Hank Willis Thomas: The spirit that cannot be crushed

“Hip-hop was the voice of New York—it wasn’t yet a global phenomenon—and it was just what people did. It was a part of life.”

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 Hank Willis Thomas says that Wu-Tang Clan put Staten Island on the map. For Thomas, the group is a shining example of the ways that young black men, despite society’s harmful messages about them, can assert their worth, their strength, and their creativity. Throw chess into the mix, and you have a truly unique musical collective, says the artist.

What are some of the things about Wu-Tang that still stand out for you?

They’re the ultimate collective. They came with a lot of people who each had a lot of charisma, a lot of egos, but rather than competing or infighting like a lot of bands, they were a great model for communally shared wealth and community growth. There wasn’t before and isn’t really another model I can think of. Even though the RZA is the leader, it’s not like there aren’t eight other personalities, and a lot of the others have had moments where they might have been the leader, because they all have leadership qualities. That’s the thing I love most about them.

Another thing is that they put out albums on, like, four record labels, so there wasn’t one record executive with power over them. They had greater negotiating power. They came out with a collective album, then Method Man had an album and then Ghostface put out an album and Raekwon put out an album, and the albums weren’t competing. They came up with a divide-and-conquer strategy even in the music industry, which is notoriously exploitative. The science of it all is what was so incredible.

A lot of the work I’ve done over the years has been collaborative, and they’re definitely a model.

What’s your relationship with them as a New Yorker?

If you grow up in New York, back when I was growing up, it was Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. That was New York. You might think about Nas and LL Cool J for Queens. Hip-hop was the voice of New York—it wasn’t yet a global phenomenon—and it was just what people did. It was a part of life. Everyone’s a rapper, everyone’s an MC, everybody dances. I wasn’t good at any of that, so I wasn’t a hip hop head, but it was part of being a New Yorker.

But they put Staten Island on the map. Who was from Staten Island?? It was a spot on the map that was often a joke. They turned it into Shaolin, and people know about Staten Island because of them. They were nine guys from very little means but with a big heart and a lot of creativity. What influenced me directly is their audacity. And that’s the beauty of hip hop generally: these kids who, the world told them they were nothing, but they showed the world how great they were. The defiance, the spirit that cannot be crushed! Robert Moses and other figures of power tried to destroy the community and they couldn’t. You have to think of them as kids, and they’re telling the world that they’re critiquing each other and critiquing violence even as they’re fascinated with it and participating in it. They even made chess cool!

Do you remember the first time you were exposed to the Wu-Tang Clan?

I remember their first interview on MTV. I was, like, “Who is this? There’s way too many of them!” This was 1992, right at the end of the MC Hammer era, right before Gin and Juice and the Chronic came out, right before hip-hop becomes pop music. You could get a reputation as a rapper but no one was making real money from it.

I really want to stress that because we live in the post-Obama era, the post Colin Powell era, the post Condoleezza Rice era . . . Oprah’s show was only five years old when Wu-Tang Clan came out. Almost all of the African Americans you saw in the media were tokens.

Tell me about the link between Wu-Tang and the pieces you’re contributing.

They did a song that is so iconic, I hear it whenever I go to an art fair: “C.R.E.A.M.” When I’m making those credit card works, I’m looking at the way black bodies were basically, literally, the money that our society was built upon. African American Express: our ancestors were on the ship, coming express from the continent. And the Master Card—who is the master? For me, that song is really talking about greed and how so many systems related to money can be dehumanizing and crippling.