Inside Set Free Richardson and Yasiin Bey's New South Bronx Hip-Hop Gallery

BB19 2018 - DO NOT EVER REUSE - ONE TIME USE ONLY!!!
Steve Sonny Bula
Bey (left) and Richardson.

Over two decades ago, when Set Free Richardson, then-director of entertainment marketing for And1 Basketball, first met Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, the rapper was signed to ’90s indie rap label Rawkus Records and recording his first solo album, Black on Both Sides. Through the years, the pair worked alongside each other on music projects and products with companies like EA Sports, Adidas and UGG. But their most recent venture, a new art gallery situated in the South Bronx, The Compound, is their most significant passion project yet. “Free and I have always been family,” writes Bey, 44, in an email. “It was a no-brainer for my brother [and I] to open up a gallery in such a historical borough and further bring together the art and hip-hop worlds.”

As development in the South Bronx accelerates, honoring its artistic legacy has become critical. “We had [the building complex] 5Pointz up here with all the graffiti and beautiful murals, and they knocked that down,” says Richardson, referring to the 2014 demolition of the building, which was known for the street art covering its exterior. “The Bronx had some of the great artists. A lot of the graffiti artists now” -- like KAWS, Barry McGee and Futura -- “have gotten transferred to blue-chip galleries, but they started in hip-hop.”

Created to celebrate the borough as the birthplace of hip-hop, the gallery -- where Richardson will oversee day-to-day operations and Bey, who lives in Paris, will curate special projects -- is an offshoot of Richardson’s creative studio of the same name. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory, Richardson opened it in 2006 after years spent working as an artist, producer and marketing consultant. It has been used for a Chris Rock commercial and an ad for Toshiba, and visited by musicians and athletes including Jadakiss, A$AP Ferg and Kevin Durant.     

The gallery’s first show, which will start when the space opens in September, is an exhibition of works by music photographer Jonathan Mannion, who shot classic album covers like JAY-Z’s Reasonable Doubt and Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP. In the future, Richardson hopes to be able to work with artists like painter-graffiti visionary McGee, multidisciplinary artist Hebru Brantley and graffiti collective Cat’s Crew. (He has already worked with contemporary artist Ron English.)

“The South Bronx didn't get its credibility for what it created in the culture,” says Richardson. “The story hasn't been told the way it should. I’m not saying that I’m the person that can tell the story best, but I do want to contribute to telling it.”

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 11 issue of Billboard.