An interview with Lonnie Holley
I snuck off the slave ship, just to sneak on another one
Lonnie Holley is an African-American artist who works in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, performance, film and sound. Born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1950, Holley has known struggle and hardship since childhood. He began creating sculptures from found objects in the 1970’s, with his art now in the collections of major museums, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Holley became a recording artist later in life, releasing his first album, Just Before Music, in 2012 at the age of 62. As a self-taught pianist and singer, his music and lyrics are improvised and each song evolves each time it is performed. Holley is currently on tour in Australia, playing shows at Vivid Sydney, Melbourne International Jazz Festival and Dark Mofo.
His most recent album, MITH (2018), takes an unflinching look at the current state of the USA. “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship” is one of the songs from the album, and it is a transcendent 18 minute journey of beauty and despair. The short film, I Snuck Off the Slave Ship (2019) is inspired by the song, and it is Holley’s directorial debut. I Snuck Off the Slave Ship premiered this year at Sundance, and I was lucky enough to see it at the Atlanta Film Festival in April. The film, like the song, gives one the sense of travelling through time to the different metaphorical slave ships of African-American past, present and future.
After seeing the film, I knew that I wanted to talk to the artist behind the work. I got in contact with Lonnie Holley to ask about the film and its process:
Mimo Mukii: The film I Snuck Off the Slave Ship, like your music, defies genre and categories, blending documentary, sci-fi and music video elements, and the film also includes your own sculptural art. How did the concept of the film and all its components come together for you?
Lonnie Holley: When I finished recording the song, it felt different from the other songs I’ve sung. Matt (Arnett) and I started taking about doing something with the song. We made a music video (together with Ethan Payne) for “I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America,” and loved that process. We wanted this to be different. We’d been thinking about it, and as luck would have it, we met Cyrus Moussavi [I Snuck Off the Slave Ship’s Co-Director]. Matt was familiar with his work and Cyrus was a fan of my work. Matt sent Cyrus the song and asked him to just listen and think about it. In the early summer, Cyrus flew to Atlanta (from Greece) and met with us for a few days. I shared with him my ideas and vision and he came with a lot of ideas of his own. We knew we wanted to do something different. My art and my music are so connected, it would be hard not to include it. Cyrus brought in his friend Charles Autumn to shoot it and his partner Brittany Nugent to help us produce it. It was a team effort. Everyone had great ideas. And we let chance take us places that helped it become what it is. And our editor, Joy Davenport, really did an amazing job.
MM: I read that improvisation is a large part of your music and live performances, and I am excited to see you play live here in Australia. Did improvisation also play a part in the making of your film?
LH: We had a plan. We had a lot of ideas and locations and we had the song. And everyone worked really hard. And we let’s chances happen. We met Colbie Fray and she knew about a 4th of July party, so we went. We knew we wanted footage of fireworks and that turned out great. There were so many moments like that. We were going to go to Mississippi to film, but then decided to stay in Georgia, and so many wonderful things fell into place.
MM: The Edeliegba Senior Dance Ensemble were mesmerising in this film, and I’ve seen that they were also in a previous music video of yours for “Sometimes I Wanna Dance”. What was the process of your collaboration with them?
LH: We were shooting “Sometimes I Wanna Dance” sort of at the same time as filming Slave Ship. We wanted some older people to be in the Dance video dancing and Brittany found Theresa and Edeliegba. They agreed to come and once we met them, we knew we had to have them in Slave Ship. That was a perfect example of hard work and improvisation coming together. We played the music for them and asked them to create their own movements for it. They were perfect. Cyrus has that idea and we were all like, “YES!”. I’ve always tried to support other artists in the way that other artists have supported me.
MM: Did you have any filmmakers or films you were drawing from for “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship”? What else influenced this film?
LH: I didn’t. I watch all kinds of movies and have all my life. I try to take in everything. I’m sure Cyrus did. He studies films and filmmakers more than I do. And he’s a brilliant young mind.
MM: What is it about filmmaking that you enjoy and find different from the other art forms you work in?
LH: I don’t really separate art and music and film. To me, it’s the same brain doing the brainsmithing. It’s just different tools. I guess a lot of my music lately has been collaboration and there is so much of that in filmmaking. I guess that’s what I like most about it. Making visual art is something that is usually just me.
MM: What does being an artist mean to you?
LH: It’s my life. It isn’t something I ever tried to become. It was just in me. If I had been called to do something else I hope I’d have done that just as hard as I’ve done this.
MM: Finally, do you have advice or words of wisdom for emerging filmmakers and artists here in Australia?
LH: I faced a lot of “No” in my life. A lot of my art was destroyed. I spent a lot of time feeling sad at being so misunderstood and put down. Do what you love. Wear headphones so you don’t have to listen to critics. If you are doing something that you believe in, don’t listen to people who don’t understand you. The old Civil Rights song says, “I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round.” Make that your theme song.
I Snuck Off the Slave Ship has it’s Australia premiere in Melbourne on this Sunday the 2nd of June, 2019. Presented by MUMA and Liquid Architecture, the screening is followed by a conversation with Lonnie Holley and Sista Zai Zanda, plus a performance from Nelson Patten, Atlanta-based instrumental duo of Dave Nelson and Marlon Patton who are touring Australia as Holley’s backing band. You can get tickets to the screening here.