Prolific artist and musician Swizz Beatz explains how Instagram can change lives

swizz beatz canon unknowns swizzy
Getty Images for Canon

The art world is a gated community. Instagram, where a picture of a cat cleaning itself can be in the same feed as a surrealistic oil-on-canvas painting, is not one of those gatekeepers; it’s more of a funhouse. On February 2, the Grammy Award-winning music artist and producer, Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, and Canon decided to change that with “The Unknowns.” The exhibition, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Canon EOS Rebel DSLR camera, featured pieces from unknown artists discovered through Instagram put on display in a silent auction at Sotheby’s in New York City.

For the campaign, artists would submit by posting an art piece on their personal Instagram account with #TheUnknowns hashtag. Swizz Beatz, as he is commonly known in the music community, curated the event, sifting through over 4,000 selections to pick only a handful. The artists, he told us, “No gallery would accept them, no museum would ever show them, no auction house would ever sell them.” 

Jason Seife, Eddie Coella, Ron Haywood Jones, and Princess Smith were the four artists featured during the event; their works had also been showcased at the Brooklyn Museum and Bronx Museum, as part of the campaign. Haywood Jones heard about “The Unknowns” project a week prior to the January blizzard that blanketed New York City in snow. He stayed up “until 5 a.m. for two or three nights in a row just to get the work done,” and all he wanted to do while being surrounded by potential buyers of his work is go home and work more. “I’ve got rocket boosts tied to me, I want to blast off.”

In an interview with Digital Trends at the event on Tuesday, Swizz Beatz discussed how Instagram changed his life, which hip-hop album covers compare to great works of art, and so much more.

How did your partnership with Canon for “The Unknowns” happen?

Canon noticed what The Dean Collection [an art exhibit Swizz Beatz curated in 2014 for the Scope Art Fair during Art Basel in Miami] was doing in the art world, which I am very grateful and humbled. I only do partnerships that I can give back to the artists. When they explained the concept and they explained the Rebel’s 25th anniversary, I was like, “Wow, this is a good time to spread some love and show some love at the same time.” The concept was “unknowns.” We had a bunch of concepts, but we landed on “unknowns,” which I thought was the strongest out of what we had. Unknown artists, sitting around on their Instagram chilling, painting, probably having the worst day ever. Then we collectively send this Instagram out saying, “Hey, we about to do something cool, we’d love you to be a part of it. Use these hashtags to show us your work. Good luck.”

How has the unveiling of “The Unknowns” art been so far?

We started on New York City museums. The Brooklyn Museum, the Bronx Museum, and, now, we’re at Sotheby’s doing a silent auction. There’s a [Jean-Michel] Basquiat on the wall right here, there’s an original Kaws right here, and then there’s the Unknowns in the other room that’s bigger than this [room]. I love being able to be in a position to help lead the movement, which leads to what I did in Miami with No Commissions [at Art Basel].

You have been in the entertainment industry for 20 years and have been able to adapt to every trend. You were a millionaire by 18. What do you think Instagram has done for the appreciation of photography and quality photography?

I don’t categorize it. You say “photography,” I say “the arts,”period. That’s all forms of art. Photography, videography, visual, music. I think Instagram brought those words to life. When we were using the other platforms it was more words. More expression through words in black and white. Now, when you put the visuals to those words, some visuals you don’t even need words, it becomes an experience. Instagram changed my life. People wouldn’t understand I’m in the art world the way I am if it wasn’t for Instagram. I can’t explain that on a text. I could just send you a picture of this room [with caption], “Sotheby’s we here with The Unknowns, about to start up.” They’re going to know what that means. They’re going to have the visual of that. They’re going to paint the picture in their minds, and then they’re going to have the connectivity with that as well.

Which life stories of “The Unknowns” really grabbed you?

So many stories, man. One of the artists from tonight’s show, Ron [Haywood Jones] – I’ve seen him, when I used to live in SoHo. He sells his work on the streets. That’s why when you look at his work at the show there’s no framing, no nothing. He’s working with bare minimums to get his point across. To see him really in those streets, probably sleeping in those streets sometimes, to being projected on these museums and able to be at Sotheby’s for his work. He was cool if nobody bought one piece, which is the reason why I never bought a piece. Let me explain to you. I would see his work and compliment him. He’d be like, “You can take one piece home if you want. Live with it. I see you with your kid. Don’t worry. I’m here every day. There’s no pressure.” He made me feel so comfortable. He didn’t pressure me or say, “Help me out, I need something to eat.” He didn’t put that reverse pressure on me. He always kept it smooth and kept it about the art. That’s a true artist. To see that he submitted to the program and got picked was even ultra amazing.

The type of juxtaposition between the prestige of the Basquiat and “The Unknowns” has always permeated your work. You usually mix gritty hip-hop with beautiful landscapes in your paintings and music. From your decades of hip-hop appreciation, what album covers would you put up there with the Basquiats and the Warhols?

That’s fresh. I would put [Boogie Down Productions’ 1987 debut album] Criminal Minded up there with a Basquiat, because Basquiat was rebellious. Even though his father was a great businessman, he decided to go out on his own and be rebellious and fight for what he thought was right. I would also put any Public Enemy album cover with a Basquiat, because it’s the same thing. For Warhol I would put up…hmm..who would I put up for Warhol? For Warhol I would put up Andre 3000’s [2003 album The Love Below]. Andre was a smooth operator but still poised in his execution. He took the pop culture and flipped it and took it to another place like on Love Below.

It was announced earlier today that you will be at the 8th-Annual Roots Picnic. So will your longtime friend and collaborator DMX. The last time I saw you at a festival-like environment, you were battling Kanye West at Hot 97’s Summer Jam in 2007. What can we expect from Swizz Beatz at this type of festival?

I didn’t even speak to DMX about that, yet. I have to think that out. I have to plan my attack. I’ve been so focused on this, I didn’t plan my Roots Picnic attack. I guarantee you, I’m going to stop the place. I’m going to show them how to do this. It’s only right. We’re going to have fun. Shout out to The Roots for doing something amazing. I’m happy to be a part of it. I’m happy I’m confirmed for it, and I’m happy DMX is confirmed for it. Now I can really add some more ammo to the fire. Maybe some things people haven’t heard before. [Laughs]

You can bid on some of the art here. Here is a gallery of the art from Swizz Beatz and Canon’s silent auction for “The Unknowns.”