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Ghanaian artist Blitz Bazawule breaks down doors

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today my guest is Blitz Bazawule, the director of the 2023 musical film adaptation of Alice Walker's "The Color Purple," and "The Burial Of Kojo," his directorial debut about gold mining in Africa. Blitz has a new exhibit of paintings that explore memories of his formative years growing up in Ghana. I stopped by his exhibit, "Those Were The Days," in Los Angeles, two floors of paintings that Blitz created during the pandemic years. They feature slices of his childhood in Accra - kids playing soccer in the street, a man playing drums, a stylish family enjoying a birthday celebration.

The exhibit allows visitors to interact with it. So an example - I'm standing in a bright fuchsia room. You can hear the sounds of a fan behind me. And there's an old-time gramophone. There's this table with an ornate tea set and a comfy chair. And when I sit down, I'm facing Blitz's painting, which depicts the very scene of this room. So it feels like I've stepped right into the painting.

Blitz's exhibit gave me a vivid sense of growing up in Accra and his love of the visual arts. He started sketching scenes of his life at a very young age, and he'd go on to use those talents to storyboard films he's gone on to direct, including Beyonce's musical film, "Black Is King," which he co-directed, and the musical film adaptation of "The Color Purple," which garnered 11 NAACP Image awards, including the prize for outstanding motion picture. I spoke with Blitz Bazawule last week.

Let's talk a little bit about this art exhibit.

BLITZ BAZAWULE: Indeed.

MOSLEY: "Those Were The Days"...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...Is the name of the exhibit because, in many ways, it is a return to your foundation...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...To who you are. And the inspiration comes from your childhood in Ghana, as a little boy in your house, looking at the walls, black and white photographs that are depicting family life. Kind of take us there. What were the things that were on those walls, and what did they signify in your imagination?

BAZAWULE: Well, it's truly foundational for me, photography, specifically black and white photography, as kind of a way I've seen family be depicted, whether it's, you know, our Sunday best, kind of getting ready to go to church, or we often kind of took pictures after that or birthdays, which was kind of one that was kind of always special. We always had a neighborhood photographer who would come in and take photos for it. But it was not unique in terms of, like, the neighborhood.

MOSLEY: Everyone did it.

BAZAWULE: Yeah, everyone did it, you know, that's kind of where you got your photos from, you know, these special occasions. So for me, they've always kind of represented you know this incredible memory for me of just a love in home and a space where I grew to become the artist I am. And art was also - visual art, specifically, was my first kind of foray into knowing that I had something to say.

MOSLEY: This exhibit, though - it's a compilation of paintings.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: And so what you do with color is so interesting because there's the absence of color and the black...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...And white with the painting up against these vibrant colors - purples and yellows and reds. What is the story that you're trying to tell as we look at that and see that juxtaposition?

BAZAWULE: Indeed. I mean, the juxtaposition of time and space for me is something that has also been a throughline in my work. Really asking myself, how do we tell stories on the continent? And I realize that there's a lot of cyclical storytelling as opposed to linear storytelling.

MOSLEY: Oh, that's interesting, like the Western form of storytelling, which is very linear...

BAZAWULE: Very linear.

MOSLEY: Very Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 structure.

BAZAWULE: Indeed, and most Black, brown, Indigenous cultures have almost a different approach to storytelling, which operates in the cyclical. And I can speak specifically for the stories I grew up hearing, which were my grandmother's stories, and how they often moved in this kind of -characters were non-linear. We had a different way in which the story moved, and they were often kind of rebirthed. These characters and characteristics were rebirthed. And so I've...

MOSLEY: Sometimes starting in the middle of the story, yeah.

BAZAWULE: Sometimes starting in the middle. Sometimes starting at the end.

MOSLEY: Yes.

BAZAWULE: You know, but very consistent in terms of the way - the voicing of the story. And I found that I could attempt that in the mediums of art that I create. So whether it's visual arts and going, all right, well, these portraitures are stories. You know, and the photographs are stories. But when you juxtapose them against modern backgrounds - right? - you create a loop of sorts - a time loop. And kind of what I do is I - the memories of these photos - right? - that I have. So I'm not really necessarily recreating the exact photograph. I've seen these photos growing up and I kind of reimagine them. But then what I do is I juxtapose them against the environ in which they were taken.

