Brian P. Kelly
Portrait of Chance the Rapper by Keeley Parenteau. Courtesy of Chance the Rapper and Shore Fire Media.
Chancelor Johnathan Bennett, better known as Chance the Rapper, is a true multi-hyphenate. The Grammy-winning hip-hop artist has founded a nonprofit to support issues impacting Chicago youth; appeared in television and film, including a voice-acting role in 2019’s The Lion King; designed hats for the White Sox; and dabbled in everything from poetry to cinematography—and that barely scratches the surface of his résumé.
Most recently, his interests have turned to visual art—not as a creator himself, but as a collaborator and advocate, interpolating contemporary art into an interdisciplinary series of new music. “I became consciously aware of the parallels in the visual art space and the recording art space this year just after taking a trip to Ghana and spending a lot of time with artists like Otis Kwame Kye Quaicoe,” Bennett said in an interview with Artsy.
While his realization about the cross-pollination between these two forms might be relatively new, Bennett’s exposure to the importance of art, especially in the Black community, came at a young age. “When I was growing up,” he explained, “all of my older family members, [such as] my aunt and my grandma and her sisters—people whose houses I visited—always had this very similar aesthetic of art that I came to find out later were prints from these very important artists.” He specifically mentioned Ernie Eugene Barnes and Annie Lee, both of whom depicted everyday Black life and are known, respectively, for works like The Sugar Shack (1976) and Blue Monday (1985).
As he learned more about the mission of these artists—“to create and name and document Black culture,” as Bennett described it—Bennett felt driven to contribute his own artistic ideas toward a similar project, while at the same time elevating lesser known voices from across the artistic landscape. Most recently, that’s included a collaboration with Chicago-based artist Mía Lee: “YAH Know,” which unveiled at MOCA Los Angeles last month, pairs a track and video created by the musician with a painting that features Lee’s signature half-smiling, half-snarling figures.
Below are five other visual artists who Bennett said inspires him and whom he’s worked with.
Nikko Washington, artwork for Chance the Rapper’s single “A Bar About a Bar,” 2022. Courtesy of the artists and Shore Fire Media.
Nikko Washington has worked in a variety of media—such as drawing, graphic design, and screenprinting—but he is best known for his paintings and his role as artistic director for the hip-hop collective Savemoney, of which Bennett is a part. But the two go back further than that.
“I’ve known [Washington] since I was 10 or 11 years old,” Bennett said. The two former grammar school classmates recently worked together on “A Bar About a Bar”(2022),a song and companion painting inspired by the 1977 Blaxploitation film Abar, the First Black Superman, which follows a Black family who moves into a prejudiced neighborhood, develops a special serum, and creates a superpowered crime-fighting bodyguard.
Washington, who live-paints in the music video, has, in Bennett’s words, “just always been a super talented, super deep guy, and knew a lot of history.” His figurative works are populated with Black characters, including athletes, servicemen, and performers. These everyday portraits particularly excite Bennett as they engage in a similar project as Barnes and Lee, in the way they “put Black culture in a time capsule,” he said.
This freezing of the moment is especially potent when it comes to the piece created for “A Bar About a Bar”: “[Washington] painting it and locking that moment in, it made it a forever thing that will always be a part of our culture,” Bennett said.
“Thelonious is another example of someone I was blessed to just be in their lives,” Bennett said of the Chicago-born, Florence-based painter Thelonious Stokes. Another collaborator whom the rapper has known since childhood, Stokes was “extremely artistic and talented since a young age: singing, creating music, designing clothing, and obviously painting,” Bennett said.
That final category is where Stokes decided to primarily focus his talents, becoming the first classically trained African American oil painter to graduate from the Florence Academy of Art. He initially made headlines in the art world with his portrait of Emmett Till and Till’s father, Louis, during Art Basel in Miami Beach last year. And he’s using his classical training to upend hierarchies: “He’s been doing a lot of Blackwashing lately,” Bennett said, “reclaiming stories from history and painting them with the right colors.” This reclamation of the past is a key inspiration for the rapper, who added, “He is trying to tell stories of ours that haven’t been told, but at such a magnificent scale and with such beautiful artistry that you’re arrested when you see his pieces.”
