Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: So, Joseph Kahn, thanks for coming on the show.
Joseph Kahn: Thanks for having me.
Nico: I want to start out here because a lot of our listeners are attorneys. They’re in academia. They’re students. Many of them I imagine are not familiar with battle rap or battle rap culture, so can you kinda lay out what it is for our listeners who might be unfamiliar with it?
Joseph: Battle rap is a competitive form of hip-hop where two people go in and essentially insult each other, and whoever insults each other the best wins. That’s literally the rules, and the entire mechanics of who wins, who loses, it’s so subjective and there’s almost no rules per se. It’s anything goes.
Nico: And it’s weird because I think there was a moment in your movie where you say that there really isn’t a winner or loser anymore. I guess back in its early days there was, but there’s not anymore. Is that my correct understanding of it?
Joseph: It depends on the league. Some leagues judge it, but many don’t. I think even battle rap got a little sensitive as to winners and losers, so it’s essentially a participation trophy at this point.
Nico: I read somewhere that an inspiration for this movie came from your experience working with Taylor Swift on her music video “Wildest Dream.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Joseph: I have to admit something. Sometimes you say things and it’s palatable for the public, and you know that it’s just going to get a lot of hits, so it’s the quickest and easiest way of saying I am in an art form that seems to get a lot of controversy in terms of just things you can and cannot say. So, it’s kind of code for there’s an offense culture out there and it’s attacking the creative arts, and I just made an example of one of my biggest clients or more well-known clients, and it just gets a lot of press. I don’t really mean to do it that way, but it was just an example, but it’s bigger than Taylor Swift obviously. It’s the overall feeling that you can’t say anything and you have to be super careful in the arts now.
Nico: And did you want to make a movie about that or did you want to make a movie about battle rap, and then that was just a topic that you saw in the culture at the moment and you applied that topic to a movie about battle rap that perhaps you had always wanted to make?
Joseph: Here’s the funny thing about being an artist: Your motivations switch and change according to the wind, so a long time ago I wanted to make a battle rap movie and I gave up on it because I just didn’t know what to say. But then as we got into the mid-2010s around 2015 and I saw how people were protesting on college campuses and free speech was turned into this very controversial concept among the youth, I wanted to make a movie about that. But then I realized that battle rap exists where it is the most uninhibited version of free speech and that’s what you do in the creative arts. You combine two ideas to make a statement.
Nico: And were you a fan of battle rap before making this movie or was it just kind of a side interest that you then explored a lot more when you decided or when you understood the free speech aspects of it?
Joseph: I’m a huge fan of battle rap in general. I think there’s a point though when you watch enough battle raps that it starts getting a little repetitive and at first sort of the racial, sexual, just the dicey parts of it are really fun to watch, but then it gets repetitive and you hear the same jokes over and over again, and then you get a little bit less interested in it, and it’s almost like a soap opera where you have to keep track of people because two people go up against each other, and then they start spitting rhymes about each other’s personal lives that you don’t even care about. So, there’s an element to it that I’ve always like, which is the pure creativity and the form just like Adam does in the movie where he’s just into the actual poetry of it, but in terms of super deep into every little detail about rap that I kind of hopped out of it a couple of years ago.
Nico: Adam has a girlfriend name Maya, and she goes with him to one of these battle raps, and she is kind of offended by everything that happens there, and then there’s a moment in the movie where they all go to this dinner party, and they get into this offendedness sweepstakes. When Adam talks about the battle rap, someone says, “It’s discriminatory and based on gender,” and all of these other things, and then there’s kind of a show-stopper moment where they say, “Well, you’re othering this culture. This is a unique sub-culture, and it’s…” I don’t know – I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it seems as though there’s this philosophical or moral ambiguity and no one really knows what their stand because their tensions between – their tensions with minority rights and minority perspectives is in tension with their views of gender and race concerns.
