It was a golden moment
In 1996, the Moroccan-born artist Hassan Hajjaj wound up his fashion label RAP. The brand had played around with motifs of urban culture and cosmopolitan British identity and won an eager clientele, mainly based in London. But after 12 years in business Hajjaj felt he had gone as far as possible with the label and that “it was time to do something new.” Following RAP, he began to experiment with photography, as well as interior and product design. He found that he excelled at creating images. Today his powerfully exuberant photos are shown in museums, galleries and art fairs around the world. The days of RAP are arguably far off. Except that Britain is currently more riven on questions of identity and nationhood than at any period in recent memory. And that makes the ideas of openness and multiculturalism that Hajjaj explored through the label feel all the more current. So much so that his decision to bring RAP back to life at Sole, 20 years after winding up the label, feels timely and thrillingly consequential.
In his work as a photographer, Hajjaj conjures dazzling portraits of performers and artists often drawn from his own wide, international circle of friends and acquaintances. For My Rock Stars, the likes of fashion designer Joe Casely Hayford, musician Keziah Jones and restaurateur Mourad Mazouz pose in suits made by Hajjaj out of raucous printed fabrics culled from market stalls and African cloth stores.
In ‘Kesh Angels and Dakka Marrakesh, two photo series shot in Morocco, the faces of young Arab women are hidden behind veils, the outline of their bodies obscured inside abayas. Hajjaj subverts the notion that a shrouded woman is automatically rendered mute and passive by the veil. His women stare out from his pictures, knowing and ironic, eyes rimmed in kohl and dressed in fabrics gleefully printed with counterfeit Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Nike logos.
In these images, worlds elide. Here, in this seamless interplay of people, products, poses and brands is the borderless, globalised world rendered vivid. In the news broadcasts and popular imagery that surrounds discussion of globalisation, people of colour are often cast as reluctant extras; refugees, migrants and dollar-a-day strivers, barely holding on as the world spins ever faster. Hajjaj would never deny the gravity of such personal situations. But all the same, his work focuses, not on the victims of international trade, but on the cosmopolitan figures able to navigate global flows of commerce, culture and information with apparent ease - whether they be running a henna stall in Marrakech’s Jemaa el Fna square, a Michelin-starred North African restaurant in London, or laying down a track in a New York recording studio.
Hajjaj’s view of the world, as a place always in motion, alive with contradiction and possibility, is one that he’s evolved with hard-won optimism, since childhood. Born in 1961, he moved to London in 1973, from the small fishing town of Larache in northern Morocco. He was aged 12 and spoke little English. It was a difficult arrival. The seven members of his family - two parents and five children - shared a single room in a rundown house in north London. There was a zinc bath for washing and a toilet three floors down in the garden. Their neighbour in the next room was a prostitute. Much of Hajjaj’s time at school was spent learning English. He struggled to keep up in lessons and eventually dropped out at 15 with no qualifications. For the next eight years he was mostly unemployed, scraping by with occasional, short-term jobs.
London in the Seventies could be hostile territory if you were young and non-white.
You might struggle to find work, as Hajjaj did. Or fall victim to abrupt, startling violence. Against a backdrop of widespread antipathy to immigration - Margaret Thatcher, campaigning to become prime minister, complained that Britain was being “swamped” by incomers - black and Asians were routinely treated with aggression and contempt. As the journal Race & Class reported, “Black places of worship, black shops, black centres are targets for brutal attack, vandalism and fascist daubings...Day in, day out black people, young and old, men and women, are subjected to abuse and assault.”
Between 1976 and 1981, 31 people of colour in Britain were murdered by racists. That number included an elderly Asian woman in Leamington Spa, who died after her sari was doused in petrol and set alight, and a young boy in Manchester who was stabbed to death by a motorist at whose car he’d idly flicked an apple core.
