How the Hip Hop Generation Is Disrupting the Art World
by Yvonne Bynoe
We must begin to tell our young/There’s a world waiting for you/This is a quest that’s just begun—Nina Simone, from Young, Gifted and Black
Shortly after the 2021 Grammy Awards, a photograph of Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s daughter Blue Ivy began circulating online. In it, the nine-year-old is wearing a gold crown and sipping from her first Grammy Award trophy with a straw. Hip Hop fans immediately began to speculate that Blue Ivy’s crown was none other than the one worn by Brooklyn born rap artist, “The Notorious B.I.G” aka Christopher Wallace. Wallace wore a gold crown in his iconic 1997 “King of New York” photograph shot by Barron Clairborne for Rap Pages magazine.
In September 2020, Sotheby’s auctioned off Wallace’s plastic crown, which originally cost $6.00, for a reported $595.000. Shawn Carter hasn’t confirmed that he acquired it but it seems apparent, especially given his close relationship with Wallace. It’s also telling that Blue Ivy’s photo references her father’s 2013 photograph of him drinking cognac from his Grammy Award trophy. In 2013, Carter won Grammy Awards for Best Rap Performance, Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and Best Rap Song.
The Carters are not new to auctions or to art collecting. Despite the couple being notoriously tight-lipped, Forbes magazine estimates their art collection at 70 million dollars.
Shawn’s fans know that he admires Jean-Michel Basquiat and it’s been reported that he acquired a painting by Basquiat called “Mecca” for $4.5 million in 2013. Shawn has also been photographed in front of a Derrick Adams piece at his Roc Nation office. The couple is said to have collected work from Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, David Hammons, Shepard Fairey, Richard Prince, Tim Noble, Sue Webster, George Condo, Laurie Simmons, Richard Prince, and Ed Ruscha.
“I make a move like chess, then yell checkmate.” —EPMD
To the chagrin of many White art lovers, the sale of “Biggie’s” crown loudly signaled that Sotheby’s acknowledges the multi-racial fans of Hip Hop culture as an important emerging market. Sotheby’s also has a sales specialist with Hip Hop as part of her portfolio. The most disdainful online comments underscore the persistent tension within American culture regarding what constitutes art and who gets to make the call. As late writer and Black Arts Movement activist Amiri Baraka said, “James Brown and Frank Sinatra are two different quantities in the universe. They represent two different experiences of the world.”
While Sotheby’s is now recognizing Hip Hop culture, the “crossover” of Hip Hop culture into the art world happened more than 40 years ago. In the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a melding of the predominantly White punk rock and avant garde art scenes with the burgeoning Hip Hop culture, whose participants were primarily, but not exclusively, African-American. Rebellion was the common cause for the disparate groups.
In November 1979, Brooklyn-born Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite) and fellow Fabulous 5 subway graffiti crew member, LEE (George Quinones), were both exhibited at the prestigious Galleria La Medusa in Rome, Italy run by Claudio Bruni. Brathwaite who was immortalized on Blondie’s 1981 single “Rapture” became the cultural bridge between New York’s “Uptown” subway graffiti artists and the “Downtown” art and punk crowd.
In April 1981, Freddy co-curated with FUTURA 2000 (Leonard Hilton McGurr) the graffiti exhibit “Beyond Words” at the Mudd Club, a punk rock venue in lower Manhattan. The exhibit was a mix of Uptown subway graffiti artists who were making their art world debut and rising Downtown street graffiti artists. The exhibit included artwork by Brathwaite, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharf.
Basquiat, who had gained attention tagging SAMO (Same Old Shit) on walls in lower Manhattan, was emerging as the darling of the New York art world.
In June 1980, Basquiat participated in the “Times Square Show” and was hailed as a genius in the first review he received as a professional artist. Art critic Jeffrey Deitch said that 19-year-old Basquiat was “[A] knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray paint.” Ironically, the careers of “subway spray paint” legends who transitioned to canvas such as DONDI (Donald Joseph White), FUTURA 2000, Lady Pink (Sandra Fabara) and LEE would stall.
In street terms, the art world gave Basquiat the nod (along with fellow street graffiti artist Keith Haring) and gave the subway graffiti artists the gasface.
For generations, the mainstream art world has been an ecosystem composed largely of White gallerists, White collectors, White critics/writers, and White museum directors who either had trust funds or wealthy White investors. This insular group determined which Black artists were worthy of being exhibited, covered in the media, and acquired by collectors and museums. These cultural gatekeepers had a heavy hand in defining what constituted Black art.
Now a new generation of African-American art collectors and patrons are shaking up the art world. They embody the ethos of Hip Hop culture: Succeeding in a world not designed for you by reconfiguring it.
As a demographic the Hip Hop generation is in their 40s and 50s. It was natural that as this cohort matured and prospered they’d enter the art market. Hip Hop generation billionaires and multi-millionaires, including Shawn and Beyonce Carter, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean and Alicia Keys, not only have the means to acquire fine art but also the stature to alter the art ecosystem. There is also a legion of affluent Black professionals across the country who are poised to impact their local art communities through their acquisitions and patronage.
