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Why you should know Kahlil Joseph, the filmmaker redefining visuals in music

If you don’t know the name Kahlil Joseph, you should.

Especially since the filmmaker’s body of work ranges from major collaborations with the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Sampha, FKA Twigs, hip-hop duo Shabazz Palace, and Flying Lotus. Plus, to top it all off, Joseph was one of the primary artistic visionaries and directors behind Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade.

So, who is Kahlil Joseph and why should we care? Joseph is an LA-based filmmaker, music video director, and video artist whose work, I would argue, stands out within the development of a new iteration of music videos that we have increasingly seen emerge and have come to consume in the last ten or so years.

I mean, one only has to go onto YouTube to see the latest trending music videos to show how we have come a long way from the now-kitschy, early music videos at MTV and VH1’s inception decades ago.

What remains key to Joseph’s body of the work as a filmmaker is music. This may be obvious to say when describing a director whose filmography largely consists of music videos, but Joseph really immerses himself in the musicality of the artists he collaborates with to craft his videos.

In an interview with the LA Times, Joseph expressed how in,

“trying to get at the core of what they are trying to express musically…I try to soak it all in: the lyrics, the artist, where they are from.”

Joseph mediates between music video genre conventions by presenting visuals that are organized in a non-linear fashion and are governed by the auditory and sonic. His music videos are not visually marked by choreographed dance routines with any given popular artist at the forefront of the frame, nor are they grandiose depictions of fame, or are committed to elevating a celebrity’s persona.

Instead, Joseph’s music videos are invested in expressing and representing the artists’ creative preoccupations with their work, often culminating to the telling of poignant and resonant stories.  Importantly, his music videos and short films display a set of experiences that are intimately tied to blackness and are splendid cinematic pieces that belong in any art museum or art gallery.

In fact, the most recent work of Joseph’s work, Fly Paper, is a short film that exhibited at the New Museum in New York City. The short film provides a focus on the rich cultural history of Harlem; exploring what Harlem was, and indeed, what Harlem is now.

In the moments shot in black and white, one cannot help but envision Fly Paper as the moving and animated version of a photo album belonging to renowned artist, Roy DeCarava. Admittedly, Joseph cites DeCarava’s photography as his artistic inspiration in crafting his short film, since DeCarava’s oeuvre examines the quotidian, with particular attention to African-American cultural production in Harlem.

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What is evident in Fly Paper and consistent in Joseph’s work overall, however, are the visual poetics that are rendered through his meditative and floating camera work. It’s a visual style that imbues a dream-like quality.

At the same time, the pacing and energy of Joseph’s work aren’t always as sedate and ruminative. One only has to look to his short film for Shabazz Palace’ album Black Up to demonstrate Joseph as playful in his style.

In Black Up, visual breaks and ruptures are matched with the song’s beats and kicks, and his use of rapid editing denies viewers to rest on the images. We are constantly moving as spectators, occupying liminal spaces as we try to orientate the video’s setting as the camera often shifts and floats through time and space.

Shifting between a collision style of montage into Joseph’s more meditative camerawork, Black Up, like Joseph’s other work, illustrates the way Joseph is interested in visually exploring how we as people move through our worlds and absorb the sights and sounds of our surrounding environments.

Critical work is not only being done formally in Joseph’s work but also through representation, as each of Joseph’s pieces offer a more nuanced depiction of blackness.

In the interview with the LA Times, Joseph emphasizes the importance of media representation, asserting:

“Everyone wants to see themselves on the screen. But when I see black people in movies, I don’t see them as I know them to move and talk.”

Joseph’s career as a music video director and filmmaker shows his commitment to offering a type of art that is legible, highly accessible and sharable to and for communities of color.

Joseph’s work typifies the way in which music videos are a largely overlooked form of narrative story-telling but in doing so, ultimately reinforce how we need to look out for, and spread the name: Kahlil Joseph.

How Janelle Monae’s visual album ‘Dirty Computer’ explores what it means to be free

“If you were dirty, it was only a matter of time.”

These are the final words that fade out in the opening sequence of Janelle Monáe’s sci-fi and Afrofuturist time-space that is her newly released visual album, Dirty Computer.

It’s a weighted statement, at once suggesting a time to be a force inextricably tied to power, while also foreshadowing consequences for those who are categorized as ‘dirty.’

So, what does it mean to be ‘dirty,’ or more specifically, a Dirty Computer? The protagonists’ voice over (played by Monáe) in the opening sequence explains,

“You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all.”

In this sense, ‘dirty’ becomes analogous to a marginalized body – one that looks different, transgresses, and is then positioned in subordination to the dominant group. To put simply, a ‘Dirty Computer’ in this future time-space is to be the ‘Other.’

