Spike Lee and Janelle Monae Play âThe Gameâ [INTERVIEW]

In celebration of the 2014 World Cup Games (which kicked off Thursday, June 12 in Brazil), Pepsi released an exclusive collection of 11 anthemic songs that not only capture the essence and culture of the South American country, but also the spirit and energy of the world’s most popular sport—yes, football.

“We felt that one TV commercial, one song couldn’t do that,” shared Frank Cooper III, chief marketing officer of Pepsi. “There are these beats, these moments that define the experience of the game, and the best way to show that was through music and film.”

A wide spectrum of artists and filmmakers ranging from Kelly Rowland, Janelle Monáe, and Timbaland to Spike Lee, the Young Astronauts and Idris Elba, among others lent their voice and vision to creating a “visual album” entitled Beats of the Beautiful Game—a collection of 11 anthemic songs and short films. According to Cooper, the final product is truly organic; artists were given very little direction when it came to conceptualizing their short films. The only instruction was to make sure it had some connection to the sport of football.

“When you look at the purest form of the sport, it’s about life, it’s about the struggle,” said Cooper. “It’s about facing your fears.” All these elements can be found throughout the films. There’s also a message of perseverance and courage. While they didn’t set out to send any particular message, Cooper says he’s happy one is coming through. People leave feeling uplifted, and that’s something they can take with them long after the entertainment aspect of these films.

EBONY.com got an exclusive look at The Game: a special collaboration between Kelly Rowland and revolutionary director Spike Lee.

“Spike did a brilliant job,” said Cooper, who co-hosted a recent event also featuring singer Janelle Monáe. “Not only in terms of the cinematography and mixed mediums, but you got the life story of a child in Brazil. Pixote, you understand where he came from, what his struggles were, what he enjoyed, and you got to see Brazil through his eyes. That, for me, was a really powerful thing.”

Monáe’s cover of David Bowie’sHeroes” was also streamed that night. The video, directed by the Young Astronauts, focuses on the issue of bullying. According to Cooper, a lot of the people featured in the video (including the directors) had been bullied. It tells a beautiful story of courage and using your imagination instead of fists to fight back.

Janelle Monáe, “Heroes”

Janelle Monáe, “Heroes”

We caught up with both Janelle Monáe and Spike Lee about the album, filming in Brazil, and upcoming projects.

EBONY: What was the inspiration behind your short film collaborations?

Spike Lee: When Frank called, I had no idea about the project. But I love Kelly’s [Rowland] work. I still had to hear the song though. I heard the song. Loved it. On top of that, I have a special love for Brazil. I had filmed with Michael Jackson there [the short film for his 1996 single, “They Don’t Care About Us”]. So there are a lot of cultural influences that can be seen throughout “The Game.” We added samba drums. You gotta have that flavor in there.

This short film [pays] homage to the actor in one of my favorite Brazilian films: Pixote. I just found out that means “pee wee” in Portuguese. The main actor [Fernando Ramos da Silva] in Pixote is a kid. Shortly after the movie finished filming, he was murdered by the police. So I just wanted to put out a film that had a magical moment, where a kid, a young boy, is let loose in Rio. I want to thank Frank, because I love the song and this collaboration with Kelly.

Janelle Monáe: David Bowie has been a musical hero of mine for quite some time. I have always loved “Heroes,” and thought of it as a song of encouragement and empowerment. The song just encompasses everything. I’m sure we’ve all at one point in our lives bullied somebody or been on the opposite end. It’s a real issue that continues to happen. You’ve got kids committing suicide, depression, and just a lot of things that hold back our communities from growing.

I was extremely excited when I heard about everything I’d be able to communicate through the song. And then I got the chance to reimagine it with my team in the way that we wanted to. I love, love, love this song, this video. It’s a short film—a depiction of what happens to us as young people.

What I love most about it is what [director] Alyssa [Pankiw] did. She had kids use their imaginations to fight bullying. They didn’t go pick up a gun or use their fists. They just dressed real weird and used their imagination and costumes to scare ’em. It’s a different way to deal with bullying, and I’m proud to be part of this project.

EBONY: Comics and graphic novels have been a part of your background, and you can see some of those influences in “Heroes.”

JM: Alyssa wrote and directed the short film, she’s incredible. She listened to the song and had this idea to put me in there as a comic book character, which is incredible! I’ve always wanted to be one.

Comic books and graphic novels have always been a part of who I am. I love science fiction and use it throughout my work, from my album Metropolis to my recent project, The Electric Lady. These characters that I use science fiction to talk about are very similar to the character in the “Heroes” video. They’re meant to bring people together, they’re meant to [help] when you don’t feel like your best self, they bring it out. That’s what I always love about comics. You live vicariously through them and you can apply some of their teachings and courage to your life.

EBONY: What was it like shooting in Brazil?

JM: Brazil is beautiful. It’s one of my favorite places to visit, especially Rio. The food, the music was incredible. I also got a chance to be a part of [Pepsi’s “Now Is What You Make It”] commercial. I was playing the guitar and that’s how I started off. I was playing the guitar, singing. My first project was called “The Audition,” it was acoustic. It was just great to go back to my roots and the basics.

EBONY: Spike, you mentioned working with the great Michael Jackson in Brazil. How did that experience change you as a director?

SL: You gotta be on point to work with Michael Jackson. Anybody who works with Michael, the first thing you say is: “I can’t mess up.” [laughs] I didn’t want to disappoint Michael Jackson and have him say, “Spike Lee let me down.” Uh-uh, I was not going to let that happen. I wanted Michael to be happy. And he was.

Working with Michael Jackson was one of the best experiences of my life. I can’t come up with the words; it was magical. That’s it! He always used the word magic. Going to Brazil, to Rio, shooting in a favela there, going to Salvador. It was magical.

EBONY: Can you share some of the details about the current documentary you’re shooting in Brazil?

SL: Go Brazil, Go. It’s about the history of the country. I’ll tell you this: Brazil was the last country on this planet to free its slaves. The last country.

Ravelle Worthington is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter @ravmo.