Around The World with Meji Alabi - his favourite locations

Promonews - 26th Mar 2021

Meji Alabi is raring to go. Like pretty much every other UK-based director, he has been stuck at home for the past twelve months. And that has been particularly difficult for a director who always seems to be on the move around the globe.

With his connections in Nigeria - he co-owns JM Films with producer Jimi Adesanya, while being represented by Black Dog Films in the UK and US - Alabi (above right with Skepta on the Energy video shoot) has filmed in Lagos many times, and been hugely instrumental in bringing the new artists of Afrobeat to wider attention, though his exciting, colourful executions in authentic settings.

He has shot elsewhere in Africa too - Ghana, Uganda and South Africa - and many other places, from the Caribbean, North and Central America, to Eastern Europe. So this past year has put his globetrotting to a complete stop, and he has been exploring locations on his doorstep in west London - and also doing the directing-over-Zoom thing.  

"I shot a couple of Burna Boy videos and Wizkid videos," he says. "Some remotely - like the Monsters You Made video for Burna Boy. It was quite an incredible experience. The connection was actually really poor, so we were sending videos back, take after take, really quickly. It was difficult, but we got there. 

"But obviously there’s nothing like being on location, on set. To be able to make last minute decisions, adjustments, conversing with your DP live. These things you just can’t substitute.

"My favourite part is often the recce's - because you get to see lots of places in a short amount of time. I normally just point at different spots and ask if we can shoot there. Once, an artist didn't turn up to a shoot in Barbados so I spent a week 'recce'ing' the island. Great times."

His last trip overseas to shoot a music video was almost exactly a year ago - Chronixx's Cool As The Breeze, filmed in Kingston, Jamaica. It was one of his favourite experiences, and he has now produced a BTS film about this shoot.

So we asked Meji to reflect upon his favourite places to shoot - and with the prospect of things opening up again, hopefully quite soon, where he is keen to return. And as he explains, it's not just the places themselves that is important - the attitude you take to those places is also crucial.

Each location has its pros and cons – you just have to roll with it.

"Everywhere has its advantages and disadvantages – in the UK sometimes it’s the weather (although last summer it was amazing); in Nigeria, sometimes you won’t have certain equipment available to you, and the crew is still improving, as is lot of West Africa. It's getting better all the time, but its not going to be the same standard as Ukraine or South Africa - yet.

"Each location has its pros and cons – you just have to roll with it. For example, Jamaica things can be moving quite slowly, but you can shoot some incredible, beautiful, amazing things. So you just have to give and take. 

"People often come up on set and say - 'you’re so patient, you’re so calm'. I might be brewing up inside, but I know that how this place works. You just have to find the balance."

MEJI ALABI ON HIS FAVOURITE LOCATIONS

Tiwa Savage ft Wizkid & Spellz - Ma Lo (location: Fela Kuti's New Afrika Shrine, Lagos)

This was the first video I made where I felt the location gave a lot of feeling to it... It was shot in Fela Kuti’s Shrine - a legendary location in Nigeria. It’s one of those places - you're shooting on hallowed ground - and it does give a feeling, a rawness and energy that you can only get from shooting live there.

It’s a free place, where you can go and be yourself, drink and smoke. It’s that kind of vibe, so in fact everybody is very chilled. But they’re also very protective of it because it’s a special place and they love Fela. There were loads of people around that weren’t part of the production, but filled the void, and kept us on our toes.

Above: Meji Alabi (centre) with Wizkid (right) and Tiwa Savage on the Ma Lo shoot at Fela Kuti's New Afrika Shrine

That was [DoP] Stefan Yap’s first time in Nigeria actually, and I think he did a fantastic job. He was working with someone we call Mr Oluwale – one of our gaffers out there, and he created what I think they call a ‘ring of fire’ or ‘ring of light’. They built a really good power set-up that went around the whole location. So wherever Stefan wanted to put lights he could move them quite quickly, which was something new to me at the time.

Skepta & Wizkid - Energy (Stay Far Away) (location: Agaja, outside Lagos)

There are so many beautiful spots in Nigeria to film, its such an incredible place. Full of texture, full of colour, full of life. Its pretty much a case of pointing out a place and asking my team if we can shoot there and more often than not, the answer is ‘yes’.

That the thing with Nigeria, the most random things will be there, but you have to be able to find it. They say if it's not in Naij then it doesn't exist. For example, the Skepta video that I did, we shot that in a beach house about an hour away from Lagos which you reach by boat. Incredible, you’re on this litte boat for the longest time, and then you pull up to this beautiful island where people have built these incredible beach houses. There are locals out there, take canoes out and fish – very peaceful and beautiful.

Eko Atlantic is another cool spot. It's a manmade island, where they've filled in the sea – just like Dubai. They're building a whole bunch of apartments and hotels and stuff, kind of a slow process right now but its looking beautiful. It’s also a great option for a desert or type of desolate location.

Popcaan ft Davido - Dun Rich (location: Lagos Island & Tarkwa Bay, Lagos)

Obviously me going over to Nigeria with a different and fresh eye kind of helps me see things the way that perhaps a Westerner might have seen them. I was able to expose my eye, and work with amazing artists to bring that to the world. There are also great directors who are on the ground who are working with great artists and producing great work.

Above: Meji (right) with DoP Arran Green on set of Dun Rich video

We definitely have the personnel there. That was one of the goals of JM Films when we started, to bring attention that great films, great music videos could be made in Nigeria – by Nigerians as well. That also helped push the shift to producing things back home.

