Hey, You’re Cool! Ashani
“If it feels right then it is right. Art has no rules.”
When a video message from 26-year-old Ashani arrived to my phone on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month—bearing Diddy’s face as its thumbnail—I didn’t think much of it. We’d just scheduled a time to begin our interview and I thought I was about to watch a funny clip of Diddy doing something very Diddy-like. Like punctuating the completion of an interview scheduling with a slew of hyperboles and Bad Boy ad-libs. Instead, after pressing play, I was treated to a brief clip of Ashani and Diddy in the yard of Diddy’s mansion. The mogul was simultaneously Snapchatting Ashani and thanking him for delivering the “vibes” to his sprawling lair.
This is life now, according to the Brooklyn native. “Very real,” to use his words. After spending his formative years as an indie blogger, building close relationships with artists and tastemakers on New York’s underground scene, Ashani made a move into the “industry” after being offered a position at Cinematic Music Group, the home of Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T. and more. His track record was noteworthy, having helped bring then-new acts like ScHoolboy Q and Lil Reese to New York City stages, but Ashani was ready to put his skills to the test on a larger scale.
What he didn’t necessarily know at the time, however, is that one of those skills was photography. Casual interest in his best friend Slick Jackson’s line of work—Jackson is a director and photographer whose credits boast names like Wiz Khalifa and Bada$$—led to an abrupt move to Los Angeles and a revelation for the insightful kid from Flatbush: he’d found another port for his creative storm. The rest is history.
Your blogging days helped give you footing, but afterwards you planted your feet smack dab in the industry. Explain that process.
Right. For about a year, a year and a half, I did a lot of soul searching, a lot of reading, a lot of building with different people. Through blogging I had a pretty solid network, and in that network were Cinematic Music Group founder Jonny Shipes and marketing and publicity specialist Steve-O. It was actually Steve-O that I met through the blog, and he introduced me to Jonny Shipes. And then when I was 20, Shipes put me on my first tour, and that was the first tour for Joey Bada$$ as well. That’s when I first met him, when he was 17. We’ve been cool ever since. But Shipes has always been a person that’ll hit me up just to see what I’m on.
About a year and a half ago, two years ago, he hit me up. I was just working construction to make ends meet. He hit me up and said, “Hey, I’ve got a situation with Cinematic Music Group and I want you to be involved in the company. Some way, somehow.” So I quit construction, went over there and started doing marketing and content production, things of that nature. Being that I worked in an industry that I loved, it allowed me more free time to use my camera. I was always shooting on and off with Slick. I was with him on almost every shoot, so I was sort of in an internship without really knowing. Just by being there I was learning the ropes as far as being a filmmaker and photographer. Eventually, in my free time at Cinematic I started shooting. And then I thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to really go hard with it.’
When you met Joey did you guys automatically have a professional relationship? Or was that birthed from constantly being around each other?
I would say we were just cool. When I was on that first tour, I was just doing merchandise. So we didn’t even really have a working relationship. I would say that we had a lot in common. We both liked to read a lot—we exchanged books and shit, still do that to this day. We just vibed, and now he’s a good friend of mine. It’s not even on some working shit anymore. We went to the movies to see Get Out together, you know? That’s my bro. It’s hilarious and random. We ran into Swae Lee in a lobby and we all ended up going to see Get Out. It was one of those joints where you had to pick your seats online, and when we got there, Swae Lee’s assigned seat was right behind ours. He picked his seat not even knowing we were going to be there.
Just a random day at the movies.
Just random. It was like a random Wednesday bro. So I’ve known Joey for a few years, and I’m working with him more now, you know, now that my photography’s been picking up.
When you first started picking up tips from Slick, did you always imagine photography as a primary focus or was it something you just wanted to get better at for self?
To be honest I’ve always taken pictures, even before I considered myself a photographer. I’d always have a disposable camera on me or just a camera in general. I’d started a blog to show my journey, and I’d bought my own Nikon and I was taking my own photos for my posts. I had to let people know what was going on. I’ve always had a camera, but in the past two, two-and-a-half years, I’d say my focus has turned primarily to photography and story-telling. I’ve kind of fallen in love with it.
Often in successful careers there’s a moment where someone has a revelation to the effect of, ‘Hey, you might be able to do this shit for real.’ Do you remember what that moment was for you?
It was actually with Joey. It’s 2015, and I was working at Cinematic. I still wasn’t considered a photographer at the time, but I had a camera and it was New York Fashion Week. So Joey was like, “Yo, I just got this new ‘fit, let’s go out and shoot in the streets.”
I’m like, “Aight, cool.”
At the time I think I’d already done a couple of shoots. Actually, I don’t think I’d done many shoots at all. I’d taken a couple shots of Mick Jenkins here and there, but it wasn’t anything extravagant, you know. But me and Joey went out and hopped on the subway and started taking shots, it was him and Powers Pleasant, who’s from Pro Era as well, and when I started editing those photos, that’s when I realized that I was on to something. The photos are pretty crazy. They came out pretty tight. After that day, I knew.
