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Judging A Book By Its Cover: The Jay-Z Arts Movement

“On the cover of the book, the golden tentacles of a “Rorschach” print by Andy Warhol dwarf the rapper’s name, tucked into a corner. He vetoed an early mock-up from his publisher that splashed ‘Jay-Z’ across the cover in bold type.”

- “The State of Jay-Z’s Empire”Wall Street Journal; October 29, 2010

It is not necessarily a subject he doesn’t feel comfortable discussing with his fans. Maybe, maybe not.

The question, though, it seems, resembles the criteria for proving someone has committed a crime – what motive and opportunity does Jay-Z really have in the world of Hip-Hop to delve into his significant emerging profile as an art collector?

In an industry with a media culture that thrives on three elements: sex, gossip and manufactured conflict (it seems the term ‘beef’ is never archaic in rap) and for a full generation targets the young 17 year old male as primary advertising target, there are just too few forums where institutionalized immaturity permits one to delve into the nuances of a Romare Bearden art piece without running the risk of being labeled as ‘old,’ lacking street cred, or even Gay.

Thus, it was The Howard Stern Show, late last fall and not any of the popular Hip-Hop morning shows where Jay-Z was most comfortable and candid about his interest in fine art (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fqO77EDkDY), how he goes about purchasing pieces and why he decided to place an Andy Warhol Rorschach on the cover of his version of coffee table art book-autobio-lyric sheet compilation, Decoded. As is increasingly common when rappers with ‘hustler,’ ‘hardcore,’ or ‘underground’ images appear on financial, political, or mainstream media, in a voice with more treble than usual and without the typical posturing, subliminal comments directed at other artists, and sometimes desperate need to ‘shock’ – Jay-Z with an almost nervous and shy disposition took on an authentic connoisseur persona when explaining his tastes and how he was able to secure permission to place the image of a high-end art piece on the cover of his book.

Yeah I collect art. I got into art recently, about five years ago or so…We called the Andy Warhol estate. They cleared it in one day, which was amazing. I was very happy about that. I actually have one of those Rorschachs over my fireplace in my living room,” he told Howard and Robin Quivers.

The juxtaposition of Jay-Z art collector with Jay-Z MC – and with it the apparent contradiction of an anti-value culture with the intricate world of art valuation – is too obvious and tempting to resist. But it obscures a possibly even more intriguing subject – is it possible that Jay-Z’s acquired taste is a possible catalyst or transitory stage for a supposedly ‘lost’ generation to find meaning and even evolve into one of the most significant aspects of the Civil Rights and Black Power era – the Black Arts Movement?

The Black Arts Movement spanned a 10 year period – culturally bookended by the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and the fall of the Nation of Islam in 1975. The symbolic birth of it is said to have occurred when LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka) moved from Manhattan’s Lower East Side and took Harlem as his home and creative base. The movement is seen primarily through the lens of its impact on literature but had a significant seminal influence on dance, music, and theatre. In a 1968 essay, “The Black Arts Movement,” Larry Neal declared Black Arts as the “aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept,” and we’ve been fascinated by this era shrouded in a bit of mystery (and fear) ever since.

While the Hip-Hop generation for extended periods has had no problem with the spirit and rhetoric of that era, and a segment of its community has always comfortably embraced its literary icons it has wrestled awkwardly with integrating this aesthetic element and struggled to manifest a credible visual and performance art wing.

The so-called ‘Golden Age of Hip-Hop,’ by most standards, is roughly the period from 1987 to 1992 when rap artists (primarily from New York) weaved in the speeches, worldview, and phraseology of Black nationalist, civil rights activist, and pan-African organizations hailed by the Black Arts Movement but the era faded, as rap music took on a national identity and received greater attention from multinational entertainment companies.

One of the criticisms of Jay-Z made by artists and the critic-intelligentsia who hail from or revere this era is that his lyrical content is antithetical to the message of that time period. Maybe so, but I can’t recall ‘Jigga’ ever criticizing the organizations or leaders of the movements this establishment regards as sacred. In fact this would be very hard for him to do with integrity considering he was raised, influenced and inspired by the music of both the Black Arts and Golden Age eras. Far from just a token act of consciousness or an anomaly in his catalogue – as his detractors think – this contextual reality of Jay-Z as a teenager in 1980s Brooklyn serves as a plausible explanation for his freestyle re-make of Big Daddy Kane’s ‘Young Gifted and Black,’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=leUFRB2womg) which is included in Decoded, along with a drawing of Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose sampled voice opens the track.

