IN the band Freetown Collective's new short film and music video, Born in Darkness, two schoolboys, Kibwe, played by Nick Ali, and Tommy, played by Shawndell Sealey, are called by their gang uncle, Able, played by Freetown front man Muhammad Muwakil, to execute a rival gang member for their initiation.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today, because they feel they ready," Able says in the initiation ceremony.
Without a thought Tommy pulls the trigger, killing a bound and gagged man in cold blood. Able celebrates the boy's first murder and ceremonially hangs a gold chain around Tommy's neck, welcoming him to the bloody fraternity.
Muwakil told Newsday in an interview on September 3, Tommy's fate was sealed once he pulled the trigger. Tommy could only see the game as the real world.
"Once he killed that man in the game, and I put that chain around his neck, the reality of where he was would be solidified. He would believe that everything around him was real. I do this thing, therefore I profit from it, so this thing is the thing to do."
Kibwe refuses to kill the rival green gang member, Abid, played by Aaron Phillip, and is transported by three divine feminine characters called the Oracles, played by Freetown’s female singers, Tishanna Williams, Malene Joseph and Shanna Joseph, into the real world. He is freed from the electrodes that had him attached to the game and sees the real world for the first time.
There's the real world and then there's the game. Like the 1999 sci-fi movie The Matrix, Born in Darkness follows the philosophy of Plato's allegory of the cave in The Republic, where prisoners are trapped in a dark cave and are only able to see shadows passing by. To the prisoners, the cave is the real world. However, one of the prisoners escapes from the cave. He is stunned by the light of the sun and the images of the real world.
When Kibwe chooses not to play the game, and not to kill Abid, he breaks the rules of the game and exists. He not only pulls the electrodes off his skull when he wakes up but pulls the electrodes off Abid. The two work together to dismantle the game.
Muwakil, who has acted in several films and plays, such as God Loves the Fighter and Bitter Cassava, conceptualised the storyline for the video. He observed the cyclical gang culture, systemic poverty, death of young men and people being held in remand for up to ten years without a trial for possession of marijuana and thought: "This is all just a game."
"You have young men engaged in turf wars on a dot of an island. The people who are benefiting from these things are never the ones who are fighting the wars...One man spends his entire life trying to buy a car and another man brings in 300 cars a month.
"It's a game for some people; for other people, it's their actual life. With that concept we moved forward," he said.
When Able called Kibwe to the initiation ceremony, he was walking somewhere in East Port of Spain, looking hungrily at a man eating doubles. The initiation ceremony was held on a deserted dump space in Sea Lots, Port of Spain, juxtaposed with the high-rise buildings such as the Twin Towers, Nicholas Towers and the International Waterfront towers in the backdrop, symbolising the wealth inequity in TT.
In the real world, Kibwe and Abid encounter the Watcher, played by Lou Lyons, who is the real world’s counterpart to Muwakil's gang leader in the game. The Watcher is there to ensure that the game remains in play. He is a malevolent character who feeds those in the real world a drug that looks like oil.
"At one point there is someone serving oil, there is a person eating oil and it's dripping down. All the different characters, they have black oil dripping from their mouth. High on oil is a metaphor, and his (the Watcher’s) job is to make sure no one wakes up in that world, and if they do wake up, they don't wake up other people."
Kibwe has committed the ultimate crime in the real world. Not only did he wake up, but he is beginning to wake up other people. For that crime, they are hunted in the real world.
Kibwe and Abid finally find the controllers of the game. Two children, a boy and a girl, wearing white masks with the abode santann, a West African symbol for the all-seeing eye, embossed on the mask. Kibwe picks up the video game and smashed it on the ground, awakening everyone and bringing them into the real world.
Muwakil said under capitalism, many people's lives are forced to run in a rat race established by systems built and maintained more than 500 years ago.
"Our lives are so inconsequential in the grander scheme of capitalist thinking. It's child's play. It doesn't even do justice for us to say it's adults playing with us. It's child's play...It is literally at the point in the world where there are people who are making so much money that making money isn't even the issue.”
Symbolism in the video
Freetown placed symbols throughout the video for the audience to decode. The most prominent are adinkra symbols, which are West African symbols that are used to tell stories about life, the environment and ancient wisdom.
The red and green gangs
Able’s red gang’s symbol is an ankh. It’s branded into Kibwe’s arm. The ankh is an Egyptian symbol for life.
