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Free the Vid: Meet the Women Directors Shaking Up Hip Hop Music Video

London, UK
From Karena Evans to Millicent Hailes, the most exciting emerging directing talent is female and hip hop and rap are allowing them to get crazy creative, writes Laura Swinton
It’s time to pack away your acoustic guitar. When it comes to culturally relevant creativity in music videos, the indie boys have made way for hip hop and rap. The genre is breaking its own conventions and artists leveraging the billions of views they can achieve online to comment on society and show off their creative ambition. And what’s really exciting is that it’s a space where women directors are increasingly making their voices heard.

The rise of female filmmakers in hip hop and rap is something that’s been on the mind of Emma Reeves, executive director of Free the Bid, for a while now. “The Free The Bid team is lucky to spend all day, every day, looking at the incredible work of women directors and adding them all to our database. We get to see so many great music videos, but let's face it certain genres and types of content have historically been dominated by male storytellers,” she says. “It's exciting for us, therefore, to see more women directors being given the chance to expand narrative horizons.”

Major artists like A$AP Rocky, Drake and Young Thug are collaborating regularly with women directors who, in turn, are bringing new perspectives. It’s a virtuous cycle that bolsters artists’ credibility and catapults emerging directing talent in front of huge audiences.

Free the Vid
Each director brings their own individual voice and vision to a project – and that’s informed by more than just their gender, of course. But the growing opportunities for female directors generally, thanks to movements like Free the Bid, and the growing presence of women directing hip hop and rap specifically represents the introduction of fresh perspectives and ideas.

Karena Evans is 22 and one of the world’s most sought-after promo directors. She’s shot several videos for Drake, including this year’s Billboard-topping God’s Plan (where the team gave the video’s $1million budget away on the streets of California). She was spotted and nurtured as an intern at Canadian collective Popp Rok and is now also represented in the US by m ss ng p eces. She’s part of an up-and-coming generation of female filmmakers bringing new voices to a typically blokey genre. “I think audiences are tired of seeing the same thing again and again. I believe that is true beyond music videos, and for film and TV as well,” she says. “And so, a woman’s perspective is one viewers haven’t seen before. It’s fresh and it’s exciting, and more importantly, I believe our perspective is incredibly necessary right now.” 

Women directors are slowly gaining momentum across formats and genres, but according to director Diana Kunst, the stereotypical machismo of hip hop makes the rise of female directors all the more noticeable. “I think it's not just something that is happening on hip hop music videos but in all fields. Maybe it’s just more noticeable as hip hop can be quite male-centric? But even in hip hop women are a huge presence in the scene, now more than ever,” she says, hoping that this movement represents genuine change rather than a fad. “To be a woman and to be a director shouldn't be a trend but something that happens in an organic and natural way.”

LA-based director Quinn Wilson notes that while there have always been plenty of women working in rap and hip hop – but that perhaps they’re no longer content to stay out of the spotlight. 

“Consider the team it takes to make a music video - producers, casting agents, hair and makeup artists and so many more roles. If not directing, women have been taking on these roles while supporting the male hip hop video director for decades,” she points out. “One thing I've started to realise is that women have always been running things, the issue is the lack of recognition for the act of creating. We take a back seat on the title or we're grouped in as a collaborator, somehow shadowing our visibility as independent creative makers. Perhaps women are tired of sharing the credit?” 

Keeping It Reel
None of the women I speak to consider themselves exclusively rap or hip hop directors – photographer and director Millicent Hailes has got a thing for '70s rock and Tchaikovsky. Quinn loves rock and alternative. But the genre does offer exciting possibilities for directors looking to flex and flair, making it a great place for women directors looking to build their profile.

“Working on videos for hip hop and rap is my favourite because the artists in the videos are all interested in making a splash and creating work that is more wild and exciting than perhaps other genres. I would much rather be working on hip hop videos than anything else because of that,” says Millicent. She theorises that flashy hip hop artists love to show off and that their competitive urge means that they push to be cooler or more outrageous than their peers. “It is great for a director because that lends itself to having interesting videos and concepts.”

Millicent, a director and creative director who splits her time between Los Angeles and London, has found that not all artists she’s worked with have been particularly respectful of her as a female director. While the genre presents real creative opportunity, the ability to realise that can depend on the artist. But when she does find someone who appreciates her vision and with whom she can truly collaborate, sparks can fly. Young Thug, for example, is someone she’s worked with on several projects and who she says is always willing to be involved.

“I just really enjoy working with artists who allow me to do my job. It might seem hard to believe but the amount of times an idea is changed over the course of the whole video process is really upsetting, and after a while you begin to not even recognise your video anymore because there have been so many changes,” she says. “So it’s brilliant being able to work with an artist that respects you, your vision and your work and lets you create what you intended to.”

While the major US artists have always embraced an oversized and outlandish aesthetic, over in the UK grime reigns. Whether or not grime is a sub-genre of hip hop or a form in its own right with its own roots is a debate worth having – but wherever you fall on that particular argument, in the UK it’s turned into a proving ground for a number of up-and-coming female directors. Charlotte Regan, who’s repped by Knucklehead, started off shooting videos for her friends when she was 15. For her, grime has always offered a different kind of creative liberty. Charlotte, who grew up shooting videos for her friends who lived on her estate in East London, has grown as a director as her collaborators have grown as artists, so there’s also a sense of loyalty and trust in her ideas.

“There is just such a mad organic freedom,” she says recalling how quickly trusting relationships would form between aspiring filmmakers and hungry artists. “Often they'd send over their songs, ask for a date and that was that. They'd turn up on that day completely trusting that you understood their music.”

