Lakeith Stanfield wants to spread awareness, but not about any film role (his most recent, The Photograph, just hit VOD) or new music (he makes music under the moniker HTIEKAL; the second single for his forthcoming album Self Control drops today). What he really wants to talk about, first and foremost, is Ahmaud Arbery. The tenor of an email thread negotiating this interview to time with the release of Stanfield's new music video "Birds" quickly changed as the horrific—yet all too familiar—video of Abery's murder swept across the internet, and demands for justice were plastered all over social media. Suddenly, if Stanfield was going to do this with us, he wanted to do it while jogging through his neighborhood, to make a point and further the call for justice in Ahmad's name. We eventually settled on him jogging first then calling in—hard to field questions and give measured, detailed responses mid-cardio. Mere minutes after our call, Gregory and Travis McMichael were finally arrested on charges for murder and aggravated assault; today would've been Ahmaud's 26th birthday. The book isn't closed yet, but it's a start, and for Stanfield the platform he's made for himself by becoming one of the most exciting new actors out is worthless if he can't wield it for instances such as this one.
Below, Stanfield muses on his frustration and exhaustion with the seemingly endless videos of black men being murdered senselessly before talking about the introspective path quarantining has set him on, his new music, The Joker, and more.
You wanted to start this interview after going for a run through your neighborhood to bring attention to Ahmaud Arbery. How are you processing that news now?
I'm just hoping that there's some kind of justice that takes place. I'm just hoping that the community and everybody's voices make it aware to the world, I don't stand for this type of situation happening and it just going unseen, unheard. Things like this, there needs to be justice brought upon people whether or not you're intertwined in the justice system or not. Something like this would appear to be pure bigotry, and they need to be accountable for it. So I think everybody should show up, let their voice be heard and show them that this is important. So, I want to just bring more awareness to it. I'm tired of seeing images on the timeline of people getting their head blown off in front of everybody. We got a choice, and we're going to make our voices be heard. Sign that petition, get out there, and let people know you're not going to stand for it.
When these types of headlines and tragedies hit—even today, there was the Sean Reed video. How does that make you feel from the vantage point of being a black celebrity with the success that you've achieved? Is it a feeling of powerlesnesss at times? Or do you feel like you have more resources to do what you can to affect change, like this interview?
I just, I want to be a voice where I can for people to mobilize, I never feel powerless. I think we all understand collectively that individual change is the way that we make progress. So you can't even talk with toxic people and make them change by telling them anything just because you're a celebrity. They gotta find it in themselves to make the change. But at the same time, the reach is important because a lot of people wouldn't even know that this situation was happening if people weren't spreading awareness about it. So if I'm gonna use my platform for anything, I might as well use it to also shed light on things that they otherwise wouldn't know. Otherwise, what's the use of it? I can always entertain, but it's like, what's the use of having the reach if you're not going to spread the truth, so you got to spread it. Otherwise, it don't mean shit that you've got it.
How have you been holding up in quarantine otherwise?
I've been good, man. I've just been having time to reflect, sit down, and look around, smell the breeze. You know, I'm very fortunate to have quite a nice situation during quarantine, which I'm grateful for, where I can actually be at peace and reflect. And I'm just sending all my good vibes and advice to friends that are trying to make it through. The main thing is working on myself so I can be a better human. If I can human better, that way the collective is affected in a positive manner, as much as I can.
There's been a lot of things, leading up to this quarantine, a lot of questions that I had about myself that I didn't even realize I had. Being able to sit down, it just brought to light a lot of things about me and personal growth that I can do to continue to push and move forward. And one thing I've been able to put a lot of energy into is music, and it's like I find the truths and find the things in myself and use metaphors that are telling stories. So it's a good time for me.
So for your album Self Control, was that album mostly done, or are you going to be adding songs that you've been recording recently while we've been on lockdown?
You know it's funny because I heard this bird singing outside my door the other day and I was just like, "damn, that bird sounds beautiful." So I just grabbed the mic—I got like a little home studio set up—and I just put the mic out on the balcony and I started recording this bird. So I'm going to add that to the album. So as new things come, I'm like, "well let me just put this in and add this." But the album's done. New things are being made aware to me, and I'm adding new things as I'm walking down the road. Like the world is changing rapidly as you can see, so every new thing is just a new part of the influence.
