Kaytranada is a Haitian-Canadian DJ and music producer who’s produced countless songs for artists like Kendrick Lamar, Anderson .Paak, Pharrell Williams, and SiR. Bubba, released last year, has received high acclaim across the globe. Winner of the best dance recording award 10% and best dance/electronic album award Bubba at the 2021 Grammys, he’s one of the most prominent producers today.
Aside from shooting for the likes of Vogue and GQ, Tera has also published a photo book titled 青 or the offspring of a blooming death. His lively yet ephemeral portrayal of the people and culture rooted in Ojima, Okinawa, touched people’s hearts.
He’s also active as a director, but this was his first time directing a music video. Friends since adolescence, Tera has earned Kaytranada’s total trust, and the artist left everything about the music video up to him.
Inspired by Kitano’s 90s yakuza films, the music video tells Tera’s original story set in Tokyo at night. As seen in the yakuza and crowds of multiracial youth, he has woven diverse cultures with his narrative. It’s not a stretch to say this music video is an accurate representation of coeval Japanese identity. Why did Tera decide to illustrate the true face of Tokyo, Japan as a foreigner? We spoke to him to find out.
Xavier Tera met Kaytranada at the age of 15 and became good friends later
ーーCould you first talk about how you met Kaytranada?
Xavier Tera (Hereinafter Xavier): I first met him when I was 15 and we became good friends later. Back then, I was interested in the new music [that was coming out] of Montreal, Canada, and I met him in this community where like-minded people got together. He’s like a childhood friend.
ーーHow did you grow close?
Xavier: In Montreal, there was a time when first-generation Haitian-Canadians were beginning to produce music, which was gaining attention. Kaytranada was among them, along with artists who collaborated with The Weeknd later on.
We began seeing each other at parties. Music producers would get in a circle and have impromptu sessions there. The person who got the crowd going the most was applauded, but regardless of who “won,” everyone became friends because we felt like music was a universal language.
Indie rock was the mainstream music until that point in Canada, but I’m glad our generation, artists like The Weeknd and Drake, created a new direction in music.
Prioritizing the story, instead of the product, like a short film
ーーDespite being surrounded by music, how did you develop an interest in photography and film?
Xavier: I dreamed of becoming a photographer or a film director when I was eight years old. My parents like traveling and taking photos, so there were many travel photos at home when I was a child. I naturally began to want to take photos, in part because I grew up in this kind of environment.
ーーWhen did you start taking photos?
Xavier: When I was around nine or ten years old, my mother bought me a Pentax camera and roll of film, and I started taking photos of my neighborhood. But I cried because the first photo that was developed was so bad (laughs). I was very hurt and threw it away in the garbage bin at a department store. But my mother picked it up and got mad at me: “You don’t get good results on your first try. Challenge yourself over and over until you’re satisfied with the results.” It might be because of that, but it still takes time for me to be happy with my work. I seldom am satisfied completely.
ーーDo you have anything you’re particular about when it comes to shooting as a professional photographer?
Xavier: I got my first professional job when I was around 16 years old. I got an offer from a corporation, and I took photos of people farming in Quebec, Canada. I made sure viewers could get a glimpse into their background.
I’ve been getting many fashion jobs during the past five to six years, but I prefer portraits or documentaries that focus on the person. That’s why I value the narrative even when I get offers to do commercial shoots. For instance, when I took videos for The North Face, I prioritized the story like a short film rather than treating the product as the protagonist.
To channel something that touches the heart into photography and film
ーーWhen you create your work, what are you most interested in expressing?
Xavier: I can’t separate people from their stories. I’m interested in both the person and that person’s story.
ーーDoes that mean photography and film are ways for you to represent people and their stories?
Xavier: Yeah. In my view, there’s no point if you can’t tell a story. The genre doesn’t matter—the past, future, fiction, nonfiction, documentary. What’s important is the thing that touches your heart and expressing that as a story through photos or videos. The thing I want to express the most is the theme of identity.
ーーHow would you describe your identity?
Xavier: That’s a difficult question. I don’t think I can find it during my lifetime (laughs). I’ve lived in different countries and experienced different cultures. I’ve witnessed the advancement of globalization. I think it’s even harder to find my identity because of those circumstances. I might not find it before I die, but maybe that’s what I’m looking for while I create my work.
The salient preservation of Japanese culture
ーーYou work in Tokyo now, but which countries have you lived in so far?
Xavier: I initially wanted to study filmmaking at university, but I thought I should first study photography and went to London. I then moved to New York to study photography more. And then, I went back to Montreal and began making films. The first film I made was a short film based on first-generation Haitian-Canadians.
ーーIs your desire to make films bigger than taking photos?
Xavier: Of course, I love photography, but that’s one tool to make a film. My true calling is to make films. The good thing about photography is that you can challenge yourself to communicate as many emotions and stories as possible with one photo. If you can convey that with one photo, [that means] the potential to express something with videos or films is higher.
As a film director, the goal is to tell a big story with as few cuts as possible. So, I can’t be satisfied unless each frame has a meaning.
ーーI heard you’ve been living in Tokyo for about four years. Why Japan?
Xavier: The catalyst was when I thought about living in a country that I couldn’t picture in my head. At first, I stayed here for a month on vacation, but I decided to live here right away. Also, in America, Trump had become president, and the U.K. had its issues with Brexit, so I wanted to live in Asia instead of America or Europe.
ーーWhat aspects of Japan do you find appealing?
