Finding the correct words to introduce Senay Kenfe is not an easy job. A one title job description is definitely not enough to encapsulate the brilliance, creativity, and eloquence of this man. A true Long Beach native, the artist turned community organizer doesn’t fall short of representing his city while proudly showing off his Eritrean heritage. Born and raised under the bright sun of the West Coast, Senay could boast collaborations and consulting work with some of the most influential companies in the world; however, he’s not one to toot his own horn. Rather he prefers to let his actions and tangible solutions speak for him. And why blame him? His track record is filled with remarkable achievements focused on giving back to the multi-cultural community he was raised in.
From organizing fundraisers and successfully supplying material for the only art program in the local school district to synthesizing educational resources into visually stimulating printed matter, down to providing fresh produce to the ones in need during the pandemic, Senay’s philanthropic hustle is a product of the circumstances that raised him. The son of an Eritrean political refugee who fled the country after fighting for its liberation and the nephew of a Black Panther on his mother’s side, Senay’s determination is fueled by years of experience working with companies that too often took his intellect for granted and juiced him for entitled favors mixed with selfless curiosity for how policy impacts his neighborhood. Listening to his linear, soft yet assertive voice is soothing—the type of tone that is expected from a scholar or a leader.
You don’t need optic stimuli when hearing words coming out of his mouth because the way he articulates his concepts is layered enough. Like a good, emphatic instrumental, Senay’s vocals force you to focus on the words and really absorb the meaning of what’s being said. Often brief in his chat but able to elaborate in-depth when needed, his social media platforms are a source of informational messages and reflections on current affairs as well as a live market place for his book shop.
Operating out of the city of Long Beach, all of Senay’s work is linked to an umbrella project called Eddie’s Liquor. The multi-hyphenated practice can be considered a creative agency in its most experimental iteration due to the wide array of cultural consulting and production offered by his experience. His deep knowledge of the local scene completes the picture. Supporting and enhancing the autochthonous community is one of the business’s core values, and civic duty is part of the daily operations. Senay believes in watering your own garden rather than dreaming of your neighbor’s green grass.
Curious to dive deep into his involvement in the community and how his artistic flair ties into it, our conversation started with hardly any banter, despite having known each other for a few years. Over the past year, I noticed he started sharing tips on how to get involved with the city council, so I dove straight into it. “For years I had this apathetic idea of what power is and how we can reshape and re-shift it to fit our needs until I realized things are literally just hidden in plain sight,” he answered when asked about his participation in weekly meetings and how being a presence in those important rooms where the fate of historical landmarks and cultural references is chosen is vital. More often than not, he is the only Black person.
“All of the things you see people complain about on Instagram are decided 6 months ahead and are discussed in those rooms. Before reaching a verdict, though, they ask for any objection,” he continued to explain. Rarely the assembly meets the quota of representation needed to keep the subject alive and thriving. Realizing this motivated Senay to continue showing up to the gatherings and consistently voice the concerns of his community, hopefully steering the decisions towards a positive outcome.
Senay has been actively challenging the status quo as an individual only for the past five to six years, but protests, marches, and counteraction have been part of his environment since he was a teenager. To bring attention to the pressing issues impacting the city but are often overshadowed by the wider picture of American politics, he uses art and provocative publishing. “Police reform is a very big topic right now,” he conceded when talking about his influences and the kind of political work he has been following for years. “I used to go to Cop Watch and all these Stop LAPD protests. These organizations have started gaining traction recently, but they have existed for at least 15 years,” he continued to tell me.
“Trump isn’t coming to Long Beach and saying, ‘Hey, this is the amount of money you guys are going to spend on the police department next year.’ It’s the local city council that does that,” he explained in order to highlight the importance of making information available and accessible to an uninterested audience as the voting percentage in the city runs at a staggeringly low rate. His testimony is essential as it’s relatable. The global pandemic has taken a hard hit on many communities, but, as always, the most impacted are the poor. Poverty is upheld not only by the lack of economic resources but also by the absence of healthy nutrition and easy access to organic produce. To counter this, Senay organized a Community Fridge through the Los Angeles Community Fridge Initiative. “In the area where I come from, you can find twenty fast food restaurants, but you only have one grocery store for a neighborhood that houses around 40,000 people.” He said in regards to his commitment to providing an alternative. The need to create a more sustainable eco-system for the people is impellent. “Coronavirus is killing people with underlying conditions because their diet doesn’t provide the vitamins for a strong immune system,” he continued.
