A Lot to Say – Into the World of Hip-Hop

Editor’s Note: Sue Barrett contributes articles to this blog and retains all rights to this and all articles that appear here.

By Sue Barrett

 

Miss Kinnie Starr’s the name

I was born to bear the flame

that excites you to the game of contemplation

now just enjoy this here collision

rock ‘n roll folk hip hop fusion

(Kinnie Starr, ‘Sex in the Prairies’)

 

A somewhat bemused owner of a record store in Australia led the way to his small collection of hip-hop CDs. Then he made the collection even smaller by removing several miscategorised CDs (including the only one by a female artist).

With the release of the nominations for the 57th Grammy Awards, and Iggy Azalea’s four nominations (including Best Rap Album), the record store’s hip-hop collection might now be growing.

It was at the 31st Grammy Awards, in February 1989, that a Rap category appeared in the Awards for the first time (albeit with the award apparently presented prior to the telecast) – DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince won Best Rap Performance, with ‘Parents Just Don’t Understand’.

Other winners at the 31st Grammy Awards included George Michael (Album of the Year, with Faith), Bobby McFerrin (Record of the Year and Song of the Year, with ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’), Tracy Chapman (Best New Artist), KT Oslin (Best Country Song, with ‘Hold Me’) and Ziggy Marly and the Melody Makers (Best Reggae Recording, with Conscious Party).

Later in 1989, Elaine Meitzler wrote, as part of a review of Neneh Cherry’s record ‘Buffalo Stance’, in the 25th (and final) issue of Bitch: The Women’s Rock Newsletter With Bite (p. 35):

“Looks like Rap is a genre that is here to stay…Some rap groups are funny, like Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, or have a hardcore political stance, like Public Enemy. But Neneh is sassy, cool, and tough.”

Neneh Cherry has certainly been in the spotlight this past year, with the release of her first solo album in over sixteen years, Blank Project (which appeared in a number of Best of 2014 lists) and a string of performances and other projects.

As 2014 closed and 2015 opened, and with the 57th Grammy Awards upon us, NASTAIJ (Australia), KINNIE STARR (Canada) and BE STEADWELL (USA) talked hip-hop with FolkBlog.

NASTAIJ (AUSTRALIA)

www.nastaij.com

Australian musician Nastaij (na-stay-sh) grew up in Armidale and Coffs Harbour, studied music at Southern Cross University (Lismore) and, until recently, has been living on the north coast of New South Wales. Nastaij began performing (singing and playing guitar) in her early teens, then started drumming in bands (as Anastassijah Scales) from about the age of seventeen. As a drummer, she has been part of American singer/songwriter Toni Childs’ band, as well as drumming with The Argonauts (rock), Hello Satellites (indie), Felicity Lawless’ band (bohemian/gypsy/reggae) and The Lucky Wonders (roots/pop/folk). Since leaving The Lucky Wonders, Nastaij has been able to spend more time focussing on hip-hip – releasing her debut EP, The Warehouse Sessions, in 2013 and winning Best Video Hip Hop/R&B at the 2013 RightOutTV Music & Video Awards (for her song, ‘Where I Want to Be’, featuring Alisha Todd). In 2014, Nastaij won Best Video with a Social Message at the RightOutTV Music & Video Awards (with ‘You Don’t Represent Me’, featuring Dawn Laird) and was also a Nominee for Best Video DIY. Nastaij’s second EP, In Transit, is being released on Monday 16 February 2015.

Tell us about the music that you heard as a child

I was lucky enough to grow up with a musically eclectic family. My Mum was into everything from Pearl Jam and Nirvana to Madness and Utah Saints and my Uncle and I would drum along to The Offspring and Temple of the Dog. When I was in the car with Pop, it would be all the rock and roll classics like ‘Yakety Yak’ and ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’. I feel blessed to have been exposed to so many genres from such a young age, and I’m a big fan of mixing genres.

What factors have been central to the development of your creativity, including in areas other than music?

