From The Scent of Burnt Flowers to Black Is King and the upcoming The Color Purple, the Ghanaian artist has become known for using a variety of modes to take his audiences to places both known and unknown.
As a youngster in Accra in the 1980s, Blitz Bazawule would ride the tro-tro to elementary school every day. As it jostled along the streets of Ghana’s capital, he’d hear stories being passed back and forth among the other riders. Stories given to hyperbole and embellishment, tales as tall as they were wide.
“In Ghana, no one just tells a story; like, ‘I got up and I went to work and I came back home,’” he tells OkayAfrica, over a Zoom call from Atlanta. “There's always some wild thing that happens.”
Listening to the stories of everyday people, blending into one another, the artist, born Samuel Bazawule in April 1982, was drawn in by the layers of intrigue he heard. “I love that about us -- certainly continental Africans, and the ability to imagine on that level,” he says.
It was these daily rides, along with the stories he heard from his own family – stories told at night by his mother and grandmother – that would become the bedrock of his own imagination. A vivid, whimsical, unencumbered imagination that Bazawule would use to build worlds in art, music, film and book form when he grew up and moved to the US years later, to study at Kent State University in Ohio.
The Scent of Burnt Flowers, Blitz Bazawule's debut novel, was published in June this year, and will be turned into a TV series.
Whether it’s as an emcee, delivering rhymes through Blitz the Ambassador who ‘paints word pictures like Van Gogh’, or as an actual painter, who uses old photographs to inform new brushstrokes, Bazawule allows the story itself to dictate how it comes out, what form it takes. “I've kind of been medium agnostic in that sense, because it's just always about a story worth telling,” he says.
That’s what brought him to his debut novel, The Scent of Burnt Flowers. The book, which was written during the early days of the pandemic, while Bazawule quarantined, is set in the 1960s and mixes the historical with the fantastical, in a world where Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, serves as a MacGuffin, if you will -- the reason why the central characters, a Ghanaian couple living in the US, travel back home in search of desperate help. Bazawule decided the characters needed to be fleshed out in the way that only a novel would allow.
“[The book] is another medium to attempt to tell a story that, in all honesty, is part of the thread of all the stories I've been telling thus far,” he says. Woven through all of Bazawule’s work is a magical realism; the here and now with the past and the future; the what-it-is with the what-could-be.
Like his dazzling cinematic debut, The Burial of Kojo, released in 2018, which sees the main character, a young girl, navigating time and memory to save her father, Bazawule’s debut novel carries within it the intrigue he felt as a young boy listening to stories intermingle with each other. The Scent of Burnt Flowers spills out of each chapter, in its own nonlinear fashion. It will be adapted into a TV series next year.
“To tell a straight story is the most boring way, in my opinion,” he says. “Some people are doing that very well – and kudos to them – but I couldn't do that. I [need to] make it intriguing for you to wonder what you missed and what you’ve got to get back to later. It’s also, for me, important to really trust that audiences are smart. As much as we have created a world of oversimplification, I think that we do ourselves a disservice by not allowing the audiences to do their own journey, and find their own puzzle,” he says.
The trust Bazawule instills in his audience to find its way through the maze of his mind is a large part of what makes taking in his work such a rich, rewarding experience. It also makes anyone who’s been following his career, which also included a stint co-directing Beyoncé’s Black Is King, excited to see what he will bring to a story so well known, that of The Color Purple. Bazawule is currently in post-production on the film, which he is directing, with Oprah, Quincy Jones and Steven Spielberg among its producers, due for release at the end of the year.
“I wouldn't touch anything that I couldn't make mine,” he says, citing the support he’s received from the producers to run with that imagination of his. An imagination that, in Alice Walker’s seminal story, becomes paramount to its main character. “Imagination, in my opinion, is truly a pivotal element in survival. And certainly for Celie and her story, she couldn't have survived without an imagination. That's the only place you can go when you are dealing with trauma and dealing with challenges. It's part of why the African American narrative and journey is so fertile and so brilliant, because of the levels of suppression and the ability to imagine; it’s where jazz is born, where hip hop is born, that's where R&B is born, that's where gospel is born.”
Having a major studio budget to play with doesn’t change the process for Bazawule. “You assume that having a picture that's in the tens of millions [of dollars] will be easy, but money is funny,” he says. “No matter how much you have, there's always a reason for it not to be enough.” Instead, Bazawule knows it's what you do with what you're given that makes the difference. It's something he learnt from his early days of touring with a band. “It’s no longer six or seven people on stage, it's a couple hundred, but they’ve all still got to play in tune; they’ve got to play in harmony.”
And sharing his vision with others remains constant, no matter the type of medium or its size. “The way I work with my bassist and my drummer is the same way I work with my DP and my gaffer, is the same way I work with my editor for my book, is the same way I work with my producers for my music. It's all the same.”
That work ethic is steeped in a belief that is grounded in bringing others up along with him as he grows into the expanded universe that is the Bazawule-sphere. “I believe in waves,” he says. “Individual efforts certainly do leave their marks, but they're inconsistent. And for a continent that has had so little consistency in narrative, it's important that as many of us as possible are always in the conversation. That also helps the very false notion there's one kind of Africa; there's a multitude, there are multiplicities of us. And the more of us that get a chance to shine in whatever mediums we do, the more complex of a narrative we build, but also the more consistent of a narrative we create, which makes it easier for those coming up to mine that.”
Indeed, seeing other authors bend and shape the stories they needed to tell is what helped a young Bazawule develop the ideas and thoughts that would inform not just his debut novel, but his selfhood, too. He credits the Heinemann African Writers Series, created in 1962, and featured the likes of Ama Ata Aidoo, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, as having a pivotal influence on him. “The African Writers Series made it possible for lots of us who are young African writers now," he says. "A lot of it was termed Africa Writes Back, like, we'd been absorbing Western literature forever, and it was the first time that, at least as a clique and a crew, there was a real identity,” he says.
For Bazawule, asserting his place in the world allows other Africans to follow. “I've always believed that if it happens in a wave, then the shift is seismic. If it happens as an individual, it's very easy to erase and it's also very easy to be marked as exceptionalism, which I fight greatly against. There's so many of us who are brilliant, who just don't have opportunities. So our job is always to kick in doors, open more doors, and the more of us that do it, the more secure all our positions become.”
Beyond his novel and forthcoming film, as well as The Scent of Burnt Flowers being made into a limited TV series, with Yahya Abdul-Mateen II attached, his next project is waiting to be unearthed. “I've never really thought about creating like that,” he says, about not knowing what's to come. “I'm very present. I'm always in the moment. And when I have an idea my job is simply to sit down and filter it through my abilities. My mommy always said, ‘Use all your talents.’” Rest assured Bazawule is never not doing that.
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