When Yeezy took inspiration from a 90s photograph, he inadvertently started a conversation about the way we use other people’s art to tell our stories.
In the middle of last week's Yeezy madness, Kanye West was spotted wearing a denim jacket. Considering it was at his Yeezy Season 2 zine launch, it's understandable that not a lot of people were focused on the garment. If you did take the time to admire it, you'd notice it was vintage-looking and covered in scribbled handwriting; "Hollywood Dope Fiends 4 Ever" was haphazardly scrawled across the back.
To some, those words were instantly recognisable. The jacket was a replica of one that belonged to a homeless youth photographed by Jim Goldberg for his 1995 book Raised by Wolves. The work followed the lives of teen runaways in Los Angeles and San Francisco, focusing on Tweeky Dave and Echo; two charismatic, but ultimately doomed, teens.
The original jacket was owned by Dave, a mysterious and drug-addled teenager described as charmingly boyish despite his years spent living on the street. Goldberg and his photos never became a household name, but he found success among critics and artists alike who revered his images.
In 2001 punk/hardcore band American Nightmare (who later changed their name to Give Up The Ghost) released the album Background Music. The cover was a shot of Tweeky Dave in the jacket. While a relatively unknown band at the time, the record would go on to be regarded as one of the most influential hardcore albums of its time and become an icon within the genre. The photo's inclusion gave new life to the image and introduced Jim Goldberg's work to a fresh audience.
Jacob Bannon was the artist commissioned to create the album layout. Speaking to i-D about the project he said, "We all felt the album and band were special, but we had no idea that it would connect with so many people as it has." Jacob had been a fan of Goldberg's photography since art school and thought the power of the image was perfect for this project.
It's safe to assume that 15 years later Kanye West had a similar response to the image that so pointedly encapsulated youth and distress. He wore a replica of the jacket after all. For all Yeezy's recent flexing about his place in the cultural landscape as a creator, it's worth taking a moment to recognise his skill as a curator. He built a career as a producer on his innovative use of sampling early R&B hooks, and much of his artistic aesthetic (whether as a fashion designer or musician) has been inspired by creative minds that have preceded him.
This isn't the first time West has tapped into the underground world of aggressive music. In 2014, he commissioned artist Wes Lang to create a number of graphics heavily inspired by visuals of the 80s metal and thrash scene. Previously, West's creative director Virgil Abloh has collaborated with Los Angeles label Babylon, which was founded by the punk band Trash Talk. Plus, West's stylist and media-prescribed "muse" Ian Connor is a known fan of the genre. In today's Tumblr age of re-posting and digitally curating ideas, it should come as little surprise that the jacket ended up on the rap mogul's back.
One could argue, however, that there exists a downside to the digitised catalogs of every subculture being available for wider reference. When something that once belonged to, and was treasured by, a single group becomes a facsimile, the original statement can be diluted to the point of irrelevance. Speaking about Kanye's reference, Jacob continues, "The juxtaposition of [that jacket] being worn by a symbol of American excess is an example of the dissociation from real life wealth can bring".
While the reference may sit uneasily with the album's designer it's worth noting that both the original image and the music of American Nightmare convey a sense of innocence, self-destruction, desperation and darkness. And while a millionaire wearing a jacket inspired by a homeless teen sits somewhat uneasily, those are themes you can imagine the troubled rap star identifying with.
Text Tyler Watamanuk