Artist Profile: Vernon Jordan, III
Updated: Apr 3, 2020
CA: You are a man of three realms (writing/poetry/film making). Which of the three did you first fall in love with and why?
VJIII: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently – having been asked questions like this from grad school apps, from people in my MFA program, when they find out my artistry is not solely that of a filmmaker – and it’s funny because I actually started with Singing and Songwriting. And singing and songwriting, the music stuff, they were my first two loves. I have a godmother who every time she sees me recounts the story of a 3 year old Vernon, or Lil Vern, getting up in front of a church and singing this Kirk Franklin song. I couldn’t read or write then, but I knew all the words just from listening to it so many times! So three years old, and I was on the stage bleeding my little heart out. I remember wanting to be Michael Jackson, dancing to “Rock My World”, swooning to “Butterfly”, and wishing I could leap back in time to be a part of the Jackson 5. Years later, when I was eight, nine, ten, I started writing songs, and that was the first kind of writing I did. I was an extremely quiet kid – only really talking to the one or two friends I had, and smiling and laughing with the many acquaintances, when appropriate. When I was with my good friends, I became an absolute goof ball who could not shut up. But when I was home, raised an only child, I knew how to use time with myself: I created. I took a black and white composition notebook and called it my songbook, and I took that almost everywhere with me. Sometimes at school, I would sneak and write songs instead of doing my work. Songwriting was my private space where I got to really know myself and talk about the things I wanted. I have a tricky relationship with songwriting to this day because at the time I hated myself ferociously: and on the one hand I guess I was working through that hate and lack of self love and anti-blackness and overall shrinking of myself, but on the other, when I look back, I was desperately trying to create and emulate someone who I wasn’t – namely, white boy pop artists of the day. Poetry seemed easy to get into, when I did. Songs and Poems are pretty much the same thing. But my Literacy teacher, after having read a poem I wrote for classwork, told me I should think about continuing poetry. Quietly, I did just that. Film came later, at a time where I was reacquainting myself with performing on stage, making my spoken word debut. We had these auditions for short film projects by this afterschool program called Big Picture Alliance (BPA), and one of my friends, Isa Walker (who is the DP on See My Dreams Come True) suggested I audition. So I did! And feeling comfortable on stage because of spoken word poetry training I was getting from Philly and NYC folks like Yolanda Wisher (current Poet Laureate of Philly), Lindo, Jadon Woodard, Denice Frohman, etc, (via Germantown Poetry Festival) I did pretty well. This was all freshman year of high school, and poetry and filmmaking really helped me to like myself again – truly. I started introducing myself by my full name, Vernon Jordan, III, with full volume and presence — that was a first for me! And it was poetry and getting up on the mic that did that. So if you ever meet me in person, and I introduce myself with my full name, that’s why. It’s a reminder of how far I’ve come, a reminder that I’m here, and a reminder to the room I’m not to doubt my greatness and certainly not to doubt your own. So yeah, it was all life-changing, the microphone. And the camera, actually learning how to shoot and bring images to life, actually learning how to format the words that later translate into shooting images, and then shooting those images – talk about super gratifying. Each one, in a very real way, led to the next one. There was a time in high school, too where I was training at a theatre, making films at BPA, doing the poetry club at school, learning guitar, and working on an EP. Ridiculous lol. My last note about which one I did first though: I’ve been thinking about how often I say things like, “I’m a Writer first,” and the other week if hit me like, no that’s BS. My sensibilities, the Poetic shit, the visual shit, are first: however my senses decided they wanted to come together and inform my outlook, that’s first. I think James Baldwin uses the word “Poet” to talk about artists of all kinds, and I dig that. And last week a friend, who I’m beginning to develop an artistic relationship with, called me a Visual Lyricist so that confirms it for me, like I’m not alone in thinking or recognizing that. I Poet in everything I do.
CA: How do you think all three help you excel in properly creating your work?
VJIII: I’m not sure what I would do without all three, or four, or five. The fifth being that I used to draw at one point (I wanted to be Character Designer and Artist for videogames). And I don’t see myself returning to drawing anytime soon but I don’t know if my overall vision can sit in just one form. At the most basic level, I’m a storyteller, I’m a visualist. I’m interested in producing and evoking sensation. It might not sound like poetry, short stories, screenwriting and directing are all related, but they totally are. Plus, I get bored easily – like I hate routine – so sometimes the story in my head can’t be, say a poem, because what if i’ve been writing poetry all season long and I’m tired of looking at poetry? It can become a song, or a short story. Now, I don’t usually carry short story or poem ideas over to film, because those ideas and usually come to me separate and in a super visual way – it has to be something I can see sustained on a screen. Conversely, if I have a movie idea, it’s not hard for me to riff a poem or short story around the theme, or the world of the movie. But whatever I’m doing, I’m telling a story – and I want you to see it.
