In Conversation: Rapman on His Explosive Debut Film, US Perceptions of Black-British Identity & Meeting Jay-Z
The British-Nigerian rapper and filmmaker releases 'Blue Story' to US audiences today, and speaks with OkayAfrica about the film's momentous journey.
Best intentions don't always go as planned. British-Nigerian rapper and filmmaker Rapman knows this firsthand. With Blue Story, his feature film debut about two best friends-turned-rivals, his ultimate goal was anti-gang and anti-violence. But when it was released throughout the UK this past November, a fight in a theater in Birmingham resulted in UK's Vue Cinemas pulling the film from all its theaters. But there was a silver lining. The ban attracted attention, garnering international press coverage for the emerging filmmaker and coincidentally introducing his unique brand of storytelling to an even wider audience.
Inspired by Rapman's own experiences of growing up in Southeast London, Blue Story reveals the longstanding gang rivalry that has claimed the lives of far too many. At the center of it all is Marco (Top Boy's Micheal Ward who plays Jamie) and Timmy, (Stephen Odubola) who begin as the best of friends, only to turn bitter enemies. Described in American terms as a "British Boyz N the Hood," Blue Story builds on Rapman's 2013 music video "Blue Story Pt. 1." As a bonus, Tiny Boost, Jorja Smith, Buju Banton, Raye and Giggs, among others, join Rapman on Blue Story's soundtrack.
Long known for including cinematic elements into his music video, the British-Nigerian rapper and filmmaker hit his groove with 2018's Shiro's Story, a three-part YouTube series balancing rapping with a full story. Rapman provides the narration, using his clever rhymes to sum up the dramatic action witnessed on screen. In many ways, it's become his signature and is prominent in Blue Story as well.
To date, Shiro's Story has reportedly received over 20 million views. Riding high off that success, Rapman became a part of Jay-Z's Roc Nation. Currently, he is working on a project for Jeffrey Katzenberg, the former co-founder/CEO of Dreamworks who recently launched the short-form video platform, Quibi. In February, it was announced that Paramount had tapped him to direct American Son, a US film based on the Oscar-nominated French film, A Prophet, about a young Muslim man who is mentored by an erratic mobster in prison and later works to form a multiracial crime syndicate to take him down.
In anticipation of Blue Story's American May 5 digital release from Paramount on all platforms, including Apple TV, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Sony PlayStation Video and more, Rapman spoke about the film's ban, US perceptions of the Black British experience, his musical film style, the power of his Nigerian heritage and meeting Jay-Z.
Rapman attends the World Premiere of "Blue Story" at Curzon Cinema Mayfair on November 14, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Paramount)
Does Blue Story, the title, have a particular meaning?
Yeah it does. It's based in an area called Lewisham. Every borough in London has a color scheme. Lewisham is nicknamed the "Blue Borough." So, everyone who's from Lewisham is kind of like that's what it's known as, so "Blue Story" is based in Lewisham, so we decided to call it "Blue Story."
Is it frustrating to interact with people in the United States because a lot of them don't think Black people in England have struggles too?
Yeah it is. They think what we do is sit around waiting for the Queen to make a speech every day. . . We all go through the same problems. We all have projects and ghettos and gangs and crimes and guns. It's all just as bad. Before Blue Story and Top Boy, they always figure that we're a Black Downton Abbey and that we're posh and upper-class. I am hoping that this movie will open a lot of eyes.
Your extended video Shiro's Story, which precedes Blue Story, is on YouTube and, in that, you also have the action play out and summarize it with rhymes. It has a sort of Greek chorus effect, which could be corny, but yet works. Is that something you do consciously?
We've described it as that, a Greek chorus, in pitch meetings. I literally do use "Greek chorus" as a description for them to understand it. I remember when I was chatting with some people in my management and they were like it should be corny, but it works. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's because I've been doing it so long or because the visuals are so intriguing that you kind of see passed it. I don't know. I'm happy with the style. It's good to have your own mark. I feel like that is my own mark and I'm happy I used it.
Blue Story got international attention when it got banned. What was that experience like for you?
You know what, what I kept getting stressed about was opening weekend numbers. That's what the studio kept stressing me about. So, we're killing it. We've done like a mil in 48 hours and it's like we might do some really record-breaking for opening weekend. So I'm excited, the whole cast is pushing it, and then I get a message from a fan saying 'They're going to ban your film, mate. There's a big fight in Birmingham.' I'm thinking I don't know who this person is so, anyway, let me go back to what I've been doing. Then I got a phone call late in the night from the head of Paramount UK telling me that Vue is pulling the film. I say, 'what do you mean they're pulling the film?' He's like 'there was a fight in Birmingham [during] Blue Story and they decided to pull it.' And I'm like 'well I understand if they're going to pull it from that cinema, there are other cinemas in Birmingham. It's not that bad at the moment.' He was like 'no they're pulling it from the whole chain, all over.' And I was like 'but that's like 30 percent of our screens and probably even more. Why are they going to pull it from every single one from one incident in one small city?' And he said 'That's what they're going to do. There's nothing we can do about it.'
I was like 'No way. Never that.' And then I remember getting messages from London and the UK [asking] 'Is this true?' and I was like 'Yeah it's true. It is what it is.' And it then went viral, trending all over the UK. It was just everywhere and then the newspapers started calling me. Everyone was calling me, trying to get a hold of me. So I was stressed about it for the first few days until I realized that so much people had gone out to see it during the week and during the weekend. It was like 'Wow.'
The pressure was so strong that the guy who banned it decided to bring it back and it was like a victory not just for me, but [also] for the communities that felt like it was a racist move and for the people that felt it was prejudice. It was like a big win for everybody on social media. It was a function that everybody came together for and I never knew that I had so much support. It got so big that it was in Deadline, Hollywood Reporter and Variety. It actually got me my next job.
BLUE STORY | Official Trailer youtu.be
Talk about being British and Nigerian. Do you think it has hindered or helped you in your storytelling and subsequent success?
I think it's the best thing to be, because I grew up with my parents who are first generation Nigerians and they were strict. If you see the opening scene with young Timmy and his mom that was literally how it was with me and my mom. I could barely give her eye contact because she was so strict. Whatever she said goes. When she wanted to come to school and embarrass me and take pictures at school. I can't even open my mouth and say 'don't come,' I just have to go with it. I just feel that it gives me that culture. Obviously growing up in London, London is my home and all of that, but Nigeria is where I'm from. Nigeria is my heritage and that's what makes me who I am. How I was raised by my Nigerian parents is what gives me that sauce, that swag, that drip, whatever you want to call it.
Talk about meeting Jay-Z.
I never thought in my life I would ever meet Jay-Z and when I did meet him he was so down to earth, so humble, so welcoming, because I'm in his home, Blue is in his lap. One of my kids is the same age as his daughter Blue Ivy and the way she was sitting in his lap was so similar to how it was me. I was telling him about my family the same age as your daughter. We talked about family. We talked about careers. He was just so down to earth I never thought I was speaking to one of the most famous rappers in the world. We just spoke like two men, two men in different stages in their career. He really is a good person and I'm proud to have Roc Nation as my team behind me.
You never think hip-hop can take you this far and that's the power of this culture.
That's the truth.