Nordest Studio: Cazhhmere Interview

Story and original photography for Nordest Studio’s artist feature series.

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FILMMAKER / DIRECTOR

Toronto-based filmmaker Cazhhmere grew up in Halifax — a Canadian city known by most for it’s maritime history and by some for its racial tensions. Navigating cultural challenges and showing her version of Canada have played a big role in her identity as an artist. Since leaving behind the East Coast city to pursue her directorial ambitions, Cazhhmere’s career took off and spans nearly 15 years. She’s earned multiple awards and has collaborated with an eclectic mix of artists, from Torey Lanez to the Backstreet Boys. Whether she’s directing a hip hop music video or working on a screenplay, Cazhhmere has proven to be a formidable Canadian storyteller.


 

Did you always want to make music videos? 
I was born in the 80s, so music videos are my thing. That was my first way to identify with telling stories. I would watch Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on VHS constantly over cartoons. I’m a product of music videos.

You’ve worked with a range of artists from Canadian urban music icons like Kardinal Offishall and Melanie Fiona to pop phenoms like the Backstreet Boys. Were you always so resilient in the pursuit of your craft?
I never thought about it to be honest. I just did it. I just wanted to make music videos. So, I took it upon myself to apply for an internship at MuchMusic, and I got it. At MuchMusic, I met another director by the name of RT and he was interning there at the time as well. We were just two young, black kids who were like-minded in a world of grown-ass white people. Along with another friend of his from Ryerson [University], we started a production company and made our own music videos. We won multiple awards and whatever.

You’ve largely gained success for your music videos within the hip hop genre. Do you ever feel a sense of conflict as a woman for how women are often depicted in those videos?
I think people expect an answer from me that they don’t get. At the end of the day, I know what I’m getting myself into. It’s rap music. First of all, I get asked this question a lot because I do a lot of urban music videos, but I’ve always wondered if directors that do pop rock videos or country videos get asked this question. There’s still misogyny in those genres as well. I think hip hop is just direct and blatant about it. If I get a song that’s about making that “booty pop” then obviously I’m going to have to show that in the video. That’s my job, but because I’m a woman there’s a difference between how I would do it and how my male counterpart would. The women that I work with naturally feel more comfortable working with me and they trust me more. I also see the depth in hip hop even though it’s very literal. There’s still multiple layers that I think a lot of people don’t understand. Nobody understood NWA and now they’re praised as political pioneers for what they stood for. 

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You mentioned that as a woman you often have a different approach. Have you ever disagreed on the direction of a video with one of your artists? 
It was just stupid stuff. I had an argument with an artist that I work with on numerous videos. We had an argument about wardrobe. The scene was in a bathroom and there was a beautiful model who was coming out of the shower. It was implied that they were then going to the bedroom to make love, so they would make out a little bit in the bathroom first. She had nothing on, and he had layers of clothes on. He looked like he was ready to go to the club with an undershirt, t-shirt, jean jacket, chains, hat, sunglasses… everything. I’m like “you gotta take some of that stuff off” and he was like “no, I look cool”. He just kept arguing with me. It’s a rap video so there’s almost always an entourage around which is mostly just a bunch of guys and they were agreeing with him. But I was not backing down either. I already know how to talk to little boys and this industry is filled with a bunch of little boys that look like grown men. So, I’m used to that. It was a fun argument.

And you won.
Exactly. No jean jackets in the bathroom.

How do you bring a sense of creative meaning to the work you do? 
When I’m doing music videos, I predominantly do urban music videos. Urban music in Canada struggles more than other genres. I don’t know why because urban music dominates pretty much any other territory of music in the world. So, I pride myself on being a supporter of Canadian and urban music. That has meaning to me.

Beyond directing music videos, you consider yourself a storyteller. Where do you take inspiration for your stories? I know you’re also passionate about being Canadian.
When it comes to my storytelling, they’re all stories that I’ve either experienced myself or the people around me have experienced. I try to tell stories that are relatable, but that also strike emotional nerves. I want people to feel really sad and I want people to feel really happy. I find that Canadian stories don’t get the attention that they deserve. People think our stories are corny or not edgy. The stories can’t take place in Canada or it’s just going to be looked at as a Canadian film rather than just a good film. But all the stories that I tell are about Canada, one way or another. The documentary I did Deeply Rooted is about changing people’s perspectives on what a Canadian family looks like. My family has been in Canada for more than 200 years. There’s nine generations of my family here. This is my fucking country. Don’t ask me where I’m from. People find it hard to believe because of the colour of my skin. It’s sad to me.

“There’s 9 generations of my family here. This is my fucking country. Don’t ask me where I’m from.”

The true picture of what a Canadian looks like is so diverse and that’s not even mentioning that we’re all on Indigenous land. I know your stories attempt to show a different side of Canada. Can you talk about that?I’m talking about racism and the dark side of Canada. These types of stories that we see usually come from America and the UK. Canadians can’t fathom that these things happen here, too. They do. For example, I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and to this day going to Halifax is like stepping into a time warp. It’s very black and white and I mean that literally. I’m talking about skin colour. It’s a really sad thing and when I tell people about racist incidents that happen. This has been happening my whole life. It makes us look at ourselves. I want Canadians to see us for what we really are and for the world to see us for what we really are, too. We’re not terrible, but we’re also not perfect.

That’s super important. I think the false perception or incomplete understanding of Canada’s identity is what creates a lot of harm. You can’t fix a systemic issue if you pretend it doesn’t exist.
Exactly. We’re fucked up. We’re badass. We’re cool. Yeah, we’re nice and polite, but we’re also all these other things in between. I’m a woman. I’m black. I’m gay. I’m young. Art allows me to be free. It’s the one thing that I’ve been able to carry with me since my childhood that no one can really touch.

 
Kailah Bharath