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.
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.