Published on July 31st, 2019 | by Noah Chen0
Veganism Blossoms in Atlanta’s Black Community
L to R: Pinky Cole, Tassili Ma’at, Ahzjah Simons & Chef Ahki (Photo: Jason Dennard, Encounter Hart)
by Noah Chen
Veganism. The plant-based diet. The alkaline foods diet. These healthy, meatless eating regimens have been growing in popularity across America, and Atlanta is no exception. One needs to look no further than Atlanta’s Westside for a glorious array of fully vegan restaurants, ranging from the meatless soul food of Soul Vegetarian to the enormous kale wraps of Tassili’s Raw Reality Café. And who can miss the juggernaut of the local vegan community that is Slutty Vegan? A further look reveals many more vegan eateries across Atlanta, such as Plant Based Pizzeria and Go Vegan Grill.
On the surface, these restaurants seem to have a lot in common: All are fully vegan, most are within two miles of one another and all are owned by African American Atlantans. But if you look under the surface, you will find a lively movement in Atlanta that celebrates diversity in a supportive environment and pushes for healthier lifestyles in the face of systemic racism and easy-to-adopt unhealthy habits.
While the vegan diet is gaining in popularity, it is by no means a recent invention. And although veganism is sometimes considered a diet “for white people,” black vegans have been around for just as long. Ahzjah Simons is the general manager of Sevananda, a natural foods market and healthy-lifestyle mecca in Atlanta’s Little Five Points area that’s been around for more than 40 years. With a predominantly African American management team, Sevananda is more than just a grocery store; it is a food cooperative that is owned, used and operated by more than 3,400 owner/members. All of its wellness-oriented foods, products, merchandise and events are offered to the general public.
Simons has watched the vegan community over time. “There was this whole undercurrent of people that I had no clue existed, and they were African American—and they were teaching this stuff!” says Simons. “They had classes and workshops. They were starting businesses, and it seemed like no one knew [it was happening], including many black people.” Healthy-lifestyle leaders such as Queen Afua and Dr. Sebi, a raw foodist and a vegan healer, respectively, helped lay the groundwork for the rise of veganism today, especially among African Americans.
Many who are currently connected to the healthy-lifestyle movement make their homes in Atlanta, including Tassili Ma’at, owner of Tassili’s Raw Reality Café. She sees the adoption of healthy eating practices as important to combating a variety of health challenges.
“There’s a saturation of fast food restaurants and liquor stores in the black community,” says Ma’at. Chef Ahki, a TV personality and social media star who practices an alkaline diet, which, like a vegan diet, is free of meat and dairy products, agrees: “We are being disproportionately targeted in marketing and ads. Potato chips have kids’ favorite rappers on [the packaging] now. Kids want the Rap Snacks.”
Ma’at is struck by reports of the decline in the health of African Americans, the numbers of black children on ADHD medication and their underperformance in schools. “A lot of that is from the diet. They have allergies or are geeked up on sugar and dyes and additives, and they are not able to learn properly because they are unable to focus. If you’re not healthy, if you don’t feel good, you’re not going to make the best decisions.”
For some, the response to the volume of unhealthy options in black communities has been one of rebellion. “My motto is, ‘Fight the power; grow something,’” Chef Ahki says.
Why go vegan?
People decide to go vegan for many reasons. “I met some vegetarians in college, in the late ’70s, and they told me about the mistreatment of the animals,” Ma’at says. “I just did not want to be a part of that. Later I focused on the health benefits.”
And those who don’t necessarily go fully vegan but still try to incorporate healthier choices find it’s easier than ever to try it out because of the exciting ways the food is being presented these days.
“You gotta make it cool; you gotta make it an experience,” says Pinky Cole, owner of Slutty Vegan, a vegan food truck, and now storefront, in Atlanta. “People eat with their eyes.” Slutty Vegan’s Instagram page is full of videos of people—some famous, such as Tyler Perry, and others not—eating their burgers for the first time and exclaiming how delicious they are. It seems to be working; the line for Slutty Vegan often stretches around the block.
Cole says that vegans have a reputation for “pushing their agenda,” but she likes to be more inclusive. She likens it to kids being told they have to eat their vegetables: They don’t want to if it’s forced on them. “We create this experience to make people feel like it’s a party—and so you happen to get some good vegan food,” Cole explains.
Most of Slutty Vegan’s clientele continue to eat meat, “which is a good thing,” says Cole. “We want the meat eaters. We want the people who haven’t made the choice yet.” To her, it’s about providing people with healthier options that can be a gateway to adopting a healthier, more spiritual lifestyle.
