Revolutionary Song: Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman on Their Afrofuturist Musical, Neptune Frost
Love and revolution fuel Neptune Frost, an Afrofuturist musical that condemns injustice as much as it inspires joy. The project is a co-directing effort between American poet, musician and actor Saul Williams and Rwandan playwright, actress and filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman—the film’s DP and also Williams’s wife. Chronicling the passionate union of Neptune, a runaway intersex hacktivist (played alternately by Elvis Ngabo and Cheryl Isheja), and coltan miner Matalusa (Burundian-born, Rwandan refugee rapper Kaya Free, credited in the film as Bertrand Ninteretse), the film takes place entirely in Rwanda (the world’s largest coltan exporter) and also features actors from the nearby East African country of Burundi. As such, the dialogue in Neptune Frost consists of a medley of languages—Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English—all of which flow together in rhythmic harmony via Williams’s heady lyrics. The film is just one part of MartyrLoserKing (inspired by a French mispronunciation of Martin Luther King), a larger project of Williams’s that so far also encompasses two albums, a forthcoming graphic novel and Neptune Frost’s soon-to-be-released soundtrack.
Coltan, the ore mined by Matalusa and other disenfranchised miners, is collected and used in the manufacturing of hi-tech products, from personal computers to cell phones to fighter drones. When these pieces of technology are deemed “obsolete,” they are simply flown back to East Africa and unceremoniously discarded in e-waste dumps. After unloading the technological refuse, the planes are restocked with freshly excavated coltan and an endless loop of violence—labor targeted and environmental—is perpetuated. Resisting this bleak cycle of exploitation, the film’s principal couple bands with other dissenting outsiders—fellow queer artists and hackers—who channel mutual rage into creative protest. They also scavenge among the e-waste to construct their own means of communication, amassing a dedicated following (addressing each other with the greeting “Unanimous Goldmine”) and perfecting the art of the covert political takedown. The unrealized potential for trashed technology spans further than utilitarian tool building—characters are garbed in sandals made of motherboards and circuit-crafted jewelry.
The creative collaboration between Williams and Uzeyman is sustained by a palpable spark that itself transcends the virtual realm of Zoom where our conversation occurred. They finish each other’s intricate thoughts on politics and philosophy with dizzying compatibility—love and revolution clearly embedded in the hardwiring of their own relationship.
Filmmaker: First off, I’d love to touch on the MartyrLoserKing project. How have you grappled with communicating what is essentially a robust political and philosophical manifesto across different artistic mediums?
Williams: Elements in the film are, of course, carried by the visuals, but also through the music, the narrative and all of the emotional context that’s brought through that experience. When we deal with the graphic novel, the drawings are still, but there’s even more text. There’s also a difference in the way that the graphic novel is presented. The MartyrLoserKing project has two protagonists, Neptune and Matalusa. In Neptune Frost, we are primarily going through the experience of Neptune. In the graphic novel, we are primarily going through the experience of Matalusa. There’s a point, of course, when those two characters connect, when the story is essentially the same, but we follow their journeys one way in the film and another way in the graphic novel.
Then there’s the music. Right now, we’re making the finishing touches [on] the soundtrack [album], which is the third installment. The music, for me, is one of the most fun parts because when Anisia and I are working on the screenplay, it’s more technical. Anisia is there to think about where the camera is, and how this works on screen—all these things that have to congeal to make sense with music. [But music] was the starting point of how I began to imagine the world of Digitaria, and the universe of this project was built by the soundscape and songs. And, of course, because Anisia and I live together, we both were able to vibe off of the sound, be inspired by that and imagine more from there. So, it’s all very connected, but what’s great is that none of them are really dependent on the other.
Filmmaker: You mentioned how the graphic novel and the film are from two different characters’ perspectives. How did developing these separate viewpoints help bolster the overall narrative of the story?
Uzeyman: There is a desire to sculpt a dimension brighter and more inclusive than one [piece of] media for one story. It is also based on the desire to invite people to plug in, to give the maximum possibilities to enter that universe—to familiarize yourself with the music, the book or the film and find your [preferred] entry point.
Williams: Neptune is an intersex runaway who is finding the connection between her wiring and the wiring of the planet itself. She’s figuring out how stepping into her power allows her to step into this communicative power that connects her to the all. Then you have Matalusa, a coltan miner who, through the death of his brother, learns about the precious resource that they’re mining and what it’s used for. He’s also on a journey of beginning to question what he’s been participating in and where it’s leading him. The different mediums allow us to sink deeper into the psychological realms of these characters. While the graphic novel is image- and text-based, the film carries everything—visuals, music, dialogue. It’s such a holistic art.