Yet even amid such prevailing bleakness there was room for opportunity. Hajjaj took over a friend’s stall in Camden market and began selling clothes designed by fashion students and recent graduates that he knew. In 1983, he opened RAP, a clothes shop on Neal Street, in Covent Garden. He stocked his friends’ designs, but also classic items like Cutler and Gross sunglasses, John Smedley knits and second hand Levi’s. Over time, he broadened his range until it stretched from streetwear items like bootleg Chanel No 5 and Gucci T-shirts to diffusion line high fashion brands such as John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood.
Hajjaj calls the years that followed RAP’s opening, his “schooling. It was a golden moment,” he recalls. “Without realising it, you start surrounding yourself with people from music, fashion, literature, you’re in that zone.”
His friends, similarly disenfranchised from the mainstream, couldn’t get into the clubs they wanted to go to, or find the clothes they wanted to wear. So they created their own scene instead. “The big fashion labels didn’t design for people like us,” says Hajjaj. “So we’d go and buy the fabric and put it on the back of jackets. It wasn’t just fashion. Where do you go and listen to your music? Where do you go and eat your kind of food? It was a time when London was changing in every element. Food, music, fashion, films, art.”
In the mid-Eighties new sounds and styles were springing up across the capital. At illicit warehouse parties run by sound systems such as Soul II Soul and Norman Jay’s Good Times, crowds danced to hip-hop, Seventies funk and go-go, while artists such as Wigan, Rob Shepherd and the Mutoid Waste Company covered the walls with elaborate murals and erected wild industrial sculptures. Pirate stations such as Kiss FM hijacked FM radio frequencies to blast rap and soul and house across the city. A first generation of black British designers such as Joe Casely-Hayford came to the fore and groups like Loose Ends evolved out of the club scene to score hit records.
After years on the very periphery of London life, Hajjaj was now part of an ascendant wave. In addition to RAP, he was running clubs at venues including Dingwalls in Camden, an iconic location on the map of Eighties and Nineties London nightlife. With a DJ roster that included the likes of a young Carl Cox, he’d choreograph deliberately eclectic nights that moved from funk and hip-hop to reggae or jazz across the hours. And on a given night you might see live acts from the burgeoning UK rap scene such as MC Mell’O’ or the Cookie Crew as well as visiting US artists like Salt N Pepa and Flavor Flav. “I had an eye to mix things up,” says Hajjaj.
True to Hajjaj’s philosophy, RAP itself became a nexus point, where London’s style and club cultures met. The store was one of the few places you could buy tickets for the warehouse parties whose date and location was otherwise a closely guarded secret. It was also a key outlet for a new wave of fashion labels springing up on both sides of the Atlantic. At RAP you could buy London’s Duffer of St George alongside New York’s 555 Soul, Stussy and Giant Step, the spin-off clothing line from the NYC jazz-hip-hop club of the same name. In the late Eighties, you could even buy the New York-sourced African bead necklaces and leather Africa pendants popularised by Afrocentric rap acts like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.
By then, Hajjaj had started to also design his own clothes. The acronym RAP stood for “Real Artistic People” and he founded the label, initially, in response to the flourishing creative scene around him. “My peers were people like Soul II Soul, Omar, London Posse, pirate DJs - that’s the friends I grew up with. I wasn’t thinking big outside doing stuff for myself and my friends. It was what was going on around me. I was trying to create for what they would wear.”
Hajjajj produced clothes across the Eighties into the Nineties. His designs were an ebullient combination of the influences that flowed through his shop. You could see the impact of hip-hop in the polo shirts, cargo pants and camouflage print puffa jackets he created. But he was also deeply conscious that, as a Londoner, he couldn’t simply ape American style. “If they did a baseball top there [in New York], I’d do a football or a cricket top here using something British. I was trying to play around, without forgetting the influence of London.”
For Hajjaj, expressing the influence of London meant reflecting the city’s role as a gathering point for amongst others, the people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities that, like him, had made the place their home. In this formulation London was what the anthropologist Mary Louise Pratt has called a “contact zone”, a “social space where disparate cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other”. In RAP collections, a traditional notion of Britishness gave way to a conception of the country as a riotous agglomeration of people, place and history. T-shirts featured the red, white and blue Union Jack recoloured in the red, gold and green of African nationalism. Kangol fedoras and peaked caps came in funky corduroys and suedes in homage to the elan with which the hats were worn by West Indian immigrants in the Fifties. There were classic English duffle coats in eye-popping shades of blue and yellow. Even the Queen was enlisted into service, with a blown up postage stamp featured her head in profile, also coloured in red, gold and green.
