TT The Artist enrolled in the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) Fine Arts program in 2002 with dreams of becoming a rapper. As a student in Baltimore, she began to develop her artistry in the city’s community. Self-directing her own music videos, as well as those for local artists, transformed her into an electric storyteller, not just through music, but also through directing. Her newfound calling immersed her into the legendary Baltimore club music scene and its dance culture, and her new musical documentary on Netflix, Dark City: Beneath The Beat, is making sure that the city’s many stories are being told.
Dark City’s release is far from an overnight success, as the documentary was over a decade in the making and a puzzle piece to put together due to a lack of funding. But several grants and management from ColorCreative – Issa Rae’s management company for diverse creators – helped produce what we’re now witnessing on our TV screens.
TT The Artist’s Dark City puts a twist on traditional musical films by bringing in documentary-style storytelling influenced by Black cinema. “By the people, for the people” perfectly describes Dark City as it was filmed in the heart of Baltimore with its cast filled with young, talented artists and dancers right from the city. TT The Artist’s debut film beautifully captures the city’s rich music history and its unapologetic authenticity, showing an uplifting side that mainstream media doesn’t typically portray.
The 4th Quarter spoke with the multi-hyphenated artist about the birth and making of Dark City, her connection to Baltimore club music and the importance of increasing visibility for the city’s creatives.
Your documentary has been ten years in the making. I feel like that takes a lot of faith and determination to keep going. What kept you grounded and focused during that time?
So really 2006 was when I first said I was gonna do this film. I was a senior in college and I really was impacted by the [Baltimore] club music sound and I was, at the time, living in Baltimore. Then, 2011 was actually when I first made my attempt to go out and film. It was just such a humbling experience, the trial and error of all of that and figuring out how to get this to happen because I didn’t really go to film school so this is like my first film ever. The inspiration from all of that came out of the connections that I made with the community over time and being an artist in Baltimore. Wanting more for our community and the artists in the city. So, I felt like this film will highlight the positive coming out of the city. The vibrancy, the colors and open a door to this world that not many people are familiar with.
What kept me grounded and focused was just really having great people [around me]. Like my circle is small, but powerful, and everyone really supports each other. Also, just knowing that until I get to a certain place with this project I won’t be satisfied. I really wanted this to go as far as it could go when I started to do this, and so for that I really feel like it’s been successful. It’s already starting to bring in more resources to the artists involved, which was really my goal and I’m very happy about that.
You mentioned going through trial and error working making your first film, and you’re bringing new life into the musical genre. Did you come across any artistic challenges or did it flow naturally for you while telling this story?
Yeah, like originally the film was going to take more of a traditional approach to documentary storytelling. But, I think around 2016, 2017, is when I really started to reformat [it] because I figured I wanted to do something that was entertaining, but also impactful. I went ahead and started creating music with my music supervisor and collaborator, Mighty Mark, who I’ve been working with for years on my music. I was taking my background from music video directing to a documentary and playing with performance art from my art background. I just wanted to create all these different layers so that people feel something, you know. They feel an emotional connection to what they’re seeing and so that’s really how it all took shape. It evolved in a lot of ways over the course of producing it.
“Feeling” was a word heard a lot throughout the documentary. What personally made you gravitate towards Baltimore club music when you were in college?
I always tell people when I first heard club music it really reminded me of the music I grew up [with] in Florida. Miami bass, Uncle Luke, 2 Live Crew, Quad City DJ’s, 69 Boyz. All these different influences, 90s dance music, just merged into the Baltimore club [scene] so it felt nostalgic for me, like a connection. I was missing home at the time so for me that’s what it was. Once I actually went out and explored the city more and became a part of the community, it just felt like I had extended family in this culture. They all supported me and I supported them. That’s what really made me connect with the culture.
Baltimore is your second home you would say so, right?
Yeah! I be telling people, I was 18 when I moved to Baltimore and really you’re still a teenager. It’s no different when you move to another city and then you experience a bulk of your life [there]. Some people are born and raised and spend most of their childhood in a city and then they leave when they’re teenagers, but Baltimore became home for me as an adult. I experienced my relationships, my job experience and all of those things in the city of Baltimore. That’s what really made me the artist that I am today. I give that all to being in Baltimore, which at the time was a place that I felt would nurture my art because it’s super economical for artists to live there, unlike New York.