MOSLEY: Well, what's really interesting is that you actually got the job for "The Color Purple" musical in part because of your artistic expression, your ability to sketch out how you could visualize what is an enduring American story. You have to tell us the story of how this came to be. You actually arrived at the first meeting to pitch yourself to be the director of "The Color Purple" with a storyboard.

BAZAWULE: Yeah, visually, it's really hard to tell people what you want them to see.

MOSLEY: Especially a story like "The Color Purple," I can imagine...

BAZAWULE: Indeed.

MOSLEY: ...Because we all have in our minds...

BAZAWULE: A version.

MOSLEY: ...What that story is - a version...

BAZAWULE: Indeed.

MOSLEY: ...A musical, the old movie or the book.

BAZAWULE: The classic Alice Walker masterpiece. So for me, it was very important that I show and not tell. And so any opportunity I get creatively, I just kind of go back to being that kid in Ghana, and I go to the solace of knowing that I could always sketch the idea out, right? And that's how, you know, I sketched my way into every opportunity I've had was because I can very quickly show what's in my head. And I'm very aware that it's been a huge asset in opportunities and being able to fully realize my vision.

MOSLEY: What were some of the initial sketches that ended up being in the movie?

BAZAWULE: Well, I started first by asking myself what was going to be our true contribution to the canon. And for me, it was about figuring out where the book hadn't fully gone, where Steven hadn't fully gone, and where the Tony Award-winning play hadn't fully gone. And I think that it was the visualization of Celie's imagination. Now, Alice Walker had given us an incredible kind of world in which this character had inner monologues, but we hadn't seen them visually. And so I started by kind of creating this larger-than-life expansion of Celie's mind where she could imagine things that came to fruition but in grander ways in her head, which ultimately added a deeper layer into how she surmounted her trauma, which is something that I think is also quite important - is that, you know, people who are - have dealt with trauma often miscategorized as docile or waiting to be saved, Celie had this incredibly expansive imagination that she was constantly working herself out of these challenges. So one of the first things I sketched was this giant grammophone - right? - which we know the scene where Celie and Shug Avery first meet and their first connection. But I found it if I went from a - this physical real-life gramophone that is in Shug Avery's...

MOSLEY: In the space. Right.

BAZAWULE: ...In the space to this incredibly imaginative ethereal space where Celie's mind could go, we could start seeing a grander way in which she saw herself and eventually found herself to be beautiful in her head first before anybody told her that.

MOSLEY: I want to play a clip from the movie. In the scene we're going to play, Shug, played by Taraji P. Henson, and Celie, played by Fantasia - they're getting closer...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...And they ultimately become lovers through the course of the film.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...But at one point, they go to the movies together.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: And then they slide into this musical number called "What About Love?" Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE COLOR PURPLE")

FANTASIA: (As Celie, singing) And what about hope?

TARAJI P HENSON: (As Shug, singing) And what about hope?

FANTASIA: (As Celie, singing) And what about joy?

HENSON: (As Shug, singing) And what about joy?

TARAJI P HENSON AND FANTASIA: (As characters, singing) What about tears when I'm happy? What about peace when I fall? I want you to be a story for me that I can believe in forever.

FANTASIA: (As Celie, singing) And what about...

MOSLEY: That was Taraji P. Henson and Fantasia Barrino in the 2023 musical film adaptation of "The Color Purple" directed by my guest, Blitz Bazawule. The song - I mean, it just gets in my heart every time I hear it. I just get so emotional. But I was thinking about how "The Color Purple" is such an insular text, meaning, like, it's a Black world. We are really living in such a small space. And then everything else, meaning white people, the mailman, Mrs. Millie - they're exterior. They represent the periphery. There was a scene that I initially took issue with, Blitz. And it was until I heard you talking about it that I gained clarity on exactly what you were trying to do. And in particular, it's the scene with Danielle Brooks who plays Sophia.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: And she goes into town with her children.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: And she encounters Mrs. Millie. Now, in the original film, Sophia is played by Oprah.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: And the shots are really tight.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: We're seeing Oprah's face. We see her get angry, as Mrs. Millie says to her, you know, your children are so clean. They're so cute. I want them to come and work for me. Why don't you come be my maid? We're seeing her fist ball up as she gets angry. In your version, we are wide.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: We're incorporating place and space.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: Talk about why that was significant to do that for you in this particular version.