Filmmaker: Saul, Neptune Frost is your directorial debut, but Anisia has helmed films in the past. You’ve previously collaborated on Anisia’s debut, Dreamstates, acting in front of the camera as opposed to behind it. I wanted to know if your previous working relationship aided in the process of co-directing this, and if there was a bit of a push-and-pull considering Saul’s fresh eyes and Anisia’s established status as a filmmaker?
Uzeyman: [Laughs] I wouldn’t consider myself established! I’ve only directed one feature.
Filmmaker: Well, that’s certainly more than Saul had under his belt before this project.
Williams: [Laughs] It’s true!
Uzeyman: On my first film, he was [acting] and producing the music. It was the beginning of that collaboration, finding the language and how complementary we could be. I think it’s a very organic process where we exchange a lot. We discuss things that we are thinking about or preoccupied by. So, this film felt very natural and organic since he had seen me working on my first film. He asked me to enter this process in terms of images, writing and visuals, and also help balance the ideas from my point of view as a Black woman. But we both have a background in acting, so we also talked a lot about that. What material do you provide? How do you show a woman [onscreen]? How do you depict a transformation?
Williams: I think overall our process is very complementary—there are not really a lot of wires that get crossed. And when they do, I would say I have a huge appreciation for Anisia’s critical gaze—on art, on images, on cinema—so it’s just being in the position of, “I hadn’t thought about that,” or “Ah, yeah, that is an interesting way to see it.” It’s rare that I’m dealing with pushback; there may be a sort of creative curation that takes shape, but, for the most part, truly it feels organic. I talked about my process with the music, which is probably where I feel the most ownership. But of course, I’m extremely sensitive if I’m playing something and Anisia is like, “What is that sound?!” I’m like, “OK, this isn’t working.”
Uzeyman: I’m very privileged to see the origins and birth of the music. I saw him compose these songs for these characters but also heard him singing it, so I got to see his process. I think it nourishes the movements and overall arc of the story, as well as the direction of the actors. It gives you an idea of colors, of how close or far someone is. That’s where I’m very privileged, because I have information that is not written down. I have the opportunity to see it built.
Williams: From there, we have conversations about the politics of the day or things pertaining to technology. And in Anisia’s process, there’s a collection of images and ideas. All of these things spark each other’s process, and there’s a constant state of sharing.
Filmmaker: I’d love to ask about the songwriting process here, with several different languages being utilized throughout the musical. The result is so rhythmically beautiful and certainly communicates a utopian atmosphere of bridging communication among vulnerable populations. How did incorporating these languages—Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Swahili, French and English—aid in the film’s vision, both musically and politically?
Williams: The process helped lift the idea off of the ground like a spaceship. Six, seven years ago, I was working on the beginnings of the project. I was on tour doing a concert in Réunion and came across the Maloya sound, which is the local music there. Part of the process was to be inspired in different places and to incorporate that inspiration into this story. I heard this music for the first time one day, and the way they were singing just felt so punk. I [went] back to my hotel room and translate[d] the energy of the experience I just had into this song, which is “These Motherfuckers Don’t Want to Back Down.” Cut to two years later, when we’re working with poets and musicians for the translation of the script and songs into Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, etc. For the first time, we hear the Bruneian translation of that same song as it’s featured in the film, and it works. And we know it works because once they translate it, they can’t stop singing it, even to this day. When we went back to screen the film in Kigali, that was the greeting. What’s wonderful is that we had the time and the resources, in terms of working with extraordinary artists in Rwanda to translate this text, so that it worked beyond captioning—to make sure that it rhymes in Kinyarwanda and Kirundi, that it takes up the same amount of space, syllablewise and phonetically. That was a beautiful and fun process [that] also strengthened the story.
We had already been in Rwanda to begin the casting process and shot a sizzle reel in 2016. That’s what we used for our Kickstarter campaign. We met a great deal of our cast and crew then, many of whom had recently arrived in Rwanda as refugees from Burundi because of the political crisis that occurred there in 2015. Some of those stories were finding their way into the songs. There’s a song called “Underground” sung by the character Psychology, played by a Bruneian refugee named Trésor [Niyongabo]. When he heard the song, he was like, “Wait, this is what we were telling you.” It’s essentially: “First, they cut the radio/Then they cut the television/They locked down the internet/Then locked up the opposition.” We found a way to incorporate those stories into the [film’s] story as well.
