In 1983 Basquiat took an extended leave from NYC to live in Los Angeles. Accompanying him was the reclusive, eclectic musician and artist Rammellezee and painter Torrick Ablack (aka Toxic). Basquiat was at the apex of his career at this time and during this trip to Los Angeles he tried to leverage his fame to encourage art world powerhouses to represent Rammellezee. He was not successful. “Hollywood Africans” is an exhausting look at the insatiable thirst for money and power and the bullish frenzy of 80’s art market. The historical subtext of trans atlantic slavery and sugar production is echoed throughout the painting.
In a self-referential moment Basquiat calls himself out as the heel putting himself in the middle of this melodrama as the protagonist and omnicient narrator. Ultimately it’s an indictment of Hollywood, the power structure, & art market greed.
In Hollywood Africans I see Basquiat caught between who he is expected to be (as a profitable entity) and who he really was (which could have been more like Rammellzee). Gallerists like Gagosian needed to put artists in a box to make them palatable and bankable. He couldn’t do that with Rammellzee, who defies any form of categorization.
All of this made me think of the Grammys for some reason. From the kerfuffle between Ledisi and Beyonce to whitewashing of hip hop with Iggy Azaela, the music industry has always packaged artists in neat little boxes. If you don’t fit the mold, you don’t sell.
Case in point, in the 2000’s songstress Res had style and a voice that defied categorization. She had a little bit of a rock edge to her with deeply soulful melodies, but labels didn’t know what to do with her. She was one of the most underrated artists of the decade. When I think of Basquiat’s Hollywood Africans and Res’ song Golden Boys, I see these themes meet head on.