“The reason why I’m in this business is that I love hip-hop.”
Though his name doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as it should around his country of origin, in a nutshell, Shomi Patwary is the man behind some of the hottest and most innovative music videos in recent times. The Bengali-American music video director is known for bringing his brand of surreal flair to the traditionally gritty hip-hop videos. The best part? His profile as a director, cinematographer, editor, graphics and web designer screams self-made. Few things are respected as highly in hip-hop culture as a hustler and Patwary has all the makings of one. Today, his illustrious resume includes having worked with the likes of Beyonce, Shah Rukh Khan, Major Lazer, The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky and Migos, just to name a few.
Bollywood dreams and Fated beginnings
“In a strange way, I think I was at the right place at the right time,” says Shomi, who moved from Bangladesh to the USA at the age of 8. This kind of humility seems as purposeful as it is a credit to his upbringing. To this day, he credits his father and the Bengali experience for teaching him the intricacies of the hustle and problem-solving skills required for filmmaking. “To experience that struggle of New York [he later moved to Virginia Beach] in 1990, I think taught me a lot. It was humbling,” he admits. Even his natural gravitation towards colourful palettes can be credited to the vibrant textures of the Bollywood films he grew up watching. This all came full circle when he got to co-direct Shah Rukh Khan’s ‘Phurrr’, “When that happened, it was the first time my cousins in Bangladesh knew what I did for a living.”
The fact that Shomi was destined to be in the music industry was evident from a fairly young age. He remembers skipping class to go watch the shooting of Clipse’s ‘When The Last Time’. He was pursuing Computer Science in college and quickly made a name for himself among Virginia Beach musicians for his unique media packages which included mixtape covers, DVDs, websites, flyers and more. This eventually snowballed into him starting a multi-media company called Illusive Media, with his best friend Philip Lee. Looking back, Shomi can peacefully attest to the fact that it was his naive and passionate spirit that got him this far. “Now, I feel like the kids have a cheat code to life”, Shomi says, referring to the advancement of internet and the endless of possibilities in the creative industry. If anything, he wishes he had started sooner.
The Who’s Who
Shomi has been influenced by everyone from Spike Jonze, Hype Williams to Nine Inch Nails and Chris Cunningham. Early on in his career, he was known for his guerrilla shooting and editing style. As the budgets have gotten bigger, the shoots have become smoother. However, he still fancies keeping a B-cam on set which at times saves the day. A lot of his visuals have a trippy or an abstract element to them, as he regularly uses glitches, data-moshing and other unusual effects at his disposal. Post-production is an integral part of his process and much is credited to his editor, Robby Elliot. “Artists that trust us get the best stuff”, concludes Shomi.
Some of his early work contains Lupe Fiasco’s ‘I’m Beamin’, which takes a dig at the over-the-top nature of rap videos by having kids hold-up school plays like cardboard backdrops. Then there is Belly’s ‘Might Not’ featuring The Weeknd, which explores the surreal paranoia of the aftermath of drugs, a video that would earn Shomi a ‘Much Music’ award nomination. A personal favourite would be A$AP Mob’s ‘Yamborghini High’ featuring Juicy J, which was a trippy multi-coloured Wes Anderson-style twist to some of the ideas inspired from the late A$AP Yams’s tweets. A more recent example would be Pusha T’s ‘If You Know You Know’. “We wanted to create a moment in time. We wanted to create what it’s like to be a minority that gets pulled over by the cops,” explains Shomi.
On downfalls, flipsides and representation
But not everything is fun and games while making international music videos. Shomi suffers from Meniere’s disease and during a shoot, he once suffered from a vertigo attack due to excess stress. Shomi had tweeted how the particular record label representatives couldn’t care less about his well-being cause they weren’t fully satisfied with having him on board in the first place. On the treatment of artists and big label mechanics, Shomi says, “Some of the people are the best people you’re going to work with. There’s this family-like relationship you build with them as they go out of their way to bring your vision to life.” He pauses for a minute as though weighing his words before continuing. “But sometimes you’ve forces that work against you.”
Hip-hop has clearly gripped the entire world’s imagination, but can it escape some of the obvious criticism? Excess has been a cornerstone of modern mainstream hip-hop with rappers prominently exuding their wealth and possessions. Nothing has propelled this more than music videos, some of which even Shomi has directed. But he makes a rather clever comparison to the glamour of 80s rock ‘n’ roll and explains the thought behind creating the fantastical elements of a rap video. “Part of the reason why rappers have all that excess is because a lot of these guys come from nothing. It shows you can make it too.” But is that enough?
Another drawback would be the depiction of women. Hip-hop hasn’t had the best reputation with regards to its treatment of women, be it in the lyrics or in the music videos. In the light of recent events, it’s high time creatives like Shomi weigh in on the inclusion of women in hip-hop, and he doesn’t mince his words while doing so, “I think even in my videos it sometimes feels like objectification and I’m not going to deny that. Part of that has to do with the artists and what he wants.” He continues, “I think women shouldn’t be treated as props in a video, but sometimes it does come up like that. It’s like they are a part of the set design. It’s a sad reality. But I think it’s changing and when I get a chance to show women in an empowering light, I’m all for it.”
I try to follow up the conversation with a milder topic as I bring up ‘The Problem With Apu’, and Shomi immediately cuts me off by saying, “I always hated that character.” We were obviously talking about the controversial documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu revolving around Apu, the Indian convenience store owner in ‘The Simpsons’, voiced by Hank Azaria. Shomi recalls having been called ‘Apu’ by mean-spirited kids throughout high school, all because of poorly developed representation of South Asian characters on television. An interesting observation made by the documentary was how brown people had no sense of nation-wide representation, either it would be store owners, cab drivers, doctors or terrorists.
“Yeah, that’s all you saw. It didn’t help the cause. It didn’t inspire you to be like, ‘Oh, maybe I could be a guy who directs cool rap videos.’ You just didn’t see that representation. We were always looked at as lower-tier business people”, says Shomi who also admits things have become much better now. Even as a Muslim in the USA, he isn’t too happy with the country’s political climate, especially with the media playing both sides for ratings, “A certain political class still looks at me as a threat.” But overall he is optimistic about things. He wants to use his journey as an example to inspire young minority kids, “It’s very important that we show people like - no, we can do everything. We are not just computer engineers and gas station owners. We can be in the music industry and make important decisions to help break artists.”
Shomi might just make his way to India later this year due to an upcoming project. However, directing Shah Rukh Khan wasn’t his only Indian connection. He also got to work with Diljit Dosanjh - who Shomi likes to call the ‘A$AP Rocky Of India’ because of his impeccable fashion sense, and even almost worked with a future legend, rapper DIVINE. “I love working with Indian artists, man. If I can give them that American feel and combine our desi background, I think it’s great.”
Shomi is planning to extend his forte and is currently working on a script for a T.V. show. He wants to continue to direct music videos and hopes to direct Jay-Z someday. And if you think that’s farfetched, just letting you know that Will Smith, the Fresh Prince who helped young Shomi be cool, just flew him out to get some feedback on his upcoming music. So yeah, anything is possible, kids. Shomi Patwary is an example.
Feature photograph by Thuan Tran.
If you liked this article we suggest you read: