Hip-hop changed dramatically from the 1990s to the 2000s. During the ’90s, Tupac detailed the struggles of a single mother trying to cope with a life of despair, NWA screamed their stance against the injustices of police and Public Enemy campaigned for people to revolt against institutional racism. As we moved into the 2000s, new labels emerged and some artists turned away from messages of empowerment and began to stunt on our television screens: popping bottles, dancing, flaunting jewelry and parading women around as material objects.
Now imagine you’re riding through the city with one of your A1s and Juvenile’s "Back That Ass Up" comes on, taking you back in time. That’s what happened when artist Kamari Bright was riding with poet Blu the Baqi and they thought up For the ’99 & the 2000s: An Exploration of C.R.E.A.M, their new multimedia show opening tonight at Martyr Sauce. The show title is a head nod to both the Juvenile song and Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” (That’s “Cash Rules Everything Around Me.” Now you know.)
"We thought we should do a show about the influence of music and media," Bright tells me.
Bright organized the show with Baqi and Aramis Hamer—a trio collectively known as the Trill Effect. All transplants from the Midwest, they linked up in 2015 and created their debut show The Trill Effect: A Dissection of Dominoes & Dogma at New Tomorrow on Capitol Hill. The Trill Effect name stuck, a “reflection of our lives and double consciousness,” Bright says, using the W.E.B. Du Bois-coined term for the internal conflict experienced by oppressed groups, particularly Black women.
When looking for a location for For the ’99 & the 2000s, Trill knew they wanted to do it at Tariqa Waters’ Martyr Sauce gallery. “Tariqa’s just a dope person and has always been supportive of my art,” Hamer says. Hamer showed some of her paintings at a show Waters curated with Jonathan Moore for the Re:definition gallery at the Paramount Theatre last year.
While Trill’s new show is influenced by an era of hip-hop, the music and its culture are only a jumping-off point for the exhibition. Just as hip-hop has always done, each artist grabbed certain elements from that time and channeled them into new works. (Imagine how far Mtume's "Juicy Fruit" would’ve gone had Sean Combs not challenged Christopher Wallace to rap over it.) The artists sampled songs from the era and then remixed them into new work: a collection of paintings, mixed-media works, sculptures, spoken word and film about what an era filled with messages of war, the glorification of money, mistreatment of women, violence and music did to a generation.
Hamer is known for her vibrant use of color in her paintings, but she parted with it for this show. Her surreal monochromatic triptych "Y2K" depicts salt shakers sprinkling missiles over baby pacifiers, two Cuban link chains and a bottle of liquor being poured over a woman. "'Y2K' came from thinking about the song 'Salt Shaker' by Ying Yang Twins, 9/11 and all the media coverage around it, and how women are treated in music," Hamer says. "During a time whenever we’re listening to music, partying, war is happening and children are having bombs dropped on them."
BET used to air a show called Rap City with Big Tigger. Kids (including me) would rush home every day after school to see Tigger invite people into his mother’s basement where he’d talk to them about what they were working on. The highlight of the show was whenever he’d have his guests go into the booth to rap. Baqi is recreating this moment by bringing a mic and freestyling spoken word over beat on the opening night.
Bright is debuting a video that highlights how media is used to manipulate minds and produce a false sense of self among people of color. "While it was a time of a lot of good music, we have to address the imagery and treatment of women in [music] videos," she says.
Notorious B.I.G. couldn’t have been more correct when he said, "You never thought hip-hop would take it this far."
For the ’99 & the 2000s is on view at Martyr Sauce July 6 through Aug. 1. The Trill Effect is also taking donations for the Peoples School for Positive Education, a school in Ghana, founded by Janet Jones Preston, where Bright and Hamer spent time teaching art to youth last year.