on view from 22 April to 3 September 2023
Egypt in Hip-Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk
The influence of ancient Egypt and Nubia is evident in the works of a multitude of musicians of African descent, including icons of jazz such as Miles Davis and Sun Ra and contemporary hip-hop artists such as Beyoncé and Rihanna. To understand the enduring appeal of ancient Egypt to these artists, this exhibition – Kemet: Egypt in Hip-Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk – embarks on a journey through music history. Complementing the exhibition is a full programme of music and events related to ancient Egyptian culture, the combined total of which allows visitors to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of music and ancient history.
From Sun Ra to Rihanna
Beyoncé and Rihanna have both appeared on stage or in music videos as the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, and the cover art for Nas’ legendary album I Am depicts him as the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun. Meanwhile, back in the 1980s, the actor Eddie Murphy appeared as Pharaoh Ramses II in the music video for Michael Jackson’s Remember the Time, while virtually every Earth, Wind & Fire album cover released during this period featured an Egyptian motif or symbol. And in the subsequent decade, artists like Lauryn Hill and KRS-One would go on to rap about ancient Egyptian civilization. This ongoing phenomenon can be traced back to the 1950s, when jazz icon Sun Ra and his Arkestra began combining jazz, Egyptian themes and Afrofuturism into a style of music that evoked the space age and continues to resonate with audiences everywhere.
Kemet: the black land
Ancient Egypt and Nubia have been an undeniable source of inspiration for musicians of African descent for over 70 years, with artists not only embracing and claiming these ancient African cultures, but also employing the associated motifs as symbols of resistance, empowerment and spiritual healing. Such motifs include the name the Egyptians themselves gave their country: Kemet, ‘the black land’, and the resulting expressions of Kemet present ancient Egyptian culture not only as historically important events and artifacts, but also as a means to discuss the present and the future. We see this in the music, lyrics and imagery employed by a whole host of jazz, funk, soul, pop, reggae and rap artists over the last few decades, including Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Prince, Fela Kuti, Erykah Badu and Nas, as well as Dutch artists such as Zwart Licht and Ray Fuego.
Music and ancient artefacts
Music takes centre stage in this exhibition, its central theme brought to life with the aid of music videos, audio clips, concert recordings, photographs and album covers by famous and lesser-known musicians with a connection to ancient Egypt. The accompanying audio tour is by hip-hop artist Typhoon, and a new single by Nnelg explains the rap artist’s relationship with ancient Egypt and Nubia. Exhibition highlights include Nas’ gold mask of King Tutankhamun and several of Sun Ra’s Egyptian-inspired costumes, as well as a corresponding selection of items from various museum collections, including sculptures and figurines of Egyptian deities, pieces of gold jewellery, hieroglyphic texts and royal portraits.
Special events and educational programmes
The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of special events, including concerts and lectures, and wonderful prizes await the lucky winners among the secondary school and vocational studies students who take part in the Kemet Night contest. Students in this age group are also invited to participate in educational activities geared towards a Kemet curriculum_QR. And for children under the age of 13, there’s a free Egyptian Summer School and programme of arts and crafts activities over the summer holidays.
Erykah Badu wears a ring with a winged Egyptian goddess on it. Soul Train Music Awards in Las Vegas, 2016 (Photo: Alamy) | Bronze statue of the goddess Isis, one of the most important tutelary deities in Egyptian mythology (collection: RMO)
Ancient Egypt and Nubia
The ancient cultures of Egypt and Nubia arose on the banks of the Nile in Africa around 5,000 years ago. These were rich and complex societies, ruled by kings and queens. The technological achievements of these civilizations included large temples in urban areas for the worship of the many gods of the Egyptian religion. These existed alongside the distinctive art and hieroglyphs that continue to command widespread admiration the world over. The National Museum of Antiquities is responsible for preserving the Netherlands’ collection of these artifacts.
Egypt is a part of Africa
In Egyptology, the academic discipline that specialises in the study of ancient Egypt, Egypt has typically been treated as part of the Mediterranean region. But many artists of African descent are keen to stress the recognition of ancient Egypt as an African culture. Through their music, lyrics and visual representations, they convey their connection to the millennia-long history of the region along the Nile River, and claim this history as part of their past, present and future identity, as exemplified by the cultural phenomenon of Afrofuturism.
This exhibition was put together with the help of several parties:
- A team of external experts worked with the museum team in developing the themes and content of the exhibition as well as the related educational programmes. This team consisted of Beylula Yosef, Katayoun Arian, Kiran Sukul, Michael Ghebreab and Richard Kofi.
- The exhibition design is by AFARAI studio, and was realized by the sustainable construction studio Fiction Factory.
- The accompanying audio tour is by hip-hop artist Typhoon, and the rapper Nnelg recorded a new single especially for the exhibition.
- Musical expertise was provided by DJ and music connoisseur Rob ‘Manga’ Nanere.
- Project curator is Dr. Daniel Soliman, curator of Ancient Egypt at the National Museum of Antiquities. He was assisted by the following academic advisers: Dr. Lara Weiss, Egyptologist and curator; Prof. Rita Lucarelli, Egyptologist specialising in ancient Egypt in Afrocentrism and Afrofuturism; and Prof. Erik Steinskog, specialist in twentieth- and twenty-first-century music.
- The programme of special events was organized in collaboration with a host of partners including Paradiso Amsterdam, Super-Sonic Jazz Festival, Leiden International Film Festival and Afrispectives.
- The exhibition was realized with support from the VriendenLoterij, the Mondriaan Fund, the VSB Fund and Plato record store in Leiden.
Bronze statue of the god Horus, with falcon's head | 700-332 BC | collection: RMO
Artist Sun Ra, wearing an ancient Egypt-inspired costume, with the cow's horns and sun disk | excerpt from 'Space is the Place', 1974 | source: YouTube