Creatively Meaningful: Cazhhmere
Toronto-based filmmaker Cazhhmere grew up in Halifax — a Canadian city with literal contrasts of black and white. Those cultural tensions along with growing up during the golden era of music videos has shaped her identity as an artist. Leaving behind the East Coast city to pursue her directorial ambitions, Cazhhmere now has a career spanning nearly 15 years.
With awards under her belt and collaborations with a diversity of artists from Torey Lanez to the Backstreet Boys, Cazh has proven to be a formidable Canadian storyteller, whether she’s directing a rap video or writing a screenplay.
Let’s start with your chosen creative profession. Did you always want to make music videos?
As a kid, I knew I was going to be in show business. I have a big passion for music. I was born in the 80s so music videos are my thing. That was my first way to identify with telling stories. I would watch Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker on VHS constantly over cartoons. When I was in high school it was the mid to late 90s, so by that time music videos were pretty dominant in the industry. Hip Hop was at a high point — it’s even higher now — but the 90s were the golden era of what’s currently happening. I’m a product of music videos.
You have nearly 15 years in your industry. You’ve worked with a range of artists from Canadian urban music icons like Kardinal Offishall and Melanie Fiona to pop phenoms like the Backstreet Boys. It seems like you just decided to be a director and then became one. Were you always so resilient in the pursuit of your craft?
I never thought about it to be honest. I just did it. I just wanted to make music videos. So, I took it upon myself to apply for an internship at MuchMusic, and I got it. At MuchMusic, I met another director by the name of RT and he was interning there at the time as well. We were just two young, black kids who were like-minded in a world of grown ass white people. Along with another friend of his from Ryerson, we started a production company and made our own music videos. The company grew to be a really successful production company in Canada. We won multiple awards and whatever. We’ve since grown into adults as filmmakers and have transitioned into other areas of film. Music videos are still fun, but it’s not as much of my main focus. In my thirties, my focus is film and television. I realized somewhere in there that I’m a storyteller, first and foremost.
I love that Nike-esque motto. You just decide and do, but have you ever felt any resistance for being a woman in such a male-dominated industry?
I’m a woman, and I’m black. There’s a lot of obstacles. I already have a lot working against me. My first mentor at my internship at MuchMusic taught me that because you’re black and you’re a woman, you’re forever going to have to work twice as hard as everybody in the room. However, I don’t ever let those things affect me. If at any point me being a woman has stopped me from getting a gig, I wasn’t aware of it. I’m a woman, so what? Do you want to do a good video or do you not? Because that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not intimidated by men, I guess sometimes men are intimidated by me because I don’t back down. I speak my mind.
You’ve largely gained success for your music videos within the hip hop genre. Do you ever feel a sense of conflict as a woman for how women are often depicted in those videos?
I think people expect an answer from me that they don’t get. At the end of the day, I know what I’m getting myself into. It’s rap music. First of all, I get asked this question a lot because I do a lot of urban music videos, but I’ve always wondered if directors that do pop rock videos or country videos also get asked this question. There’s still misogyny in those genres as well. I think hip hop is just direct and blatant about it. If I get a song that’s about making that “booty pop” then obviously I’m going to have to show that in the video. That’s my job, but because I’m a woman there’s a difference between how I would do it and how my male counterpart would. My angling is different. The women that I work with naturally feel more comfortable working with me and they trust me more. I also see the depth in hip hop even though it’s very literal. There’s still multiple layers that I think a lot of people don’t understand. Nobody understood NWA and now they’re praised as political pioneers for what they stood for.
You mentioned that as a woman you often have a different approach. Have you ever disagreed on the direction of a video with one of your artists?
