“I was blessed to be around to document the birth of Hip Hop with my camera as a young Latino growing up in The South Bronx. But when I wasn’t hanging out with my childhood friends, I was hanging on my Dad’s coat tails. You see, my dad, Joe Conzo Sr., is known as the foremost historian of Afro Latin music, and it was with him I documented some of the genre’s great talents and great events. The late 1970’s and early 1980’s were a thrilling high point for Salsa —Tito Puente hated that word!— and I was right there with Dad, a fly on the wall, capturing moments among the giants. Growing up listening to Puente, Celia, Lavoe, Eddie, and Charlie, I was in heaven and in awe that I got the chance to photograph them. I was a teenager with “all access,” and the legends treated me like family: ‘Déjalo. Es el hijo de Conzo, is all good!'”
“Tito and Celia became Tío and Titi, and they never turned me down for a photo. Tito was very approachable, he walked with no bodyguards, and never said no when asked for an autograph! The King! Tito Puente was such an influence in music, he guest appeared on Hip Hop’s first album by The Sugar Hill gang — now, how COOL is that??!!!”
During his early development, Joe ‘Joey’ Conzo bore witness to the volatile state of South Bronx, community activism, and the vanguard world of the Puerto Rican cultural music scene on its way to going global. Coming of age as a young man, and as a budding photographer, at that time, proved to be a baptism by fire.
Joey was a part of a generation that had refused to be erased by corrupt politicians and a disparaging educational system. His talents had found their niche within the collective acts of defiance that boldly re-invented the very world that left them for dead. This socio-cultural movement would eventually be recognized in American History books as Hip Hop.
“Photography just became a love and passion that I fell in love with. I was that chubby kid with a big Afro that wasn’t good in sports or with words. But I was the only kid in the neighborhood that had a camera.”
As Tito Puente’s confidant and chronicler for nearly 40 years, Joe Conzo Sr., Joey’s father, put together a comprehensive biography complete with captivating anecdotes from their lengthy friendship. Working with journalist David A. Pérez, Mambo Diablo: My Journey with Tito Puente details both the public persona of the widely popular and sometimes combative King of Latin Music while also highlighting many deeply personal moments of Puente’s rise to fame.
“I come from a family of activism. My grandmother, Dr. Evelina Antonetty, gave her life to The Bronx. I grew up around the corner from Hostos College, and as a kid I participated in the student led occupation when the City wanted to close it down. The Bronx is dear to my heart. My grandmother and my mother instilled in me that we gotta go out there, preserve what we got, help each other as human beings and keep our story alive. I’m just grateful that I’m part of the story also with my images, and when I’m gone, my images will be here.”
Joey’s grandmother, Evelina Antonetty, was a civil rights activist passionate about the wellbeing of children and their right to access a good education. Dr. Antonetty started United Bronx Parents in the South Bronx, which helped children in every way possible, including provision of school lunches and establishment of effective models for bilingual education. During his early development, Joey bore witness to the volatile and fertile state of South Bronx, community activism, and the vanguard world of the Puerto Rican and Black cultural music scenes on their way to going global. Coming of age as a young man, and as a budding photographer, at that time, proved to be a baptism by fire.
“I think of so many of these legends who aren’t with us anymore, and I’m so proud that I was given an opportunity to capture a moment in time, when we were on the top of the world! Latin music has transcended so much all over the world, and I was there to catch a small part of it.”
In an article published on October 4, 2005 by The New York Times, reporter David González heralded Joe Conzo Jr. as “The Man Who Took Hip-Hop’s Baby Pictures.” The long and perilous journey of his photographic images had finally captured the gaze of mainstream America.
All photos property of the artist and used by permission. See more at www.joeconzo.com.
Curated in dialogue with Alvan Colón Lespier, Associate Artistic Director, Pregones/PRTT.
Catch our SPOTLIGHT: Creatives at Work episode with Joe Conzo on August 24 at 7:30 pm.