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Author interview: Blitz Bazawule

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, when we last checked in with Samuel Bazawule, better known as Blitz, he had just directed his debut feature, "The Burial Of Kojo," which was based entirely in Ghana with an almost entirely local cast and crew, and was the first original film from Ghana to be released on Netflix. That was in 2019. Since then, he's co-directed Beyonce's visual album "Black Is King," directed the upcoming film musical version of "The Color Purple." And somehow, in the middle of all of that, he just published his first novel. It's called "The Scent Of Burnt Flowers," and he agreed to sit still long enough to tell us about it.

Blitz Bazawule, thank you so much for joining us.

BLITZ BAZAWULE: Thank you so much, such a privilege to be back.

MARTIN: So let me point out that before you started directing, we first met you as a transnationally successful hip-hop artist with multiple album to your credit. You were known as Blitz the Ambassador. And I just recounted some of your other adventures. I mean, you've given a TED Talk. You've had graphic art displayed at important international shows. I say all that to say, how did you find time to write a novel?

BAZAWULE: Well, first, COVID happened. And yeah, I mean, you know, we remember that time where everybody had to be still. And it just so happened that I, you know, couldn't make a film. I couldn't tour, nobody could. But this itch to tell story was still, you know, right there with me. And I discovered this medium, which I loved as just a fan of literature, period, but I never thought I could do it myself. But, you know, sitting still long enough, you can figure a lot out - and I did.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the story. It starts in 1965.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MARTIN: It's set against the backdrop of both the U.S. civil rights movement and the beginning of the end of colonial rule during the regime of Kwame Nkrumah, who was Ghana's first leader after independence.

BAZAWULE: Yes.

MARTIN: And it focuses on the adventures and travails of a Black American couple, Melvin and Bernadette, who decide they have to flee for their lives from Alabama. They go to Ghana after an ill-fated confrontation. So pick up the thread there, if you would.

BAZAWULE: Yeah, absolutely. So they, you know, they find themselves on the run, pursued by a persistent FBI agent. And what happens is that they finally arrive in Ghana hoping that this new president, who is a former college buddy of Melvin's, will give them shelter and protection. But what they find is that the country is in freefall after a coup d'etat has overthrown this president. So now they have to rely on a local musician to find freedom and solace, but it only compounds their problems.

MARTIN: The book combines elements of fantasy with real - well, I'll call it fantasy. You might have a different feeling about it than some. You know, there are mermaids. And there are some events that I might describe as supernatural - you might see them differently - mixed with real historical events. How did that approach come to you?

BAZAWULE: Well, it's always been the prism through which I've told stories. So, you know, it always begins with, you know, nocturnal storytelling. In my household where I grew up, my grandmother was a phenomenal storyteller, always woven stories through the real and the - I'll call it the ethereal and the magical. And so when I was writing this book, very similar to my film, "The Burial Of Kojo," I was always trying to find this intersection between what we deem is real and what we deem as the supernatural.

And, you know, whenever we tell story, at least where I'm from, you know, we always find hyperbole as a medium in which to make the mundane extraordinary. And so it was something that I - it was very exciting for me as a prism to also tell the story about this phenomenal first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, who's very polarizing, and like most very popular figures, have things that are true about them and things that are not true about them, but all seem to synthesize it as reality. So it was very - it was a lot of fun to try to figure out how those two worlds met.

MARTIN: So this novel, just like, you know, the film, I'm glad you mention "The Burial Of Kojo" because it also had elements of the supernatural. And I just have to mention that it was just exquisitely shot. I mean, this is something that every frame had like this beautiful, you know, kind of portrait quality to it, which is, I think, something that makes sense given that, you know, you are - in one of your early - another one of your earlier lives are a graphic artist. But it also addressed something very real and present in Ghana, which is gold mining.

This novel addresses a very real fact that the CIA was involved with the coup that deposed Kwame Nkrumah. Exactly how it was involved is a matter of dispute, I mean, whether this was an officially sanctioned operation or rogue, as they say. But the CIA was involved. The CIA's own documents, own archives confirm that CIA agents were involved. And if anybody doubts this point, you know, I invite them to, you know, look it up in The New York Times, for example. Sy Hersh, the famed investigative reporter Sy Hersh, Seymour Hersh, wrote about this in 1978 with, you know, access to documents from the CIA's own archives.

OK. So I'm asking, you know, why was this important as a grounding event of the novel?

BAZAWULE: Oh, it was critical because, you know, when we think about how the world fractures, we often do not think about, first of all, how the Second World War was a catalyst to independence movements, specifically in the Global South, and how those independence movements were undermined shortly afterwards. And that's how the world we know it as it exists today was forged. You know, when I was writing this book, a lot of it was for my own understanding of how Ghana fractured. This - you know, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence. And it was a significant and momentous event that, you know, caused other countries to to reach for independence as well. And its undermining kind of birthed all of these other problems that we still see today on the continent. And so as someone who's just been curious about, you know, the rise and falls of democracies and how they're undermined by global forces, it was very interesting to find a fictional story through which I could explore this very real event.

MARTIN: Well, you are obviously a restless spirit. I did not have time to list all of the projects that you have been involved with because that would have been our whole conversation. But - so what worlds are yet to conquer? What haven't you done yet that you're still trying to do, Mr. Musician, filmmaker, novelist, artist?

BAZAWULE: Honestly...

MARTIN: What's next?

BAZAWULE: What is next? I honestly can't say. I mean, I always say, the story takes me there, right? So, I mean, whatever the story is, I - my hope is always that I have a medium, the right medium to tell the story. So I've only made films because that was the only way I could tell that particular story. I've only written a novel because it was the only way I could tell that particular story. So my hope is that whenever I come up with a story that I - as a new medium, I'm brave enough to attempt it.

MARTIN: That was musician, filmmaker and writer Blitz Bazawule. His debut novel, "The Scent Of Burnt Flowers," is out now. Blitz Bazawule, thank you so much for joining us.

BAZAWULE: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.