Meet the Artist Who Created the Album Cover for “Surf” in His High School Classroom

The Social Experiment’s latest offering, Surf, carries a multiplex identity. Sonically, it’s uncluttered and pure, but symbolically, it’s weighted with culturally relevant themes. When it was time to give such a dense project a visual identity, Chance the Rapper left it in the hands of one artist: 18-year-old Elijah Maura.

We tracked down the young illustrator and talked about working with Chance and the Sox boys, creating the project’s artwork, and the future of album cover design.

Tell me a bit about who you are, where you’re from, and what you do.
I was born and raised in Las Vegas, I’m 18, and I actually just graduated high school. I’m going to Parsons [School of Design] in New York in the fall, where I’ll be studying illustration.

Were you always interested in art growing up?
No. In sixth grade I got sponsored for skateboarding by this local company called Area 702. We had to go skate five days a week, but my parents’ car broke down and I couldn’t get all the way across the city by myself, so I ended up having to leave the team. Then in middle school, I was always getting in trouble because I was copying tags on the desks and stuff. That led me to start studying street art, and I started doing stencils and wheat paste. I started making my own characters, eventually got into painting, and went on to an arts high school called Las Vegas Academy. It really changed everything.

So if you’re from Vegas, how did you get linked up with Chance and the Social Experiment, who are from Chicago?
My sister, Asha Efia, is a photographer and is also this rapper Lizzo’s tour manager. One day, they were on tour, and she ended up meeting Chance. They were talking about our family, and when she showed Chance my page, he asked for my phone number. My sister texted me one day and was like, “I think Chance the Rapper’s gonna hit you up.”

Were you a fan of his before that?
I actually didn’t listen to very much of his music, to be completely honest. After he asked for me to do his album art, I checked out his mix tapes and some of his Social Experiment stuff, especially “Sunday Candy.” I really liked that they’re doing a lot for the direction that hip-hop’s going in.

So this all happened pretty recently.
He just hit me up maybe a month ago, just a few weeks before the album dropped. He asked a few other artists, too, but he ended up choosing mine.

What are they like to work with?
Chance, the Social Experiment, and their management are such nice people. They’re the easiest people to work with.

When did you hear Surf for the first time?
The day that it came out.

Really?
Yeah! That’s what Nico [Donnie Trumpet] said. When he called to tell me I got the album cover, he was like, “Have you heard the album yet?” When I said no he was like, “Really? I thought that would have sent it to you.” They’re just really busy people. They’re all doing lots of community projects, so I wasn’t sweating them the whole time.

So what inspired your cover design if you hadn’t heard the music?
Chance actually gave me a very simple description of what he wanted, and I just did what I thought he’d asked for. He literally asked for a message in a bottle, stuck in some sand on a shore, but he wanted it to look like it was there for a reason. Sounded simple enough.

How long did it take to design?
It took like, two class periods.

You did it in school!?
Yeah! I illustrated the bottle in pen, and the sand is an actual photo, I just went in Photoshop and made a little collage.

Is this the first album cover you’ve designed?
It’s my first cover, but I actually just did the lyric book for the inside of the Oddisee’s The Good Fight album.

Is album cover design something you’re hoping to pursue?
It’s definitely what I want to do right now. I want to work with musicians. I want music and visual arts to work with each other more. I remember growing up and I’d see all these hip-hop albums, like MF Doom’s for example, and their cover artwork was always really important to me. I feel like it’s a community that was way tighter back in the day, but it needs to come back, because there are some things that art can say that music can’t. We should try to express the whole idea through both forms.

How does it feel knowing that your art is representing Surf?
I’m so happy about it. It’s amazing because I really wasn’t expecting people to react the way they did to the art alone. My friends have been sending me screen shots of people commenting on the album cover; some people have said they love it because it expresses the “message in a bottle” theme within the album. I’ve seen people draw their versions of my design. Someone thanked me for expressing the essence of the music. It’s tripping me out. This is exactly what I hope for whenever I do art, and it’s cool to see that on a bigger platform.

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