A few years before his death, as part of a church-sponsored anti-drug campaign, Ghanaian disco pioneer Kiki Gyan spoke at my secondary school in Accra on the dangers of drug use. By that time, addiction had become the defining menace of his career—and had, in fact, impeded it. At Aggrey Chapel, situated on the Achimota campus, a cohort of murmuring students and staff gawked at the musician as he mounted a podium with a toylike keyboard perched on the altar. The framing of the whole thing was denigrating and ill-suited to his renown.
Like most of my peers, I was familiar with Kiki’s story, and with developing musical aspirations of my own, it had instilled some degree of fear and suspicion about following a path that could so easily imperil one’s dignity. Kiki, who’d been a child prodigy touring the world at 15 with Osibisa, the ubiquitously successful 1970s Ghanaian Afro-funk outfit, was now un-housed and rumored to be sheltered at a church in a suburb of Accra. Notably, Hugh Masekela had tried helping him out by enrolling him in a rehab facility in South Africa.
It was also public knowledge that the musician had been diagnosed with HIV. In the hyper-religious context of conventional Ghanaian society, rife with misinformation about the illness, it was regarded as some kind of retribution for deviance. Gyan had been shaped by segments of the Ghanaian media into an ideal scapegoat, condemned in a way that was utterly agnostic to the exploitation and years of neglect within the music industry.
If all that judgment and stigma hung in the humid air of the chapel that evening, it began to dissolve when he followed his talk by playing his music with such infectious joy that the audience couldn’t help but be both charmed and elevated by it. With an ease that starkly contrasted with his strained physical appearance, he set loose splendid riffs and flourishes on the keyboard. There was an effortless freedom in his performance, especially given the rigid and patronizing setting, signaling something irrevocable. We all cheered, momentarily liberated from the perception of the musician as some kind of tragic figure. I had a vague inkling that I was witnessing something foundational about irreducible human complexity. I doubt I could have expressed it this way, but I’d taken the lesson to heart.
Not long after I’d moved to Canada to attend university, someone I knew and made music with was murdered at a concert. Another friend quit his tree planting job on site, but never made it out of the woods—he is still on the missing persons list in Canada. For the first time in my life, I experienced tragedy up close. It was a trying period as I struggled to get through my undergrad studies in Hamilton, a city that at the time seemed to amplify the miasma of confusing cultural shifts I was experiencing. I began making music with greater intensity as a way to cope.
I happened on Julian Schnabel’s 1996 film Basquiat (1996) on TV while flipping through the channels in an apartment I was sharing with a friend. It is, in many ways, a flawed biopic except for Jeffery Wright’s presence and a few illuminating sequences. At the time, I didn’t care—I knew nothing about the artist or his work.
I’d landed on a scene that I know now is near the end of the film. Wright as Jean-Michel Basquiat walks down a city block in a bathrobe and “titanic” clogs. He’s just tried visiting his mother, who’s in one of her stints at a mental institution, and he wasn’t let in. Stoned and possessed by immobility, Basquiat looks up and sees a vision of a man surfing the clouds. He’s revived, and everything seems brighter. He’s picked up some food from the health food store; he’s getting clean. Trailing him is his friend Benny (played by Benicio Del Toro), who is maybe real-life Al Diaz, Basquiat’s graffiti partner. The artist begins narrating a story he’s heard from his mother—or perhaps he’s dreamt it. We hear his narration over a montage.
In the story, a young prince has his voice stripped away by an evil lord and is locked in a cell. He bangs his head against the bars, and it makes such a beautiful sound that everyone tries to grab hold of the air; they can never free him, yet he keeps making this sound.
Jeffery Wright doesn’t perform Basquiat as much as approximate the kind of un-selfing Basquiat does; you can see it in the surviving interviews and documentaries—it’s uncanny. This fragment of the film, better than the whole, rang in an aesthetic and emotional register I could pick up on. I was enchanted. The bond I felt with the artist—who was at the time unknown to me and whose essence felt like it was charging into my living room via a subpar biopic—was reminiscent of Kiki’s performance. It was an experience tinged with melancholy, as complex as it was resonant and familiar.
I set out to familiarize myself with the painter and his works. I wanted to grasp his preternatural sophistication, which could spill through an actor with enough skill to channel it. I found the implausible in his art; a Black multitude in chorus, a cryptic style crackling with prophetic energy.
When Basquiat re-emerged around the mid-‘10s as a Black millennial muse, I understood the effect. I was sure that it was less the artist’s sense of style and more the totality of expression that required a grasp of tragedy balanced through a prodigious act of (un)self-possession. I re-watched the film recently—which continues to age terribly—but I was struck by how Schnabel, parodying himself in the character of Albert Milo played by Gary Oldman, suggests to a despondent Basquiat that his audience might not be born yet.
In his lecture titled The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity, delivered to an audience at the New York City Community and broadcast on WBAI in November 1960, James Baldwin claims not to know what words like “courage” and “integrity” mean. To Baldwin, they’re attempts to get at something that is just beyond the words, and the triteness that develops from their overuse. He says, “The terrible thing is that all these words, the reality behind them, depend on choices one’s got to make forever and ever and ever, every day.” He explains that integrity is a metaphor for “the struggle which is universal and daily of all human beings to get to become human beings.”
I’m weary of the image of artists locked in material and psychological battles under the burden of their gifts. It is reductive and useless a stereotype as any. What Baldwin is addressing, however, is a particular mode of creative effort that is universal and indicative of human depth and complexity. He speaks to the worthwhile attempt to assert one’s expansiveness which requires an abundance of grace or Amor fati. “Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that any safety is an illusion,” he says elsewhere in his lecture. His is an analysis of a shared existential condition premised on relentless seeking and courage. It marks singular creative pursuits and outputs as symbolic of all our endeavors to gain wisdom and make meaning out of and against forces that try to reduce this experience of being alive.
I’ve come to understand integrity in the way Baldwin expresses it, not so much as a moral mandate but rather a point of view that one adapts to their abilities and their work—a way in which one’s ego becomes porous in connection to the lives they have to lead in support of an open and resonant vision. When I hear people talk about respecting the process over the outcome, I often think of the spiritual implications of that statement, and the more I think about the night of Kiki’s performance, the more aware I become of the undeniable truth of it all. In my own life and career, as the demands of my work have sometimes exceeded my concerns for safety and comfort, I have tried to rely on the concept of integrity to evade any fears, particularly on the inevitability of human failure and hurt. For me, tragedy is of immense value to art and life if one is able to accept that it is something we all must grapple with and that what we truly are in spirit is irreducible. This existential fact is a burden-lightening truth that is best experienced through creative and spiritual devotion. I’ve learned to travel with that vision as a canopy hovering beneath my highest ascents.
In Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation, in a review of Robert Bresson’s films, she writes that “the true fight against oneself is against one’s heaviness, one’s gravity. The instrument against this fight is the idea of work, a project, a task.” I also think about the inscription on Frank O’Hara’s grave, which reads “Grace to be born and live as variously as possible”—and honestly, yes.