BAZAWULE: Absolutely, because the aggression is not individual. And that's something that we have to understand as we deal with deconstructing racist, biased, discriminatory environments. They are embodied in an individual, but they're institutional. And it's the only function based on the support of a larger group, right? The environ for me, was stark because I chose a location for that scene that was starkly different from the farm, the lush, the greens that...

MOSLEY: Where they lived, where she was...

BAZAWULE: ...They lived. So I wanted a space where the audience start to feel uncomfortable, just based on that wide shot, based on the concrete.

MOSLEY: Because prior there, it's the intimacy...

BAZAWULE: Very intimate.

MOSLEY: ...In the shots that we're experiencing.

BAZAWULE: Very intimate. And so kind of when we start and eventually we slowly get tighter when the men kind of surround Danielle Brooks' character Sophia. But again, I wanted to kind of see the - show the complicity of not just the mayor and Mrs. Millie, but the rest of the world, right? And that's something we have to remember when we think about how we navigate trauma and we navigate oppression of any sort. It requires a larger environ and a larger society that says it's OK. And so there were several people sitting around. There were several people who worked at the gas station. They were all complicit either through their silence or their participation, right? And that for me was more important about that scene. But I was also clear that I wasn't making Steven Spielberg's movie. That was a very important thing for me.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is Blitz Bazawule. He's a writer, musician, and director of the 2023 adaptation of "The Color Purple" musical, and "The Burial Of Kojo." He has a new art exhibit of his paintings in LA called "Those Were The Days," which explores memories from Blitz's formative years growing up in Ghana. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBINO'S "AZAMANE (MY BROTHERS UNITED)")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today I'm talking to Blitz Bazawule about his work as a writer, musician, director and painter. He has a new exhibit in Los Angeles of paintings that explores memories from his formative years growing up in Ghana. Blitz is a Grammy-nominated artist and director of the 2019 film, "The Burial Of Kojo," and the 2023 adaptation of "The Color Purple" musical.

You grew up in Ghana, in Accra. Your dad was a civil servant. Your mom was a teacher. You were born in the early '80s. So this is right after - this is on the cusp of what was a military dictatorship for Ghana that ended in '79. Lots of things were shut down during that time. It was a pretty chaotic time. How did that impact your family?

BAZAWULE: Well, it did. It impacted my family quite severely. My dad, before becoming a civil servant, worked for the ministry of foreign affairs and worked for the government that was overthrown.

MOSLEY: The previous government before the military, yeah, dictatorship.

BAZAWULE: Indeed, yes. So, you know, we went from - you know, we lived briefly in Egypt, and kind of the coup happened and then we had to come back home. My mom, unfortunately, was arrested for fears of my dad's job and that. So my family...

MOSLEY: How long did she spend time in jail?

BAZAWULE: She was in jail - it was a couple months, but they were difficult months. And those...

MOSLEY: You were really young.

BAZAWULE: I was young. I was very young.

MOSLEY: Where were you during that time?

BAZAWULE: I was with family. My dad was still overseas. And so, kind of, you know...

MOSLEY: Do you remember? Do you have memories?

BAZAWULE: I don't have much memories of that besides, of course, what my mom recounts, you know? And my mom kind of is the rock of the family. Not only did she survive that she thrived past that. I'm grateful that of all my mom went through, she still was truly a true believer in expression and all expression.

MOSLEY: I think you said she let you be.

BAZAWULE: She did. And I am an artist fully because of not only her creating space for me to thrive but being a strong encourager of voice. You know, on the continent of Africa - and I'm speaking specifically about Ghana - it is rare that an artistic kid is nurtured. I'm not saying it's improbable or never occurs. I'm just saying your parents want for you...

MOSLEY: To be a doctor or to be someone of high importance.

BAZAWULE: Because that's what they come from and that's what they know and that's what strive for.

MOSLEY: And that's a measure of success, yeah.

BAZAWULE: BExactly. So it was quite a rare thing that my mom allowed me to have a little space in the house where I wasn't disturbed. And I drew, and I made music, and I just, you know, things that - where hip-hop had just come to Ghana at the time. This is early '90s. Let's call it '92. Public Enemy came to Ghana, and it was, like, a huge just shift in the social...

MOSLEY: How old were you when they came?

BAZAWULE: I was 10.

MOSLEY: It blew your mind.

BAZAWULE: It was a huge shift of consciousness and creative possibilities. We had highlife music at the time, which was quite subdued and kind of ballad-y and love songs, right? And then comes hip-hop that is brash and energetic and youthful, and also Pan-Africanists. You know, this was the era of the dashikis and medallions...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: And the red-black-greens.

