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Farah X Went From Editing Music Videos to Directing Hip-Hop Documentaries Centered Around Women

We spoke with The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion co-director Farah X, who talked about her career path and how you can't tell the story of fashion without having women as a prominent voice.

Initially, Netflix's The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashionwas set to focus solely on Misa Hylton, an image architect who is one of the most significant stylists of the early ‘90s. Hylton was responsible for Mary J. Blige’s tomboy style during the beginning of her career and Lil Kim’s designer-heavy looks which catapulted her into a style star in the luxury fashion market. (Hylton was behind Lil Kim’s iconic one shoulder pastie jumpsuit worn at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards.)

Hylton is an unsung hero, and the documentary paints her as such. And although the project touches on the earlier parts of her career — and explores how she coped when the ‘00s hit and she struggled to make ends meet — The Remix takes a broader look. The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion provides a history lesson on fashion’s relationship with New York City over time, beginning in the early ‘90s. The documentary also sheds light on April Walker, another originator of street fashion. Walker Wear played a pivotal role in streetwear, and April admits in the documentary that she shied away from acknowledging herself as the founder of the brand because she feared supporters would scale back if they knew a woman was behind it.

You can't tell the story of fashion in hip-hop without centering women. This is a fact that The Remix and its directors, Farah X and Lisa Cortes, know. It is why their movie is so successful. 

“[In] most documentaries you see it's always men as the experts and there'll be a few women who chime," Farah X (real name Farah Khalid) said over a Zoom call from her Brooklyn apartment. "But we really wanted the women to have a voice.”

The film, which premiered on Netflix in July, includes essential storytelling from TV and radio personality Bevy Smith, former VIBE editor-in-chief Mimi Valdes, journalist Elena Romero, and When Chickenheads Come Home to Roostauthor Joan Morgan. Each of these women’s perspectives paints a colorful picture of New York City in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Harlem icon Dapper Dan and Kerby Jean Raymond of Pyer Moss tie the narrative together as they both reminisce on their earlier years which included tales centered around media scrutiny and the parasitic relationship fashion has with street culture. (The feature doesn’t shy away from the fact that mainstream designers pull inspiration from streetwear without crediting influences like Hylton, Walker, and Dan.)

This is Farah X's first feature-length film, and she has her own fascinating journey. Farah is a Pakistani director and editor who was born in Nashville, Tennessee and who spent her younger years in Hawthorne, New Jersey. As a youngster, she lived in the suburbs and grew up documenting her life on her father’s camera. X and her family eventually moved to Los Angeles before she attended film school at the University of Southern California. 

We spoke with Farah X to find out how she found her way in the male-dominated production industry. During the calls, Khalid touched on growing up an introvert and how she went from editing music videos for the likes of Mariah Carey and Kelis to working on a documentary for Netflix. 

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Was this documentary something that you were approached to work on?

It was definitely something I was approached to work on. It's interesting because I had just started as a director. Post-film school, I was directing music videos and working in that field. I was really into music videos and did not want to do scripted narrative ever. Which is strange coming out of film school; everyone wants to do a feature film.

This was the early ‘00s. And the budgets just kind of dropped, and then I realized it was way too hard to make a living as a music video director, so I went more into editing. And not just editing music videos, but editing documentaries and commercials and all sorts of stuff. And I took that as a step because I was like one day I'll build my name as an editor and then I'll make a parallel move over to directing. 

I fell in love with editing and I kind of forgot about that. [In] February of 2018, I sat there and I'm like, "I want to pick directing back up." And that day I wrote a few emails to a lot of contacts I had. Within a few hours I was writing treatments for stuff. And then the next month I get a call from our co-producer, Hillary Cutter, who was like, "Hey, there's this documentary based on music and fashion which I think you'd be perfect for, do you want to talk to this woman who is producing and wants to co-direct it, Lisa Cortés?" And we got on a call and then that was it.

As a child, were you artistic? 

 I'm a middle child, so I was definitely an introvert and artistic. My older sister, who’s three years older...was always loud. My younger brother is eight years younger, he was always loud and so I found that I would get lost in the noise because I'm not a loud person. I found myself retreating to my room and drawing. I loved reading. My dad bought a video camera when I was eight. One of those big VHS, [where] the full VHS tape goes in there, and he used to film things. 

When he wasn't using it I would grab it and I would just film whatever. I would film my family, I would film anything, and I used to love doing that. I would have my friends come over and make them do skits so I could film it. So, I had no idea what I was doing but now in hindsight [I] loved directing from the beginning.

