I USED TO BE quite on when I started shooting. But now, I’m getting more and more relaxed. Photography is not a rat race.
I’VE BEEN SHOOTING for 13 years. I just do my thing. If I get likes on my IG, great. If not, that’s ok, too.
ORGANICALLY, my work made me who I am today. There was no agenda or game plan. I just kept shooting until things happened to me.
MY DAY JOB is in advertising but I don’t grind at work. I just make sure I have enough.
THERE ARE TIMES when I feel like I’m not doing much in the rat race but you know what? It is great for my mental health.
AM I SHOOTING to leave a legacy? I hope that whatever I’ve done amounts to something bigger.
THERE ARE MANY GOOD PHOTOGRAPHERS out there and 13 years later, I still get exhibited. That’s something that still surprises me.
MAYBE I’M IGNORANT but I don’t know anything about camera specs. I’m more visual than technical. There are times, however, that I force myself to understand the camera settings. I had to shoot people on the escalators but I can’t capture a good clear image on auto mode. I had to learn how to shoot manually.
REGARDLESS of what industry you are in, there will always be haters.
ONE TIME, I was talking to Kevin [WY Lee] and I told him how envious I was that other photographers get to shoot awesome pictures overseas. He asked what was wrong with shooting in Singapore; if you cannot shoot in your own playground, what makes you so sure that you can shoot in another person’s playground? That stuck with me. For the first six years, I just shot in Singapore.
ABOUT 90 PER CENT OF THE TIME, I’d shoot without asking the subjects for their permission. Because what I want, is the spontaneity of the moment. If I did ask them, something in the moment would be lost.
I’VE MADE SHORT FILMS but I’m more of a still person. You need a crew for filmmaking and the amount of time and involvement needed is too much for me to handle.
“PHOTOGRAPHY IS SELF-MASTURBATION.” That statement is true because in any craft, there’s some sort of conceit involved. I posted that on my IG story and it caused a lot of people to unfollow me. I still stand by the statement though.
BACK BEFORE INSTAGRAM had the archive feature, I used to Marie Kondo my IG feed. Every year, I’d delete them all. There was no reason to keep the images. It was just a matter of housekeeping.
A FEW PEOPLE have asked me to remove photos of them on my IG. In 2010, when I was shooting at the Tanjong Pagar railway station, I shared a shot of a couple kissing. One of them messaged me and asked me to remove it, so I did.
NO ONE WILL EVER SEE this photo but one time, in an alleyway in Little India, I saw a naked man when the door opened. He was sitting there, fully exposed and smoking. It took me aback. My camera was already in my hands so I secretly took a shot.
I USE AI to create fake images that I couldn’t capture in real life. Like the images of Bugis Street in the old days. I don’t have a time machine so this is the next best thing.
NOTHING BEATS BEING THERE: AI can only replicate, it can never duplicate. AI is going to be part of our lives. So, we just have to work with it. It’ll never replace the real moments but it’ll help in other ways.
OFF THE TOP of my head, I’m afraid that I may not have tomorrow to take another photo.
EVERY DAY, I’ll make the best of it. It doesn’t necessarily have to even be about photography. I can just enjoy my time by drinking a beer; that is good enough for me.
IT’S ALL GUT FEEL. It’s hard to explain what I’m going for when I shoot.
DON’T DEBATE with people because you can’t reason with them no matter how good your argument is. I just won’t bother.
THE NEW GENERATION of photographers is doing an amazing job. I don’t get why the old guard is so angry with them.
WHATEVER YOU DO IN LIFE, it’s important to let go. Once you do that, you will feel more at peace.
WHEN I STARTED PHOTOGRAPHY, I felt the pressure but that feeling didn’t last that long. I used to chase after the image. I’d hunt for that moment and when I don’t get it, I get fed up. Eventually, I learnt to just let the image come to me.
WHEN YOU SEE ME on the street, just say hi. I may look fierce but I won’t bite.