CA: Do you feel they trickle into each other in the creation process?
VJIII: They always trickle into each other. I have at least two fictional movies where the characters turn to writing for their outlet, for instance. And I always want to play with poetry in film, with music, too. When I’m writing a film project, I ensemble massive playlists with music that helps me shape the world, music that expresses certain moments and themes, and music that in an ideal world could be the score or soundtrack. I’m not, however, thinking about movies when I sit down to write a song or poem. I’m not sure how that works lol. But the intersection probably just comes back down to my visual core. I’m always guided by images I see in my real-time environment – like, part of the inspiration for See My Dreams Come True was seeing a group of young Black boys riding their bikes in the middle of a South Philly street one night. That image stuck with me, and came back to my mind when I was making the film. Or, for instance, I got a chance to do a two-week trip to Ghana at the end of my Sophomore year of college. I turned 21 in Ghana, it was the first international journey I ever made – powerfully, right before I took a semester abroad in London – and I had some friends, including an ex-girlfriend, who went on the trip as well. I remember we were standing on Anomaro beach, some hours after coming from a castle where the Dutch houses enslaved Africans, and she, my ex, remarked something about how crazy it was that we were standing there with one another – back where so many enslaved Black folks had their lives ripped from them; and like did those Ancestors know we were there? Was it possible they could meet for the first time, or meet again, through her and I being there in that space? That stuck with me too. And I don’t see that in a movie, but I tried to express it in a number of really shitty and incomplete poems, reflection posts, and finally, now, it’s a short story I’m working through. So it’s things like that – memories and observations – and music that are the commonalities across my artistic spectrum. I’m a watcher of things. I hope that answers your question.
CA: Explain AfroFuturism’s impact on your various pieces of art and how it embodies who you are in your journey as an artist.
VJIII: I have a piece published with a small and really cool Black woman-owned-and-created magazine out of London, called AfroKanist Magazine, where I talk about AfroFuturism. So when it drops online, check it out. But AfroFuturism, in a very real way, has changed how I art, the reasons why I art, and kind of things I want to do. My first attentive bump with it was with Janelle Monae’s debut album ArchAndroid – she changed my life. In one of my initial Twitter bios, I wrote “I am a member of the Future” solely because of the faith she gave me. The way she sings about love, about womanness, about Otherness, about the need to dance and get up and run and love somebody – I was floored. Not to mention the super cinematic concept story of the ArchAndroid called Cindi Mayweather (represented/played by Janelle herself) who time travels and freaks people out/gets people free with this magic called music and Funk. That blew me away, and to see a Black woman at the front of that story made me happy. I felt comfortable, first of all, with her music more than I did her male RnB counterparts. Her song “Dance or Die”, I embraced that as a real philosophy, having been teased and bullied from elementary school for being dark and different and “gay” (Gay in quotes to suggest the harmful connotation people threw at me and not the identity/position itself). She helped me get in my body. Tightrope was the first Black social dance I committed to memory, in 2010 my Sophomore year of high school lol. So Janelle’s work just gave me hope. And the hope transformed the way I walked, talked, and breathed in the world. Generally, as Black people, we’re taught to be disembodied by white institutions – we can’t laugh, we can’t run, we can’t play, we can’t explore, and we certainly can’t imagine, right? We have few options for expressing ourselves on our own terms. Art programs that give us the chance to find ourselves, to dig up what, in many cases, is buried under shame and anti-Blackness, are cut completely. Of course art is not the only answer, but it is a powerful tool to get people moving differently – but Afrofuturist art, although about aliens, spirits, robots, and more, and less, is pretty clear about this. It’s functional and workable. AfroFuturism takes our colonial situations (enslavement, Apartheid, Jim Crow, gender violence, mass incarceration, heteronormativity etc etc) and says where do we go? What is our plan? What worlds do we actually want to see and build? What work can we do now to decolonize and fuck up the systems, and Funk up the amazing brains and bodies in our communities? I’ve seen this on the ground, not only from Janelle’s music and art, but in my own city of Philadelphia. This summer I interned at Community Future Labs, a dope artist and community space in North Philly run by two amazing Afrofuturist artists/writers/thinkers/doers, the bomb ass couple that is Rasheedah Phillips (housing lawyer by day) and Camae Defstar aka Moor Mother (soccer coach by day). And so daily we were doing all-access panels about mental health, navigating shady housing business, misogyny, in addition to the space’s main mission of collecting interviews from community folks around the Blumberg/Sharswood neighborhood, archiving their personal stories and histories with the neighborhood, and creating a time capsule. So AfroFuturism is cultural and artistic but it’s totally organizing and on the ground work and change, too – don’t forget.
