Hip-Hop’s Afrofuturistic Hive Mind

1. Jean‐Michel Basquiat “Hollywood Africans” (1983) acrylic and oil stick on canvas; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of Douglas S. Cramer; Digital Image © Whitney Museum of American Art / licensed by Scala / licensed by Art Resource. (© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat; licensed by Artestar, New York; courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

“Hip-Hop’s Afrofuturistic Hive Mind,” by Greg Tate, reprinted from Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation​, by Liz Munsell and Greg Tate, which accompanied the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition is co-curated by Liz Munsell and Greg Tate.

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Nowadays if we need to make the artists of the first hip-hop generation relatable to the public we can simply introduce them as prophetic avatars of hip-hop and Afrofuturism — two once outlier subcultures that now possess globalized street cred and multibillion-dollar market value. Such attributes were nonexistent when the creative tyros represented here were all in their roaring 20s in 1980s Gotham City.

Citing our cohort’s prescient contributions to hip-hop and Afrofuturism cuts to the chase, eliminates the need for verbose explanations about cultural context, particularly in light of hip-hop’s three-decade omnipresence in global youth culture. There are, after all, indigenous hip-hop scenes spanning all of Europe and Asia and all fifty-four nation-states on the African continent. And by hip-hop we mean not just rapping but the other four internally defined elements of the culture: writing (“graffiti,” “subway art,” “bombing”), turntabling, rapping, break dancing, beatboxing, and b-boying — the latter of which encompasses all things having to do with hip-hop style, fashion, swagger, postural semantics (“profiling”), and generally all that badass streetwise gangsta attitude and duende that the poet Ntozake Shange once identified as the “relaxed virility” of our champions.

Afrofuturism (aka Black Science Fiction) leaped onto the zeitgeist’s bandwagon via the billion-dollar box-office take of Marvel and Disney’s 2018 film Black Panther. Overnight the blockbuster epic about superpowered Africans battling for the soul of a modern monarchy/matriarchy on humanity’s Mother Continent — a culture more technologically and militarily advanced than the U.S. — became Afrofuturism’s thumbnail sketch and readymade Pictionary graphic.

The visionary 1980s vintage artworks by our selectively assembled cast —A-One, Basquiat, ERO, Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Rammellzee, Toxic — visually presaged the impact that hip-hop and Afrofuturism’s pictographic and phonographic Blackness is having on The Now.

This cohort was making work as young adults that projected a hip-hop–Afrofuturist imaginary onto the extremely Eurocentric gallery system’s white- cube walls — elitist and racially discriminating places not known back then for their open embrace of avatars, aesthetics, and imagineering that hailed from the hood.

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More so than any of their gifted colleagues, Basquiat, Fab 5, and Rammellzee provoked open confrontation with the monoculture of modern art’s journalistic, curatorial, and academic gatekeepers. They came bearing (and baring) mad backup from the grassroots: they drew — literally and figuratively — on the prime directive among the subway writers to “bomb all lines” — meaning not only to target every car running the tracks of the Big Apple’s number-and color-coded system, but also to intellectually blow up the established art-world order with cantankerous metaphorical, mystical, and metaphysical content and savvy. To bomb all the lines that ran beyond the literal train system meant detonating the linear thought-constructs of Western art legitimacy.

Basquiat, Kool Koor, ERO, and Haring are the anomalies of the group, having never actually bombed the exteriors of any train car or created what the subway writers would call a “burner,” a masterpiece. The spectacular art Basquiat produced in the writers’ wake does demonstrate how much inspiration, stimulation, and moxie he gathered from the vibrational emissions of their energetic and ephemeral work. The notable subway writing royalty that Basquiat shares space within this book includes the trailblazers and train-yard legends Futura, Lee, and Lady Pink.

By making the leap from trains to mass media and mainstream galleries, they were the ambitious shock troops of an incendiary cultural movement, the hip-hop revolution to come. In their subsequent careers (still ongoing in many cases) as internationally recognized visual artists, they have more than fulfilled the outsized dreams of their youth: to scale the art world’s defensive moats and battlements and reverse-colonize its exclusionary high castles.

