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 “Black Pop,” as he describes his style, is caricature-like, filled with vibrant, saturated colors and historical references, which span from the present to the hallowed ground of the golden age of hip-hop, the “Don’t Tread on Me” founding fathers, and early African religions.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.

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“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.”

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