“What’s the difference between DMX and Shakespeare:
And Do You Know How to Talk About Your Art as an Artist or Collector?” by Debra Hand
I’m a private person, but oddly, when I engage with people one-on-one, I’m very transparent. If there’s anything that someone can learn from my life to help them through the universe, I owe them that because I’ve been helped along the way, likewise.
It’s the same with art. The artworld can easily corrupt your journey. It can flip it from an honest passion for creating to an obsession with gaining the attention of shot callers who can position your work to sell for ridiculous amounts of money. That might sound pretty good at first, but In the process of getting to fame and fortune, the experience you came to Earth to have as a creative being could be forever lost. What a sad thought: to be born into the magnificence of life, only to never fully experience YOU. In you, there is something special that no one else was given and it’s something to be relentlessly protected. So, before I get to DMX and Shakespeare. I want to share a quick story.
I learned how to fight for me early. In my youth I took an aptitude test at work hoping to get a promotion. When the test was done and the lady sat down with me to share the results, I only remember one sentence. Now I had sat down excitedly, with particularly good posture, and was dressed all cute and professional. I was ready to win. And then she said, “According to my analysis of your scores and your personal characteristics, the best match for your skills would be placement as an office filer.”
Now, what, now? An office filer? You talkin’ about that job where you put folders in filing cabinets all day, based on alphabetical order? Yep. That’s exactly what she meant. The highest possible thing she saw me achieving with my whole entire life was filing paperwork. While I absorbed the shock, she sat there looking at me with a stern condescending look meant to reduce me even further in my lowly status. I sat there in silence. Inside, huge chunks of things were collapsing: my self-esteem, my ego, my high hopes for the future. It was an awful feeling. It was just one person delivering the news, but it felt like the whole world and, to me, she represented something much bigger.
I’d already been primed by life to know the world had not been taught to see value in people who looked like me… Black by any shade. By the time I got to my car, I was madder than mad. In that room, she had won something and I had lost something. I wasn’t sure what it was, but this was not a feeling I was willing to live with.
This experience taught me something big about myself. It made me want to prove “me” to “me.” And this is what really determined what I would become in life from that moment on. The reason why I needed to prove me to me is because when that lady told me I wasn’t fit to do anything in life but repeat my ABCs and file, I didn’t really have a comeback, inside my own head, for me. I can’t really say I had done anything in my own mirror that assured me I was worthy of greater things. I felt I was worthy, but I had never really proved it to me.
CUT to many years later…
I thought about that lady the day I stood on the stage to receive my Master of Science Degree in Engineering. But lo and behold, as soon as I entered the art world, here we go again. The very first art exhibit I applied for, I was rejected. The letter said something like, “So many great artists applied, unfortunately, you weren’t one of them.” LOL! Well, it might as well have said that. Anyway, I felt so rejected. I had prepared so much art for the show and had my hopes up high, and then, BOOM! “Sorry, we see no value in you and your art.” That day, I felt that same awful feeling I’d felt upon getting my filing-clerk-fortune told all those years ago. And that’s when it hit me in the following precise words.
I picked up the envelope, dropped it in the garbage, and said to myself, “I ain’t about to stand in your line to become me.” And then I started thinking, “I might not have value to you, but I can’t let you make me not have value to me. Why would I sit somewhere feeling bad because someone sees no value in me? The only real question is: what value do I see in myself?” I got myself right out of that line.
For this is the question we, ultimately, have to keep returning to, whether we fail a test, lose a contest, a relationship, job, etc. Who are we to us? In other words, how do we value ourselves, independent of what anyone else in the world says is our value? Artists, in particular, have to stay braced up and laced up for constant judgment because, in the artworld, rejection is simply part of the game. It’s a game filled with people trying to tell YOU what the value of your artwork should be to YOU.
And not only do artists get rejected in the mainstream artworld, but so do collectors. A collector could be uber rich, but that still doesn’t mean they can buy any piece of art that’s for sale. If you’re not on certain VIP lists, you’ll never even be notified when certain works hit the market. And some top tier galleries and art dealers will not even place certain works in your collection if they don’t deem your collection worthy. Also, some collectors pass judgment on the collections of others. The fact is, no matter what an artist creates or what any collector buys, not everyone will love or appreciate that work. So artists and collectors have to stay prepared not to let others invalidate them (to themselves) through the use of VIP lists, auction price tags, fortune, fame, or peer pressure.
