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A still from Beyoncé’s Lemonade
A still from Beyoncé’s Lemonade

The elusive director working with Beyoncé, Kendrick & Sampha

Notoriously tight-lipped director Kahlil Joseph breaks his silence and discusses growing up, his influences, and how he managed to get time with the music world’s biggest names

“Apart from being born in Seattle and the Lemonade video, we don’t know that much more about you,” said Zoe Whitley, curator at London’s Tate Modern.

She was speaking to director Kahlil Joseph last week during an event that coincided with the gallery’s current exhibition, Soul of a NationAlongside the chat, Joseph premiered his new film Black Mary, commissioned by Tate and featuring American singer Alice Smith belting out Billie Holiday’s “I Put A Spell On You”.

“Can you fill in some of the gaps?” continued Whitley.

“No,” responded a stone-faced Joseph. The packed-to-the-rafters-room erupted with a nervous laughter – it’s the reason we were all there, after all, to learn about the enigma that is Kahlil Joseph. The mind behind music videos/films for Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, Sampha, Storyboard P, and more.

Notorious for not doing press, Joseph’s work speaks for itself. Visitors to last year’s exhibition Infinite Mix will recall watching Joseph’s m.A.A.d – the visceral, poetic short film he created for Kendrick Lamar’s first tour.

Below are some of the best insights from the talk that help shine a previously unknown light on his upbringing in Seattle, and relocation to Los Angeles, the filmmakers who inspired him, and why he never intended to work with Beyoncé.

ON THE EARLY INFLUENCES ON HIS VISION

“I’m obsessed with Blackness, for sure. It’s super interesting to me, especially in America (where) the diversity of it is astounding. I grew up in Seattle, which most people, the first thing they say is, ‘Are there Black people in Seattle?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, there are a lot of us’.

Seattle definitely feels culturally isolated from the rest of the country. I remember seeing NWA videos and I was like, ‘What’s going on out there?’ It wasn’t what I saw when I went to school, and I’ll never forget when Wu Tang hit and some of the kids had either gone to New York or they had heavily dived into it. They would come to high school in their (Clarks) Wallabees and talk the lingo, and I was like ‘What the fuck is going on out there!’

At 18, 19, I left Seattle for LA. I grew up in a super creative household, my brother ended up being a really successful painter (the late Noah Davis) and so I was very exposed to Black cultural phenomenons, globally. (Los Angeles is) an endless cornucopia of paradoxes, and beauty, and crazy frequencies, energy, personalities – and I just never saw that (in Seattle). So when I decided I was gonna be a filmmaker and study images, it was obvious that nobody else was doing what I was excited about.”

“Beyoncé – if you had have asked me before I got the call, I would have been very adamant that that’s not somebody I intended to work with” – Kahlil Joseph

HOW EXPERIMENTATION CAME OUT OF HAVING NO BUDGET

“I wanted to make music videos which led me to Malik Sayeed who I eventually ended up working with. I tried to do conventional film music videos but no one really allowed me to do a proper big budget video, so I started doing $5,000-$10,000 videos. (There was a) freedom. They weren’t big record labels. The artists were more creative and hands on and it dawned on me pretty early that I was interested in a form of music videos, and I didn’t realise that until I started making stuff. Which led to these unconventional (techniques): using multiple songs and cutting the song up.”

ON HOW HE WORKS WITHOUT WORDS

“I'm interested in authenticity, period. Which is why I've worked with musicians because they're actually authentic. When you meet Kendrick it matches up with who he is on CD. Actors are entirely fake – everything they do is fake. So when you meet them, the art that they make is not who they are. That struck me recently when I was thinking about working with actors, meeting them, and wanting to make certain things. But you can't fake body language, so I became recently interested in people's body language, especially Black folks. You travel anywhere: Brazil, Africa, and the way they lean, and walk, it is way more eloquent than a lot of the words that I could put into their mouths.

