You may not think at first that rappers and sculptors have a great deal in common. As artistic disciplines, they differ greatly: one is about lyrical exuberance, the other the manipulation of materials and form. But there are parallels, and historically arts and music have inspired each other. The creative process, the role of art itself, and the lessons to be drawn from work – these belong to every artist’s life, no matter the medium.
Rapper Nas and artist Kennedy Yanko have something else in common. Both call New York their home, even though the rapper recently moved to Los Angeles. We meet them both in Brooklyn, where the two stars get together to learn more about each other’s work and tour “the city that never sleeps” in a purple BMW M3 Competition.
The small excursion takes us for a rare look behind the scenes of two incredibly successful contemporary artists, beginning first in Yanko’s studio, then moving on to Nas’ home turf in the Queensbridge borough, before ending up at Sweet Chick, a restaurant co-owned by the rap star.
Nas (born Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones) began his career in Queensbridge in the early ‘90s, quickly establishing his name as a creative and supremely gifted lyricist. These were the early years leading up to East Coast rap’s golden age in the late 1990’s, an era Nas would very much come to define with numerous best-selling singles and albums.
His debut album “Illmatic,” released in 1994, is still regarded as one of rap’s great classics, long ago canonized as a modern masterpiece, and a must-have for any serious collector. The same can be said of several of his following hit titles, “It was written,” “I am…,” “Nastradamus,” “God’s Son,” and “Stillmatic,” to just name a few. Ask anyone with a taste for beats and bars, and you will know: It really is no exaggeration to place Nas as one of rap’s all-time greats, a true master of his discipline, with a unique talent for constant reinvention and creative storytelling that has made his name eternal to fans worldwide.
Kennedy Yanko was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but today lives and works in Bushwick, Brooklyn. She has built a name as one of the most talented sculptors and installation artists of her generation.
Yanko’s work primarily consists of metal and paint-skin sculptures created from scrap metal, marble, glass and large pours of paint that she lets dry and then sculpts. Yanko describes her process as a “dialogue and redefinition,” in which she attempts to understand the material’s physical properties so that she can transition it away from its previous form and kindle new perceptions and subsequent new expressions.
Yanko debuted three solo shows in 2019, “Highly Worked” (New York, NY), “Hannah" (Chicago, IL) and “Before Words” (Grand Rapids, MI), which created momentum for another two solo shows in 2020, “Because it’s in my blood” (Milan, IT) and “Salient Queens” (Los Angeles, CA). In 2021 she opened two more solo shows, “Postcapitalist Desire” (New York, NY)and “Three Generations” (New York, NY) and she became the Rubell Museum’s Artist in Residence, a prestigious honor. During her residency, she created her largest works to date, now installed at the museum, and just made their public debut; the title of her exhibition is “White, Passing.”
Her work is in public and private collections, on display at institutions like the University of Southern Florida and private museums like The Bunker Artspace in West Palm Beach, Miami, and Espacio Tacuari in Buenos Aires, Argentina (➜ Read also: How to become an art collector).
So, what happens when two such minds meet to find common ground? For starters, a realization that creativity really cannot be placed in rigid boxes or disciplinary categories.
“Rap music is all about speaking things into existence,” Nas says, when asked about his modus operandi; how and why his lyrics take the form they do. “From your mind to the page, to the recording. It really is a great experience because you see that words are power. But anyone can do it really. Anyone can find this kind of creativity, and even the smallest things can be an inspiration. It’s all about tapping into it.”
“Yeah, I think about that a lot in my work,” Yanko chimes in, “the transmutation from thought into existence that happens when I am sculpting. There is something energetic and vibrational there.”
From your mind to the page, to the recording. It really is a great experience because you see that words are power.
Moving from thought to reality, though, can be easier said than done. Any artist knows that inspiration and moments of clarity cannot be organized, planned, or controlled (➜ Read also: Jeff Koons: the meaning of It all). And as the two artists quickly agree, sometimes it’s even better not to know.
