Skip to main content

Meet the ‘Black Pop’ Artist Who’s Been Praised by Spike Lee and Wesley Snipes

Portrait by Jon Gugala

Tall and lean, Xavier Payne walks into a Nashville, Tenn., coffee shop as a confluence of styles. The 33-year-old artist wears a denim trucker over a ’90s-era Brooks and Dunn-style pearl-snap shirt, Converse All-Stars screened with comic book panels, and a haircut half Patrick Mahomes, half Euro soccer mullet. “I want to keep my options open as far as where I could be,” he says, sitting down with tea, “but as far as where I’m from, yeah, I’m from the South.”

Payne, or XPayne as he’s known in the art world, has been a rising star since his college days. “Black Pop,” as he describes his style, is caricature-like, filled with vibrant, saturated colors and historical references, which span from the present to the hallowed ground of the golden age of hip-hop, the “Don’t Tread on Me” founding fathers, and early African religions. The nomenclature suggests Andy Warhol’s 1950s Pop Art of tomato soup cans and Marilyn Monroe heads, and like the white Americana the progenitor immortalized, XPayne is doing the same, albeit with Black culture.

Related Videos

Related Guides

“Trying to elevate things that is every day to a certain walk of life,” he says, “trying to make things seem important.”

Unlike Warhol, however, XPayne has no desire for the spotlight, and rather than a glitzy Studio 54 club, he’s comfortable at home in his studio, circling among a tight-knit group of friends, or quietly posting works to Instagram that spread like wildfire, often without attribution. “A handful of NBA players would post my work, not knowing who did it,” he says.

“I didn’t even name myself XPayne,” he continues. “That’s my name, so I would sign my name on my works like [the late painter] Bob Ross, and people started calling me that. It’s all about making pictures for me. That’s the biggest thing.”

From a humble two-bedroom apartment, XPayne has caught the eyes of some major talent. Issa Rae of HBO’s Insecure purchased a piece that appeared in an early season of the show as well as one for herself, while co-star Amanda Seales had XPayne design the logo for her Rae-produced YouTube show Get Your Life. Instagram has been a huge source of support, with Wesley Snipes, Jada Pinkett Smith, DeRay Mckesson, and Outkast’s Big Boi all giving shout-outs. He even had a collaboration with director Spike Lee, who purchased a painting of Lee’s fictional character Radio Raheem and then licensed the image for a t-shirt after Do the Right Thing actor Bill Nunn passed away in 2016.

After the collab with Lee, XPayne says with a laugh, “I guess I have something here.”

Born in Flint, Mich., XPayne grew up in Nashville from the age of five. His father was a Warhammer fan, and XPayne remembers watching his father paint the tiny metal miniatures, which he says influenced his preferred color palate. While his community was a Southern melting pot of ethnicities, some of his earliest memories were also illustrative of race in America, and during the Christmas season, his mother would paint the white Santa Claus ornaments with brown skin. He now knows what it would have been like to have grown up in an all-black community thanks to his girlfriend, but his own varied upbringing taught him circumspection. “There are only so many emotions that you’re going to go through in life, but I think there are different means of getting to that,” he says. “We’re all just feeling the same things in different ways.”

Grade school art classes and encouraging teachers had their importance, but one of the most significant influences on XPayne’s early life and art was the ‘90s themselves. It was the dynamism of the decade’s hip-hop-infused black culture, which ranged from the wild exploration of Kid ’n Play and Outkast to the modest and fiercely proud HBCU sweatshirts of Queen Latifah on Living Single. “I absorbed all that stuff and applied it to what I learned formally,” he says. “My work is loud, and it’s loud intentionally. It’s designed to come at you and go to you.”

