Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

Capturing Culture: Photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn’s Lens on Identity and Change

Meet Laylah Amatullah Barrayn—a photographer and author ignited by her family’s photo album and mentored by luminaries like Jamel Shabazz and Dr. Deborah Willis. Inspired by their purposeful storytelling, she wields her camera as a force for change.

In this interview, Laylah shares her thoughts on the transformative power of photography, challenges stereotypes, and unveils her latest project, “Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hip Hop Culture,” reflecting her commitment to celebrating narratives within the Black diaspora.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
Installation photographs from Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hiphop Culture, on view at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery at Harvard University. Photo by Anthony Artis

What drew you to the world of photography? 

I was drawn to the photograph from my family photo album. I saw the power in our family photographs early on because those images were able to convey ​so much about building and refining my own identity as a first generation New Yorker via the Great American Migration. I was drawn to photography by the robust community that I encountered as a young person in New York City.

I saw masters in action, who embraced me and guided me, photographers like Jamel Shabazz, Dr. Deborah Willis, and Chester Higgins.​ They worked with a clear purpose to share the strength, vast history, culture, and beauty of our community. These photographers worked with authenticity and integrity. It has been so inspiring how they used their cameras to positively influence the world in which we live. 

In what ways do you think photography can be a tool for challenging stereotypes and promoting cultural understanding, especially concerning marginalized communities?

Photography can be used as a catalyst for change when marginalized communities reclaim their narratives through the lens of their own. ​Through our own ‘gaze’ we can define ourselves through sharing first-person accounts that are rooted in lived experiences, tradition, and culture. ​

It is also powerful when we establish platforms such as SHOPPE BLACK when we self-publish and create other initiatives to share our stories. And even though we don’t own the major social media platforms, using them strategically can draw attention to stories and perspectives that have not been amplified, which can in turn contribute to more inclusive storytelling.

Could you share the significance of this latest project, “Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hiphop Culture,” in the context of your body of work?

​Most of my work has been storytelling through documentary photography​ and essay writing, this is where I’ve delved into narratives, communities, and traditions within the Black diaspora. ​My work has appeared in publications like The New York Times, Ebony, and National Geographic.

My work has also been included in a number of books on photography. In 2017, I ​co-authored “MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora”, ​this project ​presented the ideas, perspectives, and experiences ​of African and Black diasporic women photographers. My most recent book is “We Are Present.”

I’ve also curated exhibitions, another form of storytelling. My current curatorial project, “Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hip Hop Culture,” explores the friendship and artistic partnership between two iconic hip-hop artists, Ice-T and DJ Africa Islam. By delving into their archives, we gain insight into the early days of hip hop, witnessing its evolution and the experiences of its pioneers as they laid the foundation for the culture.

Rapper/Actor Ice T speaks with Day One DNA curator Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr at the Copper Gallery. Credit: Anthony Artis

“Day One DNA” serves as both an exhibition and archival project, aligning with my broader exploration of the contributions of the Black diaspora. Hip hop, as a cultural phenomenon, emerges from the collaborative efforts of individuals across Caribbean, Latino, and African-American communities, shaping the dynamic art form and culture that we now have come to know and appreciate as hip hop.

Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
Installation photographs from Day One DNA: 50 Years in Hiphop Culture, on view at the Ethelbert Cooper Gallery at Harvard University. Photo by Anthony Artis

Could you highlight some of the standout artifacts or elements within the exhibition that hold particular significance for you or tell compelling stories?

The exhibition has over 200 artifacts. As a photographer, I loved going through the photo albums, and handling prints from the ‘70s and ’80s that developed from film. Many of these photos are candid moments of Ice T and DJ Afrika Islam on tour with artists like KRS-One and Biz Markie. “Day One DNA” features over 800 vinyl pieces, including first-run records by iconic artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Isaac Hayes. These records laid the foundation for DJs and producers to some of the most classic hip hop tracks.

The clothing is another favorite, black leather medallions—a staple from the ‘80s—and an array of custom-made jackets and suits. Additionally, shirts and sweaters from iconic hip hop brands like FUBU and Karl Kani. One of my favorite pieces in the show is a custom-made “tuxedo” jacket made from African wax print, showcasing a portrait of Malcolm X. This commemorative piece resonates so deeply, it shows the legacy of our “shining Black prince” endures through music, hip hop lyrics, and even through fashion. It’s definitely one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition.

What do you hope visitors will take away from experiencing this exhibition, both in terms of knowledge and emotional impact?

I want visitors to develop a deep appreciation for the foundational elements of hip hop. I want visitors to be inspired by the creative, entrepreneurial spirit, and drive inherent in the culture. I want visitors to leave feeling empowered to create something unique, taking pride in the grassroots cultures and communities they belong to. Also, I hope they feel motivated to initiate or build their own archives and encourage family and community members to join in. Last but not least, I want viewers to recognize that an institution alone does not legitimize a culture or archive a tradition.

What advice would you give to aspiring Black women photographers who aim to carve their path in the world of photography and visual arts?

This is advice I’d offer to anyone, with a particular emphasis on young black women photographers and creatives: you don’t have to settle. Seek out collaborators and institutions that are genuinely excited, not begrudgingly or lukewarm, about working with you. There is an abundance of eager collaborators who exist and they are ready to support and assist you in realizing your vision and dreams. If you encounter the smallest signs of disrespect, don’t hesitate—walk away, or better yet, run as fast as you can!

📸 Cover image credit: Malik J. Glover

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