Published on September 6th, 2023 | by Dr. Jerry Doby0
Exploring the Artistry of Askem: Painting Soundscapes of Hip Hop
Martin Askem, the artistic virtuoso often stylized as ‘A5kem,’ hails from the vibrant tapestry of London, sharing a birth year with the inception of Hip Hop in 1973. A self-taught maestro, he embarked on his artistic journey in 2009, crafting a mesmerizing blend of surrealism and contemporary modern art. After a transformative hiatus in 2012, he emerged with a renewed vision, turning his canvas into an homage to the Hip Hop and rap culture that ignites his soul.
Inspired by luminaries like Dali, Hergé, and Warhol, and musically fueled by the icons he immortalizes, Martin Askem channels his creativity into a unique signature he calls Art You Can Hear™.
Askem’s oeuvre boasts an ever-expanding collection of over 600 pieces, standing as the most expansive and culturally resonant Hip Hop Art Collection globally. His exhibitions, such as the Native Tongues in New York and the Sight, Sound, Story & Style showcase in Los Angeles, cement his status as a prominent figure in the intersection of art and music.
His canvas has been graced by legends like Public Enemy, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane, and many more esteemed names in Hip Hop. Big Daddy Kane dubs Askem the ‘Michelangelo of Hip Hop,’ while Chuck D hails him as ‘The Leroy Niemen of Hip Hop’ and ‘A Graphic Beast.’
Askem’s reach extends beyond the canvas. He’s the mastermind behind the visuals of Chuck D’s bestselling book “This Day in Rap and Hip-Hop History.” His cover art adorns albums by Public Enemy, Kurtis Blow, and Mellow Man Ace. Furthermore, he’s sculpted merchandise for the Universal Hip Hop Museum and Big Daddy Kane, embodying the visual essence of the genre.
Marking a historic moment in 2023, commemorating Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary, Askem will release his entire Art You Can Hear™ collection in the revolutionary NFT format. This event promises a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own the definitive artistic encapsulation of Hip Hop and Rap.
I previously interviewed A5kem in 2016 for a piece entitled, Who is Hip-Hop’s Michelangelo aka Askem? and with the various additional co-signs and accomplishments within the Hip Hop community, AND in celebration of Hip Hop 50, it was mandatory to re-introduce Martin and his work as he stands as one of the most prolific and respected visual artists in the culture.
Can you tell us about your journey as a visual artist and how you found your place in the global fabric of Hip Hop?
I was always a dreamer, when I was at school I would sit staring out of the window dreaming tha tone day I would be a graphic designer, however, I hated school and spent very little time listening to the teachers and had a problem with authority and had a propensity to being criminally minded and eventually dropped out of school at about 14, I then spent several years navigating through the world and became a successful businessman, however from about 2007 I started to become frustrated with my life, the environment I was in and started painting as a way of releasing inner demons from my early years In 2009 I decided to become a full-time artist as I had had enough of the daily grind and the shit that comes with it. I was always fascinated by the world of Salvador Dali` and my work was in an abstract and surreal style, I found huge success in this and was lucky to become an artist of note and sold my entire portfolio, however, I was painting darker and darker images and really pouring my soul onto the canvas. This became quite destructive and in 2011 I walked away from art and decided to stop.
