The Atlanta-based creative discusses the range of her projects and why certain artists inspire her.
Lacey Duke turned a childhood fascination with surreal, female-forward music videos into a directing career that’s come to organically encompass everything from a Janelle Monáe clip starring six Janelle Monáes, to an Emmy-nominated Netflix ad celebrating Black Hollywood, to a poignant and restorative fourth-season episode of Issa Rae’s Insecure. If that’s not enough range, consider that, in light of recent events, Duke directed Summer Walker and Usher in a socially distanced yet properly intimate live performance of their steamy duet “Come Thru” for the 2020 BET Awards (she also helmed the song’s official video). Throughout all of those projects, a few themes ring loud and true: Blackness, womanhood, and raw creativity.
Duke originally hails from Toronto but relocated to Atlanta back in 2013. It is from this culturally rich home base, she seems poised to make just about any move she pleases. Here’s how she got started and who inspires her to keep pushing her art in so many directions.
Spotify for Artists: Describe what you do, and give us the short story of how you got there.
Lacey Duke: I’m a filmmaker, director, and creative director—a storyteller, basically. In high school, I was more of a visual artist but I was randomly obsessed with music videos. I started making short experimental films, then applied to film school. I majored in film and image arts, minored in anthropology, and after school I interned all over: Toronto, London, New York. I was a PA for a long time and a production coordinator on commercials, but I’d direct super low-budget music videos for, like, $300 on weekends. I just kept directing. One job led to another and 2018 was the first year I was able to support myself financially as a director and creative.
Is there an artist you were a fan of growing up, a story you heard, or an artist you crossed paths with at some point that sparked you to pursue this as a career?
I remember seeing the music video for “The Rain” as a kid and just being so inspired by Missy Elliott and her world. Up until that point, I’d never thought about creation, but I immediately wanted to know who made this particular visual—who was the creator of this imagery, this world, these ideas? Of course, I discovered Hype Williams, found out he was behind all of Missy’s early videos and her image in general. My college entry essay was on the two of them. My professors were like, “So this Hype Williams… never heard of him.” [Laughs.]
What do you look for in an artist you want to work with? Who are some of the artists you recently worked with and how does that align with your philosophy?
They have to be special and the music has to be great. I have to be inspired by their existence, I just have to be a fan first. Like SZA, Summer Walker, Ari Lennox, they’re just interesting humans to me with great personalities. I love the authenticity, transparency, their unique artistic approach. H.E.R. is so talented and I love what Skip Marley stands for, he’s got great energy. I love unique identities, those nuances and layers are important to me. Those are the stories I want to tell. At this point in my career I’m fortunate enough to be able to work with artists I love and actually listen to on a regular basis.
How has your work been affected, or evolved, in light of the coronavirus pandemic?
In the music space, people just want more content now. I’ve never been one to direct live performance but I’ve been solicited to create in that space a lot lately. Like, if the BET Awards aired live with an audience and such, I probably wouldn’t have been called to creative direct Summer and Usher’s performance, but they hit labels and management like, “Get your team to send over a performance. You have five days.” It was an experimental approach for BET, but it was successful. Artists aren’t touring or doing meet-and-greets, so labels and teams are looking to creatives like myself for content ideas. It’s a fun new space but we’re still out here trying to balance creativity and social distancing. We have to make sure everyone is safe.
What’s the biggest tool at an artist’s disposal in 2020 from your perspective?
Good music is still paramount, but visual content is a great tool. Artists now are in a unique position where they need to dream up creative ways to get their music across visually online. We’re streaming concerts now: What does that look like? How do we make that interesting? Engagement with audiences is also super important. Some of my favorite artists will just get on live and talk to their fans about how they feel. We’re living in a time where people crave those kinds of authentic interactions. We love spectacle from time to time, but I think people want to see what’s behind the brand, too. People want to relate and aspire.
What’s the best advice you have for any artist just starting out?
Make sure you have a great team. Align yourself with people who can help you grow. A little humility goes a long way—you probably don’t know everything. And consider innovation—a lot of artists will follow the exact path of those that came before them, but it’s a new era. Don’t be afraid to be different, honest, and true to who you are. André 3000 did an interview a few years back where he clearly stated that emulating your heroes is lame. He urged new artists to not be like him, but to be themselves and kill him off. I agree with this energy.
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