MTUME GANT – DIRECTOR/WRITER/PERFORMER
Mtume Gant has recently returned to his native city of New York after various years living in places such as Barcelona (Spain), Jamaica and Los Angeles. This man of multiple talents, a true creator, describes his maternal roots as ‘African-American and many different things a long the way’, whilst his paternal heritage lies in the American South. His debut short film as director Spit, which relates the struggles of a New York hip hop artist in point-of-view narrative, has already won an Award of Excellence in the category of New Filmmaker at the San Francisco Film Awards, was in the official selection in the Aspen Shortesfest, and had its World Premiere at BAMCinematek in Brooklyn as a part of the New Voices In Black Cinema Festival.
This impressive, giant of an artist, talks to me about Hollywood’s relationship with the black community in the States, how being an artist is equivalent to being a medium, and why he believes in sampling – amongst other intriguing things.
How old were you when you first became aware of your interest in the arts/music/performance, and do you recall any early inspirational moments?
I have to credit my mother with connecting me to the arts, well, also my father. My mother because she put me in things like children’s theatre at a very young age. You would have to ask her why, maybe it was to give me something to do, maybe she saw something specific. But I for sure enjoyed it to the maximum and frankly it never left my interest. I started I believe around 5 or 6 years old in children’s theatre and then whenever there was a chance to perform in school or anything related I took it. I was part of a theatre group ran by a woman named Dr. Glory Van Scott, this woman was incredible, legendary. I remember seeing her perform once, I was like 8 or 9 and it blew me away. But I loved movies, loved watching actors. Music didn’t become attractive to me until I was a teen and hip hop came around. People freestyling, writing raps and stuff, that’s what turned me on. I never had a real drive for music before, my father was a musician for a period and always played great music, so I loved it and always admired my dad’s ability to play an instrument. But it was hearing hip hop in my teens that made me want to do it.
You recently finished your first short film Spit which you wrote, directed and starred in. How has the experience affected you?
Whew…the experience has been overwhelming. The writing of it was a very deep purge because it’s very personal and I wrote it coming out of a very dark period. I released a lot into it. Then raising the money via crowdfunding was especially rewarding because the campaign spoke to so many people and the amount of support I received filled me with immense joy. Our shoot was great and post production was lovely. I personally was on a high with it for quite a while and more recently it’s been a mixed journey. Some great happenings like premiering at BAMCinematek, being able to screen somewhere as reputable as Aspen Shortsfest, having audiences come to me and tell me how deeply the film has affected them, especially artists, have been a highlight. I had a woman in her 60’s, a painter, come to me in tears saying that she felt I made a film about her life and her struggle with existence in America, it brought me to tears. That has been the most affirming. And then the reality of making a film about exclusion of artists who have a challenging voice, and seeing that film actually get blocked in some circles has been extremely difficult – having to fight against the exclusion of Black Cinema in the American film market. I’ve made a film that attempts to challenge a lot of things, how black people are portrayed, how our artists are suffering, how our systems are defining, and this actually directly challenges many people who program and curate things like festivals, and let’s be real, many don’t like to be challenged or feel like they are being called out. That’s why when someone actually programs my film it’s a bit extra for me. They didn’t take offense, they took it as art!
How does being creative behind the camera compare to being creative in front of it?
Well, being a director is all about management. When you are an actor your job is pretty singular: relate to the camera, be available to yourself and the other actors. Being the director you are connected to all. You are the medium, the conduit in which the spirit of the piece breathes. It’s all about guidance and vision. So there’s a lot more responsibility. Your job is to empower everyone on set to do the best job they can in their skill set and hopefully, if you are a good enough director, the whole piece reaches a level of symbiosis that is like a well-composed piece of music. I love it. I struggle often with having to carry out other people’s visions, especially as an actor because I have so many issues with how America envisions itself these days. I constantly find myself in conflict with directors’ ideas and interpretations.
Do you see any link between the release of recent films that have dealt with black people’s history in the States, for example Selma and 12 Years a Slave, and the current mood in the black community there?
Hmmm…. that’s a very difficult thing to answer. I will say yes, but that’s not a yes in the positive. I think films like Selma and 12 Years A Slave represent how much America is still stuck in certain visions of the past and is still not willing to deepen the lens even more and go beyond the surface or really deal with what’s happening in the here and now. Both those films got passed through because they are familiar, it still fits the paradigm that Hollywood allows Black Americans to use when talking about our issues. And what’s gotten even more…interesting..for lack of a better word is that now we as blacks are mostly only looking to regurgitate the same stories about ourselves. The conditioning is massive. That’s also why I made Spit.
What database of information do you reach from when you are improvising, be it whilst rapping or acting?
Everything within me. I just trust. I try to be internally present but externally aware. Improv is a juggle of being balanced internally to receive but then have all senses working that you transfer through yourself, you vessel the energy of the moment. It’s all about balance. So, to answer your question, it’s the database of the subconscious.
When you listen to a (hip hop) track how do you assimilate the experience in terms of beats and production, versus lyrics and lyrical style?
I actually don’t anymore. I listen to hip hop as a total experience now. So if the writing is nice but the music is not moving me it finishes for me very quickly, and the opposite is also true, if the music is strong but the writing is not working for me it ends, or I go for an instrumental version of the album, ha! It has to feel symbiotic for me to get into it nowadays.
I consider that the (potentially-phenomenal) way an emcee approaches the juxtaposition of phonetic flow against an instrumental, to be closely related to the polyrhythmic feature so prevalent in many African music traditions. What musical elements within the world of emceeing and hip hop stand out to you?
What stands out to me the most is the shamanistic element that can arise. When rapping feels like incantation. When a breaker looses themselves so much in the dance that it becomes an out-of-body experience. When the DJ reaches that level when they are scratching from inside first and it’s second nature. Hip hop (at its best) is truly a spiritual form, we take all that has been and reinvent. That’s why I believe in sampling so much, it’s the equivalent to rituals of raising old spirits by using their objects as talismans. It revives the dead and gives new life.
In socio-musical terms do you think Kendrick Lamar’s new album To Pimp a Butterfly will turn out to be a landmark?
I wouldn’t have the answer to that. That’s for the generation under me. I’ve already had my landmarks. You would have to ask someone younger and more involved with mainstream culture since it’s made for them. It’s a good album but I spend little time paying attention to pop culture these days so I really wouldn’t know. My landmarks are all personal now since my quest for art is personal.
The word spirit in ‘We Be Spirits’ refers to the way spirits are considered in some parts of the African continent; beings we are connected to and influenced by but who are not necessarily part of the physical realm. What does the word evoke in you and how do you relate to it?
That we are just mediums, well that’s what we are meant to be as artists: listen to the spirits within us and relay their messages. I truly believe that an artist’s work should be Shaman work. We are the magicians, the healers, the seers. That’s who we are and our gift is that we are connected to the currents in all realms and we each have unique visions. We do everything from time travel to spell-casting. We just have to open.
What will the remainder of 2015 see you doing?
Looking for ways to keep Spit getting programmed and screened. Reading the tea-leaves on what is going to be the best way for the film to reach people and seen by them in a theatrical setting. Writing another script and hopefully shooting another film at the end of this year, and just listening to the wind.