For around a year I hit yet another crossroads in my life, I loved art but hated what I was painting and just did not know what to do. Hip Hop has always been my as far back as I can remember and in 2012 I went to the Art of Rap Premiere in London, I sat watching this documentary and then the Q&A afterward with Ice-T and Chuck D and I was struck with an epiphany, I thought to myself why not chronicle the music and culture of hip hop in my work, so I began painting all the artists that had inspired me and frankly though their music got me through some dark periods in my life. I started painting at an unprecedented rate incorporated my abstract style and trademarked my work Art You Can Hear™
I started promoting my work on twitter and was first approached by Big Daddy Kane, he reached out to me and told me he loved my work and called me ‘The Michelangelo of Hip Hop’ , this was a huge boost for my morale and made me determined to not only create something of huge cultural significance, I was then approached by Chuck D, this to me was a defining moment, public ememy and Chuck D had always been someone I not only loved listening to but held Chuck in high esteem and almost a father like figure as his message was so powerful to me, I spoke with chuck and he offered me the opportunity to produce artwork for his charts on RAPstation, something which I jumped at the chance, from there my momentum has never stopped and I have been very fortunate to work with many of hip hop’s greatest throughout the past 11 years., the support I received form so many legends made me determined to do something of such huge significance It would not cement my legacy of major cultural significance but also honour the wonderful culture of hiphop.
What sparked your love for both art and Hip Hop? How did these two passions come together in your artistic journey?
My love of Hip Hop started when I was about 11 years old in 1984, I loved the sound of Hip Hop and for me, it resonated in such a powerful way, the stories rappers told echoed the life I was leading in London, I went to a school that was 92% Black and South Asian so I was surrounded by a diverse melting pot culture and everyone I grew up around was poor, many like myself were brought up in single-parent families, and music, hip hop was our window to the world. As I mentioned earlier these two passions merged when I attended the Art of Rap premiere, I however had always had Hip Hop playing when I was painting my surrealist work, so it was natural and felt as though it was written that I would take this path.
Your portfolio is filled with dynamic artist renderings dedicated to the foundation, growth, and losses within Hip Hop. Could you share with us what inspires you to create such impactful and emotionally resonant artwork?
I really take inspiration from what music does for you, the way it takes you on a journey one of memories from the past, of people you loved and experiences you have, I try to mirror what each artist or song does, to take you on the same journey hence why I coined my work ‘Art you can hear’.
I want people to hear the music of the artist I have immortalized and feel my work.
How do you approach capturing the essence and energy of iconic figures in the world of Hip Hop through your art? What techniques or processes do you use to bring these personalities to life on canvas?
Watching or listening to live performances, helps me capture the energy from an artist, if you have even been to a public enemy performance as an example you will know that you become so hyped up by their performance, I endeavor to capture that energy, message, or style the artist projects. I also incorporate my abstract style with vivid colors to bring the canvas alive.
Your collaborations with renowned artists and organizations in the Hip Hop industry, such as Chuck D and the Official Universal Hip Hop Museum, have gained significant recognition. How have these collaborations influenced your artistic growth and the reach of your artwork?
The work I have done with all the renowned artist has helped my growth immensely but the relationship and friendship I have built with Chuck D really has been critical to my growth, Chuck comes from the arts and is an accomplished artist so he is tuned into art in a way we both have benefited from I believe, I have been able to learn a great from chuck in terms of navigating and understanding the music industry and has helped me to manage my own expectations. Chuck has been my mentor in many ways and inspired me to keep raising the bar higher and higher and create an unparalleled body of work, being an artist can be a lonely business at times and fortunately, I was made to feel at home with Chuck and the Public Enemy & RAPstation family. Something which I am very grateful for.
Hip Hop has a rich history and a profound impact on culture. How do you see your artwork contributing to the preservation and celebration of this cultural movement?
My intention has always been to uplift people and immortalize what I believe to be the most important cultural genre on earth. I hope that my work will serve as a permanent visual map of a culture that changed the world and tip my hat to a culture that shaped and saved my life many times.
Could you share some insights into your creative process? How do you choose the subjects for your artwork and translate the sounds and emotions of Hip Hop into visual representations?
