A Photographer Turns His Lens from Hip-Hop Concerts to MAGA Rallies

He started the project with a sincere hope of empathizing with Trump supporters. In the end, that was difficult.
An XXXTentacion concert in Miami in July 2017.
By

As a teenager, like many of us, I turned to music to understand myself. I found a sense of belonging in the fandoms of the artists I loved. Years later, my photojournalism brought me to a sea of MAGA hats, where I found that same energy, that same thirst for belonging.

In this photographic project, which is in the print magazine this weekend, I compared the hip-hop fandoms I belonged to and Trump’s loyal base of supporters. In doing so, I wanted to find some basis for empathy with a pro-Trump movement that, deep down, I feared. I hoped that common ground might allow us to begin to mend our problems. But this project went to press before Jan. 6. And that day — when pro-Trump rioters sought to subvert our democracy — altered things. It was now very clear how much violence this movement could generate, and it was also clear that the context for the empathy I searched for had changed. As a result, this project — and this text — has a very different ending than I had originally envisioned.

I’ve been drawn to hip-hop for many years. I was enamored with Lil Peep the first time I heard him, in the summer of 2016. The sadness in his music felt intimately tied to mine. The anger in XXXTentacion’s songs was powerfully subversive to me, and on the bus on my way to school I took comfort in listening to Mac Miller’s “Faces.” In his music was that same teenage angst and confusion I was experiencing.

What I was not cognizant of at the time was that these small rebellions were being felt in different ways by so many. These artists were simply telling their stories, and the defiance that ran through their music held great appeal. They were unique in the same way we saw ourselves as unique; we felt like we belonged to something bigger than ourselves. And four years later as I stood in a crowded arena of Trump supporters, I knew that they, too, felt like they belonged to something bigger.

For me, at the root of both the music and the Trump fandoms was a symbiotic relationship of feeling heard and understood. Rebellion presented a way back in. The live hip-hop performances I attended were loud, and yet none were louder than that sea of MAGA hats as President Trump walked onstage. To me, this was a rebellion: an uprising much bigger than any song and tied to everything these supporters believed in as it related to their civil liberties, their social class, the reasons for their daily struggles.

A Trump rally in Des Moines in January 2020.
A Playboi Carti concert in Los Angeles in December 2019.
A moshpit at a Grandson concert in Cleveland in March 2019.
A Trump rally in Charlotte in March 2020.

In this way, Trump was being carried by a unified anger and frustration that was deeply familiar to me. And while I could not relate politically, I understood — or, in retrospect, I thought I understood — what had brought his supporters there. At his rallies, it seemed to me, Trump was preaching to those who saw themselves as victims of Obama-era policies and didn’t see themselves as part of the shifting, globalized world.

Of course, there were always important differences between his events and hip-hop concerts: Trump’s rebellion was based in a White, working-class anger that felt deeply different from that of the multiracial fanbases I belonged to. We were tied by our generational struggles, which meant that White kids like me were welcome in the spaces created by Black figures. Still, in his loud and brash behavior, he had created a safe space for a new kind of political anger much in the same way hip-hop artists had done for me.

A Trump campaign rally in Charlotte in March 2020.
A Trump rally in Des Moines in January 2020.
Fans at a Grandson show in New York in March 2019.
Rapper Denzel Curry in New York in October 2019.

For the most part, my need to rebel through music ended as I found a home in photography. I got older, and many of my musical heroes died — some were shot, and others overdosed. But that need to be heard and acknowledged didn’t die with them. And so I found myself wondering, as the Trump presidency was coming to an end, where would all that rebellion go from here?

The Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, provided one of the starkest possible answers to this question. For all the similarities I’d previously seen between hip-hop concerts and Trump rallies, Jan. 6 highlighted perhaps the key difference between our rebellions. All along we just wanted to be heard; Trump and his supporters, it now seemed clear, were in search of power. It was no longer simply a dangerous president talking to upset voters, or well-meaning people who had had enough. As power fell away from them, the fear and anger of Trump’s most extreme supporters rose.

I started this project with the sincere hope of empathizing with and relating to the anger that led to Trump. But on Jan. 6, I found myself instead wondering if the anger in Trump world could ever dissipate. What had happened was deeply unfamiliar to me. No protest I went to, no concert I had attended carried the hate and vitriol of that day. I know now that the path to empathy I walked down when I began this project is much more complicated than I had hoped.

Jonathan Frydman came to photography by way of sneaking into hip-hop shows in South Florida. He has since built a career in photojournalism capturing cultural forces across America through the eyes of a new generation.

Design by Christian Font. Photo editing by Monique Woo.

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