Following up from previous videos On My Momma and L.A Times, King’s Blvd is the third collaboration between Director Andrew Litten (last seen on DN here) and rapper Nana from his debut album Save Yourself. A bildungsroman in miniature, the video captures the paradoxical nature of Nana’s upbringing: split between the strict Christian upbringing of his immigrant parents and his induction into the world of South Side LA. Images of baptism, renewal and faith abound, soundtracked by Nana’s own astute and lyrical observations picking out both the richness of South Side life and its many temptations. We talked with Litten about how he became friends with Nana, the way they collaborated on the project, trying to find a way to add to the unique poetry of the lyrics and staying authentic to LA life.
How did you first get in touch with Nana?
I met Nana about two years ago. I was casting for another project and someone introduced me to his music. At the time he probably had 500 followers on Instagram. He sent me a couple of songs that hadn’t come out yet and asked if I wanted to work on a video with him. He didn’t have a manager or a record label at that time, but the music was just ‘so’ good. He was incredibly humble and came over to my house and played this whole project for me. He was like “I want to let you do whatever you want with the music” and that turned into us collaborating and building with each other.
The video really became about how you can become a victim of circumstance.
Nana’s music sounds quite old-school and 90s in the best kind of way. And the music is very narrative driven, telling the story of his parents immigrating to L.A. from London and his unique upbringing. Was it important to keep that narrative in the story?
Absolutely. It was something that he wanted from the beginning with all his videos. He said he didn’t want to do the typical run-of-the-mill performance video. He doesn’t care about things looking flashy, he just wants videos to reflect the way that he raps and writes, which is as a storyteller.
King Blvd is deeply personal for him. We started working on this particular video about a year and a half ago. It went through six or seven rewrites. I was a bit nervous when he brought me the song as it is so powerful on its own. I didn’t know what I was going to do visually that’s better than what happens on the song.
The more we delved into the meaning behind the track, we realised the song was about him processing his childhood and living these two simultaneous identities. There was his home life and family life, which was very strict with typical, traditional American family home values even though his parents are from Ghana and met each other in London. They came to Los Angeles to buy into the American dream for their entire family. It was a really timely story because with everything going on in the world — and I think America is a terrible place right now — they represented this diamond in the rough of people who really cemented themselves in this community. That’s what you see in the opening act of Kings Blvd.
This deeply personal piece contrasts his rigid home life with what he started to see in South LA outside of that comfort zone, where he was going to school and getting bullied over his name. A lot of these kids he grew up with were part of a different culture than him where their older brothers were bringing his friends into the gang life. He saw that at a distance but never dipped into that because of his family values. The video really became about how you can become a victim of circumstance and how you can not see beyond your immediate environment.
It’s awesome that a pivotal scene is shot in his dad’s church. What did he think when the kid starts rapping about the gangster lifestyle in that sacred space?
He was cool with it. Everyone in his family was supportive of his vision. His dad didn’t understand what he was doing or why we were doing it, but because it was for his son he was willing to do whatever Nana needed to make this come to life. There’s a shot of the guy playing his father being ordained as his minister and the bishop ordaining him is Nana’s father. His brother Charlie also plays Nana’s father and Nana’s sister Narkie did the costume design for everything, pulling clothes from their parent’s wardrobe from the 70s and 80s to create that whole look for the opening scene. Everyone involved was a part of production and was onboard with the story from day one.
I don’t like to just see what happens so they’re heavily shot-listed and storyboarded.
There’s a lot going on in four minutes, with Nana growing from a young boy into a young man. How much footage was there and what was the challenge of cutting it into a music video?
Probably 80% of what we shot is in the video. I have a pretty direct approach. I don’t like to just see what happens, so they’re heavily shot-listed and storyboarded. If anything, we pulled things out to make the vision more succinct in the edit. It was a pretty hands-on approach between myself, Nana and the Cinematographer Hayden Mason.
I thought the young boy was great as well as the other actors. Can you tell me a little bit about the casting?
We worked with Casting Double to look for the young Nana part. Jordan Hollingsworth played young Nana. The first thing for us was just making sure Young Nana actually looked like real Nana, which was really hard. We went through a lot of different people. A lot of them knew how to rap the lyrics really well and could’ve been a good character but just didn’t look like him. Jordan was the whole package. He looked like Nana with the same gap in his front teeth. He was also so passionate about getting the lyrics right and from the first audition, he knew the song by heart and came ready to go. The rest of the cast came from within Nana’s network. His brother plays his father and his mother was played by a family friend called Indonesia Hayes. That was her first time acting. We brought her onto the screen and she did an incredible job. I think she could do more stuff and be a very talented actress if she chose to.