Celebrity photographer from Dover works on 'Love & Hip Hop,' 'Black Ink'

Andre Lamar
Delaware News Journal

How does Delaware connect Oprah Winfrey, Shaquille O’Neal and Lil Baby? 

They’ve all worked with Dover native Jakeem Smith.

The 31-year-old Smith, an Atlanta transplant, is a jack-of-all trades in the entertainment industry. He plans events and runs his own photography and video production company, Lifestyle Images, there. Smith also owns a public relations company, Jay Productions Agency, and runs a nonprofit, Food in the City, that feeds the homeless every third Sunday of the month.

Celebrity photographer and videographer Jakeem Smith, a native of Dover (right), poses with rapper Lil Baby after filming behind scenes footage of the rapper for the Doritos production competition named Spark the Beat, which was promoted in 2019.

He's currently juggling all of these endeavors while working as a freelancer doing location scouting and set design for reality TV shows “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta,” “Black Ink Atlanta” and “Joseline’s Cabaret.”  

Smith has worked on all three seasons of the VH1 reality show “R&B Divas: Atlanta,” which debuted in 2012. But working in television during the pandemic has presented new challenges.

One of the biggest obstacles during COVID, Smith said, has been scouting locations – something he got a crash course in last year when he worked on the unscripted relationship show “Put a Ring on It,” airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).

More:Top shelf: These are books Black leaders wish the rest of us would read

“Our job as a scout locator was to find locations. But nobody could be in the scene, except for the people who were going on a date,” Smith said.

“Imagine trying to scout locations. If it was at a restaurant, no one else could be in the scene: no waiters, no chef – nothing. The whole building would have to be cleared out … that’s one of the hardest tasks I ever had during the pandemic, because they weren’t allowing anyone on set," he said. "It was a lot of work.”

Because the pandemic has made scheduling tricky, Smith said, he's ended up having to find six locations for a TV show, just to make sure one of those locations pans out.

“[The show] may say they want to shoot [at a location] from 12 to 5 p.m., or for the whole day. Some [businesses] are not willing to give up a whole day, or they’re not willing to work with our schedule. So you have to be creative,” he said.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Smith said, he's also unsure when new episodes of the shows he's working on will be released. 

Working with Shaq and Oprah: ‘I was in disbelief’

Oprah Winfrey attends the premiere of Disney's "A Wrinkle In Time" at the El Capitan Theatre in 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

Despite working on “Put a Ring On It,” Smith didn’t get to meet Oprah Winfrey, because he was only a scout locator, and contact on the set was minimal, due to COVID-19 restrictions. But it was still cool getting to work for Oprah, he said.

“I was in disbelief, because it happened out of nowhere,” the Polytech High School grad said. “Literally, one of my home girls, Jhoni [Davis], hit me up. I worked with her on the show ‘Growing Up Hip Hop Atlanta.’ She was like, ‘Hey, Jay, we have an opening for the show. Are you interested in doing it? I can plug it.’ I was like, yeah, I’ll take it. But she didn’t tell me what the show was about. I just took it.”

Jakeem Smith poses with Shaquille O'Neal in Atlanta after planning Gianna Floyd's birthday bash in December 2020.

Smith also worked with NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in December, he said, as a planner for the birthday bash for the late George Floyd’s 7-year-old daughter, Gianna. A white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on the neck of Floyd, a Black man, in May – and video of the incident sparked protests against racial injustice around the globe.

Rich Homie Quan shows him love

Last year, Smith worked with popular Atlanta rapper Rich Homie Quan, who was featured on the song “Made for It” by rising artists Areyell and Areyahn.

Smith recorded behind-the-scenes footage for the music video. He hit it off so well with Quan, he said, that he ended up collaborating with the rapper and providing BTS footage for one of his unreleased songs.

Rich Homie Quan performs onstage during the PANDORA Discovery Den SXSW in 2015.

In September, Quan uploaded a teaser video of the footage Smith recorded to his Instagram page, which boasts 3.1 million followers. Smith was tagged in the post, which has nearly half a million views.

