Influencer: Khalil Kinsey

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One of the pioneers of L.A.’s streetwear mecca Fairfax Avenue, Khalil Kinsey now manages The Kinsey Collection, America’s largest private collection of African-American art.

Seen by more than six million people in 24 North American cities, The Kinsey Collection is one of the world’s largest private collections of paintings, sculptures, documents and artefacts chronicling the history of African-Americans.

Owned by Los Angeles businessman and philanthropist Bernard Kinsey and his wife Shirley, the collection, which was recently exhibited at Hong Kong University, showcases rarities such as a letter written by Malcolm X to Alex Haley two years before his assassination, and a document from a 1954 Supreme Court ruling that ending legal segregation in American Schools.

With tensions around race-relations escalating in the U.S., and the pro-democracy movement gaining momentum in Hong Kong, the collection, which had never before been shown outside North America, could not have made its global debut at a better time.

“Our collection is a chance for people to have a dialogue about things they have not discovered before. They will see that we are more alike than we are dissimilar, that The Kinsey Collection is a shared history of how America became America and how everything since America’s foundation was predicated by slavery, the recent presidential election included,” said Bernard Kinsey as the collection arrived in Asia, thanks to the efforts of partner, American Airlines.

Working as chief curator and operations manager of the collection is Khalil Kinsey, Bernard’s and Shirley’s only son, a man who aptly embodies how much African Americans have achieved since the day Rosa Parks got on that bus in Montgomery.

When Bernard and Shirley were first married more than 50 years ago, they began collecting mainly Native American art and objects from their visits to national parks across the US. When their son Khalil was born ten years later, the Kinsey’s felt it was important that he understood more about his roots. “To ensure I would have knowledge of African-American history that went beyond what was taught at school, my parents shifted their focus to collecting African-American art and objects instead,” says Khalil.

As a child, Khalil travelled extensively around the world and enjoyed a privileged childhood amidst a circle of adults with considerable social and financial clout. At a young age, he struggled with his identity. “I thought I was supposed to be in the streets doing all types of crazy stuff so I did just that for some time,” says Khalil, who lost a number of his African-American friends through prison or death. “This opened my eyes to how America has worked from the beginning, in terms of black lives and how we are perceived,” he says.

 
 
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Like many adolescents, Khalil began to explore the world beyond the refuge of middle-class family life, spending time with friends on the streets of Los Angeles.

“Growing up, L.A. in the 90s, I enjoyed a diverse set of experiences and lifestyles. My younger years were all about hip hop, rock, sneaker culture, gang culture, skateboarding, snowboarding, surfing, graffiti, and more – but most of all it was about discovering my own personal style.”

The early 2000s saw these influences merge to create a community of like-minded young creatives who mostly met through the LA and New York party circuit. Khalil was one of them, and with his networking and marketing skills, he helped many of his friends launch their own independent streetwear fashion brands in Fairfax Avenue, a regular Jewish neighbourhood which developed into what The Huffington Post dubbed “the Rodeo Drive of streetwear”.

“Everyone was multi-talented, but many of us were in the apparel industry and had fledgeling independent clothing companies. I did the sales and marketing, helping friends get their clothing noticed and distributed,” he says. Since then Fairfax Avenue has become a world-renowned youth culture and retail mecca and Khalil is proud that he managed to play a role in revitalizing this part of his city.

These days Kinsey continues to affect change, not only with The Kinsey Collection but also with educational outreach efforts to address the lack of African American history and art in school curriculums in the US.

“My parents and I believe that for a person to change and grow, change begins with their consciousness. We know that history is often taught from one viewpoint, and believe the lack of a broader knowledge is one of the reasons why many people do not recognise and respect the contributions of minority cultures,” says the curator.

In Khalil’s opinion, there are many ways to be an influencer. “I was at the forefront of youth culture and the birth of some its trends. Now I’m trying to influence change in the world of arts and education, hopefully by affecting the minds and hearts of those who get the chance to see The Kinsey Collection.”