Filmmaker Holland Gallagher understands the importance of archiving history. His Hype series highlighted the critical notes of the hip-hop scene in his native Durham, North Carolina. “Fundamentally, the guiding principle of the show is to what extent is the hype around something more important than the actual thing,” Gallagher told DJBooth’s Yoh in 2019.
Whether Gallagher, 26, knew it or not, this principle would evolve into the ethos of his latest documentary on rapper Omavi Minder, better known as Mavi, creator of Let The Sun Talk. Following Mavi around on a busy day of meetings leading up to a seminal show in New York City, the documentary centers around Mavi’s travels, his suitcase, and the ins and outs of business dealings in hip-hop—with the added flair of Mavi’s performances and steadfast personality. The doc will go down as a centerpiece in the Mavi mythology, an extension of Mavi’s viral rapping on the NYC subway.
“Yoh had sent me this video of Mavi rapping on the train in New York,” Gallagher says. “He had done an impromptu subway performance. It had an enormous amount of energy and a groundswell of support. He’s not from New York—he’s from North Carolina as well. That felt like an interesting thing. The next day, I bought a plane ticket to New York because Mavi was having a proper show at Baby’s All Right. Within 24 hours, I was on my way there with my camera.”
The Mavi documentary feels like a perfect storm, then. And the critical moments of the documentary—Mavi’s mother showing up backstage in one of the final frames—were all organic, in-the-moment events. Gallagher describes capturing these real-life moments in real-time as a sort of high: a meditative state wherein he has to be so very present, while also considering composition and visual rhetoric. To him, it’s intuitive, and in the doc, it translates into wonderful detail-work and prominent motifs, such as Mavi’s roving suitcase.
In an era where everything can be considered digital marketing, Gallagher’s Mavi documentary feels like it cuts through the noise using nontraditional means. The documentary has a natural intimacy that feels tangential to the quiet din and thoughtfulness of Mavi’s work. With that in mind, I ask Holland how, exactly, his piece will cut through the clutter of all the other media opps for upcoming artists that fans have the option to consume. His answer speaks not only to his understanding of Mavi’s work but also to his brilliant mind as a DIY filmmaker.
“It’s quieter,” Gallagher explains. “It’s a slow burn, but hopefully that resonates for longer after the fact. Authenticity is a word that gets thrown around all the time, but we were trying to lean into that and not put any pageantry over what this day was and just present it honestly. A lot of the cuts were just the vibe I felt in the room. Just being there and trying to reflect that in the doc. A lot of times in these more produced content pieces on artists because there is that level of production, it’s gonna feel a little less personal. By means of production, even, it has a different flavor and tone that is unique.”
Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: When did you first catch wind of Mavi’s work, and what drew you to his music?
Holland Gallagher: I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps it was something Yoh sent me. Mavi has this ethereal, soulful, poignant, and lyrical flavor to his music that is vulnerable and also high concept. But also truthful, a combination of a lot of things, and hard to describe in one word. To me, there was a personality to it that I liked.
How did you two connect personally for the documentary?
Yoh had sent me this video of Mavi rapping on the train in New York. He had done an impromptu subway performance. It had an enormous amount of energy and a groundswell of support. He’s not from New York—he’s from North Carolina as well. That felt like an interesting thing. The next day, I bought a plane ticket to New York because Mavi was having a proper show at Baby’s All Right. So, within 24 hours, I was on my way there with my camera.
Yoh and I had been entertaining this [documentary] idea for a while, and it just came together all at once. I went to [New York], and [Mavi] had a day full of meetings and the show at night. The idea was to put a camera on the whole thing, have it be a vérité style documentary. I didn’t know him; I had barely talked to him before we met that morning. I was a fly on the wall [for] the rest of the day.
The shots all have a very organic feel, very boots-on-the-ground. Was that your intent?
