We Invented Swag
by Mark Anthony Neal
Obviously the subjects of Jamel Shabazz’s groundbreaking collection Back in the Days didn’t create swag; an Afro-disaporic style of expression that we can surely witness in the figures of Jack Jonson and Bessie Smith in the early 20th century, as surely as some alpha male was crip walking across a plantation field at night generations earlier. Yet the photographs that comprise Back in the Days, capture a generation of African-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Latinos full of aspiration and brimming with self-confidence, at the dawning of the Reagan era and at a time when hip-hop was just a funny-sounding phrase and no one had yet to coin the term “ghetto fabulous.” The 10th Anniversary edition of Shabazz’s classic collection was recently released by Powerhouse Books and forces us again to consider the genius, ingenuity and aspirational powers that everyday youth cultivated in those first moments of hip-hop.
Born in 1960, Jamel Shabazz is the embodiment of what I refer to as the post-Soul generation, a cadre of Black Americans who came of age between and betwixt the watershed moments of the Civil Rights struggles and the full blown commercial exposure of hip-hop culture. No doubt influenced by the iconic photography that captured nearly every important moment in the drive towards desegregation and voting rights in the 1960s—was it documentation or surveillance?—Shabazz picked up a camera as a 15-year-old in 1975.
As Shabazz explained in an interview I conducted with him nearly a decade ago, “We always had cameras laying around the house, so I would just take these instamatic cameras up to my school and just photograph a lot of my peers.” More specifically Shabazz was inspired by a friend of his, who was in a local gang, noting that “I would go to his home and look at his photo albums of these gangsters and…want(ed) to shoot young people in that type of situation, with the fly gear on and the strong poses.”
Shot primarily in Brooklyn, with the early photographs taken in 1979, Back in the Days is a visual time capsule of infamous places and spaces like the Albee Square Mall (immortalized by Biz Markie), various BK subway lines and the Fulton Street Mall, (with landmarks like the flagship Abraham & Strauss department store, then BK’s alternative to Herald Square) which developers are actively trying to destroy to make Brooklyn more accommodating to a growing middle class in the borough.
The folk featured in Back in the Days were not trying make any claims other than the style is which they their way to and from school, hung out with friends, and wore their gear. Shabazz was not trying to make any grand artistic gestures either: “I was just trying to record my history. I never looked down the road in terms of recording a time, I just recorded my personal life. And I wanted to record the images of people, a document of people I engaged in conversation with. It’s like a visual diary.”