“You Can’t Teach Sauce”: Allen-Golder Carpenter Examines Rap Culture at No Gallery

allen-golder carpenter

Allen-Golder Carpenter, photographed by Noah Ford.

About a year ago, rapper NoName made a plea to fellow Black musicians to gatekeep more: “They love consuming the art we make out of survival,” she said. And there’s a sexiness to danger that keeps hip hop voyeurs fascinated yet apathetic, writes artist Allen-Golder Carpenter. If you’re walking down Henry Street and pass by their solo show at No Gallery, you might be drawn in after hearing a DJ tag from your favorite Lil Wayne song, but To Dream of Smoke is less about rap music and more about its thoughtless consumption. Compiling images and found objects, the show delves into hip hop’s constant tug of war with the judicial system and censorship, a clash that features in several high-profile cases, from the sentencing of child rapper Tay-K, who many of Carpenter’s works are dedicated to, to the never-ending trial of former Interview cover star Young Thug. It’s a deeply personal work for Carpenter, who also grapples with their own struggles against negative body image and prideful masculinity. A lot of the show has to do with my own unlearning of certain harmful ideas that are inherent to rap culture,” says the artist, who was born in D.C. and raised in Maryland. Their origins are key to understanding the story—the show’s anchoring works, “100 Rappers” and “Untitled (self portrait),” nod to hyper-specific regional rap lore. Earlier this month, when Carpenter bussed up to NYC to walk us through the show, it was clear from the abounding Instagram screenshots, viral meme rappers, and critiques of “flex” culture that the internet provided a wellspring of material.


MEKALA RAJAGOPAL: It feels appropriate to start off talking about the sound.

ALLEN-GOLDER CARPENTER: The audio aligns with the core theme of deconstruction in the show. I learned how to use Logic Pro to make a rap beat. There’s a number of layers of different percussive instruments, but instead of putting them on top of each other, I played them one after another, laying them out. It’s a very literal dissective approach. On top of it, I layered various field recordings and audio clips that are loosely related to rap. There are two parts—the one you’re hearing is the original, minimal version, and the second is a collaborative intervention with a friend and artist, Blackhaine. He contributed various samples, distortions, and even put a verse on it, and I put some verses on it too. We kind of sent it back and forth. Fun fact, but I posted a snippet on my Instagram of a recording session I had actually lost because we exported it incorrectly, so it only existed in that snippet. I took the audio off the Instagram video and inserted it in the show, because it was the day before the show and we didn’t have time to re-record it.

RAJAGOPAL: You said you compiled various found clips for the first half. Where’d you source some of those?

CARPENTER: I repeat two or three clips a lot. I use a lot of producer tags and DJ tags, like, “Certified hood classic.” I used “Gangsta Grillz.” I use this one clip of Young Scooter starting up a Ferrari over and over again and another clip of Fenix Flexin showing off his grills. I was oddly attracted to the audio in both of those clips. I also used recordings of helicopters. There were these three helicopters that were hovering over my house. 

RAJAGOPAL: Weird. Fox 5.

CARPENTER: Real live, Fox 5. I was outside working and listening to music and I liked how it sounded over the helicopters, so I recorded it. I’m super into object art. You’re kind of asserting your will over an object and turning it into a work, and I find that magical. But I do have formal training in music. I mean, you can probably tell that I really like music.

“Switch 1,” 2024. All artwork images photographed by Jose Pazos, courtesy of No Gallery.

RAJAGOPAL: Tell me more about your music practice.

CARPENTER: It’s something I’ve always kept to myself. I’m just now starting to bring it out. Being a publicly exhibiting artist, you give a lot of yourself away. I’ve been doing that visually, so for a long time, I held on to it. You got to have creative endeavors that aren’t for professional means. All of my audio and spoken word are under a different name, Sojourner June Scott. It’s a combination of Sojourner Truth, June Jordan, who’s in “100 Rappers,” [one of Carpenter’s works in the show] and Gil Scott-Heron, who is too. But I used to play saxophone and clarinet, and I’m learning how to play the horn. I’m very bad at it.

RAJAGOPAL: Are you teaching yourself? 

