We sat down with Sean and director Noel to talk about fostering creativity, prioritizing friends over funds, and defining success as an independent artist.
Photo by Kahlil Hackett
Filmmaker, photographer and rapper Sean Leon premiered his “audio-visual trip”, Life When You’re the Movie in Toronto last week. The short film takes viewers through Sean’s journey from the suburbs of Toronto to the downtown core, introducing his family and struggles as an artist along the way, which served as inspiration for the upcoming Black Sheep Nirvana album trilogy.
We sat down with Sean, director Noel and his film crew to talk about fostering creativity, prioritizing friends over funds, and defining success as an independent artist.
This interview has been condensed and edited. Pictured throughout are the friends who helped Sean and Noel make this film a reality.
HNHH: How was the premiere, everything went smoothly?
Sean: It was definitely a movie, pun intended. We had to start editing the film from scratch like two weeks ago, because the editing session got corrupted. We ended up adding a scene the morning of the show. I wasn’t ever worried, though.
We were up until like five in the morning the day before trying to get the film to be compatible with the big screen.
Why is this film called an “audio-visual trip?”
Sean: Cause a movie is a movie, they’ve been done to death. I wanted to make an experience, something that people connected to, something that stimulated them, and something that sparked a conversation. Freedom is what’s most important to me in everything I do. I dropped out of school because I didn’t feel free.
Noel: That whole shoot outside Bad Boy and Honest Ed’s was after another shoot with a band from the deep end, Native Other. We picked that location because of the practical lighting. It was really beautiful, the song’s called “Vintage,” Honest Ed’s is a vintage store, Toronto landmark; that part of the film served to show where I am now in my life, the transition to showing you where I came from. To do that, we had to go from downtown to back home in the deep end. Back to when coming downtown was a train trip.
How do you know when you’ve finished something? Cause it seems like you’re always working on music.
Sean: I’m never done. I just found that out. I’m not completely done with my album, but at the same time, I’ll never be done. For my own sanity it’s time to move on. I’ve got music that I’m very excited about, that I can’t release until I get this origin story out first. The film isn’t done. I’m gonna continue to work on it as I travel. Every audience will see something slightly different. When I come back home I want to throw a homecoming screening.
Photo by Sean Leon
Any plans to release LWYTM online?
Sean: The whole idea of putting something on the internet right away seems really farfetched to me. Once something’s on the internet for a while, it’s dead. Right now it’s an asset. I can bring it anywhere and bring together creatives in any city at any moment just by announcing a date. That power is priceless. Artists should focus on that power, rather than going viral. There’s no point putting all that effort and passion into something just to put it out for people to give it a thumbs up and move on.
Isn’t that counterproductive? That’s not how trending artists approach releases.
Sean: I don’t surround myself with trendy people. I want to be a trailblazer; that’s why I wore Nike Blazers throughout the entire film. Cudi had that Cleveland hat, Rocky brought back the high top Air Force Ones, and that was super fresh.
Looking around in the crowd before the show, it would be easy to mistake this premiere as a sort of meeting of the minds for Toronto’s artistic underground.
Sean: There’s a lot of love in this city. That whole “Screwface” thing doesn’t really exist, I don’t get that feeling from the new school. I don’t know if it’s because they think I’m an old man.
It’s probably because a lot of them look up to you. A lot of the upcoming rappers I’ve spoken with have said as much.
Sean: That’s incredible. I want to be as important to somebody as Pharrell and Kanye West was to me. As they still are to me. That’s surreal. Those are the people I don’t want to disappoint with this new material; the film, the new album, those are the ones I consider the most. The ones that have been rockin’ with me. It’s kinda like protesting y’know, supporting Sean Leon the black sheep.
Photo by Keavan
What does the turnout say about your fans?
Sean: My fans are the most resilient in the entire world. I put them through so much last year, because I was going through a lot myself. It’s weird; until I was in the theatre seat watching the film, everything still seemed up in the air. I used to work at the movies, hanging posters on Thursdays. I remember thinking that one day I’d have a poster in a theatre, and it was trippy putting up posters of myself for a premiere about my life, and people were paying to come see it. No album out, no cosign, no record label, no industry help. Me, Scott Brownhill and Ricardo Ransom just made it happen.
