Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Dallas Taylor
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- Helsinki Headnod Convention – “Beats Not Beatdowns (Particle Ray’s Music Not War Chant Mix)”
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (directed by Terence Nance, MVMT, 2012)
Random Acts of Flyness (created by Terence Nance, HBO, 2018-present)
Killer of Sheep (directed by Charles Burnett, 1977)
Daughters of the Dust (directed by Julie Nash, 1991)
Vortex (upcoming debut album by Terence Nance)
Said the shotgun to the Head (written and performed by Saul Williams, 2003)
Things I Never Had EP (created by Terence Nance, 2020)
Swarm: Terence Nance (upcoming exhibit curated by Maori Karmael Holmes)
Telfar Clemens and Babak Radboy
4th Dimension Trigger, 5th Dimension Trauma (upcoming performance by Terence Nance, Whitney Biennial, 2022)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens. You’re listening to Many Lumens where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes.
For this episode, I’m joined by Terence Nance, an artist, musician and filmmaker born in Dallas, Texas. Nance wrote, directed, scored and starred in his first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically in 2013. Nance was named a Guggenheim fellow in 2014 and debuted his Peabody award-winning television series, Random Acts of Flyness on HBO in the summer of 2018. At the time of this recording, Nance was preparing to release season two of Random Acts of Flyness and his debut album, Vortex.
I’m also joined by filmmaker, artist and my friend Rashid Zakat.
[00:01:09] Rashid Zakat: In this conversation, we talk about Terence’s childhood and what it was like for him growing up in a family of creatives, his personal journey and exploration as an artist, and the process of learning to not only find, but appreciate his own voice.
[00:01:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: We also touch on love, both platonic and romantic, the importance of community, the film industry, music and much more. And now for our conversation with Terence Nance.
[00:01:35] Maori Karmael Holmes: And now, for our conversation with Terence Nance.
[00:01:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: So let’s get into it. Shall we?
[00:01:40] Rashid Zakat: Let’s go.
[00:01:43] Maori Karmael Holmes: Terence, can you tell us where you grew up and where you are in the birth order of your siblings?
[00:01:50] Terence Nance: I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and I am second in my siblings. I have older brother Djore Nance and I have a younger sister, Classi Nance, and a younger brother, Nelson Nance, professionally known as Nelson Mandela.
[00:02:0080] Maori Karmael Holmes: How did your parents come to name you Terence?
[00:02:11] Terence Nance: The story I know is that my parents were tossing around names. My grandfather’s name is E.P. We referred to him as E.P, my paternal grandfather. And E.P stood for Easter Patsy. He was named after his grandmother, Easter, who was born in bondage in Hays County in Texas. So that name, Easter being carried through. And so initially my understanding is they wanted to name me after him, but not use the name Easter, because… they didn’t say this, but I imagine because he never liked that name. The story I understand is he thought it was a girl’s name, and thus E.P came along. So they wanted my name to be… So they called me E.P. And initially it was going to be Emil Patrick, I remember. And then I also heard that at some point when they were considering names, they were going to go with Louis, which is my grandmother’s name. My maternal grandmother, her name is Louis Louise. We used to call her Grand L, two big Ls. And so they were going to call me Louis and name me after her. And I guess I came out and they were like, “Ah, something else.” I don’t know. I guess none of those stuck, that it didn’t feel right. My mother named me Terence. I think she said that Terence means smooth or quiet. She said I was smooth and quiet. And there’s a playwright, Terence Africanus who wrote this play called The Brothers, he’s a comedy called The Brothers. I don’t know if I was named after him, but Terence Africanus was in Greece at the time, I believe, writing these comedies. The explanation I got was more so that I was quiet and smooth, and that’s why I got that name. Daryl is my father’s middle name. So they put that with me, put that with Terence. And I found actually when I was just cleaning up the upstairs in my house in my early 20s, I found one of my mother’s journals that she only written one page in. And it was the page where she was going back and forth on my name, what she was going to name me, just seeing how it looked on a page. Was strange just thinking about what life would’ve been, if we had landed on Louis or Lou.
[00:05:07] Rashid Zakat: Lou Nance.
[00:05:13] Terence Nance: Lou Nance is a different type of energetic. Who is Lou Nance, out there-
[00:05:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: Groovy Lou.
[00:05:18] Rashid Zakat: Big Lou.
[00:05:19] Terence Nance: Big Lou. I don’t know how that would’ve gone.
[00:05:23 Rashid Zakat: You would’ve been Big Lou with the camera.
[00:05:264] Terence Nance: Big Lou––
[00:05:25] Maori Karmael Holmes: ––he was football player too, so.
[00:05:27] Rashid Zakat: Oh, I didn’t know that.
[00:05:28] Terence Nance: Yeah. I was. Played football.
[00:05:31] Rashid Zakat: Right. What was your childhood like or what were you like as a child rather? You said you came out smooth and quiet?
[00:05:38] Terence Nance: Yeah, that’s what I was told, if I remember correctly. Sometimes I get confused about the stories about me or my siblings, because I think my parents sometimes mix them up. I don’t know if it’s both me and my younger brother, Nelson, if we both weren’t named at the hospital, it was a thing that happened later. I believe they said that about me as well. I think it definitely happened to Nelson as well. Djore, I know they had the name. My dad was like, “This is going to be the name,” and that was the name. And Classi’s named after our grandmother. But I think as a kid I was quiet. My family is very boisterous, very large and funny, just a typical Black Southern family, but with a heavy lean towards theatricality and musicality, obviously. And I just remember feeling shy and at some point it got very extreme when I got into a kind of, not kind of, of a very white supremacist school environment, I went very mute, didn’t say a word for several years. And then after a while I was like, “Oh, this might be my shtick. I could be just like the quiet nigga.” I think that there was some element of it that was related to just a middle child thing. Growing up, Djore was locally famous, we even say regionally famous. He was and is prodigy as an artist and as a singer, and he had that oldest dynamic where his proximity to adults just made his social skills another level. You know what I mean? I was second so I just had that dynamic of following him around for a while. But he was and is just impossible to keep up with. I very much knew it wasn’t going to be like, I’m going to compete. You know how some brothers have that dynamic of you’re going to compete, but he’s uncomcompetable with on all levels, especially just as a person with charisma. So I think I just was like, I bowed out. I’m like, “I’m going to be just something else.” You know what I mean?