RAP, says Hajjaj, was about “a London mix from Caribbean, English, Indian” - the immigrant children of Empire no longer supplicant to the mother country, but now making themselves visible through style, fashion and culture.
Simultaneous with Hajjaj’s efforts to create a label that evoked a proudly polyglot country, a rising generation of artists and writers was exploring similar themes of identity during the Nineties. This was the decade when black artists such as Steve McQueen, Chris Ofili and Yinka Shonibare first came to prominence; when the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri won the Booker prize and the academic Paul Gilroy produced The Black Atlantic, a landmark book on race and identity. Hajjaj may have been involved in the less storied business of fashion design but his preoccupations were the same. And the result of those joint endeavours was that, by the time Hajjaj had quit the label in 1996 Britain was a country markedly more comfortable with ethnic diversity. During the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics for example, multiculturalism took centre stage, with a re-enactment of the arrival to Britain of Caribbean immigrants on the Empire Windrush and live performances by acts including Dizzee Rascal and Emile Sande.
Sadly, the spirit of optimism epitomised by the Olympics ceremony seems to be on the wane.
In the bitter campaign surrounding Britain’s vote to leave the European Union this June, anti-immigration sentiment and racial attacks spiked across the country. Victims, mainly the eastern Europeans who’ve arrived in Britain in increased numbers over the past decade, described verbal abuse, windows being smashed and cars vandalised. In the week after the vote, London averaged three racist incidents reported per hour. Two months after the referendum, a Polish man was beaten to death in the street in a suspected hate crime.
Hajjaj’s decision to revive RAP at Sole, with a display of original works and a new collection, wasn’t prompted by Britain’s current state of unease. But in the context of the times, the return of a label with a philosophy of diversity at its core can only be welcomed. From fashion to photography and back to fashion, Hajjaj’s work, in tandem with many other artists of colour, has helped change Britain for the better, shifting its identity from the insularity prized by bigots and racial purists and establishing instead, a more open, tolerant nation.
The scholar Stuart Hall has described this as a process of “globalisation from below” - the culture of the colonised rising to dominance over that of the colonizer. In the Britain of 2016, with that process under threat, we need RAP more than ever.
About Ekow Eshun
Ekow Eshun is a writer and cultural commentator. He is the former Director of the ICA and Chairman of the Fourth Plinth Commissioning Group, overseeing the most prestigious public art programme in Britain. An award-winner broadcaster, he is a Contributing Editor at Esquire and the former Editor of men’s lifestyle magazine Arena. He writes for publications including The Financial Times, The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, Vogue, Wired and Wallpaper.
Ekow Eshun is Creative Director of Calvert 22 Foundation, a London art space dedicated to the contemporary culture of Eastern Europe, and Editor-in-Chief of The Calvert Journal, the foundation’s award-winning online magazine. He is curator of the critically acclaimed exhibition, Made You Look: Dandyism and Black Masculinity, currently on show at The Photographer’s Gallery in London. He has been listed by the Evening Standard as one of London’s 1000 Most Influential People.
About Hassan Hajjaj
Born in Larache, Morocco in 1961, Hassan arrived in London in his teens and grew up amid the emerging club culture in the UK. Known as the Andy Warhol of Marrakech, Hassan is a child of the pop art generation. His oeuvre includes photography; designing and producing furniture made from recycled North African objects; crafting custom made clothes; and, most recently, filmmaking. He has gained popularity for his iconic portraits of personalities from the world of music, art, performance, fashion and sports, mixed with portrayal of his own special friends and the henna girls of Marrakech – many of which have been shown in major galleries, institutions and museums around the world. Hassan lives and works between London and Marrakech, and is represented by The Third Line, Dubai.