During one particularly striking moment in New Jersey musician Topaz Jones’s stunning short film Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, Jones’s grandmother, Emma Janice Jones, reveals the riches that evaded their family. Jones’s great great grandfather, Marshall Jones, was a cotton farmer who saw an entire season’s yield destroyed by the rain. The interview comes towards the end of the film, part of a constellation of vignettes that serve to place the 27-year-old musician in a context both familial and historic. The Roots’ Black Thought muses on intellectual property, and a child is teleported home after the streetlights come on. Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is a pseudo-documentary directed by Jones and the creative duo rubberband.; it’s a blend of archival footage from Jones’ family, interviews with Black thinkers and activists, and staged scenes that twist and expand the reality of Black youth with magical realism. Its 35-minutes breeze by as an exploration of the lessons, conflicts, simple joys and complex inheritance of Black adolescence into adulthood. This year, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma earned Sundance Film Festival’s Short Film Jury Award for Non-Fiction as well as SXSW’s Special Jury Recognition for Visionary Storytelling.
“The past couple of years [have been] my first opportunity to look back on the first 20 years of my life with any real perspective,” says Jones, who released his debut album in 2014. Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma visualizes his new funk-inspired album of the same name. “Now that I have a platform to tell my story, [I had] to really reckon with, well, ‘What is my story? What made me the person I am? What things about myself come from myself directly? What things are passed down from my relatives? What’s my generational trauma?’ That was a whole lot of shit to balance out. I think that the tone of this film is equally as varied as that experience was.”
So far, Jones has one considerable hit, his 2016 single “Tropicana,” a slick, boastful rap song that’s amassed over 11 million Spotify streams. After its release, he had to think deeply about the artist he wanted to be. “I was petrified of being labeled as the ‘Tropicana’ guy, so much so that against the expectations and suggestions of many people around me, we never made a ‘Tropicana’ video,” Jones says. “Maybe in a self-saboteur kind of way, I decided not to put gas on that fire because I was afraid it would eat me alive.”
In an effort to get in touch with himself, he wrote a loose screenplay about his upbringing in Montclair, a township 40 minutes from Manhattan. That screenplay informed Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma, the album, which he then brought to rubberband.’s Simon Davis and Jason Sondock. He also showed the pair something that had been tucked away in his digital moodboard: the Black ABCs, a set of photo-illustrated flash cards created by Chicago teachers and the Society for Visual Education in the 1970s, designed to offer Black students representation in their learning materials. “I remember him bringing them to us and going, ‘Hey, I’m not sure what this is, but it really speaks to me,’” says Davis. “‘This feels really in line with a lot of the ideas and feelings that I’m exploring on this album.’”
In turn, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is organized into 26 parts of varied length, each marking a letter in Jones’ reimagined Black ABCs. In the original, “A” is for “afro” and “C” is for “cool.” Here, “A” is for “amphetamines” and “C” is for “code-switching.” The album itself becomes even more poignant after watching the film. In addition to rubberband., Lemonade cinematographer Chayse Irvin and creative director Eric McNeal helped bring Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma to life visually. “Topaz kind of rolls his eyes when I say this stuff,” says Davis, “but we all rallied behind [him], somebody who’s one of the most beautiful souls that I know, who made a really meaningful album, who’s one of the best people that I’ve ever met in my life, energetically, morally, and artistically.” Below, Topaz and the films’ directors discuss the making of the project.
Tell me about the experience of submitting to Sundance and SXSW and winning. What was that like?
Topaz: I’ve never made something with this much of a clear intention before. Even [when] people decided to sign on to it, I think it was a direct result of us being very clear on what we wanted to do and having a clear mission. Eric McNeal, who is our creative director, actually went to an afterschool program as a kid that had the Black ABCs there. There were all these people who not only were locked in on the intention, but really deeply understood it. So I think anything that comes from it is great because I know that rather than the earlier albums, where I was trying to reverse engineer, the attention we’re getting is coming as a direct result of focusing on the art, prioritizing our mission, and not falling for the desire for virality.
What was your collaborative process?
