Black NFT Artists Believe They’re This Generation’s Hip-Hop

EPeople from all walks of the planet visit a Harlem Brownstone on E. 126th Street every year in an attempt to make history. There, in 1958, the iconic photograph of Esquire Magazine was taken by 57 jazz legends, from Thelonious Montk to Dizzy Gilespie. It was forty years later that hip-hop royalty such as Rakim, Grandmaster flash, and A Tribe Called Quest crowded the steps of XXL Magazine to claim their place in history for Black artistic excellence.

A new group of Black NFT artists climbed the steps to try and be part of the same legacy. This declaration may give some people pause. Crypto has been one of the year’s foremost cultural lightning rods, as the crypto market has aggressively slumped, hacks and thefts have mounted, and pyramid schemes have caved onto themselves.

But these artists and crypto builders are certain that there’s an unequivocal thruline between jazz, hip-hop, and the so-called Web 3. The crypto-builders and artists believe it could open the door to a more vibrant, resilient future for Black artists. They insist on continuing to recruit their peers, bear market and all. “It’s the same thing: It started from nothing,” says the rapper Fat Joe, who stood solemnly below the brownstone steps just as he had for the hip-hop shoot 26 years earlier. Referring to NFTs, he said, “It’s actually the only place where you can find an even playing field. It’s time to bring awareness and let everybody know that there’s opportunity for everyone.”

Gordon Parks photographed Fat Joe in 1998. Hip Hop Day: A Great DayGeorge Butler is photographed next to, which was taken in Art Kane’s 1958. Harlem: A Great Day.

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It wasn’t so long ago that the number of Black people in the NFT community was close to zero. When the Oakland-based photographer Brandon Ruffin became interested in the space in November 2020, he found “not even a few” Black voices in NFT conversations on the audio chat app Clubhouse. “It would make you question, ‘Is this a place for us?,’” he recalls.

Ruffin (also known as Ruff draft) was intrigued by the new space partly because it provided a different platform to Instagram’s constant churn. “On Instagram, I felt more restricted, like I really had to be anchored to the algorithm if I wanted to be relevant,” he says. “When I got on Clubhouse and met other photographers, I felt inspired and liberated from a lot of things that didn’t matter. It helped me focus on the art more, and made some really good friends.” Ruffin sold more than $40,000 worth of NFTs in December 2021 alone.

On Tuesday, June 21, the artists and other members of the community came to the stoop for photo recreation.

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Last November, the chef and event organizer Manouschka Guerrier showed up to NFT.NYC—a series of lavish events that took the city by storm at the height of the bull market—and found that she was often the only Black woman in the room. “It was my Uber drivers or bartenders who would look at me, and start asking me questions about NFTs,” she says. “I found myself onboarding a lot of New Yorkers.” Little by little, Guerrier and others made concerted efforts to bring Black artists and builders into the NFT space via social media and word of mouth. It was a community that grew.

Continue reading: New NFT Market Boom: Old Power Structures of the Art World are Fended Off by Artists

Encouraged by this growth, Guerrier became increasingly inspired by the space’s potential for decentralization and ownership, and the way it could open up a world where artists create freely, release their work to the public, and profit directly without the need for penny-pinching intermediaries. She had an idea for an event at the NFT.NYC June 2022. It would have a group of people who had never interacted with each other digitally.

On June 19, Harlem was open to Black NFT fans and artists. The goal of the event was to recreate iconic hip-hop and jazz stoop photos. About 90 showed up, from key artists at the forefront of the NFT movement, like Ruff Draft and Cory Van Lew, a painter whose colorful works have sold at Sotheby’s for hundreds of thousands of dollars, to entrepreneurs like Nait Jones, a founder of the NFT music startup Royal. (Notable no-shows included: the photographer Drift, who takes photos from atop skyscrapers and has sold millions worth of NFTs, and the curator Diana Sinclair, who co-runs the Digital Diaspora series, and the hip-hop artist Latashá.)

Nait Jones (founder of NFT Music Startup Royal), left with Ja Rule.

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This event attracted a hip-hop-oriented, older crowd who believed that NFTs would prove just as useful for them as for the younger generation. Many of hip-hop’s foremost elder statesmen have jumped into crypto, including Jay-Z, Nas, and Snoop Dogg. And in Harlem, a trio of beloved rappers who rose the prominence in the 90s—Fat Joe, Ja Rule, and Bun B—showed up to soak in the crowd and talk with younger artists. Metta World peace, a former NBA player, arrived smiling, and also launched his NFT group in April.

Ja Rule, who has several NFT ventures, spent most of his time at the event hyping up one of his proteges, the NFT artist Nick Davis, who created the art series “Black is Beautiful.” “We’re so programmed to believe that only the art that was done many years ago is the art that’s valued the most. But such great art is being done today in the NFT and Web 3 space,” Ja Rule said. “My vision and dream is to have Nick be a household name like Basquiat or Rembrandt.”

Brandon Ruffin, photographer, orchestrates the photo shoot on the stoop.

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In terms of race and class, the Web 3 space remains far from fair. Chainalysis, a blockchain data company found that less than 1% have more voting power in DAOs. Participants at Harlem’s event criticized NFT.NYC’s overwhelming whiteness and the monstrous noises coming from ApeFest (an event organized by the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a hyper-popular NFT group).

Guerrier said she understood why NFTs are under attack and that she would be happy to assist in reorienting some of the space’s goals. Guerrier wanted to share a new vision for NFTs with the June event. It was one that wasn’t based on excessive speculation but art. It is communal and not extractive. It centers Black culture rather than copying it for profit as in previous generations. “There’s some people who are just about money and clout. But for a lot of us in this space, it is about community, art, and love prevailing,” she says. “For Black people, generational wealth has eluded us for so long. Our creation of art and the way we express ourselves has inspired so many people, but we haven’t been financially rewarded. At least in this space, we get to do that.”

Kai Miller, digital strategist, agreed with her remarks and suggested that NFTs could be a solution to the exploitative nature the music industry. “When you’re getting into licensing and points on an album, you realize a lot of your favorite Black artists don’t even own their masters. Why did Michael Jackson and Jay-Z have to buy their masters back?” she says. “In the NFT space, ownership is from day one.”

NFT enthusiast and artists show off NFT art at the Harlem Stoop.

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As the group marched across the streets of Harlem, they carried posters of Davis’s vibrant artwork and chanted “Black is beautiful.” Once at the stoop, it took a while for everyone to squeeze into Ruffin’s frame. Ja Rule eventually took the lead, using his loud voice to guide people into the shot. There were many onlookers, including George Butler. He was a participant in the original 1958 day, having sat for hours at the curb beside Count Basie.

Fat Joe, who attended the 1998 shoot, thought about the connections between these two events. “Everywhere you looked, you saw hip hop royalty,” he said of the 1998 shoot. “I see what Ja [Rule] is trying to do here with the NFT world: pretty much trying to tap into the DNA of what was—and what’s going to be in the future.”

Gordon Parks photographs A Great Day in Hip-Hop Harlem, New York 1998

Gordon Parks—The Gordon Parks Foundation

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