That “bomb all lines” dictate of the writers also motivated the first hip-hop generation to explore, exploit, and burst wide open every medium in sight. The emergent creative dynamo surging through Gotham’s Afro-diasporic and Latinx streets and its blanched cultural institutions and media networks demanded nothing less.

Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, and Rammellzee were to all prove especially adept during hip-hop’s early years at bum-rushing and masterfully navigating not only the white-cube art game but indie film, music, and television as well. The classroom, museum, and street-acculturated skills that led them to invade the art world and hold their ground with such confidence is also apparent in the work of their fellow super-luminous futurists, surrealists, and expressionists.

Writing, because it was so unavoidably public, was the first of hip-hop’s elements to burst into cosmopolitan consciousness. Laying claim to the world’s biggest exhibition space — the Apple-snaking train lines of the MTA — the work of the subway writers became as optically and optimally omnipresent as the Manhattan skyline. The writers’ unbridled energy and mad enthusiasm for their daunting, acrobatic work sustained the movement for a dozen years of battle with the MTA. Their adventures in subterranean mural painting went on underground in the wee hours, in tunnels and rail- yards infested with gruesome dangers: rats, police dogs, the NYPD’s anti-graffiti squad, potholes, fifty-foot drops, high-voltage third rails.

Being criminalized and stigmatized by authorities as vandals who defaced city property may have added to the anarchic and romantic appeal of the endeavor for the adolescent writers. Suddenly Gotham’s most disenfranchised, harassed, over-policed, and invisibilized citizenry — its wise-assed tactical bombing youth — were impossible to ignore or to stop from dropping their wildstyle bombs on all lines. On a daily basis, the MTA dutifully and disparagingly painted over their spectacular ten-car pieces — a jack move that ironically served to provide the writers with a metropolis full of fresh canvases, ensuring the next detonation of stoopid-fresh mobile murals would roll out of the yards the morning after.

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The galvanized young subway writers shared neighborhoods, communities, and recreational rooms with peers whose talents also encompassed break dancing, DJ-ing, and rapping. Early hip-hop culture set the precedent for them to freely engage and entertain their own multidisciplinary desires and muses. They rearticulated, reformulated, and transfigured the high-handed cultural mission they’d inherited from the bombing practices of the writers. They also brought well-articulated radical-oppositional intentions and theory to the table. As Miles Davis did, they used their racial alienation and sense of ethnic difference from the white world as ideological and ideographic rocket fuel.

Basquiat’s big reveal came in his famous claim that his prime motivation as an artist was to render spiritual oblations to a personal trifecta of “royalty, heroism, and the streets.” As eagerly as some may attempt to align Basquiat’s practice solely with his museum favorites — Picasso, Warhol, De Kooning, Dubuffet, and Franz Kline (all per JMB’s own misdirection) — it’s clear that being a Do or Die Brooklynite of Puerto Rican and Haitian parentage also majorly informed his painterly bent.

The artist’s father, Gerard Basquiat, waxed profuse about his belief that Basquiat’s sensibility evolved on home grounds during his tween years: “A lot of the imagery, I feel, is Brooklyn born. Jean-Michel’s room was upstairs in the back of the building that we lived in, so from his window he could see a fantastic skyline, and great buildings like the bank near BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. I think that is the skyline he references in the early paintings. The kids playing games on the sidewalks of Boerum Hill were also a clear source of inspiration. Then of course there was Flats Fix, the F-L-A-T-S F-I-X signs on Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn. It’s one of the things he remembered well and extracted multiple meanings from.”

Basquiat grew up privy to the carnivalesque glories provided his impressionable young eyes by Brooklyn’s annual West Indian Day Parade — a daylong pan-ethnic procession of lavishly decorated floats, glittering spangled flesh-baring costumes, Calypso-booming sound trucks, and characters who costumed themselves as hellish Haitian Vodou deities like Baron Samedi and Damballah.