Simon Davis: Sometimes if you’re working with an artist, the process can be contrived. Either a label is stipulating the length of a video, or there’s not a lot of exchanging of ideas. You’re kind of thrown into this thing that has a deadline, but with Topaz, because it’s such a fluid friendship and collaboration, over a year ago, he kind of came to us with an amazing album and an array of incredible things that were inspiring him, and we were able to just sit down and kind of talk about those things. We were sounding boards in a small way as he kind of explored and questioned a lot of things that were on his mind.
Your cinematographer worked on Lemonade. This film is very different from that one, in that there are not particular music videos that can be pulled out as individual pieces. The music doesn’t feel like the center of the film. Why was that the approach?
Simon Davis: In each of these letters, it feels we are capturing a meaningful idea that ties back to the music, which was our source code and kind of our Bible all throughout this. We deliberately tried to not think about our idea relative to other visual albums or other things, but really ground our thinking in, “Is this engendering the feeling that we’re hoping to capture?”
Something that I think we’ve all collectively reacted to is the confines of a single music video. I think Topaz creates really incredible albums. He makes great standalone songs [too, but] the three-minute music video structure can be quite limiting in that you are giving life to a single song. I think what was so interesting and exciting about this was we had this capability to try to create a portrait of the album, all the complexity and density — thematically, musically, and spiritually — that was in that body of music.
This film spectacularly uses the surreal, like Atlanta or bits of Insecure. The surreal has recurred in the Black art of the past few years. Why it was important for you to include those elements?
Jason Sondock: I think magical realism is a huge part of Simon and mine’s visual practice. Inevitably some of those things just get brought along with us, wherever we’re going, but of course Atlanta is a huge inspiration. I also saw An Oversimplification of Her Beauty by Terance Nance at Sundance, when it came out, and that movie totally changed my life.
Topaz Jones: He brought me to a screening.
Jason Sondock: That’s true. I remember I just kind of followed Terence around the U.S. wherever the film was. I was like, “Hey man, I love your movie. Can I do something with you?” And eventually I interned for Terence for a couple of months. He’s amazing. I think Random Acts of Flyness, Atlanta, all of these really interesting depictions are going beyond even the black landscape of cinema and really talking about the landscape of cinema, period. These stories are being told in ways that people didn’t even think about. That’s so beautiful, how expansive and how spongy this world of filmmaking can be. I think those magical realist elements are sort of part of that. How far can you push something in these spaces that can tell a story maybe in a more clear, but maybe not such an obvious kind of a way?
Topaz Jones: Also, when I’m making music, that surreal quality is the goal, the goal is to put those kinds of things to sound. In trying to make a film that materializes and makes music tangible, I think it has to be surreal to kind of capture that energy.
Simon Davis: Totally. I think music possesses quite a magical quality, certainly Topaz’s music. I also think there’s an alignment to how the three of us see, feel, and experience the world to include things that might feel “surreal.” I think the idea in a film that’s linear — the idea that that is reality — doesn’t really sync with what my experience is. We have our imaginations that interact with our present reality. We dream every night. I think for us, we’ve always been interested in trying to be less faithful to the traditional idea of how you depict reality and more faithful to the experiential subjective understanding that we have of what reality feels like. I think Topaz’s music does a really beautiful job of giving that form and style. It’s always really fun to try and find visuals that just kind of echo and accompany that.
When was the film made?
Topaz Jones: I think that a lot of the fluidity of this project is indebted to the time it’s coming about in. This album predates the pandemic, but for the film, we were coming up with these ideas in the heat of uncertainty around what was going on and also a lot of tension…
When you say “in the heat,” do you May and June’s racial uprisings? Is that when you were working the ideas out or is that when you’re filming?
Topaz Jones: We were already working on it, but that was kind of becoming the backdrop as we were writing it. We shot it in August. The world was so unstable and so uncertain that it allowed us the space to take that time to look inward and to really question everything. We weren’t beholden to any conventions because it felt like at that time, everything was kind of out the window.
Jason Sondock: It made us question literal sociopolitical, socioeconomic ideas of how society works in sort of a more physical way, but it also made us question, ‘What is a film, what is an album?’