Onions x Ice Cream" 'Across The Board' Is A Window Into The Warped Genius Of Om'Mas Keith
There’s a moment in Om’Mas Keith: Across The Board that encapsulates the esoteric artist perfectly. He’s chatting with Robert Glasper as they both discuss challenging themselves and the artists they work with:
Glasper: “It’s like an onion — you put an onion in here it’s one thing. You put an onion in there it’s like what the hell?”
Keith: “If you put an onion in my ice cream and I’m like, What?”
Om’Mas Keith is just as much the onion as he is the ice cream: a charismatic and humble human being, whose avant-garde jazz upbringing has allowed him to seamlessly work with Foxy Brown, Mobb Deep, Rick Ross, Ty Dolla $ign, Earl Sweatshirt, Jay Z, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and Frank Ocean.
Across The Board is an exploration (albeit brief — it’s only 25 minutes) of Keith’s musical adventure thus far. There’s multiple cameo appearances: Goldlink raps; Kali Uchis sings; Badu paints Keith’s face (the two also share an incredible story, where the former wouldn’t attend a recording session for the latter unless he peeled some frozen grapes for her); Keith’s grandmother makes him and some friends food; and Keith’s mother serves as the film’s grand finale, as she performs alongside her son in their New York home.
“I just wanted to be a regular old American kid, man,” Keith explains in the beginning of the film. “My mom was like, ‘No brother, we wear kufis and we listen to Malcolm X speeches and we listen to jazz.'” Being the son of two virtuosic jazz musicians meant an unconventional life for Keith. Where most parents would support their child’s desire to become an affluent lawyer, Keith’s mother wanted him to follow in her footsteps as a musician. Where most children have to worry about smelling the stinky feet of their grandfather or uncle, Keith was having to endure the barefoot stench of Afrofuturist jazz bandleader and composer Sun Ra.
But Keith wanted to do things his way: “The reality of my life was that my parents were avant-garde jazz musicians. They made music that wasn’t popular,” Keith explains. “I took the jazz upbringing and the jazz mentality to Hollywood. I brought it out here — a savvy New Yorker, with an avant-garde upbringing and a desire to reach way more people than my parents reached.”
How he originally did that? Sa-Ra Creative Partners. But Sa-Ra was too ahead of its time, its future funk essentially commonplace in 2016, but not in the late ’90s or even early 2000s. Seriously, think about that: Miguel, The Internet (who Keith was an integral part of for their debut album Purple Naked Ladies), Thundercat — this new iteration of alternative r&b all leads back to what Keith, Shafiq Husayn and Taz Arnold created (at the very least, they never had to worry about being described as “PBR&B” like many of the artists they influenced).
Across The Board really helps to contextualize Keith’s behind-the-scenes impact on a genre of music that has changed a lot in recent years. But it also shows the creative chemistry this man has between artists — especially young artists. Everyone that Keith is shown working with in the documentary (for the most part) are younger than him, many of them well known throughout the world already. But there’s one in particular that changed Keith’s life in a way he would’ve never expected: Frank Ocean (by way of Michael Uzowuru).
“Every time I listen to Michael some really positive shit happens,” Keith says. “And when Michael introduced me to Frank, that was the day that changed my life.”
As many answers that Across The Board provides, it produces just as many questions for fans of the talented multi-instrumentalist. What exactly happened with Sa-Ra? What was it like working with Ocean? What about other projects that still haven’t seen the light of day (namely, Sa-Ra’s unreleased Black Fuzz album)?
Keith probably wants to do so much more, so it’s understandable that he wouldn’t unveil all of his story. But overall, Across The Board introduces us to a man that— up until this point— we only knew through his music.