It was just stupid stuff. I had an argument with an artist that I work with on numerous videos. We had an argument about wardrobe. The scene was in a bathroom and there was a beautiful model who was coming out of the shower. It was implied that they were then going to the bedroom to make love, so they would make out a little bit in the bathroom first. She had nothing on, and he had layers of clothes on. He looked like he was ready to go to the club with an undershirt, t-shirt, jean jacket, chains, hat, sunglasses… everything. I’m like “you gotta take some of that stuff off” and he was like “no, I look cool”. He just kept arguing with me. It’s a rap video so there’s almost always an entourage around which is mostly just a bunch of guys and they were agreeing with him. But I was not backing down either. I already know how to talk to little boys and this industry is filled with a bunch of little boys that look like grown men. So, I’m used to that. It was a fun argument.
And you won.
Exactly. No jean jackets in the bathroom.
How do you bring a sense of creative meaning to the work you do?
In different ways. When I’m doing music videos, I predominantly do urban music videos. Urban music in Canada struggles more than other genres. I don’t know why because urban music dominantes pretty much any other territory of music in the world. So, I pride myself on being a supporter of Canadian and urban music. That has meaning to me. It’s an artform that gets overlooked a lot in Canada.
Beyond directing music videos, you consider yourself a storyteller. Where do you take inspiration for your stories? I know you’re also passionate about being Canadian.
When it comes to my storytelling - they’re not fairytales. They’re all stories that I’ve either experienced myself or the people around me have experienced. I try to tell stories that are relatable, but that also strike emotional nerves. I want people to feel really sad and I want people to feel really happy. I find that Canadian stories don’t get the attention that they deserve. People think our stories are corny or not edgy. The stories can’t take place in Canada or it’s just going to be looked at as a Canadian film rather than just a good film. But all the stories that I tell are about Canada, one way or another. The documentary I did Deeply Rooted is about changing people’s perspectives on what a Canadian family looks like. My family has been in Canada for more than 200 years. There’s nine generations of my family here. This is my fucking country. Don’t ask me where I’m from. People find it hard to believe because of the colour of my skin. It’s sad to me.
The true picture of what a Canadian looks like is so diverse and that’s not even mentioning that we’re all on Indigenous land. I know your stories attempt to show a different side of Canada. Can you talk about that?
I’m talking about racism and the dark side of Canada. These types of stories that we see usually come from America and the UK. Canadians can’t fathom that these things happen here, too. They do. So, yeah, I’m talking about racism, injustices, the drug industry, sex trafficking, human trafficking... all those sorts of things. For example, I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and to this day going to Halifax is like stepping into a time warp. It’s very black and white and I mean that literally. I’m talking about skin colour. It’s a really sad thing and when I tell people about racist incidents that happen, they either ask two questions - “When was this?”, because they assumed it happened decades ago, or “Where was this?”, because they assumed it happened in the States. This has been happening my whole life, my mother’s whole life and my grandparents’ whole life. For my work and my story that’s the meaning that I try to bring out — a side of Canada that people don’t see. It makes us as Canadians look at ourselves. I want Canadians to see us for what we really are and for the world to see us for what we really are, too. We’re not terrible, but we’re also not perfect.
That’s super important. I think the false perception or incomplete understanding of Canada’s identity is what creates a lot of harm. You can’t fix a systemic issue if you pretend it doesn’t exist.
Exactly. We’re fucked up. We’re badass. We’re cool. Yeah, we’re nice and polite, but we’re also all these other things in between. But I’m not one to be overly political. I’m a woman. I’m black. I’m gay. I’m young. Art allows me to be free. It’s the one thing that I’ve been able to carry with me since my childhood that no one can really touch.
Last question. What’s your proudest accomplishment to date?
I would have to say that my proudest accomplishment to date would have to be my documentary, Deeply Rooted. I made it for my grandfather who passed away maybe about six months before I started working on the documentary. I’m very dedicated to what I do and a lot of it is about sacrifice. Usually, the biggest thing that is sacrificed is family. You can’t see them. You can’t spend any time with them. So, you have to make something of yourself and make them proud. I think the luckiest part of being a filmmaker is that I’m creating stuff that is going to live forever. I won’t, but my work will. It’s going to be something that the other generations in our family can look at. That’s the biggest accomplishment for me. That’s bigger than making a million dollars.