Jay-Z’s HBO Documentary Strives to Reunite Hip-Hop and the Arts

The rapper explains why hip-hop and the arts broke up years ago, and why he’s on a mission to get these two love birds back together.

Jay-Z; Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jay-Z; Jean-Michel Basquiat Getty Images; Wikipedia Commons

However, Jay Z’s influence on pop culture is akin to the pull Ohio has on swing states during presidential elections — as Jay Z goes, so goes the nation. Ossei-Mensah was at the Pace Gallery the day of Jay’s performance and described how the rapper “had the whole art world converging in one space. To his credit, he’s one of the few people who can create this cultural happening at this moment,” Ossei-Mensah said.

Some artists wish he would use that power to shine more light on the entire community of creators. There’s the gripe that Jay Z will have a difficult time making the arts more relevant to a broader, contemporary community if he keeps referencing dead artists.

“Some people in the art world, particularly people of color, are concerned that the only artist of color Jay references is Basquiat,” Ossei-Mensah said. “If he is trying to bridge the worlds, he needs to broaden the conversation and include folks that are shaping the space now. There are a lot of young, established artists who are outside that 1980s heyday of the art world like Kara Walker, Rashid Johnson and Kehinde Wiley — and not just a Francis Bacon, who is dead.”

Art curator Amani Olu, who heads an exhibition at the Gallery at Eponymy in New York, believes there is a “romanticization of Basquiat” that doesn’t quite jibe with reality. The idea that back in the 1980s there was a “melting pot” and black rappers and artists came together in harmony as Jay Z describes is not exactly accurate, Olu said. The hard-core founding members of hip-hop music in the Bronx “didn’t really mess with Basquiat back then,” Olu told The Root. “From what I understand by reading his biography, he was this artist weirdo dude, and he wasn’t someone that was accepted,” which isn’t far-fetched when you consider that the values that hip-hop espouses today — especially about masculinity — were similar to those prevalent in the 1980s. Hip-hop’s homophobia comes to mind.

“I don’t think [hip-hop] has always been accepting of people who are different, let alone anyone who is gay,” Olu said. “Art has always been this sort of effeminate thing, especially if you’re coming from a very black masculine background.”

But there’s an educational benefit to Jay Z’s efforts that Andrea Glimcher, head of communications and special events at the Pace Gallery, thinks is particularly important in addressing accusations that the art world is not accessible to people from low-income backgrounds. It’s an initiative that first lady Michelle Obama and other celebrities, including actress Kerri Washington, advocate: Including the arts as a key component in education-reform strategies can boost student achievement.

Glimcher described the performance at Pace: “Jay Z seemed open and curious. I felt there was a curiosity for the art world and for art. And a respect at the same time,” Glimcher told The Root. She sensed Jay Z was at “the beginning of a broader conversation about opening up different avenues [in art] for different people.

“What’s great about Jay Z is he sees the conversation is coming to a head, and he has the power to bring it all together and make it seem like it’s all something new,” says Olu.

Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is an editorial fellow at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.