Portrait by Jon Gugala

While his art is popular, he has also worked broadly in the commercial space, with card games, clothing, and branding campaigns. Slim and Husky’s Pizza Beeria, a Nashville-founded pizza chain that now has gone coast to coast with locations in Georgia and California, has had a longstanding relationship with XPayne. For three of its three and a half years in business, XPayne has worked with the company, designing its logo as well as painting custom pieces for each of its seven locations. The basic design is simple: Its three founders, two of whom are big guys and the third, rail-thin, are adapted to the destination city. In Atlanta, the characters wear Deion Sanders, Dominique Wilkins, and Hank Aaron jerseys; in Memphis, they’re jookin’; and in Sacramento, they stroll past palm trees on a sandy beach.

“[XPayne] narrates the culture,” says Clint Gray, Slim and Husky’s co-founder and its chief of marketing. “It’s unique and nostalgic at the same time, and it does a really good job of showing the beautiful parts of the African American experience.”

But while XPayne’s home may be in the South, that’s not necessarily his future. Of late, he’s recognized that his entire life has been spent in one region save for occasional travel, and he’s growing restless. The French music he loves, the Japanese animation that impacted him, and the call of Western Africa, where his ancestors are from, all beckon. So, like the black jazz musicians of the 1920s, James Baldwin in the 1940s and ‘50s, and Ta-Nehisi Coates in the 2010s, XPayne is looking abroad.

“It’s the desire to get far away from American culture,” says the cultural narrator, looking out the window. “When you come back to it, you understand it in different ways.”

Editors' Recommendations

The 10 best TV villains of the 21st century
Who are the best TV villains since the turn of the century?
best tv villains homelander

Rooting for a characters with a clear moral compass throughout a TV show is always a feel-good experience, and contemplating our own code of ethics while following antiheroes is equally satisfying. Still, an intricate plot can never truly advance in our favorite stories without a ruthless, clearly evil antagonist. The best TV villains are fleshed out with a backstory such that the audience can understand the villain's motivations, yet we still find them despicable to root for — and that we sometimes end up rooting for anyway. The villain will help guide the viewer through the episodes, pushing us to the edge of our seats until we simply can't wait any longer for their plans to be thwarted by the good guy or another oppositional force.

Some TV villains are murderous, while others are simply so unethical as to make our skin crawl. Villains can be abusive, both mentally and physically, and they can be compelling because they make us wonder what could possibly go so wrong as to cause someone to be so sick and twisted. TV wouldn't be the same without them, and they've helped to create the golden age of TV that took off in the early 21st century. These are the best TV villains since the year 2000 — and in some cases, even the best villains of all time.
10. Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) — Ozark
Ozark: Darlene Snell Kills Kansas City Mob Boss Frank Cosgrove | Season 4A Ep. 6 "Sangre Sobre Todo"

Read more
The 30 best biographies to add to your reading list
Some stories involve incredible, larger-than-life characters. These are the best biographies ever written.

Writing a great biography is no easy task. The author is charged with capturing some of the most iconic and influential people on the planet, folks that often have larger than life personas. To capture that in words is a genuine challenge that the best biographers relish.

The very best biographies don't just hold a mirror up to these remarkable characters. Instead, they show us a different side of them, or just how a certain approach of philosophy fueled their game-changing ways. Biographies inform, for certain, but they entertain and inspire to no end as well.

Read more
The 10 best Adam Sandler movies (they’re not all comedies)
From Uncut Gems to Happy Gilmore, these are the movies that have defined Adam Sandler's career to date.
best adam sandler movies ranked adamsandler

What is there left to say about Adam Sandler? The Sand-Man has been a fixture of pop culture for well over 20 years, having worked first on Saturday Night Live and then broken out in a series of farcical, wonderful comedies in the years after his departure. He's one of the biggest comedy stars on the planet, and we know that in part because he's made plenty of movies that nobody should be forced to watch twice.
For every movie that has immediately been relegated to the trash bin of history, though, Sandler has also made an indelible comedy or a surprising turn into drama. While he may have emerged looking a little bit like a one-trick pony who relies on funny voices for cheap laughs, Sandler turned out to be far more complicated than that. He is a genuinely great actor whenever he wants to be. The rest of the time, he's content to make silly movies with his best friends.

The Waterboy (1998)

Read more