I spent two years [there] after I graduated and it was very difficult to maintain in New York as an artist while working three jobs to pay your rent. In 2008, I went back to Baltimore and I started to hit the ground running and created with my friends. We were creating a whole Black art Renaissance for young Black artists in the city, and then the club music stuff started kicking in around 2009. I’ve really been dropping music in the club genre since 2009 consistently, and that’s why I feel like Baltimore is my home.
You’ve been so immersed into Baltimore’s culture, but did you feel any pressure filming the documentary telling such a big part of Baltimore’s music history?
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of people have their opinions on what should have been included and what shouldn’t have, but it’s such a big topic to cover in one film. That’s what a lot of people that just aren’t into filmmaking don’t realize. To create a strong piece and message, everything has to connect in some way. What I’m doing is I’ll be working on more extended content to highlight those stories that we may not have included in this particular film and really talk to people that may not have had the opportunity to be there. [I] definitely want to leave the door open for more stories and narratives that further show a positive reflection of this community.
Did any specific musicals or documentaries influence or inspire you throughout Dark City’s making?
Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning, a documentary on ballroom. David LaChapelle’s Rize is a really big one [too]. I saw what they did for these street style dance cultures through documentaries. When I watched their films, it didn’t feel like a documentary. It felt like an experience, like a piece of culture. Those were really substantial influences. Also, films by Spike Lee. His films where he has had musical moments in them like School Daze is one of my favorites and it’s a big inspiration. [His] palette when he’s making his films, like Do The Right Thing and Crooklyn, a lot of that influenced even my titling. When I opened it up I wanted it to feel artistic. I’m a big fan of Black cinema and I just wanted to make a piece that would enter me into the conversation of Black cinema directors.
Issa Rae is one of the producers for the film and you’re managed by ColorCreative. What exactly did that moment look like when she officially hopped on board?
It was like a moment that I have been waiting for because I’ve been working with Issa’s show [Insecure] since it started, just doing music for the soundtrack. I relocated to L.A. three years ago with the film kind of in a mid-way phase. We were still wrapping up a few things and they caught wind of that, and she came with open arms and support. I knew it was official when we had a whole meeting and I was the guest. I’m like sitting at a table with all the heads of the ColorCreative department and Issa’s team and she’s right across from me. And, I got emotional because I said, ‘You know I literally am at this table not just representing myself, but representing every artist coming out of Baltimore that just never really had an opportunity.’
I was very appreciative that wow, people are seeing this and they love it and they want to support it. And for that I’m super grateful. We’re working on a lot of new projects that I’m developing as a director. They’ve been doing a great job of just helping me guide my career to the next phase. So, I’m very happy about where things are going and I just want to continue the momentum.
I see this film as a call-to-action for the critical need for more spaces and resources for the arts in Baltimore. What specific actions would you like to see taken in terms of development in seeing that vision come to pass soon?
One of my dream projects has always been to open a dance studio, like in the heart of the art district – Station North – in Baltimore. Because even with gentrification and putting up new buildings, often times the culture gets pushed out and I want to create a space where our dancers from the city have a place where they can teach the arts. That’s one of my longer term projects that I would love to see come to life in the city.
The overall goal for your documentary is to show the positivity in Baltimore that typically isn’t shown in mainstream media. But, what is another overall message that you hope viewers can take away from Dark City?
The overall message was, of course, that you understand what Baltimore club music is and where the sound is from. But [also] that you can hire talent in Baltimore. We need to bring those resources to these young, amazing artists that are in this city that is often overlooked. That’s been my main goal, that this is a promotional tool for all of the creatives that were a part of this. Like I said, I already see it transforming. I already see artists reaching out to me and getting bookings, opportunities to speak and interviews, and that’s what Baltimore needs. It literally needs that beam of light right now to shine on it and inspire a whole community and I think that’s what the film is doing so I feel like I’ve done my job.