Joseph: It’s funny. Whenever anyone criticizes the film for its politics, they usually pick out that scene specifically, which is really funny because they find that the representation of these basically white kids in college they think is very over-the-top and a bit extreme and perhaps just a little bit too farcical, but the reality is from the white perspective that may seem that way, but quite frankly a lot of our characters in the brown world are also kind of farcical too. The Shea character, the horny Latino guy, those guys exist, but he’s done to an extreme in our movie just as much as the white kids are. So, it’s funny when people criticize specifically that we’re sort of having a bone to pick about the white kids in the collegiate area when we’re actually doing it to everybody, and that’s the other thing about the movie that’s really funny is that people will go, “Yeah, I laughed at 90% of it, but the 10% of the issues that pertain to me I did not laugh at; therefore, the movie is terrible,” but here’s the thing. It’s not that 90% of the movie is acceptable and 10% is unacceptable. 100% of the movie is offensive. It’s designed to be 100% offensive. Your 10% doesn’t mean anything in the grand scheme of what we’re trying to do here. So –
Nico: Well, that’s the –
Joseph: Sorry. Go ahead.
Nico: Well, that’s the weird thing about reviews these days. It seems as though in order for a work to be judged positively, it has to check off the reviewer’s moral and political priors. There’s no room for moral ambiguity it seems in how we’re reviewing works today, and even not just the work itself. You’re looking at the background of the person who created it as well. It could be Shakespearean in its artistic excellence, but if Shakespeare is a less-than-moral person, then the work is no longer good.
Joseph: I think when it comes down to the morals of a movie, I find it very interesting that people wonder what Bodied’s morals are, but to me, that’s a very strange question to ask of art as if art is supposed to have a lesson in it, a specific moral. We’re taught in school that art has a specific moral or it’s a failure, but why can’t art just be a simulation of things? Why can’t it be dialectic? Why can’t it be basically part of a Socratic method of just asking a series of questions and then the audience decides what the moral is? Why do I have to give you the moral because quite frankly I’m just a dude? I’m just an Asian dude with a camera. I don’t have the answers to life. People want me to literally through a two-hour movie give you an answer on race relations. I don’t have that answer. I’m sorry.
What I’m doing is I’m just demonstrating the questions that are out there in the best way possible that a film can do, which is from an emotional point of view, a subjective point of view, and give you different perspectives. You guys can debate what you want out of it, but hopefully, by giving you the power of subjectivity that film can do, it can give you a perspective on things that maybe you didn’t have before. You can literally enter someone else’s head through filmmaking, which I think is the fun part of Bodied. You get to see different sides of different perspectives, and just when you think you’re getting comfortable with one, we flip it and give you another perspective. That’s the gift of Bodied.
Nico: And I went into it wanting it to be a full-throated defense of free speech, but there were two moments in the movie that sort of stuck out at me and made me kinda question not the value of free speech writ large, but just the power of speech. There’s this moment when Adam’s counterpart, Ben – and I got that name correct, right?
Nico: When Ben tells Adam that words have consequences, and Adam has previously sort of forgotten that with something he had done in the movie – and again I don’t want to spoil it. And I think for a lot of us in the free speech movement, we forget that words do have consequences, and we’re not empathetic with people who can – words are powerful. If they weren’t powerful, I wouldn’t seek to defend them, and it’s too easy for us to forget that. And then there’s also a moment in the movie when Maya, Adam’s girlfriend, is presenting a thesis and the thesis topic is about white racism coded as free expression, and for those of us in the free speech movement, we don’t want to kind of accept that that sometimes happens. There are situations, for example, when someone goes on a free speech tour and really the purpose of that tour is not to defend the principle of free speech but is rather to defend the principle of or their protest against gender-neutral bathrooms, which is something that actually happened in North Carolina.
Joseph: It’s funny. If you want to hear a little bit of a cheat code to the movie from the author – and I’m not the purest author because I’m a director who co-wrote it with Alex Larsen, who’s an actual battle rapper, so he’s got a lot of his perspective in there, but from my point of view, I am a free speech absolutist. I absolutely believe in the First Amendment. I think that you should be able to say what you need to say and I think that if you don’t have free speech, our democracy is worthless. A democracy without an informed debating public is just mob rules, just a bunch of people that decided the country should go one way with no debate. That’s mob rule.