Uzeyman: We really consciously decided to tell that story. We don’t want to be constrained by fears, by aesthetics, by production designs. How do you make it possible to talk about those things in a universal language? How do you share that without preaching, without anger, without the use of stereotypical storytelling devices? That’s where we rebelled the most, where we took our freedom. It’s really all just to say there’s no fear.
Filmmaker: That’s certainly palpable within the film because, despite the fact that so much of Neptune Frost is rooted in real-life exploitations, struggles and evils, there is such a distinct sense of hopefulness and a desire to express a truly utopian promise. How did your costume designer and hair and makeup designer imbue the film with such tech-y finesse while also managing to transcend gender in a very intentional way?
Williams: We worked with two extraordinary artists who collaborated to make the film’s costumes, hair and makeup. From Rwanda, [costume designer] Cedric Mizero worked with a team of artists who collected tons of computer waste and began creating all this stuff. Then Tanya Melendez, aka Nena Soul Fly, took it further into how she incorporated the same computer waste aesthetic into the eye makeup, ear makeup and hair design. It was wonderful seeing how these two artists had similar visions and were able to bond and work together. We actually began working with Cedric in 2016 when we went over there to shoot the sizzle reel and were introduced to him. He’s an extraordinary installation artist and fashion designer. During our first conversation with him we told him what the story was about and what we were looking for, and he showed up the next day with some sandals he made out of motherboards.
Filmmaker: In one day?
Williams: Yeah! From there, we knew Cedric was going to be able to contribute beautifully to this vision. We had that lead-up time from [shooting the sizzle reel in] 2016 to the time we shot Neptune Frost in 2020, which gave him and his crew the time to start working on this idea that was born out of e-waste camps, the idea [that] the film itself was born of when Anisia and I basically learned two things. One, we learned that 85 percent of coltan, the precious metal that’s in all of our smartphones and laptops, is mined in Central and Eastern Africa—first in [Democratic Republic of] Congo, then in Rwanda and Burundi. Of course, most of us in the occidental world know very little about the mining of these resources. Then we learned of e-waste camps, which are village-sized computer waste dumps. Planes fly in e-waste from the Western world—old computers, phones, towers, hard drives, all of this stuff—and dump it in a place where scavenger culture is still alive, because there’s copper and all of these things that can be recycled or reused. These same planes collect the minerals and are flown back to the Western world, to the factories that build computers, drones, game devices and phones. We were learning about people who were making things like 3D printing machines by using e-waste and upcycling. That was part of the inspiration and what went into the outlook on how we could have this village and these costumes made of recycled computer parts. We talked about this idea of having a land enriched by all of these resources that are necessary for technological advancement.
Uzeyman: In terms of fashion and set design, the thing that projects us into the future with these machines and devices is based on analog exploitation. The question was, how can we present this reality while reclaiming some power from it?
Filmmaker: Ostensibly, recycling this toxic refuse into hacktivist garb—using these dangerous materials to start the revolution—will cease this horrible cycle of exploitation.
Williams: I saw a funny meme the other day that was actually a quote from John Waters. I’m going to paraphrase it: “In my day, the punks and the queer folks had outfits for everything. There was a look for being punk, and a look for being out of the closet. Nowadays, these so-called punk rock people would be hackers. But these guys come out of their bedrooms and tell their friends or their parents, ‘I just brought down the world government,’ but what are they wearing? How come there are no costumes for that? You can’t just hijack the world and not have a costume for that!” I think our film kind of responds to that. [laughs]
Uzeyman: Recycling material is also very hip-hop. It’s very close to what nourishes us in terms of posture, and how you reclaim your own status and place and power. These things are linked to that playfulness and seriousness. There’s also a political angle and a humoristic angle to the art that was born at the same time.
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned that there’s a freedom to the film, a lot of which came from finding financing outside the conventional studio system. Can you go a bit more into detail about how you went about raising money for the project, and what operating on the fringes of the industry helped you accomplish in your unique vision?
Uzeyman: Making this a multimedia project also gave us the possibility to find our own timeline. We did the Kickstarter campaign in 2018 and realized that a lot of people were excited, which allowed us to strengthen our position. [The film’s Kickstarter campaign raised nearly $196,000.] We said the film won’t be [entirely] in English or in French, that we wanted to be able to preserve the languages of the place we are going to depict. Often, when you present a project to producers, the first thing they’re going to ask you is, “Who’s in it? Give me a name.”
Williams: People would ask, “Why don’t you take Lupita [Nyong’o]?” But we wanted to introduce these people and their art, craft and talent through this film. We thought it was really important for the story to see a community and be able to identify with the unknown.