[00:08:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: There was something that the producing team found in an article where you talked about finding a black and white TV, dragging it into a closet, and watching I Love Lucy by yourself in this closet, which feels very, almost prophetic about I don’t know what, but it feels like a scene from something. Do you remember that? Do you recall?
[00:08:34] Terence Nance: Oh yeah, I did that. Well, me and my two brothers, for I’d say till I was 12 or so we all shared one room. I don’t know, me and Djore just got to a practice of sleeping in the closet. It was just one of those, you know when you create these little swaddling situations for yourself when you’re 10. You like to be in confined spaces. I don’t know if everybody does that, but we did.
[00:09:02] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I like the back of a car in the same way.
[00:09:04] Terence Nance: Yeah. So we would do that. We just did that for years and put all our blankets in the closet and go to sleep in there. We moved to a bigger house and we all had our own room, and so I just continued that practice in my own closet. And then obviously, bedtime, no TV. TV’s off. And I wander around the neighborhood type of kid. Found a little TV in somebody’s trash, picked it up. I don’t know why. I didn’t even expect the TV to work, but it was just an old tube TV. It actually had a handle. It was a small portable TV. And I would be the type to pick up things to see if they work out of the trash. That was just my general vibe. And so I did that, plugged it in, it worked. I remember Star Trek was the last thing you could watch, the Next Generation. And it was bedtime after Star Trek. After Picard said whatever, he said it was bedtime. I go in there and then turn the TV on and that would be all that was on, fall asleep to that. And in my mind, I thought I was slick and my parents didn’t know, but they must have woken me up in the morning in the closet and seen the TV. So I wasn’t getting away with nothing, but thought I was.
[00:10:24] Rashid Zakat: Did your parents know you were going to be an artist? Is that something that they just assumed?
[00:10:31] Terence Nance: The way they say it, they thought I was going to be the one who wasn’t. I think they had Djore and Djore came out the womb singing like Whitney and Aretha, literally playing Dream Girls over and over again, trying to sing like Jennifer Holliday at one years old. You know what I mean? So they were like, they knew what they got into with him. And for me, my mom says I was a tinker and I would tell her I want to be an architect or an engineer, things like that, that were more technical. So they thought that’s where I was going to go.
[00:11:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: When did you know that you wanted to pursue becoming an artist?
[00:11:07] Terence Nance: There definitely wasn’t a moment. There still has not been a moment. I could always draw really well. I noticed that in art class, people noticed that generally. Every kid has a thing they don’t really have to work at, a little gift thing. And that was definitely part of it, just had the least resistance in that way. So by the time I was in college, I was like, “I’m an art major, because this is my gift,” but I also didn’t know, just like everybody else, I didn’t have a plan. You know what I mean? Or I had a new plan every day, maybe was what it really was. But I think I just kept getting validated and encouraged by people and just saw that look in their eyes. Now that I know what it is, it’s like, oh, they’re looking at me like, “You got it.” You know what I mean? They’re not looking at me like, “You ain’t got it.” You know what I mean? Which in 2020 hindsight you don’t know what that is growing up, but now you know, oh, they’re looking at them like they ain’t got it. You know what I mean? It’s a tragedy. You know what I mean? But in the art context, nobody ever looked at me like that for reasons that made sense. It was quite the opposite. For most of my… as a young person, I just wanted to be an athlete. That was all, that was all my conscious mind. And I don’t know, in my mind, my relative memory of my concept of my childhood and young adulthood was, I didn’t have any feeling of, figure it out. You know what I mean? I didn’t think I had any existential identity based thoughts like, “Am I a blank,” until lately. You know what I mean? It was very day to day, and it was just surviving day to day, wouldn’t ask myself if I’m a artist or not. You know?
[00:13:28] Rashid Zakat: Yeah. I’m thinking a little bit only because we just passed Mother’s Day, I just spent the day with my mom. Maori’s mom is in town and Terence, I’m just a little bit curious a bit about your mom, the little bit I know, and thinking about linking Maori’s mom, the little bit I know about your mom and my mom as these pan-Afrocentric, Black mamas who are trying to raise free or free adjacent Black kids who gave a space in different ways. And I’m a little bit curious about even the process of that. Do you feel like you chose, and in a cosmic sense, do you feel like you chose your mom and chose your family?
[00:14:03] Terence Nance: Free Adjacent Black Kids is a great band name.
[00:14:08] Maori Karmael Holmes: I think it’s our band.
[00:14:11] Rashid Zakat: That’s our filmmaking, you, me, and Lendl family band.
[00:14:16] Terence Nance: Free Adjacent, for sure.
[00:14:19] Rashid Zakat: Free Adjacent. Free Adjacent.
[00:14:21] Terence Nance: Did I cosmically choose my mother? I must have. I don’t know, my mother’s obviously legendary, a legend in many ways, and her mother is as well, my grandmother, in those terms as a person who articulated herself in a liberatory fashion, reweaving herself with her Africanness and her family’s Africanness fashion. And she was doing that in continuation with her parents, my grandparents. And she’s an artist, so you’re growing up with an actress and an acting coach and an educator and a director quite literally. So I’m just doing what she was doing. You know what I mean? I’m just doing what I watched her do. And same with my father. He grew up shooting news every day, all day. So I saw him pick the camera up, put the battery on it, make sure he had the lens right every day for a quarter century. So I’m just doing what he did and that’s never been not clear to me. And the reason it’s never been not clear, I think is just because of just working in an ontological family framework, that you have ancestors that they’re why you’re here doing this. You know what I mean? In a casual way. They weren’t beating us over the head or nothing. And also they were in a community of people who were all thinking like that. We were in no way isolated in that. It was thousands of us.