From the videos’ onset, viewers are transported into a visually dazzling, high-tech, and digitized space. A build-up of eerie synthetic sounds dominates the soundscape.

A haze of smoke spreads across the screen and is then interrupted by a glitch that introduces two naked figures. Jane’s voice over re-enters, her tone remaining distant and cold as she discloses,

“They started calling us computers. People began vanishing — and the Cleaning began.”

With this revelation, our eyes narrow in on the screen, as images of the enslaved computers are cycled through a database. We see names replaced by numbers. Faces in deadpan – illegible to us. Figures are dressed in white uniforms and their shirts’ are branded with the letter ‘D’ to mark their new identities as ‘dirty computers.’

By crafting this futuristic ‘other’, Dirty Computer prompts us as viewers to identify who has power and who is disempowered, the construction of identity categories, and how systems of meaning are ascribed onto the body.

While we are transported into an unfamiliar futuristic site, the notion of individuals being systematically singled out and exploited for their differences is a phenomenon that is unsettlingly all too familiar.

The narrative of the album shows the severing of the captives’ ties to their past, the stripping away of their humanity, the imposition of new identities, and the subsequent enforcement of the captives to live out a dystopic destiny toiling away into the forward direction of the New Dawn. Ring any bells?

Dirty Computer

Like her previous music videos, Dirty Computer shows Monáe’s commitment to reworking ideas of time and space. She employs the genre of science fiction to craft a stunning sonic and cinematic piece that explores issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality and the intersection of these social identities.

In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Monáe describes her childhood fixation with science-fiction. She credits the formative work of writer Octavia Butler in fueling her childhood imagination, that would later evolve into an interest with Afrofuturism.

And now, I’m guessing you may be wondering, what exactly is Afrofuturism? Well, in the same interview, Monáe describes Afrofuturism as “a term that allows us as black people to see ourselves in the future and know we make it, know that we’re not the first people gone when something goes down.”

To put another way, Afrofuturism uses and intervenes in the genre of science-fiction (a traditionally white male genre) to imagine a viable future for black folk and people of the African Diaspora. That is to say, in which their existence is a certainty, not a liability. Where the daily suffering of people of color is not normalized.

As these are the realities of the present, Afrofuturism elucidates the need to speculate a more hopeful future, since today we see the safety of people of color in itself a kind of falsehood.

Dirty Computer

Interestingly, Afrofuturism abandons the idea of organizing time into a linear course.

In other words, it does not separate time into a neat chronology between the past, present, and future. And we see this visually play out in Dirty Computer. We move back and forth in time. Viewers are transported into the past as we revisit Jane’s memories when the authorities attempt to cleanse her of her ‘dirtiness.’

The album ultimately offers an unconventional aesthetic and narrative structure that reveals how we do not easily leave our past behind us, whether individual or collective, but rather, it shows how the past remains embedded in our present and future.

Though the future world space of Dirty Computer is dystopic, the relaying of Jane’s memories, however, shows that there is a lot of hope, joy, and critical work being performed throughout the album.

Monáe provides a space where blackness is affirmed and celebrated. The visual album creates a time-space where we are all free to live a life of dignity, freedom, and to love whomever we love.

In a radio interview with Hot 97, Monáe expressed how the current political climate particularly galvanized her to write this album and shared how she wanted to send a strong critique of the policing of women’s bodies. I mean, the visuals of a group of women of color lined up wearing vagina pants in the song, “PYNK” (now a queer anthem), shows that Monáe is ready to start a pussy riot to defend women’s rights.

Dirty Computer

A queer love story also serves as the narrative arc to Dirty Computer. The albums’ first song “Crazy, Classic, Life” stages the erotics between the protagonist Jane and Zen (played by Tessa Thompson).

Their attraction to one another is visible through their repeated exchange of glances and lingering stares, but I guess Jane’s rainbow flag eyeshadow is also a pretty clear indicator that she is a “sexual bender” as her lyrics describe.

Anyways, the point is, the musical memory segments of the album are a kind of rebellious, decadent, colorful and fantastical party. Monáe plays with musical genre and the album contains an array of catchy songs that pull from the vast and rich repertoire of music by black artists. Make Me Feel has a guitar riff that echoes the funk sounds of Monáe’s musical mentor Prince and her red leather jacket and dance moves in the song Screwed, pay homage to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

Importantly, Monáe presents black women and women of color as agents of their own self-definition. For Monáe, Django Jane was a track she created to celebrate black women, since “[black women] don’t get celebrated often,” and described in a radio interview with Hot 97 that she hoped that through the song, black women “feel seen, heard and have power.” Her conscious lyrics elevate and herald the idea of being who you are and how you chose to identify.

