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Jamel Shabazz : A Time Before Crack – Interview


 Jamel Shabazzis a street/hip-hop photographer who is also the most recent recipient of the Gordon Parks award. A time before the crack epidemic is very close to Jamel’s heart. Having been a corrections officer during his initial period of photography he saw the devasting toll crack and AIDS had on his community. Not only in the streets but in the jails cells as well. He took it upon himself to make sure there were positive representations of people that were not being seen.


Erik Nielsen: When did music become a part of your photographic process?

Jamel Shabazz: Wow. I have to say since day one. I first picked up the camera because of my introduction to music; really, photography came by way of music as well. It was the album covers that captivated me. Back in 1974 and 1975 The Jackson 5, seeing those great group shots that graced the covers of their albums. It was at that point that I started to really discover photography by just looking at the albums that were in my home.

Erik Nielsen: Do you ever bring music out with you when you photograph?

Jamel Shabazz: That was part of my process, definitely. I had a Walkman and I would listen to a combination of jazz, R&B, and reggae music. Music was always with me.

Erik Nielsen: And that’s how I discovered you. I saw videos of your pictures on Instagram and there’s always music playing. Were you reminded of those songs specifically when you took the picture?

Jamel Shabazz: I don’t think I can say clearly at this point, but definitely Marvin Gaye. A lot of Gil Scott-Heron, a lot of Lonnie Liston Smith. So, if I felt a certain way, maybe when I was documenting prostitution, I might’ve listened to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” And that put me in a certain frame of mind that allowed me to create the images. If I wanted something more upbeat I might listen to a song like “Love Is A Message” by MFSB. If I was documenting Vietnam veterans I might listen to the Marvin Gaye song “What’s Happening Brother?” or the Curtis Mayfield song “Back to The World” to get a better understanding on what the Vietnam veterans were going through.

Erik Nielsen: Wow. So did you ever talk about music with your subjects as well?

Jamel Shabazz: Oh, definitely. That was very important when the time permitted. And I would share my music with my subjects, too, if the opportunity presented itself. I would let them hear a song and it would better understand what my vibration was.

Erik Nielsen: What are you listening to now? What music puts you in that proper mindset?

Jamel Shabazz: I find myself time-traveling a lot. You know, going back to old music that inspired me and that I listened to in my youth. I’m listening to songs that remind me of my time in the military like Steely Dan’s Ajaalbum. The music of this new era doesn’t move me as much and I’m very nostalgic so I have a tendency to go back to the music of 1960s-70s to better understand what was going on at that time. So on any given day, I’ll listen to The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Kool and the Gang and a host of others.

Erik Nielsen: When you were photographing and working as a corrections officer, how did you balance the two? And were there things you saw inside that you would try and teach people about?

Jamel Shabazz: Oh, no doubt about that. And the balance came because I worked in a very hostile, hateful environment each day. I would spend 16 hours a day in that type of climate and this was around the time when the crack epidemic first hit. So my balance came from a combination of my photography and my music.

Erik Nielsen: A lot of your work has to do with teaching and self-respect. What were some of those conversations like when you talked to the youth and why do you think it’s necessary to focus on the youth?

Jamel Shabazz: It was necessary because a lot of young men in my community were dying prematurely and I felt a sense of emergency and as a visionary and a concerned citizen I felt a great sense of obligation to go out and shoot and engage them.. But also, I recognized them as people worthy to be documented. The key was to encourage them to continue school, to have goals and objectives, and to be mindful of the traps out there that can alter their entire lives through selling drugs or engaging negativity. I spoke about the need for education and it was very effective. In 1980 crack had not yet hit the community but I saw a dark cloud coming and it was important for me to go out there and make a difference.

Erik Nielsen: A lot of the pictures on your Instagram you’ll title “A time before crack,” and you have a book titled that as well. Why is it important to make this distinction and how did the devastation affect your process in photographing the communities affected by crack?

Jamel Shabazz: “A Time Before Crack” is very close to my heart because to me it represents the time period when things were a little bit better. It represents the time period of 1975 to 1982. Family values were still there and families were still intact. Once crack came, everything changed and I saw the destruction unfolding in front of my eyes, both working in the jail, but also being in the streets seeing friends of mine fallen victim to it. It impacted me, personally. When I started working as a corrections officer, crack had just hit. I saw the jail population rising, drastically. Each new day with hundreds upon hundreds of people who needed rehabilitation versus incarceration.  It just devastated me because I saw that drug was tearing apart my community in particular. I would leave the jails and go to street corners speaking to people about what I was witnessing in hopes that it would create change.

