I went so hard for so long without any reward, but when things started working for me. When you’ve been hungry for so long and you finally get some food, it’s like, “Ok, I’m gonna eat.” It’s also kind of fun. Comedy is fun. Art is fun. Being a firefighter comes with good benefits.
That’s funny! My step-dad has an interesting career path. He was a Marine, a firefighter, and an EMT. I admire him because he’s pretty much spent his entire life serving others, but there’s a lot that comes with those types of jobs that they may not tell you upfront.
Absolutely. It’s a cultural shift and we’re also in the Deep South, so there’s that. We’re in Tennessee. I will also just say that…[Donald] Trump won the firefighter vote nationwide. Let’s just put it like that. You know what I mean?
When you’re helping people, that’s all good. I love to help people and I am committed to helping the people of Nashville all day. But you know? Sometimes, that’s kind of where it stops.
Interestingly, you mentioned Trump. When I visited your exhibit last weekend, I wrote down notes about all of your work, but three pieces, in particular, stood out. The first one that comes to mind is called “One Nation Under God.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looked as if Jesus was standing above three people. One person wore a police uniform. Another person was wearing a MAGA hat or t-shirt. The third person wore a Ku Klux Klan sheet.
I’m originally from New Jersey, but I was living in Washington, D.C. when Trump was elected. I know how chaotic and tense the nation’s capital was on that particular night. What was that Election Day in 2016 like for you in Nashville?
It was as if somebody said, “Hey! If you’re extremely racist, come on out. It’s our time! It’s time to be free! If you have been told that you can’t be racist, that’s not true anymore. [Donald Trump is] here to protect you. [He’s] also here to gas you up and turn you up.” There’s already blatant racism in the south anyway, but when [Trump] was in office it was like gasoline. They acted as if they had impunity and a defense, which they kind of did. He kind of really gassed them up and made [things] a lot worse.
So, I did that painting to show how dumb they are. Geographically and historically speaking, there were very few white people in the Bible. Of the few white people in the Bible that we know of, most of them were the Romans that murdered Jesus. That’s it. Then, you have these Christian conservatives who support the “Make America Great Again” movement, conservative Christian organizations like the KKK, and police officers who wear “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets who say they love Christ, but sh*t on Black people. It’s going to be weird when they get to heaven, see Jesus and find out that he’s Black. I made that painting just to show the irony and ignorance of being racist.
When you talk about how emboldened certain people were, I couldn’t agree more. I’ll never forget a particular moment on the night of November 4, 2016. I was in my friend’s car and we drove by the Capitol a few hours before the final results came in. We saw a man ride past the United States Capitol Building with a Confederate flag hanging out for people to see. That was just the beginning. I still remember being just a block away when all those people were gassed and forcibly moved so that he could take a photo in front of a church that he never really went to.
I do want to go back to what you said about the intersections of religion and politics. Another one of my favorite pieces in your exhibit was called As-salamu alaykum. I was just wondering what impact, if at all, did religion have on your upbringing?
My parents, grandparents, and the entire neighborhood were extremely Christian. We want to church maybe four times each week. I was in Sunday School too and all of my friends were at church. Even after church, I would go to my boy’s house and we’d go hoop, but everything was scheduled around the church. It was a big part of my upbringing and social life. My Mom was super, super Christian. She still is to this day.
Although I don’t subscribe to that anymore. I do respect a lot of the stuff in the Bible. I think it’s a cool text. It has very great stories. My name even came from the Bible. My Mom named me Joshua after Joshua in the Bible. She always tries to tell me to calm down when I’m talking about racism and other things, but I try to tell her that Joshua, in the Bible, tried to take his people to the promised land. So, you did that. That’s your fault. You named me after a person that wants to take his people to the promised land. That’s what I want to do. So, I respect Christianity in that aspect.
Going back to your question about religion, the guy that bought the Jesus painting told me that he wanted his kids to see that growing up. I feel like that’s so powerful because I can use my art, comedy, etc. to equip you and arm you with more confidence and information. That’s my job.
Recently, I’ve found myself in a similar place. I take from it what I can. Having grown up in a Christian household, I think the biggest thing I take away from my church experience growing up is a sense of hope. I have my questions about Christianity and any other religion really, but I think that’s natural. So, I just try to find a sense of hope in the faith, and anything after that is a bonus.
Exactly. That’s what’s good about it. That’s why I’m not one of those dudes who’s like, “You’re a Christian. You’re dumb. You’re Muslim, so you’re dumb.” That’s crazy. I have respect for religion and I have respect for anybody that wants to worship that or believe in that. I think that’s a cool thing. However, I don’t subscribe to it. At the end of the day, I think there’s a universal power that created this. But who knows? I think it’s a curious journey that we all go down. If you love anything, study it, look into it and learn more about it. I respect religion and I’m down to go to any mosque, church, etc.
I want to move to the third painting that caught my attention. It’s called “City of Dreams.” At the center, there’s a portrayal of Nashville, but there are words written throughout the painting. You wrote words like college, comedy, soul, rest, tomato, and a few others.
This weekend, in particular, has been interesting for me as a newcomer to the city. I went to this concert that Slim + Husky’s put on at the National Museum of African-American Music. Right before Bryant Taylorr or Brian Brown went on stage, I remember two of the founders of Slim + Husky’s went on stage and began talking about what this event meant to them. I think it was Derrick “D Mo” Moore who said, “Everything we need is right here in this city.” I kept thinking about that statement throughout the weekend as I went by the Nashville Black Market, visited LeXander Bryant’s “Forget Me Nots” exhibit at the First Art Museum, and saw your art at the Julia Martin Gallery. Nashville has a lot more than people give it credit for having. From your perspective, what is the biggest misconception that people have of Nashville?