Haiti, always well represented in the parade, has a votive art practice of sequined fabrics and metal sculptures that pop with depictions of mystical imagery drawn from Vodou. This system of divination and spirit-possession originated in Benin and Dahomey, survived the slave trade, and proved crucial to the successes of the Haitian Revolution. Vodou also deploys a magical form of incantatory illustrative writing called veve, using symbols that are said to guide the gods, or loa, to any Vodou ceremony with the accuracy of satellite telemetry. The ubiquitous appearance of scriptural writing as graphic talismans in Basquiat’s work suggests an oblique reference to this aspect of Vodou.

We know that Basquiat’s Puerto Rican mother Matilde Andrades frequently took her radiant child Jean-Michel to city museums, but we should not discount the effect of the borough’s street and retail facades on the young artist. The resonance between JMB’s visual sensibility and Brooklyn’s Santeria and Vodou botanicas and altars expands our understanding of his visual storehouse beyond the confines of MoMA.

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The repetition of highly expressive Black masculine figures is a thematic constant in the Basquiat canon. The high regard he had for jazz musicians is immediately apparent: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, and other bebop kings totemically recur as ready-made titans of Black male genius — men the fame-, reward-, and respect-obsessed Basquiat knew were revered worldwide for their creative prowess, cosmopolitan style, and street cred.

The American major-league sports of football, baseball, and basketball became fully integrated in Basquiat’s lifetime. But if one wanted to see Black men in the mass media in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s who weren’t puppets of white handlers, then along with jazz musicians, boxers were your best bet. Gerard Basquiat recalls his and his son’s mutual enjoyment of the “sweet science”: “I was a big fan of boxing, and when he was a kid, there would be fights on television every Friday. We would sit together and watch. He talked about Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott, all of them — the great boxers of years past.”

Basquiat’s famed mock-bout poster touting an artsy battle between him and Andy Warhol reflects this fixation. There are plenty of Basquiat paintings that aggressively march out depictions of raging Black male figures with fists raised in victory — enough to deserve a thematically organized exhibition of their own. Some of these militant figures are mutant-robot hybrid creatures, which further underscores the alignment of JMB’s Afrofuturism with Futura’s robots, Fab 5 Freddy’s space gods, Haring’s aliens and animalisms, and Rammellzee’s pyrotechnic and combat-ready sound-suits.

Rammellzee “Gash–o–lear” (1989) mixed media; Estate of Rammellzee; © 2018 The Rammellzee Estate. In memory of Carmela Zagari Rammellzee (photo: Lance Brewer; exhibition view of RAMMELLZEE: Racing for Thunder (courtesy Red Bull Arts New York; courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Basquiat’s oeuvre can now be said — in the wake of his postmortem victory lap and boot stomp on the Euro-American art world — to constitute a Black male wall of fame, one exploding with markers of the fraught conquests, Pyrrhic victories, and traumatic vicissitudes of Black male being-and-nothingness in America. His work also tacitly and intentionally addresses the imbalance between Black culture’s monumental impact on Western modernity and the general disrespect shown Black folk by the nation’s policing and legislative institutions.

Basquiat’s success after death has ensured that multitudes of his brothers (and the occasional sister and mother) have come to enter the white cube as conquering lions beside him. Not all the people he painted and gave representational dap to were famous, but he shows as much artful love and attentive deference to the dispossessed and ghostly unknowns he marked up as to the boxing and jazz stars who proliferate in his catalogue raisonné.

When Basquiat broke out in the early 1980s, there were no other Black painters considered worthy of blue-chip gallery recognition. A century of Black artists before Basquiat had made momentary waves in the Euro-American art world, but there’d never been a barely twenty-one-year-old Black visual artist who’d royally shook up Soho’s cock-blocking gallery-owning doyennes by showing up with the superstar jouissance of a Jimi Hendrix. The rapid rise of Basquiat required an extraordinary set of preconditions, even for someone as adept at the art-game hustle as he was. Overcoming art-world racism in the way Basquiat did required removing major barriers to entry for anyone not white, middle-aged, and male.