MOSLEY: Very Afrocentric.

BAZAWULE: Very Afrocentric. So we saw ourselves in that, and it deeply transformed our entire culture. And we moved from highlife to hiplife, which was a kind of an amalgam of hip-hop music and highlife music.

MOSLEY: Yes.

BAZAWULE: And it kind of reinvigorated our linguistics, because a lot of us were rhyming in our local languages but we were also doing what the American youth were doing, which was sampling...

MOSLEY: Other music.

BAZAWULE: Other music, often highlife and afrobeat records. So it also rekindled our appreciation for music that was passed, right? And, you know, all you had to do was loop it and add some hard drums, and you'd have a version of hip-hop that was hiplife.

MOSLEY: You came to the U.S. with the intention, of course, to go to college.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: But you also wanted to be a rapper.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: Like, you were coming here to be a rapper.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: Is there anyone that you were modeling your career after or wanting to be the next?

BAZAWULE: Well, I think the Fugees were the first kind of - I mean, hip-hop culture, of course, has deep immigrant roots.

MOSLEY: Yes.

BAZAWULE: Of course, DJ Kool Herc, Jamaica. I mean, but I think the Fugees, for me, were, like, the first clear immigrant story, right? Of course, not Lauren, but Wyclef and Pras being kind of Haitian descent...

MOSLEY: Yes.

BAZAWULE: But proudly Haitian descent...

MOSLEY: Yes, yes.

BAZAWULE: ...Which was rare because there's obviously a flattening that occurs in America, where to assimilate requires you kind of letting go of these elements that you are because it's just easier to get ahead. And so I think just seeing that Haitian flag constantly represented...

MOSLEY: In all - yeah.

BAZAWULE: And Wyclef's "Carnival" and foreign-language rap, which at the time wasn't a popular thing. That whole B side of "Carnival" was Haitian Creole.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: And it kind of was mind-blowing for me. And I said to myself, if that's accepted then perhaps what I'm attempting to do will be accepted, right? And so that was kind of the model, you know? And slowly but surely, you know, through a few albums, I kind of got close to that thing.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is Blitz Bazawule. We're talking about his life and career as a visual artist, director, novelist and musician. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUCKLEBERRY PIE")

PHYLICIA PEARL MPASI: (As Young Celie, singing) Hey, sister. What you gon' (ph) do?

HALLE BAILEY: (As Young Nettie, singing) Going down by the river, gonna play with you.

MPASI: (As Young Celie, singing) Papa don't like no screaming 'round here.

BAILEY: (As Young Nettie, singing) No lip from the woman when they chug that beer.

HALLE BAILEY AND PHYLICIA PEARL MPASI: (As Young Nettie and Young Celie, singing) Sure enough, sun gon' shine, gon' be grown ladies of the marrying kind. Sure enough, moon gon' rise, like a huckleberry pie in the middle of the sky.

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and my guest today is director and artist Blitz Bazawule. He has a new art exhibit of his paintings in LA called "Those Were The Days," which explores memories from Blitz's formative years growing up in Ghana. In 2019, he made his feature directoral debut with "The Burial Of Kojo" on Netflix. In 2020, Blitz co-directed Beyonce's musical film "Black Is King" and directed the musical adaptation of "The Color Purple" musical, which garnered 11 NAACP image awards, including the Prize for Outstanding Motion Picture.

Fun fact - you have five studio albums under Blitz the Ambassador.

BAZAWULE: I do.

MOSLEY: Tell me about that name.

BAZAWULE: Blitz the Ambassador was - so my style of rap was fast and kind of, like, double time. And so in Kent, my peers called me Blitz because that's what the sound felt like. But as I went on, I was...

MOSLEY: That it's blitz. Oh, I love it.

BAZAWULE: Yes and - 'cause those were also the days of ciphers...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: ...And battles. You know, so we did a lot of that. But then as I kind of got closer to understanding kind of purpose, I realized that I needed to represent where I'm from because there was so little representation. I mean, today, a lot of people go to Ghana. There's a lot of, you know, understanding of what Ghana is through - whether the Year of Turn and several other things and Afrobeats music.

MOSLEY: Yeah. But back then, when you were telling people you're from Ghana...

BAZAWULE: No one knew...

MOSLEY: ...What would - no one knew.