Erik Nielsen: What do you think it meant to your subjects to be photographed? Because even though it was in bad times they all seem so happy and full of joy.

Jamel Shabazz: They felt honored that somebody had taken an interest in them. I would place myself in positions where a lot of young people were. I would engage with them and it made them feel recognized. At that time a lot of young men felt invisible and not noticed. So here I come approaching these young men and women and just telling them how I see the beauty and magnificence and no one had ever really told them that before. It made them feel special and they all welcomed me to take their photographs and what was more important to me than the photograph was having conversations about the future and the need to build our communities up.

Erik Nielsen: When did you start to notice hip hop taking in the streets? And what did it mean to your people, not just as music but as a movement?

Jamel Shabazz: It became a movement to me in 1975 before it was even called hip hop. A lot of young men would take to the microphone and you had the DJ. Where you had a nice beat and a lot of guys would pick up the microphone and just start rapping about things that were on their mind. At that point, I realized there was potential in this music to inspire people. If you had the right person on the mic saying the right things, it could encourage people to do the right thing. Then when I heard “Rapper’s Delight”in Germany back in 1978 I realized that it was transformative because here I am in a foreign country and the song is being played in the club and it got everyone to come together. So, when hip hop came it seemed like it just brought everybody under one umbrella and it was an incredible movement that I happened to see unfold in front of my eyes.

Erik Nielsen: So how do you see the youth compared to how they were in 1980? Is there more of a need to educate and inform?

Jamel Shabazz: There is no doubt behind that, because one of the things that we had back in the 1980s was really good music with a message in it. I think that with all the advancement in technology so many people become distracted. I have nephews. They are glued to the iPhone and it’s hard to engage them or encourage them to read books or look at programs that are going to take time, patience and discipline. They have a tendency for wanting instant gratification. But in general, as an elder, I find it difficult to reach young people, and when I do, oftentimes they’re in trouble and they are at a stage where they have no choice but to listen.

Erik Nielsen: I’m a young person looking at your work and listening to you talk. It’s very inspiring. What inspired you to make so much of your work about teaching and reflection and the youth?

Jamel Shabazz: Well I grew up during the Vietnam War and the images of both that war and the civil rights movement played a great role in me being empathetic. My mother was a nurse so I learned empathy and compassion from her. Before I picked up the camera I had aspirations to be a nurse like her but I gravitated towards photography. I use photography now as a means to try to help and heal people. I felt that we needed transformation. We need to redefine ourselves and become better human beings. One of the books that inspired me was the Autobiography of Malcolm Xand seeing that transformation from a street thug and pimp to a man who had a genuine concern for his community. Witnessing that inspired me to believe that everyone has the ability to change. Now at this stage in my life, I know that I was given this gift of vision, to use this language of photography to try to make the world a better place.

Erik Nielsen: Is music what inspires you amidst all this trauma and devastation?

Jamel Shabazz: Music and fate inspire me greatly; that and the way the world is. When I look at the troubles that exist both near and far, it encourages me to be proactive. Music is the medicine the feeds my soul and helps me heal. Just having the chance to go back into time and hear songs that touched me has helped me to move forward. When I hear songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, it lets me know that I have a duty and responsibility to go out there and make a difference.

Erik Nielsen: It’s amazing even that Temptations song “Ball of Confusion”. You listen to it now and you could put that on Donald Trump.

Jamel Shabazz: You could take any song that dealt with protest and struggles and war from the 1960s and it relates. I put a lot of protest songs on my pages to reflect that. You can change the video to video footage from today and it’s still relevant, and that’s why I feel that that music is necessary today. We shouldn’t forget what was going on back then because we have a very short term memory.

Erik Nielsen: Absolutely. So, is there a political and historical motivation behind your photographs?

Jamel Shabazz: I’m not going to say political motivation, other than being a child of the 1960s. Having grown up during the time, seeing all the images and music, it helped to shape me to be who I am. Then again, looking at the time that we live in with all the hatred going on, I feel the need to lend my voice and address issues like never before. I have that responsibility as an artist.

Erik Nielsen: With the history of your images there is negativity. There is a cloud that hangs over. How do you delicately handle those situations without being invasive?

Jamel Shabazz: I have to do it. It’s an obligation. I have to share it because I have an audience right now. People are being impacted by my work on so many different levels right now. What brings me great joy is when I get messages from my posts on Instagram and people tell me an image made their day. In my heart, that means I’ve made a difference.