On May 15, 2018, Sean Combs, a Grammy Award winning music producer/artist and entrepreneur, changed the art game when he placed the winning bid at Sotheby’s auction for Kerry James Marshall’s painting “Past Times” (1997). Combs paid $21.1 million (including fees) and the sale was reportedly the most ever paid for a painting by a living African-American artist.
Marshall’s profile skyrocketed after the record sale although he didn’t benefit from it monetarily. “Past Times” had been consigned to Sotheby’s by Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) which owns McCormick Place, Chicago’s Convention Center. MPEA bought Marshall’s painting in 1997 for $25,000 from a Los Angeles art gallery. Marshall nevertheless seemed to relish the historic sale to Combs telling The Art Newspaper in June 2018:
“This is probably the first instance in the history of the art world, where a Black person took part in a capital competition and won.”
Combs, a native of Harlem, New York has reportedly collected works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring. He is said to have been introduced to art collecting by fellow music producer and entrepreneur, Kasseem Dean. Dean has been outspoken about the need for more African-Americans to start “owning the culture” rather than simply creating it for others to consume and profit from.
A native of The Bronx, New York, Dean is a 2017 graduate of the Owner/President Management Program at Harvard Business School and is the co-founder of Verzus, an online music platform. Dean sits on the Board of Trustees of the Brooklyn Museum, New York and the Americas Foundation of the Serpentine Galleries, London.
Dean with his wife, Grammy award winning singer, Alicia Keys, founded the Dean Collection in 2014 as a family collection. Their collection has more than 1000 works from a range of visual artists such as Derrick Adams, Nina Chanel Abney, Jordan Casteel, KAWS, Deana Lawson, Ebony Patterson, and Kehinde Wiley. The Dean Collection also includes the largest privately-owned body of work by iconic photographer, Gordon Parks.
Dean has been unapologetic about wanting to “disrupt” the art world.
In 2015, Dean founded the “No Commission” art fair. The pop-up events give artists a free platform to exhibit their work and they receive 100% of the proceeds from sales. Dean is also advocating that visual artists in the United States be paid royalties on their work. Paying visual artists resale royalties is done in more than 70 countries including the United Kingdom and European Union countries. In France, this practice has been recognized since 1920. In comparison, visual artists in the United States are only paid for the initial sale of their work.
Dean’s contract proposal, if implemented, would be significant for all visual artists in the United States allowing them to receive payments from the resale of their work during their lifetimes. For instance, had Kerry Marshall’s artist agreement for “Past Times” contained a royalties clause, he would have received a percentage of the $18.7 million hammer price. As it stands, the seller, MPEA reaped a Goliath-sized profit from the appreciation of Marshall’s work and Marshall received nothing.
Another African-American collector with a mission to disrupt the art world is New York businessman George Wells.
In 2020, Wells decided to gift his alma mater, Morehouse College, a historically Black college (HBCU) with a high-profile art collection. Wells, a 2000 graduate along with his husband Manfred Rantner, gave Morehouse College 8 works valued at $1 million dollars. All of the works are by LGBTQ and/or Black artists who focus their work on identity and race; the artists include Mickalene Thomas, Rashid Johnson, Amy Sherald, and McArthur Binion.
Morehouse College, which is located in Atlanta, Georgia, didn’t have a permanent art collection. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, Wells, the founder and chairman of Wells Group of NY, said, “I work so much with start-ups and companies that are disrupting their spaces, and I thought, ‘Let’s disrupt the art world by making Morehouse a cultural institution befitting a contemporary art collection.”
According to Wells this is only the first step; he intends to give more works to Morehouse in the future. Wells is focusing on increasing the number of African-American art professionals. In a CNN interview, Wells said, “In the art world, there are few Black people in positions of power, so if we start at the core, which is education, and educate more people about contemporary art, it can make the world more inclusive.” Morehouse College graduates include Civil Rights Movement leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., director Spike Lee, and artist Sanford Biggers.
Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter, Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe
Beginning in the early 20th century with HBCUs such as Howard University and Clark-Atlanta University, African-American art patrons have done the work that the museums weren’t doing. As stewards of the culture they acquired and exhibited work by Black artists, mentored them, and advocated on their behalf.
Following in the footsteps of influential patrons such as Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Pamela Joyner, and others is contemporary art collector Benjamin Lumpkin. The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi collection contains 500 works of contemporary art. Lumpkin sits on the board of trustees of the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and he serves on committees at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art.
Lumpkin is the force behind the traveling museum exhibit, “Young, Gifted and Black, A New Generation of Artists: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection.” There is also an accompanying book edited by art critic and exhibit co-curator, Antuan Sargent. The exhibit launched in February 2020 at Lehman College (C.U.N.Y) in The Bronx, NY and features 50 contemporary artworks in various mediums by 47 artists of African descent. The exhibit and book facilitate a critical intergenerational dialogue about contemporary Black art.
