Kraft Singles were as everyday as sliced white bread (which they were usually paired with) until February this year. That was when Johannes Leonardo and director-digital artist, Sammy Rawal, gave them a pop song called Square It with Kelis and a music video with dancer, Honey Balenciaga. It was a strikingly unexpected project for both singles and Sammy Rawal.
Rawal’s work is fiercely original, hyper-stylised and wildly innovative, mixing culturally diverse influences, fashion and music with aplomb. His commercial clients tend to be “in with the in crowd” – Equinox, Lululemon, Reebok, Chanel and SoulCycle. His very many music collaborations range from projects with Cardi B to Elton John. He is a passionate advocate of LGBTQ rights, and is the co-founder and resident DJ of Yes Yes Y’all, Canada’s largest hip hop-dancehall party that aims to create space and visibility for Queer people of colour.
When Rawal’s work was featured in the first edition of Niccolo Montanari’s Curation Hour, he caught The Stable’s attention. Here is the interview that came from that:
The Stable: Kraft Singles is a long way from your usual realm. What attracted you to the campaign?
Sammy Rawal: I think that was part of the attraction to the project – the opportunity to bring my point of view to something seemingly so outside my world was exciting to me. The original brief from Johannes Leonardo was really inspiring and I ended up vibing so hard with the creative team. And then I heard the track and it was OVER. From the jump, I could see how the story could play out in a stylised world I would create.
TS: What makes the Kraft Singles commercial “Sammy Rawal” in style? What is your signature style?
SR: I think in everything I do, there’s always a piece of me in it. Reoccurring themes of multiplicity, pattern and rhythm are often present in my work and this piece is no exception. With all my work, I try to fuse elements of dance / body movement, fashion and design (another reason this film was actually right up my alley). Another big aspect to my work is the place I approach storytelling from: a QPOC perspective.
TS: What was it like bringing Johannes Leonardo, Kelis and Honey Balenciaga together on a project?
SR: It was a really refreshing experience, actually. On paper, we were all coming from pretty different worlds but in actuality, there were a lot of overlaps with cultural references. The creative team at Johannes Leonardo were so awesome and collaborating – they really welcomed my ideas and understood the visual language I speak. A big conceptual challenge for me was how Honey’s iconic movement would fit in with the vibe of the track. I knew it had to be something more than the ballroom vibes we’re so used to attaching to Honey since the track itself was a much different tempo and genre. Addy Chan, our amazing choreographer and movement director, Honey and I sat down and figured out moments of the track where we could fit in ballroom movement that felt intentional and added to the storytelling. Overall, it was such an incredible creative process due in large part to the collaborative nature of things. Honey brought so much unscripted magic and ideas to the table (she’s a legend for a reason).
TS: How did you get your start as a director? What is your background?
SR: Growing up, I was always surrounded by Indian and Kenyan art, music and films. I’m very much a product of a diasporic background. All of that, combined with a healthy dose of Canadian and American music videos (lots of MTV and MuchMusic) really inspired me to become a director. I was always really into fashion photography growing up and would spend hours looking through magazines and watching runway shows on TV.
Once I graduated high school, I moved from Vancouver to Toronto to study photography at university. Ultimately, I wanted to take what I learned from the stills photography world and translate that into moving images. There was a pretty iconic production company in Toronto in the late ‘90s making all my favourite videos at the time and I told myself that I would somehow find a job there and start working in the industry. I ended up getting a summer internship there and managed to leverage that into a full-time job in the vault where I was helping to make directors’ reels etc. At that time, I was also heavily in the queer-club scene in Toronto and started directing music videos for friends who had just gotten signed to Nelly Furtado’s new record label. I was lucky enough that the EP at that company took me under her wing and really became a mentor to me….by some divine intervention, I got signed to that roster. Fast forward a bunch of years later and I’m still with that EP….who happened to be the EP on this Kraft job: Jannie McInnes. I owe everything to her!!!
TS: Tell me about Yes Yes Y’all. How it came about – what it is about.
SR: Yes Yes Y’all (or YYY) is a QPOC hip hop-dancehall party I started almost 15 years ago with a few friends in Toronto. It started out as a small one-off party but quickly grew to a monthly party and is now a bit of an institution in Canada. It came about from a need to create safe spaces for QPOC. I personally never felt at home or welcomed in conventional gay spaces – these spaces were often very white, very gay (not queer or mixed), and I never really vibed with the music. We came together as a group and decided to create a party for us, by us. Our biggest mandate has been to create accessible spaces that prioritise QPOC while bridging various communities around the city.
TS: What are you most proud of in your career so far?
SR: I’ve really been blessed and so lucky to have so many highlights in my career so far. What’s made me the most proud recently is being awarded the Special Achievement award at this year’s Prism Prize awards (Canada’s equivalent to the UKMVAs). The award honours a Canadian icon working in the music video industry at the global level. It was pretty trippy winning it as previous winners of the award have been some of my all-time idols (such as Floria Sigismondi). To be recognised by my peers in this way was incredible and I’m still pinching myself to make sure it’s real.