BAZAWULE: ...Or cared.

MOSLEY: What would they say?

BAZAWULE: Well, it was rare. And we had to kind of be - we had to represent. We had to represent the fabric. We had to represent the flag. We had to represent, in the music, the samples. I mean, these were all things that were kind of a floor that set up kind of what would come. And I got really fortunate. In 2010, I performed in France at one of their big music festivals, called Transmusicales de Rennes. And that was a big, huge leap. We played over 50 festivals a year...

MOSLEY: Wow.

BAZAWULE: ...You know, in Europe, and we really became a formidable force. But the challenge with music - it was also at the real odd moment of a plateau in the entire industry where, you know, it just couldn't - this was early - you know, this is 2010 to about 2015. So we were moving away from, like, iTunes, music being sold for $9.99.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: CDs were beginning to phase out...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: ...Completely. And then it became - the streamers had started to take over. And so the access and plausibility of making a living...

MOSLEY: Started to...

BAZAWULE: Dwindle.

MOSLEY: After college, you move to New York.

BAZAWULE: I do.

MOSLEY: And there's a time when you're selling your music on street corners. Like...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: Yeah, like the guys on the street corners.

BAZAWULE: Yes. I did that right after graduation, which is, I think, 2005.

MOSLEY: I always wonder, did you - do those guys make money? Do they make - were you making money?

BAZAWULE: I was. I paid my rent doing that. But I quickly realized that walking up to people and asking them if they liked my kind of music like, do you listen to hip-hop, wasn't working.

MOSLEY: So you would be on corners, and as people were walking by, you'd say, like, hey.

BAZAWULE: Hey.

MOSLEY: Would you like to - yeah.

BAZAWULE: I realized quickly that that was not going to do it because I walked into the Virgin Mega Store. Remember those?

MOSLEY: Oh, yeah.

BAZAWULE: There was one on Union Square. I saw people standing in a long line, waiting to purchase whatever new album had come out. But they were listening to it first on headphones...

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: ...To sample it. That's what we used to do.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: And I realized that if I was going to - 'cause New York is brash, and New York is aggressive.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: If you're going to get people's attention, then it's better to set up and have them invite themselves. So what I did was I built a similar listening booth - right? - with headphones. And I would cart it all the way to Union Square and...

MOSLEY: Take the subway. Yeah.

BAZAWULE: ...Set it up, and people would line up and listen. And I sold so many albums that I started selling the CDs of other people. Yes. Like, there was a brass band who were - played in the subway called Hypnotic Brass Ensemble whom, like - we just all clicked up. And so I'll sell their CDs as part of my setup and a few other people. So I realized quickly that the marketing I'd studied at Kent State...

MOSLEY: Because you majored in marketing.

BAZAWULE: I majored in marketing. I realized that I - it was a value. And that was actually how I paid my bills and sustained myself for a while.

MOSLEY: Of the other things you were spending money on was movies.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: You'd go watch movies.

BAZAWULE: That was it.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: I would go watch any and everything - foreign movies. There was the Film Forum, and then there was the IFC. I practically lived there. I would spend some times - whatever I made from selling CDs that day, would go straight to, like, two, three movies back to back. And I would - you know, I mean, I didn't go to film school. So that eventually became my film school. I had a little notebook. I would write and - you know, like, things I'd seen.

MOSLEY: Were you doing it for purpose, or were you doing it just because you were really loving it?

BAZAWULE: It was both. It was both. I knew that I would one day want to make films. I knew that. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, I mean, it's all part of the same stream.

MOSLEY: I want to play one of your songs, "Shine," from your 2016 album, "Diasporadical." It's your fourth studio album. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE")

BAZAWULE: That's that's do I'm going to shine my light. I got to let them know that I'ma (ph) shine my light - that they could never stop me. I'ma shine my light. Time is (inaudible). I'ma shine my light. I'll tell the whole world I'ma shine my light. Brand-new, fresh from the start. (Inaudible) sprinkle the holy fire on you. I'm thinking, how could he get it, get it? We got it anyhow - baptized in the river so my spirit is allowed. I'm on my Tupac [expletive]. Only God can judge me. Looking to the heavens - no man can touch me. Struggle in the ghetto - get my paper. Never settle. Africa's new representer - yeah, the most high blessed. The streets...

MOSLEY: That was my guest, Blitz Bazawule, from his fourth studio album, "Diasporadical." Blitz, there's so many influences there.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: I'm hearing funk. I'm hearing jazz...

