Photo Essay

Above the Concrete: The Colors of Hip-Hop


Each morning, I wake up, put each of my feet through the legs of my size 34 jeans, and pull a t-shirt over my head. I tie the laces to my white pumas, and throw my pea coat over my shoulders. I grab my camera, and present myself to the world. In return, the world has presented itself to me.

My camera has taken me crazy places, and introduced me to fantastic subjects. In the summer of 2006, the "Hyphy" movement exploded on the bay area, my camera was fixated, focused on the individuals under the flashing lights of the national spotlight. Since Run DMC and Adidas shell-toes, hip-hop and fashion have gone hand in hand. A distant history from black and white striped sneakers, street fashion was no less pivotal to the hyphy movement's culture of stunner shades and dread locks. I instantly became interested in portraying the complex stories of my subjects: their individuality, and creativity, their struggles and successes. My fist obstacle became abundantly clear. While the rapper as performer can be overwhelming audible, as an image, they are inherently received visualy. The photographic subject is in fact silent.

So what is my music, what notes do I play to tell my story? The photograph became my subject's stage, and their identity their microphone. Their vibrato, strength and masculinity is conveyed in photographic terms, their boldness emphasized through perspective, color, and position in the composition. I became interested in making the subject representatively loud. From tall tees to airbrushing to painted shirts, the color and character fashion quickly became a symbol of self expression, and a colorful signifier of their identities. I became interested in articulating through imagery themes of successes and struggles through the juxtaposition of vivacious, colorful individuals juxtaposed against their weeping, quiet surroundings.

Where rappers are constantly performing, I chose to portray their gestures as largely subdued. For me, colors become the visual baseline whose saturation vibrates from my picture plane, emblematic of the boisterous subjects I portray. Urban settings provide the background to the narrative, contextually placing each subject within the descriptive plot of their environment. Industrial decay, crippled buildings, rusted fences, and freeway underpasses are emphasized as cold yet beautiful, symbolic of rap lyric's linguistic, artful, and poetic beautification of adversity. Cars, clothes and jewelry are outward visual symbols of excess and marks of achievement.

In the end, I found myself in my portraits, photography is my music. While rappers tie together tongue twisting lyrics over droning, repetitive bass patterns, my camera became my baseline. With each photographic portrait I played a song. For this series, each image's bold, vivacious subject unfolds as a narrative above the concrete, each portrait a celebratory story of an individuals rise against the lethargic, broken urban landscape.

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