Blitz Bazawule Is Building Bridges Between Worlds

DECATUR, Ga. — Blitz Bazawule did not look like someone with the weight of a multimillion-dollar movie on his shoulders.

On a Saturday afternoon earlier this month, Bazawule, the artist, musician and filmmaker, was at his home here, on a break from directing a new movie musical adaptation of “The Color Purple.”

In a few hours he would be heading into an editing session on that film. But for now, as a scented candle burned on a table in a side room where he was sitting, he cautioned that the tranquil atmosphere and his placid demeanor did not tell the whole story about him. “I have a great poker face,” he said.

Over the past two decades, the Ghanaian-born Bazawule, 40, has been on 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 debut feature, “The Burial of Kojo,” and was a director on 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 in stride. “I’m one of those people who goes, ‘I bet I can do that,’” he said. “Often I’m wrong. But occasionally I’m right. You just have to be right a few times.”

“This isn’t a one-off project,” said Chelcee Johns, a senior editor at Ballantine who acquired the book. “This is a great first novel with more to come.”Credit….

“The Scent of Burnt Flowers” makes a compelling case that Bazawule is no literary dilettante. Set in the mid-1960s, the novel tells the story of a Black couple, Melvin and Bernadette, who have fled the United States for Ghana after Melvin kills a racist assailant in self-defense.

In Ghana, they hope to seek assistance from its embattled president, Kwame Nkrumah, who was Melvin’s college classmate. But their efforts to reach Nkrumah are complicated when they cross paths with a local musician, Kwesi Kwayson, who has his own dreams of making it to America.

The novel is by turns rollicking, romantic and solemn, always acutely aware of the historical forces shaping its characters’ destinies and fascinated with the culture shocks they experience as they move between continents.

As Bazawule explained, “Nothing is ever what you think it is, no matter how informed you think you are. When you land, you’re always going to learn things.”

Growing up in Accra, the capital of Ghana, Bazawule was a fan of World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations soccer and enamored of the hip-hop culture epitomized by American groups like Public Enemy.

“I remember seeing the ‘Fight the Power’ video, which was filmed in Brooklyn, and going, that’s where I want to be,” he said. “Whatever that energy was, I wanted to be in it.”

But as he took an interest in global culture and moved to Ohio to study at Kent State University, Bazawule said he was dismayed to learn how others viewed the diverse African nations as an undifferentiated whole or ignored their contributions altogether.

“It’s incalculable how much the world loses every day by intentionally excluding Africa, whether it’s in the creative endeavors or the sciences, which is sad because it’s the world’s loss,” he said.

Bazawule added, “I’m optimistic. I hope that the world is getting more aligned with each other and getting richer from the experiences.”

He has sought to bridge these gaps in his own work, like his 2016 release “Diasporadical,” an album that accompanied his short film series “Diasporadical Trilogia,” a triptych with installments set in Accra, New York and Salvador, Bahia, in Brazil.

A scene from “The Burial of Kojo,” a film directed by Bazawule.Credit…Ofoe Amegavoe/Netflix

In 2018, Bazawule put out “The Burial of Kojo,” which he wrote, directed and self-financed. The film chronicles a young Ghanaian girl, Esi (played by Cynthia Dankwa), and her father, Kojo (Joseph Otsiman), who transports her and his wife, Ama (Mamley Djangmah), from their rural village to a bustling city to pursue a dangerous financial prospect and confront a long-suppressed family secret.

With a storytelling style that is patient and suffused with a quiet mysticism, “The Burial of Kojo” earned wide acclaim. Reviewing the film for The New York Times, Glenn Kenny called it “a near-virtuoso work, a feast of emotion, nuance and beauty, and a startling feature directing debut.”

Ava DuVernay, the filmmaker and producer, said that the grassroots success of “The Burial of Kojo” showed the importance of looking beyond traditional outlets for new talent.

“It did not get into any of the quote-unquote major festivals,” said DuVernay, who acquired “The Burial of Kojo” for her distribution company, Array Releasing, and employed Bazawule on her television series “Cherish the Day.”