[00:16:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I think somehow the three of us, if we were the same age, we would’ve all been in community because there’s some nexus between… Well, but for the two of you there’s church, but definitely for Terence and I, there’s theater.
[00:16:18] Rashid Zakat: Same though.
[00:16:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: That your mother was into?
[00:16:20] Rashid Zakat: No. My mom got in the theater way later.
[00:16:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: But yeah, just all of those things, I think that your mom definitely would’ve been making the outfits.
[00:16:30] Rashid Zakat: Playing the music in the back.
[00:16:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah, I think that. And for me too, and I don’t know about you Rashid, but my mother is also second-generation artist and Afrocentric too. So it is not a reinvention. It’s an ontological continuation. Is that what you said? Is that true, were your grandparents also conscious?
[00:16:51] Rashid Zakat: No. My mom was the anomaly of the folks. She was the first and really the only person on that side of the family to even be on the side of Black consciousness to think about being an artist. I wonder if my grandparents would’ve had… My grandparents were very much like Jesus, Jesus, Jesus and to the church. And that thing, I think set my mom’s art things up in a way, if that makes any sense. But not anything outside of that.
[00:17:23] Terence Nance: I think it’s one of those things that it was the wave too at that time. You know what I mean? There was a vibration coming through of Afrocentricity in the eighties and nineties––
[00:17:38] Rashid Zakat: For sure.
[00:17:39] Terence Nance: ––that was cool. You know what I mean? And I think about my dad’s side of the family. My dad is really carrying forward the music, bringing just a deep love, fascination. The way that he would use and deploy music in his own life was like water. That in conversation with my mother, being raised in a context where my mother was always rigorously in a process with somebody, and oftentimes a lot of kids or students, in a theater context. That doesn’t look like anything else we have now, even acting coaching or just as a discipline, how much practice it takes. You know what I mean? Watch people in that practice of getting a performance. It’s one of those that you can’t skip and that you can’t not see. You know what I mean? It’s like somebody designs a poster, if your parents were graphic designers or something like that, you maybe could miss it, but you can’t miss if they got to get all their lines for piano lesson. Or they had to rehearse… My mother directed a lot of plays, so they had to get a company of actors ready. It’s very evident, embodied creative work and expression. And it was, I think at that time, very, I don’t want to say en vogue, but it felt like it wasn’t othering in any kind of way. I think that in the late 2000s I think on some level, a concept of really aspirational capitalism came into all kinds of black culture in a way that maybe made it seem uncool for a moment, but that was after they had already raised us a bit. You know what I mean? We were already essentially teenagers by that time.
[00:19:52] Rashid Zakat: You were just talking a bit about you can’t unsee your mom in rehearsal, you can’t unsee the things that are this pre-digital art performance thing. And just thinking about the community of that, and also connecting that to, I’m an only child, and so I’m always fascinated with people that come from big families because in your case, it seems like you’re trying to recreate this. And I’m thinking about MVMT, thinking about Umma Chromah, and even, I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about Lalibela.
[00:20:25] Terence Nance: Yeah, yell about it.
[00:20:27] Rashid Zakat: Yeah! I don’t know why I did that but, yeah! Yeah! I’m curious, is that something that you’re thinking about recreating either the family dynamic or what you grew up with in community and theater and those places, and building the collectives that you’re a part of and have been a part of as an adult?
[00:20:49] Terence Nance: Yeah. I think that I’m working in continuation of my parents and grandparents’ work in that way, but not in any other way that… It’s not romantic, I wouldn’t say. I think they were doing so collectivizing, working in swarm, in ensemble, in community as a matter of necessity because they wouldn’t have made it if they didn’t. You know what I mean? And we’re in the same situation. None of those things would be happening if it was just one of us. It would just not work. It would be destroyed.I think that that’s the unromantic side of the continuation of my parents and my grandparents’ institution building, I would say, maybe more specifically my mother and father and uncles. I remember they had, how was it called? They had this organization that I didn’t even really know the name of until I found a flyer for it a few Christmases ago. And it was the local Black art organization in Dallas. I’ll have to ask her what the name of it was, but I remember the feeling of being around it because the flyer was for when they screened Killer of Sheep [inaudible 00:22:19]. I didn’t remember going to that because I was too young, I’m sure to go. But I remember when they brought Daughters of the Dust, that must have been the same organization because I remember that screening. I remember the images in it and seeing it in that moment. And so I think about that, just the practice of facilitating the exhibition of Black cinema, that they had to essentially make up Dallas version of BlackStar, and my mother was the person and her friends were the people and they took the pictures that day and they brought their kids and they talked to Julie [Nash] that day, and I was there. I was two or whatever, I was little, but that’s the thing that they were within that we’re still within. And unfortunately, the problem hasn’t changed or the circumstance hasn’t really changed. The thing that your question brought me to is more the survival side of it, but there’s also maybe a more important side of it, which is whatever that vibe is of collectivizing, making things together, watching things together, making the institutions together, whatever that creates in terms of a ritual is really necessary, especially the seemingly clandestine aspects of it, which is why I guess you were like, “Can I mention this?” There’s some truth to that energy of, “Can I mention this? Should I?” It’s like, “We’re over here doing this, we can’t tell you everything about it.” You know what I mean?
[00:24:01] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to switch gears just a little bit, not too much, but being from Dallas, I’m curious what you think about your identity as a Southern person or a person reared in the South. How much of that comes into play in your work, given that you’ve spent your adulthood in the Northeast?