So, I think ultimately I am a free speech absolutist, but all I’m doing here also is demonstrating that regardless of free speech, you can still be an asshole. Just because you have the right to say things, doesn’t mean you’re also right in general. You can also still be an asshole at the end of the day, but as Voltaire said, you can be an asshole, and I’ll defend your right to be an asshole. He didn’t quite say it that way, but –
Nico: And it was actually his [inaudible] [00:11:07] that said that. Interesting trivia if you’re ever at a bar and doing trivia.
Joseph: I know that supposedly it wasn’t him. It was someone else who said it, but –
Nico: Evelyn Beatrice Hall.
Joseph: But I think the other thing also is that in the context of the Maya debates and stuff like that, it’s an interesting thing. A lot of this movie does stem – going back to one of your earlier things – from personal experience. It’s motivated by a certain sense of rage that I had around 2015 where I was on Twitter, and I like to make a lot of jokes. That’s literally what I do most of the time. I just take the piss out of things, and I kept pissing off people left and right, but the way it used to be is that if you piss somebody off, it used to be that one person would get mad and maybe two or three would engage with you, but now with Twitter and being a public persona as I am, I would get hundreds of people literally on any given day, and they would tell me to kill myself, you’re racist, you’re this, you’re that. Whatever was the meme of the day in terms of what they thought my particular joke was, I would get dog-piled, and that’s a whole new sensation. That’s a whole new thing, and I started realizing that we’re now in uncharted territory where social media has allowed to link in people that were essentially possibly losers in high school at some point.
Here’s an example: I feel like a lot of people that attack me specifically because I do music videos are teenagers. A lot of them are teenage girls or what have you, and in their particular school there might be one or two Lady Gaga fans, and within their schools, they’re not powerful. It’s just like any school has a series of bullies and whatever, and they’re just an off-shoot of it, but once they get on Twitter and the social media sphere, they all link up and suddenly they become a voice of 50,000,000 kids or whatever it is. And then if you have one person who makes a Lady Gaga joke that goes astray, suddenly you’ve got 1,000,000 people pouncing on you, and I don’t know if that is relevant in terms of how you perceive the world from your lawyerly perspective, but what I see from a pop culture perspective is there’s a sort of dog-piling pushing of agendas that come from the most asinine places. For instance, in this case, it’s just 14-year-old girls that linked up on Lady Gaga fandoms to beat up a 45-year-old video director.
So, that sort of weird, new world of language policing, it’s a weird place to be as an artist because now whenever you want to even tweet out a joke, you’re thinking, “Who am I going to offend? What teenager is out there that’s going to blow it up?” and here’s the funny part too. I’ve seen it where the teenagers are the ones that are offended, but then the adults and the editors of these blogs and magazines, they take it seriously and they’re not even paying attention to exactly who the dog-piling is, and it just extends out and suddenly it becomes the actual news and the reality, and it becomes part of the fabric of how we communicate now, and now everybody’s on pins and needles when sometimes I think it’s just coming from little kids trying to bully other people, and then suddenly the adults sort of get the ramifications, and now the adults act that way too. Does that make sense at all?
Nico: It does make sense, and I used to have this – I thought that social media was the great hope for us. You believe in freedom of expression. You give everyone the tools to speak out. The world is going to be a better place. I thought this around the Arab Spring back in 2011, but now you’re seeing the developments, the dark side, the devilish side of social media, and you’re seeing this sort of mob outrage culture, and I’ve gotten off Twitter in a large part because I think it brings out the worst in me and also the worst in others. So, I always ask people who are very involved with it what is the benefit you see in being on there? Obviously, it helps you promote your movies, but do you see another benefit to it?
Joseph: There’s literally no other benefit for me other than it’s a way to promote and if I am not on it, I literally cannot get work. So, it’s my ball and chain. For instance, there’s no way anybody would know about Bodied if it weren’t for Twitter, period. How did you find out about Bodied?