It’s one thing to take a great picture, but it’s another to capture a great moment. Is there a way for you to tangibly explain how you can tell you’re on the cusp of a great moment, or is it more an innate ability to capitalize on chance?
I’ll have to go with the latter. To be honest I don’t know when shit’s really going to happen. I don’t know when a moment is a moment until after the fact. You know, you look back and you think, ‘Damn, that was a moment.’ Like, when Big and ‘Pac were rapping at the Tunnel. At the time it was cool, sure, but now when you look back it’s like, ‘Damn, that was Biggie and ‘Pac! That was a moment!’ When you take a flick of a legend or something, you know that you’ve got a piece of history. But generally, you don’t know you’re creating history until after the fact, once you see how it affects the world and how it affects people when they see your photos, or see your art in general. That’s not really something I focus on, though. I just try to capture the moment and tell the right story—the story through my eyes. I trust my instincts and, you know, so far, so good with that. [laughs.] I do what comes to me naturally.
I was thinking specifically of a photo that went viral; I think it’s of Rae Sremmurd and Chris Brown. I wondered whether you’d targeted that shot, or whether that’s one that just stood out maybe three days later as you went through shots.
That story is kind of funny. Sremm was hosting Drais in Vegas for the first time. It was a pool party, and it was lit. Everybody was drunk. Jxmmi was DJing. It was so turned up that Chris—he must’ve been staying in a hotel right above the pool party or a neighboring hotel—looked down and he was like, ‘Damn, it’s turnt!’ So he came down and saw that it was the Rae Sremmurd pool party, and he linked up with a bunch of homies—all cool dudes. Everyone started chopping it up, and of course I started to do my job. So that’s how that happened. I just took advantage.
You went to Uganda with Swae Lee—you’ve photographed Rae Sremmurd overseas—to shoot “Unforgettable.” How important was that trip to your journey, both professionally and personally?
Uganda was a humbling and life changing experience for me. I didn’t know what to expect, we all have these preconceived notions of what Africa will be like but you’ll never know unless you go. The people are so beautiful. So many different forms of blackness—for once in my life I felt like I actually belonged. Like I had some sense of identity. Everybody looked like me.
During the shooting of the video everybody came out from the village to watch Swae and French perform. Shout out to Triplets Ghetto Kids for choreographing and turning it up, you could really see it in their eyes that they love what they do.
Talk to me about being on the set of Mike WiLL Made-It’s “Perfect Pint” video. What was that like?
Yeah, so Nabil directed it. Rae Sremmurd’s management had showed me the treatment, and it was a pretty simple treatment. But in my head, I was like, “Knowing Nabil…” This thing is going to get crazy. And that definitely ended up being the case. We were out in Palmville, California, out in the desert and shit. He had an old school red whip. A crazy crane contraption. It was like, a million-dollar car. The crane was on top of a G-Wagon or some type of Mercedes truck. It was nuts. But, yeah, most of the video was green screen as you could tell from all the visual effects. Still, just seeing Nabil’s enthusiasm and seeing how he knew what his vision was. That was a big turning point for me as far as me learning my aesthetic as the photographer. And being more confident in my vision. Nothing is too crazy. And I’ve got to shout out Mike WiLL. His shit is going crazy in the clubs, in the streets.
Before I ask you about the Puff and Bada$$ session, please describe the events leading up to the video clip you sent me of you and Puff.
I don’t know, man. It’s still, like… I get asked a lot, either on social media or in real life when I’m just kicking it, how it was being with Diddy. But you know, all I can say is that it’s Diddy. He’s a living legend. You pull up to the crib and you see a Maybach and G-Wagons and a big ass house with a gate. It’s so inspirational. He’s black. He’s one of the richest, most powerful black entertainers in the world. Just being there is motivation.
But when I actually met him, I went with Joey who introduced me: “Yo, this is my brother Ashani. He’s got the good energy. The good vibes.” Diddy was like, “Oh, you got the good vibes? We’ve been waiting on you all week!” Even that was just dope to see, but then he took out his phone and hopped on Snap. Next thing you know the phone is in my face, and he’s throwing me on the Snap. That was love.
So you and Puff are buds now.
[laughs.] Nah, that was actually my first time meeting him. Funny, when we got there he wasn’t even around. We were in the backyard playing ball. And then he popped up and all that went down. It was pretty trippy bro.
Did you have an idea that the day was going to go that way when you got up?
It’s funny man. This life is so real, and life in general is so real. You never know. Especially when you’ve been in the “industry” for a few years and you’ve been rubbing shoulders with people. You never know where somebody’s going to go or who’s going to take off or what’s going to happen. Me and Joey have always been cool, so the fact that we’ve been rocking for all this time. There’s a reason he brought me with him. I feel like all this shit is about great minds and like minds having the same type of energy. And when you’re a positive person, all that shit comes full circle. All these things come to be because we manifested it.
You’ve accomplished a lot in a short period of time. What advice would you give to a young photographer on the come-up?
If it feels right then it is right. Art has no rules.