[00:24:23] Terence Nance: It comes into play a lot. It’s who I am. I notice it. Growing up in Dallas, I’d imagine this is typical in a lot of places in the South is––you grow up outside. You know what I mean? Around trees and stuff. You know what I mean? In a semi urban environment or dynamic, and because Dallas is no longer like that, it doesn’t have just random open spaces. The parks don’t feel like that anymore. But I think it’s just, I don’t know that some parts of the sociality of what I grew up with as a Black, Southern, typical, large, church going, black eyed pea making family. You know what I’m saying? I think it’s the same in Philly. I don’t know that that aspect of it is actually…Maybe I just don’t have a granular enough analysis, but I haven’t felt that difference in the way that I’m with people. But definitely the way I’m with the environment or the land and that whole energy is very different.
[00:25:56] Rashid Zakat: Before we did this, I was reflecting a little bit on when I found your work in maybe 2009 on Vimeo, really randomly. And it’s been one, just really encouraging and really exciting to just have watched your work grow, but also watch you have found your voice over time. I’m thinking back to something that you said, it was when you premiered Random Acts of Flyness at BlackStar, and you were talking about you had to learn how to fall in love with the sound of your voice. And I’m just curious to what that, in any way you want to approach that, what has that been like? I’m just thinking even the last 10, 12 years of the work that you’ve created and the experiments that you’ve done. I’m just curious to what that has been like of just finding that or looking for it, perhaps.
[00:26:53] Terence Nance: Yeah. When I was saying that, it was a bittersweet moment. I don’t remember why my dad was not there. I think it was this health at that time. He’s great now, he’s healthy. He’s very healthy now, but he couldn’t travel to the premiere if I remember correctly. And he had said that to me about singing, because at that time I was still working on Vortex and it’d been a decade of trying to get it done, and it still wasn’t done. I don’t think he had said that to me in relationship to the album itself, but he said that to me about singing. And I was always really insecure about my singing voice. And so I was quoting him in that moment, talking about that journey with my own singing. And that’s been a journey, but to your point in terms of cinema and finding it there, it’s been a similar long, long form process of… Because at the end of the day, there’s no me, it’s just, I’m a vessel. And I think of it somatically, especially with the cinema thing is I’m trying to make myself available. And the thing that makes it feel like “a Terence thing” is a remnant of the janitorial process and then to the vessel, which is what gives it a, oh this feels like things that… because that janitor named Terence was there. If you were to walk into a school, when one janitor’s been there for 25 years, the door knobs are polished a certain way and they use a certain cleaner so it smells a certain way, but they didn’t build the school. Then if the janitor switches to somebody else, it might be just as good but the school feels different, but you can’t put your finger on it. I think it’s the same thing I can see sometimes how my attending practices just produces a certain vibe. And I think falling in love with the vibe is maybe how I used to understand it, but it was more like there’s something else past falling in love which has to be beyond drawing pleasure from it, from experiencing it, for me, at least. It’s something more about just accepting my role. You know what I mean? I’ve recently, through a lot of experiences, I realized my role is to freak motherfuckers out. You know what I mean? My role is to really diverge from what’s acceptable. And obviously the whole Babylonian constitution is like, “Wow man, you really freak people out. But maybe if you didn’t, it would be dope.” You know what I mean? It’s real easy to fall into that, for that to feel like the truth. You know what I mean? Like that’s one moment of your path. You freak people out for a while, then you grow up.
[00:30:08] Maori Karmael Holmes: You brought up love, and I’m curious if you feel like you’re able to work out and explore questions about love and gender and vulnerability through your art making.
[00:30:23] Terence Nance: I think I do. When you’re asking am I able to, do I feel like it moves the needle or anything like that?
[00:30:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Are you feeling like it’s useful and instructive?
[00:30:35] Terence Nance: That’s a great question. Is it useful? I don’t know. For me, is it useful? Yeah, it’s useful for sure. It’s useful. It’s healing. Imani, who’s my friend and assistant and life support, she has this wonderful theory which I won’t repeat, it’s for her to say, around romantic love and it’s just dysfunction. I think that thinking about that reminded me of how there’s a little bit of a facade or a mask. Romantic love as a plot device or as a central storytelling dynamic is like a mask. It’s a masquerade for a more inarticulable exploration of different energies, because those dynamics in other relationships, other types of friendships, parent-child relationships, they don’t have this concept of hope built in. When you get born into somebody, it already happened, it happened. You’re their child. It is. You know what I mean? It doesn’t have anywhere to go. If you’re friends, you’re friends. You’re going to be friends. It’s going to be great. But romantic love is a tool, especially as a narrative tool and just has an inherent, “Are they going to be together?”
[00:32:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s interesting that you say that, though. And I don’t know if you feel this way, Rashid, but I actually had a lot of romance about my absent father when I was growing up. I had a lot of hope that he was going to show up and be there. And I think that that may… This is my therapy hour. My romance is about my astrology, but definitely in relationships, I think with friends and with my father, my mother, I think I have had a lot of hope and expectation that is probably unrealistic. So I wonder if that’s true, and I wonder if that has to do with you having so many siblings. So it was not an option for you, whereas my siblings were options. Both of my siblings are half siblings. I could see them, I could not. Things were optional.
[00:33:03] Rashid Zakat: That’s interesting.
[00:33:05] Terence Nance: I would say I think you’re right when you’re talking about real life. When you’re talking about a screenplay though…
[00:33:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: Sorry, sorry, sorry. I forgot what we were talking about. Well, on another side of that, you’ve collaborated with so many of your former partners when you were in partnership with them. And I’m curious how that works out for you. I’m just wondering, I know that Rashid and I, when we’re often talking about relationships, my idea of an ideal relationship is holding hands, drinking from the same bottle, and Rashid wants to jump out a window and see you on Tuesdays at 5:00.
