KRS-One’s prophetic proclamation, “Hip-hop is not just a culture, it’s a new civilization,” has come to pass. Fifty years after the genre sprang from the godhead of Black, AfroLatinx, and Latinx Bronx youth with tenets of elemental mastery — DJing, emceeing, graffiti art and breaking — the cultural influence of this revolutionary movement continues to grow around the world.
The Baltimore Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, “The Culture: Hip Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century,” continues this legacy. The show, which opens Thursday and will run through July 16, is co-curated by newly installed museum director Asma Naeem; BMA chief education officer Gamynne Guillotte; and by Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art; and Andréa Purnell, audience development manager, both of the Saint Louis Art Museum, who co-organized the exhibit and will receive it next.
“The Culture” does not attempt to illustrate a linear narrative about the history of hip-hop. Instead, the exhibition reviews the influence of the genre from the 2000s to the present by featuring more than 90 works of art created by internationally recognized visual artists, including the likes of Derrick Adams, Mark Bradford, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julie Mehretu; films by directors such as Kirby Griffin, Nia June and APoetNamedNate; pieces by fashion designers Virgil Abloh, Dapper Dan and Telfar Clemens; a digital hip-hop archive; as well as ephemera from notable publications XXL and Interview. The exhibition also features many Washington, D.C., and Baltimore-based artists, including Larry Cook, Ernest Shaw Jr., Amani Lewis, Tahir Hemphill, Devin Allen, Monica Ikegwu, Murjoni Merriweather, Charles Mason III, Megan Lewis and Joyce J. Scott.
At the core of the work is a desire to show the incredible impact of an art form that, in its inception, no one believed would have longevity or influence on so-called high culture: visual art, luxury brands, high fashion and technology. Even Christopher “Notorious B.I.G.” Wallace’s 1994 anthem “Juicy” expressed awe about his ability to support himself through hip-hop: “I never thought it could happen, this rapping stuff / I was too used to packing gats and stuff / Now honeys play me close like butter play toast / to the Mississippi down to the East Coast.”
“The Culture” is a rare installation that is also somewhat odd — primarily because the history of hip-hop is simultaneously braggadocious and anti-establishment, but also because ivory tower institutions like museums and universities have only recently deemed visual, sonic and performative culture rendered by non-white creatives to be worthy of large-scale exhibition or acquisition. The protection of culture produced domestically and internationally by marginalized communities is often limited to surface representations in those spaces. The BMA’s new exhibit attempts to correct this trend by taking a polyphonic approach to capturing a distinct movement that cannot be cataloged in any comprehensive way because culture evolves, often faster than it can be recorded.
The layout of the exhibition is meticulous and beautifully crafted by Washington, D.C., design firm SmithGroup. The space’s vibe is affirming, encouraging and inspiring, primarily because it’s incredible that the movement “50 years young,” as curator Naeem described it, has become so influential.
“As a curator, I saw repeatedly and forcefully that hip-hop and visual art were intertwined, and I thought that the exhibitions that had been staged around the world have looked at that history in very compartmentalized ways, not necessarily bringing in the fashion, or only bringing in the contemporary art theme, or not thinking about material culture or social histories,” Naeem said in an interview with The Baltimore Banner. “We wanted to combine all those threads, if you will: fine art, contemporary influences, multimedia, contemporary culture and fashion, and those histories, but particularly through the lens of social justice and the ways that technologies have shaped the explosive popularity of hip-hop.” The Dorothy Wagner Wallis Director also said that she wanted to highlight “the predominance of Baltimore creatives in that history of hip-hop and the contemporary art scene.”
This new era of culture is curious. Luxury brands that previously turned their nose up and refused to recognize Black or AfroLatinx communities as a viable market for their goods, like Louis Vuitton, had their highest-grossing years under the direction of Black visionaries like Abloh. The designer’s couture streetwear, a few samples of which are featured in this exhibition, is indelibly tethered to hip-hop and styles developed by earlier pioneers like Harlem legend Dapper Dan. Paul Mooney’s timeless rants consistently prove true:
, “Everybody wants to be a n----, but nobody wants to be a n----.” Black culture has become a coveted symbol for diversity, inclusivity and equity but has been unable to leverage the commercialization or economic gain established by sampling it into sustained systemic and legislative protection for Black and AfroLatinX lives. Some may argue that the role of culture is not necessarily aligned with equity. Others will say that culture’s role is integral to advancing a just society.