Of course the baton pass from BDK to Jay-Z is rooted in the Nina Simone 1970 classic, ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ (http://www.bing.com/videos/watch/video/nina-simone-young-gifted-and-black/1961ee6550a436b49dee1961ee6550a436b49dee-644833609041?q=Nina%20Simone,%20Young%20Gifted%20and%20Black)

The problem with the incessant focus on Jay-Z’s lyrics which the rap critic-intelligentsia too easily style as ‘superficial,’ ‘materialistic,’ ‘homophobic,’ ‘misogynist,’ ‘anti-Semitic’ and of course, ‘conceited,’ is that it lacks a modern socio-economic context (the expectation that he should not just describe conditions but do so more in the voice of an activist is more complaint than critique) and appreciation for entrepreneurship not as an evil act of capitalism but as a spiritual and creative undertaking (elements which endear themselves to appreciation of the aesthetic) and act of self-preservation. The concept that a business-orientation can be an important aspect of self-actualization is lost on an elite who navigate today’s world by driving while watching levitra walmart 900 their rear-view mirror. Could Public Enemy really be as popular today as 1987?

Thus, an at times romantic longing for the 1960s and 1970s, in particular, not to mention ‘superficial’ understanding of Marx (ignorant of or in denial over what he wrote on the cyclical capacity for human suffering to produce creative acts of change) finds few redeeming qualities in a man who rose from poverty to a net worth of $450 million, and enjoys meetings with billionaire Warren Buffett.

But can this Jay-Z opposition wing appreciate the implication and potential for the impact that his open embrace of art may have on popularizing art education in public schools or attracting attention and finance to performing and visual arts programs in American inner cities?

In a world where social media brings down governments, global finance makes national sovereignty impossible; and where 200 million Africans will move from below the poverty line to middle class status in the next four years is it credible to dismiss someone simply because they believe, “There’s never been a n—-a this good for this long, this hood or this pop, this hot or this strong”? or who insists that because of his influence on pop culture, he is the greatest rapper ever?” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIJjK3IV3E0)

My sense is that a Jay-Z investing in a musical about the life of Nigerian human rights activist and Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti (http://www.billboard.com/news/jay-z-will-smith-put-money-on-fela-1004043434.story); launching a new lifestyle website Life and Times (with an intriguing art section: http://lifeandtimes.com/tag/art) and more willing to speak on his collection (and willing to promote it in places that don’t have the checkbook for a Rorschach) and less often about ‘Money, Cash, Hoes.’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31xa0CLbcls) is more revolutionary, and more meaningful to a lot more people.

And here is where it gets even more interesting.

Jay-Z’s rise runs parallel to the development of a critical mass of Black American art professionals and entrepreneurs – something which, due to discrimination, could have only occurred as part of a decades-long process. Developed or inspired by the New Deal-era U.S. Works Projects Administration (WPA) programs and the Black Arts Movement a network infrastructure capable of executing every aspect of the business of art has emerged – curators, art historians, galleries, public educational program specialists, and museum contacts – adept in appraising, popularizing, and selling fine paintings, sculptures, photography, and original prints.

The possibility of Jay-Z serving as a credible participant, advocate, or representative of their culture and industry is a dynamic one, not lost on leading figures like Norman Parish, one of the most respected and influential Black art gallery owners in the world. His Parish Gallery (http://www.parishgallery.com/), enjoying its 20-year anniversary, is based in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.

Parish sees a lot in the rapper’s tastes, “Jay-Z’s book cover reflects his interest in the artist, Damien Hirst who it seems was influenced by Warhol. As a Rorschach image creates an individual perception by the viewer, we can now see the complexity of Jay-Z’s life as comparable to the creative illusions of a Rorschach. In my opinion this could be why he chose that image for the cover of Decoded.”