The biggest misconception that people have is that there aren’t any Black people here. When I tell people I’m from Nashville, they’re like, “There are Black people down there?” People’s perceptions of Nashville gave me a different perspective because I would think the same thing about South Dakota or Oklahoma.
We’ve got a rich culture here. We’ve got three historically Black colleges and universities on one street. We’ve got HBCUs. We’ve got Black business. There’s a Black bookstore here that pretty much taught me everything that I know about Black liberation. There are activists and several activist groups. We’ve got music…there’s a history of Black music in Nashville. Jimi Hendrix came down here and played. Stokley Carmichael came here back in the day. Of course, we just name a street after John Lewis because he came down here and put in work with Tennessee State University. Some of the Freedom Riders started here. We’ve got a long, rich Black history.
Moving from your art to your comedy, I did want to ask you about any similarities that you may find between the two. Is it more nerve-wracking being on stage or sharing your art at a gallery?
Being on stage is more nerve-wracking because it’s so unpredictable. Art is like music in a sense. You can have a few tastemakers that you respect to listen to a song and have confidence in it. You can have a song, send it to Wale and have him say that it’s hard. You don’t have to question it as much after that. It’s hard. You can send it to Jay-Z and if he says that it’s good there’s no question anymore. With a joke, it’s not like that. You can work on a joke, ask somebody if it’s good and they’ll say, “Yeah. It’s good.” Then, you bring it out in front of a crowd and they’re like, “F*ck out of here.” Also, you could have a joke work with this crowd at 7 p.m. and not work with the crowd at 9 p.m. It’s just so unpredictable and your nerves can never really settle, but that’s kind of what makes it fun.
“Of course, when you do that, you begin to ask yourself, “What else am I missing out on?” I don’t have too much that I would rather do and you also don’t want to stray too much from your bread and butter.”
Now, I feel like I have to ask this. What’s the wildest or most unpredictable moment that you’ve experienced on stage?
I was at a bar show and this woman was talking constantly. Eventually, I asked her, “Hey ma’am, would you mind keeping it down?” She looked back at me and said, “We ain’t in church, b*tch!” I just thought to myself, “She really has a point.” At that point in my comedy career, I had never come across somebody that was so disrespectful and the crowd started to cheer her on after she said that. They started clapping too. Meanwhile, I’m up there hosting and I ended up trying to go off on her, but she went back off on me. I was trying to roast, but I wasn’t even good at roasting at that point. I said something like, “You’re fat.” Something like that and she said, “My son is in the hospital right now.” Now, the crowd is looking at me like I’m a**hole. Then, I had to get her. I said, “So, you’re here? You’re at a bar and your son is in the hospital? You’re a horrible Mom.” When I said that, the crowd tried to defend her. So, I lost the crowd even though she’s a bad Mom. It was horrible. I mean it’s funny now, but back then I was saying, “It’s horrible. I just crushed this woman.” It was crazy, but you have to learn the skill of crowd work.
That is hilarious! We’ve talked about firefighting, comedy, and art. You’ve also been on the Raw Room and a few other podcasts. I also saw that you’re doing work with Nashville Megan Barry. Is there any medium of creativity that you haven’t tried, but would like to?
I thought I was going to do comedy, but then I leaned into art just a little bit. Now, I’ve sold nearly all of my paintings.
Thank you! I put a lot into it and it was fun. Of course, when you do that, you begin to ask yourself, “What else am I missing out on?” I don’t have too much that I would rather do and you also don’t want to stray too much from your bread and butter. I do comedy and art and both of those require you to work at them every day, so I’m not going to say that I want to add anything else. But I never did get a victory in music. That’s always been in the back of my head. I don’t know when I’ll ever try music again, but I do want to see if I can do that again in a serious way. I don’t want to do a parody song either. I want to do a dead a** song.
I feel like you could do that. I was on Twitter the other day when I saw someone ask who are the best actors turned musicians. In my mind, I automatically went to Donald Glover and Jamie Foxx, who are both comedians.
I want to end by looking at the future. You just wrapped up your first art gallery exhibition. You’re going to be a part of the Nashville Comedy Festival in April. In two years, what do you want to look back on this moment in your life and be able to say?
In two years, I want to be able to look back and say, “Man, I was broke as sh*t.” I just sold most of my paintings from the Julia Martin Gallery. In two years, hopefully, I’ll be able to say, “Wow, I used to sell my paintings for so little.” I want to be able to say, “I used to just have one show each night. I used to have just one car.” I also want to be able to look back and say that I wasn’t that smart either. In two years, I want to be smarter, have more resources, access more money, etc. I also want to be able to avoid working a job that I’m not passionate about or that doesn’t respect me.
At the end of last year, I told myself that this year would be the year of national success. That’s what I’m trying to attack all year. I want to branch out, get funnier, work on my relationships and that’s mainly it.
Note: This interview was edited for brevity and grammatical clarity.
Josh Black’s “Don’t Forget To Laugh” exhibit will be available at the Julia Martin Gallery, located at 444 Humphreys Street in Nashville, from February 5th through February 26th. Black will also host the “Music City Roast Battle” on April 20, 2022, at Zanies Comedy Club.