When you were growing up did you have any movies or music videos that you really loved and enjoyed? 

I grew up in the ‘80s, so you can't really think about ‘80s music videos without Michael Jackson's “Thriller.” That was the first time anyone had done such an epic music video. That one really stood out to me. And then, it was Madonna's era, too. I didn't have MTV, so every time we would go to my aunt's house, me and my sister would sit down in front of the TV and put on MTV. We would be super absorbed, [we’d watch] all the music videos we could. 

What was the journey like leading up to film school?

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. I had been modeling a little bit in high school and then I decided I wanted to see where that could take me. So, I had done a commercial for IBM, which ran during a Super Bowl, and I took that money and I went to Europe to try my hand at modeling. I lived in Paris for a while — this was 1995. In 1996 I was in London and I was doing a lot of modeling. And my parents had basically... said, “You have a year to try this.”

As the year ended I wasn't really succeeding. I was getting jobs but they were barely paying for me to stay. So, I came back and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I continued modeling but I applied to community college and I applied to business school, [following] my sister's lead. My sister was at [Haas School of Business] in Berkeley. Haas had this program where if you maintain a certain grade point average in community college you can transfer in as a junior. So, I'm like, "that's what I'll do." I went to community college and I was still modeling at the time and the more I was modeling a lot of times it was music videos and non-still shoots. I would just be fascinated by what was going on behind the camera. But I never thought that that was something that I could do.

When I went to community college there was a cinema club and I went to that and I saw that people my age were making movies on super eight cameras and cutting them together and splicing them together and putting them to music and I was just fascinated. And that was it. "I want to go to film school." I wasn't ready to leave Los Angeles so I applied to the two top schools which are [University of California Los Angeles] and [University of Southern California]. 

I got rejected from both. I was distraught. Luckily USC said you could come in as an undeclared major. Within undeclared, there's certain film classes that are open to the general class. I basically looked at all the requirements that were necessary to get into film school, and I just kept taking those classes. I applied to film school probably three times before I finally got in.

Farrah x lil kim scaled NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 07: Lisa Cortes, Misa Hylton Brim, and Farah X onstage during the Remix: Hip Hop panel as a part of NYFW. (Photo by Roy Rochlin/Roy Rochlin)

Do you feel like your roots kind of influenced how you maneuvered in the creative space throughout your career? 

Absolutely. I forgot who said this but... as a South Asian person...we straddle the line between white privilege and black oppression. We're somewhere in the middle and sometimes we feel we get a lot of privilege and sometimes we receive some oppression. We fall in this weird intermediary where people don't actually know how to deal with us or how to place us. 

What was the first music video that you assisted on set for? How was that?

I believe my first music video that I was an assistant editor on was Sting’s “After the Rain [Has Fallen].” It was amazing. I couldn't believe I was sitting in the whole process of having a video created. I believe that was directed by Diane Martel. And Sanaa Hamri was the editor and that's how I got involved because during my last semester of film school I applied to this project through Film Independent called “Project Involve.” It was a mentorship program for people of color filmmakers and they paired them with other people working in the field who were women of color filmmakers mostly. She was an editor-director and I was trying to be an editor-director so it was a really good pairing. 

What came next after that? Were you able to catapult that into consistently working as an assistant editor for different videos?

Yes. Prior to me entering USC, I had met a friend of mine who was an editor, and I wasn't really sure exactly what editing on proper equipment looked like. So I went over to his house and his whole living room was as an Avid and they were huge back in the day. This is 1998, so you had a whole set up for an Avid and I watched him work and it was just fascinating. I was just blown away. So, I decided that prior to entering college I wanted to learn how to edit. I took a bootcamp class at a place called Video Symphony in Burbank and it was a two-month intensive on learning how to edit on Avid. And so when I came out I decided that my plan in film school would be to get my hands on as many student films as I could and create a reel for myself. I wanted to come out of film school with an editor's reel.

We had to take an editing class as a prerequisite. I'm like, "I already know how to do this, I'm just going to be over here editing something." That's how I got involved with that. And then when I entered “Project Involve” and Sanaa was my mentor I told her, "I know how to edit and if you need an assistant editor let me know."

I ended up just assistant editing anything she worked on. And she was working on a lot with Mariah Carey at the time. And so that's how I got my start working with Mariah Carey.

Once I started working with Mariah, I was just building my resume and working with other artists, as well, and assisting on other videos. Mariah is actually where I got my leap from assistant editing to editing. Because I was working with Sanaa still and she was getting busier and busier as a director so she wasn't having enough time to edit the projects and Mariah had gotten so familiar with me from a bunch of other videos that Sanaa basically said, "Hey, you take over this edit on this project and I have to go back to LA." And we were always traveling.

