“Own Your Culture, Tell Your Stories” is not just the best phrase I’ve heard so far this year, but it’s also the slogan of FELA, a company that recently launched and consists of a team of people who have worked together for years. The fine people within the company have already made music videos, commercials, and most recently a documentary, Underplayed. Underplayed tells the story of female DJ’s and how they’re not that widely recognized. It seems like the Electric Music Industry (or EMI) like many industries doesn’t always have a lot of equality, which is something I stand for myself. So naturally, when it comes to documentaries or films that discuss equality, I am obligated to take a good look at them and learn more. I spoke to Taj Critchlow, the creator of the company, an executive producer, and a fine FELA fella (heh, walked into that one). He was happy to tell me all about the great company and the powerful documentary that has already managed to be premiering at TIFF.
HNMAG: What made you decide to start a company of your own?
Taj: You see what’s happening in the world? A crazy world at that, with COVID and the civil unrest in terms of black representation, artistry, and entrepreneurship. I felt it was important as a black executive with experience of 20 years to have ownership of my work, of my brand, and my culture. I’ve been blessed to have that situation with inner former partners. But sometimes things get complicated when you have partners and even though we were a self-contained entity, there were still certain things that didn’t align with me in the overall partnership. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when we were put on temporary layoff for a company I built in March with my team, with our blood and sweat. Even though we had the financing and the earnings that covered our net, for whatever reason the company that we were partners with decided what to do with our earnings. I was the only executive under that umbrella company that was let go. It was just bizarre, but that was also a moment of awakening for me where I realize I need to be in control and that’s the reason why I started a company. Not only for the obvious reasons but for control of my destination.
HNMAG: Do you feel despite the current pandemic, you can still master your way ahead?
Taj: Yeah. We’re now going through on month 3 of being open. I’m currently speaking to you from LA, I just booked a big commercial campaign in Toronto, and we are on day 2 of another job that’s happening today so we are slammed. We are blessed because we are in a world of COVID, but we’re being savvy. We have some remote shoots that are happening, but it’s challenging to start a new business during one of the worst pandemics since the Spanish Flu. But at the same time, the world is trying to get back to some new form of normalcy and content is always a thing that people need because we provide stories, we provide escapisms and there’s a backlog since everything has been shut down for the last 4-5 months.
HNMAG: As a production company fighting for diversity, how do you feel you will aid people?
Taj: We’ve always been that brand. I know it’s become a headline and mandate with what’s happening right now due to the death of George Floyd where there’s a real conversation in America and Canada and around the world talking about race. However as a company, we’ve always been about fighting for inclusion and diversity. Our makeup for BIPOC is over 50%, roster is 30% black. In terms of gender, we’re literally half and half. To continue pushing for more diversity, we just joined CPAT and we are working conjunction with a handful of groups. POV and House, which is a weekends organization where we have conversations about paid internships and metro ship programs and metis programs. Now that I’m working with these selected groups, I really have more of a concentrated effort for reach-outs to marginalized communities and high school kids aware of our industry. So there are several actions that are taking place to continue fighting for diversity in the world of advertising and tv and film production.
HNMAG: And can you tell me a little more about the internships and programs?
Taj: There’s some outreach programs that are going to start going out there. I know Bell Media/Crave are having an initiative to hire more BIPOC. Our industry’s mobilizing and figuring out solutions to continue stepping up. In terms of the paid internships for those coming in from a PA level. We’re trying to open up doors to opportunities to work in different departments instead of just PA. Let’s say if you wanted to work in a lighting department or if you want to be grip, or set dressing or art department. Karina Evans who is now a highly sought out director in Hollywood and the industry. We were her mentor, she came to us 5 years ago, met Director X and I, and now she’s an incredible success story. That’s the kind of story that we wish to continue, nurturing and fostering talent, creating our own.
HNMAG: I understand you’ve already made a film called Underplayed with your company. What do you feel audience will take away from it?