I think having a youthful outlook on life has been central to my creative development. I’m always trying to make music by banging on things like chairs or desks, and always looking for new ways to have fun. The third track on In Transit (2015) is about not wanting to grow up. It includes the saying “You don’t stop playing when you get old, you get old when you stop playing”. A friend said this to me once and I could never forget it.

When, and how, did hip-hop enter your life? And how did you come to start performing hip-hop?

When I was younger, I was obsessed with a duo called Kris Kross (known for their song ‘Jump’) and used to wear my pants backwards to be like them. My uncle also (at my request) shaved crosses into my eyebrows and would encourage the baggy clothes wearing. At this time I didn’t know that I wanted to write hip-hop, but I think it formed a subconscious foundation, which in my late teens I started to build upon. It started with funny songs (about things I probably shouldn’t mention) and developed into writing about positivity and being grateful.

What is your creative process for hip-hop, both live and recorded?

When it comes to song-writing and recording, the creative process changes every time for me. Hip-hop can be very repetitive, often having the same beat/sample throughout, so trying to make it captivating is a must. Sometimes I will listen to a beat and write to it, other times I will mumble a melody and build a song around it, it really depends on how I have been inspired at that time. Live performance to me is an extension of the recorded sound and I love finding different ways to embellish a song, especially for the live audience.

You have said previously that being a folk drummer is about “providing texture, and a backbone, as well as keeping the beat”. What roles exist in hip-hop?

The emceeing role requires what is referred to as “flow”. This means that you rap in time to the beat, using many different rhythms. If you don’t, it can sound sloppy, but with practice you can build up your chops. When I write, I use a lot of the same rhythms that I would use drumming, but with syllables. I play around with my words until they fit just right.

Why is it that hip-hop seems to be embraced by some people and to generate a hostile reaction in other people?

I think it mainly comes down to stereotype. There are of aspects of the hip-hop “scene” that I don’t like or agree with, but there is a lot I like too. It’s often associated with “gangster” culture, but on the flip side it’s fuelled by loyalty. So many songs are about solidarity and I really dig that. For me it’s all about finding that silver lining.

Do you see there being things that hip-hop has in common with other forms of music and things that are unique to it?

I suppose with any genre, the songwriter is trying to take you on a journey, but with hip-hop there is a lot more room to actually talk and tell the story, often in great detail. Fundamentally sampling was unique when the hip-hop wave started, but now that can be found in almost any style of music. The way some rappers upkeep their persona can be quite intense as well and I haven’t seen that in any other types of music – not to the degree some people do, such as ICP and Tech N9ne. I respect what they do and think it’s great that they have created their own styles.

Tell us about The Warehouse Sessions, including working with Alisha Todd

I have a mountain of my own songs recorded on the computer, but The Warehouse Sessions was my first solo CD release. It was a lot of work to pull it together with such a small budget, but I feel so blessed to have friends like Phil Reed, Mia Zapata, Miz Marto and Alisha Todd, who all jumped on board and were an absolute pleasure to work with. Alisha and I went to university together, so I knew that she could sing, and getting her into the studio was a breeze. She has great microphone control and can just whip out a perfect harmony on the spot. It was a brief session, as she pulled a lot of it off in one take.

And tell us about making your award winning videos ‘Where I Want to Be’ and ‘You Don’t Represent Me’

‘Where I Want to Be’ was the first clip I ever did with a colleague and good friend David Andreas. It was great fun and also a great lesson for both of us as we were both learning at the time (not that the learning ever stops). I just hope I didn’t come across too nervous and that people enjoy watching it as much as we enjoyed making it.

I filmed ‘You Don’t Represent Me’ with my partner Miiss over four politically fuelled days – the main focus being the March in March reform rally, which meant that there were lots of like-minded individuals who wanted to have their say. We didn’t delegate any of the text, our only request was that there was no swearing or horrible comments. We couldn’t be happier with how it turned out and the feedback has been overwhelming. It went locally viral, getting over 1000 views in the first 48 hours. Winning Best Song with a Social Message in the 2014 RightOutTV Awards put the icing on the cake.