The initiative’s immediate success proved the need for healthy food options, but it also caught the attention of the health department, which showed up to seize the activity as it was deemed “unsafe”. The irritating ambivalence of the issue didn’t stop Senay from finding a viable solution. He ended up finding a partner in his friend and artist, Lauren Halsey, who was running a similar program but with organic food boxes. The excess food that couldn’t get distributed through her project, Summa Everythang, was assigned to Senay, who started delivering it to the community in Long Beach every Thursday at 6:00 PM. Needless to say, he quickly became a fixed reference for people in the neighborhood he grew up in. Word of mouth spread the message around, and soon all pallets started getting emptied without the need to advertise his presence recurrently.
The love for his city seeps throughout all of his work, including his artistic endeavors. The name of his creative agency, Eddie’s Liquor, comes from the place where his father first got a job after setting foot in the USA. “My dad and his brothers all worked for this guy named Eddie, who owned a bunch of liquor stores,” he told me about the reason why he chose this name for his operation. The name is ubiquitous in Long Beach. Over the years, the franchise was broken, and each location was acquired by a different tenant, mostly of foreign origin. Often unable to bear the costs of changing the sign, the name stuck and has become a recognizable institution, while gaining an anonymous allure. “Nobody knows who owns these places anymore, but the omnipresence of these stores acts as a unifying entity if you live in Long Beach. It doesn’t matter the neighborhood you come from,” he explained. In this sense, the missions of the businesses overlap despite the two being so different from each other.
Senay’s Eddie’s Liquor exists as a visual example of freedom and his own self-expression after a decade of being submitted to others and finally being able to create his own legacy rather than perpetuating or building up a cultural institution that didn’t really represent him. At last, he molded his own space and incubator of talent. Under this label, Senay publishes various artistic projects, books, and zines. His unique zines showcase those parts of history that are often left out by mainstream media and education. “You have to share the knowledge, but rather than pontificating on social media about these topics, I try to create a tangible representation of the information I am trying to put out there in the world,” he said in regards to the audio-visual material he releases. His approach is multi-layered.
Recently he presented a body of work at HVW8 Gallery in Los Angeles. He’s the proof that living up to your potential without compromise will open doors and give you a fertile ground where the right seeds can flourish and blossom. “It’s important for me to be public about the work that I do because I represent particular energy within the creative industry. There’s a lot of inquisitive young minds and eyes that are watching,” he continued while elaborating on the fact that he didn’t feel comfortable being a mentor or a resource for others until he was working for in a corporation. Printed educational material is important for the expansion of our knowledge as many individuals need a concrete, tactile object to learn. When asked about his opinion on this topic, Senay laughed and pointed out that the current school semester and the remote digital learning prove that books are a crucial part of unbiased education.
His zine series “The New Negro” takes inspiration from Alain Locke’s prolific work and the Harlem Renaissance movement’s philosophical architecture. Citing Locke’s words and mentioning how he actively had to go out and seek the visionaries we now admire, Senay analyzed how the current generation is familiar with Basquiat’s work but barely knows his precursor Rammellzee, despite the easy access to information. “When I was at Redbull, Jeff Mao put together this incredible exhibition about Rammellzee, and there is no way you could look at this on a computer screen. You need to see art in the physical world to really understand the brilliance of that artist and what he represented to the generation that came under him.” Often, he distributes his zines to people from his natal neighborhood with a little introduction about the artist he’s featured. Initially, they don’t look further than the surface, commenting only on the images, then they come back a few days late with more excitement after having done their own research.
“The purpose of my work is not about me, Senay Kenfe, being the resourceful, smart guy and you’re the dummy, let me make something digestible for you to understand. It’s more like, I am interested in this thing, and I want you to view beauty in your own image. Plus, I don’t want to complain about the lack of Black resources,” he explained in regards to how he repurposed his position and space to bridge the gap between those who come from difficult backgrounds and cultural value. His book store probably plays the most pivotal role in the manifestation of Senay’s mission to democratize his research. He spends plenty of time carefully selecting the literature going onto his shelves and into the hands of the local youth in order for them to read about themselves and see things from a different perspective.
