Photographer Jared Soares’ inspection of Virginia hip-hop culture is on display at the Bridge PAI for LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph. (Courtesy Jared Soares)
Hip-hop is one of the most commercially dominant musical genres of the past 20 years. One reason that it continues to capture our collective consciousness is that hip-hop has always been connected to aspiration—from the mid-’70s Bronx block parties thrown by kids who were too young and too poor to gain access to the fancy Manhattan discos, through the current chart-topping pop thugs telling tall tales of their journey from the streets to a life of fame and success. Hip-hop is about dreaming big, but the flip side is that it’s also about resourcefulness—about making do with whatever’s at your disposal: your parents’ soul records, a cheap drum machine, and a homemade recording studio cobbled together in a bedroom, a basement, or a closet.
Hip-hop turns 39 years old this summer, and has inspired multiple generations around the world. Virginia, of course, is no different—names like the Beetnix, Q*Black of the Illville Crew, and the Unspoken Heard will be familiar to local hip-hop heads, and there are dozens of rappers hoping to start their careers with a mixtape and a MySpace page.
In a 2008 interview in these pages, UVA sociology graduate Carey Sargent noted that young musicians, and rappers in particular, are increasingly savvy at self-promotion and social media, despite the fact that Charlottesville offers so few venues for live hip-hop. Hitmakers on national tours appear at the Arena, the Pavilion or the Jefferson, but following a rash of episodes outside local hip-hop shows over the past few years, most won’t open their doors to rappers for fear of inviting an incident. With few live options, it’s no surprise that young rappers and beat makers are turning to the web and to each other to get their tracks heard.
Much of Virginia’s hip-hop remains undocumented and unheard by a wider audience, but DC-based photographer Jared Soares is working to change that. His project “Small Town Hip-Hop in Virginia” is a straight-forward documentation of the Roanoke hip-hop scene as important for what it captures, as it is for Soares’ considerable skill behind the camera. Scallycapped young men gather in living rooms, on porches, and in parking lots, smiling and at ease, and rarely without a notebook in hand. There’s an overwhelming sense of community in the photographs, a joy in creativity and communal solidarity, mixed with the mundanity of day-to-day life in the South and the sweat of hard work on a labor of love. The young men in these photographs have a sense of self-presentation, but Soares has the disarming ability to capture them in a way that feels honest and inviting. We are simultaneously seeing them as they are, and as they would like themselves to appear.
The one seemingly out-of-place image features a woman’s thonged derriere perched on a pool table—but the photograph is made knowingly funny by the lighting equipment and electrical cables around the perimeter. The photograph itself isn’t a gratuitous display of sexuality, but a casual document of a moment being carefully composed, an unflinching document of the way in which these men see the world. That world has many other facets, and throughout the exhibit other details stick with you; a gold necklace with a tiny pair of praying hands, a father hugging his children on a suburban street, and a shot of several of the rappers donning tuxedos before a wedding.
Soares’ work has garnered positive notices, including some high-profile praise from the New York Times. For the month of June, The Bridge PAI will have “Small-Town Hip-Hop” on display, concurrent with the LOOK3 Photography festival. In addition to giving the photographs greater exposure, the June 1 opening reception will include a Roanoke/Charlottesville Connect Hip-Hop Showcase, in which Roanoke-based rappers Palmz, Oxy Neutron, and Red Rum Eastwood will join locals Griff, J-Willz, and the Beetnix for a night of live entertainment, hosted by DJ Neili Neil.
LOOK3, Charlottesville’s photography festival, won’t formally begin until June 6, but there are plenty of events to whet your appetite in the week beforehand, as galleries begin exhibiting the work of the festival’s photographers beginning on Friday, June 1. The McGuffey Art Center will display work by Donna Ferrato and Lynsey Addario, Second Street Gallery hosts Alex Webb, and Camille Seaman’s photographs of icebergs will be on display at Chroma Workshop. The Warm Springs Gallery will show Robin Schwarz’s inter-species portraiture, and David Doubilet’s animal photography is already visible on the banners overlooking the Downtown Mall. The festival’s passes may be sold out, but plenty of world-class photography will be accessible to the public throughout the month.