Chances are, whenever you catch Diwang Valdez in public or talk to him in person, he’s smiling. This was definitely the case when Valdez, the Atlanta-based photographer and a third of Motion Family spoke with 13thflr about his first photo series, “The Happy Rapper.”
A collection of candid photographs taken over eight years featuring artists both old and new, “The Happy Rapper,” shows the more human side of your favorite MC.
“Everybody can’t be the coolest person all the time,” Valdez said a few days after the series debuted at Art, Beats + Lyrics in ATL. “I’ve gotten to see a lot these rappers acting normal when there’s no pressure.”
Below, the talented Mr. Valdez opens up about the stories behind these moments and how he grew up in the process.
What was the first photograph that inspired this series?
It was the photo of Lil’ Scrappy. I was shooting some photos for Black Mafia Family’s Juice Magazine. We were in Chinatown and it was during a lunch break. I don’t know what happened, but he was eating and then he started laughing and I just started taking his picture. I immediately looked at the back of the screen and was like, “Man, I haven’t taken a picture like that before.” I was so used to do doing portraits. I hadn’t been shooting that long, maybe a year or two.
So from there did you make it a point to try to catch these artists with their guard down?
That was the first time I noticed it, and I didn’t really make a point to do it. I’d start catching more candid moments, and I’d be like, “Man, there’s another one of those!” I thought maybe I should make a series and the Plies photo was the second one.
So what was the impetus for finally getting this series off the ground?
I had wanted to do this series for a long time. I think the reason it’s just happening now is because Dubelyoo from Art, Beats + Lyrics asked me. I first released [the series] maybe three or four years ago, just on my site and thought, “Meh, I think I can build it up more.” So, I just took it down. Luckily, somebody told me I had a deadline for it (laughs).
How’d you come up with the name, “The Happy Rapper”?
I wanted it to just be called “Happy Rapper” at one point and the URL was taken (laughs), so I added, “The,” and that was back in 2009. I didn’t think much more of it after that.
What do think you think intrigues people about the idea of a “happy rapper”?
It’s just not something that you see, or it’s not what they normally portray. I was telling someone they have really good lives. Not a lot of people get to travel and do their art and live like this. You know, they’re generally happy people they just don’t show it all the time or that’s not what their music portrays. They’re still people and they like to have fun.
Was there a particular photo that really caught you off guard?
Yeah, another earlier photo in this series was of Gucci Mane. I was shooting him for a mixtape cover for Black Bill Gates and he was just like in this lounge area hanging out and smoking. I didn’t even notice the photo until later. You never see Gucci laugh like that. I mean I’ve seen him laugh, and I hear he’s a funny dude, but at that point I had never seen it. That was one of the first, more shocking ones where I was like, “Oh, dang!”
What’s the response been from peers, rappers, etc?
People seem to like it a lot I think because it’s some of their favorite rappers. They know who the people are – there are some older rappers and some younger kids, so it’s a wide range of rappers. I really haven’t run into any of the rappers since I released it. I don’t know that any of them have seen it yet.
Would you consider doing more, “The Happy Rapper Vol. 2”?
I don’t know. If I happen to catch some more I’ll just add them to the site.
Are there any wild moments behind these shots, some not-so-happy-lead-ups to the image?
Nothing too crazy; I feel like sometimes if I notice that they’re like starting to laugh and I start taking more pictures it’s like they’ll be more aware and stop cheesing so hard (laughs).
Looking back on the photos, what do you notice most about your growth as a photographer over the years?
I can definitely tell the difference. Some of the earlier photos were all shot with the first digital camera that I got. I feel the quality of the photos have gotten better just because I’ve learned a lot more since I started. Some of the earlier ones I did with a flash. From 2008 on, they’re all natural light.
Aside from the technical, what have you personally learned or gained in creating this series?
I realized that I enjoy shooting moments just as much as I enjoy shooting portraits. I always considered myself as more of a portrait photographer, but this was a lot of fun to do.
Rappers love you. What is it about you?
I’m a fan of the music. I feel like I’m just generally curious and I like to hear the stories behind the music. I just enjoy doing what I do.
Non “Happy Rapper” Photography by Kelsey Ryan