We chat to South African filmmaker Nkululeko ‘Armsdeal’ Lebambo about his conceptual music videos and how he navigates the film industry.
Interview: Armsdeal Shoots Some of South African Hip-Hop’s Most Creative Music Videos
His latest work is for the rapper Priddy Ugly‘s song “Ho$h Ho$h.” The short film is a grimy street tale in which the rapper and his acolytes take their enemy hostage and torture him while reciting raps—a trap musical of some sort. It’s not just the characters portrayed that make the film gripping, but the way everything falls together to form a compelling narrative.
The director, who goes by the moniker Armsdeal and runs the production company CideFX Films, is behind most of Priddy Ugly’s visuals—from “Love-Hate” to “Cocaine Ghost,” “Come to my Kasim,” “02Hero,” and of course “Ho$h Ho$h,” among a few others.
“Priddy is just very sophisticated in terms of things that he likes,” the director tells OkayAfrica. “So, it took some time for me to get him. I’ve known him for many years, but he has a very distinctive way he does things. He’s meticulous in every single thing that he does, so in terms of us creating a style, you can hear that Priddy Ugly; everything always looks good but still has to be ugly i.e. still gritty, still street, still portrays the aggressive rapper he also is.”
Lebambo, who is the cofounder of the then-popular dance crew Freeze Frame, met the rapper in the late 2000s, an era in which hip-hop dance was huge in South Africa. Priddy Ugly and his wife Bontle Modiselle (as a duo they are called Rick Jade) were also dancers. “He was the first rapper to give me a chance and be like, ‘here’s a budget, please shoot this music video for me,'” he recalls.
Lebambo graduated from City Varsity, as a cinematographer/ editor. He went on to work on TV—he recalls working on shows such as Kulcha Kwest and Speak Out. A year later, he moved to the advertising industry, which he left after two years as he felt he wasn’t in control of the films he was creating. “I prefer straight-up film, media and drama,” he says. “Those are better platforms for a filmmaker to express themselves.”
Express himself he does. While Lebambo is open to shooting cookie cutter visuals if that’s what a client wants (because “business is business”), he has set himself apart as the go-to director for conceptual music videos. These range from trippy (“Cocaine Ghost,” “Ho$H Ho$H”) to accessible (“02Hero,” “Stay Shining”), with every frame seemingly planned and there to contribute the central narrative. A student of the game, every now and then he references classics. For instance, the video for Priddy Ugly’s “Smokolo” is reminiscent of DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince‘s “Summertime,” while Riky Rick’s “Stay Shining” repurposes TKZee‘s “Dala Mapantsula” video.
The rapper Shane Eagle, who he had worked with before, approached him for his 2018 audiovisual project “YellowVerse,” an endeavor Lebambo reveals was stressful as he had a lot to deliver within a limited period.
“So, Shane came to me with a concept saying he wanted to do something that was ‘out of this world,'” begins the director when asked to explain the idea behind the visually pleasing and open-ended visual. “Kinda like an AstroWorld. Not also running away from a lot of African ideas; it shouldn’t be completely futuristic. He really wanted to explore. Even in his music, I think he was just exploring signs, astrology, a lot of that. So, when he came to me, he’s like, ‘Yo, I want to do something that has to do with me and my world, my universe.'”
Lebambo values artists expanding their scope. He walks the talk—even though he may have a signature style of filmmaking, he is not in the habit of replicating other filmmakers’ work or his own. Each of his music videos are distinct and tell a different story in creative ways. He feels filmmakers in the continent could be more innovative. “I think the message in general is for us to show individualism as Africans,” he says. “There’s so much opportunity now, we can’t sleep on it, and we can tailor it for us. We don’t have to do it American-style. Yes, they’ve kind of set the bar, and have already come up with the methods of doing it, but we need to also understand we can make the industry our own.”
He feels there is a lot that black filmmakers can do to take ownership of black stories. “There’s a whole black/white thing in film,” he says. “Essentially the black filmmakers are always going to have the upper hand because we need to tell African stories, but the problem a lot of the times with black filmmakers is that we don’t invest enough time in making sure that we’re good at what we do.”
He feels black filmmakers should shouldn’t allow challenges such as the most common one of budget constraints to deter their progress. “A lot of times,” he says, “I see the attitudes with filmmakers and a lot of times they’ll tell you it has to do with budget. I’m what I call a guerrilla filmmaker; all the films I’ve shot, all the music videos I’ve shot, I didn’t have a crew of more than 20, sometimes ten. My crew is small. You don’t have to wait for somebody to give you money in order for you to shoot something. You can go out there and shoot, there are stories and the more you shoot, the better you get.”
This year, Lebambo wants to shoot his first feature film. He is also releasing Sixteen Thirty Something, a documentary he has been working on that focuses on the rappers Shane Eagle, Priddy Ugly and Frank Casino, who are all from the East Rand and have been in the same rap circles before they became stars. “I’ve got a lot of feature products that are just in development, that I’m still trying to get funding for, most of them are narrative,” he adds. “You’ll probably see me in the music video scene with Priddy, but I doubt that I’ll be doing any projects with anybody else.”
View more of his work below: