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Kyle Lewis: The Visual Architect Of SA Hip Hop

A South African filmmaker who needs no introduction but deserves it none-the-less.

18 Sep 2017 / Interview / written by Tecla Ciolfi

It was after I watched Haezer’s ‘Troublemaker’ video that my mild obsession with Kyle Lewis began.

“I’m so happy that you mentioned that. No one ever mentions that video,” Lewis comments, pleasantly surprised after I confess to him that it’s still one of my favourites. Characterised as an “Afro-Thriller”, the video follows four children who possess supernatural powers as they are forced to confront an angry mob that’s less than enthused by their antics. Set in a Cape Town township, Lewis’ flare for narrative and striking visuals were bold even back then.

It’s been a good four years since ‘Troublemaker’ and now, as the creative driving force behind some of the best music videos to come out of this country, Lewis is critically aware of his status as a white, male filmmaker. “I have to constantly be listening, I can’t dictate,” Lewis begins, talking earnestly about allowing himself to adapt and absorb. “I always have to have an air of understanding by putting myself in positions of learning.”

Despite working with some of the biggest rappers in SA, his narratives are far from the stereotypical booty-popping you’d generally associate with hip hop’s gratuitous videos. “Representation of women in hip hop is something that I’ve really tried to tackle. It’s also been something that I’ve come under fire for, which is something I found quite strange because it was something I was deeply working against.”

Lewis’ work on Cassper Nyovest’s latest video ‘Destiny’ is a primary indication of this intention. The ballad, which draws from the chorus of Malaika’s iconic track ‘Destiny’, showcases a melodic, tender side to Nyovest rarely seen and the video follows suit. “It’s like an Ex Machina kind of idea,” Kyle says excitedly.

“It’s set in the near future and it’s about this scientist who’s lost the love of his life and then he recreates her. We come to the point in the narrative where Cassper’s character is on his death bed and she’s still very young. But as a machine she’s now starting to understand mortality.” Clearly a genre-bending narrative as far as hip hop videos go and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Case in point, the top YouTube comment on ‘Destiny’ is: Thanks for making a very creative video, NO NAKED GILRS, NO BOOZE , NO DRUGS LOL.

However, with the career-defining highs inevitably come the lows, which Lewis speaks openly about stating, “I used to be the kind of person who would sit and read their YouTube comments. But I’ve learnt now just do not look at it. You’ll be in a deep state of depression if you have to focus on that.” He pauses for a good few seconds, letting his thoughts mull over the long sip he takes of his coffee before continuing, “But it’s good to get feedback on what you’re doing right and wrong, because at the end of the day music videos in South Africa are such a powerful medium to get social statements across.”

I forget to ask him what the feedback on his first ever video, Locnville’s ‘Sun In My Pocket, was. He followed that smash hit with two other videos for the duo – ‘Six Second Poison’ and ‘There’. “I think we had a R2000 budget for each of them,” he laughs. “I also did Goodluck’s first music video ‘Taking It Easy’. I ended up doing eight videos for them in a row. I’m very grateful to them because they allowed me to cut my teeth and learn a lot because they gave me complete free reign of concepts.”

Like his work with Nyovest, it’s clear that Lewis shines when he’s given free reign and room to experiment. Some of the fruits of these experimentations can be clearly seen in his work with larger-than-life rapper, Riky Rick. Lewis has nothing but glowing comments for the musician explaining, “The two projects that we worked on [‘Sidlukotini’ and ‘Exodus’] he gave me complete creative freedom, and when we gave him the edits there weren’t even edit changes he was like, ‘Okay this is done.’ So what you see for both of those are first cuts.”

Noteworthy too is his work with wunderkind Nasty C. When I pose the question as to which video means the most to him, Lewis wastes no time telling me that the Nasty C short film “Bad Hair”, which was awarded Bronze at The Loerie Awards in the Best Music Video category, is the one. “It’s quite overindulgent and arty and its just my kind of thing. Then to be given a platform to show it to people, I find myself very privileged to have done that job.”

The short takes ‘Don’t Do It’, ‘Good Girls & Snapchat Hoes’ and ‘Phases’ and combines them into a 15-minute-long exploration of contrasting textures, styling and spaces. Lewis didn’t let the misogynist lyrics on ‘Snapchat Hoes’ go unnoticed though. “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.”

And with the spotlight of the world on Africa at the moment, there’s no better time for our rappers to start setting the bar for everyone else. Lewis takes my sentiment one step further, applying it to all forms of arts saying, “There’s some innate creativity in most South Africans, in terms of our aesthetic and our visuals and I think seeing ourselves in a different light is really cool. That’s what I’m trying to do with my videos by creating our own voice. We’re so influenced by American hip hop and over the last year or so – it’s almost like we don’t give a shit anymore. Now American rappers are starting to look at us.”

Lewis’ recent work with Tanzanian bongo flava king, Alikiba, is testament to this spotlight, becoming the fastest Tanzanian music video to reach 1 million views in only 38 hours. To-date the views for ‘Seduce Me’ are sitting at over 5 million.

When we get into future plans, Lewis smiles broadly when I ask about being signed to Black Dog Films in the UK & US, alongside his idol Jonas Åkerlund. His eyes widen and he shakes his head, as if still in disbelief after the deal’s been long done.

“My dream is to do a Kylie Minogue video, I used to be deeply obsessed with her. Black Dog have done 3 or 4 of her videos in the past so who knows?”

Lewis’ latest work includes ‘Hair Down’ by UK pop star Mollie King and ‘Boy In The Picture’ by Kid Creme & Joylon Petch feat. Sian Evans.