Last August, photographer Alexander Richter and writer Sean Stewart set out for Kingston, Jamaica, with a singular vision in mind. The duo planned to document the city’s cultural scene for a new online magazine they founded with friend and graphic designer Anthony Harrison. The publication, dubbed Sevens Clash in homage to the reggae song “Two Sevens Clash” by the band Culture, was conceived as a vehicle to tell the lesser-known stories of Kingston from a street-level point of view. To provide readers with unfiltered access to the city’s art, music, sports, and street life, however, the pair would have to do so in a compressed, one-week time frame — the duration of their self-financed trip.
Stewart, who grew up in Jamaica, had arranged for he and Richter to stay at his father’s home in Kingston. And in order to gain access to a number of sources and subjects in a short amount of time, he enlisted the help of an old friend. “My longtime homie James Porteous, aka JP DA Manager, was our fixer,” Stewart says. “He was instrumental in getting shit together.” The resulting reports and photographs offer a colorful and revealing document of day-to-day life in Kingston — from profiles of dancehall artist Tommy Lee and the aptly named Tattoo Phillip (who is, after all, a tattooist), to record shopping at Rockers on “Beat Street” and late-night encounters on Ripon Road, to name only a few.
How did the idea for Sevens Clash come about?
Alexander Richter: Sevens Clash was born from the desire to create new work and to collaborate with talented people while doing it.
Sean Stewart: I’m always setting up interviews as an excuse to talk to people doing interesting shit, and a project like Sevens Clash is a great vehicle to help focus (and justify) that mania.
Anthony Harrison: Alex and I actually connected on Instagram after seeing each others’ work posted. It was a mutual respect thing. He told me about the big idea, and I offered up my services to create a brand identity. I looked at Sean’s blog and was blown away. One phone conversation with these cats told me that Sevens Clash was something I needed to be a part of.
What prompted you to choose Kingston for the first volume of Sevens Clash?
AR: Jamaica has long been a place I wanted to visit. I’m a big fan of reggae and dancehall music, so naturally once I started to make pictures, Jamaica was a place that I wanted to go to and cook up some serious work. After connecting with Sean who is from Kingston, it was a no-brainer to see if he would be interested in collaborating on a project documenting and exploring Kingston.
AH: My parents are both Jamaican and emigrated to England in their teens, where I was born. For me, this was a way to grasp my roots. The older I get, the more connected I feel. So when I spoke with Alex and he said, “Trust me man, this is going to be culturally authentic and not some fluff ‘Wha gwan Jamaica?’ piece, I was in. I didn’t actually travel with Alex and Sean, but I was there in spirit.
How did Sean and Anthony’s familial ties and knowledge of Jamaica help the project?
AH: When I think about the premise behind the project as it applies to the art direction, my roots help me to translate our stories to our audience. Jamaica is viewed in a certain light in England and America, so visual communication means that I can call on various cultural cues to get our stories across to a broad and diverse audience in a meaningful and authentic manner. Growing up in a Jamaican household — and being familiar yet somewhat removed — helps me to see things from an objective point of view. As I get older, I’m finding myself digging deeper and making more solid family connections.
AR: Well, the fact that Sean and Anthony have a direct connection to Jamaica was key to the success of Sevens Clash. Since Sean is from Kingston, he was integral to not only helping us link with the right people in order to pursue the stories that we covered, but because he was able to bring a unique voice to our stories. I think Jamaica is often written about by outsiders who don’t understand the complexity of the country, and having Sean writing for us from the perspective of a native Jamaican was essential because he was able to see the stories for what they were and not trying to create something they weren’t.
As for Anthony, even though he wasn’t with us on the ground in Kingston, he understands the culture, the sport, the music, and the food of Jamaica and is able to bring that knowledge to the visual identity that he was creating with each feature. One look at the artwork for our stories and you can tell that Anthony is dialed in. Look at “The Ballad of Tommy Lee,” “Record Shopping At Rockers International,” “Dancehall Bespoke,” or “Organize Dat!” just to name a few, and you will see there is no faking the funk.
What surprised you the most about your trip through Kingston? You were approached by a pimp on Ripon Road.
AR: Ripon was a pretty funny situation because I was so focused on working with the girls that I didn’t really notice him when he rolled up. Some words were exchanged off to the side, but fortunately nothing happened. I shot a few photos of them standing in the middle of the street, and then we dipped off into the night without incident. As for what surprised me the most, that’s a tough question to answer. Jamaica moves in a different way than the States, and as a result my approach had to be different. That being said, it was an amazing place to visit and work.
Corruption, especially among law enforcement, is often talked about when discussing Jamaica. Did you encounter any trouble with police during your trip?
AR: None whatsoever.
SS: In my experience, the difference between the culture of corruption in the United States and Jamaica is one of degree, not kind. And when you really get down to it, it’s mostly a question of style. That being said, we didn’t really have any issues on this trip.
What’s the origin of the name Sevens Clash?
SS: It’s taken from a reggae song called “Two Sevens Clash” by the vocal trio Culture. The songwriter (and lead singer), Joseph Hill, was inspired by a vision of July 7, 1977, as the fulfillment of Marcus Garvey’s rumored prophecy that the oppressed would rise up “when the two sevens meet.” Whether the lyrics were taken literally or metaphorically, Hill’s predictions found easy resonance in the midst of the chaos surrounding the efforts to destabilize Michael Manley’s democratic socialist government. Recorded in 1976 and pressed up in early 1977, the song was an immediate hit — both at home and in the UK, where the punk and reggae subcultures were then colliding. And I think Anthony’s logo perfectly captures that energy.
You spent a week in Kingston, but have been publishing the stories over a number of months. Can you talk about the thought process behind the publication schedule for the project?
SS: Where possible, we try to peg each piece to a relevant event. The added bonus of the pacing is that we’ve been able to build an audience organically without losing momentum.
AR: This whole project has been based on feeling. I can imagine Volume 2 will be the same.
When you say you “peg each piece to a relevant event,” can you give examples?
SS: Definitely. We waited until right before Sting to drop the Isaiah Laing piece and published the Protoje piece shortly before the iTunes release of his single “Kingston Be Wise.” We put up our piece on the legendary Jamaican flyweight Richard ‘Shrimpy’ Clarke in anticipation of the 2013 season of The Contender, a hugely popular Jamaican boxing reality TV show.
Do you have a destination and subject matter in mind for Volume 2?
AR: Well, we’ve decided that for Volume 2 we’re going to stay close to home and explore some of the interesting stories that are taking place in our own backyard.
SS: For the next installment we’ll mostly be roaming around New York and New Jersey. We’ll still be digging up stories on music, art, sports, and street life, but this time without the seven-day handicap we had in Jamaica.