How important for you was winning awards at the 2013 and 2014 RightOutTV Music & Video Awards?

Winning has been AMAZING! The support from RightOutTV (www.rightouttvawards.com/) and the whole community has been great and I feel truly honoured to be a part. Marlee and Tully, who run the awards, are endlessly finding ways to promote the winners. I can’t wait ’til next year.

2014 has been a big year for you, with more to come in 2015

I would just really like to say a MASSIVE thank you to everyone who’s helped me over the past few months leading up to the release – Dave Andreas Photo and Film, Al Pegg at Old Dog Studios, RAW Byron Bay, Mikey AKA Pretty // Visitors, Bart Vandalay, Essie Thomas, Torsten Gustafasen, Ryan Johnson, Miiss and everyone involved in the RightOutTV Awards.

What other forms of music are part of your life? And how do the various forms of music fit together?

I am always playing some form of music, whether it be making electronic beats on the computer, drumming at a gypsy reggae gig or jamming along to a rock song on the guitar. Music is so important to me and I’m lucky enough to play for some amazing artists who are super supportive of what I do and are always offering assistance in whatever way they can. I love melding all of my projects together, it makes for an interesting band practice.

What is coming up in your world?

I’m super excited about the coming months. I’m currently moving to Melbourne [Victoria], releasing my second EP, In Transit, in February and performing at the 10th annual Earth Frequency Festival. Life just keeps getting better and I get more excited everyday.

And, apart from music, what other things are important to you?

Besides music and family and friends, the things I find important are values and how to treat yourself and other people. Sometimes I can struggle to juggle these elements, work and make music, but I always find a way and never stop growing and learning.

KINNIE STARR

www.kinniestarr.ca

Canadian musician Kinnie Starr was born and brought up in Calgary, Alberta; subsequently moving to Vancouver, British Columbia. Her debut album, Tidy (1996), featured rock, punk, pop, hip-hop and spoken-word poetry. Over the years, Kinnie’s music has been used in film (including Thirteen (2003)), television (including The L Word) and video (including Haida Raid 3: Save Our Waters (2014)). As part of the Canadian Juno awards, Kinnie Star was a nominee for New Artist of the Year in 2004 and produced Digging Roots’ album, We Are, which won Aboriginal Recording of the Year in 2010. She has performed as part of Cirque du Soleil, appeared in the film Down and Out with the Dolls (2001), participated in Lilith Fair and sung at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. In addition to her music, Kinnie Starr is a poet, visual artist, actor and yoga teacher. Of Mohawk heritage, Kinnie grew up in a family with a criminal defence lawyer father, and psychologist mother, and has mentored Indigenous musicians in Canada. During 2014, Kinnie Starr appeared at a sold-out performance with environmentalist David Suzuki and released a new album, From Far Away (2014).

Tell us about the music that you heard as a child

My parents listened to The Rolling Stones, Roger Whittaker, Cat Stevens, The Beatles, Neil Diamond. But my first album ever purchased on my own was Boney M’s Nightflight to Venus.

In what ways, if any, did school and church contribute to your music experiences?

We didn’t go to church, but my Mom sometimes made us do stuff like that at Christmas – it resulted in lots of fights, lots of drinking ’til 4 am the night that my Mom would drag us around to gatherings. Dad was an atheist of the highest order. Mom liked to fit in, so she pretended to be god-fearing in some social circles. Dad didn’t give a shit about the church, or anyone else’s “GOD”, so he just drank and partied and we did too.

What factors have been central to the development of your creativity, including in areas other than music?

