(The Root) — When Jay Z performed "Picasso Baby" in a swanky New York City art gallery last month, he looked polished in a crisp white button-up, and he wore one of hip-hop's most iconic symbols: a gold chain. Just one week prior, exhibits ranging in price from $10,000 to half-a-million dollars filled the same Chelsea ground-floor space that hosted his six-hour rap performance.
It's a nice juxtaposition, given the history of hip-hop and art. The rapper-turned-business mogul is featured in a new HBO documentary aptly titled Picasso Baby on August 2 that chronicles his performance at the Pace Gallery. HBO is calling it a "performance arts film," which is fitting since the project seems to represent a watershed moment for hip-hop and the arts re-emerging as paralleling art forms. In a voiceover for the film's trailer Jay Z says as such: "Rap is painting out loud; concerts are pretty much performance art."
In recent years, musical artists like Jay Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West and Swizz Beatz have made attempts to bridge the gap between urban music and the art world. They are all prominent art collectors, and whenever they make grandiose purchases, it makes news. The late, great Jean-Michel Basquiat (who rose to fame in the 1980s as an acclaimed artist before his untimely death) is becoming a more familiar name to young black audiences because Jay Z brags about his Basquiat purchases in his verses. With Jay Z's performance at the Pace Gallery, Kanye West projecting his "New Slaves" music video on buildings across the globe in May and singer Solange Knowles recently performing inside a laundromat in Brooklyn, N.Y., it is becoming increasingly clear that the leading artists in urban music view their craft as performance art.
During a recent interview on the Life+Times website, Jay-Z talked about how he was disappointed that hip-hop and the arts became estranged, especially since rappers and artists back in the 1980s had a symbiotic relationship and lived parallel lives. "When art and music were one," Jay Z reminisced, "When Basquiat was hanging out with Madonna and Fab 5 Freddy and all those worlds were colliding." The rappers rapped, he said, and their artist friends worked alongside them with spray cans in hand to create the most elaborate graffiti displays in our inner cities.
But somewhere along the line, the artists were placed on a bourgeoisie track. "They made it inside the galleries," Jay Z said, and were embraced by a chic, upscale crowd. Hip-hop (a voice for the low-income and the downtrodden) didn't get that invitation, which caused the two worlds to separate. If you loved hip-hop and were a have-not, could you love the arts, or at the very least, develop an appreciation? On the flipside, if you had a penchant for the arts, could you embrace hip-hop's gritty street messages openly?
New York magazine art critic Jerry Saltz — who was surprisingly impressed by Jay Z's gallery performance — encapsulated this idea in a piece at Vulture, writing: "The thought that this might entice kids, intimidated by museums, to give them a visit? Come on! Whether it was going to be weird, cringe-worthy, or what: I was there."
Larry Ossei-Mensah, a co-curator of the "Crossing the Line" exhibit at the Mixed Greens gallery in New York City, echoes Saltz's idea that Jay Z injects the cool factor into the art space for young people.
"A kid who might have feared going to a gallery to see and learn about art is encouraged because Jay Z has validated participating in this space," he told The Root.
But while Ossei-Mensah hat-tips Jay Z's efforts to pull back the curtains of the art world to an urban audience, he said he would be remiss if he didn't give credit to the artists who preceded Jay Z, primarily Kanye West and music producer Pharrell Williams. West tapped Japanese contemporary artist Takashi Murakami to design the cover art for his 2007 release, Graduation, and then teamed up with American contemporary artist George Condo in 2010 for his My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy album cover. Williams collaborated with Murakami for an Art Basel piece in 2009. While Jay Z's lyrics in the past five years and his recent gallery performance connect the dots between hip-hop and the arts, "there are so many other people that have laid the groundwork," explained Ossei-Mensah. "It's been a constant thing that is always percolating — that is, musicians cultivating relationships and collaborations with artists."
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.