Bryson Tiller
Photo: Getty

Tour Tales | Justin Gray used "ninja" skills to photograph Bryson Tiller and Burna Boy on stage

“If you’re on stage, be a ninja and don’t bother anyone,” the international photographer advises in this installment of “Tour Tales.” Read up!

  /  09.13.2022

In his eight years of photographing every occasion from Kid Ink’s early rise to The Roots’ globetrotting dominance, German and Gambian photographer Justin Gray learned how to be simultaneously present in the moment yet out of the way. That skill has put him in places to capture moments most of us likely never knew happened.

“I think [Yasiin Bey] came out on stage on a bicycle. I don’t know where he got the bicycle from. I think he also had a rose on stage that he gave to the crowd,” Gray told REVOLT.

In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the international photographer explains advice A$AP Rocky gave him for shooting shows, Kid Ink’s global reach, and what Burna Boy must have backstage.

You’ve captured live show moments for stars like Wiz Khalifa, Burna Boy, A$AP Rocky and more. Who was the first major artist you went on tour with?

Kid Ink in 2014 for his “My Own Lane Tour.” It was crazy because it was my first tour. I was still a student and it was very stressful. There was a schedule you had to be on time for every time. We had to deliver videos and photos every day. Back then, he really liked moving images. He didn’t really want us standing at one point and just capturing him. This was when he did shows in Germany.

Kid Ink was getting love in Germany?

He was really blowing up in Germany. The shows were really energetic back then. He had the crowd singing every song with him. I think every show was sold out.

You also toured with A$AP Mob in 2015. Rocky is a man who loves to have creative control. How was your relationship with him?

He was talking to me about how great the show was going to be. He also wanted me to have a wide lens to capture the stage diving. So they did some stage diving on the crowd and the boat (laughs).

 

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What was A$AP Mob’s chemistry like backstage?

The energy was very positive. They were in great moods all day. But they wanted to party a lot, especially after the show. A$AP Nast was there. A$AP Yams was also there. 

Everyone has to learn the rules of the road, even photographers. What did you learn by being on tour?

Always wear black and be a ninja (laughs). If you’re on stage, be a ninja and don’t bother anyone. You have to always be patient. I’ve photographed shows where bodyguards told me not to go on stage. Also, I’d be wearing a white t-shirt, which was not OK because all of the fans could have their eyes on me because of my flashy white t-shirt (laughs). On that Kid Ink tour, I went to a print shop, got myself a white t-shirt, and printed my name on this shirt. I thought, “Now, everybody knows who I am.” But it wasn’t a good idea (laughs).

You said you had to be a ninja, but I’ve seen you on stage next to Post Malone. 

With Post Malone, I just felt the vibe. He was in a very good mood. He was enjoying the show, enjoying the crowd. And then I saw the moment when I just went from backstage to on the stage and got very close to him. He was performing for the camera. That was a great moment. But, when I did the Hype Festival in Germany, Russ was on stage. I came from backstage and wanted to go on stage to do moving shots of him, and the bodyguard told me I couldn’t [go] on stage. 

 

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As a photographer, you can get your next job through your work at shows. Has that happened to you?

The Roots did an exclusive show in Cologne, Germany. The agency called me to say, “We have this one exclusive show with The Roots. They’re coming to Germany for one show and you must capture it.” I did a very good job and they saw my video. They liked it and I think they also posted it. One year later, they had the same exclusive show in Berlin, and The Roots just told the agency to call me again to do the show. That’s the show when Yasiin Bey came out as a special guest.

The Roots are one of the greatest international touring acts in music history. How did Germany receive them?

The German crowd is a mix of everything. There were alternative white people and Black people, so they all danced and sang every song. They really appreciate The Roots here in Germany. They’re wise and talk to the fans a lot. That’s also what the fans appreciate about them. 

Yasiin Bey rarely comes outside, let alone performs, so you got to capture a rare piece of history.

I think he came out on stage on a bicycle. I don’t know where he got the bicycle from (laughs). I think he also had a rose on stage that he gave to the crowd. 

 

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One of my favorites you toured with was the somewhat reclusive Bryson Tiller while he was overseas. What was that experience like? 

To be honest, Bryson was a little bit introverted. One show in Berlin in 2016 was utterly crazy because they told us before the show that The Weeknd was going to come out. I think he was in Berlin for a different show. He came in a Maybach limousine. When he came on stage, they performed their song “Rambo (Remix)” together. Something similar happened at a Burna Boy show I shot when Jorja Smith came out. I think that was in 2019. 

Your camera can capture almost any moment you aim it at, but I imagine there are times when you have to have discretion. 

Usually, backstage things are primarily off-limits. You don’t shoot backstage. You especially don’t shoot when the artist is eating (laughs). You have to build a relationship with them first. You don’t want to get on their nerves.

I love finding out what artists request backstage on their tours. What was on some of the riders that you remember? 

Burna Boy wanted a lot of chicken backstage (laughs). When Burna Boy came backstage, they didn’t have enough chicken, so he was in a bad mood at first. Then they had to order more chicken because he came with a lot of boys.

 

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A post shared by JUSTIN GRAY (@justingray)

What were some of the wildest crowd reactions you’ve seen?

A lot of fans had Kid Ink tattoos. I also saw a lot of fans tattoo Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang on themselves.

What do you have coming up for the rest of the year?

Next month, we’re going on a tour with Luciano. He has two albums out he’s never performed live. So you won’t want to miss it.

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