Illustrator Nikolas Draper-Ivey Speaks On How He Walks The Line Between Wakanda And Anime

Nikolas Draper-Ivey has been drawing since the age of two when he defaced his mother’s white couch with crayons. Luckily, he’s since moved his canvas to paper. With an artistic talent that has led him to one momentous achievement after the other, Draper-Ivey has created viral moments with race-bending sketches of Final Fantasy characters and an incredible cosplay of Miles Morales as Spider-Man.

But although he strived for his primary focus to remain on comics and illustrations, this latest opportunity was one he couldn’t pass up. Draper-Ivy garnered his first major break when Interscope Records hired him to craft the cover for the Kendrick Lamar–produced Black Panther soundtrack (Feb. 9). Funnily enough, it ended up being very different from the rest of his work, which entails intricate shapes to convey a range of emotions.

“The thing is I didn’t want to approach it like a simple mindset,” he says. “I told myself I’m gonna at least shade each talon, render that in the best of what I can, you know, and then that’s how it happened.” The result was a chic but powerful cover that’s won over fans from both Marvel and music lines.


His work outside of the soundtrack is just as enticing. While this is a peak moment for his career, he’s just getting started. Draper-Ivey is taking his creative talents to the anime industry by teaming up with Noir Caesar, an art collective founded by NBA player Johnny O’Bryant III, to produce a series, XOGENASYS, with the help of the Tokyo-based animation studio, D’Art Shtajio.

Ahead of jet-setting to Atlanta for the Black Panther premiere, Draper-Ivey spoke with VIBE about how the cover came together, working on an anime and why he’s so grateful to God.

CREDIT: Nikolas Draper-Ivey

VIBE: How did you end up doing the Black Panther soundtrack cover?
Nikolas Draper-Ivey: Interscope reached out to me. They got my info from Disney and they reached out through Instagram. I didn’t know it was for Kendrick [Lamar] at the time. They just told me, ‘We need some art for the Black Panther soundtrack,’ and I fell out of my chair. [Laughs] They said, ‘If you can get some sketches over to us tonight…’ They told me what they were looking for and then I said, ‘Well, I can try to do that tonight,’ so I knocked it out.

But, I wasn’t satisfied when I sent it. I went back and kept polishing it. Once I found out it was Kendrick, there was like all this pressure because I’m like, ‘Aw, crap.’ He [Kendrick’s rep] hinted that it’s probably one of the most influential artists in the world right now and in hip-hop. I felt like I knew who it was and my roommate kind of called it. I didn’t want to say who I thought it was because I didn’t want to insult whoever it was. So I asked, ‘Is it Kendrick?’ He’s like, ‘Yep!’ So you know, it was a lot of pressure. What’s weird is that they got my info from Disney, but I don’t work for them.

How have the reactions been? I saw you posted it on Instagram.
A lot of people are happy, like excited about it. I think when people found out that I was doing it, it was kind of a surprise on both ends because I think for TDE, I don’t think they knew the effect I’ve had in terms of in the art community. I don’t think they knew about the Noir Caesar stuff, the stuff with the manga and anime, and all the other artwork that I’ve done.

I saw that Trevor Noah shared the album cover on The Daily Show. How has it been seeing it everywhere, iTunes, Spotify, etc?
It’s really weird because it’s… you can be like, ‘Aw man, I drew that!’ and nobody really cares. I mean, your fans and stuff like that care and people who know who you are but like the general public if you were to go on the street and say, ‘Yo!’ they’re probably gonna look at you like ‘Cool, cool, that’s nice.’ A friend of mine said something really funny: in an alternate reality this made your chest stick out and in another, you went to a club and you tried to hit on some girl with the line, ‘Oh yeah I designed the cover of  the Black Panther soundtrack,’ and she was just totally like, ‘Man, you ain’t act in the sh*t, so what?” [Laughs]

So it’s good to have that mindset of like eh, small contributions to it. Seeing it is cool. I think once people get wind of, ‘Oh this guy also is doing that stuff and that stuff and that stuff,’ I think, it’ll probably have more gravitas to it. It’ll probably be more like ‘Oh sh*t.’ You know, but to see peoples’ reactions to it and see people like it and write articles about it is pretty cool even though I’m still in the shadows. It’s only a matter of time because people know that I do it. It’s spreading.

I noticed it’s different from your other artwork, too.
They told me what they wanted. It was the black background. They wanted the talons and I was like okay, I could do that. The thing is I didn’t want to approach it with a simple mindset. I told myself I’m gonna at least shade each talon, render that in the best of what I can, and then that’s how it happened. But it is radically different from everything else that I do because most of what I do is comic work, illustrations, concept art and things of that nature, and its heavily stylized and stuff like that.

He could have done a bunch of things but, you know, there are people who are receiving it very well, so it’s cool. I get what they were going for. When I saw it all come together and I finished it, that’s when it hit me that it was Kendrick. He doesn’t do these big crazy covers, all of his stuff is pretty simple. I think probably the most elaborate cover I’ve seen is the To Pimp a Butterfly cover. Everything else is just really minimal or a simple image. So, with that type of image, it just has to be Kendrick. I understood what they were asking for.

Did you do the design for the tracklist?
I did the cover and the disc.

