Words by Chaédria LaBouvier
It’s always a good time to be a Jean-Michel Basquiat stan, but the past few years have truly been gifts from the based gods. The erstwhile prince of the Prince Street art scene has had the kind of career retrospective few can dream of. In the last year alone, three resoundingly masterful exhibits of Basquiat’s work have toured the world, from New Orleans (“Basquiat and the Bayou”), New York (“Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks”) and Toronto and Bilbao (Jean-Michel Basquiat: Now’s The Time). The artist The Weeknd is rocking a Basquiat hairstyle reminiscent of James van der Zee’s famous portrait of the artist and Jay Z dressed up as the ‘80s enfant terrible last year for Halloween. Let us not forget, everyone’s favorite turtleneck wearing Canadian philosopher, Drake, paired Chief Keef with a Basquiat painting for a Sotheby’s exhibit. The Radiant Child been name checked so many times in rap songs of recent, you’d almost think the surnamic mononym belonged to the dancer de rigueur at King of Diamonds.
Crowns, whether it be a hairstyle, in a painting or on a shirt, are a very serious business in the facilitation of that pride and legitimacy.
But for those that don’t have $56 million dollar for Basquiat painting or to groupie follow his blockbuster art shows around the world, there’s something more accessible when talking about Basquiat’s legacy in popular culture.
The thoughtfully chicken scratched headdresses of Basquiat that strategically stalked early 1980s downtown New York City now adorn everything: art, sneakers, black bar doors in hipster heavy neighborhoods and t-shirts in said neighborhoods.
The crowns mean a little bit of everything. They’re original. They’re cliché. They’re everywhere. They’re counter-culture. They make the stans of old and new feel some kind of way when they see one. It’s hip-hop’s new gold chain. As the 21st century steams forward with a political urgency unseen since the 60s, Basquiat is an on-time icon.
“He has the ability to create an iconic image out of a very simple line,” says Franklin Sirmans, the newly appointed director of the Pérez Museum in Miami, noted Basquiat scholar and curator of Basquiat and the Bayou. “He’s masterful at that.”
His aesthetic legacy of crowns, dreads and IDGAF speaks to a whole generation of kids that were just like him: smart, middle class Black kids that are terribly disillusioned with the idea of waiting for the mainstream to see them. #BlackLivesMatter is about many things, but waiting is not one of them. The Millennials of that movement grew up waiting for the magic pill of assimilation to kick in – and still no dice. Since they’re damned if they do, they’re damned if they don’t, the most natural thing is to gravitate towards the most salient example of Black cool doing exactly what it wants to do in a hostile environment. To reiterate, Basquiat is an on-time icon.
Respectability is out, rebellion is in and monarchs crown themselves
“Basquiat was drawing and painting the Black experience in which any person from the African Diaspora could see themselves reflected, and drawing attention to both their collective successes and struggles,” says Dieter Buchhart, the Austrian curator of the Basquiat exhibits in Toronto, Brooklyn and Bilbao, Spain. “Basquiat’s African-American men are usually not only ready to struggle but also intent on resistance.”
It’s that tension of success and struggle in Basquiat’s life and work that resonates with his new audience. “The art world is one of the most monochromatic places and it sort of highlights what some go through,” says Sirmans.
One early and notable example of Basquiat’s crowns in paintings is 1981’s Red Kings. There are more famous examples of his use of crowns – Charles the First, Untitled (Crown) and With Strings Too– but the forgotten Red Kings sums up everything about what the crowns meant to Basquiat. You don’t need a Ph.D in art history to see the unbridled ambition, the majesty -real and willed – and the determination to be visible that runs through the painting. Jean-Michel Basquiat was a hustler, in both the literal and figurative sense. He was a man that left home at 17, lived in Washington Square Park for a minute and survived on cheese doodles and Ballantine. But unlike the other urchins that were squatting in the park, Basquiat had an ad man’s savvy; he’d place his SAMO graffiti around the bombed out Lower East Side as well in SoHo, where Masters of the Art Universe took power lunches. Basquiat, like so many young Black creatives slash DIY hype-men then and now, knew that he could not depend upon a world that was expertly trained to render him invisible, to in any way legitimize his presence, much less his work. In a modern society where inclusion often comes down to the task of de-centering Whiteness as a constant and infallible reference point, the perseverance and audacity of a young Basquiat hell-bent on making it, and making it his way, resonates still today.
“I think the ability to be a non-conformist and also unapologetically Black is [a] huge part of his appeal and mystique to the Black hipster crowd,” says Robert Bland,30, and a History Ph.D candidate at the University of Maryland. Bland has the famous sketch of Basquiat’s crown on his triceps. “More than anything else, his ability to marshal multiple frequencies…into a legible vision of self-expression is the best blue print we’ve seen so far for post-Civil Rights Black identity.”
It’s unsurprising that the crowns so prominent in Basquiat’s art would translate to his own literal crown becoming a canvas. “A few people had dreads back then, but nothing like Jean-Michel’s,” says Victor Littlejohn, a close friend of Basquiat’s in his final years. “They had a shape and form of their own, kind of like a crown,” remembered Littlejohn. Whether it was dreads, a Mohawk or just a purposely unkempt mess, Basquiat’s hair was an expression of the preternatural cool that was a middle finger to respectability politics and in the process, he pushed the boundaries of what Black, specifically, unapologetically Black cool, could look like. “Jean-Michel’s dreads made a statement of the time,” said Littlejohn. “Jean-Michel was the first to dread like he did and to set a trend.”
