After returning home from a month-long adventure in Ghana (and being featured in City Page's Year in Music review) filmmaker Justin Schell and artist M.anifest sat down with Gimme Noise to discuss the impact of their experiences, life-changing interactions with M.anifest's grandfather, J. H. Kwabena Nketia, and plans for the new year.
The pair have returned refreshed with a more focused plan for Schell's forthcoming documentary, We Rock Long Distance (which will also feature Maria Isa and Tou SaiKo Lee), and future endeavors. With over 35 hours of footage, over a thousand photos, dozens of audio recordings, and many memories of obstacles and intimate discoveries, they have their work cut out for 2011.
What does the documentary title We Rock Long Distance mean, and how was it embodied in your recent trip to Ghana with M.anifest?
Justin Schell: "We Rock Long Distance" is a transformation from the legendary Afro-Beat genius Fela Kuti, when he commented to a Nigerian journalist about the length of [Kuti's] songs, saying "We dance long distance here." That resonated with me because I love Fela, and because this project is about musicians and families traveling across distance, across histories, and across the world. It's about bridging geographies and generations. In Ghana, I witnessed this through the powerful history present in the words and stories of J.H. Kwabena Nketia, M.anifest's Grandpa, and M.anifest's interactions in Ghana as someone who identifies as both Ghanaian as well as Minnesotan.
What was the neighborhood (Madina) and city's (Accra) reaction to M.anifest coming home, and bringing Schell along for the ride?
M.anifest: My artistic friends were happy and excited that I was doing something intriguing -- something more than just music and performance. A good number of them have a great reverence for my grandfather, but the majority of them are just now discovering that we are related. I never "advertised it" in my bio. The connection and relation to him is more important now that we are publicly engaging for the documentary "long distance" and because I have become a full-blown artist since I left home. I have discovered the extent of his legacy and creativity goes beyond writing compositions. He's written poetry extensively that is very much like rap.
So your grandfather freestyles?
M.anifest: Not quite, even though he recites his poetry -- his "raps" -- in the vein of a rapper. One pivotal discovery during the filming of the documentary was the moment when my grandpa said "Listen to my rap!" Later on a talk show we were on together, he recited an entire poem from one of his collections he had memorized, in the nature of an MC.
Schell: He primarily writes art music, with more than 60 pieces to his credit, and he's still composing at 89!M.anifest: When traveling around my immediate neighborhood in Madina people were at times more fascinated to see a random white guy [Justin] than to see me again. "Who's this fascinating white guy with this interesting contraption?" [Justin's self-made all-in-one audio-video-light gear] some would ask. There was a bit of resistance to cameras in other parts of Madina that were not my immediate neighborhood. And rightfully so; a bit of post-colonial and National Geographic backlash, you could say. Some complained, concerned that they will be portrayed in a terrible light. Some people responded to the cameras with humor --a woman said she would sue us if we filmed her too close to a gutter [laughs].
Justin: I learned quickly about the language barriers, and relationship-building with liaisons, and how you greet everyone from right to left, or counterclockwise.
What does "home" mean to you? How do you bring a piece of home back with you?
M.anifest: Home is family. Home is seeing friends grow and progress, seeing adjacent neighborhoods evolve from a few houses and bushes into a lot of houses and construction. I had revelations about my grandfather, and myself in a place where I find absolute comfort. My recent status updates of Facebook and Twitter come from being home. Home is where I'm rooted and where I am able to make the most sense out of my life. When I'm at home, it is quite different. You can't just get the knowledge and experiences from a book. Also, I have no accent issues at home [laughs]. Home makes me wonder what I am doing here in Minnesota, even though I am doing well here. This was never the plan! Regardless, artistically, I am able to bring fresh new energy back, that I can only get when I am home...I will feed off the inspiration from this trip for the next six months!
What is the most powerful discovery you have uncovered by spending time with your grandfather?
M.anifest: I had a big revelation early on this trip -- I need to somehow split my way between here and home. It will take more than just a two or three weeks stay in Ghana every two years to fully flourish as the artist I need to be. My cousin brought this up to me, suggesting to stay here [the Twin Cities] for 8 months, and back there for four months, perhaps on a yearly basis. There is a lot I can bring and share in both geographies by spending time in both.
Schell: I had the revelation that there was a big difference between here and Ghana on the day of M.anifest's show. There were logistical obstacles, issues with the monitors, we had to go pick up cords, etc. But when the show started, everyone was singing along to M.anifest's new songs. The people made up for the hectic day. That's why Rhymesayers makes a lot of sense in Minnesota -- there is a sense of belonging that goes both ways. So when Slug references Franklin Avenue, it's the same kind of locational relationship.
M.anifest: Medina runs this shit!
What does the future look like for the film and other upcoming projects?
Schell: I've got plans to go back to Ghana this summer for J.H. Kwabena Nketia's 90th birthday, working out going to Puerto Rico with Maria Isa, as well as some trips to Chicago and New York, and to Thailand in December of 2011 with Tou SaiKo Lee, the other subjects in the film.
M.anifest: We're premiering a music video very soon for the song "Suffer" off my upcoming spring release, Coming to America: Immigrant Chronicles, which was shot in Ghana during the trip. It's a song produced by my frequent collaborator, Budo (Rhymesayers, A.R.M). The reaction to that song in Ghana was big -- similar to that of "Gentleman" on my first album. We shot it in my neighborhood, within a block radius of my home where I grew up.
The documentary will reach a select group of curious people, but this video, which is also a document from the trip, is more of a more mainstream point of entry into We Rock Long Distance.
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