Abid’s green gang’s symbol is the crescent moon. On Abid’s arm there is a branded crescent waxing moon. The waxing new moon is the symbol of a new beginning, for growth and opportunities. It is considered a feminine entity and when paired with the sun, bringer of light, shows harmony in the universe.
Kibwe and Abid appear to be Freetown’s representation of the sun and moon, and the change they will bring.
There’s the real world, the game and the spaces between worlds. When Kibwe is awoken into the real world by the Oracles, the lead Oracle has a triskelion on her hand. The triskelion, which has three legs of lines interlocking in the centre, is an ancient Celtic symbol that represents the spiritual, physical and celestial realms and their interconnections.
There are technically four spaces in the video. The game, the real world and the two voids – the Oracle’s space and the control room where the children play. The video plays on a yin/yang dependence in the two voids: the illuminated control room where the children play, and the dark, liminal space of the Oracles.
The Oracles, existing in the dark space are the unpredictable entities that can disrupt and bring about change. They live in a dark space of existence in order to bring people to the light. Muwakil says they are not accounted for in the game.
“On one hand you have people trying to survive, and on the other hand people living so far away from survival, and only concerned with making money and gaining power, in the middle, you have the x-factor. You have God's creativity and influence. You have epiphanies by no permission than who or whatever created all of us. The thing that knows the game is going on, even if we don't. Those are the Oracles.”
The all-seeing eye
The abode santann is the main symbol, which means the universe. It is used as a motif throughout the video. The abode santann is a West African symbol for the all-seeing eye. It is an adinkra symbol of the divine creator and an omnipresence force that no one can escape.
Muwakil has the symbol tattooed on his right shoulder, and it can be found on a barrel in the Sea Lots scene, on the video game the children play in the real world and on their white masks.
Muwakil said that symbol has been used in other Freetown videos, and is part of a Caribbean video philosophy the group is building throughout its work.
“We have been working on a visual philosophy – that's how we term it, because we never just want to do music videos. Everyone can just shoot a music video, but why waste all that time and energy on doing something that does not carry a meaning? ” he said.
Their visual philosophy entails notions of federation, femininity, vulnerability and strength all tied up in one.
“We have been playing with that symbol for a while, and that symbol will reveal itself as we go along. This is something artists don't do any more. We don't create mythology for ourselves.”
He said art in a mythological sense isn’t used any more and that is a result of people not being connected to themselves and history a serious way.
“I am very clear about what I am. I am griot. I am a chantuelle. I am connected to a very long line of people who carried stories. Creating mythology is very important.”
Representation of women
The video’s director, Oliver Milne, intentionally made the Oracles female in order to place women as the most powerful entities in the video.
Freetown rejects the video girl representation of women in all their videos. Afro-Caribbean women and women of unconventional beauty are placed in the foreground of their videos as powerful entities.
“We definitely use women in a very different way from the way people use women in other videos. We think it is important to counterbalance the messages that are being given.
“Putting women in positions of power, in as many videos as we can, creating images of women in positions of power, especially dark-skinned women or women who have alternative beauty, who traditionally would not be placed in videos, not that they are not beautiful.”
Perpetuating the conventional notions of beauty, Muwakil said, is also part of the game that Freetown is trying to dismantle.
“The game wants us to buy cosmetics and feel bad about ourselves, so we have these warped standards of beauty that they subject women to. These are warped standards of power and how to access your power. In this particular video, the most powerful element of the video were women.”
Freetown has another video release coming up. It was shot by a woman and has an all-female cast.
“The industry speaks for itself. There is no forethought when it comes to the fact that it's 2019 and where the feminist movement is now, where women have gotten to and where women continue to strive. Then you see artists existing as if this is not the time we live in.
“How many times are you going to see a batty rider and a woman riding up on the curve before you think you know it might be more than that?”
About Born in Darkness
Freetown Collective is made up of five singers: Muhammad Muwakil, Lou Lyons, Tishanna Williams, Malene Joseph and Shanna Joseph.
Born in Darkness is the title track of their latest album. It is their way of reconnecting to the rich musical history of the country. Lyons told Newsday it is Freetown’s statement to the world about their identity.
“It is a message to all the freethinkers who are finding their place in the world, finding the courage to define themselves and their spaces, even if their ideas do not conform to what is popular or widely accepted as normal.
“Over the years we have curated a loyal fan base who demanded that put out an album, which has now become the soundtrack to our lives. The album is a dedication to hope and fearlessness.”
The video was shot over four days, with pre-production lasting two months and post-production three weeks. It can be found online on YouTube and bought on iTunes.