NOTHING WRONG with mimicking someone’s style. You have to start somewhere so you’ll often shoot like the photographer you admire. After a while, you’ll find your voice.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE are people trying to get that overnight fame. It’s obvious, you can tell. I don’t bash them, I’ll just let them be because how long can they last? It’s tiring.
Photography: Jaya Khidir
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, 52, is the cofounder and drummer of the Roots, the house band for The Tonight Show since 2014. But that's just one of his many jobs. He’s also a highly successful DJ, record producer, podcaster, author, and filmmaker—not to mention a walking encyclopedia of musical history. In 2022, the first movie he directed, Summer of Soul, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. "I'm a guy just living out his dreams, that's all," he says, speaking to us from his home in New York City. He is currently working on a documentary about funk pioneer Sly Stone and hosting an interview series on YouTube called "Quest for Craft." His eighth book, Hip-Hop is History, will be released in 2024.
The most Philadelphia thing about me is my entitled double-parking tendencies nationwide. To be from Philadelphia is to park where you want with absolutely no repercussions. You do that in Los Angeles and you’re instantly getting a ticket. I learned that quickly.
The blood in my veins and my DNA is made up of Soul Train. Even now I have all eleven hundred episodes of Soul Train, and I keep it on a twenty-four-hour loop on all televisions in my house.
My dad was a fifties doo-wop legend. His name was Lee Andrews. Lee Andrews & the Hearts was the name of his band.
My parents did not believe in babysitting. At no point did I feel like I was being tricked into the family business; it was just my everyday life. But I also realized, in that Michael Jackson way, I definitely missed out on a childhood.
I was a stage manager by the age of ten.
When you’re Black and living in America, you’re living in fight or flight.
Fun for me was binge-shopping for records with Dad every two weeks, We'd head to the King James record store and we’d buy about $200 worth of LPs and about US$100 worth of 45’s. We would give said 33’s and 45’s to my dad’s band to learn songs. My dad’s band would take the hits and I would get the leftovers.
My last non-showbiz job, when I graduated high school, was selling accidental death and dismemberment insurance. I’m very grateful those guys fired me on my birthday in 1992 when I wanted to take the day off. Five months later, we started busking and the Roots as you know it were born. Then we had a record deal a year later.
When you’re Black and living in America, you’re living in fight or flight. When you’re living in fight or flight, you’re living in fear. Safety and survival come first.
The best thing about my parents is they gave me the equipment to dream. The B side to that is that I don’t think I allowed myself to dream much. I heard a lot of “Get a backup plan.” Now I just realised, at this age, “Oh, I have dreams.”
The easiest part of making Summer of Soul was that I had those gifts in me all along. I was a natural-born storyteller, as I love both history and music. The hardest thing was discovering how easy it was. At first, I was like, “Why me?” I ran away from the prospect of even doing the movie, and it found me. It found and attacked me.
I’m a humongous fan of Rocky and Bullwinkle. People do not give kids enough credit for how smart they are. Rocky and Bullwinkle are not condescending at all.
Before the age of forty-six, I listened to only music. Now 80 percent of everything I listen to are tuning forks.
I also listen to a lot of binaural beats. It’s just the sound of a tone. It’s weird to say, “Yeah, 432 megahertz is my favourite song ever. That’s my favourite tone.” That’s what I wake up and sleep to.
I almost feel as though I could be the Drake of binaural beats.
Food is a social adhesive. If there’s a chef in the budget, you’ll really ensure that people are going to show up. Because starving artists like food.
Making French toast with croissants is my thing.
In the beginning, I enjoyed hip-hop because it challenged me. Suddenly I’m hearing my parents’ record collection inside of a Public Enemy album, inside of a Tribe Called Quest album. Once I heard that, then I’m like, “Oh, this is amazing.”
I have a life coach. A month after I won my Oscar, she was like, “All right, you’ve got to get in the big leagues now. Now you’re going to have to have a chief of staff.”
It’s one of the wisest things that I’ve ever done. I used to just stand in the eye of the storm and make decisions. I never allowed myself to have just time.
There are four things that I do every morning without fail or else my day is out of whack.
