Earl Sweatshirt's 'Nowhere, Nobody' Co-Director Breaks Down the Film: "They Have the Code"

The short film 'Nowhere, Nobody,' co-directed by Naima Ramos-Chapman, reflects the life and perspective of Earl Sweatshirt.
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Thebe Kgositsile is celebrating with his youth basketball team, trophy in hand. His mother, Cheryl Harris, sings “Red Water” as a lullaby to a ceramic baby, now flesh and bone with emerald green eyes, before lifting it from a crib. Later, he sits alone in a living room stacked to the brim with chairs and couches and notices that a patch of the ceiling is leaking blood. A casket filled with plaster hands is draped with the South African flag as the voice of his late father Keorapeste Kgositsile and his poem “Anguish Longer Than Sorrow” echoes into the ether: “To have a home is not a favor.”

All of these images are found within the short film Nowhere, Nobody, released last week, a reflection of the life and perspective of Earl Sweatshirt. Through sheer symbiosis, they also reflect the life and perspective of co-writer and director Naima Ramos-Chapman, whose Afrosurrealist vision helped give his latest album, Some Rap Songs, new life. 

The daughter of a jazz pianist father and a mother who used to bodyguard for activist Angela Davis, Ramos-Chapman felt a kinship with Sweatshirt when she first realized their mutual proximity to South Africa. “My mother used to call me an 'ANC [African National Conference] baby' because I was born the day it was founded,” she told me during our phone conversation. That sense of legacy is embedded in her DNA, much like Kgositsile’s, which made her and co-writer/director Terence Nance the perfect match to bring his new age aspirations to the small screen.

As with Ramos-Chapman and Nance’s work on HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and Some Rap Songs itself, Nowhere, Nobody is a complete picture shrouded in decidedly Black angst and cobwebs across its eight-minute and 31-second runtime. Shot in just a single day, the short collapses themes of legacy, isolation, and time into images of plaster hands, bleeding ceilings, and hard-won affection between mother and son. Thebe and his complicated relationship with his father may be front and center here, but according to Ramos-Chapman, the elements of her and Nance’s lives slipped in as well, adding what she sees as a richer sense of depth. 

“I think our audience is also very specific; some people will get it right away and some won’t, but either way is totally fine,” she elaborated. “They have the code; they just have to work for it.”

My conversation with Naima Ramos-Chapman, lightly edited for content and clarity, can be read below.

DJBooth: What was your first reaction to hearing Some Rap Songs?

Naima Ramos-Chapman: It was kinda trancelike. I remember listening to “Nowhere2go” over and over again and letting it move me, in a way. I really love the brevity that Thebe brought to the album by getting in and out as quickly as possible. That’s where his talent lies; in saying as much as possible in a very compact and confident way and some of the songs are super short, which spoke to me as a filmmaker. In my work, I try to think of the image or movement that’s gonna say seven pages of what I wanna say in like two, three seconds. It triggered me as well; it also made me think of my father and the idea of legacy and what it means for time to collapse in on itself. 

My father left me when I was two years old and we have weird mannerisms that are similar. What gets passed down and what doesn’t. What kind of questions about life do you need to answer on your own? I think there are elements of that on Thebe’s album, so it connected to me on a personal level. I got tapped to come onto the project, and it felt like kismet because his dad is this famous South African poet and because of my connection to the African National Congress; my mother used to call me an “ANC baby” because I was born the day it was founded and she used to bodyguard for Angela Davis. There was a lot of collective legacies and we’d never met each other before. It just worked out and there were so many things that connected.

Did Thebe approach you with the idea or did you have a roadmap ready for him?

Initially, I was only supposed to direct the “Nowhere2go” section and it just kinda kept going from there. Terence also listened to the project, but he was in LA and I was in New York, so we both had different ideas and talked to each other about it. The next step was talking to Thebe and having a conversation and he was on board with the vision one hundred percent. He kinda just responded in terms of what he was feeling that day or what was on that day. Just regular shit. Both Terence and I were very open to ideas from the moment we have them to the moment we’re shooting on set. We’re focused on creating a dense material or symbol to charge. It’s my vision, but it gets stuffy if you’re not flexible and fluid. Terence and I are both editors, so there’s no stage of the process to not add another layer; you write the thing, you shout the thing, you edit the thing.

You mentioned “Nowhere2go.” I love that the film starts with Thebe coaching youth basketball with that song as the soundtrack. What inspired that choice?

I’m pretty sure it was inspired by what Thebe actually said. We deal with this in Random Acts Of Flyness but I love how coaching those kids speaks to the intimacy between men and how and where you can show affection and where we can guide the next generation, in both a literal sense and a metaphorical sense. A lot of what happens in the house afterward also feeds into the notion of such banal and mundane spaces like houses and basketball courts being made more poetic.

Earl Sweatshirt, 'Nowhere, Nobody' short film.

