As someone who grew up in the South, I constantly found myself in spaces that were technically integrated, but functionally segregated. Then, there were other spaces that I knew I just wasn't welcome in, like wherever white people go hunting and four-wheeling. I was instantly reminded of that reality when I watched the music video for J. Cole's latest single, "Middle Child."
The visuals were conceived by North Carolina rapper/producer/voice actor, and now director Mez (formerly known as King Mez). Throughout the video, Mez puts J. Cole in a series of situations: an award show, a morgue, a drumline performance. But it's when Cole is placed in spaces like a faux NASCAR rally and a hunting lodge that a pointed commentary starts to form.
When we spoke this Tuesday, Mez explained that he also experienced racism as a ubiquitous undercurrent in Raleigh, where he grew up. "Being in a place like North Carolina, where it's particularly segregated, you're in a lunchroom in high school and it's like, you got some white friends," he says. "But the truth is, when you sit down and eat, you see that there's a group of people that's all black on one side and it's all white on the other."
The 28-year-old creative says the concept of the video was to subvert the dynamics and literal places where black and white people think they belong. "It's a flip on Middle America and Middle America's perspective on blackness, and then a black perspective of blackness."
In addition to breaking down the racial commentary in the "Middle Child" video, Mez also spoke with Complex about how J. Cole tapped him to direct his first video, what it's like to work with Kanye West and Dr. Dre, and what to expect from his forthcoming, still-untitled debut album.
Can you tell me the story of how you got involved with J. Cole for this project?
Yeah, I've known him for seven years now or something like that. I met him when his first album was out and he was working on his second album. Omen, who signed with Dreamville, played him my music. Ironically, he played Cole my music in the same room that I ended up doing Compton with Dr. Dre, years later. It's really weird how that works. It's so weird. Energy is weird like that, you know what I'm saying? But it's real. I believe in these forces, these unseen forces that bring things together. It's crazy. There are too many "coincidences," with the quotation marks.
With the quotation marks, I love that. I'm such a coincidence girl. I don't know if you've heard of the synchronicity concept? J. Cole actually knows what synchronicity is. I don't know if he's called it by its name, but it's just the idea of specific coincidences happening, and it being too much to explain away.
Yeah, I just think there are these moments in our life, where... You know how DNA has these two strands, and they cross at certain points? I feel like there's these times in our life where things just cross, and you feel it, and you sense it, and you're like, "Man, this is something that's beyond me, that's beyond people, and beyond the world."
Me writing that album in the same room that Omen played Cole my music in, and this is five years later, you know what I'm saying? At the time that Omen played Cole my music, No I.D. ran that studio. And then years later, Dre bought it, because Dre worked there first. Then I.D. took it over, and Dre turned around and bought it. So now Dre owns Record One, we ended up doing the album together there. That's how I met him.
The way I got into this project is, I went down to Revenge of the Dreamers [Atlanta recording sessions]; Cole invited me to Revenge. He texted me, I didn't even get a yellow ticket at first. We was just talking on text. He told me to come and they sent me a yellow ticket later. We did a bunch of music there, and I've been telling him for years about my ideas for visuals. He always was like, "Man, you've got a really visual mind," you know what I mean? Sometimes, my ideas were more expensive than what I could use for myself, you know what I mean? If I have a 300 or 400 thousand dollar video idea, I can't do it right now in this space that I'm in as an artist. So it was fun being able to express myself at that level for the first time.
I started realizing the same way you produce a record, you produce a room of people.
So that's how it came about. He was just like, "Man, let's do it." A couple people had "Middle Child" treatments, but he was like, "Man, I'm gonna do this song a little bit different." And then I wrote [a treatment] in like 12 hours for him. He was like, "You got like half of a day to come up with something." And then I did, and that's what happened.
That's what's up. So, this is your first video that you ever directed, right?
Yeah, number one.
Was it a challenge for you?
Of course. Expressing myself through a different medium was different, but once I got out there and really understood what was going on, I started to realize it's a lot of the same core principles. In film, as it is in music, as it is in fashion: a lot of the same core principles. Especially when you work with a team of people. It's interesting because in music, I started realizing the same way you produce a record, you produce a room of people. You put the right people together, and you need the right energy. If this person's the alpha, you need to make sure that they're with somebody that's not the same way as them, or too many people that's the same way.
I feel like film was the same way, getting out there, being a director. Having a lot of people around me complemented my personality. Just like producing music, I had to produce this group of people to help me execute this vision, and they did a real good job.