When Charlotte started out as a self-shooter, collaboration was a necessity rather than a fluffy nice-to-have. It’s an experience that’s helped her not only to build a reel and create a network, but to forge a practical, problem-solving mentality. “There's also just a different type of hustle with those videos. If you need 100 people to turn up for a crowd scene but haven't got any budget, the artists are almost always willing to help out and go out of their way to pull it together with you,” she says. “It feels like a collaborative process where everyone is in together. And perhaps that comes from it being quite a working-class music style, everyone is down to pull together and make things happen.”

Let’s Talk About Sex
One of the persistent clichés surrounding the genre is the depiction of women. Bitches, butts and bikinis – all framed voyeuristically, Film School 101 examples of ‘the male gaze’. Quinn Wilson has vivid memories growing up watching these hypersexualised videos.

“It's not the situation or the styling of these women that I've had an issue with...I love nudity, I love women...I love seeing sensuality on screen, but the issue I have is the intention of the maker of these images,” she says. “Are these images showing both men and women in roles of equal power? A lot of times they weren't.”

A woman director behind the camera doesn’t mean a prudish erasure of sex – but you might get something where the women are more than visual props… and the guys are allowed to be sexy too. Quinn’s collaborations with alt hip hop artist Lizzo are a masterclass in positive sexuality. You don’t just see female bodies – but women enjoying their female bodies. And it’s joyous.

“I can make a video with the same number of nude women, the same amount of sensuality and I promise you, because I'm aware of the need for visually balancing (or challenging) gender norms, that it will make people feel good. I want to make videos like this - sexy, sensual, black, equality driven rap videos,” says Quinn.

Diana Kunst at Object & Animal released a video for A$AP Rocky and FKA Twigs – Fukk Sleep sees the pair as a futuristic Bonny & Clyde causing havoc. It’s rooted in a concept devised by Twigs and A$AP; imprisoned ‘sleep angels’ who find escape in sleep. The duo share the mayhem, but one scene sees Twigs pole dancing in red PVC. Diana argues that the scene is rooted in the idea and is a depiction of strength. “For me I need to work from a concept, from a strong idea to develop and start building it in a filmic way,” she says. “Twigs is pole dancing in the video but it’s not just her dancing in a sexy way, it’s showing her ability as a dancer and an athlete.” 

Subverting sexual stereotypes in music video isn’t exactly new, but we’ve lost count of the male-directed videos that claim to be poking fun at old school tropes while looking remarkably like a straightforward traditional hip hop video with not much more to say. With women directors, it can be a bit easier to accept the satire. Take Nadia Lee Cohen’s ‘Gilligan’ promo for DRAM – yes there are bums all over the place, but the cartoonish Stepford smiles, acidic colour palette and absurdist tone make it anything other than soft porn. You’d have to be quite… specialist in your tastes to be able knock one out to this.

That’s not to say that female directors always get it right. And, as it’s always good to remind the world, women are individuals with their own views about what’s appropriate or harmful. 

“There still are some women out there who aren’t clued up, or unfortunately don’t care enough to learn about it [the male gaze]. But I would say the majority of female directors are changing the ‘male gaze dominated’ music videos by really thinking about their casting," says Millicent. "Being wise on styling choices and making sure to not put other women in these videos in uncomfortable and thoughtless positions.”

Power, Responsibility – You Know the Drill
While rap and hip hop can give women directors the chance to really showcase their talent and their creativity, to delve into youth culture and to whip up some truly eye-catching projects for their showreel, most of the people I speak to also have a deep sense of care. 

Rap is now the most popular music genre in the US – according to the 2017 Nielsen’s Music Report it overtook rock, with eight of the ten most listened-to artists coming from rap and hip hop. Therefore, the imagery these artists put out online has is far reaching and has enormous impact

“[It’s] a direct line of communication with the culture. That’s a lot of responsibility,” reflects Karena Evans. “Hats off to the greats who have risen to the occasion, truly said something with their visuals, and impacted the culture for the better.”

For Quinn, she feels a deep responsibility when working on rap and hip hop. As an African American, she’s keenly aware of the negative images and ideas that have been propagated by the more stereotypical examples of the genre.

“I actually think rap and hip-hop videos offer more obstacles in image making than any other genre. I say this because there's a certain idea of what rap and hip-hop videos should look like,” she says. “These stereotypes are more dangerous than in any other genre because putting it simply, it's a genre dominated by black musicians. I try to avoid making images that negatively represent the community of artists within this genre. I try to celebrate us.”

Indeed, the rise of women directing in the genre comes at a time when rap and hip hop artists are getting more ever more experimental with how they use music video as a means of social commentary and to question depictions of African Americans in mainstream media. Donald Glover’s This is America is the obvious example, as are the suite of promos that dropped with Jay-Z’s 4:44 album. 

Diana Kunst notes that artists like Frank Ocean and Vince Staples are evolving how they use their music to talk about themselves, about society and the current generation. Their honesty and openness, she says, presents directors with inspiring opportunities. 

“I think nowadays hip hop needs to go somewhere else where it's not just butts, gold, diamonds, the mansion and girls dancing around the rapper. Those elements are part of the culture and some of them even exist in my videos but it feels like there needs to be more of a concept behind it for the video to make impact,” she notes. “Nowadays everything is blending together more and more, mixing different universes. I think there are a lot of artists now that are looking at defending their own identity.”

And that evolution, in turn, makes women directors more of a necessary prospect for artists, whatever genre they’re from. “I believe we’re seeing a shift in the stories and the messages being told in music videos,” says Karena. “Whether it’s a reflection of our time or one with an empowering message, we’re seeing a shift in the potential of music videos — what they can be and how they can impact the culture. With a new point of view comes new content. Where music videos were seen as a dying art form, this new wave of female filmmaker voices are in huge part helping to revive the visual art form.”

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