Was this your first time designing an album cover?
Yeah, this is. It’s kind of funny because I remember not wanting to ever do CD covers or album covers because I just wanted to do comics and illustrations. Very, very new for me. This whole thing is very new. It’s a very different approach. I can’t go into details.

You’re about to head to Atlanta to see Black Panther, too. How excited are you?
I’m totally excited. Anyone would be excited for it but then it becomes a different thing once you become a part of the process. Don’t get me wrong by any stretch, but my anticipation for it has kind of been like, ‘[Well,] you’re part of this thing now.’ Everyone kind of comes in there and they might not necessarily like you, but they may like that soundtrack. They like what Black Panther represents, what it means to them and how they feel after they see something like that. That’s my mindset right now. I’m excited for it, but it’s been a process working on different things that kind of changed the way I see it now.

It sounds like you’re saying it’s a lot of pressure.

It’s not the first time that hip-hop and anime/manga community got together either. It’s cool that you’re adding to the history of that.
That’s the thing about this, when you look at people like Jamie Hewlett (co-creator of the Gorillaz) who did Tank Girl, everyone knows his stuff. You got Takashi Murakami, he did the artwork for Kanye’s Graduation album. You got Sam Spratt who did work for Janelle Monae and Logic and countless others. These are respected artists, people look at their stuff and they know their work. So it’s kind of like that, but I don’t think they [Interscope] knew they were getting into that territory when they hired me to do it.

Is this the first time you’ve gone viral?
This isn’t the first time that I’ve done work that’s gone viral. The first time I went viral was for Spider-Man, oddly enough. I did a cosplay as Miles Morales. You can’t tell now because I’ve got hair, but my hair was short and everything. I looked just like Miles Morales and it spread.

INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE!! Sup? Figured since Miles Morales is trending, I’d post these photos of me as Miles Morales when I was younger (Because everyone keeps messaging me about it). I don’t even think I can fit this suit anymore, but I could try for a Spider-Punk look now what I’m slightly older. These went viral when I first posted them and it was odd, because for a time, I was being recognized for being Miles instead of being an artist. Some people that follow me now but have seen this in the past didn’t even know that this was me! Isn’t that…something?. Anyway, off to the gym! #milesmorales #artistoninstagram #spidermanintothespiderverse #spiderman #marvel #sony #disney #heroesofcolor #brianmichaelbendis #sarapichelli

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And then, there were the Star Wars samurai sketches. Then I did some other stuff, like Disney characters, Avengers, that spread. I made the Final Fantasy characters people of color, just to prove that you could tell a story like that with people of color and still take it seriously. You don’t have to make them stereotypes or tropes or anything like that and it wouldn’t change the value of the story.

Black Panther got it right in the movie and that makes me really happy because that’s also what I was trying to say with my work. You can have characters of color in these fantastical, sci-fi situations and not have to dumb them down. You don’t have to do that. So, that’s something. I’ve been pushing for our people for a minute now.

How about Noir Caesar? How did you get involved with it?
I got involved in Noir Caesar through another friend, his recommendation of another peer, Mikhail Sebastian (Mythallica), he wanted me to do. He gave my information to Johnny [O’Bryant], they were looking for different artists and I got approached to do XOGENASYS. At first, I was like, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ but then Mikhail, he’s like my rival, very close friend of mine and he’s like, ‘Well fine if you won’t do it, then I’ll do it.’ It just lit a fire. You will not have that over me. Give me that script! I went in with it.

What’s XOGENASYS about?
I think on the surface, it’s like this futuristic MMA story set in 2075; there are people fighting in exo-suits. These people are either prisoners or criminals or they’re skilled fighters already and this kid Darius is a big fan of this. One day he kind of gets caught up into it. He’s already a skilled fighter in his own right, but he gets dragged into this. He then finds out he’s maybe not as strong as he thinks he is but that’s just his surface premise. [It’s] really about how we become too famous too quickly and how we deal with that. When you get in a different league than you’re used to, how do you deal with that and still hold on to your morals, your integrity? Do you still keep that when you come around different circles, stronger people, much bigger wallets? How does he deal with that? Does he still maintain his integrity at the end of it all?

CREDIT: Nikolas Draper-Ivey

Is there anything you wanted to add?
One thing, because I don’t want to have the chance to be out here and I don’t get to acknowledge God in this cause. I know it sounds cheesy but I kind of admire Kendrick and I admire people like Chance [The Rapper] that are able to talk about their belief so blatantly. They don’t care. And I don’t want that to go uncredited. This has not been easy. None of this has been easy and I really have to give God props for everything, like above all the other names, above all the people who have helped me. I really have to get Him in there because I would have never in a million years thought God would be able to attribute to something like this on this scale, ever.

I’ve had popularity because of drawing here and there and whatnot but ultimately, it’s not just me. I can’t say this is all me in this. I’ve had friends, now we’re getting real, I’ve had friends look after me when I was damn near homeless. One of my friends said, ‘We gotta couch you can lay on’ when I wasn’t getting any work. You know, it’s been hard. Things just now started to pick up for me. So all this stuff, the times that I’ve gone viral or whatnot, I was still suffering. I was still going through a lot of different things and just doing art the best I could no matter how hard things got. I was just doing my art and there were times where I felt like I was straying because I’d become so angry like I was kind of straying away from God. But then you get to a point I had to go back and really, really, really stick to it. And now here we are.

CREDIT: Nikolas Draper-Ivey