Probably I would say that the natural world influenced me deeply in creative arts, but so did human relationships. Nature gave me a place to write. When I look at lakes, and natural terrain, I write. But human relationships give me pause, and when I take pause, I observe better. Punk ethics in music and street art influence me deeply too. I grew up on comics, metal and the prairies and river jumping, as well as lake jumping. I find liberty in being outside and I like punk and rap and concepts of justice and anti-authoritarian thinking too, cuz my dad was a defence lawyer.

When and how did hip-hop enter your life? And how did you come to start performing hip-hop?

Me and my brothers grew up in Calgary on rap, pop, lame metal and new wave. I mean, my older brother was more into new wave than me and my little brother. Russ Starr was sort of like the angel child in our family, real A-type person. Really warm and funny, too. Star athlete and honour roll student. He liked rap as well, but me and my little brother, we liked some of the harder ’80s shit – NWA, Wu-Tang, IceT, Onyx, Beasties. Our big brother more liked Vanilla Ice and Afrika Bambaataa. We were all just kids in the ’80s so we were listening to early hip-hop and new wave, and I was also into Bad Brains and DRI as well. Rap was always there for me, influencing the way I looked at everything. It was mixed in with skate culture and stuff, too. My brothers and I loved it.

I started rapping when I took up guitar in the early ’90s. I was just reciting my poetry while I worked in other arts and did baking and bussing tables in restaurants. I had a friend living in New York City going to Parsons [The New School for Design] that I used to visit. There was also a woman there who I was in love with. One day, my friend at Parsons brought me to an open mic. She singled me out when the mic opened. It was all brown to black faces in the room that night except a few of us fair skinned faces. I got up on the mic and shut my eyes and rapped. The room quieted and I got an encore. I threw another poem down, huge encore. I threw my third one down and the djembe players in the audience held a strong beat for me from the audience and I let go. I rapped and sung and kept my eyes open the third number, and the look on people’s faces was just pure joy. After I got off the mic, I was surrounded by the whole room, or what felt like it. People were hugging me and smiling and demanding I never stop writing poetry and rapping. That’s when I started rapping for real. That was about 1994.

What is your creative process for hip-hop, both live and recorded?

I write my own beats, so I get into a pretty deadly zone when I am working. I get lost in production and that place is so unique…being inside beats as they develop, that’s where my rap songs come from. In folk, I write with guitar first too. Live, it’s a good translation of those moments, because I am transported back to how I felt creating the grooves I use live. It’s a good relationship. I like rapping over other people’s beats, but when I rap with my own tracks, it feels like magic.

Are there unwritten rules in hip-hop?

Yeah. And people can be really judgemental. In some urban communities, people can be pretty didactic about what hip-hop is or isn’t. To me, hip-hop is real speak – it’s talking about what and where you are at in the world. It’s being able to express through the story, but also having street fashion dialled into what you’re saying and being able to express through movement too. It’s about being creative and representing your community. I don’t think we need to fake a gangster accent to be rap, or talk about guns and money if we live in a small town with our family and have a good life. I don’t really like that fakeness that is expected with the genre.

Why is it that hip-hop seems to be embraced by some people and to generate a hostile reaction in other people?

Good question. But in some circles hip-hop is seen as inflammatory or vulgar. I would venture to say that it comes down to racism in some circles, because some folks don’t want to hear what black people have to say (or rap). Now that hip-hop is pretty white and white rappers are extremely visible, I would say that hip-hop just carries a kind of crass reputation with all the shitty, misogynist and boring visual content of thugs, booty, cars, money and people acting tough. I can see why hip-hop is easy to dislike.

Do you see there as being certain things that hip-hop has in common with other forms of music and certain things that are unique to it?

Yeah. Hip-hop can be folk music. It’s storytelling. It’s also blues. Some Mohawk songs sound like raps and also I like to think that Inuit throat singing is the OG beatboxing.

Was it hip-hop that lead you to become involved in music production? And what does music production mean to you?

