Swizz Beatz, Jordan Casteel, Hank Willis Thomas, and Derrick Adams Talk African American Art

A top collector and three trailblazing artists on breaking down barriers and recognizing the value of African American art.

Kasseem Dean, better known as Swizz Beatz, has been collecting art since the late 1990s, when the hip-hop producer started crafting hits for the likes of DMX and Jay-Z. Over time, Beatz and his wife, singer and fellow Grammy winner Alicia Keys, have amassed a 1,000-plus-piece trove they call the Dean Collection. In recent years they have helped raise the status of living African American artists not only by buying their work but by encouraging other prominent collectors to do the same. (Last year, on his advice, Sean “Diddy” Combs purchased a canvas by Kerry James Marshall for $21 million at Sotheby’s, a record price for a living black artist.) Beatz has also worked to change attitudes in an art world that has historically marginalized artists of color. Among other efforts, he has lobbied for creators to earn royalties when their work is sold at auction, and in 2015 he launched No Commission, an annual Miami art fair in which exhibited artists receive 100 percent of profits.

He sat down with three of his favorite collaborators: Jordan Casteel, 30, who has gained recognition for her paintings documenting the everyday lives of Harlem residents; Hank Willis Thomas, 43, a conceptual artist whose often satirical work draws from the language of advertising and the iconography of the civil rights movement; and Derrick Adams, 49, a multidisciplinary artist and longtime gallerist. The four took stock of the rising profile of African American artists and the work that remains to be done.

Swizz, how would you compare your first experience of the art world to the way you see it today?

Swizz Beatz: I walked into my first gallery at the age of 19 with baggy pants, braids in my hair, and a chain around my neck. There were gallery owners who didn’t talk to me and others who would throw a high price on a piece of art to dissuade me from staying. I ended up buying my first Ansel Adams, and at that time, I wasn’t seeing a lot of African American art around me. I got into collecting with Warhol and Matisse. But something about all of it felt wrong. I would go to my friends’ houses, and we would all have the same art—Warhol, Keith Haring, Basquiat—and then I would go to my business partners’ houses, and they would have Gordon Parks, and it was a moment of reckoning. I had been trying to impress [legendary music executive] Clive Davis, but then I took a liking to artists who were living. Now my goal is to not only support black artists in telling their stories but also owning our culture.

Hank, as someone who grew up with a mother who is an artist, what do you make of the art establishment’s growing interest in black art?

Hank Willis Thomas: All of us are responsible. The first thing I always like to point out is, as great as it is to be embraced and accepted in the mainstream art world, you always run the risk of being co-opted. Also, I fundamentally believe modernism as an art form started in Africa. So, I think what we call mainstream Western art is an offshoot of African art. I remember having a conversation with Jordan six or seven years ago. We were talking about the generational shift [for African and African American artists]. I was in the generation with Derrick, who benefited from Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson, but then Jordan’s generation has taken the ball and run so much further. Each person, each generation has something to contribute.

Derrick Thomas: Hank and I remember the older artists—who are getting exposure now—toiling away for most of their lives and not receiving credit or money. For me, I never thought I’d be making money off of what I do. I knew artists who I considered legends did not have money, but they had ideas and community. I considered community to be the prize. It’s good to see the results from the hard work of senior-level artists. The younger artists don’t have as much of that baggage. But the presence of black artists in museums and galleries is still not equal.

Jordan, since you are younger, did you think you would make money as an artist?

Jordan Casteel: Oh no. My ambition was always to teach and collaborate with young people. I didn’t think art would be the supporting factor financially. Education is still a part of my life, though. I refuse to let that go. [Casteel is an assistant professor at Rutgers University.] The struggle looks different now as opposed to what these guys felt and experienced in the early days of their careers, and the artists before them, but supporting one another is part of the energy I’ve always felt.

Swizz, do you see a parallel between your careers in music and art?