I've worked with cinematographers enough where they understand my process, so that for me is my language. I've also learned words are so limited. There are some master wordsmiths, but jazz doesn’t have any lyrics, and there’s classical music, stuff from 300 years ago that can make you cry.

Filmmakers, in my opinion, don't ever go as far as they should with sound, in terms of the creativity, and that's where my editors and I have a really good time with a soundscape – you can really go far. Some of the new work I'm making is really just taking it to another level, which is cool. I'm excited about that.”

“I’m interested in authenticity, period. Which is why I’ve worked with musicians because they’re actually authentic. When you meet Kendrick it matches up with who he is on CD. Actors are entirely fake – everything they do is fake” – Kahlil Joseph

HOW HE CHOOSES WHO HE WORKS WITH – I.E HOW BEYONCÉ CAME ABOUT

“It's generally bigger than me. A conversation happens and then like eight weeks later… here we are. I just try to listen. If I hear something amazing, I’ll enquire who that person is, or if they’re trying to do something.

Beyoncé – if you had have asked me before I got the call, I would have been very adamant that that’s not somebody I intended to work with. We had different things going on. But then you have a conversation which leads to another conversation and that leads to ideas and circumstances and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘I guess I’m doing this thing’.”

ON WORKING WITH FLYING LOTUS

“A friend of mine played me one of his CDs in LA when I was in college, and I just thought it was the most amazing (thing). We all have these moments with different artists where we connect with them at a certain point in time, and that was my experience. So he, for me, was the guy that I really wanted do a project with. Then, he was local and he also wasn’t that famous – he’s far bigger now than he was then.

I contacted him and I remember going over to his studio and showing him whatever I had at the time – which was nothing. And he went, 'Yeah...maybe later'... So four years later, after I had made a project for Shabazz Palaces called Black Up, he saw that online and reached out to me. He actually sent me a 30-second clip of his forthcoming album which was the 30-second Erykah Badu opening...  I remember being so excited that I could do something for 30-seconds for him and I listened to that 30-second clip for seven months. If you listen to it, at that moment, there’s a lot going on. And then somehow they decided to give me a little more room to make stuff.”

ON WORKING WITH KENDRICK LAMAR

“(m.A.A.d) happened so fast. I got a call from that camp (when) Kendrick had just been asked to go on his very first tour ever – Kanye had asked him to open up for him. This is when Kanye was hiring and firing people. And (Kanye) had the most elaborate, incredible sets – (created by) Vanessa Beecroft. And here’s Kendrick, 24-years-old from Compton, never graduated from high school and he had four weeks to figure out how to captivate an audience. He had only been in the booth, he’d never been on tour.

He called me and said, ‘I really would love you to creative direct or art direct my concert’. I was like (laughs)... and now I’m competing with Vanessa Beecroft and Kanye – he kinda put that on me. At the time, I really wanted to work with Kendrick. That album was really important to me – being in California, listening to it. It was amazing. But I had no idea what I wanted to do... like zero ideas. I was like ‘I know I should probably shoot in Compton, and that’s about all I knew’. I dove in.

Everyone has their own sets of references, the stuff they get into when they’re creating. I remember seeing all of the street lights when I was in Compton and so I was interested in doing something with those. What could I do? I was like, ‘I wonder if I can hang somebody from a light post’. My wife was my producer and she was like, ‘Ahh. You mean like, in post-production?’ (all laugh) And so, you speak to stunt guys, who worked on Mission Impossible and stuff, they tell you what their take is and then you figure it out and go from there. And it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just some wire – let’s do it!’”

ON HOW HE APPROACHES BLACKNESS ON SCREEN

“Before I did the Kendrick Lamar project, I remember saying, very, very clearly to some people I still work with, 'I don't wanna do anything cliche. I don't wanna do anything ghetto, street, hood, murder… I wanna do things that we don’t see. The next call I get is from Kendrick Lamar, and the next project I do is m.A.A.d – arguably the most intense thing I've done, in terms of that imagery and that cliche. (But) I realise now it's the approach. I'm trying to think of something people are super familiar with, which is Compton, but in a more realistic (way). To be honest, when I went out there I thought it was like Santa Monica. I was like, ‘This wasn’t the Compton I was expecting’.