[00:33:45] Rashid Zakat: 4:30 if you’re good.
[00:33:49] Maori Karmael Holmes: For you, is that a necessity that you collaborate with partners or has it just happened that you’ve dated filmmakers, or where is that in the sauce, or do you not know?
[00:33:58] Terence Nance: No, I definitely think that collaborating with people who I’ve been in partnership with has been a part of just my development as an artist, because I think that there’s some part of my process that is just about transmuting things that come up in romantic relationships into some sort of story. And the making of it no longer becomes a representation of the relationship, but it becomes like a prism to which things could be understood. Or even just the process of making it becomes some transmutation of energy, but that has gone wrong too. Again, it’s not romantic dynamic. I’ve gotten it wrong as much as I’ve gotten it right or been in that dynamic. But I think it’s, at least for me, absolutely necessary that there is an engagement. It doesn’t have to take the form of, “We’re going to make something together, we’re going to direct something together.” Even though I’ve done that, and that has happened, we’re going to write something together. And in relationships with people who have not been filmmakers, there’s still collaboration. You know what I mean? That still happens. It just doesn’t get evidenced, you don’t see it in a movie theater near you or something. But it definitely still happens.
[00:35:33] Midroll: BlackStar Projects celebrates and uplifts Black, Brown and Indigenous artists. We produce the annual BlackStar Film Festival, Many Lumens, Seen, and other projects creating the spaces and resources artists need to thrive. Learn more and support our work at blackstarfest.org.
[00:35:58] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many lumens. And now back to our conversation with Terence Nance.
[00:36:03] Rashid Zakat: I’m switching gears a little bit and just thinking about music, both you as a musician and the musicality of your film work, thinking about the music videos you worked over the years for Nick Hakim, Nelson Bandela, Earl Sweatshirt, Solange, so on and so forth, as well as the music you did for Oversimplification. But I’m curious to when you really felt empowered to share the music that was just in you and share the music that you were making.
[00:36:28] Terence Nance: Well, I think that growing up in a family of musicians, at the time I felt really underdeveloped as a musician because everybody around me was so gifted and worked so hard at it. I just cast it off as a possibility for myself because of just an inferiority complex that I imagined in that moment, but it was also like I’m choosing something else. I was choosing another mode of expression. But I just slowly realized that I’m a vessel for it. You know what I mean? As I started writing things, my uncle Brent, when I graduated high school, gave me a guitar. I can’t remember if I asked him for it. He gave me a guitar and he taught me one chord. He didn’t teach me anything after that. But slowly, I just taught myself how to play and it just started taking the form of writing songs. And that’s just God. At the end of the day, everything coming through me is just coming from on high and coming through me and it’s not mine anyway, but all this stuff, I don’t know why this stuff, especially in the music, I don’t know why it sounds like it sounds really. The stories that are there didn’t happen to me, or did in different ways. And it just becomes, you get another exercise in getting out of the way of what’s coming through the channel. And I think what comes through my channel is often highly verbose and highly just literary in this way that I don’t understand totally. I think that the music as a process just has a somatic signature, it just feels good. It feels a certain way that you can only get in that portal. The sound waves vibrate certain things, and certain healings come through just when certain rhythms happen and certain changes of tone happen. And these things only transpire here. You know what I mean? That I know of in that particular portal of playing, experiencing, feeling through a rhythm and a melody. Those things don’t happen on a movie set or when you’re making a painting. Other things happen there, but not those.
[00:38:53] Rashid Zakat: How do lyric and song or lyric and music find each other for you? You said your process is a bit more literary. Do you find that you have the stories, you have the words you have lyrics and you’re looking for the vibe to suit them, or you have snippets of sound that you’re applying stories to? How are you thinking through that stuff?
[00:39:10] Terence Nance: It’s all kinds of ways. The standard ways, like I’ll be walking down the street and something comes in my head and I record a voice note. It’s the standard way songs happen for musicians. A lot of times I’ll just be playing with some chords on whatever instrument and find something I like, and then pick up the mic and see what comes through, see what happens. To describe it as a material practice or process, I think is relatively standard and uneventful, because to describe the actual thing that’s happening physically is not to describe the thing. But I think that the words, the, “Oh, this is a lot of words,” comes a little bit from the fact that especially Vortex was mostly, not mostly, but some amount of the earlier songs were just poems at first that I had written in college. I went to go see Saul Williams perform his poetry. He was reading from, I think “Said the Shotgun to the Head”. And I just remember having that feeling that, “Oh, this poem is not the words on the page. It’s the sound coming out of his mouth and how he’s carrying the sound.” And that just instantly redefined the concept of what poetry is to me as, even if it is a written form and you’re silently reading it, it’s still being performed in your head based on whatever your reference points are. So I was like, “All poems are songs,” basically. That was just my takeaway. So I just had been writing basically a poem day every morning and I was like, “I’m going to turn all these into songs.” So early on, it was like that. And then I just think that whatever’s coming through me it just has a lot of nice words. You know what I mean? It’s not something I endeavor to understand in that way. It’s probably, on the human realm, just rehashing, regurgitation of all the things my parents put in me. August Wilson is extremely verbose. Toni Morrison’s extremely… I don’t know if verbose is even a word but just elegiac, they don’t spare words. Compared to other literary references we love, they’re more minimal. Octavia Butler’s more minimal, for instance. I was exposed to the more minimal artists later, probably just because that’s what my parents liked. You know what I mean? That’s what they would bring around or that’s just what was happening. So I think some of that comes through.
[00:42:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: You just mentioned Vortex, which is an album that you’ve been working on for a decade, but in between, I guess it’s about 2018, you released an EP called Things I Never Had, but Vortex will be coming out on Brainfeeder. Is that true?
[00:42:27] Terence Nance: Yeah.