If Miles Davis, the purveyor of cool for nearly half a century, defined an defiant elegant restraint for the Baby Boomers, Yuppies and the throwback aficionados of Generation X, it can be said that Jean-Michel Basquiat has come to represent for the Black Millennials and teenagers of Generation Z a charge of insouciance and curated messiness normally reserved for carefree, unbothered White girls on beaches for Nair ads. Who better to represent this sentiment? Jean-Michel Basquiat was redundantly famous for sampling hip hop and Leonardo da Vinci, showing up to galleries, Mr. Chow’s and magazine shoots with paint-splattered $2000 Armani suits while mostly dating (quite problematically) carefree, unbothered White girls.
“He was so hyper-aware of self image and of other people’s imagining of him, or perception of how they might image him. He was so, so, so acutely aware of that….He’ll accept a gaze that exoticizes him and even throw that back and make it his own,” says Sirmans.
In the current time where the mix of high/low symbols best communicate aesthetic veracity, the idea that a generation’s North star would be a man that shopped at Dean and Deluca and yet was often mistaken for being homeless makes perfect sense. With all the unapologetic Blackness in the air, it’s unsurprising that Basquiat, a man who expressed that his choice of protagonists was often in response to the lack of Black people he saw in paintings and in the art world, would be a patron saint of the current efforts to further de-center Whiteness from Black aesthetics. For a generation of Black Millennials, who might very well be considered the Black Lives Matter Generation, this is a key appeal. The suits of Martin and Malcolm are gone – what’s the point? They were both killed wearing one. The pressed Oxford shirts of the Huxtables and the Bankses have not aged well, unless for reimagined and satirical purposes. Respectability is out, rebellion is in and monarchs crown themselves.
“The crown is a commonly known symbol and it’s accessible for everyone,” says Buchhart. “It was his way to symbolize something special.” Which has a complex currency when used to shout out the past, announce the future and signal a Black, creative Conceptual enclave. “The question of Black nobility is something that some authors have been thinking about it…there has been a discourse about it. But there are many theories about why he uses it [crowns].”
“I think part of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s appeal to some is this idea of ‘Black Excellence’. In some ways, it’s always that story, but he embodies it in such a way,” says Sirmans when I ask him about the appeal of Basquiat to a generation of Black kids that grew up on “The Cosby Show” and gospel of assimilation. So, it’s this deft maneuvering of double-consciousness in real-time that’s attractive to Black Millennials? Yes, but. “They’re also inspired by his success and his iconography,” reminds Sirmans. “That no degree of absence in the history books could stop him from seeing himself rightfully there.”
For Steff Reed, a Harlem based musician, the parallels between his aesthetic and the Radiant Child’s are evident and fair game for anyone that can make the connection. “He was doing graffiti and I was busking on the trains, but that got me touring,” Reed explains, drawing parallels before I even ask him if he sees a link between Basquiat’s path and his own as a musician. Unlike some, which are loathe to admit the obvious Basquiat influence on their outward visuals at least, Reed embraces it, though it’d be hard to deny the Diaspora’s favorite artist when a gather of curls that also doubles as a hi-top hybrid sits atop your head. If you squint hard enough, you see Jean-Michel, circa 1984.
“I haven’t locked my hair in a while, I’ve done twists,” says Reed on the phone, in between set performances. His aesthetic inspirations are a mix of self-discovery as an artist and studying Basquiat’s life and his work. “He’s definitely a muse. It’s [about being] authentic, it’s original and he represents that so he was a muse as one of those people that I could look to that brought that and say, ‘How can I do it my way?’ He’s about confident self expression and it’s okay to be eccentric, to be different…to be you.”
The sampling of Basquiat aesthetics by Black creatives from Los Angeles to Houston, to New York, Toronto and beyond could be seen as an internal agenda to push the boundaries of Black nuance into a mainstream dialogue. When articulated by the dominant culture in discourse, Blackness is often trapped in a frustrating binary of Whiteness and White proximities. That’s what’s so fascinating about seeing the crown of locs on Black men from The Weekend to the banker/skater hybrid that lives in Bed Stuy and flies falcons; it’s this idea of who and what they know themselves to be takes precedence over historical tropes and unqualified critiques. This new aesthetic does something really quite radical; it makes Blackness a Conceptual thing, where the many meanings, ideas and artistic license of what Blackness is, was and could be are authenticated by Black hands – and crowns.
The Black experiences across the Diaspora have in common that they are often consistently denied access to the mainstream and its resources. As such, one’s ability to ingeniously create new meaning and establish authority by subverting the rules and values of an oppressor becomes a barometer of Black legitimacy and pride. Crowns, whether it be a hairstyle, in a painting or on a shirt, are a very serious business in the facilitation of that pride and legitimacy. To anoint oneself and/or one’s crew as elements of the Black nobility with Basquiat’s crowns is a revolutionary, if only because, after 400 years, the idea of Black nuance and self-articulation is still a brand new concept to the mainstream which has Whiteness set as the default. The ironies are for another article, but the thing is, what the Basquiat crowns raised in 1981 and continue to in 2015 comes down to this: survival.
How does one survive in a Black body?
The answers are still elusive, but Black peoples’ attempts to bravely ask such unanswerable questions, century after century is the nobility that Basquiat and his crowns reference. It’s a reminder: We’re still here and we stay killin’ it. The acolytes from Jay Z to creatives in Paris’s 18th arrondissement seem to instinctually know it. As they say, “real recognizes real.” Or, as Steff Reed more eloquently stated:
“For me, being free with my appearance, people have to really listen to what I have to say. When you conform in khakis and all that, there’s this this level of , ‘I don’t believe in myself, so why should you?’ I don’t believe in myself, I feel I have to be other than who I already am for you to take me seriously. This is who the f*ck I am…the freedom comes from my outward expression.”