Art and music have always shared the same stage in New York City’s history. It’s a place dreams are made and where empires are created. In business, fashion, music and art, it is a city that has the potential to spark ideas which can change the world.
In 1977 New York City was the place a young black teenager would take to the streets to sprawl anti establishment graffiti, and cryptic messages tagged with the now infamous pseudonym SAMO.
Five years later, he would produce a painting which would remain untitled for the rest of the artist's life. It depicted a skull on a blue background, painted in his now unique style. In May 2017, that painting would sell for an earth shattering $110.5 Million to a Japanese Billionaire at Sotheby’s auction house, making it the most expensive painting by a black artist ever. The artist, Jean Micheal Basquiat, has now seen his influence reach arguably the biggest and most powerful recording artist in history, a Brooklyn born rapper by the name of Shawn Corey Carter…. Jay Z, to you and me.
Basquiat famously said that he didn’t try to think about art when he was painting – choosing to reflect more on life. He collaged poetry in his paintings from open books on his studio floor, historically and fundamentally linking his creative process to Dadaism’s fractured poetry, rap and hip-hop as well as cultural inspiration drawn from beat poetry. Through his craft, he gave centre stage to people and sections of society who were not highly represented within the community. He painted prisoners, cooks and cleaners, giving a voice to the voiceless. His deep social commentary dealt with themes of identity, oppression and the history of the human body and its representation. The brutalist elements in Basquiat’s work made him, “the artist of the street” according to internationally renowned artist Bradley Theodore, himself now famed for his vibrant and sometimes gaudy depictions of pop icons such as Karl Lagerfeld, Anna Wintour, and Marie Antoinette.
Basquiat showed the violence of life. His earliest memory was from the age of seven when he was playing outside. When crossing the road to get home, he was hit by a car. During his long recovery at hospital the young Basquiat was given a book to read by his Grandmother, “Gray’s Anatomy”.The inspiration from this book helped Basquiat in his anatomical understanding of the human body and well as understanding the trauma that he had faced.
Basquiat began his artistic career in New York City at the age of 17 after dropping out of school. Alongside artist collaborator Al Diaz, the pair created a pseudonym SAMO (initially standing for Same Old Sh*t) and took to the streets tagging the name across downtown Manhattan, accompanying cryptic messages, anti establishment slurs and short poems. It was at this point that soon to be friend, mentor, arguably one of the biggest and most well known figures in the PopArt movement, Andy Warhol, noticed Basquiat and admired his style. Despite a 30 year age difference, Warhol and Basquiat became close friends, collaborators and served as inspiration for each other in the subsequent years in which Basquiat would rise to fame and fortune. However, there was an underlying destructive nature to Basquiat which would see the young artist’s life take a dramatic turn.
Following Warhol's death in 1987, the long time Heroin user Basquiat spiralled into depression. His artistic output slowed to an almost complete stop and in 1988, at the age of 27, Basquiat succumbed to a heroin overdose. However, his legacy lives on in music, poetry, fashion and film. Hip hop music has consistently referenced Basquiat, finding inspiration in his personal history as well as his work. Most notably Jay- Z has coined himself, “The new Jean-Michel,” opting to wear garments with Basquiat’s crown and in 2014 dressing as him for Halloween, alongside his wife Beyonce, who dressed as Frida Kahlo.
Both Jay and John - Michel are from the same city and born nine years apart. But what else would make you think Jay-Z’s statement is true?
Jay-Z started his rap career at the age of 26, selling CDs from his car until he was signed to a label. When he did, he was denounced as a sell-out. But this didn’t halt his creative process. He then went on to collaborate with artists who were at the pinnacle of their careers: Mary J. Blige, The Notorious B.I.G and Jaz-O who was also the inspiration for the stage name Jay-Z.
Coming into the rap game at 26 gave Jay- Z the perspective and life experience needed to sustain his career amidst the fame. In addition, not only is he successful within music, he has invested and created companies that have pushed him to be the first ever billionaire rapper.
Jay-Z doesn’t only collect art, in his music video for “Picasso Baby” he performed for 6 hours at Pace Gallery in New York. At the beginning of the video he explains the relationship between music and fine art referring to them as “cousins”. He talks about “bringing worlds back together” and speaking openly about galleries being the separation of creatives. Many creators were not only attending but participating in the video. A particularly interesting moment is the interaction between Marina Abramovic and Jay-Z. Whilst he performs, Abramovic approaches, arms stretched wide, proceeding to lean on Jay-Z’s head with hers, starting intently whilst he raps. The energy in the crowd alongside the different energy each artist gives creates an electric and joyful scene. Jay- Z announces the lyric, “I’m the new Jean-Michel Basquiat” throughout the video to a roar of applause from his crowd.
What is “the thing” that connects these creators?
They are from the same city; there is no doubt Jay-Z grew up with Basquiat’s “Samo” graffiti. They have both created iconic works with their contemporaries. Basquiat with Warhol and Jay-Z continues to collaborate with world class artists. Both men were called sell outs. Basquiat for his work becoming too smooth for people and Jay-Z for signing to a label and later for partnering up with the NFL. Both men used the exposure of their talent to shrink the racist barrier within the art and the music world. These men are creators down to the purest form. Yes, Jay-Z is a savvy businessman building his empire, but who is to say that if fame hadn’t affected Jean Michel Basquiat that he too wouldn’t be where Jay-Z is now.