This is particularly true for Yanko. A part of her creative process, she has revealed, consists of entering a “formal dialogue” with her materials – often scrap metal sourced from her many drives out of town – to fully understand their properties and present form. Only then will she know how to treat the material and take her first careful steps towards creation.
“I have this ‘thing’ that I am responding to,” she says of this process. “And I can only have so much idea of how I will respond to it before I’m physically with it.”
“Sometimes I can go into the studio and have no plan and come out with the best stuff I have done in years,” Nas adds, agreeing. “I like to not have a plan. Sometimes that’s when you come up with the stuff that is unexpected. And it’s so rewarding to realize you had that inside of you the whole time. You just go in there and let the room speak to you.”
I have this ‘thing’ that I am responding to.
Oftentimes, this can be a lonely task. It is a burden that the brilliant must carry alone. But as the worlds of art, fashion, design and everything in between turn increasingly to collaborations, cross-field cooperations and co-creative thinking, so too do new opportunities arise for gaining new perspectives (➜ Read also: All about the hustle).
This will be nothing new to Nas, though. Rap has a long and well-documented history of these co-creations; rap artists rarely release albums without guest rappers or singers appearing on select tracks. In the words of Nas, he doesn’t “make all the music himself.”
“I always collaborate because I work with producers. And they may want to hear me with another artist, and I may have never thought about it. So, because a producer has this idea, we put something together that I couldn’t even see happening myself. I love when it comes together like that.” To Yanko, it is a bit of a different story. The young artist knows very well that working as an artist can be a lonely job. “We talk about being alone,” she says. “But when I started sculpting, it pulled me into the world as I went out looking for materials, and it really opened my eyes. I found something inside myself that could be supported [by others]. That really changed a lot for me.”
When I started sculpting, it pulled me into the world as I went out looking for materials, and it really opened my eyes.
It is exactly this kind of change that can alter the game entirely for anyone hoping to break through and catapult them into a starry sky. But how do you know where to turn for inspiration, or which impulses will serve you well and which will not? (➜ Read also: Jeff Koons and the art of leadership).
“I think it’s important that you work with someone, it should feel like you both have a common interest in what could come out of you coming together,” Nas weighs in. “Other times, you might see people doing stuff, and it may be interesting, but it’s not for you.”
“Ultimately it’s about contribution,” Yanko adds. “If we are building something together, then we’re creating our shared experience and our contribution together. So, in thinking about who we work with and who we act with, it’s really about alignment and feeling at ease.”
I’m always at the edge of my seat.
Both Nas and Yanko will have plenty of reasons to feel at ease, regardless of who they choose to work with or not.
Over the span of almost three decades, Nas has by now literally done it all. He has multiple awards under his belt, most recently adding a Grammy in March 2021 after a whopping 14 nominations throughout his career. Add to this millions and millions of record sales and downloads and a successful career as an entrepreneur, philanthropist and mentor. As for Yanko, the party is just getting started. The artist’s works are in heavy demand, as she makes waves on the international art scene. Most recently, one of her sculptures was the highest-bidding item at a Sotheby’s live auction at the Andy Warhol Museum Gala in New York, NY.
So how do the two keep up their steam as they look for the next challenge? What really edges them forward in their quest for the next flash of inspiration or tweak to the process that will produce the next piece of work?
To Nas, the recipe is clear. Something as simple as good-old curiosity seems to do the trick.
“I am always on the edge of my seat to see what’s going to happen next,” he says. “It’s all about the anticipation to see what comes after this. I am always excited about the next thing.”
To Yanko, in turn, the key seems to be her ability to surprise, perhaps most of all, herself. “The thing that I am always shocked by is that it happens,” she says.
“I have this feeling that I can’t believe [what I create] looks and feels exactly how I wanted it to feel. And it’s one of the most satisfying experiences of all to be able to create like that.”
Nas and Kennedy Yanko were both present as specially invited guests and performers as BMW revealed the new BMW Concept XMat the recent Art Basel Show in Miami.
Author: David Barnwell; Photos: BMW; Video: BMW