Music production is my favourite thing about making music. I get right inside the material when I produce. Hip-hop def lead to an interest in beat making, but I was always producing even before I was writing beats. I was sound-grabbing in the streets, and layering and cutting loops in my four track. Production allows me to layer material that develops the narrative in a song, or creates an emotion. I LOVE producing.

Your songs are rich in passion and depth of feeling, including in relation to family, culture, identity and the environment. Where does this passion and depth of feeling come from and has it always been part of your emotional and psychological makeup?

Not really sure about that….my Auntie Carol once wrote me that I have “very deep thoughts, and I doubt this comes from your ‘white’ side”. I always wondered if being part-Mohawk allowed me a greater connection to the earth and the natural world and therefore the ability to be alone a lot, see a lot, observe and think and be quiet a lot. That’s probably a stoic stereotype though because certainly not everyone who carries native blood is observant. Maybe being a loner has nothing to do with being native. I don’t know where I get that passion and deep observation from.

In an interview with FolkBlog in 2011, Little Hawk spoke of issues relating to Indigenous youth and Indigenous women in Canada. In what ways do you see the arts as being a positive influence on, and a self-esteem building tool for, Canada’s Indigenous peoples? 

That depends on the artist. Some artists are helpful to our communities. Some of our artists are powerful leaders. Others are just seeking billboard-size promos of their faces. In terms of building skills and tools through the arts, some arts related programming is not helpful to our communities. For instance in Canada, we have native awards shows and a native section in our Junos. I question whether having a race category where native artists are competing against each other, rather than against musicians at large, is useful for building professional tools and international level skills. If, for example, natives are competing in a pool of twenty submissions, rather than against a pool of hundreds or thousands, how does that encourage excellence? If ten people win a flashy music award against thirty to a hundred submissions, those ten people have achieved momentary fame, but not excellence. If they strive rather to compete in a pool against thousands, on the other hand, they will raise their game, because the competition will be steeper. Being an artist is a good pursuit for self discovery either way, but seeking momentary fame might not be good for the pursuit of excellence.

Through Canadian songs, we have learned of Yukon rain, Hockey Night in Canada and brushing snow off woodpiles. What influences the content of your songs and are there aspects of your music that you see as distinctly Canadian?

My songs are hyper-Canadian. They talk so much about nature. That’s Canadian.

What is coming up in your world?

I’ve got some really good news on the horizon!!!

BE STEADWELL (USA)

www.besteadwell.com

www.thelostbois.bandcamp.com

American musician and filmmaker Be Steadwell was born in Washington, DC. She graduated from Oberlin College (Ohio), then undertook a Master of Fine Art (MFA) in film at Howard University (Washington, DC). When Be was a twelve year old in middle school in Washington, she met A.O., with whom she went on to form a female queer rap trio (The Q Crew) and a queer hip-pop duo (the lost bois). Be’s first self-produced solo album (Malcolm X Park) was released on iTunes in 2011. The lost bois’ debut album, The Bois Next Door, was released in 2012. As a film-maker, Be Steadwell has founded fatback films (a film production team comprised of “fiercely talented woman of color”). In 2011, Be won two Howard University Paul Robeson Awards (Music Video; Cinematography) for her video, Bones (www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xlw9IxxBP7c). Be’s film, Red Sky Snow White, was selected in 2012 for the Black International Cinema Festival in Berlin and the Queer Women of Color Film Festival in San Francisco. As well as her film making, Be has composed music for the feature film, Stud Life (2013). In 2014, Be released the EP, Rain Water; was named the District of Columbia Office of Motion Picture and Television Development’s Filmmaker of the Month for May; had the premiere screening of her Howard University thesis, the short film Vow of Silence; and was a nominee for Best Soul/ Hip Hop/ Rap/ R&B Song in the RightOutTV Music & Video Awards (with the song, ‘Rain Water’). Be Steadwell is currently touring and working on an acoustic album.

