If you step outside of North America and ask someone to name the boroughs of New York, there’s a good chance you’ll get the full geographical list without hesitation. Not to mention, if they’re a hip-hop head too, they’ll proudly name the corresponding birthplaces of famed rappers — plus lyrics, for bonus points. Now, ask the same person to name the districts of Toronto, and chances are you’ll be met with a blank stare followed by: “errr Canada?” and “that rapper Drake.” There’s no doubt that the city as a whole has been fully represented, but what about the rest of our hoods? Ask photographer Jalani Morgan about the place he calls home and you’ll hear an unabashed patriotism and pride for multifaceted Scarborough, an undefinable locale that tends to get more flak and misconceptions than the respect it deserves. An exercise in opposites, the complex yet familiar, bustling yet relaxing, and embracing yet unforgiving atmosphere can really only be understood by its residents despite the media’s countless half-wit attempts. So it was no surprise to me that when I asked Jalani if he had a favorite spot for our meeting, he picked the diner Markham Station, an institution in the heart of the district he reps and was raised in since the age of three.
Wearing a smile as warm as his demeanor is cool, it wasn’t long until Jalani’s intensity and zeal surfaced as he tried to gather and form all his mile-a-minute thoughts into cohesive sentences. “Did anything I say make sense?” and “Wait, what was I saying?” commonly interrupted his thoughts as he made sure not to slip into sub-reality. But it always took a disguised second on my part to quickly recount what he had just said; it’s hard not to forget your surroundings and get lost with him in his passion for everything.
It’s this very same passion that had Jalani quitting two jobs on a whim to go pursue photography seven years ago. The thought of the grey-scaled four-wall comfort zone of pensions and practical pediatric shoes wasn’t in the cards for a guy who’s admitted he’s “obsessively determined.” And the risk has come with reward; exhibits in Contact, Manifesto and Nuit Blanche festivals, commissioned photos of the OVO Fest by hip-hop magazine The Source, ad campaigns for H&M and Winners, various magazine editorials, and photo shoots with musicians such as Lights and the Airplane Boys, just to a name a few. But despite an impressive resume, Jalani remains humble when recounting his achievements: “I’m getting my jump shots in, but I’m not really in the league yet.”
What’s captivating about his work and sets him apart from other photographers, is that whether he’s collaborating with like-minded artists like Shingo Shimizu for mixed media art projects, or shooting stunning portraits, Jalani’s photos show his curiosity and intrigue not just for the art of the craft, but for the bare underlying story of each of his subjects: “I’m into people. I’m into humanism. That’s why I like photography. When I have a sitting and someone’s coming to see me, I want to spend time with their face. I want to spend time with their successes… I want to spend time with them.”
His penetrating inquisitiveness goes beyond just snapping pics. “I’m fixated with history,” he says. “I’m putting myself as being a historian and documenting our lifestyle and culture through photography in an authentic way.” An authenticity that transcends into the root of his photography in such a defenselessly sincere portrayal, that you feel like you should confide in him your darkest secret just to make the playing field fair. His shots are built on an honesty that lends his eye and ear to his viewers so that they can experience the moment as if we were behind the lens with him.
Recounting his old days of going to house music parties with his boys formerly known as the Back Corner Crew, and now checking off his ‘things-to-do-list’ being an influencer for digital music service RDIO, Jalani’s interest in music has been and is as much of part his life as it is a stimulant for his photography.
“I was just recently on the subway and I saw this kid, and he had his glasses on and he was just fucking losing himself in the song! [Acts out an intense drumming set] Like, there were people all around him! And I was just like fuck, you musicians! Because they can create a feeling like no other. That transcends into your body where this person’s rapping, they’re dancing, they don’t give a fuck where they’re at. I want that! I want that for my photography!”
Extracting that unidentifiable quality that allows listeners to connect with music on so many levels is how he awakens buried emotions through his photography. Much like how Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On stirred up the saddened disbelief and questioning of the American ’70’s social climate and motives of the Vietnam War. Or, when the recognizable string looping intro of Ruff Ryder’s Anthem by DMX (whom he counts as his favorite rapper between ‘98-’99) comes on in the club, you knew you wore your Timberland’s for a reason cause everyone and their crew started starts chanting the hook “Oh! No! That’s how Ruff Ryders roll!”, like they just caught a case.
But taking heed of the old saying “You must know your past to know your future,” his respect and appreciation for his influential forerunners remain to him a crucial part of his development and growth as a photographer. Recognized photographers such as Jamel Shabazz, Gordon Parks, Mark Seliger, and friend, mentor and one-fifth of their art collective Hermann&Audrey, Steve Carty, are the people he credits for inspiring him to be where he is today. “I have to respect the craft of photography because I’ve had these monumental people touch my life through photography.”
And what better way to pay respect than to prepare and teach the city’s future talents? “People say you invest in yourself. I feel like Toronto is myself, so naturally I would invest in people that are from Toronto as well.” Having recognized the lack of funding and attentiveness given to cities with a record of high poverty rates and violence, Jalani realizes the importance of being given an opportunity. With the help of Jason Eano, and co-founders Gavin Sheppard and Drex Jancar, he pays it forward with his philanthropic efforts in the community by devising the curriculum and heading the photography program for marginalized and disadvantaged youth at the acclaimed Remix Project. “I’m just trying to give them access to my network. If I have access I’m going to give it to them. So here it is and run with it, because I can’t stop a photographer from being a photographer.”
Trying to surpass mediocrity in any major metropolis like Toronto is no easy task. Don’t get me wrong, it’s all love down here when it comes to our outstanding foodie options, giving up our seats on the subway to old people, and the nearly entire collective disapproval for our present Mayor Rob Ford; however,trying to stand out in a city that has a population over 2.6 million alone is going to take more than a little effort.
If anyone knows this, it’s Jalani. He refuses to be pegged as the “Black Photographer”, a typecast prefix that can sometimes do more hindering than helping, considering his travels to South Africa, Europe and St. Vincent have broadened and contributed to his universal views. He very carefully articulated that he wants his art to speak for itself first. And through it, you’ll recognize that he’s a well-rounded gifted photographer with an affinity for Afrocentric culture and viewpoints — a much different reputation than the former label.
“Toronto imagery is still from a very Euro-centric view and I just want to add to that so it becomes worldly and not just one viewpoint. That’s me consciously thinking about that when it comes down to me pushing out work.”
Seeing Sounds, his collaborative project with Kwame Delfish where hip-hop, jazz and drumming are explored, and his 2011 work for Caribana mas band Carnival Nationz where he pays homage to the freedom and emancipation origins of Carnival, are great examples of his artistic efforts to bring new perceptions and ideas to the minds of his viewers.
“What I want a fair shot at is…if I can be a part of the wave of the pushing of a different lens, I want to add to the pool of culture that’s already established in Toronto,” he professes.“We’re humans. Humanism. That’s what I’m promoting. That’s what I’m talking about. But there needs to be an equal share of humanism. So the only way I can do that is by adding to that from my perspective.”
Jalani wants his voice to not only be passively heard but sincerely felt. An admirable yet fair request considering our major modes of communication require less vocal projection and eye contact, and more chances of Carpal tunnel syndrome. Whatever the outcome of his efforts, you can be sure Jalani Morgan will not stop until his photography and art have broken all the barriers and reached every mind his heart and soul can muster.
That’s something we can all look forward to.
Photos of Jalani Morgan by Katie Sadie