Profile: Kadir Nelson (1974-)

Kadir Nelson is a Los Angeles–based painter, illustrator, and author who is best known for his paintings often featured on the covers of The New Yorker magazine, and album covers for Michael Jackson and Drake. His work is focused on African-American culture and history. The New York Times describes his work as: “sumptuous, deeply affecting work. Nelson’s paintings are drenched in ambiance, and often overt symbolism.


In 1996, Nelson began his career as a conceptual artist for Steven Spielberg’s feature film Amistad, and the animated feature film Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. Nelson has since designed several commemorative postage stamps for the United States Postal Service including stamps featuring Wilt Chamberlain,  Joe Dimaggio, and Richard Wright. He has also authored and/or illustrated over 30 picture books including, Brothers of the Knight by actress Debbie Allen, WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseballwhich was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, and Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African AmericansIn 2013, Nelson was commissioned to paint his first cover for The New Yorker magazine, a portrait of Nelson Mandela.  Nelson has since created several memorable covers for the magazine including, Eustace NegroSchomburg Center, Harlem, New York, and A Day at the Beach.

Early life and education

Nelson was born in Washington D.C., and grew up in Atlantic City, New Jersey and San Diego, California, the son of author Emily Gunter and educator Lenwood Nelson. He received his early training in art from his uncle, Michael Morris, who is an artist and art instructor. Both his uncle and his high school art teacher taught him important artistic principles and techniques, including how to paint with oils. After developing an impressive portfolio during high school, Crawford High in San Diego, Kadir Nelson earned a partial scholarship to the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Nelson earned his BFA from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York in 1996.


In August 1999, Nelson’s paintings depicting Negro Leagues baseball scenes were featured in Sports Illustrated magazine on its opening Leading Off pagesThey were some of the first paintings in a series of works that led to Nelson writing and illustrating a book commemorating the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues entitled, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro Leagues Baseball, published by Jump at the Sun in 2008. Nelson’s critically acclaimed authorial debut was created over the span of seven years and earned Nelson the Sibert Medal, a Coretta Scott King Author Award and Illustrator Honor. We Are the Ship was released by Brilliance Audio as an audiobook in 2009, narrated by voice actor Dion Graham.

In 2008, Nelson was commissioned by the US House of Representatives to paint the official portrait of Representative Shirley Anita Chisholm. The original painting hangs in the US Capitol Building in Washington DC.

Album cover art

Nelson created the mural used as cover art for Swizz Beatz’s 2002 album Swizz Beatz Presents G.H.E.T.T.O. Stories.

In 2005, Nelson was contacted by Michael Jackson to create a commissioned painting of the King of Pop’s life story. The commission was delayed and shelved for several years until the untimely death of the singer in 2009. Upon which Nelson was tapped to resume the portrait to be used later for the posthumously released album entitled, MichaelOn Friday, December 10, 2010, a 29,070-square-foot (2,701 m2) poster depicting the Michael album artwork was erected at the Rectory Farm in Middlesex, England, which broke a Guinness World Record for the largest poster in the world.

In 2013, Nelson was contacted by recording artist Drake to create two covers for his album Nothing Was the Same. The album artwork became a signature work for the recording artist, and the subject of multiple internet memes. The album has remained on the Billboard 200 sales chart list since its release in 2013.

Recognition and honors

Nelson has received multiple Gold and Silver Medals from the New York Society of Illustrators. In February 2014, Nelson was awarded the Hamilton King Award for the best illustration of the year. Nelson is also the recipient of three NAACP Image Awards for his illustrated picture books, and the New York Times Best Illustrated Book for We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.


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