Tell us about the music that you heard as a child

There was a lot of music in the house and I listened to a lot of different kinds of music. I guess the ones that stand out are the music from my parents and then the music from my older sisters. My parents listened to a lot of jazz standards – Sarah Vaughan was one they really loved – and Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, that era of music. And my sisters were all listening to Boyz II Men, Michael Jackson, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony – so a lot of different influences.

In what ways, if any, did school and church contribute to your music experiences?

Church, maybe not so much – [although] there was choir. But school was a big part of me starting to sing and write. I think I was fourteen when I joined the school jazz band and I’d never really performed in front of people before that.

What factors have been central to the development of your creativity, both in terms of your music and your film making?

I think the first thing was having supportive parents – they were always really excited about the stuff that myself and my sisters explored and they went by the rule of “do whatever makes you happy”. I never really thought I could be an artist for a living for a long time, but when I would get really low, I would write, I would write songs and it would instantly make me feel better – it was like magical therapy. For a long time, I just did it on my own, for myself. Then for fun, and because I was lonely, I tried sharing it – and people were listening.

When, and how, did hip-hop enter your life? And how did you start performing hip-hop?

From growing up, hip-hop was always a part of my life. And it’s always been, as a listener and as a musician, an awesome place of resistance and expression that is unlike any other. The past ten years, the hip-hop scene has been pretty sad – the content is so shallow. Talyn [A.O.] and I decided to start a rap group, a hip-hop group – it was really about having a lot to say. That form [hip-hop] is great when you have a lot to say. If you’re writing a poem, literally you can’t fit as much in. We wanted to make fun of the medium and make fun of ourselves. And it was cool.

What has been your creative process for hip-hop, both live and recorded?

I don’t know that the process was that consistent. Generally, when we were writing hip-hop songs, we would start with a feeling or an idea. Our first song was about the end of relationships – we had both experienced the end of a relationship, separately. And we wanted to express the angst and the sadness and the frustration in that. Sometimes we would get beats that a producer made or we would make them ourselves. And we would piece it together. With performing, we did (and do) get a lot of stage fright, so we would just be our awkward selves performing and let it be a theme, instead of trying to posture and pretend we were the greatest, like most hip-hop artists think they have to do.

Are there unwritten rules in hip-hop?

Yeah. And I think that’s the biggest one. Being cocky and the posturing, I feel like that’s an unwritten rule. You’ll rarely find mainstream hip-hop artists that admit to weakness, insecurity, failure – it’s an “I’m the greatest”, “I’m better than you” kind of mentality – and I think it’s really, really outdated at this point. You start to see people who are acting silly, and acting different, getting attention because people are tired of it, although it still works for Kayne and Lil Wayne and such. Hip-hop is kind of this aesthetic of power and coolness that is impossible and unreal for a regular person.

Why is it that hip-hop seems to be embraced by some people and to generate a hostile reaction in other people?

There’s a lot of different kinds now, so it’s hard to answer that. I think the initial fear of hip-hop was that it’s violent, it’s obscene and it degrades women and some people felt empowered by it. It IS sometimes degrading to women and obscene and sometimes it’s really uplifting – it just depends on what you’re listening to. But I do feel like being black and being young, in this country anyway, it’s nice to have something to empower you, something that you feel speaks to you and for you. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the voices aren’t really speaking to black communities or for black communities anymore, I think it’s about making money, at least in mainstream hip-hop.

Do you see there being things that hip-hop has in common with other forms of music and things that are unique to it?

I think hip-hop is a lot like folk music and blues because in it’s purest form it’s music for and of the people, the common people, and it’s also something that people feel is accessible as listeners and as artists. I went to a high school to sing some songs a couple of weeks ago and half of the kids there freestyle, because that is something that they have practised and it something that they feel comfortable with. I think it’s about accessibility and being able to hear those voices that you normally wouldn’t hear from, as with blues and folk music. Definitely a lot of connections to blues. If you look at the reactions that mainstream folks and white folks had to blues in the days when blues began in this country, it’s similar to how they reacted to hip-hop. There’s a realness [in blues and hip-hop] that other music wasn’t handling. It’s not necessarily more obscene, it’s more real in some ways. I think what makes hip-hop different is it feels like one of the few artistic forms that black communities still dominate, although that is changing vastly, just as white artists came in and took over blues and rock and roll. Even jazz is mostly white folks, at the top of the field.

