The photographer turns to the moving image to create a striking short film featuring his Nii agency models King Owusu and poet Rohan Ayinde wearing the new Levi’s 501 Skinny jeanLevi’s: Introducing the new 501 Skinny
If 2017 has proved anything so far, it’s that black masculinity narratives are breaking away from their ingrained stereotypes. Moonlight, and its historic Oscars win, was undeniably a major milestone for the visibility of PoC and LGBT experiences in mainstream media – but it’s definitely not the only example of a creative pushing back on these pervasive stereotypes of hardened, hypermasculine black men. A black gay man himself, photographer/publisher/now-filmmaker Campbell Addy has made his name doing exactly this, on this side of the pond – both in his deeply personal portrait work published in his magazine Niijournal, and now his subsequent remastering of the casting world through Nii agency, dedicated to providing a platform for PoC that might not otherwise be visible.
Together under the collective term Nii – Addy’s middle name, meaning ‘king’ in English and chosen here by him for its sense of “empowerment, cultural and contextual reference, and ambiguity” – the two form his gentle, but no less potent response to not seeing these intersectional issues of sex, race, faith and identity reflected in the narratives we so readily consume. Here, this manifests as fresh faces from his game-changing diversity-first agency, illustrator and Alexander McQueen model, King Owusu and poet, Rohan Ayinde, wearing the redefined Levi’s 501 skinny cut while lounging in a grassy park, and in the intimate nook of a bedroom. Though seemingly non-descript, these moments are a demonstration of the same remastering of what’s classic embodied by these new Levi’s 501 Skinny jeans – and, as such, prove Addy’s ability to bring his own distinct vision to this art project with a brand as steeped in heritage as Levi’s.
Captured on dreamy, refreshingly raw film, Where you gone run to? and its accompanying set of shoot images show how this new cut subtly heightens the blurred gender binaries of his subjects. Presented here through the quiet resonance of barely perceivable moments, all underscored by Rohan reading a poem about the micro-aggressions of feeling different, this short is a window into how the self-confessed film fan’s desire to experiment more with moving image is just as multilayered and authentic as the explorations of those themes in his Nii projects. Here, we sat down with the man himself to talk more about his influences, how he casts his models and how to remaster the world around you to be authentic to yourself.
How did you approach this project – were there any particular influences that you were looking at?
Campbell Addy: As the brief was set around remastering a brand with such a distinct heritage, I also wanted to remaster an aesthetic I’ve revisited as a source of inspiration many times – the photographic/cultural style of Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibé. I wanted to create a project that would personally relate to myself as well as something simple and powerful. I thought about how Keita and Sidibé captured the aesthetics of their generation and how to apply that in a contemporary manner. Initially, I started with colours and tones – trying to make it cohesive, from the set to the garments. Within the images, I created an homage to the 70s/80s style which appealed to me when looking into the history and imagery surrounding the vintage 501s.
What was the thinking behind calling it “Where you gone run to”?
Campbell Addy: Rohan’s poem in the video is really interesting to me because of the overall message that I’ve portrayed in the film: the idea of remastering in order to express your ‘authentic self’. I wanted to project a new, sensitive and truthful person – because, as a society, we hide from our authentic self or those selves are penalised in the media, be it via sexuality, or tastes in music. You know like, when you’re a child and you’re at school, if you like something and your friend’s don’t like it, you generally are bullied for it. And I was listening to the song, “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone, whilst I was thinking of the project and one of the lyrics is “Sinnerman, where you gone run to?” That’s what I want to say: where are you going to run? You can’t run from yourselves. It links back to the poem with Rohan where he talks about his mother confessing her love, and she’s just standing in her truth. Yet in the poem, he expresses how he sort of hid away from that and was shocked – but by the end of it, he’s grown and this poem is like, where are you going to run to? You can’t run forever, you just need to be honest and truthful. So it sort of came full circle – truth and honest images, from the song, even to the title.
I really love the poem. It’s Rohan’s right? Did you pick it?
Campbell Addy: It’s beautiful right? He picked it organically. We were doing an interview with him, and I just said to him, “Can you recite a poem for me?” So he just started performing that poem and I was like, “This is perfect!” It was really organic because I did have some audio my friend had created, but then I kept going back to my initial thoughts of keeping it simple – the authentic self, you’re beautiful – and it just fitted in perfectly.
“Live in your truth, whatever it may be – but you need to own it and wear your truth with pride” – Campbell Addy
What was your thinking behind picking Rohan and King for the shoot then? Did you always have them in mind?
Campbell Addy: I didn’t particularly have them in mind when I was creating the story. I had an idea that I wanted to portray, like I said before, something that I hadn’t seen in Levi’s. I wanted it to just be a position of strength and I thought Rohan would be perfect for it, from just the way he is as a person. I wanted to portray the idea of authentic self in the most authentic way, and I’ve shot King many, many times. He’s just the most stellar model and person – I thought he could really portray the emotions and the things I wanted. And Rohan has this slightly more mature confidence in him, so I thought the duality of the two – the youthful, really transformative model, King, with the strong sensitive poet. Once I started thinking that, I thought these two would be perfect for it.
What does remastering mean to you – how do you be your authentic self?
Campbell Addy: Remastering to me, means to take inspiration from a previous iconic item or movement and rework it to create a more iconic piece of contemporary work for the present day. Personally, for me, it means to take the essence of the artist and people that inspire me and then inject it into my work to further push the message of our predecessors. How does one become their authentic self? It’s to live in your truth, whatever it may be – but you need to own it and wear your truth with pride. It’s something I struggle with every day as I’m affected by the constant intake of information from outside influences. In order to live in one’s truth, I think you have to accept who and what you are whole-heartedly. With some people it’s doing the act and acceptance comes with time, but I think it’s something we all struggle with – or, at least I do, a lot of the time, because you’re always questioning yourself as to whether or not a certain decision is correct, or whether or not someone else likes it. But it shouldn’t even be a question, it should just be a statement, that “I like it.” It’s gratifying when someone just accepts, no questions asked, that you like something.
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