Photographer Kwaku Alston has photographed everyone from the First Family and Nelson Mandela to the characters he finds around his home in Venice Beach. He’s driven by music as much as images and chooses songs he plays on set during shoots, as well as tunes that make him feel at home wherever he is in the world as part of his Guest DJ set – from eye-catching diva Grace Jones to a poignant, heartwarming track from John Lennon.
For More: Kwaku Alston dot com
Mathieu Schreyer: Hi, I’m Mathieu Schreyer from KCRW and I’m here with photographer Kwaku Alston. He has photographed everything from President Barack Obama and the First Lady to the characters he finds around his home in Venice. Today we will be playing excerpts of songs he selected that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ project. Kwaku, what did you bring for us?
Kwaku Alston: First one is Thievery Corporation’s “Ambicion Eterna.” I’m from the DC area and Thievery Corporation is too so I had to pay homage to one of my favorite bands down there. I used to hang out in the club scenes a lot when I was younger and listen to a lot of house music, and a lot of my friends were DJs. And, Thievery Corporation was introduced to me at 18th Street Lounge back in the day. I fell in love with them ever since.
Song: Thievery Corporation -- Ambicion Etern
KA: The beautiful thing about Washington D.C. area is that it’s a very international city because we have all the diplomats, and all the diplomats’ kids will go to school. And so when I was going to school I had like people from India, people from Spain, people from France, people from all over the world would be in my high school. So when they were going out at night, when you’re a youngster – 18, 19, 20 – it was like international culture. So for me I was always turned onto different types of music and hung out with different types of people.
There’s something about this song that speaks to me, it’s very soulful, because the main singer, I think his name is Verny Varela, and he is from D.C., but he’s also from Cali, Colombia. And something about this voice, it just makes me think about love and it makes me feel that, it evokes and emotion of peace.
MS: That was “Ambicion Eterna” from Thievery Corporation. I’m Mathieu Schreyer sitting in with Kwaku Alston, and we’re going to get into song number two. What did you bring for us?
KA: My next song is Miles Davis “Blue in Green.” I love Miles Davis because something about when I listen to this Blue in Green song, it reminds me to always be up. Whenever I’m in a down mood and I feel sad or feel like I’m having a bad day or anything like that, I listen to this song and it just brings me up. It has all the full emotions of human beings that we can endure everyday -- up and down, sad, whatever. For some reason this song really speaks to me on that emotional level.
Song: Miles Davis – Blue in Green
MS: "I know your relocation from New York to Venice Beach was hard for you and you started photographing the community as a way to deal with it. Was this a song you turned to and how does it factor into your daily life as an artist based in Venice."
KA: Miles Davis definitely does embody the things and themes that are going on in Venice. There’s so much range, visual range in Venice. You have everything from the hipsters to the down and beat people on the boardwalk, or the tourists, or the skateboarders, or the new bikers, now we have Intelligentsia. Everything that’s going on, Venice is a little New York City; it has a little bit of everything. That’s what I love about it. And I try to photograph that. And I think Miles Davis does work really well with that.
MS: So we just heard “Blue in Green” from Miles Davis. This is Mathieu Schreyer. I’m sitting here with Kwaku Alston. Let’s go through your crate buddy, what’s next?
KA: Up next is Aya, “Uptown.” I was in Amsterdam doing a photo shoot, and I went to this one record shop in Amsterdam, and I saw this album. Album cover art is a lot of what I do also, I do a lot of album covers. So when I saw this I got attracted to the photograph right away. It was this girl in Central Park on a hot summer day, really beautiful, Westside, you know? The background… And I’m like, ‘oh my God, this song is incredible!’ It’s New York City! And I was in another country, and I see New York City and I was super excited, because I was living in New York City at the time. So, I bought it, took it home -- didn’t even listen to it in the record store, I just knew I had to have the photo. And when I turned that on, that song on, that track, it embodied the essence of what New York City was about. A feeling about get up and go, fun, light, summer breeze. For me that was a track I love to play all the time, gets me going.
Song: Aya -- Uptown
MS: We just heard from Aya, that track was “Uptown.” This is Mathieu Schreyer sitting in with Kwaku Alston. KCRW Guest DJ Project. I like the next song you got.
KA: Grace Jones, “I’ve Seen That Face Before.” from the Album “Night Clubbing.” It’s one of my all-time favorite albums. I was sitting in bed one Sunday morning, trying to sleep in, and I was watching Frantic, with Harrison Ford.
MS: It’s in the club scene isn’t it?
KA: It’s in the club scene! And I’m like ‘wow that’s a great song, I want to get that for my collection.’ And I knew it was Grace Jones, but I just didn’t have that album. So I went on Google and right away I found it, I bought it, and it’s been there ever since. It’s stayed one of the soundtracks on my iPod. It’s great, love it.
Song: Grace Jones -- “I’ve Seen That Face Before”
KA: Grace Jones was so ahead of her time -- she’s so eccentric, she had just an incredible sense of style, that she totally influences what’s going on now, if you think about it.
MS: Is there a particular time you put this song on?
KA: Well, I have playlists for every mood I’m in. If I’m coming home from a long day of work, I like to chill out first with a little bit of jazz, some down tempo beats, and I kind of always mix Grace in, because Grace can move in different types of genres. That’s what’s so brilliant about her, about her sound. So, if I’m hanging out with my friends, just chilling, just kicking back, in Venice, I sometimes put it on.
MS: We just heard, “I’ve Seen That Face Before” from Grace Jones. This is Mathieu Schreyer here with Kwaku Alston. KCRW Guest DJ Project. Lets go, what’s your last song?
KA: My last song here is John Lennon’s “Love.” I chose this song because it came to me at a pivotal point in my life. It just spoke to me. I went to take a class at a place called Esalen in Big Sur. It was a class called “Awakening Your Heart.” And the teacher there, the professor, he would play this song over and over again for 20, 30 minutes.
Song: John Lennon -- "Love"
Music speaks to me on a different level than it did before. It speaks to me on a more of emotional and intellectual level, what I’m thinking, what I’m going through in my life at that time.
MS: As a photographer, do you see any images when you listen to any of these songs?
KA: All the time. Music, photography, video, whatever it is – it’s all hand in hand. When I’m thinking of a song sometimes I’m thinking about how I can make it into a moving image, into a still image. When I’m doing a photo shoot, music plays a vital role in getting the mood or energy, or the emotion out of the subjects that I’m photographing.
MS: Do you always bring music to your photo shoots?
KA: I bring music to all my photo shoots and I kind of try to tailor for each individual celebrity or subject matter. Like when I photographed the First Lady, Michelle Obama, I had a playlist just for her. The John Lennon “Love” song is on that playlist.
MS: So we just heard “Love” from John Lennon and I’m here with Kwaku Alston.
Kwaku, Thank you so much for joining us on KCRW.com.
KA: Thank you, thank you, appreciate it.
MS: For a complete track listing, and to find these songs online, go to KCRW.org slash guest DJ project.