Major exhibition

22 April – 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 artists such as Beyoncé and Rihanna. To understand these imaginaries of ancient Egypt, created by these artists, this exhibition – Kemet: Egypt in Hip-Hop, Jazz, Soul & Funk – embarked on a journey through music history. Complementing the exhibition was a full programme of music and events related to ancient Egyptian culture, the combined total of which allowed visitors to immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of music and ancient history.

  • During the summer of 2023, in the (social) media there has been a commotion about this exhibition, because it showed Egyptian culture through the eyes of artists with African roots. Therefore, there is an additional web page with information about the content, backgrounds and goals of the exhibition.

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 1990s, 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

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’, a reference to the fertile land along the Nile. 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 took 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 was by hip-hop artist Typhoon, and a new single by Nnelg explains the rap artist’s relationship with ancient Egypt and Nubia. Exhibition highlights included Nas’ gold mask of King Tutankhamun and several of Sun Ra’s Egyptian-inspired costumes. In addition, the exhibition explored what research can tell us about ancient Egypt. The visitor was presented a selection of age-old items from the museum collections, including sculptures and figurines of Egyptian deities, pieces of gold jewellery, hieroglyphic texts and royal portraits.

Kemet Horus

Bronze statue of the god Horus, with falcon's head | 700-332 BC | collection: RMO

Zalen Kemet

A view into one of the exhibition rooms

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.

Partnerships

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 was by AFARAI studio, and was realized by the sustainable construction studio Fiction Factory.
  • The accompanying audio tour was 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 was 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 Super-Sonic Jazz FestivalLeiden International Film Festival and Afrispectives.
  • The exhibition was realized with support from the VriendenLoterij, the Mondriaan Fund, the VSB FundSublime and Plato record store in Leiden.
Logobalk Kemet

Erykah Badu Isis Kemet

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)

Zalen Kemet

Listening to music in one of the exhibition halls

Playlist

Kemet