How involved was J. Cole with the creation of this video? Did he have a vision for certain things?
I came up with everything from scratch, but [J. Cole's go-to director] Scott [Lazer] had an idea for the Bentley. He was like, "Man, we should get the Bentley dirty, we should ride it through the mud," you know what I mean? And we ended up having a conversation about how to expand on that idea. It's funny because we're all from North Carolina, so mudding cars is something we all know and understand. But when they said that, I then came up with the whole concept for the video. I was like, "Oh, I know what I want it to be." The whole video is a concept. It's like a flip of Middle America: the NASCAR shit, the mudding shit, the hunting shit, everything. Almost every single shot—even in the grocery store setting, with the white woman purchasing the black girl's features, you know what I'm saying?
The whole video is a concept. It's like a flip of Middle America.
Yeah, we gon' talk about that. [Laughs].
Yeah, we got to. We got to. The point of it is like it's a flip on Middle America and Middle America's perspective on blackness, and then a black perspective of blackness. We were the people who live, or were from, Middle America. That's kind of how I felt about it.
I saw this as a video of subversion: taking those clothes, like Cole in the overalls, and those spaces, like the hunting cabin... Taking all of those things from a place where we're not normally welcome, and then putting us in those spaces.
Yeah, totally. I mean, being in a place like North Carolina, where it's particularly segregated, you're in a lunchroom in high school and it's like, you got some white friends. But the truth is, when you sit down and eat, you see that there's a group of people that's all black on one side and it's all white on the other. So it was still like that when I was in high school. People would be hanging out with each other, but when it was time to be in each other's groups, it was still that way. And a lot of the white kids, they always had their hunting gear with the bright orange highlights, and they had pickup trucks with the Confederate flag in the back. That's why I put the Dreamville flag on the back of the Bentley truck.
You describing your high school experience gave me a flashback to middle school. My sister would give me a lot of shit because we had designated areas where black people and white people stood before school. The place where white people stood was called Honkyville. And she was like...
Yeah, it was not a joke. Now that I look back at it, I'm like, "Yo, that shit was bad." I never realized how segregated it was because I was in band, so I was with white kids, Mexican kids, all kinds of different people. But there was still that very unmistakable divide. I'm glad you were able to use your background in a way that was beautiful and meaningful.
Totally. I mean, when Scott said mud on the truck, I just thought of all these things. Even the beginning shot—the intro shot of the video. That shot is inspired by this movie, The Chronicles of Riddick, with Vin Diesel. There's a scene in the movie where they're fighting these aliens or whatever, and he's on his motorcycle, and it's pitch black at night, and he flies over a group of them. Because it's pitch black, you can't see anything. But when the lightning hits, you see this big group of aliens and it's like, "Oh shit." You didn't know that was there, you know what I'm saying? Until the lightning hits.
It inspired me. That shot stuck with me for a long time. So when I had the opportunity to do the video, I was like, "Man, I always thought that was interesting, I wanna do my own flip on something like that." And that's where I decided I was gonna play with the darkness and do different things coming out of the darkness.
Speaking of which, I want to talk about a couple of those things.
I mean, it's a lot of different conversations. That [first scene] was always meant to be an award show. I wrote it like it's an award show. It's interesting because Cole has his own personal relationship with award shows, you know what I mean? I can't speak for him, but I don't see him there. It's not a thing where he's always talking about, "Yo, I can't wait for this award show or that one, or win this award or not." It just seems like something that's not important to him. And for that reason I thought it'd be cool to kind of dismiss it. It's a very dismissive statement. Like, he doesn't really need that to be the greatest rapper. In my eyes, there's not that many people that's ever gonna be as confident as Cole. So I thought that'd be an interesting way to say that.
It seems that this video was picking apart celebrity, award shows, and also racial appropriation, like the final scene. How would you describe the overall concept of this video?
I mean, when I first told him the concept of the video, I was like, "Bro, this is about conquest."
Yep. I told him I wanted to use the word "conquest" in it. And you can flip that so many ways. I think "conquest" means talking about him being the greatest rapper. And then those first scenes of the video, and the heads up on the wall when he's in the hunting lodge... He's in conquest from the perspective that, as black people, I think it's really important for us to take back our peace of mind. You know what I'm saying? I don't even know if peace of mind is the best way to say that.
I wanna let people know, black men and women are of value.