Tell us about the music that you are currently performing

What I do now is more folk-leaning, soul-leaning. It’s pretty much involves simple songs, most of them are about love, some are about politics, life. It’s a lot like the lost bois stuff, but it’s just me most of the time.

How did you get into film making?

When I was nineteen, I saw a film, it was a short of the film Pariah, which came out a couple of years ago – it was about a young, queer, black, teenager in New York, who was dealing with life, identity, coming of age. And this movie was so beautiful and so sensitive and so subtle. I was moved by it. And it planted a seed. After I graduated college, I started making music videos for the lost bois – we would take our computer around and film little shots with our computer camera and edit it together – it was very, very poor quality stuff, but fun. Then we got a camcorder. I just loved editing and figuring out the shots – I loved every part of the process. And I also really loved how film and music create an amazing texture and dance. If you love music and you love editing music, you know you’re going to love film and editing film, because it’s music and then some – it’s music and performance and light and movement. It was immediately appealing to me. I waited a year or two, then I decided to go back to school and get my MFA in film. Film is hard – it’s really expensive. With music, at least the music I do, it is usually pretty low overhead, I can do it by myself, I can do it with me and one other person. But film, you need a lot of people, you need a lot of money and time and equipment. That’s the biggest roadblock. It’s so expensive. And it’s much harder to distribute. Film is an amazing medium – when you do see an amazing movie, when you do see a movie that moves you, there’s nothing like it – it changes your life.

How do you go about creating your films?

Any filmmaker will tell you that if you’re going to write and direct a film, it has to be something that you really, really have to say, because it’s so demanding and so time-consuming. And once you have that, what I do is I just write. Structure is useful, sometimes. Just write and edit and write and edit. After that, it’s all about planning. For my most recent film, I had my final script, then I drew out the storyboard for the entire thing – which is every shot in the picture – then I drew another storyboard to try and make it better, then another one. Basically briefing out to a cinematographer – that was the most important one for me, I’m a cinematographer too. And casting. I’m not a super-organised person, so it’s a challenge for me, but you have to be very organised and be ready for everything to go wrong. It’s very meticulous. After you’ve written it, and you’ve done the art of it and the creative bit, production is just about lists and schedule and being super prepared. During production, it’s magical, everyone has a great time – they’re working really hard, but they have a great time. It’s really fun.

As you go about your daily life, do you see light and colour and texture that feed into your film making?

Yeah, yeah, definitely. I live in DC and every day I go for a run in the forest and there are these great tall trees – in the winter it’s a little grey, but they are beautiful all year round. Those trees are the strongest characters in the films that I’ve made. The forest feels like a spiritual place, anytime you’re in there. So I work the trees in, usually. Other than that, being around artists and creative people and music – that feeds into a lot of the content that I write.

In what ways is the creation of music and of film similar and different, including in terms of from where you draw your emotional depth and what you see and feel?

Music and film are similar in terms of the writing process – script writing is very different from song writing, but that creative space feels similar. Also editing, writing, mixing, those feel very, very related. And, as a musician, when I started editing film I found that it came naturally to me, not because I was born that way, but because I’d been editing songs – the symbols, the processes, the programs are really similar, so if you do one, you can probably do the other. What is different [between creating music and film] is resources – you can spend a lot of money on music too, but you don’t have to and it doesn’t always make it better. With music, I find that I can let go a little bit. I can say, “I’m just gonna to harmonise on this track and try it and if it doesn’t work I’ll do it again”, but with film, once you’re past the writing stage, there is not a lot of freestyling. You can improvise at the end of the day, once you’ve got all of the shots, but because it is so expensive, you can’t waste time, you have to really plan – so being a film-maker is a lot more strict than being a musician. If you look at famous directors, they’re all just a little bit anal, a little more particular, a little bit square. And if you look at musicians, they are generally free-flowing, free-spirited.

