You can’t storyboard for authenticity. That’s the problem when Hollywood productions excavate subcultures for mainstream entertainment. As we’ve seen recently, it’s not enough to take a rose-tinted stroll down another era’s mean streets—really, you just had to be there.
And Brooklyn native Jamel Shabazz was, growing up in New York at the dawn of hip hop. It was a time when homegrown fashion and music—and swagger—were just beginning to coalesce into the international movement we know today. From the mid-1970s, Shabazz roamed the streets of his city snapping portraits, his eye drawn to youth posturing and camaraderie, neighborhood style with an unmistakable Big Apple attitude. Composed snapshots show women and men presenting themselves in ways they wanted to be seen—their image self-determined, not imposed by the agenda of a visiting journalist. Looking back now, it’s easy to see Shabazz’s pictures in the context of what came next; crack cocaine and AIDS would soon wreak havoc in these streets. But his photographs also portend the resilience and strength that would keep these communities alive through the hard times to come.
Hip hop honors legacy and storytelling. Street legends and personal mythologies are its stock and trade, but the true tales of working class people are its core. Rappers are respected for their credibility. The same goes for photographers, where an authentic voice is key to powerful social commentary. It’s something that television producers of recent historical fiction would do well to consider: Looking isn’t ever enough — you have to be able to see.
All images from Back in the Days and A Time Before Crack by Jamel Shabazz, published by powerHouse Books.
Head over to Timeline’s web site to check out all the photos.