Taking responsibility in shaping the narrative and redefining what things look like for his community is the inspiration behind everything he does. The shop and his own artwork, respectively are the vehicle delivering the message. The book store has gained particular traction over the past few months as a reaction to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement. Admittedly, online, his audience is overwhelmingly composed of white people, but the brick and mortar location is visited by a mixed bunch representing the diversity of Long Beach. “Knowledge is not meant to be solely for one community,” he said very seriously after dimly laughing about the race to wokeness that many non-POC have signed up for recently. The business has been open for the past year, way before the rush to read about Black historians became a clickable matter. Before transparently revealing an anecdote from the previous month, Senay mentioned he believes we collectively have to do better on a daily basis.
“A woman walked into the store looking for specific Black Female authors which unfortunately were not stocked,” he shared. She challenged him on the default. After initial faltering, he realized her request was valid and simply a reflection of how a customer was looking to spend her money. Ultimately the constructive criticism triggered a mindful reaction. “Rather than resenting her for her comments, I should thank her and use it as an excuse to improve my business,” he admitted. The chance to redeem himself came quickly. I caught Senay right after returning from a big buying trip in New York, where he acquired 683 books from shops that were going out of business. He made sure at least 20% of the books were written by women. He set a benchmark and achieved it. Most of the time, these resources are out there; they simply need to be unveiled, but he taught me it’s not a hard task to accomplish.
Afterall, resilient women are a huge part of Senay’s life, starting from his maternal great grandmother. Born and raised on a plantation in Memphis, Tennessee, she drove all the way to California on her own following a job opportunity. Here, she met her husband and built her life. She worked as a housemaid, then as a seamstress, saved up to buy a house, and when her husband prematurely died, she kept on raising eight children alone. Before passing, she made sure to bring Senay to see where she came from and trickle history down to him. Needless to say, Senay’s subject matter is embedded in his DNA and is the result of a generational fight that was injected into him by design. The subsequential eras of unrest that his ancestors lived through and the relative first-hand testimony passed to him by his family created the foundation for the discourse stringing his work together.
Playing with continuous inspection of how the past affects the now, Senay’s work relies on satire and critique to pinpoint how modern political conversations are, in reality, a tumbling chamber of ancient policymakers reconfiguring their public persona to fit the contemporary democracy. Often, completely masking the fact that the detrimental legislation impacting mostly Black and Brown communities to this day were crafted by their tough crime restrictions over the course of the past 50 years. Currently, he’s working on creating an artistic exposure of the dreadful deeds designed by the candidates available on the American political landscape at the moment. Senay’s extensive international travel enhanced this level of zoomed-out perspective. “Every American needs to leave America,” he laughed. “There’s this 24-hour television replay of what the world is that isn’t necessarily real, and I think it’s important to have a first-hand realization that poverty is a global issue,” he went on, switching his tone from light-hearted to serious. “If you live in a so-called Western or industrialized country, you need to realize that you most likely live better than 80% of the world,” he conceded, meaning to spark a compassionate analysis of our surroundings without silencing the single experience.
Traveling has been a tool for yielding amplified empathy and awareness of the strife outside of his community in order to provide an unprejudiced thesis to support his artwork. “When I was in Brazil, I spent time in the Favelas, and I felt safer around people carrying machetes than when I am out in suburban areas of Orange County,” he said in relation to why exploring the world is so important for one’s personal advancement. “Meanwhile, if you watch ‘City of God’ you’d think my time in Rio De Janeiro would be cut short,” he proceeded to joke. This simple example speaks volumes on the impact media has on our knowledge and how skewed and false the narrative fed to by Hollywood is. Moreover, the multi-cultural interdependence of London provided him with a reformed idea of what the projects or council estates look-alike abroad, and how heterogeneous low-income areas are in certain countries, reiterating how vital of a necessity it is to travel. Needless to say, Senay’s subjects mostly depend on the redistribution of his self-education and how hypothetical scenarios of multi-culturalism could work if applied to America. A nation he depicts as honest when it comes to topics such as racial divide given the advertised segregation intrinsic to its history, taking an ironic stab at Europe’s forgotten colonialism.
As a third culture, half-Black American, half Eritrean kid, Senay grew up understanding cultural ambivalence and how America depicts the Black man as a second class citizen, ultimately leading to a perpetual distorted image even within immigrant families sharing the same complexion. However, as our conversation comes to an end, he cleverly pointed out that there’s a Trump in every country. As much as these policies’ impact seems to be louder due to the country’s financial power and size, we must not forget about localized tyranny and check ourselves before confidently wiggle our finger to the US. Ultimately, his work serves the purpose of improved awareness. It stimulates critical thinking around problematic topics that we possibly would shrug and dismiss if not vehemently brought to our attention.