Tell us about fatback films?

Fatback films is an all women of color production company that I started when I was in school and basically we work together to create projects, we offer workshops for people who want to learn more about film making and production. It’s a platform for people to come together and teach and learn. My film program was really great, but I immediately noticed an issue with sexism – everything is getting better overall, but I was the only woman cinematographer in my entire class. From the first workshop we did in the class, the guys took over the cameras. I started fatback films so that other people like me could learn about it in a safe environment and also not have to go into serious debt in school.

And the name “fatback”, does that come from somewhere?

Yeah. Fatback is the back of the pig. It’s not like the bacon part. It’s one of the parts that was usually trashed, was usually waste, but during slavery times, in this country anyway, people in slaved communities would cook with fatback to give their dish a flavour. A dish like Collard Greens – my Dad still makes Greens with fatback. It’s basically making something from nothing – that’s the concept. It’s the part nobody wants, but if that’s all you have, you’ve got to do something with it.

Who are some of the role models for women of color in film making?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but definitely Julie Dash – she was one of the first celebrated black women directors, that I knew about anyway. They’ll show her film, Daughters of the Dust, in college, in black studies class, in feminist studies class. For me, right now, Dee Rees, she wrote and directed Pariah – and that’s much more recent. There is really so few and the few that exist are not that widely celebrated or uplifted, so who knows, there could be a ton of films out there that we haven’t seen.

Your film, Red Sky Snow White, was selected for the San Francisco’s Queer Women of Color Film Festival. Tell us about that festival.

I’ve never actually gone because it’s across the country and it’s pretty expensive to get there. But it is THE queer film festival, THE women of color in film festival – not only do they do a festival, they do workshops year-round, they have screenings year-round – it’s an awesome group of people with a great mission. They’ve accepted three of my films in the past three or four years – these films are not polished, they weren’t industry grade, but they saw something that they felt mattered. And I’m going this year [2015]. I don’t know if Vow of Silence will be screening, I just applied last week, but I really hope so, I really hope so.

Now back to music…What forms of music are currently part of your life? And how do those various forms of music fit together?

I still listen to a lot of different music – I’m listening to a lot of folk and hip-hop and jazz. It’s pretty all over the place at the moment, because I really want to see music in a different way. A folk song has this format and this way that you have a chorus and a bridge. And a hip-hop song has a hook and loop and development of drums. I like the idea of fusion. I really loved the Lorde song, ‘Royals’, because it was hip-hoppy, but it was a pop song and it was so simple and ignored the rules of what people assume about pop music, or hip-hop music or popular music. It all fits in some sort of way, it’s all sort of related.

What is coming up for you?

In the spring [of 2015], we’re going to tour Vow of Silence across the country – there’s a few festivals and there’s a group called Sistah Sinema, which is women of color in film making and has multiple centers around the country, that is going to tour it. I’m also playing music around the country – which is great. I’m finishing up an acoustic album – it’s mostly songs that I’ve written and recorded before, but they are pared down. It’s hard – I love simplicity, I love that, but I was working on a song that just has voice and guitar and it’s hard for me to stop there. As much folk music and guitar-based music as I listen to, I don’t DO IT much, so it’s different for me to produce and edit that stuff. But I think it will be good for people who enjoy my music, I think they will enjoy it. I’m trying to do songs that people ask for and also songs that I think people missed the first time ’round.

And, apart from music and film, what other things are important to you?

Honestly, I don’t do much else. I like to eat, I like to cook, I like to run. Family, friends, love. Even my friends, I’ll invite them over, then we’ll record a song. But I think they kind of like it!

SUE BARRETT is an Australian music writer, with more hip-hop recordings than that Australian record store.

 © 2014/2015

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