Filmmaker: As you mentioned earlier, because so much of the film’s music was also mined—ugh, terrible pun—from real-life experiences the actors held closely, I don’t know if an established actor could have necessarily had the same effect on the film.
Uzeyman: As [Saul] said to me before, “This story goes to another planet, and as you approach Mars in the spaceship, who is there? Matt Damon!”
Williams: [Laughs] I hate that! How am I supposed to suspend my disbelief and go on this journey if you keep showing me the same faces again and again? At some point, it’s just a sheer lack of imagination. We want to see ourselves reflected through different worlds and lenses. We have to trust that a film doesn’t have to be in our language for it to touch us. It’s funny that the industry is really just starting to catch up on that, but kids totally get it. It’s the kids who tuned into Squid Game, and then the industry is like, “Oh, shit!” Ultimately, the gatekeepers are beholden to whatever is going to bring them that bottom line, so it was very important for us to make a film that could prove that the bottom line can transcend those sensibilities and restrictions placed on the [creative] process.
Uzeyman: You can watch a movie based on a political approach, with fluidity and interconnectivity and intersectionality as the basis of its storytelling. You can approach a story with many entry points. And that’s exciting, it’s a gift. At the end of the day, it’s also just the desire to share.
Williams: But it wasn’t easy in terms of raising funds. Like the characters in the film, social media empowered us, through the Kickstarter program. The fact that we could turn to the public and engage people’s excitement—that people like [artist and associate producer] Kara Walker or Lin-Manuel [Miranda, executive producer] could say, “This is cool, I’m gonna dive into this along with thousands of other people whose names you don’t know”—was something we could then show to private investors. It didn’t necessarily mean they were quick to give us money. In fact, we kept fighting [for financing] while shooting in Rwanda, constantly making phone calls to be able to shoot for another two or three days. We had our 27-day shoot lined up but didn’t start shooting with enough money to shoot for 27 days. We had lenders and people who were like, “Maybe it’s one of those films that you shoot a little bit now, then you come back in a few years and shoot a little bit. Maybe it’s a passion project.” But Anisia and I felt strongly that it was now or never. And let me tell you: We started shooting on February 3, 2020. During [the] last week, we learned about the pandemic. But of course, we were in the whirlwind of work. We wrapped on March 4, and Rwanda [got its first case] on March 8. So, if we hadn’t pushed those producers, if we hadn’t pushed for that money to make the film the way we wanted to when we wanted to, we wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.
Filmmaker: In the United States especially, a lot of the themes inherent to Neptune Frost seemed to be exacerbated by COVID reflecting our deeply unjust society—human exploitation for corporate gain, increased surveillance of activists, the power of technology to unify as much as it can destroy. What was it like seeing these social justice issues amplified into the daily fabric of life and struggle so soon after you concluded filming? Has this influenced audience interaction with, and commentary on, the film?
Uzeyman: It totally depends. It’s not only where the film is being screened that matters, but people always ask questions that concern themselves. People project themselves in one way or another into that world, either in an offensive way or a very open and generous way. We were in Mexico, where all of these problems seem more present, and people are more talkative about issues of mining and exploitation. For people in Mexico, it was them onscreen; it didn’t feel like somewhere else. There was this beautiful person in Mexico who came to speak with us after a talk, and they said to us, “When people ask me now, ‘How are you doing?’ I say, ‘Shining, baby.’” Just like in the movie! It was so beautiful. But as we say often, these things never felt new for us. They weren’t exacerbated by that moment whatsoever, they were just made more visible, more accessible, and people had more time to pay attention to them. It’s also something that artists have been talking about for a very long time!
Williams: Sometimes you feel like the world is conspiring to make the work more relevant. We had that feeling as things were progressing—as we were diving into the film, we’d see what was trending on social media. It was like, “Holy shit, this is happening.” On one hand, it’s inspiring to stay on your course, to tell the story that you want to tell. On the other hand, you’re hoping that the audiences don’t burn out before you’ve arrived.
Uzeyman: It’s also very much in alignment with what’s happening with those virtual spaces. People have an attention span that’s been shortened. With a film like this, you can really kind of observe those moments where people are willing and excited to engage. But most of all, I think the film talks to something broader and more joyful and hopeful than the things contained in the story. It is the emotional journey of the birth of a superhero. It is not flat; it’s complex and full of encounters, but it’s also about the building of a community. In the process of editing, seeing people come together and create those virtual communities is the most political part about it. The building of that portal is, I think, what art is always trying to do, at least for me: to communicate the fact that we were there, that we are here.