SB: When people started getting into hip-hop, it’s like where we are now in art. People figured out how to build a market around it, how to cannibalize it, how to make it a currency. It’s up to us to protect our own currency, which is our creativity. That’s why we collect the way we do for the Dean Collection: We have to own our story. Many people approach me, asking how they can make money as a collector, and I’ve never made money as a collector. When we get works in the collection, I look at it as an introduction into the family and not a transaction. If you have someone like myself, a known collector, showing people how to flip works in the art market, that’s a double negative. But if a collector teaches a new collector to work on a personal level with the artists, support living artists, and maintain and hold on to art, it’ll help build a sustainable message in this rising market of African and African American artists. by the artists I was seeing, I decided I wouldn’t do a show of paintings until I helped 100,000 artists. I’ve already been blessed with success in music, and although I was finding freedom in painting, when I saw artists like Jordan, Hank, Brother Derrick, it made me want to be on the other side of the ship, and to help and guide that ship in a different way, and use a different set of skills. That’s why I made the task hard for myself. I set out to help 100,000 artists. I don’t know what that number is now.

How do we continue to make art more accessible?

JC: I tell my students that I’ve had access to a community at Yale [as an undergraduate], which opened up a world to me. Through access comes responsibility, but also awareness of a world that you might not have been aware of before education. It’s my responsibility to tell my students at Rutgers to not only be great painters but also how to write an email, a résumé, how to be professional, to move through the world with confidence as their best selves. Also, through my paintings, I have the opportunity to choose who I want to represent on the walls of museums. I didn’t see the value of my image, or someone who looked like me, in a museum when I was growing up, but now I can change that by welcoming people who I’ve come to know and love as subjects in my work.

How do we negotiate the privilege of education and still extend opportunities to artists who don’t have the support of a community during instrumental stages of their careers?

HTW: There is a certain amount of privilege that brought us all here, of course, but I do think we need to reframe value and privilege from an Afrocentric perspective because the Western definition of privilege, and what it offers us, is incomplete. It doesn’t accommodate for our black peers who were smarter and more talented than we were but, due to the system we have to operate in, didn’t make it as far as we have. There has been value extracted from Africa for centuries, and we don’t always know when we’re sitting on potential—we often feel as though we have to wait for the outside world to validate us. Those of us who don’t have Hank Willis Thomas, You Shouldn’t Be the Prisoner of Your Own Ideas (LeWitt), 2017, a quilt made out of decommissioned prison uniforms.

How do we continue to make art more accessible?

JC: I tell my students that I’ve had access to a community at Yale [as an undergraduate], which opened up a world to me. Through access comes responsibility, but also awareness of a world that you might not have been aware of before education. It’s my responsibility to tell my students at Rutgers to not only be great painters but also how to write an email, a résumé, how to be professional, to move through the world with confidence as their best selves. Also, through my paintings, I have the opportunity to choose who I want to represent on the walls of museums. I didn’t see the value of my image, or someone who looked like me, in a museum when I was growing up, but now I can change that by welcoming people who I’ve come to know and love as subjects in my work.

How do we negotiate the privilege of education and still extend opportunities to artists who don’t have the support of a community during instrumental stages of their careers?

HTW: There is a certain amount of privilege that brought us all here, of course, but I do think we need to reframe value and privilege from an Afrocentric perspective because the Western definition of privilege, and what it offers us, is incomplete. It doesn’t accommodate for our black peers who were smarter and more talented than we were but, due to the system we have to operate in, didn’t make it as far as we have. There has been value extracted from Africa for centuries, and we don’t always know when we’re sitting on potential—we often feel as though we have to wait for the outside world to validate us. Those of us who don’t have access to education likely have a unique way of seeing the world, and that is valuable in itself.

DA: To make art, you don’t really need to have motivation. Most people who are creative just create for a need to communicate. Even in Baltimore, where I grew up, art was something I would see, like murals in the street, but with education, you learn the business of art. I think black culture has always been a creative culture, and we’ve done things like making art out of textiles without thinking about the commercial world. We’ve been doing what we’re doing, and now people are looking. They have the privilege—people are looking. They are being elevated.

What work is left to be done?

SB: A lot of people know me more for painting than collecting. I got so inspired by the artists I was seeing, I decided I wouldn’t do a show of paintings until I helped 100,000 artists. I’ve already been blessed with success in music, and although I was finding freedom in painting, when I saw artists like Jordan, Hank, Brother Derrick, it made me want to be on the other side of the ship, and to help and guide that ship in a different way, and use a different set of skills. That’s why I made the task hard for myself. I set out to help 100,000 artists. I don’t know what that number is now.

HTW: At least that!

SB: But we have to set those kinds of goals to help each other. Painting for me is therapy, but I knew my mission was to help the artists as much as possible. I should make my goal 200,000 now.