CA: How do you start the process for creating your movies? Do you already have an idea of who the actor/actress will be for the roles you have in mind?
VJIII: It comes back to what I said prior about being extremely visual and sensitive to what’s going on around me. I mentioned earlier being with my friend in South Philly and witnessing that group of young Black men on bikes? I mean bike culture is strong in Philly, so it wasn’t anything super different from our everyday, but for some reason her and I both were struck in that moment about them. I for sure thought this observation was going to turn into a poem – I was going to write about how riding your bike in the middle of the street like that is a reclaiming of space. Amidst gentrification, amidst districting redlining, amidst a surplus of vacant school buildings, that bike and those cool tricks and your friends, and nobody really being able to stop you in those moments – I can imagine that being a kind of freedom. I never wrote anything down, but when it came down to start thinking about what movie I wanted to make for my senior thesis at Muhlenberg College (for my self-designed major: Black Voice and Cultural Studies) the observation came back to me; and at some point I envisioned two Black children on one bike, claiming the street as their own; and at some point I knew that these Black kids were not necessarily from here, and maybe experiencing a freedom that would be out of this world and epic for them. So it goes like that. Another example: I’m writing a low-fi sci-fi feature film and the idea literally came from reading a unit in my Biology class on DNA cloning processes, somatic cell transfer, or therapeutic cloning, and stuff like that. It was a small class in the summer, and so we would have all these semi-related discussions, and every week we had to bring in a write up of some interesting/new science news. I learned a lot and really ended up loving the class. So anyway, that cloning unit birthed the idea for my feature. I thought to myself, what would happen if the United States of America, as it is now as this super militant and oppressive plutocratic neoliberal State, started cloning human beings? And I dived straight into world building. I’m still in world building lol! As far as your question about actors, that’s something I want to get better at – vision boarding and stuff. Like, I can so see how that’s helpful. I’ve done a little of that with See My Dreams, where I had one journal committed to that project and that project alone, filled with printouts of images I wanted to emulate in the film and images that said something like I wanted to say and images that gave me new ways to look at the project. I never had any pictures of ideal actors though. I do have a series Bible for my original pilot series, Walking Shadows – but again, no ideal cast section. I have a couple friends who I know I’ll write characters and roles for one day, but it just ain’t happen yet. And in some ways this visioning and ideal cast or writing for an actor, would probably stress me the fuck out – like that layer of the external thing, the real Actor, like how they speak and look and are would probably distract me from just writing anything. So no, most I have, and must know, is age range, race, and gender.
CA: Give us a short walk through for your movie titled “See My Dreams Come True” and how that came about.
VJIII: See My Dreams Come True a poetic work that follows two Ancestor Spirit Children who visit a Young Artist in his dreams; and through their own warping of time, through their own joys, push the Young Artist to confront his art.
The film came out my own desire to produce a film at the end of my college career, first and foremost. But the story itself was all because of my excitement around Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If the twitter name didn’t tip you off, Im a kinda huge fan of the series. I was watching and reading all kinds of interviews and profiles on J.J. Abrams, refreshing myself on George Lucas, the original creator of the epic world, and Steven Spielberg, the common collaborator and soundboard for them both, and I found a common thread about their origins into filmmaking. They each seemed to have a readily available space, from childhood, in which to dream; and thus create. I remember being a Black child and being told, from many angles, that my position in the world, and thus my creative voice, didn’t matter. Spielberg and the like, of course had the material and ethereal gains of whiteness, of existing without the burden of race, and were assumed to amass the elaborate kinds of imagination. They grew up and worked with Super-8 cameras, and train sets, and plenty of space in the backyard to play. So at first I thought the project that would become See My Dreams was going to be a documentary; then I saw these characters – the kids on the bike – and thought, how can I weave them into this documentary that’s going to focus on Black youth and their dreams and their capacity to make and shape? I interviewed maybe five young people, some from New Freedom Theatre (PA’s oldest African American theatre), where I trained in Philly, and eventually scrapped the idea. I decided it would be full narrative, however experimental. And actually, before all this decision making around the film, my Grandma passed away – the second or third week of my final semester at Muhlenberg. So I knew i had to make the film and channel that grief into something because it was unreal to me. I had all this theory and thoughts on Ancestors, but now I was presented with a situation where my Grandma, the woman who taught me how to write letters, a woman who very much provided space for my own imagination, became an Ancestor herself. My Pop Pop, the first Vernon Jordan in our line and her husband, passed in 2010, and while I feel deeply connected to him, we weren’t close like my Grandma and I. So it was rough. I didn’t want to make the film, and on some days I didn’t want to graduate – because she was supposed to be there, you know? Education was her thing, man. She was a teacher for 20 plus years. I was, and am, depressed about it. It’s still a fresh wound and everytime I go and check off some accomplishment Im reminded that I can’t share that with her in the same way. So I was grieving as the film was made, and as a result I started thinking about her home and how that space held such creative energy for me. My Pop Pop was a musician – a Flutist, Guitarist, and most of all a Drummer; my Dad was a Writer and Rapper and Drummer in his youth, my Aunts, two of them, played Clarinets and Trumpets – so it wasn’t just me who’d been creatively affected in that home either. And so through that I arrived at the question, what spaces can afford Black youngers a great creative playground? In the end, I shot the film in the her home. There’s a scene where the Ancestor Children run around this tree – that’s a tree my late Pop Pop planted for my Grandma, in honor of the hard work they did, in honor of the family they made, and the home they secured. So the film is a memorial for her, and for my family, in addition to a chance to show off the Black kids with cameras in hand – the potential for them to edit together images of themselves and the worlds around them. See My Dreams Come True hopefully feels like a gift, a vision, a mirror, to and for the Young, Gifted and Black.
