His role in bringing Beyoncé's concept album to the small screen sealed his place as the planet's hottest video maker. But fame, he says, doesn't mean anything. It's about the art and he's got the work to prove it
There is a biblical proverb, “Iron sharpens iron,” but when the film-maker Kahlil Joseph relays it down the phone, he gives it an update: “Steel sharpens steel.” Joseph is talking about what happens when you put talent in a room together, specifically “black talent”. “Black talent is exponentially propelled by other black talent – it's a theory that a friend of mine and I have. Whether you're LeBron James and Steph Curry or Miles Davis and Charlie Parker – any talent meeting other talent – there's an inborn, healthy competitive nature. But black talent has a cultural specificity. We have a particular genius for improvisation, from preachers in the pulpit to pianists.”
This theory became part of the thinking behind Black Mary, a short film Joseph produced for Tate Modern this year as part of the exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power. Billed as a tribute to the photography of Roy DeCarava, who shot portraits of jazz musicians in the 40s, 50s and 60s, Joseph's film is a five-minute-long cut of a jam he put together in Harlem this year. And like any jam, he says, it was casual; he texted Lauryn Hill inviting her and Kelsey Lu (a friend and a “musical genius”). He also asked his wife, the producer Onye Anyanwu, to call the singer Alice Smith, whom he had once seen live and was blown away by.