“What is a rebel?” Shabaka Hutchings on the art and attitude of Jean-Michel Basquiat

By in Features





The prolific saxophonist and composer explores the creative and cultural parallels between Basquiat’s NYC and the challenges faced by London’s young jazz musicians.

There’s a reason why second albums are notoriously ‘difficult’. Often produced under greater scrutiny, when an artist’s work is forced to contend with external expectations, the process of creation can put extreme pressure on your sense of self. For Jean-Michel Basquiat, a street-artist-turned-superstar-painter, who had to navigate racism and prejudice inside and outside of a gallery context, increased exposure seemed to strengthen his resolve to remain individual.

The subject of multi-artist compilation Untitled, released by Lonely Table, Anja Ngozi and The Vinyl Factory earlier this year, in which 18 musicians were asked to collaborate across seven tracks, Basquiat’s attitude, as much as his artwork, was highlighted for its inspirational nature. As London’s young jazz musicians make the transition from community-driven collaborators to international touring artists, saxophonist and member of Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, Shabaka Hutchings assesses questions of value, artistic processes and attitude in the life and work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

When did you first encounter Basquiat’s work and how did it make you feel?

I had a range of emotions when I first encountered Basquiat’s work. One, I just couldn’t understand it; there were some things there that seemed really cryptic. I could tell that there was a lot to get – in terms of encoding information, symbols and signs that lead you into certain ways of thinking – I just didn’t know them. It always interests me when I can tell that there’s a language or network of symbols that simultaneously looks beautiful, but also has something for you to delve into.

Another thing that got me interested in him was the idea of value, because as soon as you encounter his work, you also encounter the idea that these works are incredibly valuable. It got me thinking, what are the things that we ascribe value to? Who are the creators of value? What are the centres that the creation of value flows from? And what are the historical processes that make these centres the sources of the creation of value?

Basquiat was also perhaps playing with perceptions of his own value.

Yeah, I think so. Obviously I didn’t know him, but the idea I like to have of him is that of a creator, and what he creates flows from something that comes from beyond him. The systems of value surrounding him only enabled him to do more. That impetus from within is that same drive that says he’s going to write his work on refrigerators, he’s going to write it on napkins, and that’s one of the things that I love about my idea of him. My idea of him is the thing that inspires me.

Is there an element of this that you incorporate into your own work as a musician? A connection with the act of creating rather than the end result?

Yes. There are some videos of him working in the studio, and he looks like he is enjoying the process of creation. He’s got music on, he’s dancing, he’s literally ‘creating’. It’s like he’s got this idea of the physicality of creation – he’s not static with it, trying to get out something that’s deep in his head. The way his body is flowing is all a part of his output. And I try to do that.

So there’s a similarity with how you are in the studio?

For me, when I’m in the space to create stuff, I create stuff. It’s not an idea of it being good or bad, or appropriate or inappropriate, it’s just to make music.

How did this manifest in making the track with Kojey Radical on the compilation?

When the idea was presented to me, I thought a lot about it: how are we going to try to take something of Basquiat and reflect it in our music without it sounding contrived? Without it sounding like we’re trying to intellectualise an idea or a fantasy of what Basquiat is supposed to represent? I didn’t want to represent a fantasy.

For me the truest thing was to go and see Basquiat’s work, to immerse myself in it, spend a lot of time on each picture, not trying to work them out, but trying to take as much as I can, almost like opening my subconscious to whatever thoughts I have in that time-frame, and the space that his works are in.

Then, when we got to the studio, we just jammed, until at some point we were like, “we need to make a tune.” There wasn’t a need for us to talk about it in language. When we went into the studio, we just let ideas come up, and then we framed them into a piece.

I have great faith in jamming. For me, jamming is you tapping into your subconscious. Composing is getting the front part of your consciousness and going “this is what I definitely want.” Whereas, what we did when we got into the studio is that we just created. And we were creating in the context of what Basquiat’s work meant to us.

Photo by Fabrice Bourgelle

Improvisation is often misinterpreted and misused as something off-the-cuff, something free and unstructured – as if you’re making it up as you go along. However, in order to improvise you need to have an intimate knowledge of the vocabulary and structure within which you’re playing.

It’s one of those lazy words. It means so much to various different people. It’s like ‘jazz’, or like the word ‘racism’… Improvisation it means a myriad of things and there’s no consensus of what it is. With improvisation, there’s ‘off-the-cuff’, but what is ‘off-the-cuff’? Everyone has a language that they deal with in music, and that language can be more or less complex. Improvising for me is that you’re structuring that language in the moment, when even that structuring is going to be dictated by what you know of structures.

I guess, for me, what is Basquiat trying to do with his art? What is the effect that his art has on the world? That’s what I’m interested in. In some ways, it’s not about trying to decipher what the art means, to see how everything links up in his brain. I’m interested in what he thinks the impact of the work is. But, concerning oneself with the comparison of art forms, or trying to situate them in certain paradigms of meaning, sometimes limits the scope of your understanding of what the real function is, from points of view that aren’t necessarily western.