WHY HE’S RELUCTANT TO MAKE FEATURE FILMS RIGHT NOW

“One of the reasons I've been so reluctant to make feature films is because it’s a very contrived process. You've got to write scripts, get financing, actors get involved and they have other motivations and all this kind of shit. All the stuff that I've made thus far, I don't think it goes past writing ideas down on napkins, you know? You can't really raise $1 million around some napkin scraps. What I've learned in the music space is that there's stuff I'm trying to get at where words are just not enough. I don't care what the character says. I've been able to do things (without words). Even with Storyboard P, ‘Until The Quiet Comes’, that, to me, was a watershed moment. My father had just passed away and, when I made that, I didn't know what to do with all that emotionality but I remember how I wanted the thing to feel. I feel like that was my therapy. The space I occupy right now is actually quite interesting because I'm able to create things that I don't have words for.

It's also a learning process for me as I realise that I want to grow into making films. I write a lot and one day I’ll get to a point where I’m able to work with trained actors. Me getting in the room with, say, Denzel Washington, who is actually a great actor. Me bringing my style at the stages I’ve been – he’s too big of an instrument for my talent just yet. At one point, I fully intend to get to a place where I can bring everything I’ve learned, plus the thing that they do really well. Start working with writers... It’s a maturity thing, on my part, I think.”

“All the stuff that I’ve made thus far, I don’t think it goes past writing ideas down on napkins, you know? And you can’t really raise $1 million around some napkin scraps” – Kahlil Joseph

ON HIS NEW FILM, BLACK MARY

“I’ve been influenced by (photographer) Roy DeCarava since before everything I've ever made. So it was so easy for me to have this conversation (with the Tate while making it). When I was talking to Sherry, Roy's widow, she admitted a lot of the stuff that I never knew, and one of the things she talked about which really struck me was that he was really connected to Billie Holiday. He knew her, took a lot of amazing portraits of her, and his record collection was in perfect condition, even after he died.

I have a similar obsession with Alice Smith – a lot of people do. She's amazing and obviously, she's happy and healthy, but she's not famous. It is this tension I have that when she sings, especially live, she goes to places I don't think I've ever seen. She happened to be in New York where we were shooting and was willing to show up for a couple of days.

I caught this moment, and it was very clear to me that, when we talk about Black culture, we're cataloged in our music. It's our music that is arguably our salvation – and it's not always a political thing for us. We go through heartbreak and we lose members of our family and that's disconnected from this larger socio-political conversation that generally frames us exclusively.

I called (the film) Black Mary because it just came to me and it sounds so common, like Black Jesus or something. I found this one article that says apparently Black Mary has been folded into a religious Black icon and the patron saint of police violence – which I had no idea of. There is a lot of pain and soul in (Holiday’s “I Put A Spell On You”), and her music technically has nothing to do (police violence), but it’s all there. It’s all informed, in a way by everything. It feels like a cry. I shot a tonne of shit and I whittled it down to this one performance.”

“I’m obsessed with Blackness, for sure” – Kahlil Joseph

ON ADVICE TO YOUNG FILMMAKERS

“I've been fortunate to be able to just say ‘hey, give me some money. I’ll figure this thing out’, and I’ve also had to heavily talk through what I want to do. In the early stages, I would go after artists like Shabazz specifically, who had like $2,000, so people can’t be very demanding for $2,000. Generally, if you’re going after somebody, they’re just really happy that someone’s excited about their music and wants to (work with them). There are a lot of local and regional artists around. When I first heard Shabazz, it was a mixtape, he wasn’t a thing. Also, in the beginning, keep your ideas relatively simple. One of my earliest projects was a one-take.”

Soul of a Nation continues at Tate Modern until 22 October 2017