I do extensive research on each artist, from their roots and their own inspirations or life events as I believe that I am not only capturing the art they create but also their footprint in life. The choice of subject can sometimes be due to hearing a particular song or seeing a performance and as I work with RAPstation I don’t have to seek out classic, underground, or underfound artists. So as an example, the UK rapper Little Simz recently was in our charts with her song ‘Gorilla’ this song really captured my imagination, so I decided to listen to her entire catalog and then immortalize her, I compare the process to the way you could listen to a song in a record store before buying it, I get the same excitement when I begin my creative process
Many of your artworks are dedicated to influential names in Hip Hop. Is there a specific artist or moment in Hip Hop history that holds a special place in your heart? If so, could you tell us more about it and how it has influenced your work?
Public Enemy, Public Enemy really was the biggest attraction to hip hop, I had listened to Hip Hop for a few years and loved it but when I first heard Public Enemy it hit me like a lightning bolt. I can remember it to this day, I was at a street market in London and there were various stalls selling different items, some of which were playing different music, I heard a sound that was familiar to me, the sound of Flash Gordon but then with this crazy kettle sounding noise, scratching and Chuck D’s powerful voice, that track was ‘to the edge of panic’ this blew me away, it captured my imagination like no other song ever had before. Chuck D really has been a major influence on me creatively and thankfully been a significant personal part of my journey in art and indeed life. The one thing I always and continue to admire about Chuck is his honesty and integrity, Chuck never sold out, and never changed his music to fit the status quo. When I first started painting my surrealist work I approached with the same attitude and frankly created some pieces that were brutal and very provocative.
Your artwork has broken records and garnered attention from prominent figures in the music industry. How do you handle the pressure and expectations that come with such recognition?
I think the important thing is to stay grounded and be thankful for whatever recognition I get, I however never approach my work with the intention of seeking personal fame or glory, I just want to create work that people like and work that can touch people. I have experienced a lot of personal pain and loss, most significantly my mother, which puts any recognition or fame into the shadow, I try to focus on day-to-day life, being a father and trying to be a decent human being, in the end of the day that is all that really matters.
As we celebrate Hip Hop’s 50th anniversary, how do you see the future of Hip Hop and your role as a visual artist within this evolving cultural movement? Are there any upcoming projects or aspirations you’d like to share?
Yes indeed, I plan to release my entire portfolio of over 600 pieces in the metaverse as NFTs, I plan to do this in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of hip hop. I want this to be an opportunity for the public to own a piece of history and my artistic journey, NFTs are a unique and diverse evolution of technology allowing people to spread their art on an unprecedented global scale. I think it is the perfect way to celebrate and immortalize this wonderful culture we call Hip Hop.
Can you discuss some of your most memorable experiences or interactions with fans, artists, or industry professionals as a result of your artwork?
One moment artist-wise was when I created t-shirts for Big Daddy Kane’s European tour a few years back, Kane was performing at the Jazz café` in London, and halfway through the performance Kane started talking about the shirts and asked the audience to put their hands together and give me applause for my work, the place roared with applause and for me, it really felt a great moment to have people recognize my work in this way.
I have and continue to have many people throughout social media write such kind comments about my work and tell me how my work has made them feel, this continues to be a humbling experience and something really special, I also have had students ask me to talk about my work for their academic studies which again is so rewarding and valuable to me, it is those moments that keep me inspired.
Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring artists who wish to merge their passion for art with their love for Hip Hop?
The first and most important thing I would say is that being a creative artist is very hard work. It can be demoralizing at times and you can create work and receive no recognition or rewards for long periods of time, I would strongly advise anyone starting out to be social media savvy, understand their audience, and put their heart into it, I truly believe people feed off of the energy you put into creative work, the intent is everything. If you want to practice art to just become famous or make stacks of money your be in for a harsh reality check and ultimately you will get found out as the creative process fundamentally has to come from the soul.
Feel free to touch on any point you feel I missed or that you’d like to highlight or share.
I would love people to check out the work of my super-talented daughter Keisha Askem. She is a remarkable visual artist and writer making her own path in the world of art and literature.
Here are a few looks at some of Askem’s works (Courtesy of Martin Askem)
Embrace the visionary journey of Askem through his social media channels and official website: