Meet Samuel ‘Blitz’ Bazawule, the renowned Ghanaian-American Director of ‘The Color Purple’ remake

BY Ben Ebuka Oji December 29, 2023 12:13 PM EDT
Blitz Bazawule. Photo credit: Mackenzie Stroh

From The Scent of Burnt Flowers to Beyonce’s Black is King, Samuel Bazawule, widely recognized as Blitz the Ambassador, has gained a reputation for his diverse range of artistic expressions. The multifaceted talent has raised the bar for excellence in the creative industry, leaving his fans and industry leaders eagerly anticipating his future artistic endeavors.

Currently, Blitz is riding high on plaudits for The Color Purple, his $100-million remake of the musical adaptation of the 1985 film originally directed by Steven Spielberg. ‘The Color Purple’ is based on Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of the same title. Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey teamed up to produce this remake with an ensemble cast featuring Taraji P. Henson, Fantasia Barrino-Taylor, Colman Domingo, Halle Bailey and Danielle Brooks.

The film has been well-received at the box office, generating a whopping $18 million across 3,152 theaters on Christmas Day, the second-highest Christmas Day debut since 2009. Bolstered by stellar reviews and an ‘A’ CinemaScore, it has also been critically acclaimed for its fidelity to the source materials – the Spielberg cut, the Alice Walker book and the Broadway adaptation. This is a testament to Blitz’s vision and hard work.

Blitz has welcomed all the positive reviews

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But how does one move from a precarious Ghanaian rapper to a big budget Hollywood filmmaker? We take a look at his journey from cramped dorm rooms in Ghana to dizzying box office heights in America.

Early Life in Ghana and Education

The Ghanaian filmmaker, author, visual artist, rapper, singer-songwriter, and record producer known was born in Accra, Ghana, on 19 April 1982. He is the third child among four siblings.

Bazawule’s family was the simple Ghanaian middle-class unit in Accra that could afford a relatively decent education and upbringing. As a teen, he was enrolled at Achimota School, the historic pre-tertiary institution in Ghana famous for having molded the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Jerry Rawlings and Robert Mugabe. It was at Achimota that the teenage Bazawule began to showcase his talent in visual art. He took to sketching renowned soccer players and musicians but also gradually immersed himself in performing bits of rap he wrote at school entertainment gatherings.

Blitz’s early artistic inspirations came from commuting to and from school on a trotro, the popular commercial transport buses that are the most used in Ghana. As the vehicle navigated the streets of Accra, he would overhear stories from his fellow passengers. He felt some of the tales were often exaggerated and embellished, stretching the boundaries of reality. But they were the stuff that provoked his young mind.

Immersed in the narratives of ordinary people, Blitz found himself captivated by the layers of intrigue woven into each story. These stories, coupled with similar narratives shared by his family members during the evenings, particularly his mother and grandmother, formed the foundation of his boundless imagination. The vivid and whimsical imagination he developed has now been transformed into music, film, and literature, resonating with millions worldwide and garnering acclaim.

Music Career

Blitz’s artistic preferences were undoubtedly influenced by hip-hop culture. Hip-hop music predictably became his expressive outlet. The album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy was the motivation for his own sound and lyrical sense.

But it was not just Public Enemy that captivated Blitz. Speaking to NPR in 2011, he praised that A Tribe Called Quest and Jungle Brothers for speaking to his African identity.

“There were these guys wearing Africa medallions and all these dashikis in really cool colors. To us it was like, ‘Wow, man, they know we exist.’ It was just so cool that these cool guys recognized us,” he said.

Blitz taught himself the spirit and music he needed, committing rap lyrics to memory and studying the works of esteemed artists such as Chuck D., Rakim, and KRS-One. Inspired by his love for history and keen social observation, Bazawule crafted rhymes that carried profound historical significance, ultimately earning him fame in school.

Following his graduation from Achimota School in 2000, Bazawule caught the attention of renowned Ghanaian producer Edward Nana Poku Osei, also known as Hammer of The Last Two. Impressed by Blitz’s talent, Hammer convinced the fast-rising rapper Deeba to put Bazawule on the eponymous hit track Deeba. Deeba would go on to be crowned Best New Artist at the 2000 Ghana Music Awards, and a lot that had to do with the song featuring Bazaar, as Bazawule was then known in showbiz.

He would later be featured on a few other Ghanaian hit songs produced by Hammer.

