Most Kingz Get Their Heads Cut Off: Basquiat, Jay-Z, Julius Caesar and Ed. Leadership

Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American artist of the 1980s, is credited with bringing the African-American and Latino experience to the elite art world.  One of his most prized pieces, “Most Kings” depicts the interrelationship of tragedy and success: “Most Young Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off”.  His painting, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, was inspired by Basquiat’s hero, Charlie Parker, whose own life was a tragic play in itself.  The irony in this piece, however, is that the artist himself personified the meaning of his own artwork, tragically losing his life at the tender age of 27 due to a drug overdose. 

  In recent years, famed hip-hop megastar Jay-Z released a song inspired by Basquiat’s painting and circumstances within in his own life as he progressed from Brooklyn street thug to multi-millionaire.  Jay-Z wrote:

“Same sword they knight you they gonna good night you with
Shit that’s only half if they like you
That ain’t he even the half what they might do
Don’t believe me ask Michael
See Martin, see Malcolm
 See Biggie, see Pac, see success and its outcome
See Jesus, see Judas
See Caesar, see Brutus
See success is like suicide
Suicide, it’s a suicide
When you succeed prepare to be crucified”—Jay-Z, Most Kingz

As I watched the full-length movie of Julius Caesar, I immediately thought about Jay-Z’s song and Basquiat’s painting, both of the same title, and both mirroring the message of Shakespeare’s play.  In this incredibly complex piece of art, several lessons can be learned for the 21st century educational leader.  The overarching themes are: humility versus ambition; betrayal versus loyalty; covetousness and power. 

Mob mentality, which is at the essence of the fall of Caesar and the chaos that ensued after his death, is another phenomenon any leader ought to be aware of.  Shakespeare reasoned that people behaved differently in mobs.  In other words, one individual can sway the opinions of everyone present by simply convincing just one person from the group.  We saw this as Cassius was able to sway a reluctant Brutus to betray Caesar; we saw this as Brutus was able to sway an angry mob by speaking to the masses and explaining why Caesar had to be slain for the good of Rome after Caesar’s assassination.  We also see a more charismatic Marc Antony cleverly manage to sway the crowd once more by telling them of Caesar’s good works and genuine concern for the people.  The lesson here is that the people—your constituents, your followers—can be the best stewards of your vision, or your biggest rivals.  ELCC 1.3 reads: “Formulate initiatives to motivate staff, students, and families.  Take care of your people!

An effective school leader’s ambition, decisions, and competence will always come into question by followers, naysayers, and those who also seek position and power blinded by their own envious judgments and ironically, their own ambition. 

Everybody want to be the king till shots ring
You laying on the balcony with holes in your dream
Or you Malcolm Xed out getting distracted by screams
Everybody get your hands off my jeans
Everybody look at you strange, say you changed
Like you work that hard to stay the same
Game stayed the same, the name changed
So it’s best for those to not overdose on being famous –Jay-Z, Most Kingz

After defeating Rome’s rival, Pompey, Caesar tried to rule as a dictator, not as a leader.  He began “overdosing on being famous” which is a cardinal rule Jay-Z warned against.  Therefore, as he crossed from leader to absolute controller, he crossed a line his followers weren’t willing to cross with him.  He even alienated his closest allies, contributing to his own demise.  Effective leadership implies direction.  People want to be led, not controlled.  Leadership is transformational.  It charges and fascinates people; it guides and motivates them.  Control is crushing, oppressive, and breeds resentment and jealousy; so I believe it is necessary for a leader to be conscious of how his leadership style is being perceived by those who fall under his arms of influence (ELCC 1.3, 1.4, 1.5).

“So dangerous, so no strangers invited to the inner sanctum of your chambers
Load chambers, the enemy’s approaching so raise
Your drawbridge and drown him in the moat then
The spirit I’m evoking is of kings who’ve been awoken
By shots from those who was most close to them
They won’t stop till you a ghost to em
But real kings don’t die, they become martyrs, let’s toast to em
King Arthur put a robe to em like James Brown
Know the show ain’t over till Rome’s ruined
Till the republic is overthrowed, till my loyal subjects is over Hov

Long live the king. Know the reign won’t stop
They want my head on the chopping block
I won’t die, nah”—Jay-Z, Most Kingz

There are several talented and well respected educators within any school, but there are only so many effective and transformational school leaders.  Leadership requires making those tough decisions.  It requires being willing to stand alone.  Leadership requires courage and the willingness to accept responsibility for failures and being humble enough to give your followers the credit for the successes.  This is where Caesar went wrong.  As symbolized in the message behind Julius Caesar, “Most Kingz”by Jay-Z and “Most Young Kings” by Jean-Michel Basquiat, a leader should always be aware of the dynamics that cause dissent, be it within an organization, or personal: jealousy, cabals, temperaments and personalities.  The power of effective leadership is summed up here:

The spirit I’m evoking is of kings who’ve been awoken
By shots from those who was most close to them
They won’t stop till you a ghost to em
But real kings don’t die, they become martyrs, let’s toast to em

The impact of effective and influential leadership never dies.  It procreates among followers and lives on.  Like Caesar is to Rome, or Joe Clark is to American education, we remember the impact of leadership long after they’re gone. 



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