Not too long ago I received word that there would be a historic display of Hip Hop inspired artwork at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. There isn’t much you need to tell me to get excited about viewing art in general, but I get extremely imaginative when I think of visual art as it applies to the “B”- generation: Adida kicks, Karate flicks, and school age cliques that were all centered around the early flavor of Hip Hop. A little research lead me to BAM’s showing of Charlie Ahearn’s new documentary on Jamel Shabazz entitled: “Jamel Shabazz: Street Photography.” Shabazz is most known for Back In The Days published in 2001, which was essentially a photography portfolio that scanned the nascent movement of Hip Hop. Although most of his work featured Brooklyn lifestyle, Shabazz captured a taste of the 80’s and 90’s when Hip Hop was deeply embedded into the bedrock of communities like Harlem, The South Bronx, Jamaica, Elmhurst, Bed Stuy, Crown Heights, and Flatbush.
Shabazz was a New York State correctional officer by profession, but picked up photography as a teen. He remembers taking shots of his neighborhood as early as junior high. He developed a reputation as the kid with the camera, and his relationships in most of NYC’s high crime and crack riddle streets were never strained. He was able to shoot in areas most weren’t allowed to or just didn’t feel safe in. After returning to New York from the army Shabazz went into law enforcement and worked on Rikers Island. He found most of the men incarcerated on Rikers were from his community. He maintained a respectable relationship with these men, and word got back to the streets to allow Shabazz to do his thing. Sadly just like most art, it’s exalted until much later when people learn to appreciate it. The Source Magazine was the first publication to praise Shabazz for his keen insight to record a visual perspective of culture that could have really gone unnoticed had it not been for the genius of rhymersayers of the day. Shabazz’s photography received more press, he was able to publish two books of photography, feature a number of art exhibits, and is presently being honored by Charlie Ahearn though his film that documents Shabazz’ process of producing his photography. The film so cleverly puts into words a silent art and breaks down images that may come across as mundane and simple. It lends an interpretative hand to cultural foreigners allowing them to look into the complexity of the “B-Boy Stance” and how it’s interpreted all over the world. You may have missed the film’s short run at BAM, but search your local listings to see what theaters near you will show the film next.