Swizz Beatz Talks New Creative Agency in Saudi Arabia, Speeding With Lewis Hamilton and Accessible Art

As established as Swizz Beatz is as a music producer and seasoned art collector, he has ventured into Saudi Arabia to set up a Riyadh-based global creative agency.

During a call Friday with his Good Intentions’ partner Noor Taher, Beatz discussed the youth-centric kingdom, the need for accessible art for all, the value of Black artists and why he never gets into a car with a full stomach when his friend Lewis Hamilton is behind the wheel.

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Beatz’s new venture comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is bolstering its cultural scene and wooing brands, investors and tourists to the ultra-wealthy area. Earlier this year the Saudi Ministry of Culture unveiled the establishment of 11 specific commissions to trumpet local heritage, respond to global needs and bolster the national economy. The plan is for the culture sector to contribute more than $23 billion to the Saudi economy and create 100,000 jobs in the next 10 years.

Architects, designers, artists, filmmakers, writers, music producers, playwrights, fashion types and others will be among the creatives represented by the new agency. Having been laying the groundwork for the project for many years by speaking with people in Saudi Arabia, Beatz said the plan is to proceed on a project-by-project basis.

Drawn to the Saudi region partially due to its young population, Beatz also liked that many creatives there are largely undiscovered. Two-thirds of the population is under the age of 35. “It’s a new day and a new age for the world to know that and understand the creatives there,” he said.

Good Intentions’ talent pool will help share the region’s stories via tourism, entertainment and art. It also will help bring brands and creatives to Saudi Arabia. Working with artists and creatives is familiar territory for Beatz. A known collector with his wife, Alicia Keys, Beatz had already created the platform No Commissions that shares work globally from the couple’s vast art collection, which is known as The Dean Collection.

Good Intentions’ debut event in Saudi will be four public art installations at the Jeddah Art Promenade that will be on view during the F1 Saudi Formula Grand Prix from Dec. 3 to 5. Studio Drift, Kwest, Javid Jah and Janet Echelman have created massive and dramatic outdoor sculptures. The first project is being produced by Far Right Productions and curated by Umbereen Inayet. An artistic falcon figure, for example, that rests on the water will be recognizable from afar.

Janet Echelman - Credit: George Chinsee for WWD
Janet Echelman - Credit: George Chinsee for WWD

George Chinsee for WWD

The multi-Grammy winner Beatz said, “A lot of people go to Saudi and they don’t bring the A-team. They bring the D-team but take the A-team money. My thing and Noor’s thing is, ‘Let’s really bring the quality and not worry about the quantity.’ A lot of people come and just say yes to everything. I don’t think we will say yes to everything. We want to say yes to projects that we can deliver on, make a statement and set an example.”

As for the criticism that is associated with Saudi Arabia’s controversial reputation for the treatment of women and human rights abuses, Beatz said, “I’m there for the creative part. Good Intentions is run by women. Noor is from Saudi. The team we are assembling is all women. Yes, there’s news about Saudi but we can’t stop that from moving forward and working with creatives and great people, and doing great things and leading by example. There are a lot of changes that are happening in Saudi that I’m witnessing that are amazing. Hopefully, the world will get to see that side of Saudi as well.”

He continued, “But no place in the world is perfect, not even where I’m sitting right now [in New York]. But we’re focusing on the highlights of the positivity just like I would anywhere else in the world. Any place that you go to, there’s an upstairs, middle floor and a downstairs, right? I’m not going to judge a whole place on the downstairs when the youngest population in the world is probably in Saudi Arabia. When you free the artists, you free the world. My mission has always been to empower creatives all over the world, which is why we have No Commissions and The Dean Collection. I wouldn’t take Saudi off that list because amazing creatives are there and they deserve the attention as well.”

Taher later added that the stigma about Saudi happens because people don’t often speak to people, including women from Saudi Arabia, to discuss with them women’s rights and what they have to say about the matter. “A lot of times it’s headlines, media and stereotypes that speak for us. Now more than ever you have a lot of women in leadership roles and in the government leading a lot of initiatives,” she said. “…I’m on a construction site and I feel completely comfortable and really safe. This needs to be heard, especially with the way that we want to build Good Intentions here with an almost all-female-led team.”