Earl Sweatshirt, 'Nowhere, Nobody' short film.

I really try to avoid telling people exactly what things means. You know when you talk to your homies and they don’t have to finish the sentence but you know exactly what they’re saying? But for me, there’s a lot to be said of portals and time collapsing and questioning if you really exist. How is Thebe existing in this space? With the doppelganger and different versions of Thebe and this process of peeling back the layers and getting back to a certain person or ancestor or inheritance in your family that you can’t get in real time but comes in a relic or residue or varnish. Is that enough?

I love the idea of “Red Water” being used as a morbid lullaby. What about that song conjured that image?

I’m really interested in the idea of mythmaking and lullabies and the narratives that we tell ourselves about our families and existence on this earth, especially as Black folk. For instance, I don’t have any photos of my grandmother, and to me, that’s a tragic loss. She died before I was born, but that doesn’t eliminate the feeling of wanting things passed down from her. Lullabies are supposed to soothe you to sleep but they can also be very hypnotic and tell you a truth about what you need to know, whether or not you’re ready to hear that.

It also stemmed from these conversations I had with Terence about my father and presence. We as a people are constantly listening to and hearing the mass media say that Black fathers aren’t around, and that doesn’t ring quite true because we’re pathologizing someone for a systemic issue. My dad wasn’t around because he spent 15 years in prison before I was born and mass incarceration fucked him up. To ask him to be a father in the traditional sense without certain kinds of support is kinda unfair.

Even though he was absent for a lot of my life, he kept trying to come back and I think trying to come back and being present in those moments added up to a lot of being there in ways that nuclear families don’t experience. It’s thinking about presence and whether you can be there without physically being there and the imprint that can leave behind. I think that’s reflective with the kind of poet that [Keorapeste Kgositsile] was and the poet that Thebe is.

What was the process like for shooting this short film?

It was very intense. We had a lot of ground to cover and only one day to shoot, so it was a lot of go, go, go. There’s so many people in this and we’re all trying to make something together. I’m thankful that we were hustling to make that happen. Thebe is also a very good actor. He was patient and very easy to work with. The baby cried a lot but he was cool and it moved very quickly. We got a lot done in a day and I’m very proud of it.

And what about shooting the mirror scene with LaDiamond Blue?

She was great. It’s hard to mirror and rap at the same time and it was something we didn’t write it in the script and felt was right at the moment. She had his mannerisms right and everything. The idea of mimicking someone’s movement like that can also be a very familial thing. It fits with the idea of portals and seeing yourself and when you’re seeing yourself. She did a really good job. It felt right.

Earl Sweatshirt, 'Nowhere, Nobody' short film.

Earl Sweatshirt, 'Nowhere, Nobody' short film.

In particular, the use of hands stands out throughout the film.

You can think about how many moments of life you touch with your hands. It’s the most used and intimate part of one’s body. You shake someone’s hand, you give them a dap, the texture of the way you touch someone’s cheek. You’re violent with your hands and you’re kind with your hands, so there’s a lot to consider there. It popped into my head after I listened to Thebe’s work. These hieroglyphs and release structures of time shifting and moving and then becoming stuck. When you take a photograph, you’re framing a moment, but what happened before and after that is more or less erased. But it’s also the truth. There’s something very jarring to me when you create a sculpture or take a photo about it being stuck in time. Everyone infers so much meaning from it to the point that people get more meaning from that than from the actual person at the center moving through time.

Earl Sweatshirt, 'Nowhere, Nobody' short film.

Earl Sweatshirt, 'Nowhere, Nobody' short film.

As a filmmaker, how does rap music fit into the world of art, and Black art in particular?

Black American culture is very much about innovation. To me, rap music is less about what you say and more about how you say it. Being sonically poetic is fascinating to me. I think like that because I’m a dancer, but that sense of cultural retention is also very Black. You can know exactly what someone is saying even if the words aren’t there (laughs). Rap is Black and this country has made a lot off of us as being the raw material of production. Rap is very Black and very American and very rooted in the way we tell stories.

My dad was a jazz pianist. He’s not a rapper, but there’s quality throughout Black music of saying things with swing. It determined its way through jazz and found its way into rap. Thebe’s music is going more in an avant-garde direction with the layers of rap. He and artists of his generation are thinking high-level concepts where the absence of sound is just as important as what’s said. It’s very rich and in a different space entirely. Like, how many layers can I rap on top of each other, if that makes sense? [Laughs]. It’s a cool time.

What do you hope viewers take away from Nowhere, Nobody?

That relies heavily on the viewer. I think of them as a participant in the creation, so it’s as much up to them as it is me. I’ve watched this thing over and over again and different things come up, so I just trust in the audience to come up with their subjective part of the narrative as well. We use these raw materials to put out something with meaning and hope that it means something to the right people. I think our audience is also very specific; some people will get it right away and some won’t, but either way is totally fine. They have the code; they just have to work for it. 

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