Hip-hop horseman: Fab 5 Freddy gallops through Renaissance art

The rapper and graffiti art legend is taking a ride through Florence and its masterpieces. He talks about their enlightened depictions of black people – and reveals who was the Renaissance Tupac

There’s something of the Renaissance man about Fred Brathwaite, AKA Fab 5 Freddy. A graffiti artist turned film-maker, producer and curator, Brathwaite spent much of the 80s speeding from downtown to uptown New York, connecting the punk scene with hip-hop DJs and graffiti crews like his Fabulous Five. He worked with everyone from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Nas, Blondie and the Clash. With his signature Kangol hat and oval shades, he became a torchbearer for hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s, fronting MTV’s flagship rap show and conducting formative interviews with a fresh-faced Tupac and a typically spaced-out Tribe Called Quest.

Upgrading the Kangol for a fedora and the shades for thick-rimmed reading glasses, Brathwaite now has the calmly authoritative air of an elder statesman. So much so that he has moved into Alan Yentob territory, making a film for the BBC about the hidden representations of black figures in Italian Renaissance art, under the painfully alliterative title A Fresh Guide to Florence with Fab 5 Freddy. He even opens the show on horseback, trotting outside the Uffizi like a feudal lord. Where other hip-hop luminaries like Wu Tang Clan have their obsessions with shaolin kung fu, OutKast with aliens and MF Doom with comic-book villains, it seems Braithwaite’s cultural touchstones are rather more academic.

While his show is serious, Brathwaite is on terrific form when he turns his hip-hop-referencing gaze on to art history. Machiavelli is “Tupac’s guy”, Michelangelo is “the Michael Jackson of the Renaissance”, as well as being a “street artist” for his wall drawings in the Medici tombs. And he revels in the controversy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which almost saw the artist excommunicated for its eroticised nudity.

Eroticism controversy … Braithwaite and Titian’s Venus of Urbino.
Eroticism controversy … Brathwaite and Titian’s Venus of Urbino. Photograph: BBC Studios

The roots of his fascination run deep. “When I was a kid,” he says, “I would cut school to travel around Manhattan museums.” The Metropolitan was his favourite because of its lax entry policy. “I would show up and toss a nickel in the admissions box then spend a day in fantasy land, going from English armour to Renaissance paintings, pop art to expressionism.”

It was an unusual interest, not one he could share with “the kids on the corner from the hood”. But it sparked his own artistic career as a subway graffiti artist and led to a lasting bond with Basquiat, who he met as a teenager. “He would spend a lot of his childhood at the Brooklyn Museum just as I did at the Met,” he says. “Finally, there was someone I could talk to about Caravaggio and Rothko. We were both so impressed with the radical nature of modernist manifestos like futurism. They gave us – two young, black kids – the capacity to articulate what we wanted to say.”

He thought a lot about Basquiat while making this film. “I don’t know if he ever went to Florence but he would have absolutely loved it. The fact that the works are shown where they’re intended to be, in their basilicas, would have been very important to him. He cared a lot about how his work was shown.”

‘They just thought we were grimy criminal kids’ … Braithwaite in front of a work by Lee Quiñones in Harlem, 1979.
‘They just thought we were grimy criminal kids’ … Brathwaite in front of a work by Lee Quiñones in Harlem, 1979. Photograph: Deborah Feingold/Getty Images

This need to control the narrative around creativity was a result of the racial restraints of the 80s, which also affected Braithwaite. “Gallery people would be shocked that I knew who people like Ad Reinhardt were,” he says, laughing. “They wouldn’t expect a black kid from Brooklyn to be into these things. Nobody was writing or saying anything positive about the graffiti we were doing. They just thought we were grimy criminal kids. So that’s why I made Wild Style.” This was his 1982 film about a fictional graffiti artist from the Bronx called Zoro. “We had to take control and show graffiti to the world. We made it street art and we’ve given you Banksy now.”

Wild Style, directed by Charlie Ahearn, has since become a cult classic in documenting the genesis of hip-hop. The first film to weave together the threads of record-scratching, MCs, graffiti art and breakdancing, it gave a sense of the movement in its entirety, featuring such prominent figures as subway graffiti artist Lee Quiñones, DJ Grandmaster Flash and Brathwaite himself. “Hip-hop falls in the lineage of the great artistic revolutions of history,” he says, “but we didn’t have any patronage or financial backing. From the Harlem Renaissance to our scene, we just went out and did it.”