When I first wake up, I spend ten minutes in absolute gratitude. Sometimes it’s just saying thank you for the color red. Thank you for these socks on my feet. You have to be in a constant state of gratitude to the universe. The second thing is deep breath work. The third thing I do is stretch.
The fourth thing is affirmations. In the beginning, I felt stupid as hell, but I’m in a muscle-memory place with it now. You go to the mirror and start talking to yourself. You’ve got to go from a state of “Am I?” to “I am.” Usually I just say very short, simple mantras: I am worthy, I am loved, I am talented, I am smart.
On Saturday mornings, I write a complete 50-step dream goal—the 50 things that I want to achieve. And I have to say that my manifesting record is almost like 80 per cent.
Interviewed by Cal Fussman, August 21, 2014, originally published in the November 2014 issue of Esquire.
I've been very fortunate. I'm doing what I love and I'm getting away with it, you know?
Fame comes and goes. Longevity is the thing to aim for.
If music sounds dated, it means it wasn't very good in the first place.
Music teaches my painting and painting teaches my music.
I was sketching in a slit trench, hiding out, waiting for the Germans. All of a sudden, I heard a whistle. I knew immediately that it was coming right at us. The noises that it made were unbelievable. It overcame me. So I ran as fast as I could from that trench. I was twenty-five feet away when the shell hit exactly where I'd been sketching. What did it teach me? it thought me to be against war.
Sing like it's an opening night.
Never open with a closer—that comes from Count Basie.
Emerson wrote about how ignorant it is for people to be religious and say My God is better than yours. That was 1841. We still haven't learned.
Respect eliminates hate.
I did a show once with Louis Armstrong—a television show. and It was one hell of a show. All of a sudden, as Louis was playing, a fly landed on his nose. So he blew it off. He kept singing, and the fly came back on his nose. So he blew it off again. It was being taped, and everyone in the audience was holding their stomach, laughing. They didn't want to let their laughter out and ruin his performance. When Louis finished, everybody broke up. And then the director came out and said: "Let's do one more take without the fly." But that was the take they should've put on TV.
When the uncreative tell the creative what to do, it stops being art.
When I was starting out, I used to stay onstage too long. Instead of criticising me, Fred Astaire told me, "What I've learned is when you get a set together that's absolutely perfect, go in and pull out fifteen minutes of it." That was his way of telling me that less is more.
I can't live in San Francisco—I'd never have an ounce of privacy. When I go to San Francisco, I know how the president feels.
Jazz is so fabulous, because you do the same song you did the night before differently than you did the night before.
My mother was a dressmaker. We were very poor. But she said: "Always have a clean suit, a white shirt, and a black pair of pants and you'll be always dressed."
You can go anywhere in black and white.
Ella Fitzgerald used to say "We're all here." Three words. That really says it all. That's the way to treat people. "We're all here."
Luck is something that happens at the right time.
Any great performer I've ever met has been frightened to go on.
If the artist doesn't give a shit, why should the audience?
I got that from a cabdriver years ago. He said: "You singers, you're all losers compared to the singers I grew up with." I said: "How come?" He said: "Years ago, Al Jolson and Ethel Merman and people like them came out onstage and they hit the back of the house! They didn't have a microphone." He said: "You guys are faking it." So I said to myself: Let me try it. When I'm in an acoustical hall, let me sing a song at the end a cappella. At first, I didn't know what was gonna happen, but then I saw the reaction. This is good! So I left it in.
My father used to sing on a mountain in Italy, and the whole valley would hear him. I have a photo of me singing "O Sole Mio" in the same exact spot. My son Danny was talking to some people and he came up with this idea: What do you think of Tony and Lady Gaga singing "O Sole Mio" in Italian? They went crazy. Having your kids involved in your career like that is very satisfying.
Everything old becomes new again.
I'm not trying to be bigger than anybody. My game is just to be one of the best.
I'm eighty-eight—I have an awful lot to learn. My dream is to get better and better as I get older.
Lately, I can't believe it. I'm getting four or five standing ovations a night.