Nico: I found out about it because a friend of mine who works at the New York Times – and his name will go unstated – forwarded me that – I think it was the “Vulture” or “Variety” article where you talk a lot about freedom of speech because he knew I was very interested in the topic, and then I was just in New York City for work and I swung by the AMC Theater there and checked it out. So, your movie is going around kinda the free speech sub-culture, the niche though it may be, and that’s how I found out about it.
Joseph: Well, I’ll tell you how that sort of works in terms of how it even got to the “Vulture” article. It’s that over the years I don’t have a ton of Twitter followers, but I have a lot of reporters following me. I did a movie in 2015 on the internet called Power Rangers. I don’t know if you saw it. It was a short film.
Nico: I saw it pinned to the top of your Twitter account, but I haven’t actually watched it.
Joseph: You should see the story behind Power Rangers because what I did around 2014, I secretly made a fan film about the Power Rangers. I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck about the Power Rangers by the way. All I wanted to do was I knew that Hollywood was going to come out with a Power Rangers movie at some point, so I literally took $250,000.00 of my own cash and made a short film, just blew it just for no other reason. I knew I was never going to get any of this money back, and I just made an NC-17 version of the Power Rangers where they sniffed coke and did hookers and blew each other’s brains out, and then waited for a year. I worked on it for a year in secret, and then in 2015 I just released it one night, and I released it at midnight because I knew it was going to get shut down, and by the morning it had 10,000,000 views, and Saban Entertainment and all of the people [inaudible] [00:16:59] are freaked out and threatened to sue me and stuff like that, but I did actually make it as a free speech idea in that if I had made it as a legitimate Power Rangers thing as a franchise property, they could sue me for real, but here’s what I did. I made it for free. I literally just made it and made zero profit off it. It’s as if I drew the Power Rangers, drew it on a napkin, and then showed it on the internet and I made no money off it. They can’t sue me over that.
So, literally, the movie companies were in a weird position because here’s a guy who made an extremely popular fan film about the Power Rangers but made no profit off it, so is that free speech or are we doing IP property law problems?
Nico: You obviously have ruffled some feathers with Bodied and the Power Rangers thing. Is there any concern that it might affect your career, especially – [inaudible] [00:17:57] that you work in Hollywood, which often sometimes embodies the characteristics that you lampoon in the campus culture that you depict in your movie?
Joseph: Can I tell you the honest truth since we’re a free speech thing?
Nico: Yeah, of course.
Joseph: The policing of it can be done in two ways. One is that you can police someone because you’re being super offensive, but then there’s another part you’re policing someone because you’re being super arrogant. Well, let me show you the arrogant side of myself. I’ve never worried about whether I offend anybody in Hollywood because I’m that fucking good. I feel I’m that good of a filmmaker that they always want me no matter what, and I don’t really care. They’re going to want my skill set irrespective of all of this craziness I do because I still am the best person to go to. If you want to sell a car, I am the guy. If you want to sell a song, I’m the guy, and eventually, one day if you want to make a superhero movie, I’m the guy. I feel that confident about my skill set, so I’m not quite frankly worried about offending people because I’m that good.
Nico: To get away with it these days, you either have to have “fuck you” money or “fuck you” talent. Other than that, your career could just be over.
Joseph: And I just can’t concern myself, and quite frankly, I just – I’m an Asian dude that grew up in Texas in the ‘80s, and what that means is I saw real racism in the ‘80s. Remember, the Civil Rights Act was in the ‘60s. By the time I got to America in 1979, it was just about 10 years. So, right now we’re in 2018. The racial dynamics of what’s going on right now are quite different than it was back in the ‘80s. In the ‘80s, it was really sort of out there. I remember I would go into my elementary school, and kids would line up and make fun of my eyes and do ching-chong sounds, and that would be my daily basis. So, what ended up happening is that I ended up getting this very, very thick skin. So, now when I see an Asian person just getting mad over one little joke, it’s like – it’s a bit insensitive of me; I understand this. I love my Asian people and all of that stuff, but at the same time, there’s a piece of me that goes, “Get over it. You had nothing compared to what I had to go through.”
