Playing the shadows to find the light: A series of film noir inspired vignettes featuring the music from Rap Noir, AKA Tajai Massey Rapper/Producer, one of the four founding members of Souls Of Mischief. An alternative hip-hop group from Oakland, CA that is also part of the hip-hop collective, Hieroglyphics.
We spoke to the director of Rap Noir, Joslyn Rose.
Thank you for spending this time for an interview with LA Indies. What was the inspiration behind the making of "Rap Noir”? Joslyn Rose Lyons: I’ve worked with Tajai and Hieroglyphics Crew/Souls of Mischief on many projects over the years, this was by far the most unique opportunity to create with them. When Tajai first approached me about directing these films I knew it would be a challenge to create in an abstract Film Noir style: 26 vignettes, no dialogue, original set design, lighting-intensive days, and directing more than two dozen actors to tell these stories through series of black-and-white vignettes. Mirroring the times we are in, Rap Noir played into those same shadows. How were you all able to find your creativity, and shine your light into this production in such difficult times? And how did you choose Joslyn Rose Lyons as director for this project? Tajai/Souls of Mischief: I feel like it has always been tumultuous times and it’s now just being talked about. You know, it’s not the 60s where there was serious social evil and laws that kept people from doing things. Its not the 1800s, but I think a lot of people are still feeling as if we have to be in survival mode. To me, to be creative during this time is not difficult, it’s an outlet. It’s almost easier to be creative right now because you don’t want to deal with reality. I’m very privileged to even have the opportunity to even do this, so it’s a ‘might as well’ kinda thing. What else are you going to do? I’ve worked with Joslyn Rose Lyons on a bunch of stuff, a few music videos for Hieroglyphics Crew and Souls of Mischief (including videos for prince ALI, aka Mahershala Ali), also a branded content series for Jason Geter and T.I. lifestyle and fashion line Strivers Row, and a few TV shows. She’s a friend too, so it’s really cool to see her do her job.
What were some of the challenges of making the film? Joslyn Rose Lyons: We did it all during pandemic. That was incredible. Everyone needed that light, and we played in the shadows to find it. We covered all of the setups in one long conitinous take, not cuts, long camera shots. I had two DP's on set, Boson Wang and Christian Adkins, both incredibly talented. Directing an abstract Film Noir style of 26 vignettes with dialogue, original set design, lighting-intensive days, time-intensive blocking rehearsals with talent and camera so that we could capture the shots in those long continuous shots, and directing more than two dozen actors to tell these stories through series of black-and-white vignettes all via Zoom. That was challenging, but my AD's and producers made it all happen.
What was it like working with Tajai/Hieroglyphics/Souls of Mischief and how did you get involved with this production as an actor? One of our lead actors in the film, Jallal (who also starred in my recent short film "Looking Glass" that premiered at Sundance London this summer) shared this about working on the production: It was amazing getting to work with all of them together. Tajai definitely has the vision and Joslyn is just amazing with the creative directing and understanding what she wants. She’s a strong woman who has rawness in this industry and has a strong hold on knowing what she wants. That’s needed to be a great director and what separates you from being ‘great’ to being ‘next’. I’ve always seen her as being ‘next’. I met Joslyn Rose out here in San Francisco with my idols - my mentor, and my friend Mos Def. You definitely gotta give it up to the greats - Oakland is a city of music and political strife and people understanding what they want and understanding enough is enough. Seeing the Hieroglyphics Crew do that for Oakland - you know 93 til Infinity- I was born in 93, that’s hard. I mean, good people all around, good energies. I think when it comes to creativity you have to be honest with yourself. And a lot of people don’t really see their inner self at times, it’s always a work in progress. Don’t quote me but I think this is a Martin Luther King quote but something like; “When darkness comes light should always come too.” Something along those words and I think that light is just an inner reflection of how your soul is and when you find that window within your soul then you’re able to project that. So that type of light is needed to be all around you at all times, even through despair; but I think despair is a form of light too. If you know how to process grief and despair you’ll be able to process your light. Each one of us has that specific light in us so it’s almost always important to be cognizant of that light. Having empathy for others and knowledge of yourself to understand your light is always there and people shouldn’t tamper with your light; and that's what this project did, it gave me light and understanding.