 Erik Nielsen: With the communities, you photographed, are we still dealing with the after-effects of crack?

Jamel Shabazz: Oh, of course. It’s beyond what anyone could have imagined. People who were incarcerated back in the 1980s are now coming home to a changed society. The way the politicians were back in the 1980s, they were all about being hard on crime. A lot of education programs were taken away in the jails. Now it’s very difficult for them to survive. They don’t know how to make the adjustments. You have a lot of young children and families that were impacted by crack and they’re suffering from post-traumatic stress from the violence that they witnessed. It never left them. So many lives were lost. A lot of children during that time were born to crack-addicted parents and they had the crack in their system. There’s a lot of PTSD and mental illness that no one is really addressing. This post-crack era is real. It’s changed the music, it’s changed the movies, and it’s a very different time right now. It does trouble me where we’re at and the scars of the crack epidemic will never go away. And of course, with crack came AIDS. We had back-to-back epidemics that hit our communities and they just devastated so many lives in so many ways.

Erik Nielsen: I never even thought of it as PTSD. It’s always talked about with war, but this is a war and it’s ongoing.

Jamel Shabazz: It’s something that we need to talk about now because we don’t understand why children act the way they do. We don’t understand why a lot of young people go to drugs as a form of medication because they are suffering far beyond anything we could ever imagine. From sexual abuse to poverty to bullying. Many times people turn to alcohol or drugs to help them therapeutically with their inner struggles. Not only did I work in the jails, but I worked in mental health. I work with young men and each day and they wanted to kill themselves because they went through hell. For them, the alcohol offers a form of relief. And it’s not true. It’s just temporary relief, but it kills you from the inside.

Erik Nielsen: They just become part of the system and it becomes a cycle because the same thing that offers them therapy puts them right back in jail.

Jamel Shabazz: Exactly. No one is really talking about that because of who they are. They’re often poor, black and brown people that nobody cares about. The whole philosophy is to lock them up and throw away the key. Now we have a real problem in America that we just can’t put a Band-Aid on anymore. We need to re-evaluate all the money that we put towards the defense department. We need to put it more towards trying to save out our people and our children.

Erik Nielsen: Absolutely. We have the largest prison population in the world and no one wants to do anything about it.

Jamel Shabazz: Then you ask, “How did these drugs come into the country?” I was just watching a documentary about America’s relationship with Noriega and how they just turned a blind eye when he was allowing drugs to flow into this country. The profit is too great, but at the sacrifice of the common person, in addition to the fact that you look at those who want to incarcerate people because they have the money invested in the prison industrial complex. It’s profit for them and they don’t care.It’s a lot of hypocrisy when we deal with mass incarceration.

 Erik Nielsen: How are we supposed to fix these problems if the people we elect cause them and don’t do anything about it?

Jamel Shabazz: The only ones that could change this right now are the artists. Harry Belafonte also spoke about the role that the artist plays. The photographers, the poets, the visual artists, the musicians, we have to use our voice now because, again, art is that universal language. We have problems all over the world right now. Everyone is faced with some type of problem and the politicians and the military have failed. One of the greatest experiences I had, musically and photographically, was when I went to an international B-Boy competition in South Korea back in 2008. B-Boys from all around the globe came together in Korea to battle. Not a battle with guns and weapons, but they battled on the dance floor. That was a great life lesson for me to see the power that music has.

Erik Nielsen: So, hip hop going on a downward curve, you think the blame should be on the crack era?

Jamel Shabazz: I’ll say it’s a combination of crack, mass incarceration, and police brutality. A lot of things came into play to change the narrative, but crack played a major role because what it did. It produced the divide. Then the music started to reflect what was going on. When the song “Fuck The Police” came out, a lot of people took offense to it. But, why was it necessary to make a song of that nature? It was reflective of the climate at that time of police brutality and an artist felt that this was the way to have that revolution through the music. We couldn’t go up against the police, toe-to-toe, but through our music, through the microphone, that was the weapon that we could use to address these issues.

Erik Nielsen: So, one last question. Is there a song that perfectly encapsulates what you do or perhaps acts as a metaphor for photography?

Jamel Shabazz: Oh, yes, of course. I’ll say Howard Melvin and the Blue Notes song, “Wake Up Everybody” because it speaks about the time that we are living in and the need for mankind to come together and cause an awakening like never before. There’s no greater song that really speaks to the time that we’re living in than that one song. So, that’s it for me.






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