Xavier: It’s exciting because I make discoveries every day. Because globalization is progressing in every country nowadays, I feel like the national culture or identity is fading. Among such countries— partially because there aren’t many foreigners in Japan—I think Japan has firmly kept its own culture. I have a sense of admiration for that.
ーーEven compared to other countries, do you feel like Japan has its own distinct culture?
Xavier: Yeah. While extreme right-wing politics stand out in other countries, it’s impressive how it’s not too extreme here, and they [manage to] preserve traditional culture. I have some inconveniences as a foreigner, but that’s why I have a lot of experiences and lessons to learn from.
A vital part of directing a film is understanding people and revealing them. I was able to learn more about that when I came to Japan.
Wanting to portray modern social and cultural diversity
ーーYou directed the music video for Kaytranada’s Look Easy ft. Lucky Daye. It’s a story set in Japan. How did you conceptualize it?
Xavier: The original idea was to try taking a traditional Japanese video and have people watch it without knowing I’m a foreign director. I was thinking of reflecting traditional Japanese culture into the video and adding my new perspective.
ーーWhat would you say is your perspective?
Xavier: The story of this music video proceeds with the Japanese yakuza society at the core. I made the protagonist a woman—not a man—because I wanted to show a contemporary society where women’s activeness stands out. In the nightclub scene, which is one of the sets, I wanted to show cultural diversity. That’s why we cast many mixed-race youths and had them dance on the dancefloor. I felt like I could depict the contrast between traditional Japan and its current society. I didn’t portray that contrast in a grandiose way so that the viewers could feel like it’s natural.
ーーBy properly illustrating both sides, you presented one real side of Japan.
Xavier: I spoke about wanting to depict [themes of] identity, as was the case for this music video. One of the symbols of that was young mixed-race people. They probably feel like they’re only seen as half Japanese when people call them hafu. At the same time, some feel proud of their other side, and some admire foreigners. That’s why I wanted to show that these people who are Japanese but not Japanese are one of the Japanese identities today.
ーーWhat did you do to communicate the traditional aspects of Japan?
Xavier: Japanese photographer Katsumi Watanabe’s photos of Shinjuku’s nightlife during Japan’s economic bubble were a significant reference. They especially gave me a lot of inspiration in terms of the casts’ costumes.
The love for films that paint sides of Japan that are unknown to foreigners
ーーThe story in the music video is about Japan’s yakuza society. I heard you got the idea from Takeshi Kitano’s 90s yakuza films.
Xavier: Yep. I love Sonatine, Brother, Hanabi, and so on. I’ve watched his films many times. I also got influenced by the visuals in Collateral by Michael Mann for this music video.
ーーWhat’s the appeal of Takeshi Kitano’s films?
Xavier: Time moves slowly in them, but every cut has meaning. Even nonchalant scenes aren’t wasted, as they’re perfectly thought-out. I pay attention to things like that in my work too.
ーーYou could feel a sense of Japanese identity from his films. Are you influenced by that, too?
Xavier: The Japan that Kitano illustrates is a part of traditional Japan, without a doubt. Yasujiro Ozu’s films have a strong sense of Japanese identity too. Hirokazu Koreeda is a more recent example. In his case, it seems like he questions Japanese identity from a different angle, such as the topic of modern-day Japanese families.
ーーTheir perspectives and styles are different, but all three directors represent Japan realistically.
Xavier: I like films that show the sides of Japan that foreigners don’t know about, instead of those that show Japan from a foreigner’s [lens]. So, I wanted to present Japan in my work with respect.
ーーEven as a Japanese person, the music video for Look Easy ft. Lucky Daye made me feel the real side of Tokyo today.
Xavier: Thank you. The comment that made me the happiest was from a Japanese friend: “Out of the videos I’ve seen so far, this was the one I connected with the most.”
ーーThose who have come into contact with Tokyo’s nightlife or underground scene, even slightly, will probably feel an affinity [when they watch the music video]. You cast Luli Shioi—responsible for celebrated clubs in Tokyo, such as Gold in Shibaura, Milk in Ebisu, and Le Baron in Aoyama—as the protagonist. That choice amplified the authenticity of Tokyo nightlife.
Xavier: Right! She’s a nightlife queen that represents Japan’s club scene! Those who know the real side of Tokyo will probably enjoy this music video, and even those who don’t know will hopefully experience the reality of Tokyo.
Wanting to eventually create a full-length feature film
ーーThis goes without saying, but this music video exists because of Kaytranada’s song. Are the lyrics and the music video connected?
Xavier: No, I made it as a film without connecting it with the song’s content. Of course, Kaytranada himself is in it too.
ーーHe didn’t make any requests about the music video?
Xavier: No. I came up with the theme and story, and when I told Kaytranada about it, he said, “Nice, go with that!” We’re friends, so we understand what the other person wants to do. So, it was all decided without us having to debate about it. It’s like, “Let’s do what the other person wants, together.”
ーーWhat a great relationship.
Xavier: Before shooting the music video, I shot him for GQ. We also had a photo session when he came to Japan.
ーーThis music video is a manifestation of identity, which you said you wanted to express. Looking back, what did you gain from shooting it?
Xavier: This was my first time directing a music video in my career, and everything was a precious experience. I learned a lot about Japan, and as a result, I believe I depicted the real side of Japan. I was happy when I felt like I understood Japanese culture, one piece of a big puzzle, through the music video. I want to know more about Japan and Tokyo.
ーーI’m excited about your next project. What do you want to do in the future?
Xavier: I’ve been living in Tokyo for around four years now; I might go to America as my next step. I also want to make a full-length feature film. That project is slowly starting, so I want to create it and release it soon.