George The Poet 'Black Yellow Red' (location: Kampala, Uganda)

It was really interesting working with George. He’s very straightforward. But it was also like, ‘we don’t know what we’re about to do, but I want to go to Uganda and shoot this.’ And we did that, in 2018.

We went to Uganda and shot that with Francis Lane. It felt old school, 'man+cam' type of vibe which is how I love shooting most of the time. Such a cool place... peaceful and cool and the people were really nice. 

Something happened at the start which was a real eye-opener. When I landed at the airport, a guy came to meet me to help me out. I had a rough beard, and my hair was just starting to grow out. He said: "Hey man, what’s with your beard? When you come to Africa, don’t be yourself, be like everyone else." I thought that sums up a lot of people’s dreams being killed, not allowed to be their own creative and authentic selves. I think we’re on a mission to try to change that.

Chronixx - Cool Is The Breeze (location: Tivoli Gardens, Kingston, Jamaica)

I shot two previous videos in Jamaica, but this one was a special one for me. Me and Jaime Ackroyd the DoP, and Mike Hannides the focus puller, went to Tivoli Gardens in West Kingston on our recce. Such a beautiful and colourful area, with such a colourful history as well.

Once I was there I thought – this is perfect. Normally I’m not like that. Usually I like to see two or three locations – and did so, for my due diligence. But really once we landed in Tivoli Gardens I was like – this is where we need to shoot this video.

Above: Meji (centre) on set of Chronixx's Cool As The Breeze shoot in Tivoli Gardens in Kingston, with focus puller Mike Hannides (right)

One of the lyrics is ‘welcome to Kingston, every day is like summer'. I just wanted it to feel authentically Jamaican, to feel like ‘this is Kingston’. So we had to have real people from Kingston and Tivoli Gardens, and really most of the cast were locals from the area.

That is something like to do in a lot of videos I shot on location, whether in South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, anywhere really. Gotta keep it real.

DJ Regard - Ride It (location: Kiev, Ukraine)

Me and my long-time collaborator and good friend Olan Collardy went out there, with Black Dog, Martin Roker and the crew, Manoela Chiabai producing, and it was incredible. I don’t think I’ve seen that level of organisation before, besides in commercials in the UK.

Sometimes the resources can stretch and allows for that. It allows you to create, and the art department was out of this world. We ran two units and it was seamless as ever. We were working with Limelight as our service team out there. They killed it. I plan to go out there again as soon as I can to shoot once the world opens up. Not just Ukraine but Eastern Europe in general as some of the locations are epic.

Tinie ft Sofia Reyes & Farina - Whoppa (location: Mexico City)

That was my maiden voyage in working in Mexico, and it was beautiful. I grew up in Texas, close to Mexico - and I used to live with a Mexican family at one point. So it was a special experience shooting in Mexico City. Almost like a mini-homecoming. We worked with a fantastic local production team - the art department and attention to detail was really second to none.

We were trying to create a whole festival in the street. When you write these things you think – oh man, I probably won’t be able to do this. There's many reasons why this shouldn't work...and then a flight and a few you're standing in the middle of the street and everythings happening around you.

It was a special experience shooting in Mexico City.

The whole time the cast were coming in different costumes I needed and it was automatic. Never saw where they were changing, just had them presented on set looking the part. The costume designer was in a costume the whole time himself. He wasn’t in front of the camera, he’d just appear the whole time in different flamboyant costumes!

My Spanish is not that great and neither is Stefan’s. But we had a great 1st AD, Emilio, communicating with the cast. Really, you have to have a great AD, someone who’s great at getting your message across - so you don’t seem like the angry foreign director who doesn’t know what’s going on. Then you can focus on the art.

There are three artists in this video, a lot going on - and we managed to do it all in one day. It was crazy. But that's testament to the team. Nancy Ryan produced that, and she was so calm the whole time. A very cool producer.

Nasty C ft A$AP Ferg - King (location: New York City)

We shot in some interesting areas in New York, we shot in the projects, in a place called the King Dome in Harlem. We shot on the top of the projects as well, where we all got arrested, and searched.

I was actually anxious the whole time about getting arrested. I was just - do we have permits for this, and do we have permits for that? But overall it was a good experience. New York itself is inspiring. Even when you’re walking down the street, you feel like you’re in a movie - you just take that energy. Being able to film there, be in such an iconic city, felt good for me. I’m welcoming more American shoots, as the world opens up again. That’s something that’s on the horizon.

Burna Boy ft Stormzy - Real Life (location: South Acton estate, West London)

The last three or four videos I’ve done on London have been shot on estates in West London that are all being destroyed. Most of them are close to my house to be honest. That one, the South Acton estate, was a derelict estate where even the working mens’ club where we shot the wake scenes in, was or is in the process of being demolished. Telling a story there was a form of preserving these locations in some way visually.

Generally I’ve been more inclined to tell more stories, try to make something impactful, videos and narratives that really touch people. With the direction I like to pursue cinematically, that was something I felt I wanted to do.

I guess council estates have been part of my childhood too, as with many other people. And on that location it felt really authentic. A lot of my friends actually grew up on that estate, where we shot it and lived those experiences within the video.

When the location can amplify your story and really bring another level of authenticity and feeling to it. That can’t be substituted.

• Meji Alabi is represented for music videos and commercials by Black Dog Films

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    Promonews - 26th Mar 2021

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