Verses from the Abstract in the Paths of Rhythm: Black Abstraction, Jazz/Hip-Hop Aesthetics, and The Rhythmic Expressions of Norman Lewis & A Tribe Called Quest

Afrovisualism
7 min readNov 29, 2019

Norman Lewis has greatly contributed to the canon of visual art through his teaching and shaping ideas behind black aesthetics. His paintings presented a new visual vocabulary to black life, one area being jazz music, a mode of black creative abstraction.

As a result of experiencing segregation in WWII, Norman Lewis changed his tune, transitioning from figurative to abstract expressionist works.

Norman Lewis in his NYC studio photographed by Anthony Barboza, Collection of the Smithsonian
National Museum of African American History and
Culture © Anthony Barboza

The rebellious nature of the Dada movement, distorted realities of Surrealism, technicality Cubism, abstraction in the previous decades was becoming the norm.

The era of abstract expressionism solidified the phrase art for art’s sake, object and form could mean almost anything. With abstract expressionism, art, objects, and sculptures were created on the basis of a variety of terminology: formalism, gesturalism [action-painting], and automatism. Formalism is a stringent way of defining art solely by its form and shape. Gesturalism [action-painting] is done by spontaneously splattering paint on canvas. Automatism is creating based on the acts of the unconscious mind. These concepts took into consideration the literal process of creating/making art [art-making] and pulling meaning out of it [meaning-making]. Abstraction itself is cerebral, it does have a psychological component yet means literally what we cannot see we can feel.

There was a prevalent racial divide in the art world the 1950s. Black artists like Lewis were faced with the dilemma of making representational versus political works. Norman Lewis's journeying into abstraction was because of this. His earlier work came from a social realist point of view, his paintings such as Untitled, 1943 and The Wanderer, 1933 were blunt images of the experiences he was trying to portray. His portraying these images as they were, wasn’t getting him the response he was looking for.

His transition echoed from his response that “The goal of the artist must be aesthetic development, and in a universal sense, to make in his own way some contribution to culture.” From this moment on his development as an artist continued to hone in on his framework of abstraction.

Street Music

Norman Lewis, Street Music, 1950. © Estate of Norman Wilfred Lewis.

“Street Music” was most likely painted with the intention of imaging a black aesthetic, combining abstraction, movement, and rhythm. Building off of Romare Bearden’s visual interpretation of jazz music, the lines and dots resemble figures. While it’s unclear who they are or what type of space they are in, the title of “Street Music” makes it clear. The scrawled appearance of the figures repeated from different angles almost seems they can be musicians, dancers or both. The figures look like they are dancing graffiti characters against a wall or canvas, an allusion to the happenings of hip-hop over 40 years later.

Spiral

Spiral was the first black visual artist collective that birthed a generation of artists whose goal was to consider the role of the black artist in the Civil Rights Movement, looking to Africa as a source of empowerment. Lewis met Romare Bearden, Hale Woodruff, and others who shared similar ideas on empowering black artists. Some artists were directly or indirectly influenced by Africa in their work. Lewis became the collective’s first president.

The impact of Spiral would inspire artists decades later form their own collectives and their own ideas.

Romare Bearden (left) with the co-founders of the Cinque Gallery where Spiral was founded: Ernest Crichlow (standing with glass) and Norman Lewis (seated farthest right). (Courtesy Romare Bearden Foundation)
Spiral Catalog first group showing May-June 1965

A Tribe Called Quest

A Tribe Called Quest — Legacy Recordings

A Tribe Called Quest presented themselves as they were, a group of guys from Queens, NY that wanted to contribute their youthful sound to the hip-hop soundscape. Not giving in to the warring factions of the East and West coast opposing notions of braggadocio and toughness, their approach had a certain light-hearted energy. Their music had a fun vibe, yet sophistication to hip-hop.

