The late, famous art critic Hilton Kramer once wrote, “Bad-boy artists often suffer the fate they deserve.” I came across this cringe-worthy quote in an article in the Wall Street Journal from 1998 while researching the late Jean-Michel Basquiat, a famous Brooklyn artist of the 1980s. Over the past few months, I’ve been viewing the emotive expressionism of Basquiat’s paintings with immersed eyes. I’m grabbed by how his style can be so loud, so maximal. The colors and phrases nearly cannibalize one another on the canvas. It’s abstract; you have to consider the deeper meaning, but it’s also straightforward. Basquiat was a poet, but he didn’t speak in code.
Basquiat created so fast, and so much, his style didn’t have the concentrated look of immensely thoughtful art. I didn’t fully grasp what he was making when I first discovered him years ago. I didn’t get it. Hilton Kramer didn’t either:
“The version of graffiti art that Basquiat was putting down on canvas and paper was a helter-skelter melange of amateurishly drawn heads and stick figures combined with childlike signs and symbols of street life, often accompanied by awkwardly lettered words and scribbled lines in whatever combination of colors struck him — in his drug-induced high — as startling and offensive. It was all a desperate improvisation by an untutored amateur that would never have passed muster in even the most permissive of art schools.”
René Ricard understood Jean-Michel Basquiat. He wrote the article “The Radiant Child” for Art Forum in 1981, seven years before his tragic death. His writing is excellent; some of the best you can read on the beauty of New York’s graffiti culture. It’s been said that Ricard’s article introduced Basquiat to the broader art world. Visibility catapulted his career, helping Basquiat become one of the highest-selling painters of all time—after his death by a heroin overdose at 27 years old. The death of a bad-boy art star if you let Hilton Kramer tell it.
The life, art, and death of Jean-Michel Basquiat remind me of rap music in 2020. Basquiat didn’t have their diamond chains, but he did live a fast lifestyle that inspired an abundance of art. He didn’t have the visibility of social media, but he was a rich and famous black New York artist who lived in the center of a changing art world funded by white money. He fought addiction and celebrity, all while being a charismatic darling who made it to Andy Warhol’s factory. In 2020, The Factory would be a record label, Andy Warhol would be a label executive, and Basquiat would be their flagship rapper with a sound that’s misunderstood by some critics, but loved by the culture.
“With a minimum of talent and (unlike Warhol) no head for business, with the temperament of a juvenile delinquent on a perpetual spree, and the cultural horizons of a Warhol groupie, Basquiat was pitifully unequipped, both emotionally and intellectually, to cope with the world he was so desperate to conquer,” Kramer wrote about Basquiat, a criticism that could easily be levied on new-age rappers who catch viral success but aren’t respected craftsmen or business savvy. The kind of rappers who didn’t go to hip-hop’s equivalence of art or business school, but they made it. They got rich, they got famous, but they weren’t ready for the world they were coming into.
Jean-Michel Basquiat wasn’t a perfect man. He fought against dangerous vices as he transitioned into a new life of fame and fortune. Not many people will ever experience the drastic transformation from no one to someone, and how that makes you a target for more than just criticism, especially for black artists. Instead of calling him a bad-boy, Hilton Kramer should’ve written, “Radiant children never get the lives they deserve,” because Basquiat, if nothing else, was a radiant child.
“My experience has shown me that the artist is a person much respected by the poor because they have circumvented the need to exert the body, even of time, to live off what appears to be the simplest bodily act,” Ricard wrote. “This is an honest way to rise out of the slum, using one’s sheer self as the medium, the money earned rather a proof pure and simple of the value of that individual, The Artist.”
Hip-hop allows anyone—drug dealers, strippers, robbers, credit card scammers, college dropouts—to make their life, fact or fiction, into a form of art. Becoming art and touching the world with that art is what makes you a radiant child.
That’s why hip-hop, as a culture, attracts radiant children. Juice WRLD was a radiant child. Mac Miller was a radiant child. Nipsey Hussle was a radiant child. Pop Smoke was a radiant child. The list goes on and on. Countless artists, from all walks of life, who left their mark on the world by turning their lives into songs for us to enjoy. An honest way to change your life. René Ricard wrote it best:
“An object of art is an honest way of making a living, and this is much a different idea from the fancier notation that art is a scam and a ripoff. The bourgeoisie have, after all, made it a scam. But you could never explain to someone who uses God’s gift to enslave that you have used God’s gift to be free.”
