Yemi Explores Japan and Identity In Short Film ‘Duell’

Austin Maloney
Posted 2 weeks ago in More

Yemi
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Though we might know rapper and artist Yemi better from his musical day job, we’re now seeing him in a different creative cloak. This winter, in a collaboration with Halebop’s Creative Call project, he’s put together his first short film, Duell, a monologue-driven story filmed on a trip to Japan this summer. With Duell out now on YouTube, we sat down for a chat about it.

To start with, when you got the call from Halebop, what were the conditions of how this worked? Did they just give you a bunch of money and say to do whatever you want with it, or did you pitch the idea to them?
They reached out to me as someone had recommended me to them, and they asked if I wanted to do something for their Creative Call project. They provide funding for different creatives to do different creative projects. I started brainstorming concepts that I could bring to them, and I ended up landing on this idea of the poetic film/ documentary, exploring identity, creativity, and my relationship to my own culture and roots, but also cultures I don’t have roots in, but have been exposed to. Once they greenlit that, I had my hands free to make it.

Was this idea something you had had in your head for a long time, even before this came up?
I’ve always wanted to visit Japan, since I was very young. It’s been in the back of my mind forever. I also wanted to do an exciting project that was something I hadn’t done before. To give the people who like my music some insight on another part of my thinking.

How did your collaboration with Peter [Hjerpe, who filmed Duell] work?
Peter is someone I’ve worked with as a manager for a long time, but creatively we’ve always been tight-knit, ever since we started working together. When this first came up, he was probably the first person I talked to about the project, and it was a given he would be on-board. He also travels to Japan, basically annually, so he’s very familiar with it. He also makes videos and has shot similar projects before, so it all made sense.

When you were out there, what was your working process? How did you decide what you were going to do every day, as you put this together?
I started writing the notes on what ended up being the film’s monologue before travelling. When we had the rough draft of that, we planned out different scenes and locations, that suited what I was talking about. Once there, we went to these locations and did the shots we had planned out ahead of time.

On the question of identity, a lot of the film is about how you feel about your own identity, being part of two different groups but not wholly of either of them. When you go to Japan as a foreigner, you take on a new identity, as a foreigner in Japan, which I guess is a more simple identity than the one you usually have. Does that make it a good place to explore your own home identity from?
I felt sort of like a blank slate when I arrived there. All of the baggage of my own identity that I had been given before moulding my own identity, and everything I’d done in life to become the person I am, that was sort of left at home. I was walking around the streets of Tokyo, such a massive city, and I felt this was a good place to explore. I felt like a ghost, I had a lot of thoughts regarding identity and my goals and dreams in life. It was a really refreshing and uplifting experience in general.

When you talked about your heritage, you talked about the sounds that moved you, the designs that fascinated you and the films that transported you. And it kind of sounded like the heritage of creation, the cultural heritage you’ve gotten from other creators back through history, is a heritage and identity that you felt more comfortable with. Would you agree with that?
I think familial heritage is more overwhelming to dive into. It’s a lot of work to dive into your roots for real. The way my generation consumes media and culture, with music and film and video games constantly nearby, it’s easier to dive into those histories than your heritage in some ways. Those connections to music and culture have been to me as important in moulding who I am as my family and my roots. I definitely connect with other creators, and often I’ll be reading an interview with a musician I admire, and I can see what they’re getting at in their thoughts on life. There’s a natural bond there.

Speaking of film, one of the references you drop in the film is one to Akira. You made that reference without even naming the film it came from, so it was obviously a very familiar one for you. How long have you been interested in Japanese culture?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it started. I feel like it’s been a part of my life for as long as Swedish or Nigerian or American or any other culture. As soon as I understood there were cultures outside of my immediate surroundings, I’ve always been drawn to Japanese culture. I loved reading DragonBall when I was five, and I loved Gameboy.

You also interrogate Japanese culture in the film a bit, talking about their mix of very advanced technology mixed with very traditional attitudes in certain ways.
Obviously my view is very much an outsider’s perspective and is very limited, I’ve never lived there. I guess with anything you really admire, and a culture that produces work that you love, you want to understand how it got there and produced these works of art. I think that’s why I started thinking about it. I feel like the way Japanese culture, as I interpret it, really honours its past and its roots, that’s something Sweden has moved away from a lot. Sweden has a long tradition of mysticism for example, and a very special relationship with nature, and it’s something I feel that for the past century that people have been striving to forget, for whatever reason. I always like to draw parallels and think about things I love.

For a six-minute film, there’s a lot of different scenography. Were you determined to fit as many different backgrounds and landscapes into the film as possible?
I think when planning out the film before the trip, we just thought about what different imagery came to mind when reading the rough draft of the poem. The title of the film is Duell, and it captures a lot of thoughts around duality. So we wanted to capture the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building with the two towers, that felt pretty visually striking as a representation of duality. And going to these temples in the middle of a technological ultra-city, it felt like a striking visual representation of thoughts I dove into in the poem.

Finally, the poem and the film both end in a kind of resolution, when you say your ’two defiant roots, striking against each other, reveal the spark that was hidden’. So by the end you’ve kind of achieved a resolution with identity, and figured out the strengths it can give you as an artist?
I believe you’re always on a journey, and you’ll never reach the final destination. But I feel like digging into my background and my culture and the cultures I’ve grown up with is definitely enlightening for me, and it sparks creativity and joy and interest in my life. So I feel like I’m not done yet, but it’s definitely an insight that keeps growing the more you dig. 

Duell is out now. Yemi’s new album Rave is out on November 28 on NeoNeo. 

Photo: Natan Gull

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