Jamel Shabazz – Back in the day: Exclusive Interview


Jamel Shabazz is the Brooklyn-born fashion and documentary photographer whose work in our opinion, remains some of the most real and raw fashion street style imagery of the 80’s and 90’s era. We were first introduced to his work through the book Back in the Days, which documents the emerging hip-hop scene from 1980-1989 and we’ve been fans of Jamel Shabazz ever since. Jamel mastered the art of capturing a person’s character in one moment, one photograph and usually on first meeting. His work showcases the best of 80’s and 90’s fashion on the streets of Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens to name a few locations! Gold rope chains and Kangol caps aplenty, we are beyond honoured to present you all with an exclusive Educate Elevate x Jamel Shabazz interview! We talked to the legendary photographer about the influences behind his iconic imagery, his opinion on 90’s ladies vs women of today and we learn all about his work with young people. We invite you inside the mind of a man with so much talent and depth, so please be prepared to be hugely inspired by his innovative and fresh outlook on the world. This interview is set to educate and elevate you to new heights, particularly if you are interested in photography as a craft… enjoy!

Hey Jamel! Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I was born and raised in New York, in one of the largest housing projects in Brooklyn; the Red Hook Houses. I was the middle child of a mother who was a nurse and my father was a struggling photographer. Introduced to photography by way of my father’s rich library, on the shelves I found an array of photography and arts books that fed my curiosity and allowed me to see a world outside the concrete walls of my community. In addition, one of the largest influences on me as a youth coming of age was the television series “Roots.”  To a great degree it was my rites of passage into the knowledge of self; igniting a fire in me to uphold the torch light of our ancestors. The Black Arts Movement was also very instrumental in shaping my vision and setting me on a path.

What or who influences and inspires your work?

  Socio-political music has always been very influential in inspiring my creative process, back in the 1970’s.  It was Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s (two talented writers behind Philadelphia International Records award winning hits) lyrics and their signature commentary on every album they produced, that allowed me to better understand what was going on around me and how our creative talents could inspire. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on “album also played a major role in inspiring my vision and purpose. Photographically, photographers Leonard Freed,   Gordon Parks and James Van Der Zee showed me the power of visual story telling in the images they created and to a great degree provided me with a visual roadmap.

Talk us through your creative process…

The cornerstone of my creative process is built on my love for humanity, equality, and my desire to make a significant contribution to the preservation of our history and culture. I use photography as a tool to communicate with people; mainly the young and disenfranchised. I found out early on in my career that I could use the camera to communicate with strangers.  This new form of interacting created an opportunity for me to engage potential subjects and express how I saw greatness and promise in them. My subjects were mostly young people of color and my words were sincere.  I made an effort to educate them about the knowledge and words contained within Marvin Gaye’s “What’s going on?” album. My concern was really about their well being and having a subject in front of me for a few minutes allowed me both an opportunity to take their image and impart a jewel to them about knowing self and preparing for the future.


Your photographs are known for being very real and personal, how do you approach your subjects to capture the sincerity of an image?

I approach my subjects with a sincere desire to preserve their legacy, so that their presence is duly recorded for future generations to see. I make it a point to express that to them and I strive to make my word my bond.

You had a huge influence on the early hip hop movement. It would be very interesting to hear your opinions on the current state of hip hop?

Hip Hop is a multibillion dollar industry as we all know; it has touched the four corners of the globe and inspired millions. So many young brothers and sisters are gravitating towards this industry, because it offers a way out of poverty. The music industry has created a whole new generation of young millionaires. Many who rose to fame rapping about the social conditions that surrounded them. Sadly, in many cases the lyrics they spit out are true reflections of their environment.  I am often pained by what I hear, but at the same time it is a reality that resonates with a lot of people.  I personally feel that the bold messages that we once heard from artists back in the day, have been replaced with far too many lyrics focusing on materialism and boning out chicks.  We are living in a serious day and time, as there are over 1 million Black men in prison here in the United States. In addition, we have major health crisises that have caused the premature deaths of many. The number of African American men who have been murdered in the city of Chicago alone has surpassed the number of American military personnel killed in the war in Afghanistan this year.

In my opinion, Hip Hop with its wide reach can help in reversing a lot of this negativity and  it is incumbent upon each artist to take a serious look at the present conditions of his /her [former] communities and make an effort to elevate those who still reside in those areas.

   Jamel Shabazz Photography Young Man Wearing 80s Puffa Jacket and Chain Hip Hop Style

We’re huge fans of The Roots – what was it like working with them on the cover art for Undun?

I never worked directly with the Roots other than supplying them with an image for the Undun cover.  Hopefully in the near future, we will have an opportunity to collaborate to a greater degree.

What are your top 5 hip hop records of all time?

For me, the five Hip Hop records of all time are:

“The Message” by Grand Master Flash and The Furious 5,

“We got the Funk’ by Positive Focus

“You Must Learn” by KRS 1

“Fight the Power,” By Public Enemy

Last but not least, one of my all time favourites that is most reflective of my vision and purpose…

“Umi Says,” by the one and only Yasin Bey/ AKA Mos Def.

