DECATUR, Ga. – Blitz Bazawule didn’t look like someone with the weight of a multimillion dollar movie on his shoulders.
On a Saturday afternoon earlier this month, Bazawule, the recording artist, musician and filmmaker, was at home here on a break from directing a new film-musical adaptation of “The Color Purple.”
In a few hours he would be going to an editing session on that film. But for now, as a scented candle burned on a table in a side room where he sat, he cautioned that the quiet atmosphere and calm demeanor didn’t tell the whole story about him. “I have a great poker face,” he said.
Over the past two decades, Ghana-born Bazawule, 40, has been through a relentless creative tear. He has recorded and performed worldwide under his hip-hop stage name, Blitz the Ambassador; he has directed music videos and a well-received feature film debut, “The Burial of Kojo,” and directed Beyoncé’s visual album “Black Is King.” When he seeks a break from these projects, he paints.
And this month he will publish his first novel, “The Scent of Burnt Flowers”, which Ballantine will release on June 28.
Bazawule took the breadth of his output step by step. “I’m one of those people who says, ‘I bet I can,'” he said. “Often I am wrong. But sometimes I’m right. You just have to be right a few times.”
“The Scent of Burnt Flowers” makes convincing that Bazawule is not a literary dilettante. Set in the mid-1960s, the novel tells the story of a black couple, Melvin and Bernadette, who fled the United States to Ghana after Melvin killed a racist assailant in self-defense.
In Ghana, they hope to seek help from the controversial president, Kwame Nkrumah, a classmate of Melvin’s. But their attempts to reach Nkrumah are complicated when they cross paths with a local musician, Kwesi Kwayson, who has his own dreams of coming to America.
The novel is alternately rambunctious, romantic and solemn, always keenly aware of the historical forces that determine the fate of the characters and fascinated by the culture shocks they experience as they move between continents.
As Bazawule explained, “Nothing is ever what you think it is, no matter how knowledgeable you think you are. When you land, you always learn things.”
Growing up in Ghana’s capital Accra, Bazawule was a fan of World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations football and enamored with the hip-hop culture embodied by American groups like Public Enemy.
“I remember seeing the ‘Fight the Power’ video, which was shot in Brooklyn, and that’s where I want to be,” he said. “Whatever that energy was, I wanted to be in it.”
But when he became interested in global culture and moved to Ohio to study at Kent State University, Bazawule said he was stunned to learn how others viewed the various African countries as an undifferentiated whole or ignored their contributions altogether.
“It’s incalculable how much the world loses every day by deliberately excluding Africa, be it in the creative endeavors or the sciences, which is sad because it’s the loss of the world,” he said.
Bazawule added: “I am optimistic. I hope that the world will become more aligned and richer with the experiences.”
In 2018, Bazawule released “The Burial of Kojo”, which he wrote, directed and self-financed. The film tells the story of a young Ghanaian girl, Esi (played by Cynthia Dankwa), and her father, Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), who transport her and his wife Ama (Mamley Djangmah) from their rural village to a bustling city to discover a dangerous financial prospects and confronting a long-suppressed family secret.
With a storytelling style that is patient and infused with a quiet mystique, “The Burial of Kojo” received widespread acclaim. Glenn Kenny reviewed the film for DailyExpertNews, calling it “an almost virtuoso work, a feast of emotion, nuance and beauty, and a surprising directorial debut.”
Ava DuVernay, the filmmaker and producer, said the success of “The Burial of Kojo” at the grassroots showed the importance of looking beyond traditional outlets for new talent.
“It didn’t make it to any of the uncredited major festivals,” said DuVernay, who acquired “The Burial of Kojo” for her distribution company, Array Releasing, and hired Bazawule for her television series “Cherish the Day.”
“When I think of Blitz, I think of all the other Blitzes that don’t have that bridge,” DuVernay added. “Most film press only looks in one direction. This man came from a completely different direction.”
The success of “The Burial of Kojo” led to further directing opportunities for Bazawule, including “Black Is King”, which was released on Disney+ in 2020, and “The Color Purple”, which is based on the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel and is planned for 2023.
But Bazawule’s industry peers and admirers don’t consider him a focused careerist, saying his interests in multiple art forms are equally genuine and equally valid.