The seismic impact of punk and hip-hop on the downtown cultural scene begat those remarkable conditions. They cannot be overstated as the primary cultural forces that paved the way and opened Soho gallery doors, enabling Basquiat to perform an end-run around art-world resistance and hostility toward guys who looked like him.

The politics of punk owed everything to the Black and Brown folk of South London who were openly swinging their fists in the streets on ultra-right Thatcherite goons and brigades, those officially sanctioned by 10 Downing and their civilian bootlickers, in the immigrant communities they’d built up from working-class slums in the 1950s. Jamaica’s Bob Marley and the Wailers had made international pop gold out of lyrics that extolled shooting down sheriffs, preached the fall of capitalist Babylon, and professed that God was neither seated in heaven nor coming back as Jesus but instead was an Ethiopian king codenamed Rasta Far I who was still ruling and schooling on this Earth. Marley’s iconic locks and self-appointed grandeur inspired Basquiat to dread his follicles into the Medusan crown of chaos the art world read as primitive and unkempt rather than messianic, futurist, and regal.

The nighttown that these artists and others partied in now registers as a Cambrian explosion of anarchic free expression, led by a generation of hypercreative youngsters from the city’s margins who were rebooting and freebooting the zeitgeist every time they stepped into the p.m. Downtown 81, the film Basquiat made with his friend Glenn O’Brien, vividly captures how bold, brazen, and elegantly experimental that scene’s cutting-edge musicians like Kid Creole and Arto Lindsay were — ready for their close-up before the world even knew they existed.

Members of the hip-hop generation were the first Black musicians in history to become billionaires by lending their charisma and cool to consumer leisure product brands. All of those copyright symbols and crowns in Basquiat’s work point to that commodified transactional hip-hop future, even though hip-hop was still clawing for such recognition when Basquiat left the world. His own success turns out to have been the harbinger for hip-hop’s success and for the trickle-to-a-flood arrival of the Black visual art stars who would follow in Basquiat’s wake in the 1990s and early 2000s: Lorna Simpson, Gary Simmons, Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Kehinde Wiley, Mickalene Thomas, Wangechi Mutu.

Sun Ra and George Clinton presaged the visual sagacity and esoteric signifyin’ of rap’s “golden age” poets. JMB and Rammellzee were particularly keyed into linguistic legerdemain, which would become a hip-hop signature by the early 1990s. Their 1982 collaborative recording Beat Bop set the tone for so much contemplative, collage-aesthetic rap to come.

Seen in tandem, hip-hop’s first gallery artists and major-label album artists present us with a plethora of Afrofuturist mythopoeic imaginaries, hoodwise fantasias representative of their generational and regional matrix. They also establish the market potential of a cultural dynamo that had emerged, barely a decade earlier, from the city’s socioeconomic margins — bearing the stigmas of poverty, criminality, and anarchy.

Rammellzee arrives to us from the boondock wilds of New York’s boroughs: Far Rockaway, Queens, dog-end of the A train, another galaxy far, far away from Duke Ellington’s fabled Harlem-bound line. Rammellzee takes longer than Basquiat to suss out — his complete picture and pictorial legacy require more time and distance to evolve and convince.

Basquiat had the element of surprise, of having the jump on everybody. He shows up and opens up firing, overwhelming our senses with a profusion of markings on canvas that seem indebted to no one but himself — a wunderkind fluent in the gestural puncture of every style and ism, high and low, painterly and pulp, ancient and futuristic, Giacometti to Jack Kirby to Gray’s Anatomy; more elegantly scripted than Twombly, just as entropic as wildstyle and as atomizing and nuclear-winterizing of everything The Met and MoMA hold dear, hold tight.

In contrast, what Ramm demonstrated off the top of his dome wasn’t a mastery of MoMA’s 2-D preference but a mastery of language and theory about a culture of painting that’d been incubating in caves beneath the big city for a decade — +one that had its own tradition and guild of classical masters, thank you. About that aspect of writing, Ramm wasn’t speaking as a distant observer but as an apprenticed, experienced member of his subterranean painting class: one who’d earned his keep and the respect of his elders, and one who had risen from outsider to central gangsta figure to his own self-sprung deity.