BAZAWULE: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Afrobeats...

BAZAWULE: Yeah.

MOSLEY: ...Kind of. Who were your influences?

BAZAWULE: It's all the things you said. It's - in my household, it started with highlife music.

MOSLEY: Yeah. Yeah. You mentioned highlife. Yeah.

BAZAWULE: Yes. And so it was Ebo Taylor. It was Pat Thomas. It was, you know, Osibisa. Those are the bands that I grew up on. And then kind of, you know, my dad was also a huge James Brown fan. So, like, we had all the James Brown funk records. And then, you know, there was also some jazz. We had Miles. We had Coltrane. We had a few of those. So, like, you know, for me, it's always been an amalgam of, like, these worlds, sometimes feeling disconnected, right? But then there's also, like, the hip-hop that raised me, right? And so I always kind of try to think about the edge and kind of how all of these sounds kind of synthesize.

MOSLEY: If you're just joining us, my guest is Blitz Bazawule. He's a writer, musician, and director of the 2023 musical film adaptation of "The Color Purple" and "The Burial Of Kojo." He has a new art exhibit of his paintings in LA called "Those Were The Days," which explores memories from Blitz's formative years growing up in Ghana. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOTHERINGAY'S "THE SEA (LIVE)")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR, and today I'm talking with Blitz Bazawule about his work as a writer, musician, director, and painter. He has a new exhibit in Los Angeles of paintings that explore memories from his formative years growing up in Ghana. Blitz is a Grammy-nominated artist, and director of the 2019 film, "The Burial Of Kojo" and the 2023 musical film adaptation of "The Color Purple."

Your first feature film, "The Burial Of Kojo" - it came out in 2018.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: You wrote, composed, and directed the film...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...Which - it was entirely shot in Ghana...

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: ...As you mentioned, on a microbudget.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: Put this in context to us. What was that budget in comparison to say something like "The Color Purple"?

BAZAWULE: Oh, my God. My entire first movie cost what we probably spent a day...

MOSLEY: (Laughter) Right.

BAZAWULE: ...No, no. Not a day in shooting, a day in catering, catering and craft service. Like, that's how the leap has been, you know? But for me, it's still all the same, right? It's still...

MOSLEY: Does it take a little bit, though, of expansion of the mind when you know what you can do with, like, a little bit of money?

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: But when money is no object, was it pretty easy to get there?

BAZAWULE: No. The problem with money is that it's always the object. No matter how much you want.

MOSLEY: Yup.

BAZAWULE: Right? Because it boils down to, oh, well, now the crew cost more. Well, now the locations cost more. Now, the hotels cost more. But I found that they all boil down to the same experience, which is, do you have a vision and do you have something to say? I still have to draw all my storyboards myself, quietly identify what story I want to tell and how I want to tell it.

MOSLEY: I know you mentioned that you learned so much about filmmaking just from watching movies. Everything you could watch, you were watching. Is it true you also learned from YouTube?

BAZAWULE: Oh, yeah. YouTube is - I mean, I tell everybody if you're looking for it, it's out there. I mean, because when I went to Ghana, I'd never worked with a crew, a real crew of any sort. So I didn't know what the First AD did. I didn't know what the...

MOSLEY: And an AD is a...

BAZAWULE: For assistant director.

MOSLEY: An assistant director. Yeah.

BAZAWULE: Right? I didn't know what - I didn't know anything, but I went online and, you know, people tell you what they do, and they tell you how they do it, and they walk you through their day, and this is what we do, and da da da. So I was able to put together a crew.

So it was more like film education in Ghana, you know, which actually ended up birthing the organization that I founded, Africa Film Society. Because we started by just watching movies to learn how to make them. And then we realized that we needed to watch African movies if we were going to make an African movie because we have a distinct vocabulary.

MOSLEY: "The Burial Of Kojo" - the film tells the story of Kojo, a man from Ghana who is left to die in an abandoned gold mine as his young daughter, Esi, travels through the spirit land to save him. This is a beautiful film. What drew you to the story about the miners?

