Tomson Tee’s deeply satirical music video for Kemba’s Nobody I Can Trust forefronts the deeply entrenched racial issues that inherit American social history. It presents two groups of opposing ideologies confronting each other on a day to day basis and the inevitable self-implosion that occurs upon ideological actualisation. Tee’s video is sharp, witty and widely entertaining. DN caught with him to talk influences, performances, and perhaps most importantly, history.
How did you come to work with Kemba and how did you both decide on what to do narratively for the music video?
I first reached out to Kemba about a year and a half ago because I really loved his work. We had initially planned on making a video for a different song that ultimately didn’t happen because it was too ambitious. Very grateful that we stayed in touch and managed to pull this video off. He was very gracious in giving me complete autonomy over the narrative of the video. His work is very socially conscious, which made the concept a great fit.
The idea began as a reaction to the intro of the song, this dramatic slow burn buildup in the instrumentals. It gave me this visceral Jaws-esque vibe of something sinister bubbling right beneath the surface. That, paired so powerfully with the hard-hitting hook “circle getting smaller every day, life getting shorter every day” really gave me this Get Out-esque vibe. The idea came together quickly after that.
I’ve seen that mentioned, the video being described as Get Out meets Groundhog Day, was this part of the original pitch?
Originally, I pitched the idea to Kemba with First they came… by Martin Niemöller as a framework. The poem, to me, speaks to the dynamics of privilege, which is what is most interesting about the video to me. The younger white fry cooks for example, who are chummy with their two black co-workers but choose to remain uninvolved when witnessing the racist micro-aggressions committed. Even and especially when it culminates in the entire town absurdly chasing after Kemba. That’s is a big point we were hoping to make, it’s not enough to be neutral in the current political climate. And that this bystander mentality is all too common in people in the middle of the political spectrum.
If you are not part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.
If you have privilege in a specific way, it is your responsibility to use that privilege as a tool to shield and uplift those that do not have it. You do not qualify as an ally just because you don’t employ racial slurs or personally commit acts of hate. Ultimately, if you stand idly by while acts of discrimination occur, relying on your privilege, then intolerance will proliferate and fester. If you are not part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.
Kemba’s performance is so good! There’s a really comedy and vulnerability to it, did you do anything specific to aid him with performance?
Kemba absolutely killed it! All credit goes to him, he has great instincts and definitely has a natural knack for it. On my end, I’ve found that the most important thing with drawing a good performance out of someone is making them feel as comfortable as possible. To listen as much as I speak so the actor feels nurtured and respected. I also try to have a very clear map in my head of not just what every beat, big or small, should feel like, but also how each beat flows into the next. And most importantly, how each beat motivates every subsequent beat.
I’ve also learned to prepare two to three different variations for each beat and thread of beats. Because when we’re on the clock, on set, something that makes perfect sense to me might not resonate with them, and it’s crucial that the character’s choices make sense to both myself and the actor since they’re the ones actually having to conjure those moments in front of the lens.
The dichotomy between the period aesthetic of the costumes and locations with the contemporary vitality of Kemba’s music makes for a striking image, showcasing how archaic some of these issues are, is this something you wanted to address?
Over the past few years, I’ve been really affected by that sort of “retro-Americana”-type imagery; white picket fences, drive-throughs, milkshakes. They’re utopian images, emblematic of the American Dream, that have a monumental level of nostalgia attached to them, all associated with a historical period when Black people were still fighting for de-segregation, for their basic human rights. The same people that have never received reparations for their enslaved labor the country was built on.
An out of sight and out of mind demographic thriving in their suburban bubbles, who were often blissfully unaware from those that the system had left behind. It felt like another really poignant example of the dynamics of privilege which made it the perfect device for this concept. The conceit for the video was not actually to make a period piece, but rather a surreal world where a suburb was split into two visually distinct groups: the ‘Americana’ group, both white and black people, dressed in retro-Americana clothes, and the ‘Regular’ group, only black people, dressed in casual contemporary clothes.
The Americana group represent the people that are blindly nationalist and buy into the system currently in place. They’re embodied best by Kemba’s character in his Americana fry cook attire, scoffing at the people from the Regular group being arrested at the beginning. He’s coming from an assimilationist place of “if you played the game like everyone else, and actually got a job like me, you could actually make something of yourself”.
As more black men get arrested, Kemba starts to notice the town treating him differently, because he is also black, and despite his being part of the Americana group, and after all the Regular black men get locked up, the town’s predatory instincts shift fully to the black men from the Americana group. This is when Kemba begins to realise that the justice system wasn’t as impartial as he’d thought and that the pure meritocracy that was promised doesn’t exist. When a system is built upon an explicit bias against the color of a person’s skin, choosing to assimilate into this system only brings about a thin, temporary illusion of harmony, which, as we’ve seen in current events, is short-lived. The only solution is to correct the discriminatory nature of the institution.
You’ve made a number of music videos now, what is it you like about the form? What separates it, for you, from commercial or narrative work?
It’s really exciting to be able to create a piece of work with the goal of showcasing, as well as working off, another piece of art from a different medium. As someone who started out focusing on narrative work, I think music videos have really forced me to develop my visual storytelling in a way that nothing else would. It’s helped me in terms of crafting narrative beats that must be conveyed only through gestures, body language, or even just looks shared between characters. These fundamental building blocks of visual story-telling are also, I think, at the core of what makes film so interesting as a medium.
I think music videos have really forced me to develop my visual storytelling in a way that nothing else would.
I once heard, “You have to teach someone to read, but you don’t have to teach someone how to watch a movie”. In movies, ideas are communicated in ways that are innate parts of how we communicate as human beings in day to day life. Where, I think, a bulk of the information we glean is derived not so much from people’s words, but rather from those same building blocks, body language, gestures or even just a simple look.
Who would be your dream artist to create a music video for and what would it be?
The first name that comes to mind is probably Kendrick Lamar. I’m a huge fan of his work and his videos are also consistently incredible, even with a wide range of styles. I don’t know what the video would be since my concepts tend to be completely reactionary to each track.
Mostly I’m just hoping to work with artists who are looking for more concept-heavy videos, rather than something that rests solely on aesthetic. Always looking for new collaborators, so get at me!!
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I’m currently in post-production for a five minute short film about someone who learns her head is going to explode in three days.
Nobody I Can Trust is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.