“I came down from Queens to the Bronx,” he reminisced in 1985, “because that’s where the culture was coming from. All the guys who also rode the A Train — Phase Two, Peanut Two, Jester — all these guys influenced me in this manner of writing … If I’d been born in Brooklyn, I wouldn’t have come up with my style of Ikonoklast Panzerism. I would have been too close to too many masters” — especially Dondi, who became his mentor after a thorough interrogation. Once under Dondi’s wing, he was inducted into the legendary bombing crew known as UGA (United Graffiti Artists). “I was known as Stimulation Assassination: Tagmaster Killer. I owned the entire 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 lines.”

When we read Edit DeAk’s interview with Ramm (the first to be published) in a 1983 issue of Artforum we encountered a sermon-cum-manifesto-cum- jeremiad that forced many a literate sapient to realize that this thing we’d been calling graffiti had produced a first-rate major organic intellectual — one whose theories don’t just affirm the deep, dark thought behind the nightly bombing of the trains but weaponize it, militarize it, historicize and futurize it as a calligraphic offshoot of the writing done by 16th-century Gothic monks: “The monks started what we do,” Ramm told DeAk. “We extend off their science. The bishops in 1582 stopped their knowledge because they couldn’t read the monks’ tax papers. They were getting too fancy so the bishops said ‘I can’t read this to tax the people’. [The monks] wrote it the way they wanted to write it, in their style. The calendar monks sent a letter to the one place God cannot go: Hell. The light we had draws from a knowledge that was dim down there, so the knowledge was very faint but yet it was real, and with its energy passing through our bodies, we received it.”

Few New Yorkers of the time would push back against the notion that the subway system of the 1970s was a sector of Hades, but who knew it harbored the quantum voodoo of a long-dead Gothic sect awaiting reignition by an army of ingenious and feral urban teens armed with spray paint and ten-car trains for canvas? Who else but Rammellzee could’ve concocted a fabulous mythos and ethos out of that wildass conceit?

In 1985 Ramm explained,

All my art and all my teachings are about Gothic Futurism, and the knowledge of how a letter aerodynamically changes into a tank …. Our situation today is to break down a door of knowledge hidden behind society …. We’re talking about where graffiti originated, where hardcore war went down, with markers against markers and letters against letters. You think war is always shooting and beating everybody up, but no, we had the letters fight for us.

Ramm is subtly connecting cultural and political dots here, as did his acknowledged forebears Sun Ra and George Clinton (members of an unholy cabal of inspirations that Ramm said also included AC/DC, Gene Simmons of KISS, and the Hell’s Angels). In so doing he links the writers’ meta-war below with the more exposed battles above for social democracy and a cessation of anti-Black violence.

The letter appeared from the first dimension. The first dimension has total power over everything because it is total electromagnetic energy. It is an integer by itself. No one controls the alpha-beta. If you drop the [last] “a,” it becomes alphabet. That’s what they did, but is it total control or is that foolish control? Bigotry and the rest of that bullshit.

Writing and bombing evolved within an imperialist society in love with its own firepower and white supremacist mythos. Ramm believed writing’s militancy erupted out of the pent-up creative aggression of its disenfranchised urban soldiers — already under pressure by dint of skin, class, police targeting: “Our symbols could be armored because this culture has military power. The first act of terrorism was America dropping the bomb on Hiroshima …. Our generation’s poverty and despondency made us turn a letter into a missile.”

All this jabber about tanks, missiles, and armored letters could have you thinking Ramm was as delirious about real warfare as Italian Futurism’s neo-fascist wingman Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Other comments reveal a humanist ethos lurking behind his verbal bluster and rhetorical blunderbusses — or post-humanist, perhaps:

We’re advanced in terms of science and technology, but the attitude of the population is still Gothic. We still do not know what we’re doing. We still do not know how to leave this planet the right way …. You can have four alternatives to human nature — genocide; plain old socialism like bees and ants have; love and dictatorship, which is what we have now; or you can have a lot of high powered mega-structured knowledge where everything becomes not a socialistic bee-type state but a militant state with megastructures. That’s the way it should be — mass thinking, mass brain power as one.

