Jamel Shabazz is already something of a legendary figure in the following categories: photography, hip-hop culture, education, style, swagger and elegance. The fact that it is his image which adorns the cover of undun, the conceptual novel-in-album form that The Roots are releasing next Tuesday has only refocused the attention of certain people (namely, those of us here in the Okayplayer office) on the power of his work. It seemed like an auspicious time, then, to catch up with Shabazz and get not only the back-story of that particularly impactful image, but also where it fits in his overall body of work–and what to expect from him in the near future.
Okayplayer: I understand that the image chosen for the LP cover art of undun was originally a color shot, and dates from the 1980’s—could you tell us in as much detail as possible where and when it was taken, how you came to be there?
Jamel Shabazz: Yes, the image for the undun album cover was originally a color print, made with a Canon AE1 camera and shot with Kodak 400 film back in 1980, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. As a young adventurous photographer I found great pleasure traveling to various communities seeking knowledge and images. On that particular day in which “Flying High” was made, I was revisiting my old neighborhood and came upon this group of young acrobats performing incredible feats on an old beat-up mattress. I was astonished to see their effortless talent and reflected on my own youth doing pretty much the same thing some tens year earlier. Having my camera at the ready, I set my shutter speed to the proper setting and waited for the decisive moment. Altogether, I shot a total of 3 frames of 3 different performers; each image unique in its own way. The one selected for the Roots CD cover was by far my favorite and I named it “Flying High.” I also made it the cover of my book Seconds of my Life and it has been in the majority of my exhibitions, along with being the main image that hangs on my living room wall. The photograph itself represents the hardships that inner city youth face each day of their lives trying to overcome obstacles and is representative of the lack of resources. Despite it all they still find a way to remain resilient and creative.
OKP: How did that image come to be chosen for the LP cover—did someone reach out to use that image specifically?
JS: I received an email from Island Def Jam regarding the use of another image made seconds later of another young acrobat that I considered the ‘B’ image. Knowing that “Flying High” was iconic, I sent them that image instead and it was selected.
OKP: Did you have a chance to discuss the themes of the LP with the band at all, and if so do you find it resonant with your own experience and work?
JS: No, I never had the opportunity to discuss the LP nor themes with the band, but knowing their reputation for creating positive music, I knew that my image would work well with anything they would create.
OKP: Through monographs like Back in the Days your work has become almost synonymous with a certain style and spirit that predominated in the formative years of hip-hop—do you still see that sensibility at work in today’s Brooklyn? Or do you find it elsewhere to find it–and if so where?
JS: As I have evolved as a visual artist, so has the Brooklyn that I have grown to hold so close to my heart. Despite the various changes that have come about during the post-crack years, I still find the people and landmarks important to document, however I am not limited to Brooklyn. Since the early 80’s to this present day, I was always motivated to document other urban communities both here and abroad. Back in the 80’s I would occasionally get bored with Brooklyn and travel to Newark, Jersey City, Philly, Baltimore, DC, Virginia, and a host of Island nations searching for beautiful people to both converse with and document. For the past twenty years I have been doing a lot of international traveling and the vibration and energy that I search for is everywhere. One of the things I have also discovered is that people are very similar and want the same things; a peaceful existence and the good things life has to offer for themselves, their families, and their people.
OKP: Is music still a big source of inspiration and what are you listening to these days?
JS: Music is often the mental fuel that inspires my thought process. I am a child of the 60’s and still very much like old school classics. I am also a huge fan of Philadelphia International Records and it was the messages that Kenneth Gamble dropped on almost every album back in the 70’s that helped me to define my purpose. So everything from the O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Billy Paul have played a role in my growth. Other artists from that era who also helped me to see my vision more clearly were Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Phyllis Hyman, Teena Marie, Stevie Wonder and Gil Scott-Heron. When it comes down to hip-hop, I hold the highest respect for The Funky 4 Plus One, Positive Focus, KRS-One, Public Enemy, Rakim , Common, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Guru of Gangstarr, The Roots, India Ire, Common, A Tribe Called Quest, and countless others. I must add that reggae and jazz have also contributed to my vision and I would be remiss if I did not mention Bob Marley, Steel Pulse, Sizzla, Lonnie Liston Smith, Grover Washington, George Duke, Ronnie Laws, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. You can see that countless artists have contributed to my vision and development over the years and I am forever thankful to all of them for the contributions that they have made to enrich the lives of many.
OKP: What projects are you currently working on?
JS: I am presently working on a new book project entitled Represent. This particular book is very close to my heart, for it represents countless groups, posses, crews, gangs, fraternities, sororities, Muslims, Christians, Rastafarians, military personnel, and an host of others who reflect a certain culture/lifestyle. The majority of the images were made during the past 5 years and there are a wide range of images from my international travels as well. This book is going to be self-published, released online and a major retrospective exhibition will follow starting in Lille, France in February 2012.