CARPENTER: Yeah. At this point, everything I learn is self-taught. I’m kind of anti-formal education. My favorite meme is like, “We should abolish art school and just see who got that dog in them.” You can’t teach sauce. You can teach someone skill but you can’t teach them a vision.

RAJAGOPAL: You mentioned separating from your public art practice because you give a lot away. Do you ever feel like you have to kind of package yourself up to be presented in the art world?

CARPENTER: To an extent. I joke all the time that if I really spoke and acted the way I wanted to, I’d scare all the money away. I’m from around the way. I have certain tendencies that I can’t bring into every room, but what I can’t say through my own actions, I bring through the art. I’m trying to bring my essence into a setting that’s almost the antithesis to it.

RAJAGOPAL: Where are you from exactly?

CARPENTER: I was born in D.C. and raised between East Riverdale and Seat Pleasant.

RAJAGOPAL: Cool. I’m from Maryland too, so as soon as I saw this [“Self Portrait”] I had to get into it.

CARPENTER: Oh my god. I fuck with you for that. When we were installing, some girl walked by and she was like, “Is that Q da Fool?” I’m like, “Please come back.” My friend actually DMed a photo of this to him and he was like, “This is hard. How can I get this?” Because when I made the work, I didn’t tell any of these artists, even ones that I have connections to. They’ll find out about it if they’re meant to.

allen-golder carpenter

“100 Rappers,” 2024.

RAJAGOPAL: Tell me about the title of the show, To Dream of Smoke. There’s some double entendre in there.

CARPENTER: The title is the name of a track by Cities Aviv. He’s in “100 Rappers” too. In the song, there’s a recording of [Jey-Bird Woe] talking about this character they have created, Joshua. He’s meant to represent an encapsulated version of all the different young Black men in the street who resort to less than legal means of getting by. It’s a way of humanizing them. A really big theme of the show, and the reason I chose it as a title, is remembering that what you’re seeing came from somewhere. Some of these artists I featured are incarcerated for things they had to do to get by. It’s asking people to take into account the circumstances that created what they’re consuming, but most people’s vision only stops at what’s right in front of them.

RAJAGOPAL: Let’s talk about “100 Rappers.” A lot of these artists aren’t necessarily people you would consider rappers.

CARPENTER: Yeah. I’m super into how those terms and ideas change over time.

RAJAGOPAL: Is it actually 100?

CARPENTER: No, it’s 108.

RAJAGOPAL: That’s interesting because 108 is a holy number in Hinduism.

CARPENTER: I’m already knowing. [Shows “108” tattoo] It gave me a little bit more room to add some people and take some out. I made this piece pretty intuitively. Even between when we first shot the work to when we opened the show, I changed a couple of them. It’s a living artwork and I like the idea that the work’s never really done. This piece is a cocktail of a bunch of different meanings, one of them being the question of how possible it is to separate art from the artist. What happens if you cover it up and obscure it? There’s also an alternate title for this piece, “Who Owns Your Masters?” It’s a very contentious conversation in rap.


allen-golder carpenter

“The Race 2,” 2024.

RAJAGOPAL: Definitely.

CARPENTER: A lot of people fall into these predatory record deals because of a lack of legal literacy. Many people don’t even know who owns the rights to their own music. In rap, too, there’s a special phenomenon of artist-owned labels. For instance, if you’re on OVO, you’re signed to Drake, who was signed to Lil Wayne, who was signed to Birdman. It’s almost creating a hierarchy of harm reproduction. What’s the term—punching down?

RAJAGOPAL: Yeah. The bottom half is all pixelated.

CARPENTER: It was partially about people consuming things they don’t fully understand. It’s also a commentary on the futility of censorship. Rap as an art form has always had to contend with its own right to exist. There’s a balance between being conscious of some legitimately harmful cultural elements that are reproduced through rap culture, but also giving it the room to exist as an art form.

RAJAGOPAL: I see that throughout the show. Are you keeping up with the Young Thug trial?

CARPENTER: That shit makes me too sad. They’re using laws that were meant to combat organized crime.

