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How Samuel Bazawule overcame fear while making The Burial of Kojo

During his TED Talk in 2016, Samuel Bazawule, better known as the Ghanian-American rapper, visual artist, turned filmmaker, “Blitz The Ambassador,” declared in his talk that “innovative ideas are best fostered outside of conventions.”

Bazawule made this statement in the context of describing his ingenious music career, where he has managed to masterfully blend the African sounds of Highlife and Afrobeat with hip-hop; a dazzling sound which has garnered fans from around the world.

In our interview, Bazawule noted that he grew up in “a typical Ghanaian household” and recalled spending his younger years endlessly painting and drawing.

With parents who supported his budding artistry, Bazawule was ultimately able to evade what he cited as the conventional career trajectory for many in people who reside on the continent; a doctor, a teacher, or for Bazawule personally, to follow in the footsteps of his attorney father.

Music became an extension of his journey as an artist. His education in music wasn’t neatly chartered through a school system, nor through sheet music. The soundscape of Accra was his music school.

“From drumming, dancing in school, wake keepings and outdoor gatherings, music and especially live music, was everywhere. At the time, Highlife music in Ghana was huge and there was very little American music on the radio and if there was, it was oldies,” he expressed.

Bazawule is indebted to his older brother who introduced him to hip-hop at a young age. His older brother, who during his visits home would bring back cassette tapes of Rakim and KRS-One.

The conscious lyrics, the beats, scratches, and sounds left Bazawule completely enthralled. “Hip hop was really new, there were no real stations or programs dedicated to it. I wasn’t too familiar with the conditions of African-Americans at the time due to limited information,” he said.

“Still, I still felt like these were people that found a way of speaking their truth. Sometimes it was vulgar or disrespectful, but it still sounded like truth.”

After finding out that hip-hop was sample culture and that anyone could participate, Bazawule became excited. He expressed,

“It was a very open source and transparent medium; you saw how it was made. All I had to do was take the things around me, chop it up and make my version of hip-hop…”

Bazawule continued,

“Other people were thinking the same thing, and we ultimately birthed Hiplife which was Highlife combined with Hip-Hop. Out of HipLife came people like myself, who sampled classic African records, just like A Tribe Called Quest would flip a jazz record. We were flipping Highlife and Afrobeat records and rhyming in whatever language we were familiar with and that became our norm.”

Bazawule is now based in Brooklyn. In our interview, he described his move to the U.S. and his introduction to the hip-hop scene,

“When I moved to the U.S., I kind of attempted to assimilate and in doing so for a few years, I just realized that there was no point. I wasn’t contributing to the canon of hip-hop, so I thought if I’m going to participate in it, then it was better to introduce people to this Hiplife sound,” he said.

Admittedly, Bazawule has always wanted to make something back home in Ghana. After several years of making music, Bazawule returned to his roots as a visual artist.

Since cinema is an art form that marries Bazawule’s love of sound and image, it made sense for the artist to transition into filmmaking and find another creative avenue to articulate his diasporic condition.

The story of The Burial of Kojo was inspired by one of Bazawule’s annual visits home to Ghana, where he read a story about a group of miners who had been buried alive. In our interview, he recalled,

“I became very interested in the story and I have always wanted to make something at home but never wanted to make the kind of film that I call a ‘cultural safari;’ which is what I feel most African films are, not all, but a good majority of them…primarily because whoever makes these films have to create or present a version of us that they are comfortable with.”

The Burial of Kojo chronicles the tale of two brothers through the gifted eyes of a young girl who transports the audience to the beautiful lands of Ghana and other worlds that exist between life and death.

When I asked Bazawule if the familial story was born out of something specific, or personal experience, he said, “No, it wasn’t. But it was born out of knowing a lot of people who have experienced trauma and have not had the help to deal with it. Which is typical on the continent, because professional help is expensive and is to an extent reserved for an elite.”

“The average person often witnesses an accident or has a family member who dies tragically, but they never get to talk about it. I’ve always been intrigued about this idea of what guilt can do when you don’t get a chance to exert it.”

Bazawule continued,

“As much as it is important to speak about Chinese imperialism and some of the other socio-economic issues that are dealt with in the film, I made sure that those things were secondary and that they never overshadowed the story of the family and the issue of Kojo dealing with his guilt and a tragedy,” he continued.

The Burial of Kojo’s non-linear narrative structure adheres to the oral traditions of African storytelling and the story is filtered through the eyes of the young protagonist, Esi.

From the film’s onset, the audience is completely aligned with her subjectivity as the film opens with her voice narration describing her father who is haunted by the memory of a car accident.