[00:42:31] Maori Karmael Holmes: The exhibition that we’re working on together. And the first thing that I thought of when I heard it is Fiona Apple. It has this kind of cheekiness, but also vulnerability. I was curious, do you have any interest in musicals?
[00:42:47] Terence Nance: Yes, absolutely. Musicals are coming. It’s definitely a soundtrack. Like Nina Simone said, “This is a song for musical that hasn’t been written yet.”
[00:42:58] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. So just to pivot a little bit, we talked about your work in film and we’ve talked about your work as a musician, and now you’re moving a little bit. I know I’ve curated your work in a couple of group shows that were in gallery spaces and you’ve done performance work with Sundance and New Media, but you are in the Whitney biennial, this year’s Whitney biennial. Congratulations. You have work planned or was at Art Basel. And we have an exhibition coming up next year, your first solo show. I’m wondering how is it feeling to be taken seriously in the capital “A” art world. When we interviewed A.J last year, he talked about that he didn’t choose the art world, it chose him after decades of trying to make it in film. And so I’m just curious for you, since you studied art to begin with, is this reception anticipated, is it shocking? How are you feeling about this transition, or not even transition? I’d say addition?
[00:43:04] Terence Nance: I went to a studio art MFA program. I thought that’s what I was doing with my life. You know what I mean? “We’re about to be in the art world,” that’s what I thought was going on at 28 years old or whatever. And so where things have gone is relatively, I don’t know, whatever the plan was, not what I thought. Oversimplification for instance, it was made as a loop. And you can tell last scene is the first scene. So I was like, “Oh, I’m making these films, they’re going to be in museums,” but not even really… At that time, I was like, “Put this shit on the internet.” I was really anti-institution and four walls. And I thought of it as oligarchical and aristocratic in continuation of the genocidal dynamics, the Eurocentric… all that 20 year old self righteous shit. So it’s true. You know what I mean? But I was on that. So I wouldn’t say that this present moment of the work we’re making feels like a transition, I wouldn’t say, because I guess it has always been happening at a certain register, and it was actually the first thing that was happening before any of the other stuff was happening. But it does feel like I’m relatively out of practice with working at a certain scale in those spaces, which is, I think just something that I’m excited to continue to learn. There’s a tenderness that I’m going into this learning process with, based on A.J’s [Arthur Jafa] horror stories about the art world or A.J’s beautiful experiences in the art world, or Ja’Tovia [Gary]’s experience of the art world, beautiful experience of the art world or her relative pain in the art world. I hear all the stories of all the people around in our community who are interacting with the art world and I’m in that soup of people and understanding the stories, walking into it. Just trying to learn.
[00:46:13] Rashid Zakat: I’m just thinking through all the things you’re working on, music, films, art projects, and you’ve been working with Telfar Clemens specifically on Telfar TV. Can you talk a little bit about how you met Telfar’s team and just what that collaboration is like?
[00:46:28] Terence Nance: I met Telfar, I think Diamond put us in touch, Diamond Stingily and met Telfar, I met Babak [Radboy] at their show in Florence and they invited me out to it. And their intervention in that world, in the fashion world, I just really deeply resonated with, just the imperative to exit the whole industry, this mode of production and all of its genocidal, colonial dynamics, and to do so in a way that was just not about just aspiring to some sort of super cute capitalist dynamic. You know what I mean? And I feel like the project for me in general has always been amorphous in terms of what am I really doing? What kind of project is my work a part of in community or what is it trying to pattern in terms of my own survival or my own growth? And so I think Telfar TV and our partnership with Umma Chroma and Telfar is just that hilarious, messy co-conspiracy of getting out of the whole situation and documenting it, showing it happened and showing that it has fits and starts, and showing that it’s funny, and showing that it’s sad, and showing that it’s bizarre, and showing it’s boring, and showing that it’s exciting, and showing that it’s definitely not boring, and showing that it’s including everybody who is within this vibration. His work is just really beautiful and to just watch him receive what he’s receiving and give it to the world, it’s God’s work at the end of the day. And I think that that’s what’s calling us all together. I felt a while like I hadn’t met a new person in a while. I think because we met right before pandemic, but I remember when I met both of you, actually, when I met Maori, it was at BlackStar, I believe. And I remember just being around you, around the festival and feeling the word I would use for it now is the devotional energy of it, your devotion, seeing you all do what you do just as a standard bearing thing in terms of devotion to your gift and pushing it through makes me step my thing up, makes me really do it at the end of the day. I think this it’s a continuation of that peopling, that community building, making Telfar TV with everybody.
[00:49:37] Maori Karmael Holmes: I wanted to be like the ugly crime meme from America’s Top Model right now. I want to ask you, just thinking about the industry, I’m just wondering if you can share what you have learned when things haven’t worked out as you expected. You’ve had some high profile opportunities, Space Jam directing being one of them. Some people would’ve seen that as a departure from your work, but you didn’t. And I would love for you to talk about why it wasn’t, and also what you learned from that not working out.
[00:50:21] Terence Nance: Yeah. I guess for context, I had an idea to make Space Jam for a very long time. I think probably my first desire to make a sequel to it was sometime around 2013 or ’14.
[00:50:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: Why?
