He made me conscious of the fact that the artist who is useful to America is one who studies his own life and records it through the medium of art, manners, and customs of his own - Ernie Barnes
Ernie Barnes is a name familiar to some, foreign to others, but a name that will drift through history along with the art that has made him immortal. Ernie was an athlete who found solace in art, a former football player who found passion in painting; paintings that depicted Black lives with beautiful vibrancy, alluring style, and breathtaking grace. Football taught him the poetry of movement—the elegance of motion—and he took the memory from his muscles and channeled it through a paintbrush so that his imagery is alive. Ernie’s artwork has been hung in galleries, painted on the official posters for the 1984 Summer Olympics, and has been commissioned by countless celebrities, but his most famous work of art was seen by most from the comfort of their homes.
In the 1970s sitcom Good Times, J.J. Evans was an aspiring painter who brought bright colors to the bleak darkness of his surroundings. There were very few good times on Good Times, but J.J. always was a vibrant spirit, and it was reflected in his artwork. It was Ernie who painted the portraits that were used in the series. He later received more notoriety when Good Times began to use his painting The Sugar Shack during the opening and ending credits of their fourth season in ‘76-’77, which continued until the series' end. Marvin Gaye would also use The Sugar Shack as the album cover of his timeless 1976 classic, I Want You. The popular show and the popular album put Ernie in a new spotlight; his name was spreading as his artwork became world renowned. The Sugar Shack has continued to live on despite Ernie’s passing in 2009.
Anderson .Paak is a man who understands the importance of history, and of finding inspiration from the old masters that came before him. It’s no surprise that The Sugar Shack is what inspired the music video for the groovy “Come Down.” In a basement somewhere in Malibu, an epic party is being thrown that looks very similar to Ernie’s artwork. There are beautiful Black people scorching up the dance floor—the basement settings are exactly alike—and Anderson, along with The Free Nationals, is the entertainment. Anderson even has a retro dynamic vocal microphone that you’d never see a performer use in this day and age. The entire video is fun, joyous and jubilant. It ends with a shot of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album cover and a quote from Ernie Barnes, a way of paying homage to his inspiration. A painting that was made in 1971 is still able to reach new eyes for a generation of kids who aren’t aware of Marvin Gaye and who haven't seen Good Times but love Anderson .Paak.
Anderson’s usage of The Sugar Shack uses Ernie’s artwork as a mood board; a 2016 party in an old house. Earlier this year, Marietta, Georgia’s own Kelechi used the same painting as the theme for his "Reachin'" music video. Kelechi takes the stage singing into a vintage microphone, dressed in a vibrant vintage suit similar to the one the lead singer is wearing in the original painting. He’s backed by a band; unlike Anderson, he includes a spirited saxophonist who blows with an exuberance that mirrors what can be felt in the horn player that Ernie painted. What really sets the tone that connects the visual and the painting are the dancers; they capture the lively rhythm that is at the heart of the piece of art. Anderson and Kelechi both give an interpretation of a classic with a similar vision, but different execution. Both videos are a representation of the elation and ecstasy of Black people using dance as a physical form of joy and communication.
Visual artists have played a huge part in the career of Kanye West. Albums covers have been done by Takashi Murakami (Graduation), KAWS (808s & Heartbreak) and George Condo (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), Vanessa Beecroft was the art director for “Runaway,” Marco Brambilla directed the music video for “Power," and Wes Lang did the merchandising for The Yeezus Tour. Kanye is big on collaboration, big on drawing influences from outside sources, and really big on interloping his brand with other contemporary artists outside of hip-hop. He made headlines for his music video “Famous”; what some called tasteless, immature and thirsty for attention, others saw innovation, genius, and naked truth. The idea to have 12 nude figures in one giant bed together wasn’t completely a unique idea, but rather inspired by Vincent Desiderio’s painting Sleep. He made it controversial using Taylor Swift, Donald Trump, Ray J and Bill Cosby, but he wouldn’t be Kanye if he didn’t find a way to take a painting from eight years ago and find a way to make it relevant today. Kanye understands art, Kanye understands the internet, and “Famous” is the music video that bridges the two together like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Rihanna's music videos tend to be something that you must see, or will become so popular that they’re impossible not to see. One of her biggest, most notable songs, “Rude Boy,” has a music video that takes influence from Andy Warhol’s vibrant pop-art style, and a famous Keith Haring black and white illustration. Keith and Grace Jones' collaboration is likely what inspired the homage, Rihanna being so huge in fashion had to come across in Keith's body painting on Grace. For a rising pop star to use such notable art influences in her video was a huge connection to both worlds. Warhol and Haring are both still influencing long after their passing—the true goal of any artist. Rihanna is well on her way of leaving behind a legacy that will influence the next group of pop stars that will follow her footsteps.
As rappers get older and richer, they tend to show more interest in other forms of art. Jay Z’s love for Jean-Michel Basquiat can be heard in a lot of his music, especially after he returned from his short retirement. His biggest bridging of art and hip-hop came with the performance art piece that was shot as a video for “Picasso Baby.” Inspired by Marina Abramović's The Artist Is Present installation, Jay took the intimate concept and added a touch of hip-hop flavor.
Elsewhere, Nicki Minaj’s polka-dot installation used in the pop art-esque music video “The Boys” is very similar to the style of Yayoi Kusama—a world renowned Japanese artist. Drake’s memeable “Hotline Bling” music video was immediately compared to the acclaimed installations by artist James Turrell. Even though the music video director denies any influence from James Turrell, the uncanny resemblance helped to introduce James to a new audience of viewers.
Inspiration is everywhere, in different genres and different artforms. Being able to draw inspiration from outside influences is how we keep art alive and moving in front of new ears, new eyes and even new generations.
By Yoh, aka Yohcasso, aka @Yoh31.