Charting the power of black music

Olive Pometsey

Olive Pometsey talks to photographer Alexis Chabala about ‘The Influence Project’, a series of images celebrating pioneering black musicians

16 October 2018 07:52

The bass line of Chic’s ‘Good Times’ isn’t one that’s easily forgotten. ‘I said a hip hop the hippie, the hippie, To the hip hip hop and you don’t stop,’ is an opening line that few are unable to quote. Paired together in Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, they form an iconic part of music history.

But, if you Google ‘iconic musicians’, the search engine delivers a list of artists of which only three out of the top ten are black: Michael Jackson, Bob Marley and Prince – Aretha Franklin just misses out in eleventh place. ‘The Influence Project’ by photographer Alexis Chabala aims to rectify this, or at least, document and celebrate the musicians who have had a made a huge contribution to their genre, yet are often left underrated. A series of portraits, taken over four years and still ongoing, since deciding to embark on this project, Chabala has focused his lens on everyone from Sister Sledge and Bill Withers, through to Jorja Smith and Nao.

‘Everybody knows about George Clinton, but he would never have been as famous as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, ever,’ he explains of the motivation behind the project. ‘To me, his contribution to music is just as big, so it’s about trying to make those artists more visible. Artists like George Clinton or James Brown were so instrumental in shaping the samples used in hip-hop, one of the biggest genres of music we listen to today, so they’re still very much relevant now.’

Melle Mel & Scorpio

It’s an ambitious undertaking that was born from humble beginnings – mainly a lot of time spent browsing WhoSampled.com. ‘It started with just trying to understand and investigate the music we’re listening to and where it came from – I remember playing games about six degrees of separation. The project’s producer Lorayne Crawford and I realised that a lot of those artists were connected in some ways, either through using samples or covering songs or just influencing each other in general.’

So how does an independent Congolese photographer persuade the legends of R&B, soul, funk and hip-hop to get into his studio? ‘We didn’t know where to start and, in the beginning, we didn’t have any connections whatsoever. We never really imagined it would get this big.’ At first, the plan was to keep it small and local, until Lorayne took a chance and decided to reach out to bigger, international names, who they knew would be passing through London. ‘When Sister Sledge and George Clinton got back to us, that’s when people started taking us seriously.’

It’s not surprising that once Clinton and Sister Sledge were on board, others soon jumped at the offer to be involved in Chabala’s series. However, its likely that its premise alone would have been enough to convince many musicians that ‘The Influence Project’ is indeed a worthy endeavour. So often throughout history, white musicians have been praised while their black counterparts have been left in their shadows. This is not to detract from the achievements of artists such as Bowie and Elvis Presley (although the latter has been long accused of cultural appropriation); rather it’s an opportunity to rectify their erasure from mainstream consciousness.

Laura Mvula

‘I think [the artists] always feel that [the project’s] good, because although they’re celebrated, they’re not given their fair due of how impactful they’ve been,’ Alexis suggests. ‘We just wish people would investigate where music comes from a little bit more to discover those pioneers, and go back and listen to their music to see how much influence they’ve had. Sometimes we forget, we move very fast onto the next new thing and tend to forget that some of the greatest music has been produced in the past.’

That’s not to say that new talent isn’t also recognised through this project though: when the series of photographs were showcased at Somerset House earlier this summer, portraits of The Internet and Anderson.Paak stood proudly amongst those of Erykah Badu and Candi Staton. If ‘The Influence Project’ is to truly capture the vast pioneering creativity of black musicians, then it would be foolish to exclude the emerging artists who will drive their genres forward in the future, particularly during a time in which it seems that black music is having something of a moment. Besides, it’s those artists who will most likely introduce the next generation to the people who influenced them.

Ghostface Killah

‘Growing up in France, where the black community was very small, people like Chuck D from Public Enemy represent a time where suddenly I had some role models as a black person,’ Alexis recounts of his own journey of musical discovery. ‘I was about 13 at the time, and suddenly watching black men being confident on TV was just the most inspiring thing you could go through.’

Alexis’ work is far from finished and, although he and Lorayne are working on compiling ‘The Influence Project’ into a book, they’ll keep sending out requests to shoot music’s legends with tenacity. ‘It took at least six months to get to Bill Withers,’ he says. But it was worth it.

‘Nothing has been invented. Everybody has been influenced by someone, but some people have been more influential than others. You have to celebrate those people.’ And sometimes you have to celebrate the product of those influences too. What would music be like without the jazz, funk and disco samples that echo through hip-hop and R&B today? These artists’ individual impacts have been so monumental; it’s impossible to imagine what music might now sound like without them. Now, it’s up to society to make sure their original masterpieces aren’t forgotten.