Noel - A lot of the audio snippets and pictures taken were impromptu. Why was that important in making this film?
Noel: It was my family that I was putting in the music. I didn’t want it to feel staged or rehearsed, because people can see through that. I’m in love with my family; they’re stars, they’re magic. I wish the camera caught their brilliance every day.
Photo by Sean Leon
All I could think about after the premiere was the second one.
A few weeks ago you were tweeting back and forth with music journalists saying you don’t have ownership of your art when publications premiere your work.
Sean: Artists should empower themselves. It’s anti-establishment, every single move I make is a protest. [Art is] being mistreated, disrespected and overlooked for political reasons. These politics are getting in the way of good art being put on major platforms.
There’s a reason why you go to a major theatre where there’s one decent one and the rest are trash. There’s an opportunity to play ten movies to millions and they pick these ones. Radio has an opportunity to heal people and help them with their mental health by playing good music and they don’t.
The disparity between radio music and aux cords has never been larger. The people that are force-feeding content to the masses are doing it for economic reasons, political reasons. They don’t actually give a fuck about what’s best.
How is your film a protest?
Noel: Anybody making something out of nothing is making a statement. There’s no way that anybody who saw that film for the first time was able to catch every message in it. What’s beautiful about it is the fact that interpretation is 95% of art.
Sean: You and the person sat beside you could both leave with completely different interpretations of that film, but chances are you’re both leaving inspired. That was the most important thing for me.
Do you think by releasing this movie, people get a better chance to understand you?
Sean: For sure. It’s my life on the screen, but that wasn’t necessarily my intention, it was to express myself. The Dave Chappelle skit I included was my point of view on mental illness, and how your environment can affect you. It circles back to that helpless feeling and the urgent need to be impactful. It’s a recipe for chronic depression. It’s not something you can see from the outside, so it doesn’t get addressed. Those suffering are actually the strongest people; their ability to empathize is a very noble characteristic. But things like virility get in the way.
Photo by Joshua Din
There’s a scene of you on a train platform. The doors open but you stay on the platform. Your intention in that shot was to invite viewers to come along on a journey with you downtown. I didn’t get that.
Sean: How did you interpret that?
I thought you felt stuck in place, because you weren’t getting on.
Sean: That’s a sentiment I’ve definitely felt back at home. Suburbia: is it heaven or is it hell? I know I’m not cemented to the ground, but at times I felt I couldn’t leave. “Matthew in the Middle” isn’t just me as the middle child in the middle of nowhere, it’s coming from that middle class. Being a millennial, being impatient, wanting to have an impact, that’s what’s afflicting kids my age. That’s what;s depressing us, feeling like we’ll never make an impact.
This is the product of a tight-knit group of friends. Were there any disagreements in making this short film?
Sean: It wasn’t finished, but I played it for Lila Hackett, my post-production editor. I remember her saying that it lacked character. I got really sensitive, but I took that feedback and took the film to another place. I’m super grateful for that challenge. I think for two days straight I’d always say to her “oh, but the film lacks character,” no matter what the conversation was. It was brutally honest, it really hurt my feelings but it took the film to another place.
The film isn’t funded by the Canadian government, or private arts incubation funds. A lot of Canadian musicians lean heavily on that money to get their videos made. Why didn’t you use that money for this project?
Sean: A lot of externally-funded videos don’t take the risks we took on this. They’d never allow it, that’s the issue with these funds. Nobody’s gonna know your brand better than you. I’d much rather bring in my own team, [rather than work with a crew I don’t know]. But you gotta compromise, sometimes. I have a MuchFACT video coming out in about a week.
What don’t you like about working with outsiders?
Noel: It’s not like the crews offered are bad in anyway, it’s that they don’t respect individual artists. They’re treating each artist like a bank job, it’s like session work. They’re not as passionate about the message, the story, it’s to pay the bills.
