Rachel Watanabe-Baton makes Shell's video with Tinny
Rachel (m) gives last minute direction to Tinny and an actress
Women have generally been relegated in the world of hip hop music to the background, and when they take centre stage, it is either as hos for the pimps or as video girls who shake their behinds for the rap stars. Hip hop has traditionally been uncomplimentary of women; it denigrates the female sex and calls it all sorts of names. And when women get involved in calling the shots, they either do it as foxy vixens that mouth foul words and proclaim their ability to match the male folk in their sexual escapades.
Not often does a woman come in the mould of music video director in that male-centric industry. But when one finds a Harvard graduate who has spent almost twenty years in the industry as a producer, writer and director, then one knows you have gotten an unusual woman.
When Rachel Watanabe-Batton stepped into the conference hall at Alisa Hotel on Thursday in a short navy blue dress and was introduced by MTV Base as the international music video director for hip life star Tinny’s new song “Incomplete”, not many people hailed her as a star. The director who stands at about 5”5 in tall entered the hall with a smile on her face. And when it was time for her to give a little speech, she spoke about how she was happy to be in Ghana, and back home in Africa, land of her father’s family. She intimated everyone about her plans for the video and how tight their schedule was.
At the end of the press brief I walked up to her to get a little bit of information about her job and how she had mentioned having Nigerian roots during her speech. From the very first instant I saw her I could tell she had Japanese roots. And seeing her name written on the file folders that were distributed, I could confirm she was really oriental but when she mentioned her African roots, she became more interesting.
And then she exclaims; “I’m an Ibo girl o”, in an unmistaken American accent. “My father is a professor at Nsukka (University of Nigeria) and he hails from Awka but my mother is Japanese-American”, she quickly adds.
Her infectious nature takes over and we talk about her family and how she was in Africa as a kid but has not been back for a long time even as her father visits the US often when he comes to see her and her six sisters. I ask if she’s ever thought of coming to do more work in Africa and she says she would love to come more often and came this time because of her deep interest in giving something back to Africa when she could have been doing some other jobs.
I then ask if I could get the opportunity of seeing her work behind the scenes on her video shoot. She says it will be okay but directs me to get permission from the MTV Base management who were calling the shots for the project. I speak to Jandre Louw, events manager for the channel and he says it will be good and that they’ll give me a call next day when they are set.
On Friday, I get a call from Dinesha Moonsamy, publicist for the project and she tells me to head to the La Pleasure Beach where the crew was having an afternoon shoot. I arrive the set just in the thick of business and meet the star of the day, Tinny, who seems to be enjoying it all. I meet Rachel, now dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans that float on top of her ankle, and she says she’s been trying to get through to me all day but unfortunately misplaced my card in the hustle and bustle of her work. Here on her work turf she doesn’t look anywhere as elegant as she did the previous day. She looks the perfect part in her work fatigue.
She introduces me to the production manager, a lady who asks me to make myself at home but not to get in front of the behind the scenes camera. I nod in agreement and take out my camera to take shots.
“Action” and then “cut, lets do that again”, she calls out. The scene is set at a bar where Tinny is surrounded by a bevy of beauties. He seems to be enjoying all the attention until he makes up his mind to walk away from it all to go back to his true love without whom he is incomplete, the title of the song.
I watch in excitement as she directs every scene from her story board with a practiced eye carrying everybody along with an aura of respect. Her energy and commitment to her job was second to none for that period of time. She makes Tinny do the bar scene over and over before she finds a perfect flow.
After a while, she goes over to the make up artist to monitor her as she applies some foundation on the lead female character’s face.
“I would like to see the colour on her face”, she tells the lady with candor. She hangs around awhile watching every stroke of the brush as it leaves mascara on the young actress’s face.
Once or twice I catch her gaze, she looks away and continues with her work. I then seek out a member of Tinny’s management who tells me how “tremendous” her work has been. During break for lunch I catch up with her and she gives me a few minutes of talk time.
I ask about her experience and the difference for her working on that set and working on a New York set for Nas or Jay Z.
“The issues are the same,” she says. “Some things are not working, whether it’s the art department or some people are being late.
“The difference is really that we’re also working as a workshop and some of the people are students. So you want them to have a chance to learn so you have a difficulty of professionalism, of them knowing what their job is.
“My camera men and electricians have been really professional and more committed probably. My DP grabbed his lunch and took his whole crew to set up another shot whereas in the US, people will be griping about meal penalties. The crew is more committed here.”
Then I ask about her challenging role as a female director in hip hop where women are not given much respect.
“That has given me an advantage, actually,” she replies “because when I’m working with the female talents, I’m able to relate with what’s going to bother them. In terms of what goes on set, I try to ensure that they’re treated with respect.
Has she had any problems with guys on set?
“No, I work with an all male crew all the time. Somebody shuts you up on the street all the time in normal life, you just need to know how to handle yourself”, she said.
“And if you carry yourself well, people treat you well. Some men are very sexist but in general I try to look beyond it and just do my work.”
Just as I’m about to ask my next question on equipment and other stuff, someone comes to drag her away. I hang around awhile and see she’s not coming back, work had begun in earnest. And they would continue shooting the video till past 1 O’clock a.m. Everybody is exhausted when they arrive at Aphrodisiac for the after party where DJ Prince Charles from the UK rules the turn table.
But in true showbiz fashion, we all party into the wee hours of the morning, drowning out the stress in booze and heavy music awaiting the outcome of Tinny’s eventful video shoot.
Graduate of University of Lagos and Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife. Chief Editor, Goal.com Nigeria edition. Former Online Editor and West African Correspondent based in Ghana for TELL Magazine, Lagos. Alumnus International Institute of Journalism (INWENT), Berlin; Reuters Foundation and Agence France Presse (AFP) Foundation. Photographs published in USAToday, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, AllAfrica.com, The Guardian, ThisDay, The Punch, Showbiz and Daily Graphic (Ghana). Photos exhibited in Krakow, Poland. Nominee Journalist of the year at The Future Awards, Nigeria 2010.