“Wipe your feet really good on the rhythm rug
If you feel the urge to freak, do the jitterbug
Come and spread your arms if you really need a hug
Afrocentric living is a big shrug
A life filled with fun that’s what I love
A lower plateau is what we’re above”
— Q-Tip “The Abstract”, Can I Kick It

Q-Tip, also known as “The Abstract” or “The Abstract Poet”, Phife Dawg who was a childhood friend of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White. With Q-Tip’s conscious leadership, Phife and Jarobi’s witty lines, and Ali Shaheed’s hand on the boards, the group was able to excel as individuals playing off each other’s strengths.

“We wanted to show that we understood the world and knew where it was headed and to celebrate it. It was about having self-identity and being empowered. We wanted to show people they could be comfortable just by being themselves and not having to mimic other people… There were so many different things that happened to make a young teenage Black male feel like he wasn’t going to amount to anything good and do well in society…By us being affected by this lifestyle and culture, we felt like we were hip, sophisticated, fine, educated, and intellectual, and we wanted to express that to the world.” — Ali Shaheed Muhammad, A Tribe Called Quest, Wax Poetics

Tribe was a breath of fresh air in the murky hip-hop scene. Hip-Hop was in transition into the 1990s the airwaves were dominated by gangsta rap. The media dubbed music like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul as “alternative rap” to downplay it’s messaging.

Afrocentricism was embraced by Tribe, like many hip-hop artists in N.Y.C. as well as their N.J neighbors were turning to Afrocentric thought for empowerment and intellectualism. Afrocentricity originated in the late 1970s decades later evolved into the fabric of black music, not as a gimmick but as an affirmation of black pride. Artists such as The Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah & Monie Love embodied similar sentiments as Tribe. Musically comprised of samples in jazz, funk and other obscure musical genres to achieve a layered. This period of artists would be later known as “The Golden Age of Rap.”

Native Tongues

Native Tongues Posse, (1990) Jeanette Beckman

Upon securing their record deal, Tribe forming the Native Tongues with the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, Queen Latifah/Monie Love, Black Sheep, all of these acts had shared respect for one another’s talent, with a concerted effort of coming together for the betterment of hip-hop music.

A Tribe Called Quest’s first studio album called People’s Instinctive Travels in the Paths of Rhythm speaks directly to the group’s beliefs. The sound of the album was completely different from gangsta rap.

The first single for People’s Instinctive Travels’ was I Left My Wallet In El Segundo presents a jazzy sound in comparison to the synthy breaks.

The Logo

Still from I Left My Wallet In El Segundo

A Tribe Called Quest’s logo was created by Nick Gamma [Zomb Art]. The logo was first seen in the music video for I Left My Wallet in El Segundo. We see the logo appear in the intro as a rolling animation and throughout the stick figures dancing to the rhythm of the song.

Still from I Left My Wallet In El Segundo

These stick figures in motion have a distinct similarity to Norman Lewis’s Street Music. The moving image is like a musical motif to Lewis’s painting, as well as jazz aesthetics, it is evident that hip-hop’s connection in jazz can be seen in Norman Lewis’s work that features these “dancing figures”.

Even the album cover of People’s Instinctive Travels in the Paths of Rhythm displays jazz motifs with nondescriptive figures with hand-drawn linework and a warm & cool color palette is much like Jacob Lawrence or Romare Bearden’s work.

The similarities between The Tribe’s mentions of traveling and performing relate in Norman Lewis’s fascination with crowds and movement that jazz has an intrinsic connection to people, rhythm and movement.

Lewis’s and Q-Tip [The Abstract] had similar connections to blackness and abstraction as a mode of expression. Their perspectives on abstraction and rhythm both formed collectives to advance black creative expression. Both have contributed to a visual-musical continuum of blackness in abstraction.

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Afrovisualism

The originator of Black Aesthetic Continual Theory. Crate-digging for samples & links. Moodboarding on the decks. https://www.instagram.com/afrovisualism/