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LL Cool J pulled me onstage at the Mahaffey Theater; here's how it all went down

My life has always been such that the weirdest and most shocking things happen to me, and if someone didn't know me, they would think I'm some kind of habitual liar. But odd or shocking things seem to happen to me almost weekly -- things you don't want to tell your friends because even though it's true, you think the wouldn't believe it.

Kind of like last night.

So I'm shooting the Kings of the Mic Tour with LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Public Enemy and De La Soul at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. It's the first time I've shot a show there, and everything was going great. I was making some decent photos, and photographing Ice Cube for the first time was fun, as I dig his music.

As a concert photographer, the rules usually are I'm allowed to shoot the first three songs with no flash. This show was no exception. In between performers, after my three songs were up, I ran upstairs to file my photos by my deadline. After Public Enemy and Ice Cube, there was only one more act to go, the headliner, LL Cool J, a man I've photographed twice before. He was always a nice guy backstage and onstage, but this time was different.

As my third song was ending I was mixing it up and working some angles. I noticed LL eyeballing me. He then pointed at me. I initially thought he was pointing at the woman in the tight dress beside me, singing along to his song, so I moved out of the way. He followed me to the other side of the stage and pointed at me again. Then he pointed at himself. Then me. Then himself.

I was confused. Was he mad at me? Did I accidentally go into song No. 4 without knowing it? Did he want to have a rap battle?

Then when he realized I wasn't getting the point, he reached out and grabbed my arm. I was shocked, scared, nervous, confused, happy, embarrassed ... a bunch of emotions flooded my brain. He then said c'mon and motioned me onto the stage. When a man of that size tells you to do something, you do it. So I grabbed my gear and jumped onstage.

Not to brag, but I've been onstage photographing some of the biggest names in music, and have even been onstage with LL Cool J a few years ago when he invited dozens of women onstage to close the show. But I was just covering the show for the paper, and he had no clue who I was.


This time was different. He pulled ME onto the stage in the middle of a performance. I didn't know what was going to happen. Was he mad? Was he going to have me taken backstage and kicked out? Was he going to embarrass me? Was he going to sit me in a chair for a lap dance? I had no clue.

I froze. I was onstage from LL Cool J at a nearly sold-out show and everyone was looking at me. So I snapped back into photog mode and started shooting photos. He then pulled me to the center and told me to shoot the crowd. Then he backed me up and did a gangsta prison pose in front of the cheering crowd and told me to take the shot.

I was still flustered; my brain was trying to compute everything that was happening in that moment. I paused for a split second and checked my photos on the back of the camera and realized my exposure wasn't correct. I underexposed some shots because at the time, my camera was set to manual, shooting from the crowd to the stage with the spotlights helping light the subject. Now that I was on the other side of the stage, my camera's settings weren't optimal for the shots I was taking, and he was almost silhouetted by the spotlight. I quickly adjusted my settings and managed to salvage a few decent shots to prove I was onstage with the man.

After posing for me he went back to his set and continued on with his performance. I moved over to the side of the stage and shot a few more photos. I didn't know what to do next. Do I keep shooting? Do I get offstage and file my photos before my deadline? I froze again.

Then one of his bodyguards who was creeping in the shadows backstage made eye contact with me, smiled at me and gave me a thumbs up. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up back. I felt cool, though I still did not know what any of this meant. Was I now a member of LL Cool J's posse? Was I going to hang out with him and be one of his homies? Was I going to be his tour photographer and travel the world with him?

Nah, none of that happened. And I remembered I had a job to do, and my editors were waiting on my photos, so I waved at LL, thanked him, then ran back upstage to file my photos. On my way offstage, people were high-fiving me and saying how lucky I was. I was still in shock over what just happened.

Looking back, I wish I would have shot a selfie and him and me onstage. That would have made the story epic.

-- Luis Santana, tbt*


[Last modified: Friday, June 7, 2013 9:44am]


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