When did you realize that you wanted to work in media and make films and what was the first film project that you created? I studied film at CCA (California College of the Arts) and UC Berkeley, and during college I worked at an Emmy Award winning production company on documentaries for MSNBC, PBS, and Discovery. I got the idea to make my first documentary around that time, "Soundz of Spirit"(Saul Williams, KRS1, Common, Cee Lo) it premiered at HBO Urbanworld and won Best Music Doc at the New York International. Early in my career, I was given a director’s seat at Simmons Lathan Media Group, where I directed a series of pilots for HBO Def Poetry, it led me to directing music videos including five music videos for Talib Kweli, prince ALI (aka Mahershala Ali), Hieroglyphics/Souls of Mischief, Too $hort, E-40, Mali Music, among others. My work with BET began at Rap City, on segments featuring RZA and GZA of WU-TANG Clan, and extends to producing the first live Music Matters Grammy Showcase at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) in Los Angeles with an array of musical talent including Mack Wilds, PJ Morton and Mali Music. I produced the BET Awards Celebrity Basketball Game with Lil Rey Howrey, Nick Cannon, Chris Brown, The Game, and Angela Yee.
Which directors have been influential in your work and why? Berry Jenkins is amazing. I saw "Medicine for Melancholy" and was captivated at the way in which he built that story. "Moonlight" was also cinematic brilliance. Spike Lee. I actually got to have dinner with him and his composer Terrance Blanchard at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York, after working on his Showtime production. I remember at the dinner he was scribbling notes on a napkin. I realized then that he never turns it off. His film ‘Do the Right Thing’ is one of the sparks that ignited this journey in cinema for me. I admire Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the use of magical realism in his film Amelie, has always been part of how I relate to storytelling. I had a chance once to ask him what would be the one piece of advice for filmmakers, and he said “use everything in your toolbox” What genre of filmmaking do you like to work on? Cinema has a way of opening up our senses and allowing us to see things in new ways. Some of my close friends in the Bay Area have made some incredible films this past few years that have done just that, Boots Riley made “Sorry to Bother You” Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs made “Blindspotting”, these types of films can spark change by opening up conversations we might not have had. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and seeing things in a new light. I have produced doc content with Academy Award-winning actor/rapper Common for his non-profit organization Imagine Justice. I have a passion for hip hop, exploring the creative process and the intersection of activism and art. I grew up in the Bay Area, so this was just part of the backdrop. I recently worked as the impact producer on “Truth to Power" with Rep. Barbara Lee, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Van Jones, Danny Glover, Cory Booker, and Alice Walker. Another favorite is "Same Energy", I created the show with Matt Barnes and UNINTERRUPTED (LeBron James digital Platform), it featured Marshawn Lynch and 2Chainz and explored in-depth conversations about mental, physical, and spiritual strength it takes. Directing allows me to let my imagination run free like a wild horse, and in that process, I find a sense of freedom. I think we are drawn to things that allow us to feel freedom. For me that's what cinema does. It is a form of creative play, and when we are playing, that's often when the most inspiring ideas can come. Cinema allows me to play in my own shadows and inspires me to keep searching for the light. What is the most challenging aspect of making an independent film?
You just have to keep believing in your vision. Pressure makes the diamond, friction forms the pearl. So it's all needed in order to make great work. Having a great crew is also key, I’ve been super lucky to work with amazing talent. Before Rafael Casal (Blindspotting) was a superstar, we were producing partners on many projects, since as far back as I can remember he's been in and/or worked on most of the productions, he just understands everything about the creative process. I've been lucky to have great DP's like Boson Wang, producing partners like Matt Smith and Marissa Unpingo, ADs like Hilton Day and Armin Houshmandi, they always help to hold the creative vision.
How can cinema change the world and have an impact on society?
I love this quote by 2PAC: “I'm not saying I'm gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.' That's what I would want my films to do, create that spark that ignites an inner fire, and that fire can be a guiding light on your journey. Cinema speaks that universal language.
Your recent short film “Looking Glass” was a Sundance London Entry, how did this come about? What was the inspiration behind this short?
"Looking Glass" was in some ways my love letter to time. “Looking Glass” stars Los Angeles based rapper/actor Jallal, and features an ensemble cast of amazing friends and artists from the Bay including DJ Umami, Ryan Nicole-Peters, and DJ Ambush, and embraces the struggle to overcome complacency, while visually embodying the spirit of Oakland’s creative community.
I shared the short with Sundance Collabs and their artist inn residence, Peabody Award Winning Director, Writer Trey Ellis (HBO's “The Tuskegee Airmen”, “True Justice”) saw the short and Sundance London contacted me inviting me to premiere the film in those first virtual festival. That was an honor.
At the time of conceptualizing this short, I had just finished reading a book called ‘The Big Leap’ which explores the concept of taking that courageous leap from your ‘excellence zone’ to your ‘genius zone’ so this was a concept also present when I wrote the short.