Back in the days / on Hip Hop / photos by Jamel Shabazz
Text written by Alina Tortosa for the catalogue of the show that opened at Dabbah-Torrejón Gallery in August 2003
The photos by Jamel Shabazz of the series published in Back in the days, a Power House Books edition, are an essay on the sense of identity of a group of young Afro American who found their place in the world in the streets of Brooklyn in the 1980s.
In spite of being the inheritors of the civil rights their parents’ generation had fought for, the youths in the photos, either for family reasons or because of their own shortcomings, were not part of the developing socio cultural system. As they had not achieved a specific place in American society at large, they looked for acknowledgement in their peers: other young people like themselves, who socialized in the streets. Throughout this quest for an identity that would define them, a quest that renewed itself continuously, they generated a style of their own with roots in the rock and roll culture. This style had to do with a certain way of dressing, of moving and of relating to other members of the same social group. It showed that not only Black is beautiful, it could also be cool. They took their hints from sports clothes marketing, from ways of moving about –skates and motorbikes-, from the songs they listened to: rhythmic, catchy sounds, the words of which were the poetry of the moment and of their environment. They created, wove and articulated what was called Hip Hop.
History does neither forget nor forgive, history runs in the veins of people, even if they ignore it or have forgotten its texts. Those sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the violence exercised by the so called civilized society, were, eventually, victims of their own violence, of their own need to seduce, to control and of their hunger for power, a labile and precarious power. A power that they tried to conquer through armed gangs that fought other similar armed gangs. This provided exactly the opposite circumstances that would have allowed them to move forward into a larger context, to become part of a cultural background in which they would have felt culturally and affectionately acknowledged.
Jamel Shabazz (1960, Brooklyn, New York) focused his lens on the eyes of these young people, capturing looks that go from joy to sadness to skepticism. He caught their body language, the gestures in which one may read the latent, rhythmic, graceful and natural energy, a biological inheritance of a people to whom dancing and singing were original cultural rituals, and the key to survival in their subsequent bondage.
Shabazz caught the proud poise with which they showed off their attires: caps, glasses, necklaces, huge earrings, watches, rings, t-shirts, Pumas and Adidas and radios. They were what they wore. Their clothes, their accessories identified them, distinguished them and created a link between them. They distracted them from their risky and sordid destiny.
He would go up to them respectfully and say: “Excuse me, brother, may I take your picture?” If he felt they distrusted him he would show them a photo album. If they agreed, he took their picture and then discussed life with them over orange juice. Photography to Shabazz was both and end: to record a way of life, as well as the means to relate to his models. He needed to establish a relationship, to create the possibility of interchange that would allow him to discuss their future with them. A future that few made and that many lost prematurely because of drug abuse and the use of arms. Crack was responsible for a large percentage of murders and imprisonment among the black men of that generation. It was also the time when AIDS appeared.
These deeply psychological, social and anthropological portraits are a relevant historical record.
(Back in the days, Dabbah-Torrejón, 1187, Sánchez de Bustamante. Until September 20).