I was born the same year as Hip Hop, 1971.
Most didn’t clock it until ’73 with Kool Herc and his parties at 1520 Sedgwick, but I attribute it to the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting on December 7, 1971, which called for a truce in the Bronx after Cornell “Black Benji” Benjamin, peace keeper the Ghetto Brothers, was murdered trying to stop a fight between rival gangs. Without peace and a little harmony nothing can flourish… according to nature.
I was born and raised in Copenhagen. Like my father before me, who moved from Savannah, Georgia, Harlem, New York City, I moved from my place of birth at the age of one and spent three years in Los Angeles, creating an unbreakable bond with America. After returning to Copenhagen, I would continue to visit my father’s family stateside, keeping me connected with the emerging Hip Hop culture on the radio and in the streets. By age 13, I was a certified B Boy, hitting the club on weekends and bombing the trains. Even though I grew up bilingual, I preferred speaking in rap lyrics and slang, quoting legendary MCs like Chuck D, Rakim, and KRS-One.
I arrived in New York City in 1990 – about the same time A Tribe Called Quest dropped People’s instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm. The jazzy flow and spiritual stories captured a side of my life growing up with my father, Sahib Shihab, one of the founding members of Bebop Jazz. I remember walking the city with my Sony Walkman, that album on repeat. It was the soundtrack of my life in the Mecca of Hip Hop.
At that time, Hip Hop was underrepresented – or negatively portrayed – in the media. When I started shooting, I was committed to change that and present the artists, the people, and the culture in a light that reflected the aspirations expressed in the lyrics, the soul of the beats, and the genius of flow. This was the inspiration for the Ghetto Fabulous look I used to help take Hip Hop from the streets to the yachts and penthouses.
A great Ghetto Fabulous portrait begins with the subject. When photographing artists, I want to bring out the authentic attitude that comes from within, from living with hardship and adversity or inherited traumas. Secondly, fashion is key. It’s not just about racking up name brands: it’s about how you put it together. Lastly, the mastery of artificial lighting allows me to bring out people’s inner glow and perfect the image, so that it shines like gold.
I describe Hip Hop as a way of life, just as Thelonious Monk described jazz. Instead of notes we use existing music, machines, and techniques to create differently. I came to photography came through graffiti. I still use the same finger to push the button as I would push the nozzle. My work moved from the trains to magazines, record sleeves, and billboards – bringing the inner cities out into the world, until it finally came full circle, with my photos running on advertisements inside the trains.
Just as the Hoe Avenue Peace Meeting did back in ’71, Hip Hop continues to bring people together from all walks of life. The ’90s was a major moment of transformation in the culture that was best summed up in ’98 by Jay-Z on “Hard Knock Life”: “From standin' on the corners boppin’ / To drivin' some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen.”