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Kamasi Washington’s New Short Film Is a Trippy, Insightful Expansion of His Music

Written by on April 6, 2019

Kamasi Washington has turned his acclaimed 2018 triple album Heaven and Earth into As Told to G/D Thyself, a film he co-directed with a group of black indie filmmakers, and by doing so he’s taken the record to a whole new level. The 22-minute film premiered at Sundance showing his conceptual cinematic albums can also take flight on the big screen, too. While Heaven and Earth drew attention to the varied states of chaos and ecstasy that make up the black experience, his short film elaborates on that by depicting black people as spiritual beings who can transcend the pain of the physical world. The film blends Washington’s album with visuals in a way that conveys the multifaceted nature of blackness.

Now available on Apple Music, As Told To G/D Thyself is the first project from the newly-formed collective The Umma Chroma, which consists of Kamasi Washington, Terence Nance, Jenn Nkiru, Bradford Young, and Marc Thomas. Washington takes his listeners on a conceptual journey in his records. His 2017 album Harmony of Difference, made for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, and his “Street Fighter Mas” music video easily connect to Heaven and Earth to make a narrative out of his music.

Co-directed it with a group of filmmakers, his latest film collaboration is especially interesting because it expertly use a series of abstract scenes to evoke a feeling or idea about blackness instead of a typical story. And Washington’s music does much the same thing, using instrumentals to communicate emotion in lieu of lyrics. Taken together, both the visuals and music play off of one another to communicate the idea that black people contain multitudes.

Washington calls the film the fourth element of his album, and it’s easy to tell why. As Told to G/D Thyself is a natural extension of Heaven and Earth. The slowly building music sets the tone for a series of scenes that ricochet between spiritual solitude, lively playful moments, and despair. In the film, black people can also use their multifacetedness to their advantage to change physical states, like when two boys disappear through a wall to get away from a dog. Washington told GQ the film is, “about discovering the abilities that you have. And how when discovering the abilities that we have, we’re able to create the world we want to create.”

The concept of black people existing in multiple forms at once has also been important to Nance’s work. It’s a theme that appears often in his HBO show Random Acts of Flyness, and when I spoke with him last year for a profile, he said, “blackness is sourced in non-embodiment in a lot of ways.”

Solange also dedicated an interlude in her album When I Get Home to the idea that she has many versions of herself. The accompanying film, co-directed by Nance, felt like a necessary complement to the album because it illustrated the various expressions of her personality she was reconnecting with on her journey “home,” from her sensuality to spirituality, playfulness and southern mystique.

With As Told to G/D thyself, Washington, like other alternative filmmakers, is using film as a way to gesture toward an unspoken emotional, psychological experience of blackness that propels his music, an experience that is sometimes most powerfully conveyed with no words at all.

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