Who doesn’t love rapping puppets ?
Watch this A, Yo video and you will find yourself thinking- with a wide smile- that filmmaker, musician and puppeteer Spence Warren sure has a point. Then again, as readers of Spence Warren’s pre-pandemic Chicago theater reviews know—Spence typically has wise and insightful points! When the pandemic hit, Picture This Post Editor-in-Chief kept up with Spence here and there—getting a cellphone message with a half-built puppet photo. That’s when the idea for this interview was born—where Picture This Post (PTP) asks Spence Warren (SW) about this project. Then—George Floyd was murdered—putting Mr. Warren and his colleagues at Soft Cage Films into high gear to capture this time of protest with their trademark unfiltered lens. Check out these films in the link below. Meanwhile, enjoy this short dive into Spence Warren’s thoughts on this unique moment.
(PTP) Please tell our readers about your background in film—how did you get started?
(SW) I got my start at a place called Community TV Network when I was in high school. A filmmaker and teaching artist called Sree Nallamothu said to a 15 year old me that I was a “really good interviewer.” I don’t know if anyone - other than my parents - had ever told me they thought I was good at anything before, and it really stuck with me.
Sometime later I decided to devote my life to filmmaking. There are a number of events that mark this path of mine but that one was surely the beginning. Encouragement is a funny thing, is it not?
Round Christmas time (maybe 2010) the person I was paired with for our family gift exchange was a challenging person to shop for. I decided to get creative and consider things I knew she loved. What manifested was a project in which I converted a pair of teddy bears to puppets, dressed them in costumes, recorded an Air Supply song in the style of Outlaw Country, shot a music video, and then gave her the puppets and the video as a kind of mixed media gift. This went over pretty well so I decided to turn it into a yearly Christmas tradition. Since then, the last few days of December have become a period perennially filled with 48hr-film-festival energy as I work to entertain a very small, but reasonably devoted audience of family and friends. I call this project Bear Supply. One year I decided to try my hand at crafting a more elaborate, Muppet-style puppet. I stayed up all night on the eve of that year’s shoot day cutting, sewing, gluing while watching documentaries about Sesame Street, Jim Henson, and Avenue Q. In the morning, my best puppet to date was finished and I became a puppeteer.
What was the inspiration for A,Yo? Is the COVID themed video the first and only in this initiative?
I think that the experience of being stuck at home during a pandemic as ever-present systemic injustices intensify and proliferate moved a lot of artists around the world to a desire to create something hopeful. I’m one such artist. Neither the song nor the video is intended to be precisely COVID themed, though that subject is certainly quite present both lyrically and visually. I didn’t intend to talk about it at all, actually but when I sat down to write lyrics, COVID infused ideas came out. Another effect of an aggressively transmissible virus, perhaps. The theme I focused on and shared with my collaborators was ‘inspiration in isolation.’ All told, it is my sincere hope that we’ve created something with enough emotional truth in it that - even while recognizing themes inspired by this globally shared experience - folks don’t necessarily feel that they must engage through a COVID lens in order to connect with it.
I believe that Hip Hop will save the world because Hip Hop is a culture of inclusion and vibrant energy that is touched by disciplines from all over the world. It’s a Black American culture/artform bolstered by Japanese technology, with a ton of African, Afro-Carribean, Latinx-American, and South American influences, and that’s just to name a few! Hip Hop contains dances that fuse with Jazz, Tap, Ballet, Modern, Capoeira, and a host of movement systems from around the world - West Africa in particular.
In short, Hip Hop will save the world largely because Hip Hop is uniquely of the world.
What was the process in creating this video?
I’ll start by saying that I am a lifelong Hip Hop fan, but I am not an emcee. Ideas like the “Hey Joe” acoustic guitar groove, the song title, the rapping, and the dancers came - more or less - all at once. I wanted to create an emcee cypher with a Blues/Folk heartbeat, so I reached out to dancers and emcees.
Editor’s Note: In hip hop music, an emcee is a vocalist who rhymes over sampling, scratching, and mixing supplied by a DJ. A cypher is an informal gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakdancers in a circle, who jam musically together.
As it happened, all but one actual emcee - Emcee Bob Rok, who provided that killer second verse - were unavailable so I decided that I would try my hand at writing verses myself. At the end of the six total verses, I wrote four and a half of em. Again, I am not an emcee, but I was determined to have my big cypher, even if I had to do a bunch of it myself, so puppets immediately sprang to mind as the best alternate vehicle to get me there. Through puppets, I could change my style of delivery and cadence. I could also present a nice little set of fun characters!
Also, who doesn’t love rapping puppets?
In total - including the folks who did the camera work - we’re talking about twenty people who helped me bring this vision to life. Two of the performers were complete strangers (one I met on social media, the other I met through my wife via social media) with whom email was our only communication. The rest are dear friends and/or remarkable artists I’ve worked with in the past. Aside from the folks who operated cameras for the performers, much of the teamwork was funneled through me. I talked about themes, I offered ideas and the folks responded by making dope choices. Jackson (Handsome Jack) was inspired enough by the four-bar verse I wrote for him, that he wrote four more, which added to the diversity of the piece and lightened my workload!