Sean: Why would I want that person in charge when I can work with someone that knows me, has been in my mom’s basement with me, comes from where I do, went to highschool with me, understands me, and can get this vision out into the world exactly as I see it in my head?
I’m very hands on. If I want something done a certain way, I’ll learn to do it myself. Just like Kanye said, I’ll just wait till I can figure it out. Anything else would be unnatural, don’t you think? Living candidly, and it’s life when you’re the movie, with somebody you don’t know directing? This reel is my real, and vice versa.
Photo by Sean Leon
You’ve put a lot of time and energy into this film, to the point that we don’t hear or see much of you. Do you feel like your art consumes you at times, to the point that you miss out on experiences in life?
Sean: Somebody had to make where we come from look as awesome as it actually is. I’m in love with where I grew up because it made me this weirdo kid who would just work on stuff in my room, and not talk to people and go to parties.
I don’t suffer from a fear of missing out. I use FOMO as a way to market the film to my fans, because we don’t have a huge marketing campaign. As soon as I announce a premiere in their city they’re going to buy a ticket.
Fans in Los Angeles are gonna buy LA merch because it’s rare, it’s one of one. We’re on course to make history and they know at some point this shit is gonna be worth a lot of money. It just makes sense to fuck with what we’re doing. At some point people are gonna realize that this is some really fresh shit. I’m super confident it’s gonna happen. I’m just gonna keep creating until then, showing artists that they don’t need to sell their masters for 10 years to succeed.
One of your strengths is collaboration. Looking around in the theatre, I thought to myself that this is like Toronto’s new-school creative community winning together for once.
Sean: For once, right? My album is full of so much Canadian talent, it’s insane. I think every person on there should be a mega-star. I decided to start taking pictures because my friends were also movies. Who’s shooting the shooters?
Toronto doesn’t even know how fire it is. There’s way too much talent out here. They make something really great, and its highest point is whether or not it gets a double-tap on Instagram, or plays on SoundCloud. We measure success all wrong. There’s no other place with this much refined, experienced talent going unnoticed in the world. It’s tragic.
What’s the end goal for your career?
Sean: There really is no end goal. I never really understood that question. It’s not like making $100m would make me feel happier than I am now. I’m not gonna get a Grammy and not question whether I’m a good rapper or a musician, I’ll still have those nights. I just like making things. I’ll die, and maybe my creations will live on, maybe they won’t.
I have an idea to built a creative hub with studios for photography, recording, dance, and people just go there to get nice at what you do. I would like to make creative kids aren’t bullied. I wasn’t that “art kid” in the back getting bullied so the kid. But I’d like to create a safe space so kids like that don’t have to feel so disenfranchised.
This film was funded by my friends pitching money to rent a camera. We’d have it for maybe a weekend at a time to shoot four or five scenes. Not having resources is a blessing, because it forces you to think outside of the box. You can make anything dope, anything resonate.
It was recording in closets, living rooms, cold cellars, bedrooms where the door was open and people were smoking blunts in the next room. But this is high-quality work.
Parts of your answer to that last question is why I was surprised you agreed to this interview.
Sean: This is like a big “fuck you” though, right? HotNewHipHop is covering my film. So you guys can’t write this like “Sean Leon, rapper…” it’s “Sean Leon, multi-faceted artist had an amazing screening in Toronto.” This is perfect. This is exactly how it should be. It’s not a single release; everybody else did that. I think this sets good precedent. I think it’s really fresh that this interview is about a movie I made with my guys from back home.
My album is coming out in a week and we haven’t even talked about that, because my film’s so exciting. We’re in the business of converting minds.
You thanked so many people after the film, but you didn’t thank Noel. And Noel is Leon backwards. It took me a while to clue into that. [Editors Note: Sean and Noel are actually the same person, just to be clear]
Sean: I did that on purpose, because if I said it was by me, people would hate on it from the jump. Noel is different enough that people don’t realize right away. I saw my name backwards in the mirror one time. Noël is also the day my daughter was born. It just seemed like divine intervention, don’t you think?
Part 1 of the Black Sheep Nirvana trilogy, I Think You’ve Gone Mad, drops Feb. 5.