‘A reflection of the people’: looking back on 50 years of hip-hop

An exhibition in New York takes stock of the genre and its instrumental figures with over 200 illuminating photographs

“Hip-hop was this movement of people who weren’t considered valuable creating worth,” said Sacha Jenkins, chief creative officer of Mass Appeal magazine and co-curator of an expansive new exhibition.

Celebrating hip-hop’s 50th anniversary, Fotografiska New York is displaying over 200 photos spanning the culture’s five decades, curated by Jenkins and Sally Berman, former director of photography for Mass Appeal. In addition to the exhibition itself, running through 21 May, Fotografiska is also offering event programming, including a curators’ talk, panel discussions, film screenings and even a dance workshop.

The exhibition feels as vast as it does energetic, capturing the excitement behind countless iconic moments of hip-hop history, all the way from the 1981 Village Voice cover image of Frosty Freeze – a major moment in the emergence of breakdancing – to Nas and DJ Premier conferencing during the recording of the groundbreaking album Illmatic, to contemporary superstars like XXXTentacion.

Emerging from block parties in the Bronx in the early 1970s, hip-hop culture made its unique mark on the world by seeing the transformative potential in everyday objects. “Something like spraypaint went from being a tool to an actual instrument,” said Jenkins. “Same thing with turntables. Hip-hop made them into instruments. These kids did it themselves, and in the process of doing it themselves, they made these great innovations. Now a turntable is an instrument in the way you’d see a guitar.”

Public Enemy, Lafayette & Bleecker, New York City circa 1986
Public Enemy, Lafayette & Bleecker, New York City circa 1986 Photograph: Glen Friedman

Fittingly, Jenkins and Berman take us deep into hip-hop’s history, showing it as first and foremost a people’s movement. Early images like Jean-Pierre Laffont’s 1972 shot of Savage Skulls gang members having family time together showed hip-hop as a phenomenon of people in search of fun and community. “Before there was a rap industry, there were just kids, just people,” said Jenkins. “When I came to Queens in 1977, there was all this stuff just happening, breakdancing, music in the park. That was just what we did. All this stuff was by kids, for kids before there was an industry. No one had aspirations to put out albums that would inspire people in Singapore. Originally the MC was the guy on the mic telling you that your car was double-parked and could be towed away.”

While the early photos most often have the feel of documentary-style street photography, capturing hip-hop culture in situ, around the 90s things are changing. Janette Beckman’s 1990 shot of A Tribe Called Quest seems perfectly poised at that tipping point – is it a slice-of-life street scene of a rising hip-hop group, or is it a thoughtfully constructed, record-company-funded exercise in identity-building? Later shots, like Shawn Mortensen’s 1993 image of Tupac in a straitjacket, Geoffroy de Boismenu’s celebrated 1994 snap of The Notorious BIG smoking a spliff, or Christian Witkin’s 1998 photo of Missy Elliott blissfully playing with her gum have clearly crossed a line. By the time we reach the 2000s, the photos are even more elaborately staged, the clothes and props far more expensive, and the identities all the larger and more sophisticated.

Rap music is by far the most widely known of the four elements of hip-hop culture, and unsurprisingly, MCs dominate the collection. The show features many of rap’s major players, from early greats up through modern-day stars like Megan Thee Stallion, Tyler, the Creator, and Post Malone. Notably, Jenkins and Berman have taken pains to find photos that show particular sides of well-known rap personalities. For instance, Jay-Z is represented via a 1998 Chris Buck photoshoot for Blaze magazine built around the question of what the rap mogul’s life would have been if he had never made it out of the Marcy Projects. An almost unrecognizable Mary J Blige is seen in Lisa Leone’s 1991 photo, the product of a chance encounter shortly after the artist had signed her first record deal. Photos such as these offer freshness and intrigue, even for those who may know rap music inside and out.

Megan Thee Stallion posing for the Cut, 2022.
Megan Thee Stallion posing for the Cut, 2022. Photograph: Campbell Addy

Another notable aspect of the show is an attempt to highlight the women who have made their mark in an extremely male-dominated, frequently objectifying art form. The women featured in the show tend to come off as powerful and in possession of their bodies and their identities, something that is often not the case when it comes to rap music. “We were very conscious to make sure that women were represented in the show, because hip-hop wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for women,” said Jenkins. “Unfortunately, if you were to look at just the rap industry, you’d think that women were just eye-candy in music videos, which isn’t the case. I wish there were more women in this show, but honestly it’s a reflection of the rap industry.”

Ultimately, there is something bracing about being able to take in 50 years of hip-hop’s emergence and transformation all at once, offering us an opportunity to step back, assess and take stock. What comes across are the through-lines of the culture, the things that still remain present and prominent even as the deluge of corporate money and the media-industrial complex absorb hip-hop and attempt to transform it according to their own prerogatives. One also notes how the transgressive fierceness of individuals like Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg posing – with guns either pointed at the camera or at themselves – transforms into a more complicated relationship with the forces that seek to contain and define them as rap music becomes ever more mainstream and commodified.

But even as the exhibition reflects on global systems and abstract ideas, it always remains grounded in the human – it’s clearly no accident that the show centers so much around portraiture, and what it can show us about individual identity and the cultural influences behind it. For Jenkins, the most important thing about his exhibition are the people and the community that underlie hip-hop culture. “Ultimately, I believe that when it comes to Black music in America there are no genres,” he said. “The genre of hip-hop is just a timestamp from 1973 till now of where Black music is being created, taken from the streets to a mass culture of people who aren’t Black. I want people to walk away understanding that hip-hop is a reflection of the people. Hip-hop is people.”

  • Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious is running until 21 May at Fotografiska, New York


Veronica Esposito

The GuardianTramp

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