Speaking on his decision to use a young girl as the film’s protagonist and employ voice-over narration, Bazawule explained,

“It was born out of my grandmother’s stories. That is my understanding of story, you know?  Almost always the protagonists were young girls, which was probably her way of mirroring herself in these worlds. But I think more importantly, women run most indigenous societies…

He continued,

“This film was always about a moment of truth – the source of this little girl’s knowing is from my grandmother’s stories and her form of knowing. And if you follow Esi’s character, she is the only one that stays knowing from the beginning, everyone else comes to an understanding at some point in the film or recedes from an understanding.”

Through its non-linear form, The Burial of Kojo continually challenges the spectators’ ability to reconcile time and space.

There is a way in which the visual poetics of the film — the floating camera movement, the moments of slow and fast motion, the repetition of shots and upside down camerawork —  render the past, present, and future to fold into one another.

The Burial of Kojo brings to light how trauma impacts not only the individual but also their relationships with their community and family. Through its magical realism, the film masterfully blurs the line between the film’s diegesis, memory, and dream; simulating the movement between the conscious and subconscious in the relaying of memory.

With the audience often occupying these liminal positions, The Burial of Kojo draws attention to the way the cinematic image can expose the melancholic work of memory, and allow one the opportunity to grieve and mourn in time.

Indeed, time makes itself present through the aural motif of a ticking clock. With little knowledge of how much time has passed between events, this ambivalence heightens the spectators’ engagement with the aural modality of storytelling, and rely on Esi’s narration to decipher what happened to Kojo.

Speaking on the subject of the audience’s engagement with the film, Bazawule explained that cinematically he focuses on pulling the spectator in. Even in a scene where people are eating, he wants you to have a seat at the table.

“Empathy is something cinema directly inspires. Other mediums, like music, visual art, and literature are very powerful but cinema combines all these mediums and makes use of everything. It has the ability to create or inspire a strong empathy for the character,” Bazawule said.

In discussing his collaboration with cinematographer Michael Fernandez, he expressed,

“We were clear that we are going to shoot this film like we are there, and that the audience is going to participate because that is African art.  I mean, have you been to an African wedding? You get pulled into the dance or handed a drum, you are not there to observe, you are there to participate….

Bazawule continued,

Voyeurism is a Western concept. It’s the same way we take masks that are for ritual purposes and put them behind a glass box and put them in the Louvre. In other words, how can I experience this thing without actually experiencing it?”

In working with Fernandez, Bazawule explained how clear he was on how he wanted color and proximity to tell their story. Additionally, he expressed his frustration on how most African films are treated in post-production. Bazawule said,

Most people who color African films have never been to Africa. They have a perception of it and have certain films that inform their perception — sepia tone, brown and earthy tones — everything de-saturated. Films became very voyeuristic in their photography — which is what I meant about African films feeling like ‘a cultural safari.”

Bazawule’s braveness behind the camera goes unmatched and with Fernandez, they were able to overcome fear.

“‘We have got to be brave with the camera.’ That was our go-to saying. The camera was going to go places that were not traditional. When making this film I thought if my grandmother stumbled on this tape, this video, this clip, will she get it? or will she be like “alright you have just made another Western film that I don’t understand? Your personal audience is so important.”

In discussing his fears in making the film, he expressed,

“It was scary. You are dealing with a world that is so Euro-normative or Eurocentric. Any slight deviation comes with punishment, and sometimes your work gets canned…

Bazawule continued,

“But autonomy is key. I never once had someone next to me saying, ‘I don’t believe in the story you’re telling or your structure.’ I was lucky that based on my music career I had access to funds that enabled me to get the ball rolling on the film and then started a Kickstarter campaign to finish the film. But through it all, it was autonomy.”

On his advice for aspiring filmmakers, he stressed endurance and bravery. For Bazawule, there is no sense to “produce work that regurgitates someone else’s perspective. It’s so important to figure out what is in your genetic memory; what you remember as a story.”

“It takes great endurance, that’s a talent in itself. It also takes bravery. These two things will determine if you will make work you will be proud of, or work that fits a mold and will be forgotten tomorrow.”

He continued,

“If I am true and honest about my work then the rest of the world will come to it. The work doesn’t have to come to them. We all want to hear each other’s stories that are from a place of truth; because at some point, we all intersect.”

Bazawule insists that his first feature film is adding vocabulary to a cinematic language that already exists, but whose continuum continues to be disrupted.

Even so, The Burial of Kojo is a stunning visual enunciation of African cinema and a powerful enactment that foregrounds the importance of the transmission and preserving of cultural memory.

The Burial of Kojo is now available to stream on Netflix. It is the first original film from Ghana to be released on the streaming platform.