Exclusive Interview with Fahamu Pecou on Art x Race x Hip HopJuxtapoz // Wednesday, 09 Jun 2010
“Rappers are the new bad boys of American culture.” From his past as a hip-hop battler in high school to his current drawings and paintings, Fahamu Pecou utilizes the tools of hip-hop culture's branding and posturing to discuss African American identity in America. You need to get to know this enthralling artist.
You reside in Atlanta, Georgia, an area known to play home to many successful and wealthy African American athletes, entrepreneurs, and hip-hop artists. Are you from Atlanta? Do you feel living in the area has influenced your artwork or critique of American American culture in the U.S.?
I've lived here for the better part of the last 17 years, but I am not from Atlanta. Atlanta is a bit of a unique place. It has so much going on in terms of African American lifestyles and culture. You can experience in great numbers, a myriad of different expressions of African American life, from afro-centric to apple pie and everything in between.
It’s always amazing to me to travel to other cities and around the U.S. and go out places and look around and realize I'm the only black guy in the room. This happens in most places I've gone with maybe the exception of NY, D.C. and Houston. In Atlanta, you'd have to really be trying to find a place where there were not several other African Americans present.
I do feel that my experiences in Atlanta have given me a sort of privilege and access that I might not have gained if I were in Virginia or Mississippi. I think the culture of Atlanta, "the city too busy to hate", has helped me see myself in comparison as well as contrast to other social groups that I may encounter, but in a way that does not make me feel alienated or separated in ways that would make me uncomfortable. At the same time, living in Atlanta has also allowed me to experience many different facets of African American life, which to many may seem perplexing because African American life, culture, and experiences are not often presented as being either dynamic or multi-faceted.
In your bio, you state that your "intention is to comment on contemporary and hip-hop culture while simultaneously subverting it to include his ideas on fine art." Can you elaborate on this?
As a graphic designer/creative director I did a lot of work with hip-hop artists. I designed the collateral that went on to establish them as brands, often laughing to myself at how completely polarized the personas they portrayed were to the actual personality of the individual artists.
Out of frustration at getting my own work out into the world, I adopted the style, bravado, and posturing of my contemporaries from the hip-hop music world and applied them to my persona as a fine artist. People were immediately moved by the hype- the presentation and the posturing. Somehow it made my message more palatable to them, coming from this "hip-hop, cool guy".
A lot of the ideas I express in my work are ideas I've discussed, made work about, and lived for most of my life. However, in previous works, the reactions were not always as universally received or understood. I began subversively getting my message out and toying with my audience's reactions and expectations. It was like an inside joke that no one knew was being played on them.
In my work I challenge some of the images and portrayals created by and perpetuated by rap personalities, but I also challenge our culture's obsession with those same personalities. American society has always loved a bad boy, whether he is James Dean or Jay Z. Rappers are the new bad boys of American culture. Invoking that bad boy spirit and attitude opened up my dialogues. It opened me up to more ideas to explore, express, challenge. But it also opened up my audience to go there with me, to suspend their own disbelief and further to challenge and be challenged by their own preconceived ideas about hip hop, black masculinity and images of black men in media.
What interests you so much about hip-hop culture? Do you see it as a catalyst for racial and/or cultural realities in Black sub-society? Is it autobiographical in any way? Do you listen to and appreciate hip-hop or are you critical of the direction it's taking?
It’s imperative that people realize hip-hop is more than rap. It is a culture, a lifestyle. It’s a way of moving, thinking, being. I am hip-hop, so naturally it’s a part of what I do. I am a first generation hip-hop head. Born in Brooklyn in 1975. By the time I was 5 years old hip-hop was real. It wasn't commercial in the sense it is now, but it was very real.
As a teenager, I was a well-respected battle rapper in my school and even performed in and won talent shows with my crew. Hip-hop is no longer just a black experience it’s an American experience and more and more, a global experience.
I couldn't really be truthful if I said I love hip-hop and did not critique it and challenge it. The critique is akin to chiseling at a huge marble bolder to refine it and make it beautiful. I am always critical of it because I care. And as I travel the world and see the influences that hip-hop has had on the world, I'd be doing it and myself an injustice not to continue to challenge my contemporaries to be cognizant of the fact that the lyrics we spit, the images we paint, the words we write and so forth take on different meaning when they transcend our building, our hoods, our cities, our country.
What do you hope your viewers take away from your work? Do you have specific goals in mind with each piece or is it more of a general overarching commentary and critique?
Each piece plays a part in the larger conversation. In WHIRL TRADE for example, the overarching idea is about black identity, domestically, globally and diasporically. The works comment on many different ideas within that context such as: how "blackness" (whether African or African American) is commodified, packaged and sold back to people of African descent, the ramifications of Black American excess as seen through hip hop on our African counterparts, and the distortions created by an idealized American dream or an exoticized African existence.
You made a video impersonating as an American President. It's funny and smart, and I immediately thought of Murs' album, Murs for President. Do you listen to Murs? Are you influenced by any more progressive rappers or hip hop artists like Public Enemy, Dead Prez, Living Legends, or others?
I'm not familiar with MURS (however, Googling him as you're reading this). But I do prefer more progressive rap music. As a teenager my favorites were groups like X Clan, Brand Nubian, The Native Tongues, Rakim, etc. These days, I still listen to their music, which even then married substance with style.
I also like artists like Outkast, Jay Electronica, Common, Kanye, J Cole, Raekwon, Mos Def, Jay Z, Nas etc. I am a big fan of word play, so I find myself gravitating towards "lyricists". Often those same lyrics shape my concepts and become a part of my work- a clever quip or witty play on words becomes a sentiment scribbled on a canvas or titles a work.
Where do you see pop culture and racial dynamics in America heading? Are you optimistic or do you see a greater chasm or disparity as the economy suffers?
I feel like we can learn more from each other than we can take from each other. We have to embrace each other for our differences. Unfortunately, tradition has done us all a disservice in terms of engaging each other with openness. But I am hopeful that conscious minds will be awakened by the economic crises that we've been experiencing.
The class and financial structures that once served as walls to separate us will crumble and when we see that those on the other side of the wall are just like us, we will begin to forge a new sense of identity and hopefully one that bolsters equality and acceptance.
The optimist in me sees that the walls are coming down, and communities are connecting on their similarities rather than clashing over their differences. The realist in me sees that there is still a long ways to go still but as long as the movement is forward the movement is good.
See Fahamu Pecou’s new works in WHIRL TRADE opening this weekend at The Shooting Gallery
Opening Reception this Saturday, June 12th at 7pm
The show will remain on view from June 12 - July 3, 2010
The Shooting Gallery
839 Larkin St
San Francisco, CA
Open Tues – Sat 12 – 7pm
More on Fahamu Pecou at www.fahamupecouart.com