A veritable Gesamtkunstwerk, Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma is a genre-irreverent project of many parts that’s greater than the sum of all of them. It can, perhaps crudely, be split into two main components. The first is an album, a funk-laced “[interrogation of] Black identity and all the ways that young Black kids are taught to un- derstand Black identity” across 13 tracks, filtered through the prism of Jones’ own upbringing in Mont- clair, New Jersey. The second is a Sundance award-winning short film, created in collaboration with the director duo rubberband. and stylist Eric McNeal. A collage of home video footage, magical real- ist vignettes, and interviews with members of Jones’ extended com- munity -- his lawyer, his 8th-grade history teacher, his grandmother -- it fleshes out the memories and concepts expressed in the album with a warm, nuanced blend of humour and gravity.
Rather than as a visual album, as it’s been touted since its release, Jones considers it as “an ad cam- paign promoting the ideas of the album, rather than the songs themselves. The ideas are the hit songs of the album to me.” Here, he unpacks some of those at Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma’s core.
Mahoro Seward - How would you describe the relationship between image and sound in Don’t Go Tel- lin’ Your Momma?
Topaz Jones - Music’s a very hard thing to put into words, right? It exists to encapsulate all the things that we don’t usu- ally have words for. What we really hoped to do with the film was to find ways to further ex- press some of the more ethere- al, surreal aspects of what was happening in the album in a way that didn’t cheapen it. It was dif- ficult for me to take an album that’s built on the idea of me in- terrogating my own memories, and put it into a form that’s di- gestible for other people. That’s where [Jason Sondock and Si- mon Davis of] rubberband., Eric McNeil, our creative director, and Chayse Irvin, our cinema- tographer, were extremely help- ful in helping me translate that into a visual form.
MS -The film uses your own rein- terpretation of the Black ABCs as a structural device. Tell us a bit about what this is, and why you chose to work with it.
TJ - The Black ABCs was start- ed by school teachers in Chica- go in the 70s and was designed as a way to give learning ma- terials to young Black kids that reflected their community in a very positive light. It just felt like just the right time to update and reapply them to what’s going on now -- 2020 was easily the most historic year since maybe 1968. Coming across the con- cept, and it being about edu- cation, really illuminated what I was trying to talk about with the album: my own education -- all the ways that I learned what my identity meant, and all the shame, confusion and discom- fort that came with it. As a rap- per, there’s this expectation of a machismo, a braggadocio that I grew up aspiring to, As I get old- er, I’ve had to accept that that was never totally me, and that a lot of my life’s confusion has been about me trying to hold myself up against an ideal of Black masculinity that isn’t one- size-fits-all, even if it is market- ed as such.
MS - There’s real weight to the topics that some of the letters touch on -- A for Amphetamines, and V for Vulnerable, for example -- while others, like N for Nappy, seem lighter in tone. What can you tell us about the balance at play here?
TJ - Making this album, I was re-interrogating my past, my upbringing, and my whole un- derstanding of self. And I think a part of what makes me ‘me’ is that my story isn’t this huge trauma fest, one filled with gang banging and shoot-outs. I have been hugely inspired by other people for whom that is their re- al-life story, but I always knew that it wasn’t mine. Mine has a huge range of emotion and tonality, and to leave out the more comedic moments of my upbringing would be disingen- uous. For so long, especially in hip-hop, Black stories have been sold to us in a way that both mythologizes them and also re- duces some of their humanity. Even the people whose stories are less fortunate than my own, they still crack jokes with their friends. They’re still living their lives, eating breakfast and stuff like that.
MS - The album was recorded pre-pandemic, but the film was shot last summer. How did the global events that came to pass between working on them change how you perceived the music you’d created?
TJ - When you’re working on music, it feels special to you but you never know what it’s going to mean to someone else. I hoped that the album would make peo- ple feel a little less alone if they were dealing with similar feel- ings of inadequacy, but I ob- viously didn’t expect things to reach the fever pitch that they did. I think that the pressure of the past year has forced us all to go back to the root of who we are. I hope this record -- in the way that it’s produced and the feelings, sounds and places that it’s pulling from -- is a thing that helps people bring some of that energy back as we find a path forward from this landmark, wa- tershed year. And I like to think that the young Black kids listen- ing to it are able to see some of themselves in it, in the way that e myself in Outkast and early Kanye.