Ramm believed that when writing jumped the tracks from the trainyards into the shady gallery system, it gained the world’s attention for fifteen minutes but lost its soul—not so much because the writers got pimped and disposed of by the galleries but because, except for himself and his cadre, writing culture discontinued the path of armoring the letter and establishing its own criteria for mastery, as jazz musicians had done. As he told the online grafzine @149th St,

We failed what could have been “our culture.” Writing for fame or name is a poor excuse to be a monk and is the reason why this culture is a subculture. I went [to an art auction] in 2000. Everyone who was anyone in this “subculture” had works for sale. No one sold except for a few. I felt that the “culture” died right there. There was too much mannerism, not enough “burner”! Our futurism! We should have stuck to our principles, left by the monks. We should have only stuck to doing ‘the letter’ and joined together to fight the light dwellers, but we will always be “Kings from the Dark Continent.” It’s hard to become a real live painting in B-boy style but I managed, and we all could have managed.

A “real live painting in B-boy form” could be a description of the legion of armored costumes Ramm began building out of toys and junk to performatively present his pantheon of characters and their epic, epistemological storylines. He explicated the dramatic roles played by several avatars of his grand cosmological scheme:

These are gods called the Ramm Ell Zee. Each one of them has a part to play in the mythology called Gothic Futurism. Some of them are from different time periods. The Purple People Eater over there is China, the Cosmic Bookie. We all gamble one way or the other. He places his bets with the Horrors, and the Horrors gamble galaxies. The Wielder is dealing with Chronologics. He spins around and deals with Ovulization. He has to deal with the bet called ‘Womb Versus Man’. What he does is calculate all movement in the universe, or as I call them, the transverses. Ovulization, or the cosmic flush, is the same thing as when a wombman has her period. Times burns out as a cosmic flush called “men o pause.” This is a trick made by the clergy: Man versus Womb Man.

Ramm is the first person to link the term Futurism to hip-hop practice. He goes even darker than the Afro in linking Gothic and Futurism together. In one fell swoop, Ramm gave graffiti writing theoretical gravitas. Rap music was not yet as verbally complex, vocally dexterous, or radically self-conscious as it would become by the late 1980s, making Ramm’s ArtForum interview a harbinger of the hip-hop to come. Not until we hear his freestyle verses on Beat Bop do we realize that his swinging flow as a freestyle lyricist can also perform prophetically. In his rhyming he errantly casts forth the name for one major record label — Def Jam, formed a year after the recording — and one major hip-hop band, Cypress Hill.

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What Basquiat and Ramm share is a mastery of improvisation — Basquiat graphically, Ramm verbally. Where they diverge is in Basquiat’s avowedly ravenous hunger for art-world fame and for his art to be unlinked to writing and the word “graffiti.” Fab 5 Freddy, Lady Pink, and Lee have all demanded similar respect for their post-graffiti work, but Ramm to his dying day never abandoned his belief that the wildstyle writing and letter-armoring of his hundreds of underground comrades was a higher calling than getting into the gallery system.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, front album cover of Beat Bop: Rammellzee Versus K‐Rob (Tartown Record Co.) (1983) printed ink on coated cardboard with printed ink on paper label on phonograph record; speed: 33 1/3 rpm; Collection of Larry Walsh (© Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat; licensed by Artestar, New York; courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Ironically, Basquiat’s later interviews display considerable anger towards the art world’s exploitation of his fame and his work. He raises the specter of exploitation, betrayal, and racism in his treatment by certain of his early dealers and gallerists, such as Annina Nosei and Mary Boone. Basquiat didn’t completely shake the “graffiti-artist” tag in New York Times reporting until after his “Untitled Skull” sold at auction in 2017 for more than $110 million —more than any previous single painting by an American artist. In the New York Times articles after the sale he is finally referred to as an artist first, before the reporters dredge up his biographical stigmata. As they say in the streets, “Money talks and bullshit walks.”