Pynk GIF by Janelle Monáe - Find & Share on GIPHY

The costuming and the fluidity of Monáe’s gender presentation throughout the album show the artists’ refusal to present gender identity and sexuality as fixed or static. By doing so, Monáe performs a radical critique of derogatory and historical stereotypes of black women and women of color that continue to be perpetuated in the media.

That being said, as the narrative of Dirty Computer continues between Jane’s memory segments, we observe as her agency and freedom continue to be hindered by the regime. But just as Monáe herself asserts in the radio interview with Hot 97, “Freedom is not free. You got to actively fight for it. We have the power to shape the culture and undo the culture that does not serve us.”

Always leaning in the direction of the technological, Monáe has used this visual album — an artform that mediates between the visual with the sonic — to tell a powerful story that ruptures time to explore and speculate just what it means to be free.

What’s so fly about Terence Nance’s new HBO series ‘Random Acts of Flyness’?

It’s hard to compare Terence Nance’s new HBO series Random Acts of Flyness to anything else on television right now and perhaps that’s one of its many purposes.

Explicit in its title, the show’s ‘randomness,’ primarily derives from its non-linear form that baits viewers to tumble into the wild and creative mind of multi-media artist Terence Nance.

A plethora of visual mediums, via found footage, stop-motion, animation etc. compose the series into an energetic, satirical, and eclectic mix of short politicized pieces.

While Random Acts of Flyness isn’t interested in following any sort of neat TV genre criteria or conventional form of serial storytelling, what is clear is that Nance is invested in exploring what it means to be black in America.

In a recent interview with IndieWire, Nance explains his and his fellow co-writers’ artistic choice to make the series non-linear in its form, stating

“I think people consume media in a way that is not linear. I think we [writers] know what tools to use to communicate and be legible on screen so that the world consistently engages.”

Random Acts of Flyness is highly engaging not only through its mixed media form but through its refusal to shy away from addressing topical subjects. It confronts them head-on, producing a visceral effect amongst viewers.

Its expression playful and often tapping into the absurd. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Nance expressed that “the idea of shifting consciousness,” is what creatively drives the show and the writer’s room.

The series tackles the issues of police brutality, sexual harassment, non-normative gender identities and sexualities within the black community, all in an attempt to explore blackness and the experience of struggling under oppression in its intersecting forms.

I mean, Nance manages to pull off an outrageously funny and outlandish satire to make the case for reparations. Channeling the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs (in his black turtleneck and all), Nance unveils a new social app called “Bitch Better Have My Money.”

It is also no coincidence that the staging of the piece strongly resembles Apple’s grandiose new iPhone model presentations. Speaking confidently on stage, Nance reveals the features of the new proximity-based app that matches one stranger to another, but not for the usual purposes of a hookup.

Instead, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” uses an omnipresent ancestry test to locate the nearest white person to a black app user who owes them their 40 acres and a mule, so to speak.

The piece pokes fun at our current social media culture and at the same time, uses the very technology to guarantee that every black user finally receives their long-overdue payments. Shifting slightly into a more serious tone, Nance gets real about the gravity of the project of reparations.

He cites the handing over of assets, intellectual property, land, as well as amending the continual institutional injustices and impacts of redlining, medical testing, job discrimination, and mass incarceration.

It’s no surprise then, that the initial over-enthusiastic applauses and roars from the crowd when Nance first entered the technology unveiling subside into silence. Well, Nance certainly knows how to make a statement.

Though his new late-night spot on HBO has provided him with more widespread recognition, Nance had already made waves in the independent film world.


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His feature film An Oversimplification of Her Beauty premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012. Despite the film gaining critical acclaim, Nance, like many filmmakers of color in the industry, however, encountered the obstacles of finding financial backing for a follow-up feature film.

The box-office success of Jordan Peele’s genre-boundary-breaking film Get Out, Marvel’s Black Panther and Barry Jenkin’s Academy Award-winning film Moonlight, however, have all emphatically proven that there is a huge market for black centered narratives.

Plus, the small screen successes of Donald Glover’s series Atlanta, and Issa Rae’s HBO series Insecure demonstrate that the landscape for film and television is changing and increasingly offering a greater platform for stories orientated for and around people of color.

In the time between An Oversimplification of Her Beauty and Random Acts of Flyness, however, Nance has not been letting his creativity and wild imagination go to waste.

It is important to highlight that Nance has been making music videos, short films and even dabbling into the world of gaming. However, it’s Random Acts of Flyness that may just make Terence Nance a household name.

Nance’s story is a testament to not only his perseverance and patience but an example of how to stay true to one’s artistic integrity and to be open to the different platforms that come with exhibiting one’s art.