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Famed hip-hop photographer highlights soccer's black culture

Mel D. Cole is one of the most accomplished hip-hop photographers in the world but recently he has been applying his unique perspective to some of football's biggest stars.

Posted: Sep 11, 2019 8:50 AM
Updated: Sep 11, 2019 8:50 AM

Mel D. Cole has made a living snapping some of the biggest stars from the world of music.

From Drake to Beyonce, the American photographer has captured some of the most iconic moments in music over the past 18 years and has become entwined in the culture that thrives within the hip-hop industry.

However, the 43-year-old recently swapped the world of live concerts and after-parties for a seat at one of the meccas of European soccer.

In a mini-documentary by AS Roma and lifestyle brand Black Arrow FC, Cole traveled to the Serie A giants in March to capture his first-ever European soccer match.

In doing so, the legendary photographer hoped to provide a different narrative and get more black Americans into the sport.

"There's no LeBron James playing soccer," Cole told CNN Sport. "All respect to the men that we have in the United States, they're good but they're not great. They're not superstars.

"There is nobody as marketable or even close to James and we need that. We need to let guys know that there's another way out besides basketball and (American) football."

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Mel D. Cole

Growing up in Syracuse, New York, Cole spent his early years around his father's record shop.

As a result, he became obsessed with hip-hop, reggae, and R&B and assumed he would one day take over the store, but the birth of online music and the death of independent record shops put an end to that dream.

After dropping out of high school, Cole went to college in New York City, which proved to be a turning point in his life.

Once in the mecca of hip-hop, he began to teach himself photography and soon realized the pictures he was taking were worth sharing.

"Slowly I became more immersed into the culture of New York, the downtown scene," Cole told CNN Sport.

"I met a couple of guys who would take me out and I really started studying what was going on around me."

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Career in music

Armed with what he remembers as a simple four megapixel camera, Cole attended a Kanye West show during the early years of his development.

"I walked up and I literally just acted like I belonged there and no one said anything to me. I stood there and shot the entire show, " he said.

"Then the confidence was in me, so I just took it and ran with it."

As his career blossomed, Cole started gaining the trust of the biggest names in the industry. With that trust came career defining access into leading artists' lives and a front-row seat to the hip-hop world.

As his profile grew, he began to branch out and he now works with hip-hop artists on music videos -- his first produced for Trey Songz.

"You want to have them be comfortable with you and not worry about you doing them wrong," added Cole, stating intimacy was key to the success of the pictures.

"For me it's a privilege and an honor to be able to still do what I do, to still be able to have these artists be comfortable with me."

'Dedicated'

If music has been a constant in Cole's life, his interest is soccer is a relatively new passion, which was sparked by playing the computer game FIFA.

So when the opportunity presented itself to travel to AS Roma to shoot a game, it was one he could not turn down.

"From the culture that I'm from, doing the work that I've done over the years, I'm dedicated to not only shoot soccer itself but make sure I'm dedicated to shooting black players in the right way," said Cole, who is releasing a book 'Great' in December.

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Inspired by AS Roma

The match itself was an unforgettable experience for Cole who was blown away by the passion shown by fans.

"Being that close to guys that are at the top of their game was just an experience," he said. "The closest thing it can relate to in musical terms is being on a stage with an artist."

Cole also got the chance to meet up with emerging AS Roma winger Justin Kluivert -- son of Dutch legend Patrick Kluivert.

The 20-year-old is one of the rising stars that Cole hopes will help bridge the gap between hip-hop culture and football.

"He was into some of the same things that I am culturally, even though there is a nearly 20 year age gap there but you know, he loves the same music," Cole said.

Inspired by his trip to Rome, Cole has since set up Charcoal Pitch FC -- a branch of his business that will focus solely on the game.

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Black Arrow FC

The recent collaboration was part of an ongoing partnership between AS Roma and lifestyle brand Black Arrow FC -- an American company focusing on the intersection of black culture and soccer.

"Opening up AS Roma to the Black Arrow crew has allowed their creative team to tell new stories that approach the club from a completely new perspective," said Mitty Arnold, AS Roma Managing Director, Americas.

The two organizations plan to create digital content that celebrates soccer's black culture and tells stories from places such as Italy, Nigeria and the US.

Black Arrow FC founder Aaron Dolores fell in love with soccer during the 2014 World Cup but found the traditional ways of consuming the game did not cater to large portions of black people, especially in the US.

As he learned more about the game, Dolores discovered the rich black history within the game but questioned why many weren't aware of it.

Now, using the NFL and NBA as a model, the 39-year-old hopes to get black culture a "seat at the table" and a platform to tell black narratives in the sport.

By identifying "unapologetically black" role models such as Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku, Dolores wants soccer to celebrate fashion, style and hip-hop music.

"I felt like it needed to be something that was real and authentic to black people and that just wasn't necessarily going to get done through the current institutions," Dolores told CNN Sport, speaking of why he set up the business.

"There were actually a lot of black people that were into the sport, but they weren't connecting with each other."

'Embracing black culture'

Dolores hopes his approach may even help address the ever-present issue of racism within soccer.

Italian football, in particular, has been marred by racist chanting in recent weeks and black players across Europe have been targeted online.

Dolores says clubs need to show more leadership in tackling the issues and praised the current partnership with AS Roma.

"It's easy to say 'we don't condone that' or 'you shouldn't do this' and that needs to continue," he said.

"But I think the next level of this whole thing is, or a parallel level if you will, is these teams really embracing black culture and highlighting it and promoting it because I think that's the leadership that their fans will follow."

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