Taj: Yeah, Underplayed was directed by Stacey Lee, our incredible director. To give you some backstory, the ad agency Anomaly reached out to me. The senior creative director Neal Blouette said “Hey man, I got this amazing seed of an idea that I want to tackle about female DJ’s in the world of EDM. You know, the challenges they have in terms of equality and payment discrepancies and gender disparities and so on and so forth. I was really honoured because for us as a brand we’ve always been a lifestyle cultural brand that speaks to music lifestyle and fashion and this film was important for us to get behind because like us, fighting for black representation, we are allies to women as well. We’re fighting for representation and gender diversity in the workplace. The film is talking about that and our director Stacy Lee brought in an amazing team. Our production was a majority of females, we follow 5 female DJ’s, and it’s a great piece. 1, you’re getting an education learning about the contributions women have given and continued to give the music entertainment business: Engineers who worked on Purple Rain, creating the opening music for Doctor Who, and this whole film was aspired by the fact that for top DJ’s, only 7% of women made it on that list. We were like, “Why is that?”. So this film is following some of the most respected names from Nirvo and Alice in Wonderland, and Tiger Pond. Following their journey, their quest, to talk about their story and then also speaking about what we can do, how can we change this, how can we open up these doors, create a better balance of playing field for female DJ’s coming into this industry and beyond the future. It’s a great film, speaking about these individuals who tend to be unheard and under-represented.
HNMAG: And how did the subjects of the film become involved?
Taj: Even though the seed of this idea was from the agency, it was Stacey Lee who sat down and built out this idea. I would say for anything we do, it’s all about the story. She built this amazing story around our heroes, the 5 female DJ’s and then on top of that we have support voices and allies. But it was Stacey’s idea working with Anomaly to figure who would be the best candidates that speak to the culture in this realm and these names I mentioned are some of the most prominent names in the business. We wanted to give them that light, we wanted to find out and build their stories and then we just went on this journey of empowerment and enlightenment and education that I learned so much about. I’ll be honest, I love all music genres. Everything from Hip-Hop, Rock, RnB, and Rhythm Blues and stuff. EDM wasn’t on top of my list, but after this film I learned so much about the genre and the origins of it. Of course coming from the streets and birthed out of black culture. Of course, to see it has evolved and the players who are now carrying the torch. It was a great piece to learn and just understand the struggles that female DJ’s go through and what we’re trying to do by creating this film will hopefully open up eyes and hearts so the path gets widened for female DJ’s who want to pursue this industry in the future.
HNMAG: What went into financing and producing the film?
Taj: Well, Director X and I are executive producers, but alongside us, Bud Light is also an executive producer. So Kudos to Todd Allen and the Bud Light team, they fully financed a film. So this is uncharted territory to have a brand of that stature fully finance a film and that’s innovative for me because they could’ve just traditionally done a 30-60 second commercial spot or maybe a PSA and call it a day. But no, they bought into the vision of our team and our director. They bought it to the overall vision of all parties and said “Look, man. We’ve been supporters, we want to see how we can create something that will be pactful.” So Bud Light were pretty much the finances of this film.
HNMAG: What were some of the hardships of pre-production?
Taj: I think the hardships were just bringing in our talent, scheduling was a moving target because we moved in several places, and several countries. There was just a lot going on and when you’re shooting in a festival, there’s a lot of people, a lot of bodies, with noise. So that was tough. Just the optics and logistics of shooting around a place like that, coordinating all that talent and just making sure that you’re in all these places for those moments. That was the real challenge but along with that was the core of the story, “Just what story were we going to tell?”, we went down this journey, we figured out there were so many other stories and just so many topics out there that came around but we had to make sure it was a clear message in the terms of the message that we wanted to convey. Then we went down that path, but overall, those were the main issues that we had. As of now, we’ve been going on two years since we started this journey and it’s kind of crazy. We ended up landing our film in one of the most prestigious film festivals in the whole world at TIFF.
HNMAG: And how does it feel to have it being screened at TIFF?
Taj: Being a fan and consumer of cinema, it’s the highest honour. Working in the artistic field as you imagine, when you make art, you want as much eyeballs as possible to see it. The challenge for us was “we have it, we made this film.” It was actually supposed to open the Tribeca film festival in April. But due to COVID, we were shut down and we felt deflated because we poured our heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears into it. We found a really cool festival to get some attention on the film and then that went away. So for us to be blessed enough to land our film at TIFF and especially being Canadian myself born and raised in Toronto, it couldn’t be more fitting for our story to be screened in our own backyard. It’s more fulfilling, knowing that it happened this way.
I hope that this documentary makes an impact on the world especially given the state things are in right now, and I especially hope FELA continues to make amazing content for us given the state the industry is in right now. But hey, they’re worth checking out to see what other cool stuff they’re making. Just browse their site at www.fela.tv