RAJAGOPAL: It’s very relevant to what you’re talking about. They’re able to twist and loophole previous rulings about lyrics when this judicial system is really what birthed what they rap about.

CARPENTER: Exactly. That kind of brings us to this piece [“The Race 2”]. When you go to prison, you put your belongings in these inmate property bags. Tay-K’s story is an extreme, but it’s a very important example of rap’s relationship to the legal system. He was a child at the time of the crime, but he was painted as this boogieman, and when he was finally caught, the legal system in Texas made an example out of him. They gave him 55 years because he rapped about it. And speaking of double meaning, this work is also double-sided. It says “Black Metal” on the back. I call it indecisiveness as an art practice.

RAJAGOPAL: That’s funny.

“The Race 2,” 2024.

CARPENTER: I’m not about to quote bell hooks, because I’ve listened to her talk more than I’ve actually read anything she’s written, but she said herself, two things can be true. It’s human nature to try to define things in clear terms. People change. Art can change too. This piece is also based on a Gil Scott-Heron song, “Pieces of a Man.” 

RAJAGOPAL: Beautiful song. What else is in the bags?

CARPENTER: Each rag is a shred of a tank top, and there’s shattered tempered glass. The idea is that when you get eaten up into this system, you’re broken down into pieces, and then once you’re on the other side of it, you’ll never be able to put yourself back together in the same way. Broken glass is something that appears a lot in my mural work. There’s something very charged about it, and what I like about tempered glass is that shattered glass is ordinarily this jagged, hazardous thing that you have to exercise extreme care with. Tempered glass is actually much softer to the touch. You can wring it through your hands and it won’t hurt you. It’s kind of a metaphor for unlearning the traits that I’ve seen projected onto people that look like me, and that even I’ve had to contend with. Treating people with humanity and understanding and compassion. How much can you judge the actions of a child who was fighting for their own survival? I went to school with kids like Tay-K. I see a lot of people that I know in him.

RAJAGOPAL: That’s what I find so weird about certain people’s obsession with the Tay-K story, in a time where these stories are commodified in a certain way to entertain the public, basically.

CARPENTER: Yeah. It’s like, how much do you actually know about him? That brings us to this next piece [“The Race 1”]. This post by Tay-K had a million likes, and I juxtaposed it against the platinum certification for a million units sold of “The Race.” How many people that pressed play knew anything about him at all? And if they did, did they really care? There’s also a laser that resembles a gun with a laser beam. I like broken mirrors especially because they’re suggestive of a damaged relationship with the self, which brings me to the next piece, “I Choose Violence.” This is about Glokk40Spaz, who’s currently incarcerated. A lot of people see rap as a hypermasculine art form, but when you read between the lines, you find passing glimpses of how some of these people really feel deep down. Irritability and aggression is one of the least recognized symptoms of depression.

“The Race 1,” 2023-2024.


CARPENTER: In between the typical lines that you find in rap songs, he has a quick passing line about harming himself because he feels worthless. It almost explains why the rest of the song exists. There’s a digital scale, which is used for weighing drugs, beside a bathroom scale. It’s bringing into play my own experience with body dysmorphia and feelings of worthlessness I’ve personally dealt with.

RAJAGOPAL: It all feels very personal, down to the piece you titled “Self Portrait.”

CARPENTER: It’s a ski mask stretched over a bag of powdered sugar. Like many young niggas, I, at one point, used to do the ski mask thing. Wanting to look unapproachable was something I was feeding into, until someone came up to me and told me they felt at ease talking to me because I had very soft, sweet eyes. It forced me to question what I was even trying to project. Again, a lot of the work in the show has to do with my own unlearning of certain harmful ideas that are inherent to rap culture.

RAJAGOPAL: They banned ski masks in Philly.

CARPENTER: Oh, yeah! It’s like, that doesn’t make crime go away. A lot of people wear them just to stay warm.

RAJAGOPAL: Tell me about the rest of the piece.