Hip-hop is a cultural force which its early practitioners devoted themselves to with a fierce, protective religious fervor — not least because of how much explosive power its core mediums provided for their personal and tribal truth-telling, how much it magnified their “boom for real.” More than any other figure in the visual arts, Basquiat harnessed what Yoruba would call hip-hop’s axé — defined by the Yoruba art and religion scholar Robert Farris Thompson as “the power to make things happen.”

Because Basquiat was so ferociously clear about his intention to produce paintings that could go toe-to-toe with his favorites among the modernist icons — Picasso, Kline, De Kooning, Twombly, Rauschenberg, Warhol — his meteoric ascent from tagging downtown walls to blue-chip galleries seems in retrospect a stroll up from the subways, off the Soho walls, and across the street. A self-proclaimed autodidact, Basquiat was well versed in abstract and Pop Art painting. Anyone conversant with modern abstraction’s core vernacular can readily spot its influence on Basquiat’s earliest canvases. His schematic organization of space, and his splotches and squares of color, are dead-ass giveaways that he imagined his canvases in conversation with his iconic painterly references. Basquiat expected to be immediately understood as a practitioner of Western abstract painting, one who’d left as little room for ambiguity in that regard as Miles Davis left any doubt that his cosmopolitan blues constructions were saturated with abstract truths.

Like the beboppers who imposed their stylish rigor and polyrhythmic Pan-African inheritances on Western harmony, Basquiat imposed his protean visual imagination on the storehouse of graphic inventions that the history of modern painting left him to run amok with. His relationship to and deployment of those graphic inventions isn’t mimetic but dynamic, ingenious, reflexive, improvisational, cryptic, poetic, pluripotential — and wickedly and sardonically political too. His art also remains academically uncategorizable, so much so that one young art historian observed that her colleagues still can’t decide whether to classify JMB as a Black artist, a Haitian artist, or a European one!

This is an inane conundrum Pablo Picasso would never have to be burdened with. With respect to Picasso’s contribution to JMB’s own turnabout end- game, he observed, “Picasso arrived at primitive art to bring their nobility to Western art. And I arrived  at Picasso to bring his nobility to the art called ‘primitive.’”

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The hip-hop generation’s visual artists — those who transitioned to canvas like our assembled cast here, and the hundreds of other subway writers who fervently established their own tradition of burner masterpieces — seem as a whole to have been less enamored of Picasso’s or any European master’s ennobling primitivism than was Basquiat, who came in swinging for the museum collection. But the collective’s shared debts, Basquiat included, to an American tradition of the fantastic, from popular music, underground comics, Peter Max, science fiction, horror films, and their own wildstyle calligraphic extrapolations, are evidence of an iconoclastic generational hive mind — self-empowering its muses by digging deeper into its urban bush-bejeweled interiors and casting forth works that defiantly represented its own funk-da-fied Afro-diasporic imaginaries and gully New York street experiences. With supreme self-confidence and vision this heroic street royalty chose the futurism of hip-hop over the academically sanctioned wall art of Old Europe and the trendy, mercantile-driven isms of the white-male-genius-privileging Soho gallery scene. This hive, this tribe of artful renegade creatives, foresaw in the 1980s post-graffiti moment that the future of art-making, art history, and post-modernity was theirs to pre-claim, define, terrify, tarbrush, and transcend — and baby, look at them now.

Basquiat’s oeuvre can now be said to constitute a Black male wall of fame, one exploding with markers of the fraught conquests, Pyrrhic victories, and traumatic vicissitudes of Black male being-and-nothingness in America.Read MoreArticles, Catalogue Essays, Fab 5 Freddy, Greg Tate, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Rammellzee, Reprinted Essays, Sunday EditionHyperallergicRead More

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