The Brooklyn Museum courts controversy. Last season, Ghouliani threatened to cut funding after the museum’s “Sensation” show included art that “defaced” a Christian symbol. Now Russell Simmons is disgruntled because New York’s first hip-hop museum exhibition, subtitled “Roots, Rhymes and Rage,” dropped a multimedia police-brutality display. The show mires hip-hop in stasis, although urban kinesis was an irrefutable element of the culture’s formative years. It’s inundated with clothes (like Afrika Bambataa’s futuristic robe), which are symbolically a few sizes too small and riddled with perhaps inevitable “static” cling. This hip-hop haberdashery resembles culture as carapace. But the Notorious B.I.G.’s beige suit and bowler display is a provocative amalgam of Magritte’s paintings The Son of Man and The Pilgrim—the sign language of presence and absence.
Photographs by Jamel Shabazz and Sarah A. Friedman confront both anonymity and kinesis. Friedman’s Shotgun highlights a hardcore homoerotic dissonance as one hoodrat blows smoke from a blunt between his homey’s puckered lips. Shabazz evokes rhythm in Brownsville Roots, where a young woman backflips on a discarded mattress. Danny Clinch’s black-and-white Tupac photo—shirtless, head bowed, palms parallel—is a study in solemnity, a veritable hip-hop salat. Tupac supplants James Dean as cultural rapscallion in Lee Quinones’s evanescent photorealist painting 20,000 Leaders Under the Siege, which samples Dennis Stock’s iconographic 1955 photo.
For a Boogie-Down byproduct like myself, there are many nostalgic moments. But Jean-Michel Basquiat’s presence underscores how a graffiti artist (moveable muralist, hip-hop’s initial component) can devolve into a dead downtown dandy. Heed the warning, hip-hop, because this exhibition helps legitimize the last quarter century’s most incontrovertible cultural phenomenon: you.