This is what I hope every artist and collector takes away from this article, especially Black artists and collectors who are constantly having their works evaluated and measured by yardsticks that can’t begin to encompass the scale and meaning of their stories. Which brings me to DMX and Shakespeare — two artists who couldn’t appear more dissimilar, and whose works will likely never be measured by the same yardstick… anywhere except here, of course. Because the one thing I try to do is to bring Black artists into the conversation of artistic scholarship where they have been historically excluded; but I want to bring them into these conversations on their own terms. Black artists should not have to become clones of someone else’s culture to have our creativity examined and placed in historical context.
So, what is the difference between DMX and Shakespeare?
Not a “bleep bleep” thing.
When it comes to artistic talent and creative expression, both DMX and Shakespeare came to Earth and performed the same job. They were both great storytellers of their day, and they’ve both left behind celebrated bodies of work that reveal the best and worst of who we are as a human group.
Both DMX and Shakespeare were unparalleled writers who used metaphor, cadence, alliteration, rhythmic speech, iambic metering, and every other sanctioned and non-sanctioned literary device — in order to skillfully craft the human experience into compelling and dramatic works-of-art that delved deeply into the interworking of the human psyche. They exposed us to the rawest instincts of our species.
From their respective windows on the world, they observed, processed, and poeticized the dynamics of human existence. They both examined life and struggle, power and money, love and ego, the social hierarchies of mankind.
DMX’s track “Who We Be” is as profound a summation of humanity as Shakespeare’s exploration of any monarchy or any layer of society depicted in his plays The gritty eat-or-be-eaten street laws reflected in DMX’s lyrics are the same ones played out in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where the uncle kills Hamlet’s father to take both his throne and his woman.
Both writers told stories that were unique to their own voices. In the scene in Hamlet where his uncle begged for salvation, Shakespeare wrote, “Pray, can I not, though inclination be as sharp as will?… Help Angels, all may yet be well!” whereas DMX wrote…“And I’m still going through it…pain and the hurt – soaking up trouble like rain in the dirt – and I know only you can stop the rain with the mention of my SAVIOUR’S name, LORD give me a sign!”
Same theme: two different men crying out from their darkness, begging for relief from their internal wretchedness.
In fact, Shakespeare’s madman character, Hamlet, could easily have spit a few bars from DMX’s “Y’all Gon’ Make Me Lose My Mind Up in Here,” and the verse would’ve fit any scene.
Between DMX and Shakespeare, there existed two storytellers who used their art to reveal humankind in all its vivid harshness, frailty, greed, lustfulness, and truth. Each artist brought the world their tormented protagonists in perpetual states of battle for both soul and sanity. The difference: Shakespeare’s stage-sets were palaces. DMX’s stage-sets were the streets. His curtain opened on reality in real time and DMX was the principal actor in his life-long one-man play. Still, as an artist, he was able to transform that reality into a rhyme scheme. Like Shakespeare, DMX took the social-political shards of life and fashioned them into art.
Shakespearean experts would likely not validate the work of DMX in literary terms, and DMX’s fan base would likely not choose Shakespearean art over rap. Nevertheless, who’s to say which one of these artists has contributed more to their audiences, or ultimately, to art and society? Whose art has really helped the world to see deeply into the nature of men? The answer: Both.
Both artists clearly understood their audiences and the stories that would resonate. Shakespeare summoned his characters and stories from his imagination. DMX sourced his characters and stories from the streets, with no breaks or intermissions.
DMX lived his stories. They were as gruff and harsh as the reality they were scuffled from. Shakespeare, like many writers, pulled from his own emotions to craft characters and worlds. But even as characters were made up, they were harnessed from bits and pieces of the reality he’d observed.
This is not an evaluation of the lives of these great artists, but only a comparison of their ultimate outputs as writers, poets, storytellers, and actors. Both DMX and Shakespeare suffered great adversity in their lives and the emotional territory they could draw resources from was authentic to them. This made each of them significant and extraordinary artists.
Authenticity most often creates the best art. But to be authentic you have to be able to self-validate to the point where others can’t constantly make you second-guess or devalue your own art simply because they reject it. Not everyone will appreciate the same paintings you do, but work that speaks from a place of truth usually emits authenticity. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “…To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Or as DMX put it, “Keep it real, partner.”
In your art, are you true to yourself? As artists and collectors, how authentic is your art to you? Are you able to speak about your art genuinely and unapologetically? Have you dug deep enough into your own story to really understand why you create or collect what you do? There is value and depth in your story, and in this present time when the public is hungry for meaningful work that reflects our cultural nuances, it’s a great time to really think about why you create or collect what you do.
