Rapper Skepta Unpacks His Directorial Debut ‘Tribal Mark’ at SXSW: Interview

The new movie is a prequel to a "Black Secret Service" universe imagined by the rapper.

Skepta as Tribal Mark.
Skepta plays a hitman in his new short film, “Tribal Mark.” Tribal Mark

It was the Oscar night in downtown Austin, Texas at the Downright hotel’s lawn and amphitheater. A DJ set was taking place to warm the crowd up for a screening of Tribal Mark, the directorial debut from British rapper Skepta. Walking the lawn, I got to look up at him, sitting quietly and stone-faced in the furthest right corner of a balcony high above the festival goers, wearing the same military green bomber jacket and Atlanta Braves cap from our interview indoors a couple of hours ago. It was almost time for the show to begin.

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“I think they’d be surprised at how good it is,” Skepta told me earlier that day in one of the hotel’s meeting rooms. 

Skepta’s music career spans over two decades, from a DJ and MC performing in different crews in London back in the early aughts to a superstar and conqueror of the U.K.’s grime genre. He’s made his stake in the world as a musician, and at 41, no one could doubt his artistry. But ahead of the U.S. premiere of Tribal Mark, the origin story of his reimagined Black James Bond character and the hopeful prequel to the Black Secret Service universe, he was palpably anxious about his newfound creative path. 

“I wish I had added more,” Skepta, born Joseph Adenuga, said after describing a scene in the film where the young adult Tribal Mark disassociates and sees his elder self, a fully formed and suited hitman, across from him. He made a similar remark about the score he produced, including two songs that he raps on, Jangrova with Idris Elba and Odumodublvk and Gas Me Up (Diligent).  

Actor Jude Carmichael and Skepta
Actor Jude Carmichael, who plays teenage Mark, and Skepta at the London premiere of “Tribal Mark.” Dave Benett

In the interview with Observer, Skepta still sounded proud of his work. Rather than wanting to improve the product, I chalked up his fussiness over what else could’ve gone into the film as an eagerness to jumpstart the vision he has for the Black Secret Service. He was close to erupting with more stories.      

The sentiment was felt across his team. Isaac Densu, a producer with Skepta’s London studio, 1plus1 Productions, told me at the premiere on March 10 he was ready to move on to the next project. It’s understandable that, while those of us in the audience are just digesting the less than 25-minute film, its creators are already hungry again, waiting for the opportunity to build out the entire universe they’ve been plotting. 

They want to use this fictional society of Black spies to tell stories about Africa, for people to understand the day-to-day lives and the problems that people face in countries like Nigeria. Skepta wants to hop on a moment where the interest in Nigerian culture, specifically its music with the prevalence of artists like Burna Boy, Davido and Tems, is potent. 

“The time I was growing up in London in the 80’s, how it was to be Nigerian, I’ve seen it change from that where it was every day at school, you are the butt of the joke,” Skepta said. “So I’ve seen it and also been blessed to have been part of that change. We got to grab the bull by the horns and just do it. Tell the story, because we’ve seen it firsthand.”

To tell a story in just 20 minutes means every decision the creator makes counts. In that timeframe, we see the film’s protagonist Tribal Mark’s evolution from an innocent but observant young Mark (Gabriel Kwasi Tedeku) in Nigeria who is forced to leave his father and siblings behind when he migrates from his home country, to teenage Mark (Jude Carmichael) living with his mother in social housing in London, clearly the leader of his friend group and going down a dangerous path, to the polished and feared hitman Tribal Mark played by Skepta himself.  

Mark as a child, played by Gabriel Kwasi Tedeku.
Mark as a child in Nigeria, played by Gabriel Kwasi Tedeku. Tribal Mark

Tribal Mark has two slashes on one cheek and one slash on the other. Skepta collaborated on the film with his cousin Dwight Okechukwu, who drew the inspiration for the title and the titular main character from his own tribal marks. Scarification on children has been banned in Nigeria since 2003, and the practice is controversial among Nigerians, but Skepta wanted to use the markings as a representation of how immigrant cultural signifiers are treated with disdain in societies like the U.K., making a foreigner or the child of one feel alienated. 

“It ultimately gives them even more dissociation because it just feels separate to everybody,” Skepta said. “This is going to be great for our story when he’s a big-time spy and he’s just living lonely, just in his world getting missions done, and it is not going to be a surprise. It’s not going to be like, well, why is he like this?”

The rapper has shared often in interviews that his home growing up in Tottenham was strictly Nigerian, and the difference when stepping out into streets of London was jarring for him. Tribal Mark shows this for its main character, whose thoughts are in Nigerian Pidgin even though he’s outwardly adapted to London vernacular. Even as his adult self, Tribal Mark still eats egusi soup and pounded yam in front of his next victim. 

Tribal Mark’s movement between a Nigerian and a British world creates an extreme lack of belonging for the character. In this case, it’s the recipe for a killer. “The way that we were brought up, if people got to see it and had an insight, they could understand in the real world why a lot of Nigerian people or African people are the way they are,” Skepta said. “In a movie world, they’ll understand why Tribal Mark’s going to be such a calculated cold-hearted spy hitman in the future.”

 

Skepta headlined British Music Embassy at U.K. House for the U.S. premiere of Tribal Mark, hosted by the Department for Business and Trade. 

Rapper Skepta Unpacks His Directorial Debut ‘Tribal Mark’ at SXSW: Interview