I think it's to take back our value and what people think that we're worth, you know what I'm saying? So like, it's conquest for Cole, but it's conquest as this super high-level successful black man. I wanna let people know, black men and women are of value. Not only are we of value, but there's so many people that often... They take it and swindle us out of thinking that it's even as big of a deal, it's not even important. There's another black girl shopping in the grocery store when the white woman buys her face. It's like, it's happening right in front of us, and nobody cares. It's a prime question in a lot of different ways in my mind, and that was the best way to say it.
Where was this shot?
It was like two hours outside of Atlanta, Georgia. It was at a place called Durhamtown Plantation. It's funny, I'm doing all these flips on Middle America, and we get there and it's like 40 minutes to the gas station from where we were staying. If I'm not mistaken, there was a slave graveyard in the backyard. They own like 10,000 acres of land.
That's where we're staying, and I'm making a video like this, with a concept like this. That shit was crazy. I'm like, "Boy, we gotta be careful with some of this imagery, or we'll fuck around and never make it back to L.A." or wherever else we was going. I live in L.A., so I was like, "Shit, if I ever wanna see quinoa again, I'm gonna have to be careful."
Quinoa? [Laughs]. I'm glad that you were able to survive and make it through that. So, who were the drumline members in the video?
Our casting director put it together and they were great, they were amazing. I think some of them were in college and some of them were out of college. But Cole specifically asked for an all-female marching band, black female marching band.
Do you know why?
He just felt like it was important, you know what I'm saying? I mean, from the beginning of the video, when I told him it was conquest, this, that, and the third, he was like, "Yo, what do you think you can do to mix in something: I want black women to feel special. Even though this video ain't got nothing to do with that, really, let's find ways to do that." So that's when I wrote in the baby hair thing, all this other stuff.
And when was this video shot?
Man, like really recently. It was like a week and a half ago or two weeks ago, something like that.
Yeah, the turnaround was crazy.
There are a couple of things that I have to ask you. Are the fake rappers on the wall modeled after anybody in particular?Nah, it's just archetypes of rappers. No one is pointed out specifically, nah. We had conversations about it and just figured, "Yo, it's probably for the best that it's just an archetype of a rapper," you know what I mean? We just wanted to include every type of artist, every type of rap artist. So that's really all it was. And even when you look at the video, if you pay attention, it's kind of designed for all the people on one side to be younger and all the people on the other side to be older, in the award show scene. When you look at it in the beginning, you'll see like, everybody's older when the camera's first panning across, and on the other side, everybody's younger. Because Cole is supposed to be in the middle of these age groups. I guess you'd have to watch it a bunch of times to know that.
I also want to ask about the final scene, with the baby hairs and appropriation. It felt very, very, very jarring, and almost violent in a way. I watched it, then I sent it to my sister, and she was like, "Yo, what the fuck, I'm so glad they did that." I just wanted to ask in clear terms: What does it mean in your vision?
It's funny because around the time I was writing the video, Cole actually brought the baby hair part up. There was a lot of stuff happening on the internet about some particular celebrities wearing baby hair or trying to appropriate, or even doing it the wrong way, you know what I mean? Trying to be a part of the culture, but people very rarely give back. I don't know, it's just a lot of stealing that's going on.
My perspective on it is like, let's not take it secretly in the quiet. I'm gonna put it in the meat section, and let's purchase it publicly. Let's let people see what it really looks like and feels like, you know what I mean? I like the idea of... you said violent, I'm fine with that. I want people to be uncomfortable about watching that part of the video. Especially if this shit applies to you, because then you're like, "Damn, if that's me, if I'm taking from somebody else's culture..."
It could be anybody. It could be black people sometimes, if they don't know what's going on. But it's like, if I'm taking from anybody's culture and I'm not paying it forward or I'm not giving credit and respect... let me check myself. Myself included.
You're right. You might as well just be buying a piece of meat if you're gonna take something without paying for it. Or some kind of transactional exchange.
And the money part is interesting, because when people have money, they can just take it. When people are famous, successful, they think that they can just take it. It's like, "I got money, I can just take that idea, I can take that concept, I can take that little dance they do in the 'hood and not give nobody no credit."
I could talk to you about this for a long time, but unfortunately I don't have that much time. To keep it moving, what have you been up to?
Man, so I'm also writing a film, and voice acting is something a lot of people don't know I've been into, as well. I came to L.A. and I was hungry. Anything that I think is interesting and anything that I enjoy doing and have fun with, I'm not gonna limit myself. I remember the first time somebody asked me to do a voiceover, and I was like, "Nah." And then the first few times I turned it down, but people really liked my voice...