The song that dropped today is called "Birds." Talk about the themes you're trying to get across in that one.
Well, my boy David Hellman, the one that directed [the video], we met out in Southern California, and I think it was about 12:00 AM or something like that. We shot "Birds" til the early morning. And so basically it's just like, me on my phone and imagery representing communication in its various forms. But "Birds" is—it's a song that means a lot of things. It's kind of hard for me to talk about because I want people to draw meaning for themselves. But you can hear it throughout the verses it's all critiques of capitalism and the way we consume, and how birds might represent women, they might represent your relationship to women, and privileged nature of some interpersonal relationships, or it could represent money and commerce and the way that we wheel and deal and engage in the exchange of money and what it means and the worth of it all at the end of the day.
And the hustle, the hustle and bustle of the American economy now, that's the main thing. It's going there in the next part, like going and pushing off the next thing to get more money. So, there's a lot of different things embedded in it. But I just had a good time making it. I conceived of the hook at Sundance a couple years back. I got up early, just like "I feel good, I'm ready to go, I'm ready to hustle." So that's where that came from, and then it started making its meaning known to me through time, but it evolved into something else.
Yeah, your flow is crazy on this one. You tap into many musical styles when you record. Since the first single "Fast Life" is a little more alt vibes, was it a conscious decision to drop something more barred up to follow it?
Not necessarily, but everything is conscious, but it's not like I was thinking about in terms of not necessarily how the verses are structured or anything, but it's all part of one umbrella. Alright so, "Fast Life," this song, the ones that I'll be dropping after this, it's all part of the same theme. Part of a larger thread. But everything I do is going to have its own DNA. Every song I make is going to be different because it says, depending on how I'm feeling or what the vibe is for that particular song, it could be live instrumentation, it could be digital-based. I could be singing, I could be rapping, could be whispering, could be screaming, whatever I'm just feeling at the time whatever I'm inspired to do, that's what ends up happening. It's going to take its own form.
While we've been on lockdown how are you sourcing inspiration? Are you reading, are you writing, are you watching stuff you hadn't seen before? Listening to new things?
I'm closing my eyes and sitting my ass down. All the screens turned off, fuck that shit. Everybody that I was talking to, I love y'all, but no. Going out, all that shit—nah. I'm sitting down and living an experience. The things I've never wanted to do, the things I thought I was too itchy to do. Listen to the silence, listen to the thoughts, that comes first. Then I jump on the phone. That's why this interview is so late. I got to spend time with myself and work through all these different things that I didn't want to pay attention to. Then I could get into some other shit. It's time for personal growth, I might as well use this time to unlock things in my childhood, unlock the experiences I've gone through. Why am I the person I am today?
Have you thought about how you're going to put this deeper, unlocked version of yourself into action when quarantine lifts, in terms of how it might affect the scripts you choose, what new music you decide to make. Have you thought about how this time is going to influence that?
It's just me. You know, I wouldn't even say it's a new version. It's the same thing except now new questions are being asked and new things are being unlocked, it's not like a crazy transformation. It's just that now I'm becoming more aware of some of the things that I've done in the past and moves that I made and how to approach it now if I'm asked the same questions, what answer I'm going to go with. Now it's a go, it's for sure, I know. These aren't the questions anymore, before I was confused like, "Oh, that's odd." I'm asking a little bit more questions.
Lakeith: So it's not necessarily a new version, it's just a, I guess you could say, an upgraded version. As Elon Musk would say like, "a new patch has been released." But that's what wisdom is, that's what game is, the same thing. Have you lived? You get a little bit more game, hopefully, if you're lucky enough to be open to it. You start to learn like "Oh shit, I didn't like when that happened, so let me do this this way now." Or "the result of that have led me into a space and place where I wasn't happy with myself" so I'm going to do something and I'm going to be conscious and aware of that in order to move in the right direction. So, I guess it's up to interpretation about what that indicates moving forward, but for me, I'm not really concerned about what it looks like. It's like, you just be it.
Speaking of just sitting by yourself, I've got to say the one-man skit that you posted a few weeks back with the cowboy hat was the hardest I've laughed in a while.
Yeah. Wait, which one? Which one are you referencing?
The one where you were going back and forth with yourself that ends with the cough.
Ah, shit. I don't know. I do so many godddamn skits, I don't even know.
