There has always been a spiritual quality to Sampha’s music. His 2017 debut album Process, which earned him the Mercury Prize and led to collaborations with Solange and Drake, was notably written and recorded in the wake of losing both his parents to cancer.
Six years on, the multi-hyphenate musician’s sophomore record Lahai is equally thought-provoking but decidedly less dark, written following the birth of his daughter in 2020. In one of the album’s singles, Can’t Go Back, he describes his young child as “heaven-sent”.
When it came to creating the music video for Can’t Go Back, Sampha enlisted the help of Saad Moosajee, a director, motion designer, and visual artist who was previously creative director for Lil Nas X and has worked with brands including Apple and Tate Modern.
The Smuggler director first met Sampha via Instagram in 2020. “He was already working on Lahai at that point and we spoke briefly about collaborating – connecting over a mutual love of visual worlds. We kept in touch loosely over the next few years and in early 2023 reconnected when his label sent over the brief for Can’t Go Back,” he tells CR.
The brief was rooted in “magical realism”, with spirits, impressions, time, and portals all featuring prominently in the director’s initial inspirations. “While I began by thinking of this with examples in the real world – black holes, solar eclipses, the material known as Vantablack, the concept became most exciting to me when I placed the physical phenomena alongside cameraless photographs (photograms),” he says.
“I started to imagine what a photogram would look like come to life, or in motion. My explorations became more defined towards a video rooted in light and shadow, and every aspect of the film process – cinematography, edit, visual effects, colour grade – was a chance to explore this.”
The promo was brought to life using a dizzying array of creative techniques, beginning in pre-production with a series of concept designs and illustrations, which Moosajee then reverse engineered to map out what would be created in live action versus CGI.
The director also experimented with matte painting, VFX compositing, CGI animation, physically painted sets, glitch processing, and light FX to execute his vision. “The mediums were used interchangeably, and to me produced the strongest results in the scenes that marry and integrate them together,” he says.
Sampha himself also plays a starring role, as we see him split between different time spaces and locations, jumping and warping from an abstracted world into what the director describes as “the world of the tree”.
“I was inspired by the behaviour of infrared light on trees and wanted to create a space that felt very light, with almost a heavenly quality to it,” he continues. “By editing these bright, starkly white vignettes against the more shadow imagery of Sampha in the wormhole, I hoped to create the feeling of watching an inversion play out in real time, flipping backwards and forwards through light and shadow, grief and denial, faith and evidence.”
Director: Saad Moosajee
Production Company: Smuggler