CA: You utilize a hashtag on twitter to house your poetry. Any chance you will release a book with all of your poetry and pieces of writing to the public?
VJIII: To be brief, yes. It’s funny because my Mom says I should write an autobiography – having been premature, having been in the foster care system after I emancipated myself from my Dad, having found family outside of blood, having been a first gen college student, having been a first gen passport holder – and so many things, so many struggles and triumphs; but I know this won’t be the first thing I write super longform. Maybe later. All that to say, I’ve given myself a personal goal of 2019, actually – my next graduation date – to have mapped out an idea of what my collection of writing will look like. It might be a small chapbook about one topic, it might be super multi-genre, and house some of my photos, essays, poetry, song lyrics, and short stories. Not entirely sure what the book/collection will be, and I have some ideas but they’re too soon to express to anyone else. A book is coming though. And right now I’m guilty of going into libraries and really sitting with books that feel good to hold – taking in their size, shape, and texture, you know. That is really guiding me right now, when I think about my book: like, what kind of book is it gonna be? Like softback? Paperback? A little small thing you can almost shove in your pocket? Smooth cover? White or Beige pages? It’s a little weird, but it’s something that, almost like my process of naming a character, is extremely important to me: the way the physicality of the book will make me and other people feel. I also know that by mid-January of 2017, I’ll have 200 haikus under my belt (shoutout to the 100-day haiku challenge), and that is more than enough for a book of poetry.
CA: What do you have in the pipeline for the rest of 2016 and 2017?
VJIII: I want to continue screening See My Dreams Come True at various venues and festivals. I’ve creative workshop experiences surrounding themes of the film, that im prepared to teach/lead; and I would love to do more talks and panels about and with creators of color, other queer artists, and the importance and impact of art. The rough cut of See My Dreams was presented in a keynote address I was fortunate enough to give at my undergrad – and that keynote was the first keynote address given by a student ever at the 13th annual Social Research and Social Justice Conference! One workshop, for instance, deals with Dream Envisioning, Family/Personal Photography, and intimate Objects in our lives, like the camera, a pen, or a paintbrush – and how being specific about one’s dreams, really thinking through one’s plans for and with an object, and looking closely at ourselves in still images, can lend to a better understanding of ourselves as Black people, Brown people, Queer people, otherwise Othered, as humans with purpose just like everybody else. I’m pitching to places, so we’ll see what comes of that. I’m definitely prepared for more of that panel, lecture, intimate screening type stuff. Get your schools to book me! Really – wish me luck. I’ll be continuing to compile all my poetry online for backup purposes, and really put myself out there for open mics in here in New York city once the weather warms up. And I would love to get back to working on Walking Shadows, write the second and third episodes, possibly film a concept trailer. Walking Shadows i’ve been writing since 2013, so it’s my baby and I want to keep showing love to it and make sure it grows. I want to direct a music video, for sure, and do some more creative consulting or art directing. I find that I really enjoy reading rough drafts and giving feedback, where I can. Listening to others express their passions and goals is one of my favorite things because people really light up about it, and they bring themselves – and that just warms my heart. It’s the circle of inspiration: inspire and get inspired. I used to have this tagline, breathe, experience, create, so that’s ultimately what it’s all about. And well, other than that, I’m not sure what the rest of 2016 and 2017 will hold for me. Right now I’m just being a Hoe/ho, being an Artist, and surviving my first semester of this MFA program at Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema. At the halfway point of 2017 I’ll be done my first year, and that’s wild to think about. The rest? We’ll see where New York takes me.