As a photographer, you always want to shoot one-of-a-kind moments. This year, I’ve been fortunate enough to capture a few of those special snapshots through my photography for Rap-Up.
Many of these flicks came on stage. From Kendrick Lamar’s powerful performance at FYF Festival to Kanye West’s surprise showing at Power 106’s Powerhouse, there is always something magnetic to be found under the bright lights of a superstar’s stage.
But some of these moments were found off stage too. The list features a moody yet hope-filled portrait of Kehlani from Belly’s “You” video shoot. There’s also Niykee Heaton, playing the guitar and answering questions at Vevo’s L.A. office. No matter what was covered, we tried to bring these one-of-a-kind snapshots to life through these stories.
Here are 10 of my personal favorite photos of 2016.
There were rumblings of a Kanye West sighting at Powerhouse, but his performance came as a complete surprise to most. When he emerged through fog during Big Sean’s set, the crowd met him with the night’s most thunderous reception. I liked this particular shot because of the fire, but given ‘Ye’s tumultuous 2016, it’s even more fitting as the year closes. To me, it represents Yeezy’s fiery spirit and the turmoil he was surrounded by this year. Hopefully, it represents a rise from that, as well.
Each year, TDE hosts its annual holiday concert in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project. It’s become one of my favorite shows to shoot because of the Christmas spirit, the good vibes in the crowd, and the giving nature of the label. This year was no exception. While a few photos from that day could make this list, this one stood out immediately because of the look on Kendrick Lamar’s face, a look of serenity and pride. Another thing that struck me about this is how much it looks like a painting, with the clouds making a pattern that resembles brush strokes behind Dot. There’s also another detail that I almost missed when editing the shot. See the fan’s hand at the bottom of the picture? It’s actually a little girl’s reindeer antlers. Nothing like the holidays.
Big Sean & Jhené Aiko
At the time, Big Sean and Jhené Aiko were just rumored to be dating. So when Sean planted this kiss on Jhené’s cheek at Powerhouse in Anaheim, it only fueled speculations about a TWENTY88 romance. Still, that’s not why it’s one of my favorite shots of the year. It’s one of my favorites because of the emotional connection that comes across in the flick, in Sean’s closed eyes, and in their closeness. There’s something tender about their connection, which has since blossomed into a full-fledged relationship. These are the split-second moments that you don’t want to miss as a photographer.
One of the year’s most controversial songs was definitely YG’s Nipsey Hussle-assisted “FDT.” And one of the year’s most controversial stories, inside and outside of music, was Donald Trump. So when I think back at 2016, this image of YG holding a fist in the air at Powerhouse, with an enraged Trump behind him, speaks volumes about rage, the divisions, the chaos of the election, and its aftermath.
Kehlani had a tumultuous and a triumphant 2016. From the reported suicide attempt to the announcement of her debut album SweetSexySavage, it’s been a journey filled with peaks and valleys. In the midst of that, I got to photograph her on the set of Belly’s “You” music video. At first glance, I loved this image because of the aesthetics: the colors, the smoke, the lighting. But as I continued to edit the shot, Kehlani’s tattoos added depth to the darkness and brightness behind her. On her neck is “Perdida y encontrada,” which means “Lost and found” in Spanish. On her shoulder is “Embrace Your Struggle.” There’s a poetic duality to these statements, but they also speak to the pros and cons of her year and to her powerful resilience, discovery, and ability to embrace in the face of loss, wonder, and struggle.
Niykee Heaton is deservingly a social media star and often times, her provocative Instagram flicks overshadow her passion for music in the public’s eyes. But spending a day with Niykee earlier this year, photographing and interviewing her for a Rap-Up feature, it felt great to showcase this other side of her multifaceted personality, one that struggled growing up, one that dealt with image issues, one that loved music, and one that truly wanted to inspire. I liked a lot of shots from that day — there’s one of her with a puppy (who doesn’t love puppies?) — but my favorite is probably this one. It shows her with a guitar after a performance, flashing a genuine smile while talking about her music. On her hand is “NBK,” the initials for her fan army that represent “the idea that you could be whoever you want to be,” she told me that day. “There are no boundaries. There are no barriers.” Amen.
Clearly, it was another milestone year for Swae Lee and Slim Jxmmi, the brothers behind Rae Sremmurd. At some point in November, the term “Black Beatles” was searched for more than “The Beatles” on Google. A couple of months before that, I was able to shoot Uncle Jxmmi and Swae at FYF, where they threw champagne and pineapples at the crowd. Aside from being visually pleasing with its bright colors and silhouettes, this photo captures the duo’s fun essence best. There’s Swae with his eccentric hairstyle, and there’s Jxmmi with a bottle of Henny. They’re commanding and pleasing the crowd, with neon lights all around them: Black Beatles of 2016.
It’s hard to talk about 2016 without mentioning Kanye West so it’s fitting that two Yeezy images make this list. This one, also taken at Power 106’s “Powerhouse,” represents much of what made Mr. West one of the culture’s most prominent figures. There’s the somber look on his face, which is powerful given his reported mental health struggles, but then there’s also the lightning that seems to be emanating from his head, symbolizing his electrifying nature with a mic in his hand.
Vic Mensa had an incredible year. His album There’s Alot Going On was one of the year’s most underrated efforts, a project that blended vulnerable openness with political awareness in a skillful manner. In August, I spoke with Vic about all of these things before a show at The Roxy in L.A. Shortly after, I was able to shoot his performance, which consisted of boisterous hip-hop mixed with a dash of a punk-rock spirit. This shot incorporates a lot of those vibes, from the way his hair is swaying to the “Disrupt” tattoo that hangs right above “Love” on Mensa’s body. Shot in black-and-white to give it that punk aesthetic, this shot also stood out because of the support he’s getting from his fans (and look at their expressions too). In order to capture this one, I had to run from just about where he is to the second floor of the backstage area. I knew that vantage point would yield the best results for what I had in mind and I’m just glad I was able to run quick enough to capture this moment.
Anderson .Paak has had a phenomenal year. His performance at Power 106’s Cali Christmas in Inglewood, Calif. was the culmination of that spectacular run. While I enjoyed several shots from this set (like the one where he’s bathing in purple fog, for instance), this shot stands out the most to me. That’s because it represents an idea I was able to execute on the fly. Thanks to Anderson’s colorful coat, I thought it might be cool to try this light streak effect by slowing down my shutter speed. After about 30 seconds of trial and error, I found the right moment and was able to capture.
BONUS: Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar is a musical giant. He showed this once again with a major performance at FYF Festival in Los Angeles, where I was able to shoot his set. At one point, I lined the real K-Dot up with the huge image of the Top Dawg spitter on the jumbotron, making for one of my favorite shots of the year. As fans raised their hands with him, Kendrick commanded his hometown crowd. This larger-than-life performance once again proved why he’s one of the genre’s most celebrated MCs and I feel like this image captured that as well.