On the possibility of Jay-Z’s interests intersecting with the infrastructure of art business professionals shaped and nurtured by WPA, the Black Arts Movement, and years of experience and education Mr. Parish responds, “Art collectors generally view art that reflects upon inner spiritual impacts relative to life as they see it. It is hopeful that Jay-Z’s direction for collecting art can be impacted by the fine art institutions that have been established over the years. These institutions have minutely considered the creativity and power of the fine art being produced by well-educated, cultured, career-bound artists of color.

“His contribution withstanding this ideology would be a major benefit for these artists. A small glimpse of the future business of fine art is taking place within people of color in all disciplines whereby one finds costly educations being pursued for successful careers as critics, museum directors, historians, and directors of fine art galleries. Jay-Z should appreciate and understand that this structure does exist and that it would benefit him in a unique way to become a major contributor to what is really his own culture.

“An example of someone developed along this path is basketball player Grant Hill – an athlete who was educated into the world of art by his father, Calvin Hill, and who at an early age has developed an interest in collecting fine art. His exposure and education lead him to a make a broader contribution to the business of collecting fine art by people of color.

Norman Parish concludes, “Jay-Z’s ‘unorthodox’ path to become an art collector therefore has two potential benefits. One as an inspiration to people who would not normally know about the world of fine art, and secondly as a model of a new kind of emerging investor who not only appreciates art for what it is on a universal level, but also the value that one’s heritage brings to the business, resulting one day even in his own ability to influence the value of pieces and dictate market forces on a mass and elite level. This could be big.”

My interpolation that Jay-Z’s emergence as an art collector has powerful implications for race and class is one that many will dismiss as wishful thinking. That he has the potential to spark a cultural revolution, for many, borders on blasphemy.

But if not a former drug-dealer, multi-millionaire rapper raised in Brooklyn, with expensive tastes – then in 2011, I ask, who and where is a better candidate for the job going to emerge?

My money is on a man who can afford a Bugatti Veyron while being loved by the people on the 3 Train.

Cedric Muhammad is a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and a monetary economist, political strategist, and brand manager. He is Founder of the economic consulting firm Africa PreBrief (http://africaprebrief.com) and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ book series (http://theesecret.com/ ). He can be contacted via e-mail at cedric(at)cmcap.com

* An in-depth interview of Norman Parish is available at BlackElectorate.com: http://www.blackelectorate.com/articles.asp?ID=917

5 Responses to “Judging A Book By Its Cover: The Jay-Z Arts Movement”

  1. ana says:

    Jay-Z is a prime example, that you can make it if you try. It’s not where you come from, it’s where you are trying to go. He was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth,he came up on the rough side of the mountain,and he earned it the hard way! Kudos! To Jay-Z!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Of all of the things going on in hip hop right now, you write another boring Jay-Z article. You’re proving to be more outdated and antiquated Cedric

  3. Taylor says:

    I agree with “Anonymous” who posted above. Cedric, I feel you’re a strong writer and I’ve always liked your articles, but you sound old. There’s NEVER going to be another superstar Jay-Z or Kanye West, so why discuss it? It appears as if you’re clinging to what you know, but the truth is rappers are not going to make 400 million off selling just records and image. So who cares about Jay-Z and what his next move is, Jay-Z’s next move benefits Jay-Z’s multimedia empire and not hip hop as a whole.

    Fuck Jay-Z, the “glory days” are gone – I’m personally more into groups like Odd Future or even emcees like Danny Brown, they do music for the love of it and could give a shit about what mainstream audiences think.

    http://shotfromguns.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/a-glimpse-into-an-odd-future/

  4. Cedric says:

    Thanks Ana, Anonymous and Taylor.

    @ Anonymous and Taylor: THANKS for the great feedback which dovetails with my view – which I think you both know already – that Hip-Hop is experiencing a Demographic Death. However, I did not write this piece for a Hip-Hop audience – nor was it submitted to a Hip-hop publication (smile). You’ll see soon. In a way, you’re reactions support my reasons for not doing so.

    I always appreciate your thoughtful critique.

    take Care/peace

  5. Taylor says:

    Hmmm sorry if I misconstrued the message of this article, I know you’re a huge fan of Jay’s music so lol…

    Don’t get me wrong I got nothing against Jay-Z, he’s done a lot of amazing and record-breaking things, he’s a legend. From a music biz perspective, I’m just more interested in the new things happening in hip hop right now.

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