Rock The Mic Right: Inside Fotografiska New York's 'Hip-Hop: Conscious, Unconscious' Exhibit
This feature is in our March '23 "Next Wave" Issue. Click here to subscribe.
Missy Elliott photographed for Spin magazine, New York City (1998) PHOTO BY CHRISTIAN WITKIN/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
On view through May 21, Fotografiska’s (fotografiska.com/nyc) Hip Hop: Conscious, Unconscious exhibit features over 200 photographs, dated from 1972 to 2022, that showcase the genre’s influential trajectory. Below, Sacha Jenkins (co-curator and creative director of Mass Appeal) and Amanda Hajjar (the museum’s director of exhibitions) discuss this thrilling moment for the culture.
DJ Competition New Music Seminar, New York City (1984) PHOTO BY JOSH CHEUSE/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
As a Black woman from the Bronx, I appreciate that you did this exhibit, especially when this genre often falls prey to gentrification/commodification. Can you also touch on the importance of that?
SJ: For some of us, hip-hop is something that has nothing to do with corporations as our involvement with hip-hop pre-dates corporate interests. And so when the corporations became interested in hip hop, the corporations hired the folks they knew. The corporations had no connection to the folks who actually created the movement. The corporations were interested in the product, not the producers. They were interested in the egg, not the chicken. Fifty years in I think there are way more people who are of it who are in it, calling the shots and telling our stories. And there are more people who are not of it who are sensitive to it and have a better understanding and care sincerely. We’ve come a long ways but there is plenty of room for improvement. Plenty.
What are some of your favorite memories growing up in ’80s hip-hop culture?
SJ: Some of my favorite memories involve spray paint, subway cars, the middle track on the elevated subway line and delinquent kids from a broad range of backgrounds, who were also artistically inclined, looking to make a name for themselves. We called ourselves ‘writers,’ and writing is what we did on the interiors and exteriors of trains. 1980s New York. I miss it!
Kendrick Lamar (2015) PHOTO BY CHRIS BUCK/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
Both hip-hop and photography are rooted in storytelling, which makes a beautiful synergy.
SJ: Hip-hop is 300% rooted in presentation. Visual stimulation. Which is why the camera has always been in love with hip-hop. The emcee not only had to have a sharp tongue; the emcee—he or she—always had to look sharp, had to be an original. This is why high fashion today has her hip-hop muse. The influence is everywhere.
Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill, East Harlem, New York City (1993) PHOTO BY LISA LEONE/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
AH: This exhibition is particularly illuminating of the early photographic history of hip-hop and its roots. Key photographers in the ’70s and early ’80s captured the energy that gave birth to hip-hop. The environmental shots of N.Y. at this time tell such an important story of what circumstances gave birth to hip-hop, alongside the people that harnessed this energy into a cultural phenomenon.
LL Cool J, Detour magazine (1992) PHOTO BY JESSE FROHMAN/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
Quavo & Takeoff, Atlanta, Aug. 2, 2022 PHOTO BY KENNETH CAPPELLO/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
The genre has evolved from not receiving recognition from high art museums to now being one of the most respected art forms worldwide.
SJ: Hip-hop’s influence is undeniable, which is why so-called ‘high art’ institutions and publications have welcomed it in. This wasn’t overnight. Because hip-hop isn’t really fashion or music or language. Hip-hop, when you really break it down, is people. So when you consider who the people are, you better understand why it took so long for the doors to open. Matter of fact, we had to kick them wide the f**k open. It’s the American way, right? Don’t be so surprised America. Don’t be so scared America.
A Tribe Called Quest (1990). PHOTO BY: JANETTE BECKMAN COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
AH: Photographically, hip-hop has been represented in many forms, and now is the time to show that: reportage, portraiture and, most recently, moving into more abstract expressions. I find that evolution most interesting, and there are several contemporary photographers taking more risks, being innovative and experimental with how they capture the current hip-hop energy and zeitgeist.
Nipsey Hussle, Los Angeles (2011) PHOTO BY: JONATHAN MANNION COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
“FOR SOME OF US, HIP-HOP IS SOMETHING THAT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CORPORATIONS AS OUR INVOLVEMENT WITH HIP-HOP PREDATES CORPORATE INTERESTS.” –SACHA JENKINS
Eve (2001) PHOTO BY SACHA WALDMAN/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK 1
This exhibit being showcased in NYC is significant, of course, as hip-hop was birthed in the Bronx.
SJ: Our exhibition being in New York, the birthplace, at Fotografiska, is like… damn right! Beautiful to see that the VIP spa treatments can happen for us too! But seriously, the recognition by such an illustrious institution, a trusted and deeply respected institution with a global footprint... Fifty years in, this is where the culture is. It isn’t just relegated to happening on the streets of New York, hosted by the seeds of New York. Hip-hop in 2023 is everything.
AH: Fotografiska is in a unique position to display art and feature artists that have been historically left out of the art historical canon. We don’t have a permanent collection that we need to rely on or justify. All of our exhibitions are temporary exhibitions, which give us relevancy that might be absent in other institutions. The people, artists and community that comprise Fotografiska are what make it so special, and we’re so proud to have this exhibition at such a special moment in N.Y.’s history.
Queen Latifah, Sky Magazine (1990) PHOTO BY JESSE FROHMAN/COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
Future, Atlanta (2016); Salt-N-Pepa, Lower East Side, New York City (1986). PHOTO BY: THEO WENNER COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
Nicki Minaj originally photographed for VIBE magazine at Court Square Diner in Queens, N.Y., on May 20, 2008. PHOTO BY: JANETTE BECKMAN COURTESY OF FOTOGRAFISKA NEW YORK
If you can pick one song or album that embodies your love for hip-hop, what would it be?
SJ: For me, Wu Tang’s Enter The 36 Chambers is the album. The sounds are gritty and raw and the group’s emcees are witty and tall! See what I just did there?
AH: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill