Behind the story: Alexis Okeowo on the creative force behind Beyoncé and Rihanna videos

At a glance, Alexis Okeowo’s March 2017 profile of Melina Matsoukas (“Image Consultant”), is a total departure. Okeowo, a New Yorker staff writer, tends to favor subjects with a decidedly non-celebrity bent.

She’s cast a discerning eye on on a Mauritanian abolitionist; vigilantes pursuing Boko Haram; and South Africa’s first female public protector. And she’s the author of the forthcoming A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa.

And yet, there’s a perceptible through-line in the Lagosian’s work: Okeowo—who was part of National Geographic’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated team for in Explanatory Reporting—is adept at convincing her subjects, no matter their walk of life, to reveal themselves to her readers.

That was a necessary skill when profiling Matsoukas; despite the director’s phenomenal impact on popular culture through her work with Beyoncé, Rihanna, and many other artists, she had not been seriously profiled. Okeowo did just that, to a rather astonishing degree.

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What follows is another installment of Behind the Story, in which we’re given a peek behind the curtain at how a story was conceived, reported, written, and edited—as told to CJR by the author, Alexis Okeowo.

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We have a long-running ideas list at The New Yorker. Shortly after Beyoncé’s Lemonade and “Formation” had come out, Melina Matsoukas, the director of the latter, ended up on the list. So this profile was, in a sense, pre-approved. But I pitched it to my editor, Nick Trautwein, and we brought it to David Remnick.

Melinda was already blowing up, but she hadn’t yet been inundated with press or interview requests. She was still open to having someone shadow her and spend an extended amount of time with her.

My pitch was she’s a dynamic, young, black female director. There aren’t many like Melina in Hollywood. She’s worked with artists like Beyoncé for years, creating these really provocative, thoughtful videos—including “Formation,” one of the best videos of last year. She’s also going into comedy and other fiction projects. And, of course, she’s working with some of the biggest female artists of our time, including Rihanna, and guiding them in directions that have been fascinating. Melina has been behind the scenes of some of our most interesting art over the last decade.

Melina Matsoukas. Photograph by Awol Erizku for The New Yorker.

I had to arrange access. In April of last year, I found Melina through her video management agency and asked if I could come hang out in Los Angeles. She agreed almost immediately. Melina said that she’s been a fan of The New Yorker and that, even though she was busy finishing up some work on Insecure, I was welcome to come see her. It was pleasantly fast and smooth, which doesn’t always happen when we’re dealing with Hollywood personalities or people in entertainment.

I’d told her that I wanted to talk in-depth about her work. She was was fine with that. As a director, Melina likes to stay out of the spotlight. She’s not terribly comfortable talking about people she works with, out of respect for their privacy. I stressed to her that we would talk about the creative inspiration behind her work, rather than the salacious details of Beyoncé’s love life.

 

Last May, I went out to see her in LA. I was there for nine days, which turned out to be a lot. I got to see her almost anytime I wanted. I mostly do international stories and I tend to budget excess reporting time. When you’re used to working in Africa, you assume it will be hard to see people because of logistical problems. But I could see her almost every day, so I ended up getting a lot of material. I alternated between one-on-ones with Melina at either her home or various production studios, or I followed her on set to see her in different settings.

 

This was one of my first times as a journalist where I grew to really like my subject. Melina and I have a lot in common. After we talked a while and hung out, we shared things about ourselves. It’s not that a friendship emerges, necessarily, but a friendly dynamic. That was interesting. I think we grew really comfortable with each other, and I could tell she was relaxing around me.

That did start to worry me. Wait, am I going to be then nervous about being critical of her if I have to be? Am I going to be as honest as I need to be, or am I going to worry about her feelings? You do start to get uneasy and have to remind yourself that, as lovely as I think she is, I am still interviewing her for a profile. Even though, in an alternate reality, maybe we’d be friends, you know?

 

I went to Melina’s apartment a couple of times for one-on-one interviews and to watch some of her videos. She was so open about letting me into her home. I got to see every room, even her closets. On the one hand, she is private. But she did open up in some regards.

I think she liked the fact that we’re both youngish black women in creative industries—hers more so than mine—who have quite a bit in common. We share some of the same interests in music and movies and television and art and fashion. I think she felt I would get the story, and perhaps be able to tell it better, than someone who didn’t share these things. I don’t know if that was true, in the end, but I felt that I understood a lot of things she was talking about, and her thought process behind some of the videos. When she told me about her discomfort with the police, or her experiences as a black woman in Hollywood, I understood. These were things she didn’t have to interpret or explain to me. I got the shorthand.

There was a limit to her openness, of course. Even when we were talking for almost three hours, there was never going to be a point where she would tell me idle gossip. She is aware of what she’s saying, and she’s careful not to say anything that she feels she shouldn’t. Melina wasn’t like, Oh, let me tell you the real story. From the get-go, we established that I’m not going to ask her for a second time if it’s true that Jay-Z cheated on Beyoncé. That made her clam up, so I asked for details in other ways.

 

I pushed her on the sampling of the New Orleans documentary in “Formation.” That was a point of contention, because she really felt she hadn’t done anything wrong; the footage was paid for. I know she was sensitive to that. At the same time, I thought that the filmmaker’s argument was not without merit because he felt his work was being passed off as someone else’s. It’s tricky to handle, because this is an industry where things are constantly borrowed and sampled and reused again and again. But she was definitely defensive about it.

I thought it was important to push back and ask her. It wasn’t uncomfortable to ask her, but it was tense when she felt personally offended that I’d brought it up.

 

Many artists aren’t great about discussing their craft or technique. They’re just like, Well, this is what I do. It’s second nature. One day, I was at her house and we sat down and just went through her thought process on “Formation.” We broke the video down by every couple of seconds. I don’t think she’d ever done that before with someone.

It took a couple of hours to go through a few minutes. I’d ask, Where did that come from? What’s that? There was so much packed in from the very first scene, where Beyoncé is on top of the police car in the water. To be able to ask about the origins of the ideas was incredible. Sometimes she’d say, Yeah, I was looking at these photos and this came to me, and I was like, No, break it down even further. What exactly were you looking at, which photo? It was extremely helpful to see how she thinks and where she looks for inspiration and what moves her. Through that encounter, I learned about her own family and how that influences her work.

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I’m sitting on her couch and she’s telling me this, and it’s as if a nuclear scientist is telling me the secrets of the atomic bomb. It was a privilege. How often does that happen? You admire a piece of art, you become obsessed with it, and you get to sit with its creator?

Remarkable as it was, the explicit act of Melina walking me through “Formation” didn’t end up in the piece. Rather, I used the details from our talk to create the opening scene. That’s always an interesting question, though: how much process should you reveal?

 

Then I went home, and did all the other stuff that’s not as fun as interviewing Melina. In this case, I got my hand on every video she’s ever done and then reread all her past interviews. I tried to get as much about Melina as I could from a lot of a lot of secondary interviews, talking to her family, her colleagues, to as many people who knew her at different stages of life. I interviewed maybe two dozen people, over a series of months.

 

People definitely declined to talk to me. Rihanna didn’t, through her representation. I don’t know why. She was the one who I really wanted to talk to and just couldn’t. I didn’t have high expectations about Beyoncé because I knew her policy regarding interviews. With Beyoncé, if you’re going to do an interview with her, it has to be on her terms, so I wasn’t surprised that that was exactly how we communicated. In the end, she agreed to let me email some questions, and I was okay with that. But it would’ve been nice to have a phone interview.

I sent my questions to Beyoncé’s publicist and I didn’t hear back for a long time. I didn’t think she was going to get back to us at all, and then Melina said, Oh, actually Beyoncé just asked me if it’s too late to get back to you. Well, of course not. So then Beyoncé’s publicist forwarded her answers. It was nice to have at least something from her in the piece.

 

I rely heavily on my recorder. I take notes, too, but I’m not a fan of traditional notetaking. I’ll write in my notebook a bit, but I prefer typing in my Notes app on my phone while my recorder is going. I don’t do shorthand, so I want to have every word down. Years ago, I used to take notes in my notebook and try to get down every quote. It was just really difficult. The recorder is so much better. I have one that’s subtle, and I don’t need to stick it in the subject’s face. You can hold it under your notebook as you’re writing. It lets me sleep better that I haven’t gotten something wrong.

 

As I worked, my editor Nick sent me Kelefa Sanneh’s profile of Kid Rock. It was a good model; Kelefa’s piece was clearly the work of someone well-versed in the artist’s catalog, and who has an opinion on why he matters, or doesn’t matter, and how he is relevant to the cultural moment.