Lumpkin, a former MTV news and documentary producer, exemplifies the 21st century African-American art patron because he defies long-held ideas about Black identity. Lumpkin was educated at Yale and Harvard and raised in tony La Jolla, California. He can also “pass” for White. He is the son of two educators: An African-American father from South Central, Los Angeles and a Jewish Sephardic mother from Tangiers, Morocco. Lumpkin and his husband Carmine Boccuzzi, an attorney, live in New York City with their three children.
Lumpkin has said that he began focusing on collecting Black art when his father became ill. He sought to understand his father’s experiences growing up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. In a 2017 New York Times interview, Lumpkin said, “I was interested in learning more about what his roots meant to him. And what his experience was as a Black man and how it was different from my experience…“ A lot of times people didn’t perceive me as being African-American.” After his father died in 2009, Lumpkin said, “It was more important to me that people know my heritage.”
Lumpkin’s ability to navigate spaces that have traditionally excluded African Americans gives him a unique vantage point as a mentor to Black artists and as an advocate for them within cultural institutions.
There is a vibrant art world beyond New York City and Chicago is an important city within African-American creative history. Collector Ashley Floyd, who lives in Chicago, Illinois, represents the young professionals who are flexing their cultural muscles in cities across the United States.
Floyd and her husband, Derrick Manuel, who is in finance, started The DNA Collection in 2014 when they got married. The couple has acquired 42 works ranging from Herman Leonard signed prints to works by artists such as Jammie Holmes and Ronald Jackson. Floyd says, “Our focus as art collectors is to preserve our culture, tell our story and serve as narrators of our history (through the DNA Collection).”
In furtherance of their mission, Floyd says, “Last year… we began to purchase photography from young Black artists that were on the front lines of the protests and Black Lives Matter Movement. It is imperative that we have images in our home that reflect joy and pride, and exemplify the Black experience that we know exists in our community. “
Floyd is a member of the Women’s Board of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and believes that “cultural equity” is paramount to transforming arts institutions so that they better reflect the communities they serve. She stated, “It is imperative that major art institutions have Black representation at the board level, and most importantly, have the insight of the community to help guide exhibits…” Ashley’s desire as a collector is that more young African-Americans are exposed to the arts, particularly as a viable career path.
I don’t listen to what critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is. —Jean-Michel Basquiat
Alexandria Southern, a government employee and florist from Sierra Vista, Arizona, posted on her Instagram page @AncestralOfferings that she began to call herself an art collector after watching the recent HBO documentary “Black Art: Absence of Light” saying, “It introduced me to a world that I didn’t realize that I was beginning to be part of. I’ve always loved the aspect of acquiring art…I wanted my girls to be raised in a space that depicted their beautiful culture and history; therefore I collect art as a visual homage.”
Southern has collected approximately 40 pieces, primarily African masks, but felt that art collecting was something that only wealthy people did, saying, “Living in a small town I never thought to seek out fellow collectors…[after watching Absence of Light] I now notice that there are so many of us Black men and women are part of a community enthusiast about preserving the representation of Black people…”
Unquestionably the ascension of high profile African-American art collectors has redefined the profile of who collects fine art. However, a victory can’t be declared about their overall impact on the art world until more African-Americans perceive art as both important to their lives and attainable.
The strength of Hip Hop culture is demonstrated by the “re-mix.” In rap music, a remix is done by taking a song, adding new sounds, instrumentation or lyrics and creating a totally new composition. The remix of the art world would be African-American art collectors, going beyond insider art fairs and conferences and talking to everyday Black folks about art and why they collect it.
What if such high-profile collectors as Carter, Combs, Dean or Kamaal “Q-Tip” Fareed or Sheyaa Bin “21 Savage” Abraham-Joseph shared their thoughts on why it’s important for African-Americans to have art on their walls (even if it’s a $20.00 print) on a Facebook or Instagram Live or on a popular radio show like Hot 97’s “The Breakfast Club ” or on a podcast like Noreaga’s “Drink Champs?” These entrepreneurs could even partner with Black visual artists to create affordable, quality prints with proceeds from sales going to fund art programs in low-income communities, scholarships for art students, fellowships for artists or to aid undercapitalized Black-owned galleries.
Every time a Black person buys art online, on the street, in a gallery, at a flea market or art fair, they’re indicating what images and stories are relevant to them. He or she needs to know that their choice doesn’t need to be validated by a New York art advisor or art critic. If the work speaks to their eye and to their soul, that’s enough.
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Yvonne Bynoe is the founder of @SheLovesBlackArt which highlights visual art from the African diaspora. She is a contributor to Black Art In America and is the author of the acclaimed book, Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture. Bynoe has written and lectured extensively about the intersection of Hip Hop culture, economics and politics.
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