[00:50:44] Terence Nance: I don’t know what it was or what came up, but I had a dream, actually. It may have coincided with seeing that LeBron [James] commercial where he plays a bunch of LeBrons, which I think was actually probably before 2014. I don’t know. But sometime, that was around then too, because this is before LeBron was the person who would be in it. This is either right as I had made Oversimplification or before that. So I was not even understanding myself as a filmmaker when I first had the idea to make it, but I had this idea for it that was based in a dream where I just had seen LeBron in a tunnel before a game. And he was preparing for the game and it was lit overhead. And it was all black around him and they were all wearing silver uniforms. It was really soft light and black tunnel. And it just cut the black and it said Space Jam II in very like austere cinema letters or whatever. And I was just wondering why that had come up. And so then I just started thinking of a story, which was about at that time, this idea of a person competing against their own expectations for themselves, which in that situation was really about me, because I had expected myself to be an athlete. And I was at that time in my life, I think consistently competing against what I had conceived my life to be as a child and what it was, and just in that dynamic. I’ll just it say to say, I just had this idea for a movie. It was almost a joke because at that time I was a fundamentalist about, “I ain’t never working with none of these companies, doing none of this, all that shit is corny. But I will make Space Jam II.” It’s a joke basically. You know what I mean? But I was curious because Space Jam I, all due respect to Michael Jordan, is a terrible movie. You know what I mean? As a film. And it’s an extremely genius movie as a piece of lore and marketing for Michael Jordan [inaudible 00:53:12]. And I think that juxtaposition of being transcendently effective in one way and transcendently a failure in another is where you get this energy of cult classic, you know what I mean? And so I think I was interested in that subversion because I know I’m here to freak people out. So I’m interested in somebody being like “What?” You know what I mean? Be like, “But wait,” you know what I mean? I’m interested in that, you know what I mean, as a dynamic. But just slowly as my name came up, especially in different animation circles and how I’m an animator and that kind of thing, I was just telling people about it. And at that time I had this other animated film that was happening at Warner Brothers and I was telling like, “Yo introduce me.” So I’m talking it up as life is going on. And I see things, they choose other directors, it comes together and falls apart a few times. And so when I got the call to do it, it was literally right after Random Acts as it was coming out and it was like, “Oh, God is funny. God works.” You know what I mean? My ancestors put this in… They are doing their thing. It could only be understood as a divine plan. And it was, it has been a divine plan that I was put in that position by them to learn what I learned in that process. But questions of what people would think were not on my mind. Only thing on my mind was making the thing that had come through to make, and being in service to that. And ultimately, like I said, even though I changed the story and it evolved over time, it was still foundationally about as a Black boy who is an artist, but who is a naturally gifted athlete, my relationship to concepts of being a Black man, just generally in culture, what it is to deviate in some way from that, especially as a child and deviate towards it could be understood to be more feminine art, most principally. It was about that and it was earnestly about me in that dynamic and it was deeply felt for me. So these are things that I’m bringing to it and I’m saying, this is going to re-pattern how Black men parent their children when they deviate from the story and the mode of substance that help them survive. You know what I mean? Because I know that the things my dad did in order to survive and the things he took up to protect himself against what he was facing to survive are 50% useful to me and 50% useless to me. And I want tell a story about a man who is trying to project onto his child, all the methods he used to survive and become a billionaire. And they’re 50% useful to him and 50% totally useless. I would say that shit in the pitch meeting. That’s what was getting it going? You know what I mean? That earnestness, that emotion, that clarity of vision, that’s what pushed us through an industry that is disinterested in rendering Black people with that level of clarity and ancestral mandate. That’s what pushed us to the four weeks of production that we were able to do making it. And what I learned is the genocidal culture that exists in all of America and this place based on a genocide––is everywhere. It’s most especially active and resistant when my ancestors and our ancestors are in any way articulating themselves with a high level of power, clarity, organization, prayer. And those energies of resistance organize themselves in such a way that is ultimately suicidal for them. I didn’t know that they would act in a masochistic way to protect a genocidal way of thinking. I think that’s one thing. The other thing is… Maybe there’s two other things, two big things. I think of it like Tulsa ’21 or Wilmington 1898 right after the Civil War reconstruction before Jim Crow comes into play. Black people out here getting elected to every office, getting every job, getting every farm up and running, getting every business popping, going forth and multiplying post-slavery, because in a lot of ways we had for 250 years at that point, done all the work, you know what I mean? All the work. And at a high level of skill and efficiency, doing the work and organizing the work and obviously in its purest form a capitalist dynamic will just privilege the person going, they’re going to do the best job for the longest. And story of Reconstruction, and this is totally I’m out of my lane, I’m not a historian, it’s just a theory. It feels like a lot of the genocide, the fly by night, “Let’s get a genocide popping right quick overnight,” that happened in those two cities, what happened in a lot of the cities at that time is in reaction to white folks at that time in those cities seeing Black people succeed at that level economically, civically and saying, “We can’t compete. We’re not going to beat them in capitalism in this moment. We can’t compete so we need to do what we can do to end the game. We’ll burn down the whole thing.” And that’s what happened to us. You know what I mean? It wasn’t just me. We had assembled a team that was highly effective at pushing through the prayer to make an extremely entertaining movie that was extremely transcendent, and I think would’ve satisfied all the economic needs of a movie that cost that much. I think we had done so because we had sharp teeth. You know what I’m saying? We had been through a lot to that point, everybody involved, and we were skillful. And not just skillful as technicians, but I think emotionally skillful. We were skillful at the job of negotiating with the beast at the end of the day, we were skillful at keeping our head cool. You know what I mean? We were skillful at saying what we need to say when we need to say it, and not saying what we didn’t need to say when we didn’t need to say it. This is not to say we were perfect, myself included, I was not perfect. I did things one way, I would’ve done things another, certain situations, but the reason why I was fired was because we were succeeding. And there was no other solution than to end the game. I learned that the game doesn’t matter. They would rather end it.
[01:01:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: So just to pivot a little bit. Everything you’ve been saying, it’s been dropping all kinds of gems and I really appreciate your candor. But I’d love to talk about season two of Random Acts of Flyness, which you just wrapped on HBO. And I wanted to ask you if you could talk about what was different doing this the second time around.