CARPENTER: In the image, Q da Fool [the Maryland rapper was jailed for “promoting violence” in a song] is holding what I assume to be about ten thousand dollars in twenties. It kind of goes with the poem in the audio piece questioning why I ever felt the need to “flex,” so to speak. In the poem, I’m like, “Should I pull all of my money out of my account and fan it out, just so you know I’m not down and out? Just so you know I’m not destitute.” That’s where the saying “hoodrich” comes from. Ten thousand dollars is a life-changing amount of money to some.

“Untitled (self portrait),” 2024.

RAJAGOPAL: Is that photo from jail? 

CARPENTER: Yeah, it’s off a jail phone. Someone actually posted this part of the work and some kids in Mexico made a shirt of it. I was like, “Is there any way I can get my hands on that shirt? You got PayPal?”

RAJAGOPAL: I noticed that you use Instagram screenshots throughout the show.

CARPENTER: I love them. It’s like a framing device. I like leaving things largely unedited. I want you to know where I got this from.

RAJAGOPAL: You turned the show into a book, right?

CARPENTER: Yeah, there’s an adjoining publication. The front is research and reference images for the works in the show, many of which are the same images that are used in the artworks. The other side is a collection of all the images that are in this installation. I want to give people an opportunity to take this work with them. Most people can’t afford art.

RAJAGOPAL: Of course.

CARPENTER: I originally wanted to give the book away for free, but you know. It’s for sale for twenty dollars. I want to make the work accessible to the communities that this work is meant to speak to. It’s definitely been some times where twenty dollars was a lot of dollars.

allen-golder carpenter

Allen-Golder Carpenter, photographed by Noah Ford.

RAJAGOPAL: Who were some of your favorite musicians growing up? 

CARPENTER: Honestly, my favorite rapper growing up was Drake.

RAJAGOPAL: I mean, fair.

CARPENTER: One of my favorite rappers right now is KP Skywalka. He’s from D.C. This is him right here. His music is so fun. He has this term, “bip”. It’s kind of a multi-use verb.

RAJAGOPAL: They say that a lot in Baltimore.

CARPENTER: Yeah, he took it to a whole different level. Another one of my favorites is Lil Dude. He’s from the same neighborhood as me. 

RAJAGOPAL: I was just talking about Goonew’s funeral with someone.

CARPENTER: Oh my god, I used to share a studio with my friend that was right behind the club where they did his funeral at.

RAJAGOPAL: At Bliss, right?

CARPENTER: Yeah. That funeral gets a lot of hate, but I think it’s actually kind of iconic. He had the full Amiri outfit. It was pretty on-brand.

RAJAGOPAL: Open caskets are really spooky anyway, so you might as well just take it all the way there.

CARPENTER: Really commit. That’s what I like about “100 Rappers” is there’s someone in here for almost anyone that comes in to latch onto. Like Keith Ape is this fucking weird old piece of internet history. It’s funny when people recognize him.

allen-golder carpenter

“Stone Soldier 1,” 2021.

RAJAGOPAL: Have you read anything lately that’s inspired you?

CARPENTER: I actually don’t do a lot of reading. There’s this conversation going around about, “How can you be a writer if you don’t read?” It’s like, I’m too busy writing. It’s also a matter of being radicalized through theory or radicalized through real life experience. I am the source. There is another work that I’m working on, though, that is partially inspired by this book called Free Jazz Communism. It’s almost a sequel to “100 Rappers,” but about the transformative nature of jazz. Because before rap was censored, jazz was censored. I haven’t finished it, but I’ll get around to it. 


CARPENTER: I don’t read the text in any of the art books that I buy because most art text is really unapproachable. That’s why as I wrote the text for this show, I tried to write it in the most digestible way. You don’t want to leave niggas with more questions that answers. Historically, conceptual art is a very white, upper-class, academic thing, which is what I’m actively trying to upend. I do listen to talks and read interviews. I listen to a lot of interviews with Arthur Jafa. He’s very influential to my practice as an image artist. He has this whole thing about people being witches. Some of the imagery he uses can be disturbing, but the art comes from him being attracted to that. Getting closer to disturbing images is something I’m really into. I don’t want to look away. It’s actually quite dishonest to just pretend something isn’t there. And if that makes me a witch for embracing the dark and disturbing, then so be it.

“Lethal Injection,” 2024.