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Acclaimed Hip-Hop Photographer Chi Modu Has Died At 54


When many music fans saw hip-hop, it was through the eyes of photographer Chi Modu. He was a photographer responsible for indelible images of some of the biggest names in hip-hop. He has died at age 54. The cause of his death was not announced. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas has more.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Chi Modu told HYPEBEAST in 2017 that his talents matched the moment in hip-hop.


CHI MODU: It was a bunch of young people doing some things that's really, like, world-changing. So I wanted to be a part of it. And I had a skill that was needed - that I could take a picture, right? And so because of that, I became a part of this movement because I was the one showing people what it looked like.

TSIOULCAS: Modu translated those groundbreaking sounds into iconic, intimate images - Biggie Smalls posing near the Twin Towers - both now long gone - Tupac Shakur smoking, the covers for albums by Mobb Deep, Method Man and Snoop Dogg, photos of Mary J. Blige, Q-Tip and so many others and more than 30 cover images for the hip-hop bible The Source.

Modu was born in Nigeria and raised in New Jersey. He picked up a camera for the first time as a college student at Rutgers University, and he soon found his way to The Source, where he befriended so many emerging hip-hop superstars right as their music was cresting towards global omnipresence.

Modu was a gifted photographer in other realms, too. He made arresting images around the world, including in his native country as well as Yemen, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Whatever the subject, Modu said his aim was to be empathetic, as he said on an undated video interview on his website.


MODU: For my kind of work, I think empathy is really critical. I'm a documentarian, so I go in with the people. I mean, my hip-hop background is really an example of how I work. I go from people's neighborhoods to the stage to the studio - every aspect of their lives. So a documentarian - the only way you can move around in those environments is if you empathize with the people. You don't necessarily have to be from them. You know, so I don't think you have to be from the hood to photograph in the hood, but you must understand it.

TSIOULCAS: That understanding came shining through in the work Chi Modu made.

Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.


TUPAC SHAKUR: (Rapping) Call on the sirens. Seen him murdered in the streets. Now he rest in peace. Is there heaven for a G? Remember me. So many homies in the cemetery, shed so many tears. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.