Nevertheless, Bazawule sojourned to the United States in 2001 to pursue his studies at Kent State University in Ohio, where he successfully obtained his first degree in Business Administration.

After his graduation from Kent, Blitz relocated to New York City. Over time, he developed his unique sound while showcasing his talent at numerous live shows. In this period, he even had the opportunity to open for acclaimed rappers like Rakim.

In 2004, Bazawule independently released his maiden EP, Soul Rebel, adopting the moniker Blitz. He then recorded another EP in Double Consciousness in 2005. But Bazawule’s repertoire offers masterful depth and diverse quality. Apart from other EPs StereoLive (2009) and The Warm Up (2013), he has four studio albums, namely Stereotype (2009), Native Sun (2011), Afropolitan Dreams (2014), and Diasporadical (2016).

Diasporadical was accompanied by a short film Diasporadical Trilogia, a triptych featuring segments set in Accra, New York City, and Bahia.

He also formed a band called The Embassy Ensemble, and established Embassy MVMT, a label and artist development company that provides marketing, brand development, and career management to aspiring artists. He also contributed to the soundtrack album for The Burial of Kojo in 2019.

Blitz effortlessly transitions between English, Twi and West African pidgin when he raps. His linguistic versatility has come in handy withy different audiences, even as he has shared the stage with renowned The Roots, Angelique Kidjo, Sting, and his dear Public Enemy. Over time, Blitz has also collaborated with the Grammy Award-nominated duo Les Nubians, JUNO Award-winning artist Shad, and the legendary Chuck D.

Film Career

Bazawule ventured into filmmaking about a decade ago. In 2015, he became a member of the African Film Society, an Accra-based collective of filmmakers from West Africa that aims to preserve Africa’s cinematic heritage and foster the growth of the film industry in the continent, with the primary objective of empowering African-financed storytelling that revolves around African culture.

He made his directorial and film-writing debut in 2018 with the film The Burial of Kojo. This remarkable production exclusively featured Ghanaian actors. For Blitz, the film exemplified the bold vision of the African Film Society, revealing Blitz’s commitment to pushing boundaries and challenging conventions.

In contrast to certain acclaimed African films that are sponsored by European and American production companies, Bazawule leveraged his connections and earlier success to crowdfund for The Burial of Kojo. He is proud that The Burial of Kojo represents a significant milestone in Ghana’s film industry, being the one of the very few locally produced feature films to be scripted, directed, and funded by Ghanaians. The film boasts an entirely Ghanaian cast and crew, showcasing their talent on a grand scale.

Ava DuVernay’s independent film studio Array acquired The Burial of Kojo for theatrical and Netflix releases.

About his filmmaking, Blitz has said:

What I remember about Ghana growing up was that it was like worlds within worlds within worlds; nothing was just surface. Things were handmade; nothing was run through a machine. That’s how I attempted to make The Burial of Kojo – that every moment be its own handcrafted thing.

Bazawule was also one of the directors of Beyoncé’s 2019 visual album ‘Black Is King,’ based on her album ‘The Lion King: The Gift’.

Literary Works

Beyond the entertainment circle, Bazawule has proven his mettle and versatility by venturing into the literary space with his debut book The Scent of Burnt Flowers, published in 2022.

The Scent of Burnt Flowers has gained much acceptance and that has catapulted it to the realm of being brought to TV. On March 17, 2022, FX Networks, LLC, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, announced the production of a six-episode miniseries based on Burnt Flowers. The miniseries will be directed and produced by Bazawule, with Actor Yahya Abdul-Mateen II leading the cast.

The miniseries promises viewers a non-linear storytelling approach, just as each chapter of the novel spills out with its unique charm.

“[The book] is another medium to attempt to tell a story that, in all honesty, is part of the thread of all the stories I’ve been telling thus far,” Blitz has said.

Accolades and Recognitions

In a career that has spanned two decades, Blitz has garnered numerous accolades and recognitions. His debut feature film, The Burial of Kojo, received glowing reviews, even securing a coveted spot on The New Yorker’s esteemed ‘Best Films of 2019.’ The same year, he was honored with the ‘Best First Feature Film by a Director’ at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for the film.

Additionally, he clinched the Grand Nile Prize (Long Narrative) at the Luxor African Film Festival.

Bazawule has been recognized for his significant contributions to Ghanaian arts, earning him a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. His expertise and knowledge have also led him to serve as a visiting faculty member at Vermont College of Fine Arts.