PLAYING COLUMBUS: Mouth Mag Highlights Local Hip Hop

OG Vern. Photo by Annie Noelker

When Annie Noelker moved to Columbus in 2014 to attend Columbus College of Art & Design, she was already interested in stories. “As a little kid I would hide under my covers and read until I fell asleep,” she tells me. “I found visual art and storytelling in the form of drawing, painting, and then photography.” But something clicked when her college friends introduced her to hip hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, and Frank Ocean. “I listened to their albums as if I was reading a novel,” she says.

Over the summer of 2017, Noelker dove into the Columbus hip hop and rap scene, learning more about her local community. “Overwhelmed” by talent, Noelker turned to her background in portraiture to document the burgeoning scene. As her collection of portraits grew, she realized that she needed a way to share the work. Pairing her portraits with interviews of the artists, Noelker put together a magazine: Mouth Mag. “It’s been my baby for the last six months,” she tells me. 

Mouth Mag is launching this Saturday, December 9th, at Kafe Kerouac in Columbus, Ohio. The launch will be celebrated with performances by OG Vern, Yogi Split, Joey Aich, Broke Bois, Stems, Soblue, Breetherapper, The Collective, and RED. At the party, Noelker tells me, she’s most excited for “all the artists to hold their copy.” 

“I worked so hard on this,” she continues, “I cried when I unwrapped the first one.”

We caught up with Noelker ahead of the launch to talk to her about her process, favorite interviews, and the future of Mouth Mag. Check out the rest of the interview below.

Audiofemme: What is your portraiture process like?

Annie Noelker: Prior to a shoot, I research the artist and listen to their music. I write down colors, places, and emotions that fill my head as I’m listening and I try to emulate those things in each photograph. I don’t plan much outside of that. 

Broke Bois. Photo by Annie Noelker

AF: I know that one of your focuses with Mouth Mag is photographing artists through the lens of a woman. But I’m interested in how you approach other ways that your identity is disparate from the artists you work with. Your entry into the hip hop community, for example, happened pretty recently. How do you avoid fetishizing your subjects, especially black artists who so often are problematically portrayed through photography?

AN: This is absolutely a huge issue: hip hop artists are, more often than not, portrayed as characters, leaving many with a desire to create and fulfill a persona. I find that the male gaze often feeds into the portrayal of these artists as characters rather than emotional human beings with stories to share. This familiarizes the public with the persona, not the person. I find my perspective as both a woman and a documentary portrait photographer allows for the stripping of pre-conceived notion.  There’s a huge significance in understanding the person standing before my lens. Additionally, black and white imagery has always had a significance for me. It strips away any glamor that traditionally follows hip hop photography, and allows emphasis on truth and honesty. Honesty is everything.

AF: What is your favorite interview in this issue? 

AN: I really love my interview with RED. He has this new album coming out (date = TBA) and I got a little sneak peak and had the opportunity to ask questions specific to that new music. I really love Correy Parks’ interview and doing the Broke Bois interview was so much fun.

AF: Are there any music photographers that you look up to?

AN: I really admire the work of Hayley Louisa Brown. She is not only a music portraiture photographer, but the creator of BRICK magazine which served as a huge inspiration for Mouth Mag. I also really love Olivia Rose and the honesty of her images and in how she approaches her subjects. 

AF: What has been the most challenging part of this project?

AN: I think the most challenging part of this whole process was having to narrow down images and limit the number of people I could showcase in the first issue. There is so much talent in Columbus – it’s absolutely overwhelming. I also don’t have any previous design experience or knowledge of how to use the programs so I taught myself InDesign to make the magazine and I borrowed my understanding of composition to help me with layout. Placing text was very difficult. 

AF: What does the future of Mouth Mag look like?

AN: I love Columbus and it will always have a place in my heart but I would really love to travel with Mouth Mag and take it to new cities.