From ‘Lemonade’ to ‘Process,’ Kahlil Joseph Reminds Us Why Artistic Visuals Matter

From ‘Lemonade’ to ‘Process,’ Kahlil Joseph Reminds Us Why Artistic Visuals Matter

The masterful director doesn’t imagine which realities inform a musician's work. He shows them to us.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
April 11, 2017, 1:16pm

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.  Recurring shots of Sampha playing a small Rhodes piano atop a bandstand in south London loosely anchor Kahlil Joseph's new film Process. Shot on location in England and Sierra Leone—the latter where his family descend from—the film is a love letter of sorts to the spirit of Sampha's late mother and the distinct landscapes of his family's cultural heritage. At times spiritual and expansive, and at others intimate and direct, the 40-minute piece contextualizes the family-orientated emotions of his debut album of the same name.


By having Sampha perform on the stage on his south London home turf of Morden (a shot he'd dreamed of filming as a child) and later at a theatre in Freetown, viewers are given a deeper insight into the songs on Process. Colored with montage footage of families in the two countries, intimate shots of Sampha and his brother, and narrated by his nonagenarian grandmother, the energy at the core of the album is given a rich background, several faces and an environment. Ultimately, it brings an emotional poignancy to Sampha's work that you can't access through listening to the record alone.

Like Joseph's recent work on Beyonce's Lemonade, Kendrick Lamar's m.A.A.d, and Flying Lotus' Until the Quiet Comes (Winner of the the Grand Jury Prize for short films at Sundance 2012), placing Process directly within its real-life environment provides Sampha's music with an expanded sense of place. Across his releases, Joseph extends the vision and scope of these artist's records with the deeply cinematic vision their music deserves. Place them alongside recent, similarly rich videos from other directors—Lamar's "HUMBLE," for example, or the delicate stillness of Solange's A Seat At The Table visuals—and it's clear the medium has entered a new echelon, bringing a sharp and refined light to to the communities of black artists who are leading the charge. Speaking to i-D in 2015, Joseph said: "It's almost like Silicon Valley in the 80s and 90s: the black community is where all the great ideas are, it's where the next generation of filmmakers are going to come from, it's what's going to save movies."

Sampha on the bandstand in Morden, south London

Some will cry that music videos have always been this way; as though, for all of time, they have broadened yet also honed in on the specifics of each artist's work, presenting themselves with the grandeur of contemporary art. But—and especially in terms of how genres like rap and R&B were perceived by outsiders—that isn't true.

Rather than humanizing the community behind hip-hop as Joseph does in Lamar's m.A.A.d, a weighty percentage of past (and even present) videos instead became home to the genre's visual tropes, turning into low-hanging fruit for people who'd criticize the entire genre off the back of a few stereotypes: A rap video wasn't a rap video if it didn't involve a big car, like the ostentatious stretch Hummer ferrying Lil Wayne and 20 women around in "Lollipop"; all rappers cared about was making stacks upon stacks to spend on lavish clothes, as 50 Cent does in "Window Shopper"; or, as TI opted for on "Whatever You Like", a blended selection of the above with the addition of some skits involving a love interest. In the case of R&B and its surrounding genres: remember the slow, almost evangelic overlaid visuals of R Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly"; Ne-Yo—for no reason other than having a big budget—passionately singing from atop a mountain in "So Sick"? What about Kelly Rowland throwing her phone on the floor in "Dilemma"?


Of course, most of the videos above are from a TRL-like era—a time when MTV still (at least between episodes of Cribs and Laguna Beach) played music videos. The form has shifted slightly since then. Arguably the viral success of Tyler, The Creator's "Yonkers" video in 2011 inspired the wider music community to widen their approach, while the release of Kanye West's 35-minute short film for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a few months earlier strengthened movement toward a new majestic form—one now capable of standing on rap music's foundations while also competing with the cinematic vision of award-winning films.

While groundbreaking in their directorial approach and likely inspiring other bigger videos of the next few years—like the Romain Gavras-directed M.I.A's "Bad Girls" or Nabil's video for FKA twigs "Two Weeks"—not many music videos have given insight into the music they're working with that compares to Joseph's releases. Where other directors and artists often create a fictional story to run alongside the music, Joseph instead gives character to the feeling at its foundation, fusing vibrant montages of architecture and people into hypnotic and non-linear narratives. "I try to soak it all in: the lyrics, the artist, where they are from," he said in a 2015 interview with the LA Times. "I'm trying to get at the core of what they are trying to express musically."

Children in Sierra Leone, taken from "Process"

Raised in Seattle, he moved to Los Angeles to study a mix of art, art history, photography, and television in 1999. As a student, he was inspired by the works of 20th-century Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky; at night, he worked his way through a vast collection of Asian films. After college, he picked up a placement at the Director's Bureau, the LA production company co-founded by Roman Coppola, spending five years there before moving into an editing job with Terrence Malick. Here Joseph began developing the unique visual style that ties together all his films, beginning with work on Shabazz Palaces "Belhaven Meridian" in 2010. "The editing, that's how you tell the story," he said in the same LA Times interview. "That's how you paint the subject. In Stanley Kubrick films, the master craft is the edit."

Though you wouldn't directly equate Joseph's work with, say, Eyes Wide Shut, he has developed an auteured visual style in a way that makes him stand out in the way all good directors do. In Joseph's films, architecture often takes on character: the lone bandstand in Process fuses Sampha's past with that of his family's, when he plays on stage in Sierra Leone; the low-riding car in Until the Quiet Comes, sliding out towards the fading summer sun and into the moment where the day's opportunity melts into nocturnal conflict; the backdrop of large southern houses in Lemonade, and the Martin Luther King Jr memorial in m.A.A.d, using them as props to color the larger political narratives of both records. Like the mise-en-scene of film festival winners, every part of Joseph's films meticulously tie into the story.

In the case of how each visual component on m.A.A.d ties into a larger narrative, Joseph told the LA Times that "Kendrick's music has soul and it has poetry and it vibrates inside me". He continued, noting that Lamar's "observation of the black experience, his own experience, is so shockingly profound … You can't just do a music video. That would cheapen it." Throughout that film, as in Process, Lemonade and Until the Quiet Comes, Joseph tells stories about the places and situations of each record, not only using architecture but people. He blends, reverses and warps collected home footage and new work: of working women and men in Compton, various families in Sierra Leone—and, on Lemonade, of black women (and later black men and children) across the US. Joseph's biggest accolade is that he never tells us what to think, he simply presents life in beautiful, innocent, varied, quiet, tragic, loud, and—above all—genuine shades of nuance. By doing this, he's elevated the music video to a new level, and one capable of offering a greater insight into why art is so important.

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