Sometimes spirituality comes first when it comes to being vegan. For example, the Rastafarian diet eliminates most meats and is high in fruits and vegetables. “[Many] spiritual communities in African American communities talk very specifically about eating healthy in order to gain spiritual insight and spiritual discipline,” says Chef Ahki. “In the black community, you cannot separate these ideas. If you go to a spiritual event, you better believe the vegan food is on point and that community is very strong, very connected.”
The Beyoncé influence
Still, while people make healthy life choices for many reasons, it doesn’t fully explain why many have witnessed something of a meteoric rise in interest in the vegan diet. There are several theories.
“I’ve seen a lot of straight-up street guys come to this movement because they, like anyone, get scared when they see they might have a health issue,” says Chef Ahki. “I’ve been in a room full of gangster rappers, and all of them are eating vegetables and fruit and talking about alkaline diets.”
Pro-vegan celebrities, entrepreneurs and musicians reportedly play a large role in the diet’s growing popularity, and Atlanta, with its penchant for celebrities and artists, is no different. “When I first went vegetarian, I probably knew two other people who look like me that are vegetarian,” says Pinky. “I knew it would catch on, but I thought it would take that one person to really make that happen. And I believe that one person was Beyoncé.”
World-famous pop star Beyoncé and her world-renowned rap star husband, Jay-Z, own a vegan meal delivery service and promote a 22-day-long vegan challenge. Earlier this year, the husband-wife duo also gave away lifetime free tickets to their shows in a sweepstakes that asked fans to adopt a plant-based diet.
Simons says that vegan ideals are “going through music culture, they’re integrating, they’re merging. That’s huge for the African American culture as well.”
Musicians like Nipsey Hussle, who unfortunately died earlier this year, have been named by some as an important figure in both the hip hop community and healthy lifestyle movement. Hussle was a rap artist and entrepreneur who was working on a documentary about Dr. Sebi, an African American figure prominent early in the vegan raw food movement.
“I have to [mention] Nick Cannon, because he’s working on the Sebi documentary,” says Simons. Cannon is a hip hop artist and TV personality who has taken over the project following Hussle’s death. Cannon’s YouTube series, “Cannon’s Class” produces educational health videos.
Culture, community and connections
There are even more connections between hip hop culture and healthy lifestyles, including everything from the lyrics of Erykah Badu influencing Chef Ahki to Chef Ahki’s own appearance in the viral rap music video Vegan Thanksgiving, by Atlanta-based artist Grey.
“Now that these artists are speaking out, everyone feels a little bit more comfortable about diet,” Ahki continues. Many influential pieces of pop culture are spread through social media, which gives food celebrities such as Chef Ahki and Pinky Cole, and YouTube channels such as the vegan-centric SweetPotatoSoul, a platform to reach millions.
Still, people wouldn’t be eating vegan if it didn’t make them feel good. Jaware Cole, Pinky’s brother and sauce master at Slutty Vegan, has been eating a vegan diet for about five months. He had self-esteem issues he says contributed to his body image, and he was comfortable as a meat eater when he developed a skin rash that wouldn’t go away.
“I started doing my own research,” Jaware says, adding he was “grossed out” about some of the things he read about meat. Since changing his diet, he says, he’s “lost a hundred pounds. I’m working out every day, I’m not as fatigued throughout the day and my skin has cleared out.
“To me, it’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” he continues. “I feel like I’ve added more life to my life. I feel like I’m getting younger.”
Even with all the momentum behind veganism and healthy lifestyles, it wouldn’t amount to much if the food were not fairly easily accessible. Vegan options are always more scarce than meaty alternatives, and sometimes they’re more expensive too. But in cities such as Atlanta, homegrown communities pushing healthy lifestyles help to ensure a viable selection of vegan restaurants, including the often-referenced “food desert” of the Westside.
Ma’at disagrees with the assumptions people make about food deserts. “It’s a misnomer that you can’t find healthy food in the black community,” she says. “There are vegetables, but people don’t know what to buy. And if they do, they don’t know how to cook them.
“The food is here—but there has to be an educational component. It was very clear that nobody was going to come and save us. We have to re-educate ourselves about what is healthy.”
Atlanta’s communities are responding to this need for education. “Grow Parties,” where community members gather and throw a potluck while working to install a garden, have become more popular around the city. Just last year, an Earth Day Grow Party, organized by Sevananda, built a garden at the International Montessori Academy. Other events, such as the Wonderful Wizards of Raw, sponsored by Ma’at and her restaurant, make sure that information is getting where it needs to go.
“Our competition is the standard American diet,” Ma’at says. “It takes time, but the more people involved in raising consciousness and sharing information and sharing food, the better. There’s an African proverb that I really love, and it goes like this: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’”