Many of the other musicians we’ve spoken to for this project talked about the influence of his attitude as much as his work.

Yeah, I mean he carried himself in the way that he was. In a lot of artists, I feel a sort of duality, in terms of what their image is suppose to be, and what they are trying to represent to the public. But when I see video clips of Basquiat, or I see pictures of him, I get the sense of a person who is comfortable with himself, and himself as an image.

And that doesn’t mean he’s not feeling the tugs of representation, in terms of what he’s represented to be through the media or through people that are viewing him externally. But how he reacts within that context or setting, it shows an essential character. I might be making this all up, but it’s something that I intuit from viewing things around him.

Who he is and who he presents himself as seem very close together…

What is a punk? Outside of the genre of punk, what is a rebel? Someone that can be within Babylon, that can be within this system, this structure, whose function is to assign hierarchy, whose function is to assign meaning. To see someone stand in the midst of that, proud of where they’ve come from and what they think they have to offer going into the future, I think that’s inspirational, and you can see that of him.

Do you feel like there are parallels between the environment in which he was working and being a musician in London in 2019?

I guess there are parallels in that a similar element of hype is around. The idea that a certain group of young artists who have been developing their talent outside of the public gaze all of a sudden get put forward to the public as something novel is a similar situation that the young jazz scene is in at the moment.

And it can be trauma-inducing, in that all of a sudden there is a gaze on what one is supposed to be. When the stakes go up in terms of the infrastructure around what an artist is doing, who the artist believes themselves to be is of big importance.

Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Jean Michel at Andy’s studio at 860 Broadway, April 23, 1984 Copyright: © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

Is there also a question of the context in which the work is experienced?

It’s taking it out of the space that it originated in, and putting it into other spaces for different audiences. A group of people jamming in South London, in a pub, week after week, and then all of a sudden they’re on a different stage with a different kind of audience.

What happened in the art world was that ways of creating and depicting visual art were taken out of the surroundings that nurtured them – the loft scene, or whatever scene was in New York at that time – and then put into the space of the institutionalised art gallery. That interested me when I saw the Basquiat exhibition in London, to see these pieces on white walls in a situation of reverence. It’s almost like it’s in a church, everyone is silent and it’s all very intense. It really makes no sense, considering the atmosphere that Basquiat’s going through in creating it. He’s summoning life onto a canvas, and then people view it in a completely lifeless way.

I guess that connects with where we started about who is ascribing value to the work and where that value is situated.

Yeah, and then inversely, what happens when there is a rift between what is supposed to be valuable to the industry surrounding a work, versus what an artist sees as intrinsic value. It must have an affect on you when a certain work goes way up in value. What happens to ideas that aren’t deemed that valuable? In Basquiat’s case, the strength of character it must take to make sure that your artistic vision isn’t getting skewed by what other people are ascribing value to is massive.

We’re not dealing with those kinds of figures, but there is a similar thing in the jazz scene now, in that really young musicians are put onto international platforms and being heralded, but where is the space for true improvisation, or trying out ideas that might not be what the public expects, that might not even sound very good, but that might result in a process of development, on a pure artistic level?

Untilted artwork by Fabrice Bourgelle & Anja Ngozi / Design by Raimund Wong

It feels like there is an element of this project that has hoped to create that space? There also seems to be a support network, and inter-disciplinary collaboration that connects both eras.

When it becomes about a community of people sharing energetic processes, as opposed to the idea of individual genius that, apparently, springs out of nothing, that’s when you get that energy. When it’s not just about what painters or dancers are doing specifically, but it’s about the fact that they’re all in the same space, that they’re all going to the same bars, they’re all going to the same parties, they’re all living in the same general areas.

When you see Basquiat playing the soprano sax in a punk band and going around the city, and he knows everyone, these people he’s bumping into are from other scenes. This is the kind of environment that fosters creativity. It means that things can actually grow, and I think that is a big similarity between what was happening in his time and what has been happening in London.

Earlier you touched on the idea of what Basquiat was supposed to represent, but what does he represent to you?

To me, Basquiat represents this line between the past and the future, in that when I see his works, I imagine the same kind of creative process, that makes humans want to depict images, want to represent what they imagine in their heads. I think that’s a very primary impulse.

At its root is the idea that there are different ways of seeing the reality that surrounds us. For me, Basquiat’s work looks like it could be made by someone trying to envision what the future looks like. But then it also stretches back into the past, back into some essential way of transmitting the represented image. Finally, it’s of today, because all I know of the present is what I’m seeing now. And he’s on my mind.

Untitled is out now via Lonely Table, Anja Ngozi and The Vinyl Factory.