Ricard described hip-hop. It’s the most honest way of making a living for a man or woman who is searching for freedom. Freedom from debt; freedom from a 9-to-5; freedom from a block; freedom from poverty; freedom from all the circumstances they must confront on a day-to-day basis. As Grand Ghetto Communicator once stated, rap is “music on a faster scale, attempting to conquer the problems that happen throughout the course of the last week.”
He was right. In 2020, rap is artists conquering their problems and being the rulers of their lives—the diamonds, the cars, the clothes, all the things that represent their escape, their prosperity. Sadly, being somebody puts you in the vicinity of vices and underneath the glare of envy. Being somebody is why so many radiant children don’t become radiant men.
Rap is all about the individual. When you heard “Welcome to the Party,” you knew it was Pop Smoke. He had an identity: the voice, the flow, and the attitude. The 20-year-old rapper gained notoriety because he had that undefinable but undeniable quality—a quality that allowed him to break through in an industry oversaturated with talent and lacking in resources to support everyone. Despite the odds, rap music changed Pop Smoke’s life. He was in Los Angeles because of music, inside a mansion that was invaded because of who he became. Does it get any more tragic?
I have only seen the trailer to Dave, the Kevin Hart-produced comedy series based on the life of rapper and comedian Lil Dicky, but I don’t like it. Dave was picked up by FX Networks’ comedy-centric FXX. FX is also the network that hosts Donald Glover’s Atlanta. Both shows aim to portray an honest look into a mid-20s rapper’s life. Dave is more lighthearted than Atlanta, replacing the hard-knock hustle for a sillier coming-into-stardom story unfolding in a paradise-like California. There’s no paradise for Paper Boi, played by Brian Tyree Henry. Atlanta portrays a different kind of come-up tale, one that’s colder, less loving. There’s no love in the city for Paper Boi, and yet, he’s still outside, a budding star that’s talked about and targeted.
Most of the problems Paper Boi faces are financial. He’s a man trying to make it in music, not because he’s the best, but because he sees few other options. The writers of Atlanta do an excellent job of showing how the changes in his life, brought on by rap notoriety, aren’t all positive. Everything around Paper Boi is plucking away at his feathers as he tries to learn to fly.
FX’s Atlanta is a series about a radiant child who might not make it. At the same time, Dave will be a series about a joke, and I believe rappers should not be portrayed as jesters because a jester will never represent the weight of a crown that rappers with no other options must wear.
But they have to wear it; they have to be somebody. If you aren’t famous, you might not make a living off your art. You might be erased before your message can reach the masses. Erasure was a problem for graffiti artists. You never knew when someone would repaint that wall you tagged. But the tag was important. It was your identity. When people saw it, they knew it was you.
As René Ricard wrote in “The Radiant Child”:
“Graffiti refutes the idea of anonymous art where we know everything about a work except who made it: who made it is the whole Tag. Blade, Lady Pink, Pray, Sex, Taki, Cliff 159, Futura 2000, Dondi, Zephyr, Izzy, Haze, Daze, Fred, Kool, Stan 153, SAMO, Crash. (Crash is still bombing.) But trains get buffed (the damnatio memoriae of the Transit Authority), and with the need for identity comes the artist's need for identification with the work, and to support oneself by the work is the absolute distinction between the amateur and the pro. Therefore, the obvious was to raise oneself by the supreme effort of will from the block, from the subway, to the Mudd, to the relative safety and hygiene of the gallery. Because an artist is somebody. Say what you will about group shows and collaborative enterprise: Das Kapital was written by one man. This is no graffito, this is no train, this is a Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is a Keith Haring.”
Identity is begotten from being known. An artist’s identity in music cannot be defined until they have an audience to define themselves against. That reality is dangerous, and it is cruel, but it is the truth. It’s what’s necessary to make an honest living in music. So, God bless the radiant children of rap. May we know them. May we cherish them. May we never turn their lives into jokes.