Manhattan giants … from left, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Brathwaite.
Manhattan giants … from left, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Brathwaite. Photograph: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

The message took time to spread, though. It wasn’t until the early 90s and the arrival of NWA, Tupac and the Notorious BIG that hip-hop went global. “Again, it’s race that held us back,” Brathwaite says. “There was a movement of radical creatives in New York and they were all outsiders. But we were so outside we were almost locked out.”

In his new film, Brathwaite looks back to the Italian Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries when, he believes, racial stereotypes were not as prevalent. He references such works as Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge, with its realist depiction of an elegantly dressed black gondolier in the foreground, citing it as an example of Italian metropolitan multiculturalism. “What was interesting was that before the African slave trade began, the concept of race didn’t really exist,” he says. “The depictions of African people weren’t stereotyped. They were presented faithfully and they were just seen as part of life. Then you skip to the 1980s, when you think we would have come much further, and you have critics and gallerists calling Jean-Michel’s work ‘tribal’. I remember thinking, ‘You’re an ignorant racist if you think he’s some wild man that they pulled off the streets and locked up in the basement and gave some paints to.’”

Brathwaite snaps a statue of architect Filippo Brunelleschi.
Brathwaite snaps a statue of architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Photograph: David Shulman/BBC Studios

Brathwaite sees the mid-17th century tomb of Doge Giovanni Pesaro – a gargantuan marble monument held up by sculpted depictions of four grimacing slaves – as a turning point. “That made me sick to my stomach,” he says. “It was visceral to see how these black figures were carved and then to know that this is how black people would continue to be represented after the African slave trade started. Before it began, slavery wasn’t as brutal – it would be conquered people following their conqueror’s religion and language. It was a milder form of slavery, not the barbaric, for-profit trade that then developed.”

The tomb is certainly an arresting sight, but anyone who regards all slavery as exploitative and subjugating may take issue with Brathwaite’s comments. Academics have also documented how multiculturalism contributed to racial stereotypes. Racism and the concept of race, it seems, stretch much further back than the Renaissance.

Brathwaite fares better when he examines how art represented marginalised figures, calling this “giving the pioneers their dues”. His film analyses overlooked early Renaissance depictions of Africans, such as Mantegna’s Scenes from the Life of Christ, where an African king is depicted among the wise men coming to worship the birth of Christ, and Giotto’s Trial by Fire, which shows St Francis walking through flames to convince the surrounding African nobility of Christianity.

In Brathwaite’s view, there is no caricature of Africans here, just humanistic depictions, albeit in the background. “Unfortunately, black people are still misrepresented in the media and art world,” he says. “There need to be more people of colour in positions of responsibility, otherwise black people will remain invisible in plain sight as they are in these paintings. Everyone needs to be represented equally.”

One hip-hop pioneer Brathwaite references is 70s DJ Grandmaster Flowers. A staple at the New York parties Brathwaite would attend as a young man, Flowers fell into obscurity and crack addiction. In the 90s, Brathwaite spotted him one day, homeless and begging, outside a record store where he was filming for MTV. “They say the first through the door gets all the bullets,” he says. “I just managed to dodge some. So it’s my role to talk about these people like Flowers, who left without a trace.”

Brathwaite has certainly managed to leave a trace. Recently donating his hip-hop archive to the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, he is no longer a radical outsider. “Being honoured after your death is the struggle that revolutionary art movements have,” he says. “You’ll always run up against ignorant people and you have to tear through those boundaries, whether you like it or not. That’s why I was so taken by the technical innovations of Renaissance art and even by what the punks were doing in the 80s because they were all challenging people. I’m lucky I’m still here and I’ll keep on pushing those boundaries. There’s still so much to discover.”

• A Fresh Guide to Florence with Fab 5 Freddy is on BBC2 on Saturday 27 July at 9pm

  • This article has been amended to correct the spelling of its subject’s surname, Brathwaite.


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

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