Reminded of years of human rights abuses there, Taher said, “Right, right, of course, as there have been all over the world. It’s just that there needs to be a little light shed on the positivity happening here. If that was focused on every area of the world, there wouldn’t be any progression. Politics isn’t really our lane, as Swizz said. It’s really cultivating and progressing a creative movement here.”

Asked about F1 champion Hamilton, Beatz said, “I’m scared to drive with him but he’s one of my best friends. If you get in the car with him, you just know — you don’t eat,” he said, laughing. “You’ve got to have an empty stomach if he’s going to drive you.”

Despite having a collection of Ferraris, Beatz isn’t so interested in speeding any more. “To be honest, I like to look at the cars more than to drive them. For me, Ferraris are amazing sculptures. Yes, I drive them but I’m not into speeding like I used to. I don’t know what happened. When I was younger, I just wanted to put the pedal to the floor. I guess I’m older now.”

With the art market going off-the-charts lately, Beatz said he has been buying and hasn’t sold anything from his and his wife’s private collection in 20-plus years despite many offers for different pieces. “We help the African American market with The Dean Collection. Our thing is to build a community within the art world [through] a traveling museum so that our people can have access to the art. That was our whole reason for starting it — not to sell art but to make it accessible to people, who wouldn’t really have access to our own culture,” he said.

Works by Kehinde Wiley, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Derrick Adams and many others are part of their collection. “We supported these artists before the boom came. When we were commissioning a lot of these artists, we were commissioning large works from them. We wanted to collect in a large format, because it’s very rare that we see we own big parts of our culture. We wanted to have in our collection oversize works that represented these artists in a very powerful way,” he said. “Two thousand-plus pieces are in the collection.”

Interested in bringing The Dean Collection to a wider audience, Beats said he and Keys just don’t want to do that in the traditional way. “I want to do it so that you have to travel to multiple places to see the entire collection. That’s always been a goal of mine because I want to encourage people to travel. A lot of the culture doesn’t travel. I want people to travel as much as possible and as often as you can,” he said.

While some major art museums and cultural institutions are trying to show more work from Black artists, Beatz sees things as being in “a great space.” As a board member of the Serpentine Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum, he praised the latter’s director Anne Pasternak for being “a great leader, disrupting, changing and putting on different creative shows. Even when people were disagreeing with her, she was in there changing, which is why I’m on the board of the Brooklyn Museum. This is what we need — forward-thinkers, and that’s what I see in Saudi. That’s what’s going to make the world pay attention to what’s coming.”

Asked about how some corporations spoke out during last year’s social justice movement about the need to improve social equity and diversity and have since followed through, whereas others have fallen off in that capacity, Beatz said, “I’m not the corporate person. I’m the disruptor although I understand corporate very well. I’ve worked with corporate in changing a lot of these companies. At this point in my life, if the corporations are not on the mission statement of the creatives, I don’t even want to talk to them. It’s just a waste of time. Following a trend instead of setting an example are two different things. We’re trying to set an example for the next 20-plus years, not follow the trend that’s been happening for the last 10. That’s not progressive.”

Often “very skeptical” when corporations come to the table, Beatz allowed that some can add some greatness. “I feel that the creatives should have their own plans so that when the corporations come to them, creatives will know how they can win. The corporations already will know how to win. That’s been the problem. That’s why I push education so much…a lot of people just don’t understand the business, period. They don’t understand that this is the music business, the fashion business, the art business. If I’m an artist, I’m focused on the artistry, not the business. I’m leaving that up to a lawyer or a manager. We should act as a manager and a lawyer so that when we hire them, we’re smart and know when we are being taken advantage of. If you don’t have the information, you’re going to pay with money and with time. Either way you’re going to pay. I urge all creatives to master their business and craft at the same time, because they go hand-in-hand.”

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