“When I think of Blitz, I think of all the other Blitzes who don’t have that bridge,” DuVernay added. “Most of the film press is only looking 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 stage musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel and is planned for 2023.

But Bazawule’s industry peers and admirers do not regard him as a single-minded careerist, and say that his interests in multiple art forms are equally sincere and equally valid.

“He’s really trying to execute his ideas the best he possibly can, and isn’t as concerned with those outcomes, because if he were, it would stop him cold,” said Maori Karmael Holmes, the founder, CEO and artistic director of BlackStar, an organization that promotes films and media work by Indigenous people and people of color.

Holmes, who selected “The Burial of Kojo” for the BlackStar Film Festival and for the 2019 Whitney Biennial, described Bazawule as “a consummate artist who’s going to put everything he has into whatever he’s working on.” What unites his various works, she said, is his desire to “imagine radical new visions of the world and different paths to world-building.”

Bazawule was one of several directors who contributed to “Black Is King,” traveling with Beyoncé in Africa and helping to craft some of its most distinctive and dreamlike visuals, like the image of the pop singer confidently cradling a giant snake.

He said that he found the film fulfilling as a demonstration of Beyoncé’s cultural clout and how she passed along her freedom from studio-level interference to her colleagues.

“We were allowed to just make the work,” Bazawule said. “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 prevented him from doing further shooting on the film, Bazawule found himself wondering what to do next.

“We dispersed,” he said. “After a couple of weeks of sitting back, going, what’s going to happen, I just realized, well, what have I wanted to do that I haven’t done?”

In his isolation, Bazawule worked on his painting and he committed himself to his goal of writing a novel, one that would be shaped by all the music and mythology he had absorbed in his life while telling what he called a “fugitive story” that had captivated him.

“We know a lot about how people escape, if they escape or don’t escape,” 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 worse.”

This also allowed Bazawule to include a fictionalized version of Nkrumah, an advocate of the pan-Africanism movement whose presidency began with hopefulness but ended with his overthrow and exile.

The book draws on Bazawule’s personal experience as well as on Ghanaian and U.S. history.Credit…David Walter Banks for The New York Times

Like the author, Nkrumah was educated at an American university, and Bazawule said he was fascinated with how his former classmates might have felt about Nkrumah’s post-college ascent: “To say, that was my frat brother, I pledged with him, and now he’s the president of a newly independent country, that’s like when the guy you know from down the block ends up in the N.B.A.,” he explained.

Bazawule encrypts other details and observations from his personal history within the novel. Bernadette, who comes from Baton Rouge, finds the humid climate of Accra strangely familiar, just as Bazawule did when he traveled to Louisiana.

And the misadventures of Kwesi Kwayson, a touring musician who transports Melvin and Bernadette across Ghana, come more or less from Bazawule’s own experiences. “The sweat, the frustration, the band members that don’t get along — it was a lot of firsthand knowledge,” the author said. “My drummer was not as crazy. But it’s always the drummer.”

Chelcee Johns, a senior editor at Ballantine who acquired “The Scent of Burnt Flowers,” said that she responded to it as both a historical novel and a human story. “The history is so important and so needed,” Johns said. “The evidence of what happened during this time in America and in Ghana is still with us today. But you come here for the story of a couple who are trying to find themselves when America is no longer safe for them.”

“The Scent of Burnt Flowers” has been acquired by FX, which is developing the novel as a mini-series, and Bazawule will gain even more attention when “The Color Purple” is released next year. But Johns said she was fundamentally interested in him as a writer who cares about his craft.

“Blitz is at a good place in his career and very much invested in the book, and that was paramount for us,” she said. “This isn’t a one-off project — this is a great first novel with more to come.”

The room in his home where Bazawule sat was once adorned with notes, photos and visual references that he used while writing “The Scent of Burnt Flowers.” Now only a few pieces of paper were taped to its walls, bearing simple motivational slogans: “One step at a time.” “Rest is resistance.”

As Bazawule explained, the way he manages the many demands of his flourishing career is to not think of them as being in competition with each other. “I try my very best not to separate them,” 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 when I’m not doing the most, I’m doing the least. That’s it. I don’t drink, I don’t do much of anything. I stay at home. I sleep. A lot.”

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