Jamel Shabazz: Photographing the Foundations of Hip-Hop - Trailblazer Week


By Jorri Roberts

Photo courtesy of Jamel Shabazz.

New York City in the 1980s—the streets are buzzing with urban life, the contemporary art scene is flourishing, and the birth of hip-hop has begun. It was a monumental time in American history, and thankfully Jamel Shabazz was there to document it all.

Shabazz was born and raised in an urban community in Brooklyn. His father, who served in the United States Navy, was also a professional photographer, and his father’s interest and profession inspired Shabazz from a young age. When his father returned from the Navy with a large collection of photography books in tow, young Shabazz was particularly struck with one entitled Black in White America by Leonard Freed, a photojournalistic representation of America’s Civil Rights Movement.

“I was nine or ten, and looking at this incredible book filled with so many dynamic black and white photos from the 1960s, I was blown away that these people in the photographs looked like me,” Shabazz says. “This large body of work was the first time I saw so many diverse people who lived outside of my community, and I was fascinated by it. I would constantly look at the photographs. It was that one book that really inspired me.”

Shabazz’s father had many other photojournalistic works around the house, like National Geographic and Life magazine, and these collections only helped to fuel his son’s curiosity with the visual arts. Shabazz also visited the local library frequently and studied every publication with photos in it, developing his eye for photography further. At the age of 15, he finally picked up a camera himself and began to document life around him, particularly focusing on urban youth and street scenes. Although he started photographing in Brooklyn, his reach extended to other areas of the city, including the Lower East Side, Central Park, and Harlem.

Through capturing the fashion, culture, and attitude of early hip-hop in the ’80s, his photographs later became classic genuine representations of a movement at its foundational point. Shabazz’s photos illustrate the birth of hip-hop with honesty, realism, and life that radiates off the image to offer the viewer a glimpse into an authentic cultural time in America’s history. However, despite his initial focus on New York City, Shabazz believes that his work does not solely resonate with the city’s residents and could resonate with a broader audience as well.

“I believe my work could connect with audiences all over the world,” he explains. “I ventured out of the state and regions that I was familiar with. My work is vast. The foundation of what I created is in the 1980s, the ‘birth of hip-hop,’ so that’s my first body of work I put out there; but I also documented so many others. I did landscape photography and fine arts photography also. I’ve captured and created so much over time.”

When asked what he finds so special and captivating about the street life depicted in many of his photographs, Shabazz has a simple answer.

“Basically, it’s the people. I’m constantly meeting people in the street. For me, it’s really about coming into contact with people in the path of life.”

Photo courtesy of Jamel Shabazz.

Shabazz details how he frequently meets and photographs new people, and many different types at that: Vietnam War veterans, homeless people, prostitutes, and businessmen, among countless others. It seems as if the “path of life” offers up plenty of opportunities to connect with strangers.

“It goes beyond just taking a photograph,” he says. “I look forward to taking a photograph for the same reason that we all come together—we’re sharing some kind of history that we as humans have. I’m intrigued with the people I meet constantly. My photographs are a visual diary of my travels, which are always unpredictable and spontaneous. You never know what you’ll encounter—if it’s a person, place, or thing.”

In his photographic work he ultimately seeks to communicate the human exchange between the photographer and the subject. His primary objective is to learn from his subjects; however, he feels that he is now “wiser,” and he wants to document his experiences for the additional purpose of donating these images to institutions around the world. Lately he has been organizing his work to donate for this purpose.

“So much of what I’ve captured I’ve donated to libraries and institutions, and I feel good that my work is there; I feel it belongs to the people,” he says. “I feel like I’m just doing my part in life to record a very special moment for future generations to see. I’ve been able to see the divine gift that I’ve been given. I feel that I’ve been given this talent for a reason, and I want to make the most of that by donating my work to these libraries and institutions.”

When asked if he has a personal favorite photograph or series of photographs that he has taken, Shabazz’s answer is straightforward and heartwarming.

“That’s hard to say right now, because there’s really so much. But I think the work that’s closest to my heart is my photographs of children and families. That means a lot to me.”

To learn more about Jamel Shabazz’s work, visit his website here.