By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Kennita Hickman is making moves this year. She has plans to bring back the program “Artist Eats,” she’s working with apparel companies to curate brand campaigns and helping independent artists establish their brands.
But the one overarching goal that is evident in all of Hickman’s work is her efforts to make space for Black and brown women and artists at the table.
“I work really hard to center Black and brown creatives in my work,” Hickman said.
Milwaukee native Hickman is the chief culture curator and founder of Catera, a brand management and strategy company, and the director of artists support and outreach at Imagine MKE.
When it comes to equity, it is not enough to just talk about it or send out a request for artists of color, she said. People need to meet the Black and brown artists where they’re at, which may not be the same as other artists.
Hickman knows what it’s like to have to fight to be seen and she’s using her experience to amplify the work of Black and brown artists.
Her own journey into the world of creativity began as child. When she was 8, Hickman was diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder that temporarily confined her to a wheelchair. Instead of focusing on what she couldn’t do, Hickman focused on what she could.
Her hands became her most valuable tool and she channeled her energy into creative writing. She rewrote the story of the gingerbread man from the perspective of the fox and another one about “The Giving Tree.”
“Writing became the thing for me from like age 8,” Hickman said. “And at 14, I published my first article in actual publication. I loved writing, I loved to share other people’s stories and I hoped to be like the lady Carson Daly.”
At a high school graduation party, she encountered some DJs from WNOV 860 AM. Hickman had long yearned to be on the radio and so, she became an intern.
“I was there for a year, while also in school,” Hickman explained. “I learned everything. They insured that I knew everything: how to engineer a radio show, how to talk and engineer my radio show at the same time – cause I also had my own show – how to do commercials, all of that.”
After leaving WNOV, Hickman found internship positions at other local stations such as 103.7 KISS FM. She spent two years at UW-Milwaukee, before she decided to leave and found a full-time job while also working part time for a music publication.
During this time, Hickman realized the music publication she wrote for never covered Milwaukee artists and so Hickman set out to change that. She created her company began helping independent artists as a music manager, public relations manager and so on. The work didn’t feel authentic to Hickman, so she took a step back.
“What I really wanted to do was to help artists think beyond what they were doing on the stage and to be able to help them build those relationships,” she explained. “Later I learned that was branding and Catera was born out of that.”
It’s been tough, Hickman said, independent artists are on a budget, but at the same time it’s been exciting. Branding isn’t talked about enough with independent artists, she explained.
Over the years, Hickman’s business has expanded, and she’s helped manage music festivals and curate brand campaigns.
“It really is a blessing,” she said. “When I first started writing, I thought I had to leave Milwaukee to be successful.”
In 2019, Hickman began working at Imagine MKE. It’s been a dream, she said. Being hired there validated her efforts, and it encapsulates and ties all her previous work together, she explained.
Hickman noted that the issues in the art sector are parallel to the issues seen in Milwaukee. There’s segregation in the arts community when it comes to resources, she said. And as the only Black woman, there are added pressures on her shoulders to do the ‘work,’ she said.
“I wasn’t prepared for how lonely it would feel to be a Black leader in Milwaukee,” Hickman said. “It feels like as I’ve ascended into leadership there’s been less Black women around.”
With her seat at the table, Hickman continues to advocate for Black and brown creatives and push for equity. Her goal is to connect with Black women leaders and create pathways for Black women to become leaders.
And if her past work is any indication, Hickman will find a way.
“Ultimately, I hope for the next year that I am able to continue to be an advocate for artists in our city especially Black and brown artists,” Hickman said. “And that I’m able to continue working and serving in an equitable capacity to make sure we level the playing field.”