In the 1980’s, a young, African American painter emerged onto the New York art scene. Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the brightest, and most unique, artists in all of America. He took the expressionist style of the Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and combined it with tribal African and street art that reflected his urban surroundings and the plight of the African American community.
Since Basquiat’s 1998 death, his art has grown increasingly popular among hip hop artists. Both Jay Z and Swizz Beats are known Basquiat collectors, and he has been referenced in verses by hip hop heavyweights Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Rick Ross, Danny Brown, J. Cole, and A$AP Rocky.
This reoccurring homage continues in the music video for the Young Thug/Freddie Gibbs/A$AP Ferg collaboration, “Old English.” Well before this video came out, this track blew my mind. Three great verses linked together by one thick chain of a hook. A$AP Ferg especially shines with one of his best verses to date. He tells a narrative of a young, hispanic girl who turns to selling Molly as ends to support her sick mother, along with the rest of her family.
But getting back the video, it’s not too difficult to see the Basquiat connection. The crude line work and the bright colors harken back to Basquiat’s work – his signature crown even makes an appearance. This sort of gritty depiction expertly juxtaposes with the trap instrumentals and dark lyrics on street life.
I think this is why Basquiat’s art resonates in hip hop. Artists like like-minded artists. Basquiat, like Jay-Z or Young Thug, was born with nothing and worked his way to notoriety in a system that fought against him. His art reflects a story that too many African Americans live themselves. One encompassed by poverty, drugs, violence, and systematic suppression. Out of this struggle however, comes wonderful art and music. These artists reflect their surroundings in their art and hopefully, educate their audiences on the circumstances they and so many have experienced.