And what would American culture be without the offerings of its Black citizenry? The culture is meta, intergenerational, interdisciplinary, fertile and expansive, yet experiences are historically represented selectively and too often stereotypically. From spirituals to blues, bebop to rock, avant-garde to reggae to punk, spoken word to soul, the call and response, the resounding “yaaaaasss,” the soul clap and snap, the compliments from strangers like “I see you, sis” or “walk tall, king,” the head nod and side eye
, the new-new trending on social media, the viral stream, the dap, the ecstatic dance, the riff and remix, the flex and drip , are all golden, triumphant, integral contributions to popular culture that can’t be untangled from American history writ large.
Featured works at the BMA’s exhibit try to highlight icons by organizing the show into six general categories: language, brand, adornment, tribute, pose and ascension, all loosely aligned with foundational elements of first-generation hip-hop. Each category has a designated space to display art collections, films, memorabilia or fashion deemed relevant to that theme. All of the selections are stunning, but a few works stand out as incredibly potent examples of the ways Black culture influences society.
“With Strings Two” (1983), an acrylic and oil stick on canvas by Basquiat, is one of the first exhibited works you see when entering the sprawling exhibition. The incredible painting celebrates the legacy of alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker and nods to the broader influence of jazz on contemporary music, art and fashion. I was especially inspired by the works installed adjacent to Basquiat’s: “Prototype Column For Tha Shaw (RIP The Honorable Ermias Nipsey Hussle Asghedom) I and II” (2019), two white, hand-carved, glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum columns inscribed with graffiti and hieroglyphs dedicated to the memory of Los Angeles rapper Nipsey Hussle; and “Moby Dick (for Oscar Wilde, Oscar Romero Oscar Grant)” (2003/2008/2022), a mixed-media installation that uses half of a police car as a memorial for victims of police violence made by visual artist William Cordova.
Tucked deep in the exhibition is Tahir Hemphill’s interactive network graph, “Picasso, Baby” (2014), an interesting commentary about the intersections of data and culture that maps the frequency of rap artists name-dropping famous visual artists in their lyrics between 1979 and 2014. (When the visualization was made, Pablo Picasso was referenced more than all others.) “For The Record,” a digital archive initiative from BMA and the Saint Louis Art Museum, is also an impressive addition. The small interactive installation asks visitors as well as those at home to upload a hip-hop memory via photos, film or audio with the archive website. Each story is tagged so that others can understand the impact of their contribution within a colossal history.
Each of the aforementioned pieces represents, in more than an aesthetic reference, the core reason hip-hop was created and why it has been adapted by movements worldwide. That is not to say that the other contributions are not powerful; affirming representation is always impactful. However, first-generation hip-hop was engaged in abolition work: freedom from oppression, liberation from violence and racism, the end of inequity and the genuine pursuit of democracy through art, as well as the creation of platforms that encouraged youth to be inspired through creative outlets.
The history of that premise and hip-hop’s call to action poses inevitable questions that inform the entirety of “The Culture” exhibition. What is the culture now and what are the long-term effects of prolific production with no societal shifts for the actual producers? There is no retirement fund for the pioneers of hip-hop, who rarely receive royalties or remuneration from the corporations, fashion houses or art institutions that have grossed billions of dollars from their visions. What is the role of the visual artist in working against this disparity if they choose to cull references from the culture? What is the part of the art institution, the corporation and the consumer to remedy this inequity? Maybe the answer is nothing at all. Perhaps it’s enough that some aspect of the culture will always be represented globally because Black genius is unbridled. One thing is for certain, and the revolutionary group Dead Prez stated it best: “It’s bigger than hip-hop.”
This article has been updated to say that the digital archive at "The Culture" exhibit, "For The Record," is a joint initiative between the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Angela N. Carroll is a writer and educator based in Baltimore.