[01:01:44] Terence Nance: I would say, first of all, it’s just general energy of, in season one literally every minute of every day, there was a general energy of “this is never going to be on air”. “Yeah, we were joking. What are y’all talking about? We’re going to put this on television. Are you crazy?” You know what I mean? I think that when you watch it, it has that energy. It’s an urgency related to a lack of faith in the system to distribute Random Acts, which is designed to shift our own consciousness. Since it’s come out, that’s the biggest thing people ask or respond to is, “How did this get on TV?” But I think that has meant that the mandate for season two is, all right, Random Acts season one’s possible, it happened. So now what’s impossible? You know what I mean? And that has meant that obviously, because we are pushing it, you know what I mean, the resistance is pushing back harder. That’s the most important thing that’s different is that there’s the personal challenge to myself, me challenging myself. And that grows more difficult as things go on, because everybody’s out there pushing it, you know what I mean, trying their best. And then there’s just the other reality of I think the show is definitely about going inside. I think when you watch season one it is about that. It’s, oh, it’s a bunch of writers and directors going inside looking at themselves and each other. And during the pandemic, when we started writing on Zoom, the whole writer’s room was on Zoom. It was only 13 weeks, it was really short, relatively, but so much of the processing was about, just what was going on in the world was just so loud. I think it was relatively more difficult to go inside in a way, even though that was our mandate on day one. But I think those are the big differences, it’s just those two things.
[01:04:16] Rashid Zakat: I wanted to talk a little bit about Lalibela, the space you and Maori and Elissa [Blount Moorhead] and some other incredible folks are finding in Baltimore. I just wanted you to talk a little bit about Lalibela and why Baltimore? Baltimore, excuse me, Baltimore.
[01:04:30] Terence Nance: Baltimore’s native son.
[01:04:36] Rashid Zakat: For y’all that don’t know, I’m born and raised in Baltimore. That’s why the second number I pronounce it the way that I do.
[01:04:45] Terence Nance: Yeah. Why Baltimore? I think that Elissa really shepherded myself and a lot of us to Baltimore I think in a longer process, a generations long process of intentional community. And I think being shepherded to Baltimore specifically is about just what’s there, like Black life, totally just in the expression that it’s within is, I think at a point when it’s been in many major American cities, like a pre-resegregation gentrification dynamic. Not pre, but it’s not as far advanced in that process as some of the other places that we’ve all lived in, in America. And I think if we’re going to be in America, I think the intentional community aspect is to cultivate amongst ourselves, amongst Black people, attending practice with each other. So I think it just expresses itself very transcendently along those lines of just how Black people move and interact and are in community in a certain density, especially, maybe typical of the cities on the East Coast. That’s the things you can say about it, but it’s really because of the things you can’t say. You know what I mean? You can’t articulate. Just feels right, it feels whole. And we’re just in an ancestrally mandated process of conspiring together to create conditions that will sustain us and the next generation in this practice of cinema, which is a healing practice. All this stuff is a healing practice. And I think it’s about, and it will come to be about supplying ourselves and our community with beauty, and being strided in understanding the conditions it takes to sustain that offering of beauty to ourselves, to each other, to obviously the other people in the world who are sustained by that vibration. The way it’s been phrased to me is to be like a bee because bees––they sustain themselves off of their own food and their own food is extremely sweet.
[01:07:38] Rashid Zakat: To close it I’m curious to what else is on the horizon, if there’s anything you haven’t experienced yet spiritually, professionally, romantically or intellectually or otherwise that you’re looking to.
[01:07:55] Terence Nance: I’m getting married in December.
[01:07:57] Maori Karmael Holmes: Mashallah.
[01:07:57] Rashid Zakat: Congrats.
[00:07:58] Terence Nance: You all are invited. Everybody listening is invited energetically. Just pray for the kid. You know what I mean? Just be in prayer in a very beautiful transcendent prayer for the uniting of our lineages. It’s going to be beautiful. I’m excited for that journey. I’m doing this performance at the Whitney in September and it’s called 4th Dimension Trigger, 5th Dimension Trauma. And it’s ritual. It’s a series of invitations to trigger ourselves in the fourth-dimension time, backwards and forwards in time into traumas that may or may not have happened, because they’re in the fifth dimension, there are many possibilities. And it’s an exploration of the somatics of agency. When you’re triggered, sometimes it’s like other things take hold, other energies, other beings. We’re using puppetry, motion capture to explore that, what that feels like, what that seems like. So I’m really excited about that. I was really scared of it, in a good way. I’m excited about Lalibela, really deeply excited about it, just what it is to think in more generational terms, in terms of what we’re making. Maybe then we’re used to even, and making a film takes a long time, so you have to think longer term, but thinking more in the 25, 50 year term of a site, a project in devotion to a city, a people, a capacity. So I think that that will always be a really beautiful exercise and practice to be in community with you all, doing that.
[01:10:22] Maori Karmael Holmes: Was there anything you want to say before we wrap?
[01:10:24] Terence Nance: Just I love y’all. I appreciate y’all. Glad we’ve gotten to dance so much together in this particular lifetime. Obviously, it’s one of many, so in some ways it’s not that special.
[01:10:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: All right. Thank you so much. Looking forward to seeing you at some point.
[01:10:55] Terence Nance: Talk to y’all soon. Love y’all.
[01:10:56] Maori Karmael Holmes: All right. Love you too.
[01:10:57] Rashid Zakat: Love you too, fam. Cheers, man.
[01:11:06] Maori Karmael Holmes: To keep up with everything Terence does, you can follow him on twitter @terencenance, on Instagram @terenceetcetera, or on his website at terencenance.com. This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions.
The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. Our guest co-host for this episode is Rashid Zakat. You can follow him @rashidzakat on all platforms. This episode was produced by Dallas Taylor. Associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Meyers. Our music supervisor is David “lil’ dave” Adams, BlackStar’s music and cinema fellow, supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by lil’ dave. This episode features music by Helsinki Headnod Convention and Particle Ray.
Sending you light and see you next time.