 

I began planning out the story after I finished the reporting in LA at the end of May. I began my draft, while continuing to do interviews, and I turned in my first draft in late July. Nick went through it and had suggestions. He wanted to hone in on who Melina was as an artist: what specifically she brought to the work she’d done; how much of it was her versus the musician. He wanted to to really get at who she is as a thinker and as a creative mind. Is she a visionary or is she someone who just refines ideas from her artists? Is she someone who’s really inventive or is she derivative?

So that meant more reporting. And I wrote another draft. Melina and I had many phone conversations after seeing each other in person. I reached out to some new sources, both in the entertainment industry and out, to get more perspectives on her work. That continued until early fall.

 

The story begins with a scene of Melina getting the offer to direct “Formation.” At the time I was writing it, that video was why she was becoming such a well–known name. It was the most immediate thing on my mind.

It’s tricky with profiles of artists; you generally have scenes where you’ve watched them at work. But in the case of Melina, it was hard because she wasn’t working on a music video right then. In fact, she’s not really doing them much anymore, so I couldn’t have that scene. But with “Formation,” you’d want to know how it worked, how the video came about. It seemed, to me, to be most compelling to start with her describing how one of her most acclaimed and powerful videos came to be, step by step.

I thought, Let’s start with something that will grab people. Even people who aren’t necessarily familiar with that video will be able to see that this was something original and different.

 

The New Yorker style is to have scenes broken up by exposition and background. That’s what we tried to do, too, but it came out a bit differently. With the second scene, which leads into her background, we didn’t want it to be dry. We didn’t want it to be, And now Melina was born in 1980. We tried to lead into that with something from her work. From there, we could talk about the videos.

The process of trying to glean as much as we could from her very first video, which she’d done for a rapper in Houston for a couple hundred dollars, to her more glossy expensive ones, was new for me. It was a way of getting at the heart of a person through her work.

 

The passage about Beyoncé, black women, and feminism was my words, but they were Melina’s, too. This was on her mind, and even though she didn’t say it exactly like that, I felt it wasn’t a deviation from what she was thinking as she created this work. Especially in light of how Beyoncé’s feminism is often criticized, and which Melina defended, it was important that I express that people don’t often get, or try to get, what black feminism is and how it differs from mainstream feminism.

Especially with Lemonade, there was so much criticism from people who asked why Beyoncé was staying with a cheating husband. We talked about how a black woman balances the duties of her race and her gender, and how black romantic relationships are sometimes different as a result.

It’s something I feel personally. I never thought, Oh, I have to talk to a black female academic to back this up. I was like, I know this.

 

I sent back a revision in early August. The size of the edits started to go down once I addressed structural questions or comments. It was mostly about refining.

Nick and I passed drafts back and forth. At that time, we were also working on another story of mine, about an Eritrean soccer team. Sometimes weeks would go by without any editing or talking about it, so it wasn’t a seamless process. Remnick probably didn’t see it until November. He definitely reads everything before it goes in, from the smallest restaurant review to the biggest feature.

 

My favorite thing that got cut was a visit to the Insecure set. Melina was directing a room of children who were acting as students. They were singing a rap that the main character, played by Issa Rae, had made up. The song was called “Broken Pussy,” and she was yelling at the children, Say ‘broken pussy’ this way!

It was nice to see how she was on set, and see her directing at the top of her lungs. Melina’s voice has a way of landing on top of everyone’s.

 

Our fact checker, Camila, had to jump through some hoops. She dealt with the representation of Beyoncé and Solange and all these people, and I don’t think it was easy.

There were some points that Melina wanted to refine, but nothing drastic. There were some things about Beyoncé that sources had told me that we couldn’t confirm. By virtue of the fact that Beyoncé doesn’t talk, there were one or two details that I had heard from other people in the industry that we couldn’t confirm with her representation. So we had to take them out.

 

Working on this piece was illuminating. I don’t normally write about music or Hollywood or the entertainment industry, but this felt like such a different story because this was a woman who was smart and inventive and I could get where she was coming from.

I hadn’t really worked on a story where a subject had let me into her creative process. It was fascinating, and it got me thinking about, and looking at, art in a different way, even something I had considered as basic as a music video. These videos, I learned, were more complex and considered than I could’ve imagined.

It was a singular experience I don’t think I’ll have again for a while. I know I was lucky to spend time with someone who was so open to my exploring what was going on behind her work. Last year was such an interesting year for black art in general, and Melina was so much a part of that. It felt special to get to know her.

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Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York. He's an editor at Longform. Find him on Twitter @ElonGreen.