Music video’s are an evolving and fascinating medium. Their importance has shifted since the 70s when they first arrived, to their peak in relevance in the MTV era to where we’re currently at, where the vast majority of music videos are consumed on-demand online. This has made them more broadly reaching (through the ubiquity of the internet), more easily discussed (through comment sections), scrutinised (due to the ability to pause and rewind) and ignored (if they don’t catch the eye, a whole world of videos exists to skip to).
Locally, and especially in the rap scene, they have also become a sign of having ‘made it’ as an artist, and there exists a trend toward more conceptual videos – as opposed to narrative or performative – and a big part of this has been due to the rise of Kyle Lewis as a premiere director (and seemingly director of choice for many in the Mabala Noise stable).
Lewis has forged a name for himself with producing ‘edgy’ visual content for major rappers that combines stylised rap sequences with visuals somewhere in the uncanny valley between ‘cool’ and off-putting. Every so often, though, in an attempt to remain on top of this views-generating style, he slips into a territory that’s distasteful at best, and exploitative at worst.
The latest example comes from his video for Zakwe’s ‘Sebentin’, featuring Cassper Nyovest and Musiholiq.
The song itself is excellent – Zakwe started his career with a workmanlike boom-bap style modelled after the vernac rappers associated with Soweto’s Slaghuis, and here transitions to something at once more modern and also personal. The video, shot in all black and white, aims to be ‘eye popping’ in styling and content – close shots of models in beautifully-executed artful face masks with contorted expressions, Nyovest styled as a floating head in striking white contact lenses, a muzzle made of sewn together Barbie dolls – the visual language is established as being otherworldly and freakish versions on what we might expect from a video. Truth be told, the art direction, the actors’ performances and visual elements are all really great and expertly executed – it’s an arresting visual experience.
The editing up ’til around midway through is also often frantic, mirroring the drum fills in the production for sporadic, rapid fire edits. Then, after establishing this mood, a couple of slow medium shots slowly zoom in on the face of a heavily scarred burn survivor – without much of the art department treatment that the other actors were given.
As if to emphasise the shot, we shift back to it a moment later where it accompanies the lyric “Umlilo o thelwe nge paraffin”.
The scene is disappointing in how it’s inclusion draws parallels between the ‘freaky’ face masks the models in the videos put on in order to further the designed aesthetic and the real face of a burns survivor.
The reasoning behind including this can only be read as malicious – facial scarring can be unsettling to view in focus, this video aims to unsettle with freakishness, and bob’s your uncle. Any argument that this video brings work or visibility to people with facial scarring is surely discounted in the context of the costumed freakishness of the other actors and this actor’s un-costumed appearance – the actor’s scarring is his ‘freaky costume’ on its own. Beyond this, the scene is lazy (and worse) in it’s literal placement in the arch of the songs lyrics, where Zakwe raps about stoking fires. This, especially relevant, in a country so frequently plagued with horrific fire-related injury, maiming and death resulting from the need for warmth, light and cooking heat where poor service delivery to impoverished people is the norm. What was surely lost on the video team and its lead is that the actor is a human being whose circumstances and likely trauma have become the punchline of a very weak setup. Why and how this decision was allowed to stand is a mystery.
While he’s VERY good at explaining away the problematics of his previous work, this isn’t Lewis’ first questionable directorial decision either, and certainly not the first time it’s been noticed, having been accused of misogyny and misogynoir concerning his previous work for Tumi/Stogie T and others.
Lewis also executed the visuals for Nasty C’s Bad Hair 3-track music video/short film. As Tecla Ciolfi explained, albeit in a mostly positive light: “Lewis didn’t let the misogynist lyrics on ‘Snapchat Hoes’ go unnoticed though. [He explains,] ‘I came up with this concept where I got a lot of queer women to come together in a very raw setting and they rapped the lyrics. They take the ownership of the lyrics away so it’s no longer this harsh statement. I wanted to create that juxtaposition to entice other hip hop guys to change up their lyrics.’” Would getting South Africans of colour to mouth the words to Die Stem make it less or more inappropriate to broadcast? An extreme example, but a similar power dynamic is at play.
This misunderstanding of the role of visuals and symbolism in social justice challenges is alarming for such a prolific filmmaker in the world of one of SA’s most influential pop culture musical forms.
Often times, when seeing the end product, we as the audience tend to imagine that videos assemble themselves in some way, that they fall together quite organically, and that the details shouldn’t be looked into very deeply, but this isn’t the case. No shot is accidental – every second of film had to be set up, styled, framed, shot and then edited into the final product – a set of deliberate decisions by multiple people under the director’s leadership which lead to the finished whole.
In the end, what we need is responsible film-making and artistry in general. Consequences for the decisions video directors make can’t simply be silence or Youtube commenters calling it “a little too dark”, because that’s not the issue with it. It’s far deeper than that, and Lewis knows this – one can’t both be trying to position themselves as an award winning auteur gaining credit for deliberate genius and also allowing these types of exploitative and harmful visuals to slip into their work.
With the video for Nyovest’s ‘Destiny’, he proved that he doesn’t need to resort to shock tactics to make noteworthy work, so why does he continue to fall back onto shocking visuals that do no more than reinforce stereotypes, and aid the subjugation of oppressed people and survivors of violence?
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