You have a great voice.
Thank you so much. I appreciate that. And then, Majestic, the jersey company, they hit me like, "Yo, would you do this voiceover?" I was like, "I don't know man, how much are you guys paying?" And they were like, "We'll give you 10 grand for two hours of your time." I was like, "Damn, I don't have to come back?" They were like, "Nah bro, it's just two hours—just one day, two hours, and then you'll be straight." And the truth is, as much as that was a cool look, it was a buyout. I didn't even realize it was a buyout, and not being a part of a union gives them the opportunity to not pay me royalties, and give me money for the long term. So, realistically, I probably could have made six figures off that campaign. It was everywhere, you know what I'm saying? That was one of my first things ever, when I came to L.A. doing that. So I'm looking forward, man. You guys will probably end up hearing my voice on animated films this year or next year. Cartoons, all types of shit.
Is that all under wraps?
Yeah, I can't really talk about what I'm doing specifically, but you guys will definitely hear me in some animated films and stuff.
You're working on your debut as well, right? Can you give me an update on how that's going and what we can expect?
Totally, totally. Well just to clarify, me being in the studio with Dre and those guys [on Instagram], I got a good relationship with him still. Since Compton, we've been tight. I go to the studio, we work, we make music. It's love, you know what I'm saying? And yeah, I got my own studio in Hollywood where I'm working on my first album. I got some fire-ass features on there and shit. There's one guy you can probably imagine that will probably be on there, after this video. But yeah, it's gonna be great and I'm really excited about it.
Awesome. You mentioned that you went to the Revenge of the Dreamers rap camp in Atlanta. How was that for you?
Man, Revenge was fire. Revenge was crazy because... I talk about it a lot. It was like, you gotta be a dog, you had to be different, you had to be like, "I'm getting on this song." There's 10 people on this joint already, it doesn't matter, because I'm getting on this song. It's like, whoever does the best job is gonna stay, and whoever's not as tight is getting taken off. It wasn't sweet, it wasn't adulterated, it wasn't peaceful. I mean, it was love, it was very fun—I had a lot of fun—but I had such a gladiator mentality. When I went there, I wanted to make sure I was gonna get on the songs that I was on, and I did.
I saw that you worked on The Life of Pablo sessions, as well. What was the experience like?
It was incredible, man. I remember I worked for like, maybe two weeks. I worked there, I was at [Rick Rubin's studio] Shangri-La in Malibu, I was going every single day. This was after Compton had come out. I remember when I first met 'Ye, he knew my name. It's funny because a lot of people say so many things about people, man. I can't speak on his political views or anything like that, but when I met him as a person, he was super cool, you know what I mean? Very warm and welcoming. I looked up to him so much growing up, I was hoping he was gonna be cool, and then he walked in the room like, "Man, what's up, man?" I'm like, "Oh shit, he knew my name." It was love.
After that, we made a bunch of music. I remember one time, he came in the room—everybody was coming into the rooms and working on songs. I was working on "Father Stretch My Hands." Everybody was attempting different things for that particular song. I didn't get anything on it, but it was so many people trying their nod at it. He came in the room when I was writing on the song, and he was like, "Yo, man, this shit is fire." He was like, "You remind me of me. You're gonna take me back to like, Late Registration, with the type of writing that you're doing, you like to tell stories." And I was gassed because my favorite 'Ye album ever is Late Registration. So when he said that, I'm like, "Damn, that's crazy." The things I'm inspired by, he could sense it, and sense that it came from something that he did, that he had worked on. Yeah, those two weeks were super fire.
You mentioned earlier that you worked pretty heavily on the Compton album with Dre. What is it like working with so many established artists like him, and Kanye, and now J. Cole?
Man, shit. I don't know. I think it's confirmation that I'm supposed to be at that level, at some point. The truth is, diving into the film thing kind of let me know that I don't think my path is supposed to be like anybody else's. It's supposed to be my own, really. Like I said, it's confirmation. I don't feel special because I've been around these people. I think I feel special because those people see themselves in me. That's what makes me feel good when I'm there. Anybody could just be there, but these people are like, "Man, I see some of myself in you," you know what I mean? So those things make me proud. That's why they mean so much to me.
Are you planning on directing a second music video anytime soon?
I'm definitely directing more music videos this year, for sure. I can't say for who or for what, but trust... we definitely got offers now. [Laughs]. We got some offers now.