“Eyes on the camera, lean in, look up.”
Artist Kehinde Wiley spits out directions so fast that it’s hard for a spectator to keep up, let alone one of his models. On an ordinary day the 37-year-old’s subject might be an anonymous young black male, plucked from the streets of New York — his renowned portraits recast classic art period pieces with young urban protagonists in heroic, royal poses. But today the star attraction in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio is far from unknown: It’s Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, 35, the producer/recording artist/hook man behind huge hits by Jay Z, T.I., Beyoncé and more.
Beatz recently finished his first term in a three-year program at Harvard Business School, where he bunked on campus in a dorm room, and he’s glad to finally have more time for his other love, art. Beatz is a noted collector and mixed-media artist himself: In 2010 he worked with Reebok to create special apparel lines featuring the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. He wears a lot of hats, and on this day, he’s doing it literally. Stripped of the outfit he showed up in — teal Reeboks, white cargo pants, white button-down shirt, a pendant of an Andy Warhol painting of Muhammad Ali — Beatz is now styled like an 1800s-era Sherlock Holmes: deerstalker cap, green trench coat and vest, brown khakis, tan tunic and white ascot-like undershirt.
“Eyes on the camera, same pose,” Wiley tells Beatz. “Slight twist of the head, slight arc. OK, let’s see what that looks like.”
Beatz walks off the set — a massive painted canvas fronted by dozens of real-life potted plants, making it look like a tree-lined field — and bends down to look at the rough images on a MacBook Pro. His eyes widen.
“That’s an album cover,” says Beatz, looking over Wiley’s shoulder. “I’m tellin’ you!”
That’s not a stretch. Two years ago, Wiley — arguably the most celebrated black artist since Basquiat — made the cover art for Master of My Make-Believe, the second LP from Santigold, which depicted the singer in an updated version of Joshua Reynold’s 1782 painting Portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton. In 2005, VH1 commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of LL Cool J, Ice-T and other rap legends for its Hip-Hop Honors special. He was even hired by Michael Jackson to do a massive portrait after the singer saw his work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2008. (Jackson died before the piece was completed.) While that may have earned the Los Angeles-bred Yale School of Art graduate buzz in music industry circles, Wiley had long been on Beatz’ radar.
“I was going through an art magazine,” says the producer. “I was like, ‘This guy is painting guys that look like they’re from my hood, but it was still being taken seriously.’ It wasn’t labeled street art; it was fine art. He took the pain from the streets and told a beautiful story with it.”
Last month, Grey Goose commissioned Wiley to create a portrait series called “Modern Kings of Culture” for its new vodka, Le Melon, made from Cavaillon melons — once favored by French royalty, which speaks directly to Wiley’s work. The limited-edition print, a mixture of photography and digital art, that Wiley and Beatz are shooting on this day will be revealed in Los Angeles on June 27 and auctioned for charity at Art Basel in December.
“It’s about celebrating contemporary royals, the sense of nobility that exists in all of us,” says Wiley. “This is an opportunity for me to pay homage to hip-hop. It transformed the way the world sees itself, the way that young people communicate about their dreams, their freedom, their hopes. There are thought leaders at its vanguard — the gatekeepers — and Kasseem is one of them.”
After a brief break, Beatz is now dressed in Civil War garb. Wiley hands him a giant ax, swaps it for a sword and then a musket, which the producer jokingly points at Wiley’s assistant manning the camera.
“Is this thing loaded?” asks Beatz.
“Handle with care,” replies Wiley.
A dog trainer ushers a Great Dane onto the set and hands Beatz the leash. Wiley coaxes Beatz into a three-quarter pose, with the dog glancing in the opposite direction. It’s a stately image, like something seen in an American history museum. After a few more shots, it’s a wrap.
“You photograph well,” Wiley tells Beatz, looking over the day’s work on the MacBook.
“The key is being in character,” replies Beatz. “It looks like I’m really there.”
“What you don’t see here is there will be little fireflies here and here,” adds Wiley, drawing with his finger on the screen.
Satisfied with the day’s work, the pair stand and embrace. “Now,” says Wiley, “one of these days you’ve got to let me see your process.”