Chi Modu, Celebrating the Lens of Hiphop
by Rapjoint Lagos
Chi Modu (born 1966) is an American documentary photographer of Nigerian descent, renowned for his photographs of hip-hop artists during the 1990’s, the defining years of the hip hop era.His subjects included Biggie, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dogg,Mobb Deep, LL Cool J, Mary J. Blige, the Notorious B.I.G. and Wu-Tang Clan.His photos are especially notable for the personal and intimate camera angles of the famous music artists
Chi Modu was born in 1966 in Arondizuogu, Nigeria. In 1969, when he was two and a half years old, his family left Nigeria in the middle of a civil war to seek refuge in the United States.Modu grew up in New Jersey.
After graduating from The Lawrenceville School in 1984, Modu attended Rutgers University, where he studied economics. He graduated with a B.S.degree in economics in 1989. While still an undergraduate student at Rutgers, he developed an interest in photography and cameras and enrolled in the photojournalism and documentary photography program at the International Center of Photography in New York City soon after, where he received a certificate in 1992.
Documenting the defining years of hip hop
Chi first picked up a camera while a student at Rutgers. After honing his skills at the International Center of Photography, he landed at The Source, which was the definitive magazine of hip hop culture. It was here that Chi developed relationships with the biggest icons of the hip hop movement, including Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, and L-L Cool J, most of whom were not yet famous.
In addition to shooting over 30 cover photos at The Source, Chi was able to capture the musicians in candid, unexpected moments, due to his disarming manner and unique perspective. His photos include some of the most groundbreaking, memorable images of that era, including Tupac Smoking and Biggie WTC (standing in front of the World Trade Towers). He not only chronicled and defined the most important phase of the hip hop movement, now a global force, he also was able to define the artists and show them as real people, rather than one-dimensional celebrities.
Seeing life through a different lens
Chi’s unusual background is probably responsible for the unique way he sees and captures the world around him. Born in Nigeria and raised in New Jersey, Chi had to decide at a young age whether to return with his parents to Nigeria or stay behind at boarding school. He chose boarding school, and found himself at Lawrenceville, the prestigious prep school attended by the likes of Michael Eisner and Malcolm Forbes. With his parents on the other side of the world, Chi developed a strong independent streak, which later would manifest itself in his work.
Chi’s most recent project began in August 2013, when massive images of his started appearing on the exterior walls of select NYC buildings, as part of an ongoing installation called Uncategorized.
Chi had been searching for a way to make his art accessible to more people. According to Modu, “The art world tends to be very exclusive and full of obstacles for both the artists and the public. My goal is to make art more inclusive by pulling an end run on the galleries and the museums, breaking down the barriers, and bringing the art directly to the people. Like graffiti, but legal.”
As to why he calls the exhibit Uncategorized—“People always want to put art and artists into neat little boxes. My work does not fit into any one stereotype and neither do I. I wanted to create something that is the opposite of putting labels on everything and make a statement against stereotyping in general. I don’t see this as just an exhibit. I want to start a movement.”
The first four images that went up in August of 2013 included two in SoHo – a 12’ x 9’ rarely seen photo of hip hop legend Tupac Shakur, and a riveting 25’ x 16’ photo of young school boys in the back of a church in Modu’s native Nigeria, and two in Brooklyn – a 16’ x 22’ photo of 21 year old Snoop Dogg shot in 1993 and never released, and a 22’ x 16’ shot of Method Man with smoke curling out of his mouth. In November, an iconic 22’ x 16’ photo of Notorious B.I.G. standing in front of the World Trade Towers went up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Within 5 years of this photo being taken, both Biggie and the Towers would be gone.
In the summer of 2014, UNCATEGORIZED moved overseas to Finland, where it was the main exhibit at the Pori Art Museum and drew record breaking crowds. Yielding to public demand, Modu published a photography book in September 2016 entitled Tupac Shakur: UNCATEGORIZED.
Since the book was launched, UNCATEGORIZED has shown up in dramatic new ways in Seoul, Korea; Bangkok, Thailand; Oslo, Norway; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Germany; Los Angeles, CA; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Dubai, UAE and Lagos, Nigeria. His sponsors and collaborators have included everyone from Adidas to Budweiser. What began as making a bold statement in New York City has become a global movement, with Modu’s loyal fans traveling from city to city to see both him and his latest incarnation of UNCATEGORIZED.
A cultural observer
Chi’s training as a photographer together with his unique perspective on life make him an uncanny observer of human nature, and a natural at mining provocative insights. As the founder of the strategic think tank Diverse Insights,Chi and his team bring insights to life using brilliant photography, a technique he calls Visual IQ™. Chi counts major ad agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi and advertisers like General Mills, Reebok, and Miller Beer among the companies that have benefitted from his fresh perspective.
From Tupac to Lombok
In addition to his impressive collection of hip hop photos, Chi has amassed a wealth of travel, sports, entertainment, and lifestyle images. Despite the differences in his subject matter, Chi’s work has a singular focus – it all reflects his refreshing take on the world. Whether it’s kids at a church in Nigeria, a group of fishermen cleaning their catch in Morocco, a musician playing for money near Prague Castle, or Tupac himself caught in an unexpected moment, the perspective is always as unique and disarming as the photographer himself.
A wide reaching audience
Chi’s timeless, unique photographs are often requested for commercials, films and music documentaries along with being held in private collections. His images have also been licensed by Sony, Paramount, Viacom, The New York Times and The LondonTimes. Even Rolling Stone realized its epic book, “The ‘90s: The Inside Stories from the Decade That Rocked,” would not have been complete without Chi’s iconic photo of Tupac. In addition to The Source, his photos have graced the covers of Rolling Stone Magazine and Jazz Times, and album covers for Snoop, Method Man, Mobb Deep, Mad Lion, and Christian McBride. His work has also appeared in numerous exhibitions, including the Hutchins Gallery, Lawrenceville School,Lawrenceville NJ, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn NY, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland OH.
The 54-year-old legendary photographer was happily married to his wife, unfortunately, her details were never disclosed by him. In fact, folks didn't know even he has any kid or not. Chi always prefers to maintain the privacy of his family.
Chi became the headlines after the news of his death came up on May 22, 2021. According to the reports, the announcement of his death was made by his team on his official social media accounts. Although till now the reason for his death is not disclosed by anyone some sources claimed that he died due to Cancer.