Try to think about what attracts you to certain forms, colors, themes or subjects, and why that is. If you have no idea why, trace it back as far as you can to uncover those moments in your life where they became important. Look for the memories that helped shape you, or made you want to paint, or collect. For example, musicians often show up in Black art. This could be mistakenly dismissed as “unimaginative” by those outside the culture. They may not consider how important music has been to us as a survival mechanism; or how this art-form was used to etch our way into American society and to finally be recognized as complex humans, even as laws outright stated we were not to be considered as such. Our musicians, using their instruments, carved a path through the worst periods of racism. Our Jazz artists transported our full humanity into mainstream consciousness. Our music has eased us into mainstream America, as quietly and stealthily as the Underground Railroad. Our Jazz artists amazed the world and made it impossible to ignore how undeniably special we are as humans. By the masses, White teens defied lines of segregation for the first time, in order to dance alongside Black teens to live Jazz. Meanwhile their parents listened to it on the radio and were in awe of Black talent.
Music has such deep meaning in our history that it’s one of the most important subjects a Black artist might cover when speaking about our evolution in America. Our reasons for admiring our musicians and singers go deeper than just entertainment. That high regard has deep roots and has been handed down to us. If you purchase a painting of a Black orchestra or band, what from your life or childhood moved you about the painting? Are there family moments or memories connected to why you bought or painted it? Did your parents share that music with you?
Digging deeper into our own motivations and our own stories helps to give context to our work, and supplies fertile ground for finding new work and inspiration. Just based on a single event in my life, I could authentically paint pictures of file cabinets from here on out. Of course I won’t, but if I did, it certainly would ring with the truth of a pivotal moment that changed my path.
The point is, when you look at your work, what does it authentically say about you or your life or your perspective? Even if you haven’t quite narrowed it down, there’s something valuable to be discovered and shared about your story. Every piece of artwork we create or buy tells us something about ourselves and something about the way we see the world. These stories are what make your paintings or collections even more engaging.
Because DMX was so authentic, his albums went platinum, one after the other. His words painted the streets and his hard-bristled brush slashed the canvas without apology.
Many of his songs were ingenious in my opinion. Some are not necessarily my cup of tea, but all of his music tells you how he authentically saw the world. And that I can appreciate from any artist.
DMX was able to find value and belief in his own talent, long before others validated him. This is a great accomplishment for any artist. But even greater than that is the achievement of maintaining your true calling as a creative person, even in the face of fame and fortune.
With all of DMX’s success – and despite the inner turmoil and challenges he admitted to facing daily, he never lost his genuineness as an artist. And he never lost his humility or compassion for the everyday man. His close friend and longtime producer Swizz Beatz said of DMX, “With 30 million dollars in the bank, DMX was still humble enough to sit with the homeless in an abandoned building and share a meal.“ These are the kinds of stories he left the world with, along with his art. Many will learn from his story.
Your compassion, your preferences, your dreams, your internal wars — these are all things that can help other’s learn. It’s up to you to find value in your point of view and be brave enough to assert it in your art and collections. It’s up to you to state the value of your culture, to you.
In closing, I repeat these words hoping, in particular, that some young person will remember them just this way: Don’t stand in nobody else’s line to become you. (Double negative intended).
First and foremost, validate yourself. If you want to be an artist, make some art. If you want to be a collector, collect some art. If you want to be a great artist, make some art you think is great, and know within yourself that you’re a great artist. When you’re able to validate yourself, you’ll be better prepared to stand against the outpour of opinions that will surely come your way in the artworld, and in life… especially when others try to dismiss your value, or condescendingly flick you away to file their paperwork.
Rest well, DMX and Shakespeare. Thank you for your art.
As always, we welcome your thoughts in the Comments Section below.
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DEBRA HAND is a museum-collected sculptor, painter, and writer. She is the creator of the historic bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar in Dunbar Park. Among the history makers who own her works are former President Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton; Harry Belafonte; Cicely Tyson; Smokey Robinson; Yo-Yo Ma; Spike Lee; Seal; Sinbad; and the renowned sculptor, Richard Hunt; the late Winnie Mandela, and the late Dr. Maya Angelou also owned her work. Debra Hand holds a Master of Science Degree from the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. She is a self-taught artist whose talent was discovered by the legendary Dr. Margaret Burroughs, principal founder of the DuSable Museum. It was Burroughs who arranged for Hand’s first public exhibit.
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