Joslyn Rose Lyons is a young filmmaker with a distinguished resume that includes a flim, BET credits and a director’s seat with Simmons Lathan Media Group. At 27, the female filmmaker is breaking traditional rules, using interviewing elements that inspire her interviewees to portray their raw, personal truths.
In 2003, Lyons’ directorial debut came to light with the release of Soundz of Spirit, a documentary that explores the creative process and spirit released into hip-hop music. The film is the first of its kind and, without a doubt, Lyons is the first of her kind by breaking stereotypes of women in hip-hop and, equally important, paving a road for future filmmakers (female or male) trying to explore hip-hop’s road less traveled.
“I don’t think art forms have a sex. Art forms are a universal outlet. I used to find myself trying to prove that I know enough about hip-hop or something, or I could hang with the guys backstage without being a groupie.”
Format: Please explain how you were first introduced to creative outlets, specifically to film.
Joslyn: Well, my mom is an artist. She is a visual artist, a sculpture and painter. I was definitely exposed to her work and her philosophy raising my brother and I, which is really about doing what you love and trusting your creative process. She really influenced me at a young age to follow what I wanted to do. Being that she had her studio at home in the back yard and I was always working on art. The film came in at a really young age. I have scripts that I made in elementary school. I used to tell my mom that I would make films when I got older. I would tell her that when I was ten. It’s something that is intuitive, as corny as that can sound it’s really true for me. It’s never really been a choice. As far as my first official exposure to [film] growing up, I would say I was in theater in high school and then I picked up a camera in my last year of high school and started making short projects. In college I actually created my own major and in that process I met Emmy Award winning filmmakers and working for them, starting off with experience from their company. Their names are Rick Tejada-Flores and Ray Telles and they’re in a production company called Paradigm. They’ve done a lot of the PBS kind of documentaries, Hugo Chavez and the farm works, you know ITVS and Sundance, so they’re really experienced and I got to work for them at the age of 18. I worked for Discovery Channel with them and NBC, it was quite and experience, definitely.
Format: What was your introduction to hip-hop culture?
Joslyn: It is always hard to find where something began, because the seed for something is nature, it’s underneath the soil, you can’t even see where it’s planted, you just see where things grow. It’s so hard to know where that seed came from, but growing up in the Bay Area and the West Coast, there is a really strong hip-hop community and artists like Living Legends, I grew up with them. We went to high school with them and it was just kind of like family. Mystik Journeymen, The Grouch, Eligh and Murs, and all these artists were friends of mine. Then I studied Tupac’s writing in class, my first year of college, which made me see something deeper of words, poetry and when you put it to rhythm. Then I had seen Slam that Saul Williams stars in and after that film and a series of different events I knew had to do something else with my passion for hip-hop.
Format: How did the Soundz of Spirit documentary come together?
Joslyn: It’s funny. I just knew that I wanted to make a film about another element of hip-hop that wasn’t being marketed in the mainstream, which is the creative process. I first got the idea from going to shows and seeing artists backstage, working and seeing their process. My own journey, wanting to understand how I personally and spiritually connect to what I’m doing and feeling that I have a connection when I listen to music that comes from that place, too. Wanting to know if I’m connecting to it from that place then where was that person at when they wrote it. It must have been in a very grounded or spiritual place if I’m hearing that when I hear it. I didn’t really research the idea about interviewing people about their creative process or have their spirit connect. I just went ahead doing it and I started writing and literally binders full of everything. I would start making sections and try to make it evolve into a story of some kind, like what am I going to ask the artists – a lot of writing and a lot of personal inspiration. Interesting enough the first interview I did was with the Last Poets. There is really no one like them and at the age I was at and my personal knowledge of hip-hop’s history, I wasn’t someone who knew who the Last Poets were from front to back. I just knew of them, definitely knew they had a history and a huge presence in hip-hop. It was not until much later that it was an amazing thing to have my first interview to be them. It snowballed from there.
Format: What challenges did you face doing production of Soundz of Spirit?
Joslyn: I think there are the challenges that exist in your mind and then there are the challenges that actually exist in the actual business of things. There were both. I think there always is when you’re doing something that goes against the grain or making your way through life. What I mean by the challenges in my own mind is thinking, at times, I don’t know if I can do this or fitting like 10 interviews in and thinking, how am I going to make this film!? The challenge of taking on something that huge with no money at such a young age and no real experience to have someone say, ‘Here is a huge grant. We know you can do it.’ There was a lot of proving myself, not only to artists and managers, but to the people around me, too. A lot of times on a weekend friends would be like, ‘What are you doing tonight?’ and I’m always writing or filming or doing something related to the project. I would say the other challenges are a little more cut and dry. Getting release forms signed, especially from artists, because I’m just one person, not a real company and I’m trying to get Outkast to sign off on a film. Those kinds of things were extraordinarily challenging. I’m talking about maybe a year and a half of phone calls to multiple managers and maybe a dozen faxes of release forms.
“It’s funny. I just knew that I wanted to make a film about another element of hip-hop that wasn’t being marketed in the mainstream, which is the creative process.”
Format: Please explain the challenges of being a female in hip-hop culture.
Joslyn: Being a female in hip-hop, I think you’re known as a female in hip-hop first, before you’re known for being an artist in hip-hop and that’s because it is a male dominated industry. The thing with being women in hip-hop, at least from my vantage point, I see so many women behind the scene. I see so many women filmmakers, writers, poets and managers, but when you see the major broadcast waves that represent hip-hop you see men. That is not necessarily true. I think it is probably a lot more balance than that. As far as women in hip-hop it is one of those things where you have to work much harder as a women in hip-hop, because it’s been marketed as a masculine art form and that’s not true. I don’t think art forms have a sex. Art forms are a universal outlet. I used to find myself trying to prove that I know enough about hip-hop or something, or I could hang with the guys backstage without being a groupie. You really have to be about what you say you’re about much more than what a man does.
Format: Please explain the obstacles for women in filmmaking.
Joslyn: As philosophical or spiritual as it may sound I really think these obstacles are only there from the creator to help us work harder for what we want to do. Yes there are obstacles, but I view them as gifts. You never know what that gift might have in it. It might have hope, it might have strength, it might have faith, it might have a deeper understanding of self, but whatever obstacle you hit it’s usually going to be a gift your later on or in that moment. As far as being a woman in the industry, I’ve work in New York and I mostly work in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, in my experience, 90 per cent of the time I’m dealing with men. On the phone with men, in the editing room with men, there might be men I use as my sound operators – 90 per cent it’s a man world or it’s easier for me to find men to work with than women.
“It is always hard to find where something began, because the seed for something is nature, it’s underneath the soil, you can’t even see where it’s planted, you just see where things grow.”
Format: Please explain your nameless project for the Simmons Lathan Media Group.
Joslyn: They made film division out of their company several years back when they put out all the Def Jam Poetry, Def Jam Comedy and a lot of scripted stuff. The project that we just wrapped up is kind of under a working title, because we have not had a release date, but it’s basically Simmons Lathan Presents, it’s like a twist on the Def Jam Poetry that you’re used to seeing on HBO. These are all shot outside in industrial locations or in barber shops, on top of a car – a twist on Def Jam Poetry. The whole hyphy got thrown in there, because the Bay Area, for the past year or two, it’s been tagged as the new hyphy movement is here. In my opinion, everyone that is part of that movement doesn’t mean they go dumb or they dance a certain way or say they’re hyphy. It’s just that there is an energy behind it and I think it’s people that wanting to have a seat at the table and wanting to be heard. I think that is what Russell Simmons and Stan Lathan had in mind for this first project.