Definitely. There was an intimacy we had envisioned with this project that was a way to get to know an artist that wasn’t super overt. Rather, more naturalistic. Me and Yoh like to say, “We don’t want to see the artist perform.” You often see artists in a venue in which they’re performing. Even in these interviews or games, you see them playing, [or] when they go live on Instagram, it can often feel like a performance. So, we wanted to have them in a space that just felt like they were living their lives. In that way, you can get to know the artist on a more intimate level.
I love the suitcase motif. How did you come to that idea?
That stuff is instinctual with vérité style documentary. You show up on-site and have to be ready just to observe what’s going on and take the day as it comes. The suitcase was an unusual image so that one stuck out. There’s other things throughout the day—I’m thinking about the edit while I’m filming, which is a real advantage to the DIY style of filmmaking. You have to be present while you’re shooting because anything can happen at all times. As it happens at the end of the documentary, I didn’t even know his mom was in New York when I was backstage for that moment. You just have to be ready.
What was the most challenging aspect of putting the doc together? Something you didn’t expect going into filming.
There’s always an aspect of difficulty when it comes to concision [in] documentary work. I pretty much have the camera running all day. When we got back, there [were] three to four hours of stuff. From that, I cut it down to one hour of good stuff. I sent that to Yoh and then made a rough cut that was a lot longer, and from there we were paring it down to the 10 minutes that it is at the very end. There was a lot of good—he’s such an interesting guy—dialog throughout the day that didn’t make it in. Making those cuts was difficult.
The second thing was being aware in the moment to try to come up with visual angles. I don’t have a background in cinematography. I’m very much a writer and editor. Being in the moment enough to come up with something interesting visually while also trying to capture the vibe of the room is instinctual, but you have to be aware of what’s going on. It’s honestly kind of a high—it’s a different mental state you’re in. You have to be so present and forward-thinking about what you’re doing.
This piece on Mavi isn’t your first go ‘round with archiving hip-hop history. How important is it to archive the culture in real-time?
That’s an interesting question. You wonder how [the] documentary takes up space because streaming is having a surge… I think it’s cool! Being there and seeing something happen in real-time… It’s peeling back the curtain on these moments and also allowing them to live outside of time. This is a timestamp of this special day for Mavi. You can see the show is such a big deal and his mom is there. That happened whether we had a camera on it or not, but because we had a camera on the whole thing, Mavi has this moment he can look back on in a way that’s not just a memory. Looking back on a day like that, later in Mavi’s career, will be interesting and cool to see.
What I love about the Mavi doc, too, is that it tells the story behind the storyteller. Why is that important to you?
When you hear Mavi’s music, it is quite personal, and you feel some sort of attachment to him. This [documentary] is a supplement to that feeling. Maybe that’s why we didn’t feel the need to put any of his music in it because we were going after the same feeling of getting to know him on an intimate level. We wanted you to, after you watch it, have the instinct to go and listen to his music because of the connection you had with him as a person. There’s so much noise in terms of new artists coming out all the time, and the ones you connect with on a more intimate level are the ones that stick out to you. This is a visual counterpoint to that.
In terms of storytelling in the hip-hop media landscape, this is a unique take on cutting through the noise and centering the artist. How did you ensure your piece would break through the clutter of playlist placements and other, perhaps less engaging, discovery tools?
Firstly, because it’s quieter, it’s a slow burn, but hopefully, that resonates for longer after the fact. Authenticity is a word that gets thrown around all the time, but we were trying to lean into that and not put any pageantry over what this day was and just present it honestly. A lot of the cuts were just the vibe I felt in the room. Just being there and trying to reflect that in the doc. A lot of times in these more produced content pieces on artists because there is that level of production, it’s gonna feel a little less personal. By means of production, even, it has a different flavor and tone that is unique.
Finally, what’s the best song on Let The Sun Talk?
I like “Self Love,” but my sleeper pick would be “Chiasma!” Also, on “Moonfire,” he’s got this scratchier vocal tone that’s vulnerable and fucking cool.