Who is Jeymes Samuel? He is the brother of 1990s pop icon (and former husband of model Heidi Klum) Seal, but the UK singer and producer is also known as The Bullitts and has worked with elusive American rapper Jay Electronica, the movie hunk and singer Idris Elba, and the dreamy actress Lucy Liu. His debut album, They Die by Dawn & Other Short Stories, dropped last July, and it contains tracks that have the intensity and high drama of a big-budget Hollywood flick. On some tracks, such as the gorgeous "Murder Death Kill," Liu reads as if from a script, Samuel sings as if from a script, and Jay Electronica raps as if from a script. In 2012, Samuel was picked by the Bill Gates of rap, Jay-Z, to be a music consultant on Baz Luhrmann's blockbuster The Great Gatsby.
Samuel's music is all about the mood of movies, the fullness of cinemascope, the drama of a hero in a moment of danger. It seems to have been written in the stars that he would one day write and direct his own movie. They Die by Dawn, a 51-minute western that premiered at South by Southwest in 2013, stars some of the biggest names in black Hollywood (Rosario Dawson, Isaiah Washington, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael K. Williams) and pop music (David Banner and Erykah Badu).
I have not seen this film, which opens this year's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute's 11th annual Langston Hughes African American Film Festival, where Samuel will be in attendance, but the trailer makes it clear that we can expect the cinematic intensity of Samuel's beats to make an easy leap to the screen. And who in the world does not want to watch a western that stars Erykah Badu? Samuel promises that his film is much, much, much better than Mario Van Peebles's Posse (1993), which is also set in the Wild West and packed to the brim with black movie stars and famous rappers of that time.
"[Peebles's] New Jack City was a wicked film!" Samuel said from London during a conversation we had over the phone. "But his Posse was not proper."
But is your western a pure fantasy? The black sheriff, the black outlaws, and so on? Are you just fucking with people and what they usually expect from a western?
"No!!!" he said, almost leaping through the phone and popping up in my Seattle bedroom. "It's a fictional tale, yes, but it's based on real characters that really existed in the old west—real characters of color. Being a fan of movies, I was always into westerns, and being black, I would always wonder where are the black people in all of this excitement? So I began digging into that history, and I came up with all these rich characters: Rufus Buck, Nat Love, Cherokee Bill, Stagecoach Mary—all of these characters of color we have never seen before on the screen. These people were not slaves. They were goodies and baddies, and they really existed. And this is just the beginning. The next western, The Notorious Nine, will be two and a half hours long."
They Die by Dawn was shot in just four days, which is amazing even for a short film. When asked how he funded the whole thing, Samuel said: "I funded it out of my own pocket. Whenever people ask me about the funding, I always tell them that if I were a rapper and driving a Maybach, no one would ask how did I fund that car. But I do not want to drive a Maybach. I want to drive a western. I want to make a statement about our culture."
The Langston Hughes African American Film Festival runs April 26 to May 4, more information at langstoninstitute.org/film-festival.