We were living in LA at the time. That project was in New York and then it went to Puerto Rico and then we went to Nova Scotia, and then I think we came back. So, basically, my first time editing properly with Mariah I was on a traveling project. We were filming stuff and then we’d edit it down, [it was like] reality TV. That was probably [in the] early ‘00s.

How did that parlay into other artists? When I saw you edited Kelis’ “Bossy” I was shook. That video was so iconic.

That was incredible to me. That was one of the first videos that I edited that I actually saw on prime time MTV and was just blown away. Every time it came on I would get chills. At the time I was working with a post house called Sunset Edit. It was the first post house I signed up with and I was their only female editor. And I just started getting jobs and building up my reel and stuff and then this “Bossy” project came and I had so much fun with it. 

In your work, I think it's quite evident that a woman's eye is editing everything. Just from the angles and the shots. 

I'm so glad you noticed that because that's definitely intentional. There are ways that men edit and there are ways that women edit. I always try to choose the shots where the woman looks empowered in her sexuality as opposed to an object. Because there's the male gaze and there's the female gaze. Kelis was just owning each scene. I always wanted to make sure it was that line that she is presenting herself to you and giving you permission to look as opposed to a voyeuristic thing which just goes back to the classic male gaze. More and more after Me Too it's definitely a more conscious thing for me to make sure that the woman is always in control of how she's being viewed, even in fashion.

I saw that you also edited “One Blood” by The Game. Was that shot in LA?

That was shot in LA with the amazing photographer-director Jonathan Mannion. That was my first rap video. [It] was so fun to watch and to edit because the way it was shot and the way Game is rapping it's like he has all the same mannerisms when he says certain lines so it was so fun to cut back and forth and it was really one of the fastest edits I've ever done. Because for one line we'd be in one set up, another line we'd be in another setup and it would work because his hand movement would match and it would feel like he's completing the movement in the next scene. It was beautiful to cut that video and have this really hardcore rap artist mix with the streets of LA.

You mentioned movement and so that's another thing that I've noticed in a lot of the videos that you've edited, like Rapsody’s “Oprah.” I just think that that's also a style that you've mastered and so it's really cool just seeing that same kind of thing recurring over and over again. Is there any reasoning behind this?

I'm always driven by music and there can be movement on music, that's what drives me. Because I just think music is the narrative for the visual for me. In a music video you can highlight sounds just by emphasizing them with something the character is doing or something the camera is doing. And it's like if you don't do it you might not hear it. So, it's a really interesting way to bring certain things to the foreground.

Can you dig into why you felt it was important to not just include Dapper Dan and Kerby in the documentary but figures like Misa Hylton, April Walker, Bevy Smith, and Joan Morgan?

As we started digging into the story, I had never heard of Misa so I started to Google her and there was nothing that I could find. Some old articles and I think there was one VIBE story mentioned. I know [ex-journalist] Mimi Valdes did an article about her back in the day but it was pre-Internet so there was nothing really that I could find. And that just really solidified the fact that we need to tell this story. And the way we needed to tell this story was that we need women to tell it.

So we got people like Bevy Smith. And when she started talking it was like, well, here's another person whose story is amazing. I never knew about her contribution to bringing luxury fashion to bring it more mainstream. Bringing street culture and luxury fashion and bringing them together and getting advertising accounts. So, her story was important. Mimi Valdes has her own story about writing at VIBE and really highlighting Misa and trying to get her voice out there. A lot of these people I did not know of before but interviewing them and hearing their stories. Every single one of these people can be another subject for a documentary.

We were so lucky to get the people that we did. And then you had mentioned Dap and Kerby. It's like this isn't just a woman's story, it's women also need men who are allies who uplift them and help. Dap's been an ally of Misa's from day one.

 Farah X and Dapper Dan The Remix: Hip Hop x Fashion Farah X and Harlem legend Dapper Dan. Photo Credit: Farah X

Each of you also did a great job showcasing how hip hop and music have a relationship. I appreciated that the documentary touched on appropriation and how it isn't new. 

One thing I love is the first time you see Misa in the film in an actual scene she's wearing a shirt that says “ghetto until proven fashionable.” And that's exactly it. That's this whole film. It's deemed ghetto until someone who is not of the culture will say that this is fashionable and then it's okay. And it's sad that that theme does still exist today. If it's on a Black body it's not considered high fashion as if it's on a white body. And I believe that's what Misa and April and those people are doing now is saying, "This is high fashion, take it or leave it."