I also feel called to point out that Angela Torres-Kutkuhn and Amanda Noelle Neal - who regularly perform together in a fantastic Opera/Sketch Comedy group called Forte Chicago - apparently came up with their amazing vocal harmonies by way of telepathy! I ain’t have nuthin’ to do wit dat.
The only unique-to-this-type-of-project challenge I can think of is the variable speed of communication. When you’re in a rehearsal space or on set together and you get an idea, you talk it out and shape performances, camera work, lighting, etc. together in the moment. When you’re remote and you don’t have the ability to sync schedules, the best you can do is to send messages back and forth until your performers do their thing. I suppose another unique thing might be the exponentially larger amount of labor you’re asking for given the fact that folks have to either shoot themselves or arrange to shoot with someone and deliver the footage to you. A few extra helpings of trust, patience, and creativity become necessary for all parties involved to ensure that things remain manageable and collaborative under these circumstances. If there ain’t collaboration, then there ain’t no magic and if there ain’t no magic, the art always suffers. I was fortunate enough to have earned the patient trust of a wide array of talented artists!
Please tell our readers about Soft Cage Films and why/how it is distinct from other film production entities.
David Holcombe (Soft Cage Films co-Founder and Artistic Director) and I were introduced via a colleague some years ago because David was making a micro-budget short film and needed someone to do props/set decoration for a couple of days. A year or so later, I needed a guitar player for a micro-budget film of my own and I called David. Having worked with the Soft Cage Family twice and really appreciating their values and mission, when they asked me to join, I accepted.
Soft Cage Films is a radical 501c3 non-profit multimedia production company. We make work that challenges social norms and combats harmful narratives. We amplify voices for positive social change. I’d say that there is a myriad of things that make Soft Cage distinct from other film producing entities, but chief among them might be that we are entirely values based. We are not driven by profit motive or by what might bring the most notoriety. We seek to serve the public good by telling good, relevant stories as best we can with as diverse a group of individuals as we can muster. In my capacity as Board President, I am involved with a number of our projects in a number of ways. I co-Produce Activism Now (Our ongoing series that focuses on protests in Chicago) with David Holcombe. I also occasionally shoot some of the footage and conduct street interviews.
Can you tell our readers about your current folk song project - is it the same/different than the A, Yo music video?
An incredible songwriter and folk artist called Tom Prasada-Rao wrote a stirring requiem for George Floyd called $20 Bill. He’s cultivating a community of artists around covering his song and I’d like to join it. Much like A, Yo the cover I have in mind will be very collaborative and I intend to give it a Hip-Hop heartbeat. I think Folk and Hip Hop have a lot in common. They are both artforms of the people with traditions and customs which are deeply rooted in uplifting community and fueling activism. I’m quite drawn to blending those forms.
How do you anticipate the film industry will change (or not) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests?
I imagine that the industry will be impacted in a myriad ways, at every level, but my sense of history tells me that it takes an awfully long time for material conditions to change - especially when people are used to making a profit within the framework of the status quo. I hope (for instance) that the dearth of BIPOC department heads will become a more visible and more often discussed topic - but I know that such conversations can give rise to conflict. Ideological conflict can create tensions which can lead to folks being passed over for the next job. In general, I imagine that the unique difficulties of freelance work - especially right now - are such that we’re likely to see a lot of business as usual on the social justice front. I think a lot of people will strive to avoid being branded “difficult” in a time when work is scarce. That having been said, I’m hopeful that there will be at least a few pockets of substantive, palpable change. I imagine that tensions will rise as some people become more outspoken about all manner of oppressive behavior and I imagine that some people will really step up and demonstrate true allyship for marginalized crew members. I imagine that true colors - so to speak - will be shown as stakes continue to rise despite some folks’ best efforts to return to the way things were before COVID19 and before May 25th, 2020.
Any other comments for our readers?
Politicians like Chicago’s Aundre Vasquez and Athens’ Mariah Parker give me hope because they represent a broadening of perspective in the lower levels of the American political system. The dismantling of the power structure that seeks to abuse, torture, kidnap, and murder people who look like me will take quite a lot to be sure. I think that when artists - particularly young BIPOC artists- who understand that such a system must be dismantled become a part of it, the work could become a lot easier so long as they remain committed to doing it.
For now, stating that Black lives matter is a form of resistance. I hope I live to see that change, but until then, I think living radically in our joy and making art that endeavors to inspire are among the many ways Black people have to make that statement.
Watch Activism Now Films about #BLM protests and more here.
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All images Courtesy of Spence Warren, and additional photographer credits as indicated
A, Yo Credits:
Directed and Edited by
Background Vocals were arranged and performed by
both of whom are ensemble members at Forte Chicago
Kamala (courtesy of Bethany Eggert)
Azalea (Also courtesy of Bethany Eggert)
Ariel Etana Triunfo
Additional Photography by
Boom Box Graphic created by
DonGraphitti by Don Marciano
TheStamshons by Sabr
Peinture Fraiche and Bombing by Qkila
Sound Effects provided by