Art, music, Marxism, and much more

“As a young Marxist, I was looking for other ways to frame and understand the material that I was reading and interested in.”

In 2019, Absolut Art invited twenty-two artists to pay tribute to one of the greatest hip-hop groups of all time: the Wu-Tang Clan, the legendary outfit that put the New York borough of Staten Island on the map and blazed new trails for the genre. Curated by Oliver “Power” Grant, the co-founder of Wu-Tang Productions and Wu-Tang Brand, and independent curator Diya Vij, the collection brought together established and emerging contemporary artists that have been inspired at some point in their lives or careers by the group’s legacy.

In this interview, New York-based artist Devin Kenny recounts his lifelong history of listening to Wu-Tang Clan. For Kenny, Wu-Tang’s classic “C.R.E.A.M.” intersected with his exposure to Marxism to produce a work that gave his own take on what he was hearing and reading. Kenny also reflects on the aesthetics of Wu-Tang’s verbal style, the group’s commitment to independence, and their adversarial relationship with none other than “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli.

What has your relationship with Wu-Tang Clan been over the course of your life?

I listened to their music here and there growing up. I definitely have childhood memories of Method Man and Mary J. Blige, and of listening to “C.R.E.A.M.” and songs by ODB with my older sister. I wasn’t a super fan, but as a teenager, I was able to tap into the things that they were doing. The immense lyricism and the really interesting cadences, the way Ghostface Killa and Raekwon and RZA and his alter ego Bobby Digital would use the structure of a beat, was different from anyone else I had ever heard before. Sometimes they use a lot of being “in the pocket”—rather than making rhymes snap to the beat, or the grid, it’s a bit more syncopated, so the rhyme might happen off the snare drum. These different approaches can make it sound somewhat conversational but also super-poetic, and it’s interesting to have both of those things simultaneously.

Did anything in particular show up in your own work, or were they more, say, an inspiration to raise the bar for yourself?

I did some work recently at the Kitchen, in New York, on the invitation of the artist Sable Elyse Smith, who put out a book of poetry called C.R.E.A.M. I had done a street art installation, and I did a performance essay reflecting on that piece of street art. It was on this semi legal graffiti wall, called the Wall of Fame, in the South Side of Chicago, and it read “I hate that C.R.E.A.M.” The wall has since been torn down and replaced by a Target!

I was reflecting on some of the sentiments that are in that song, but connecting it to my reflections on gentrification. At that time, as a young Marxist, I was looking for other ways to frame and understand the material that I was reading and interested in.

What does it mean for you to be in a show inspired by the Wu-Tang Clan?

Music impacts and touches so many different fields of knowledge and sectors of society, even music that’s not like Michael Jackson or something, that’s not heard by ninety percent of the Earth. I’m fascinated by Wu-Tang because they’re a global phenomenon. They’ve remained popular worldwide for twenty years. I’m fascinated with them because they were very expansive in their approach, which is in some ways a precursor to the way “urban music makers” think, except that there was a strong philosophy behind the things they did, and it was about a certain kind of independence. They’re thinking about visual culture, a logo, a clothing brand, a lot of things that were unheard of in terms of ways for a musical group to think about themselves. There was the sense that the musical component was part of a larger project. I find that inspiring as a multidisciplinary artist. I hadn’t thought of them as an inspiration until now, but they were an example that I was aware of.

As a parallel to all the different things they got involved in, what was your impression of a rap group with so many members?

There’s strength in numbers. There’s people from Staten Island, which didn’t have a lot of popularity in other boroughs. People didn’t even think there were rappers there. Also, there was a lot of rivalry—Queens versus uptown, uptown versus Brooklyn—as to who had the best musicians. Having that united front served a purpose. Inter-borough unity was a political statement.

What else do you think artists and musicians of today can take from Wu-Tang Clan’s example?

I think Wu-Tang’s antagonistic relationship to [“pharma bro”] Martin Shkreli is something that more musicians need to emulate. When they put out that record that existed in only one copy, they created an artificial scarcity. When they found out that Martin Shkreli had bought it, it became a point of contention. There had to be more accountability for the people who were collecting your music. They’re speaking truth to power.