Since Rich Homie Quan hardly posts on his Instagram account, the video is still at the top of his page.

“Ever since then I’ve been getting booked for videos, BTS (behind the scenes) and I get hit up by Quan’s fans, because if you look on his Instagram, I’m literally the second post,” Smith said.

“He recently just made a post of him getting his hair done. But other than that, the video I did for him is still up there and fans are asking me when’s the song coming out," he said "because I’m the only person who got that song and featured it in the video I did for him.”

Making money, but losing sleep 

Smith moved to Atlanta when he was college age. Photography is what allowed him to get his foot in the door to work with celebs in his early days.

Famed comedian Michael Blackston (left) poses with Jakeem Smith, who are at the surprise birthday party of Kirk Frost of "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta" in January 2021. Smith planned the surprise event

By age 23, he was a personal assistant for “R&B Divas” TV star and show executive co-producer Nicci Gilbert, lead singer of the ’90s R&B group Brownstone, best known for its Grammy Award-nominated single, “If You Love Me.”

Smith worked his way up the entertainment ladder, started a publicity agency, and developed a reputation for public relations, marketing and event planning in Atlanta, he said.

But when the pandemic struck, he realized it wasn’t that reliable making money as a publicist, he said.

More:Firefly rapper and Dover alum drops sobering COVID video

“It was hard because a lot of clients, due to the pandemic, weren’t paying for their PR services at that point, because it was like: 'What are we promoting at this time?' ” Smith explained.

Yet Smith understood people still wanted to post pictures of themselves on social media to showcase how they looked and what they were doing. 

Jakeem Smith (middle) poses with R&B legends 112, who he did a photo shoot with in 2017.

“I decided to start doing social media content. I started taking pictures of people at their offices. I started doing videos of them, including real estate agents. Then it became a [popular] situation. Everyone started hitting me up and asking, 'Oh, could you do my social media content?' ” Smith said.

The Dover man said he’s doing twice the amount of business now than he was before the pandemic. But it’s come at the cost of him working more. He does about 15 to 20 shoots per week, he said.

“I literally get up at 6 a.m. and that’s when my day starts. My day may stop at 3 a.m. in the morning. I may only get a few hours of sleep," he said. "It’s like every blue moon where I’m able to get four or five hours of sleep."

Entertainers have to be creative 'to stay afloat'

Many of Smith’s peers in entertainment, and especially in the music business, have had to get innovative with the ways they make money, since touring has basically dried up. That's how many artists paid their bills. 

Actress Lisa Raye poses with Jakeem Smith, who planned her "Life Rocks" vision board tour in Atlanta in 2015.

“If you’re not making money from your music sales or residuals, then you’re basically out of luck, in a sense,” Smith said.

Some of the ways artists have pivoted has been by doing virtual concerts and by engaging with fans on apps like Clubhouse.

Actress Eva Marcille from "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" poses with Jakeem Smith, who planned the gender reveal party for "Real Housewives" star Porsha Williams in 2018.

“You may make an appearance at a birthday party when you normally wouldn’t. You may make a Zoom appearance, or do certain things to stay afloat because you have a family to feed,” Smith said about people working in entertainment.

More:New Black-owned comedy lounge aims to tickle Wilmington

Entertainers also have been starting clothing lines, he said, and other business ventures to make cash.

Smith may not be getting a ton of sleep during the pandemic. But he's not complaining, he said, because he's able to provide for himself and continue to do what he loves.

Jakeem Smith (right) poses outside of the home of "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta" star Spice (middle), to snap Christmas photos of her in December 2020.

“Right now with this pandemic, and everything that’s taking place, I’m willing to sacrifice sleep to keep afloat,” he said. “I know a lot of businesses that had to close down or they had to get unemployment, and all of this other stuff, because they weren’t able to maintain.”

Photography, his old love, has been keeping Smith above water these days.

"Luckily, I found my niche,” he said. “It’s always the gift you started off with.”

Andre Lamar is the features/lifestyle reporter. If you have an interesting story idea, email Andre Lamar at alamar@gannett.com.