Is that just you having fun creative outlet, or are you putting something together?
Oh no, I've always been like that, I look at everything from a different angle and I just put a camera on it. I mean, there's no question to why I'm an entertainer. I like cameras. I'm a fucking Leo, I don't care. I like to express, if I find something humorous, I'm going to share it with people. That's one day, on another I might just break out in dance, it's just whatever I'm feeling.
Going back to the first video you dropped, I liked how "Fast Life" had a shot of you at the Joker stairs which kind of felt like a nod to you campaigning for that role sometime in the future.
Yeah. You know, I'm a fan of the Joker, so it finds its way creeping into other aspects of my life as well. And "Fast Life" was made very DIY, we just found space and life and it just happened to be there. We just happened to be walking by and, "Oh shit, there go some cool steps," like boom. Funny, I hadn't even seen that scene in the Joker, I didn't even realize that that was the thing. I went to the Joker premiere, and I actually fell asleep when I was watching it. So I only saw the beginning of the movie, so I didn't even know that that was the spot until later and it was like, "Oh, actually that's the Joker shit. Okay, well shit, I'll just use it as an opportunity to do a sort of lightweight reenactment.
Well that's just further proof that you need to get that at some point.
You feel me man, I'm like, write me a black Joker, man, somebody do it.
We had Stella Meghie on our film podcast recently and she was telling us that she considers you like a Daniel Day-Lewis, actor's actor type.
Oh damn, that's what's up. I appreciate that. He's a great actor.
What challenges are you excited to jump into once you get back to work? Because I know you very consciously try to make sure you never choose the same role.
Well, I just like when good stories come to me. I like to act, I like to be an actor, so when good roles come and it feels like something is an opportunity to tell a story that I haven't told before, or challenge myself and stretch and experience something that I haven't experienced before through a different lens, then I'm excited about those kinds of things. I'm not as excited about the things that I'm already familiar with. It's like anything with an artist, I want to constantly be exploring and learning, finding new avenues, ways to express. Other things are boring, so we want to always push the dial as much as we can and challenge ourselves. And when you fall, you get that ass back up. Just continue to push and challenge. Because what is it if it's not a challenge? It ain't nothing. I'm just excited by things that challenge me to learn more about my fellow man.
Is there a genre that you haven't done yet that you want to take on?
I don't know, man, I'm more now interested in being the person that creates the dynamic. I like to make my own stories and that's what the music has helped me do. It also, in the further releases, you'll see the storytelling embedded in the music. So you'll see it embedded in the visuals of the video as well, you'll just see like, "Oh shit, this is actually how his love is in the form of the story." And so now I'm just thinking about ways to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, rather than looking to source them from other people.
We also had Issa and Rel on, separately, but they both told a story about the "Moonlight" video that you guys all did together and how there was a version that was ad-libbed and it wasn't a Friends script, and they both said that it was way funnier, but no one recorded it.
Yeah, man. No, they don't want to let us shine like that. But we always playing around with it.
Would you ever do, like, a fake revival and get together again with those five?
Oh those are my people, so that was cool. I'm fortunate, especially Rel, that's a solid dude. So it's always good, we find ourselves working together many times. They acting like we're a package deal at this point. It's cool, that's my boy.
Our readers ride for Atlanta heavy, so I cannot let you get away without asking about what the status is looking like for that, once the pandemic lifts and you guys can get back to work.
Yeah, you know, it's up to God. God determines and moves the dial on that. As soon as we're able to function and work in the capacity that we need to, definitely are ready to start bringing stuff back to the people. I miss the cast, I miss the crew, I can't wait to be back on set.
Did you read any of the scripts yet or did you guys not even get that far?
If I did, I wouldn't tell you. [pantomimes diabolical laugh]
Fair. Is there anything else that you wanted to touch on?
No, I just wanted to know if y'all could provide a link for Ahmaud Arbery for people to sign a petition and make themselves be heard about it more. I heard about the grand jury decided or, they want to bring it to a jury or whatever, but we still want to keep the pressure on them, make sure there's justice for him. That's the main thing I wanted out of this whole thing, to spread awareness because that shit made me mad as hell and I'm tired of it. I'm tired of that shit. I'm tired of seeing this, I'm tired of hearing this. If these people want to make themselves be heard, we ain't fucking with that dumbass shit.