BAZAWULE: I was out there looking for a story to tell. I didn't know what the story would be. So I spent a lot of time just traveling. I mean, Ghana - I traveled quite extensively. And the more I traveled, the more I recognized the plight of small-scale miners who originally were a thriving small community. But then with globalization and first the British miners, but then the Chinese miners showing up. They show up with equipment that is a lot more. It turns small-scale mining into large-scale mining, but without the oversight.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: So our waters are polluted now, and, you know, it's just been really - they call it galamsey. That's kind of the challenge there. So I knew that I wanted to tell the story about that. But then the more I learned, the more I realized that the work was deeply dangerous because the guys go, several feet deep into - and sometimes these caverns, you know, implode or shut down, and they get buried alive.

MOSLEY: And it's astounding to see it in the film, the way that you're able to capture it.

BAZAWULE: Yes. Thank you. I - it was a deep - but I also knew that I wanted to tell the story in the way my grandmother told stories.

MOSLEY: And that's - right. That goes back to that non-linear storytelling. This story is told in that way.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MOSLEY: You grandmother was the foundation of you understanding storytelling.

BAZAWULE: Indeed.

MOSLEY: She would tell stories.

BAZAWULE: Indeed.

MOSLEY: What kinds would she tell?

BAZAWULE: Man, they were the kind that stick with you forever, you know? They were, you know, nocturnal, because at the time, you know, electricity hadn't quite come to our neighborhood yet. And so at 6 P.M, life starts to shut down. So my grandmother's stories, I always say, was kind of the de facto HBO, Netflix...

MOSLEY: Yes.

BAZAWULE: ...Hulu because we looked forward to them. And they were episodic, you know, because she had to kind of - and it was somewhat spontaneous. But she always knew how to kind of take characters and turned them sometimes into inanimate objects, sometimes into animals, sometimes with human characteristics. They were always ongoing.

MOSLEY: Folklore. Yeah, tight. Yeah.

BAZAWULE: Indeed. And so I grew up with those. And so I've kind of tried my best to not abandon that storytelling approach, because it's what makes us who we are. Many storytellers from the continent come from this lineage of storytelling. And it's just about if we are allowed or have the material or have the support of studios and such to tell our stories this way. My great fortune was that "Color Purple" gave me the ability and the tools to do that.

MOSLEY: To do this.

BAZAWULE: And the support from my producers, for sure.

MOSLEY: I think I heard you reference, and I apologize if I can't remember the name, but it was an Ethiopian filmmaker who said his quest to make film is to capture that feeling of the freedom that we feel in making music.

BAZAWULE: Yes, that's Haile Gerima.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: That's Haile Gerima. I think that when I think about how much - and I always say this - it's incalculable, how much the world loses every day from the intentional exclusion of Black, brown, Indigenous approach to storytelling, right? Because - and I always start by saying, think about your life without the brilliant manifestations, the brilliant intellectual and creative genius that is Black music and its long lineage. And we can go - we can list them.

MOSLEY: From - yeah.

BAZAWULE: We can list them - Afrobeats, samba, rumba, reggae, hip-hop, blues...

MOSLEY: Yup.

BAZAWULE: ...Jazz. I mean, and this - it goes, and it seems like every week, there's a new invention. This is probably due to the fact that the barriers to entry are low, and making music just requires us to get together.

MOSLEY: Self-expression.

BAZAWULE: Self-expression. We can do it.

MOSLEY: Yeah.

BAZAWULE: We don't need producers and big budgets and studio schedules. Those things...

MOSLEY: We can just open our mouths. Yeah.

BAZAWULE: And get it done. The challenge with mediums that have higher barriers to entry. Like, this is where it gets challenging. Because what inevitably happens is that they tell you - they give you the opportunity, but they only give you the opportunity to create echoes and mimic what the dominant culture perceives as artistically astute. And this is the grandest challenge as an artist of color. The mediums are colonized, deeply colonized mediums. They weren't made with you in mind. They weren't made with me in mind. I think the challenge is that we have to show up audaciously and wrestle the tools. My hope is that what we're able to do is kick in doors that allow so many more to try. And out of that trial, whether successful or unsuccessful, we learn more. And I think the mediums will be better for it. I think that our larger human family will be better for it.

MOSLEY: Blitz Bazawule, thank you for this conversation.

BAZAWULE: Thank you. It's a pleasure. Thank you for having me.

MOSLEY: Blitz Bazawule is a writer, musician, director, and painter. His new exhibit of paintings at Sekrit Studios in Los Angeles is called "Those Were The Days." Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan shares Part 2 of her summer reading recommendations. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS MCGREGOR'S BROTHERHOOD OF BREATH'S "ANDROMEDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.
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