You’ve documented decades of fashion in these projects. Which style is the most notable?

The styles that are most notable to me are the photographs I have created of young men and women from the early 1980’s.  All are fashionably dressed from head to toe, reflecting dignity and integrity in every pose.

How would you describe a flygirl of the 90’s? What would you say is the most noticeable difference between 90’s women and women today?

When I think of fly girls of the 1990’s, the group Brownstone, and SWV come to mind.  These two groups of sisters were very dynamic, in that they had talent, didn’t have to take their clothes off to get attention and sang about love and struggle. Presently in my opinion, we live in a very narcissistic society; it is all about self.  Also, you are not seeing as many female groups today as you did in the 80’s and 90’s. Women overall have been reduced to sexual objects, and African American women are particularly targeted. Programs like “Jerry Springer,”  “Maury Povic,” and “Basketball Wives,” have contributed to the misrepresentation of women.  In my day, they were looked upon as Queens, but today she is perceived as a whore, gold digger, unfit mother, or straight up ‘chicken head.’ I am pained by the images of our women and it seems that it is being turned up every day, as I have never witnessed a time when women allowed themselves to be degraded and disrespected;  just take a look at websites like Ghetto Gaggers and Latin Abuse. So many women of today have been baited with the notion of getting money, but don’t realize that at the same time they are selling their souls.

Jamel Shabazz iconic 80s hip hop photographer woman holding baby wearing doorknocker earrings

What do you miss most about this era?  

What I miss most about the mid 70’s to the early 80’s was the love and unity we once had for one another. By no means was it a perfect time, but there was a feeling of togetherness that was felt on most days. Once crack was introduced, overnight everything changed. I also miss so many of my good friends who are no longer here due to senseless violence.  Lastly, I miss the love songs that once dominated the airwaves and inspired love.

What can we expect from your upcoming book “The 90’s”?

“The 90’s: A Time of Change,” is a continuation from my previous books. This monograph has a series of images that reflects everything from the death of Tupac and Biggie, to the OJ Simpson trial and the Million Man March. I have enlisted a few respected writers to contribute to the text that will make it a good read; in hopes that it can serve as a teaching tool to offer some enlightenment on a very important decade in our history.

Your work documents a history of life in the streets.

Yes, the majority of my work documents street life both here in NYC, but also in cities around the globe. I love the spontaneity and mystique of the concrete streets!

Throughout your career, you’ve done some incredible projects.

Which one are you most proud of?

The work that I feel a degree of joy about is my involvement working with young people. Since coming of age in the 1970’s, I have always had a sincere desire to help the youth along this very difficult journey called life. I was fortunate enough to have guides throughout the many stages of my development and the only thing my mentors/teachers wanted in return was for me to continue to pass on the torchlight to the next generation. There is still so much work for me to do at this moment, perhaps we can revisit this question a few years from now, and I will have a solid answer for you.

We’ve read a lot about your work with youth charities and your movement “each one teach one”. Tell us a little more about this…

‘Each one teach one,’ was a mantra we often used in the late 70’s and  photography was given to me as a gift from the creator and with this wonderful gift I feel obligated to pass it on to the next person.  My peers, who hold a degree of enlightenment, were also duty bound to show others the way.  It is my hope that the idea of this philosophy can provide similar results to what I have garnered overtime. So today, I continue to encourage everyone I encounter to make an effort to empower the next generation and to at least start with their immediate families; that is the essence of ‘each one teach one.’

How do you feel art and creativity can influence youth culture?

The great Paul Roberson told Harry Belafonte that “Artist are the gatekeepers of truth,” which I found to be a very profound statement.  In my humble opinion, art and creativity are divine gifts and I feel that with the inheritance of these gifts, we have obligations to fulfil in regards to the human race.

What advice would you give to young people who are interested in a career in photography?

My advice would be; take advantage of the internet and learn as much as you can about the type of photography you wish to pursue.  Once you have learned the basics  make it a point to carry your camera everywhere you go, create themes, and work to get in important exhibitions and publications.

If you could never see any of your work again and had to pick one photograph out of your entire career to keep – which one would it be?

It would probably be the image of the young brother flipping on the mattress. That particular image is close to my heart, because it epitomizes the struggle that so many young people in the inner cities have to endure. It also represents the potential and talent that we have despite the limited resources and facilities.  Against all odds, we still can make the best out of difficult situations!

What tip do you have for our readers to educate and elevate in life?

I would suggest that they go see the movie “12 years a Slave,” study the life of Nelson Mandela,  strive to find out what your greater purpose is in life and lastly, do unto others as you would want others to do on to you.

 Thanks Jamel! We hope you’re all feeling as inspired as we are! Please take a minute to check out Jamel’s official website here to see more of his work documenting 80’s and 90’s street style. Give his Facebook page a like too! Let us know your thoughts on the article by tweeting us @educateelevate

Until next time, stay elevated!

The Educate Elevate Team

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