Hebru Brantley has given up on hip-hop—or so he says. Like many of those who grew up on Zulu Nation, Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul, Brantley is disheartened by the rise of folks like Chief Keef. Settling into an oversize booth at the Aviary—which, next to Brantley’s 6-foot-8 frame, actually seems appropriately sized—the Chicago artist takes a breath. He still smells like paint. Brantley has spent the summer preparing for his latest show, Brothers of the Robbing Hood, which runs through December 1 at Lacuna Lofts in Pilsen.
Brothers is a darker take on some of Brantley’s trademark characters like the Flyboy and Black Captain America. Rather than paint the hero saving the day, Brantley depicts him taking a cigarette break. Perhaps the show is a comment on Brantley’s disenchantment with black role models. “It’s really scary when someone like Chief Keef becomes the example for young people,” he says. “It makes me want to give up on hip-hop.”
Which would be hard—music has always been an important influence for Brantley. “I was a child of hip-hop, but when I was growing up, it was a ‘we’ and ‘us’ mentality—my community, my tribe,” he says, looking through the Aviary menu and eventually settling on an In The Rocks, a hollow ice cube filled with bitters, orange, vermouth, and rye (the drinker must slingshot the cube into the glass to release the booze inside). He goes on: “Today the music is all ‘I, I, I.’ It’s all shameless promotion and over-sensationalized violence and gaudiness. The hip-hop art form has been lost on these newcomers.” Despite Brantley’s grievances, there’s one young rapper whom he counts among his supporters: Lupe Fiasco, who was spotted at the Robbing Hood opening on Friday.
This may be Brantley’s blue period, but Robbing Hood is a fresh, if despairing, take on some of his common themes, like comic-book heroism and gritty urban life. It’s why the exhibit made our top ten list of art shows to see this fall.
Photography: Elly Fishman