“He’s really trying to execute his ideas to the best of his ability, and isn’t too concerned about those results because if he did, he’d be cold,” said Maori Karmael Holmes, BlackStar’s Founder, CEO and Artistic Director. , an organization that promotes films and media work by indigenous and people of color.
Holmes, who selected “The Burial of Kojo” for the BlackStar Film Festival and for the 2019 Whitney Biennale, described Bazawule as “a consummate artist who will put everything he has into whatever he works on.” What unites his various works, she said, is his desire to “invent radically new visions of the world and different paths to world-building.”
Bazawule was one of the many directors who contributed to ‘Black Is King’, traveling with Beyoncé in Africa and helping to create some of the most distinctive and dreamy images, such as the image of the pop singer confidently cradling a giant snake. .
He said he found the film satisfying as a demonstration of Beyoncé’s cultural influence and how she passed on her freedom from studio-level interference to her colleagues.
“We were just allowed to make the work,” said Bazawule. “It wasn’t until the end that it was like, oh, this is what it’s going to be. She could cut it however she wanted. She could call it whatever she wanted.”
But in March 2020, when the onset of the pandemic kept him from filming further, Bazawule wondered what to do next.
“We have fallen apart,” he said. “After a few weeks of sitting back, going, what’s going to happen, I just realized, well, what have I wanted to do that I haven’t?”
In his isolation, Bazawule worked on his painting and committed himself to his goal of writing a novel, a novel that would be shaped by all the music and mythology he had absorbed into his life as he told what he called a “refugee story.” ‘ called captivated him.
“We know a lot about how people escape, whether they escape or not,” he said. “We don’t always know what happens when you get out.”
Placing “The Scent of Burnt Flowers” in the 1960s — the era of the civil rights movement in America and post-colonial democracy in Ghana — seemed obvious to Bazawule; as he explained, “the world we live in now was shaped specifically by that period, for better or for worse.”
This also allowed Bazawule to take on a fictionalized version of Nkrumah, a proponent of the Pan-Africanist movement whose presidency started out hopeful but ended with his overthrow and exile.
Like the author, Nkrumah was educated at an American university, and Bazawule said he was fascinated by how his former classmates might have felt about Nkrumah’s post-graduate ascent: “To say that was my brother, I promised him, and now he’s the president of a newly independent country, that’s like when the guy you know from down the road ends up in the NBA,” he explained.
Bazawule encrypts other details and observations from his personal history into the novel. Bernadette, a Baton Rouge native, finds Accra’s humid climate strangely familiar, just as Bazawule did when he traveled to Louisiana.
And the misadventures of Kwesi Kwayson, a traveling musician who transports Melvin and Bernadette across Ghana, more or less stem from Bazawule’s own experiences. “The sweat, the frustration, the band members not getting along — it was a lot of first-hand knowledge,” the author said. “My drummer wasn’t that crazy. But it’s always the drummer.”
Chelcee Johns, a senior editor at Ballantine who bought “The Scent of Burnt Flowers,” said she responded to it as both a historical novel and a human story. “History is so important and so necessary,” Johns said. “The evidence of what happened in America and in Ghana during that time is still with us. But you come here for the story of a couple trying to find themselves when America is no longer safe from them.”
“The Scent of Burnt Flowers” has been acquired by FX, which is developing the novel as a miniseries, and Bazawule will get even more attention when “The Color Purple” comes out next year. But Johns said she was fundamentally interested in him as a writer who cares about his craft.
“Blitz is in a good place in his career and has invested a lot in the book, and that was paramount to us,” she said. “This isn’t a one-off project – this is a great first novel and more to come.”
The room in his house where Bazawule sat was once decorated with notes, photographs and visual references that he used while writing “The Scent of Burnt Flowers.” Now there were just a few scraps of paper taped to the walls, with simple motivational slogans: “One step at a time.” “Rest is resistance.”
As Bazawule explained, the way he handles the many demands of his flourishing career is not to see them as competing with each other. “I’m doing my best not to tear them apart,” he said. “I see it all as extensions of the same thing. And when I do that, I don’t compartmentalize, I don’t get overwhelmed.”
“When I’m working, I work a lot,” Bazawule added. “And if I don’t do the most, I do the least. That is it. I don’t drink, I don’t do much. I am staying at home. I am sleeping. A lot.”