The two are currently at work on another one of the musician’s interdisciplinary projects. Bennett wouldn’t say exactly what each artist is creating, but his anticipation was palpable. “It’s the greatest piece of art I’ve seen come into fruition,” he said of Stokes’s contribution. “I’m very excited for the world to see it eventually. It’s very radical.”
Brandon Breaux, album art for Chance the Rapper’s 10 Day, 2012. Courtesy of the artists and Shore Fire Media.
Chicago-based artist and designer Brandon Breaux gets a lot of the credit for the new creative direction Bennett has taken. “Initially, the entire project came out of my working with [Breaux],” Bennett said. Breaux has worked for both artists (e.g. Leon Bridges) and brands (e.g. AlkaSeltzer), and designed the covers for Bennett’s mixtapes 10 Day (2012), Acid Rap (2013), and Coloring Book (2016). He worked on a different series of six works tied to Bennett’s music in 2018—the rapper described them as “interdisciplinary…the piece is married to the song, it’s not like cover art, it’s another arm of this piece”—that would serve an inspiration for the star to dive deeper into the world of contemporary art last year.
The psychedelic-tinged nature of Breaux’s album art spearheaded a trend in cover design—the influence can be seen in records by Drake and Kehlani, among others—and a similar aesthetic approach can be seen in his paintings (both digital and oil-based). His bold portraits of Black figures, including John Lewis, André Leon Talley, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Amanda Williams, call to mind the work of Barkley L. Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, but remain entirely Breaux’s own.
Naïla Opiangah, artwork for Chance the Rapper’s single “Child of God,” 2022. Courtesy of the artists and Shore Fire Media.
Gabonese painter and architect Naïla Opiangah recently collaborated with Bennett for his track “Child of God” (2022), live-painting a monumental canvas in the song’s music video at the House of Kicks, the rapper’s studio and creative space on the north side of Chicago. He met Opiangah in Ghana, collected her work, and told her about his plans to pair music with visual art. Her encouragement in this final area—Bennett calls her “the godmother” of his cross-media projects—and their discussions about the commodification and exploitation of artists today were central elements in Bennett’s growing interest in the contemporary art sector.
Bennett described Opiangah as creating “Black nude figurative art, and she uses her skills in architecture and mathematics to really create a dope perspective on it.” Now working between New York and Accra, Opiangah says her pieces are a “compilation of short and complicated stories about personal and communal life experiences.” Her paintings, primarily in oil, are especially focused on women and imbued with a rich physicality and nods to art history. The Child of God artwork, for example, features a tumbling mass of intertwined Black women, compositionally referencing Renaissance works while also slyly subverting them. As she explains in her artist statement, “Ultimately, the stories that I tell are tales of humanity as whole, narrated using the Black female body as the language.”
Yannis Davy Guibinga, artwork for Chance the Rapper’s single “The Highs & The Lows,” 2022. Courtesy of the artists and Shore Fire Media.
Originally from Gabon but now living in Canada, photographer Yannis Davy Guibinga focuses on African identity and the diaspora. He and Bennett connected after Opiangah put the two in touch, and they began working together—though not physically—on the project that would become “The Highs & The Lows” (2022). The two wouldn’t meet in person until the piece—consisting of Guibinga’s image of a man suspended mid-air between two planes of water, and Bennett’s song and music video, shot mostly around Venice during the Biennale and packed with references to Lorraine O’Grady—debuted at Art Basel in Switzerland earlier this year.
Guibinga’s portraits are richly saturated celebrations, reveling in pattern, texture, and skin tone. His subjects are unapologetically centered, often taking up the majority of the frame, and draw viewers in with a consistently mysterious sense of narrative. Rustling gowns and ruffled tulle are just as common as cowrie shells and beadwork in these loving images that reflect the panoply of diasporic experiences. That variety has had a major impact on the rapper: “I think a lot of the [interdisciplinary music] project has been able to come into fruition because of the collaboration with a lot of Black folks from different experiences,” Bennett said.