Many assume that Mama Foundation for the Arts‘ success is based on the legendary musical, Mama I Want to Sing. However, seeing that her daughter’s school cut arts programming from the curriculum, Vy Higginsen — co-writer of the 1983 musical — decided it’s time to act. Inspired by the musical and its world tours and guided by the will to re-establish Harlem as an artistic and cultural centerpiece of the world, Higginsen founds the organization.

The Harlem neighborhood in New York is the place where many performers across gospel, jazz, and R&B formed. On such a traditional background, Mama Foundation for the Arts has started to write its story more than two decades ago, working as a cultural space where people have access to quality training and employment as artists at no cost.

Wanting to protect and strengthen this legacy and seeking to inspire new African-American voices, the organization turned to design studio ThoughtMatter, which helped the gospel legend express this goal of theirs via a new visual identity. The foundation needed a new look to reflect this admirable mission, while also communicating all that the team does in a more direct and simple way. The NGO found in the New York-based agency a perfect partner to help tell its story, as the creative crew share a similar passion for arts and are enthusiastic about using design to help other organizations grow stronger.

“As NYC locals, we wholeheartedly believe in championing our neighborhoods and are very focused on supporting the youth and arts in NYC,” explains Ben Greengrass, Creative Director, ThoughtMatter. “Over the years, we’ve done our best to uplift many vital cultural cornerstones, helping them refine or define their voices. It’s only fitting that we do the same for Mama Foundation, a group that has similarly dedicated themselves to giving performers a platform to grow and find success.”

To make the identity feel as authentic as possible, the ThoughtMatter team sat at the same virtual table with the foundation’s members, including Vy Higginsen and her daughter, Knoelle. They listened to their stories and witnessed the power of their performances so that a clearer picture of the future of the foundation can be delivered. “Even during the pandemic, we were able to connect virtually with Mama Foundation’s team to really feel the love they have for their organization and unearth the necessary ingredients we needed to begin our creative exploration,” continues Greengrass.

While developing the process, the agency’s members listened and shared musical experiences with the team at the foundation, which eventually sparked conversations around using the body as an instrument. They understood how significant posture and breathing can be when projecting one’s voice. Within this stage of the process, the artists discovered the importance of open, uplifted arms in gospel music.

Enhancing their project with these insights, the agency set out to design this visual representation of joy using the silhouette of the exclamation point. Standing as an anchor for the new brand, this symbol is, in fact, a visual manifestation of the promise of the Mother Foundation.

Along with the exclamation mark and serving a similar purpose, an arched window is contoured, providing “a view into the history, the advancement, and the joy in Mama’s house,” says Greengrass. Once coupled with a vibrant color palette and photography, these symbols are turned into graphic devices that can be used across signage, website, show posters, and more.

Not only does the new identity enables new audiences to discover the meaningful projects unfolding at Mama Foundation but it also reinforces the role design plays in effective storytelling. “Through design, symbolism, and language, we’re able to introduce their audiences to aspects of the brand they may have not otherwise been familiar with — their Harlem legacy, commitment to preserving and presenting Black musical art-forms, goal to catalyze collective healing, and their aim to create space for communal belonging. The end result is a brand that is an authentic representation of the Mama Foundation and its singular spirit,” concludes Jessie McGuire, Managing Director.


Client: Mama Foundation for the Arts

Agency: ThoughtMatter

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