Home Magazine 5 Times Pop Culture Kept Jean-Michel Basquiat’s legacy and vision alive

So many things have been said and written about Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life and work that it seems almost redundant to keep on repeating what we already know or can google in a blink of an eye. This year it’s gonna be 35 years since the American artist's death, and during his short life and since his death, his legacy has kept on largely representing a triumph of popular culture over museums, which have been accused of downplaying his stature. Today, his presence is more emphatic and persistent in popular culture and mass media than in art museums.

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It has been claimed several times by friends of the artist that institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art have rejected submissions of his work. Fellow artist and friend Michael Holman, for example, recalled that an offer by collectors Lenore and Herbert Schorr to donate Basquiats to these two museums in the 1980s was declined, not even wanting them for storage. Him being in the elite group of artists whose works have sold for over $100 million at auction - amongst none other than masters like Picasso, Modigliani, Bacon and his friend, Warhol - these statements are troubling. Having been vocal during his career about the struggles that racial profiling brings upon black talented youth, it is hard for our minds not to wonder around those ideas when questioning how one of the biggest and most influential artists of contemporary art never had a solo exhibition. Or even how is it possible that as of today, out of the more than 2,000 works of art that Basquiat produced, New York’s MoMA has just 10 drawings and silkscreens, the Whitney has six, the Metropolitan two, the Brooklyn Museum another two and the Guggenheim one.

Figure 1. Jean-Michel Basquiat, In this Case (1983) Courtesy of Christie’s


In turn, in his tragically short career, Basquiat would give no relevance to his strained bond with institutions, instead splurging his own influence on the music that inspired him to paint the defining strokes of the 1980s neo-expressionist movement. The crown, Basquiat’s signature artistic motif, both acknowledged and challenged the history of Western art. By adorning black male figures, including athletes, musicians and writers, with the crown, Basquiat raised these historically disenfranchised artists to royal even saintly stature. “Jean-Michel’s crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion,” said his friend, artist Francesco Clemente. Furthermore, when asked about his subject matter, Basquiat answered ‘royalty, heroism and the streets’, alluding to the inspiration he took from an array of jazz artists, boxers, basketball players with references to arcane history and the politics of street life. 

The proof is now in how mainly hip-hop — a community still often overlooked within the high art realm — has embraced him and his work in recent years. And this could very much be due to artists like Basquiat and Swizz Beatz having had to work under similar circumstances — that is, as black artists working in predominantly white and Eurocentric industries. They made a fortune while also being critically overlooked by major institutions. Even his quote ‘I’m not a real person. I’m a legend’ is reminiscent of a certain recently cancelled, god-complexed rapper.  So let’s look at 5 examples of how Jean-Michel Basquiat’s legacy has been kept alive in pop culture:

  1. Features in Rap Songs 

Appreciation for the Brooklyn-born, Haitian-American artist has come from rappers like Nas, J. Cole, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and of course Jay Z, who has periodically name-dropped the painter in a plethora of rhymes, for example in the 2011 song ‘Illest M*****F****** Alive’  with Kanye West ‘When I say it then you see it, it ain't only in the music / Basquiats , Warhols serving as my muses’. The prominent rapper also posed alongside his wife Beyoncé Knowles in front of Basquiat’s artwork ‘Equals Pi’ for Tiffany & Company’s fall 2021 Campaign, which got the art world talking. In turn, Nas has dropped Basquiat’s name in a clear alignment of the crowning and royal status of street culture over ‘fine’ culture in the 2008 single ‘Ain’t I’ featuring Timbaland, where he raps ‘Promised land, I picture Porsches, Basquiat portraits/ Pinky rings, realistic princesses, Heiresses bunch a King and Queens’.

Figure 2. Beyoncé and Jay-Z - and ‘Equals Pi’ by Jean-Michel Basquiat - in the Tiffany & Company Fall 2021 Campaign.
  1. Complex Magazine’s 2012 February/March Issue Cover Story

Not only is Basquiat’s ideology, iconography and vision referred to in pop culture, but even his actual physical appearance, which of course embodies the initial concepts in a literal way, from canadian musician The Weeknd wearing a similar hairstyle as Basquiat in the initial years of his career, to album and magazine covers. An example of the latter is Complex Magazine’s 2012 February/March Issue Cover Story for Jeremy Scott x A$AP Rocky, a homage to the Warhol/Basquiat boxing poster for their 1985 joint exhibition in New York. 

Figure 3. Left: Complex Magazine’s 2012 February/March Issue Cover Story. Right: Warhol/Basquiat promotional poster for 1985 joint exhibition.
  1. Reebok Classics’ Basquiat Product Line, 2009

Reebok originally introduced the product line as a homage to the artist. When American producer Swizz Beatz - who has been compared in interviews to Basquiat himself - signed on as the International Creative Director of Reebok Classics, he included the stipulation that he had full licence over the line and could expand it at will. 

  1. ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat - The Radiant Child’ Documentary, 2010

Directed by Basquiat’s friend, filmmaker Tamra Davis, the documentary is named as the children’s book written by Javaka Steptoe to introduce the artist to the next generation. It is a thoughtful portrait of the renowned artist, featuring extensive interviews conducted by Davis in order to reveal how Jean-Michel dealt with being a black artist in a predominantly white field. The film also explores his rise in the art world, which led to his close relationship with Andy Warhol and sheds a light on how the young talent coped with acclaim, scrutiny and fame.


Figure 4. Jean-Michel Basquiat, No Name (1982) Courtesy of Montero Art Gallery


  1. Sotheby’s exhibition ‘I Like it Like This’ curated by Drake, 2015

In a partnership exploring the connection between art and music, in 2015 Drake curated a Sotheby’s exhibition called ‘I like it Like This’, in which 21 works total were paired with hip-hop and R&B songs. The concept of the collaboration was to draw a bridge between the prestigious and sometimes exclusionary world of art with the youth-driven culture behind modern-day music. Viewers would walk up to Basquiat’s ‘Black’ and ‘Jazz’ paintings, to hear Yo Gotti and 8 Ball’s ‘Gangsta Party’ blast from Beats by Dre headphones that were provided. The music was selected by Drake in order to compliment the pieces by black American contemporary artists like Basquiat and Kara Walker, among others, in a sensory amalgamation of expression.

Discover here Jean-Michel Basquiat’s available works on Kooness.


Cover Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Notary (1983)

Written by Zara Colombo

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