Damon Davis Creates a Powerful New Universe Through Videos, Songs and Films
You could call Damon Davis a post-disciplinary artist/musician/filmmaker/producer/collective organizer/a few dozen other nouns, depending on the day. Or you could just skip all the slashes and call him what he is: a world-creator.
The St. Louis creative rose to national prominence as the co-director of “Whose Streets,” the critically acclaimed documentary about the killing of Michael Brown and the uprising in Ferguson that followed. But in his larger body of work, Davis isn’t content to simply critique our violent cultural moment; he wants to create a better culture now, even if needs to build a better planet to do it.
Through Afrofuturist explorations of alternative mythologies that blow up black excellence to a literal god-scale, Davis opens up our dominant conversation about the black American experience to a new realm of possibilities, just before the ceaseless engine of his intellect turns to critique the power structures of his new universe themselves. Lately, those explorations have taken the form of music videos—which, in addition to being complex and provocative, are serious bangers—science fiction films, documentaries and more.
Guided: You’ve been working on a series of videos to accompany your conceptual album, “Darker Gods,” which premiered at The Luminary last year. Tell me a bit about the mythology behind that project.
“Darker Gods” originally came from an idea about black people being holy human beings, which they are, but it’s really hard to see that in pop culture, or even just on the news. For the last few years, the phenomenon of black people being shot by police has resurfaced in the social consciousness—it never stopped, but it rose to the surface again around what happened here in Ferguson, with Mike Brown. I was doing a lot of work in Ferguson, and, after a while, I wanted to switch lanes from just talking about how horrible the world looks to creating a world where we could, I guess, just be whole human beings. Then I was like, “Well, hold on, I want to take it past being whole human beings. Let’s turn it up a notch.” And so that’s that idea, of personifying different attributes around black culture through deities.
Guided: How can mythology and art change culture?
Well, every social structure is a myth, right? They’re myths that we buy into. Whether it’s gender or whether it’s race or whether it’s sexual orientation, all of it, when you’re born people tell you, “This is who you’re supposed to be.” When you get told a certain story about who you are and where you come from over and over again—especially when we’re talking about black people, or we’re talking about women, or we’re talking about queer people, or when we’re talking about any kind of marginalized people—you can start to buy into that myth, but that’s exactly what it is: a myth. But for any myth to grow and flourish, they’ve got to tell you some really good fucking stories.
I think if we can tell ourselves new myths, and new stories, then we can start to rearrange our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
Guided: Tell me a little bit about the “Sad Panther” piece that’s on exhibit at Bruno David Gallery starting Sept. 14 and how it fits into the larger work.
“Sad Panther” is a bit of an experiment, like a lot of the video pieces that go along with the “Darker Gods” album. Because I come from music—music is the thing I’ve been working on professionally the longest—I’m a fan of the music video; I’m a fan of telling a story really fast and doing it visually. But with this [project], I wanted to push the boundaries.
The basic premise of the song is about a god who wakes up one day and the clouds are above his head; because he’s a deity, they’re usually below him. The world is upside down, and, for once, he is not the most powerful thing in the universe. So it’s kind of a story about self-awareness, humility and understanding that there’s always something bigger than you, and what that would do to the ego of an omnipotent being.
Even for humans, sometimes your creation outdoes you, right? When you’re a parent, sometimes your kids are smarter than you. There’s humility in knowing that you’re not the center of the universe, even if you’re god. Human beings aren’t gods, but we tend to be very arrogant in how we interact with the environment, how we interact with each other. Organized religion—or at least the big three [monotheistic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism]—have especially taught us that.
But it wasn’t always like that. From the Romans and the Greeks to African religions to Hinduism and other Southeast Asian religions—they all had multiple gods working in a community. It’s not until we get into today’s bigger religions that there’s one guy in charge of everything who’s all powerful and all knowing. I think that idea can harm how we interact with each other, at least sometimes.
Guided: Your film “The Stranger” recently won several awards at the St. Louis International Film Festival’s St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase. Tell me about that project.
“The Stranger” is also about creating new mythology to explain a bigger overarching truth. That’s what most art is, I guess, but I’m leaning on an older way of talking, a much simpler way. So this film is basically about a man who falls from the sky and goes in search of a castle and a queen. And then he finds both of those things, and they’re not exactly what he thought they were.
I shot it in Ghana when I was there for an artist residency, and it’s basically about my personal experience being somebody from the black diaspora who’s returning to the African mainland and expecting certain things that I didn’t find—or at least not in the way I thought they would be. It wasn’t all bad, but it wasn’t all good. It taught me a lot about expectations and, again, about believing in myths. It’s about the arrogance of thinking you’re going to come into another place and that you deserve something. It’s also about humbling yourself when you’re in another place and learning—shutting your mouth and learning, instead of walking around thinking you know what’s going on in a new place when you’re not from there.
What’s next for you?
The next thing will be putting out our annual [compilation] album for FarFetched [the music collective and label I founded]; this one’s called “Prologue IX.” And there’s other things that are happening; one big thing is I recorded an album through a project we do with some young artists, where we teach them different political theories and then we record an album in the spirit of the idea of using culture to teach organizing. This year they’re all from St. Louis, and we’re working on the release date right now.
I’m also working on my second feature film, a documentary called “Chain of Rocks.” It’s about a very publicized St. Louis murder case that happened in 1991, and it’s going to be an animated feature.
And there’s always other stuff. That’s what I’m rolling on. I’m learning to stop talking about everything before I get more traction on it. [Laughs.] It’ll all come.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Featured image courtesy of Bruno David Gallery.