Nico: One of the biggest advocates for free speech in the community right now is this guy named Simon Tann. He’s an Asian American, and he’s the lead bass player of the band, The Slants, and they had a case that went all the way up to the Supreme Court because the patented trademark office refused to let them trademark their name, The Slants, because it was derogatory, but they were using the phrase to re-appropriate it for a positive message. So, it’s just interesting how the Asian-American community has gotten behind his cause. I’m friends with him on Facebook, so I see what he does.
Joseph: I guess so. I think when it comes down to being offended, it’s such a complicated bag because I think a certain level of offense is so good for the dialogue. I think that if you’re not testing what is offending people, then you have a stasis of conformity and that is never good in society. I think that shock comics and shock humor and ideas that push the edge and make people feel uncomfortable, this is what art should be doing. It’s a fun experience, and the minute we try to shut all of that stuff down, we’re going to be in a world of shit because nothing good’s going to come of that when a bunch of people start thinking in conformist terms.
Nico: There is a – I helped make a documentary back in 2015 called Can We Take A Joke, and it’s about comedy and this comedian, Lenny Bruce, who was put in jail for the jokes he was telling back in the ‘60s and what parallels you can draw between modern free speech controversies in the comedy community and the ones historically where previously it was the police and now it’s the mob, and the New York Times reviewed the movie and in the lead, they said, “The documentary, Can We Take A Joke, does a fine job of defending a comic’s right to perform incendiary material, but it would be better if it also at least acknowledged the possibility that some jokes ought not to be told,” which suggests to me that the reviewer completely did not understand the movie in the same way some of the reviewers you were talking about earlier didn’t understand your movie either.
Joseph: By the way, I would never say they don’t understand my movie; they just have their own interpretations of it because if they didn’t understand it, that means that I literally have a very, very hardcore specific intent with the movie, and the only real intent I had was sparking debate. It’s as simple as that, and some people are –
Nico: We had an intent, so I guess that’s the difference.
Joseph: Some people were down with that concept of a movie like that, but other people just want morals. It’s really funny what they think morals in Hollywood movies are because at the end of the day for me personally these morals are so simple. Think about the vast majority of morals in movies. Are these things that you haven’t heard before? Do not kill. Do not cheat. Even as something as like slavery. Slavery is bad. Duh. Of course. But when you have a movie like Bodied that says maybe racist jokes aren’t racist, how does the world today sort of figure that one out? It’s not quite a moral. It’s a dialogue.
Nico: So, you were talking earlier about what you were seeing on college campuses. How tuned in to those controversies were you because obviously you’re satirizing some of these free speech controversies and you’re kind of being hyperbolic with it, but in other ways I’m thinking and reflecting on some of the cases that I’ve been involved in in my career here at FIRE, and they’re not always – they sometimes do match that case precisely. I think back to Evergreen State College in Washington State last year and that the elite sort of Liberal culture was on display there in almost the exact same way it was on display in the college in your movie.
Joseph: Well, Nico, here’s a big issue for me. Over the course of my life, coming from Texas, one of the things that I always was was essentially an atheist. Coming from Texas, you’re being flopped right into the Bible belt, and you have to make a hardcore decision as an immigrant. Are you going to fit into the sort of Christian landscape that is very blatantly put out there and that social mechanism of going to church every Sunday and praying in school and all of that stuff? Well, I also wanted to be a scientist when I was growing up, so this stuff just didn’t correlate to me on a mathematical scientific level. So, I was an atheist, and if you fast forward a couple of years later, I was really into a lot of the atheist movements – the Sam Harris, the Christopher Hitchens – and that was really the genesis of my interest in speech only because it was atheists feeling like they could finally say that they’re an atheist, which was a big movement back then, which for someone that came from Texas was very fascinating because I remember thinking even as a kid will I ever get a girlfriend because I don’t believe in God and everybody here believes in God and Jesus and all of that stuff.
So, it was liberating from that perspective, but then it started turning into other things like the right to criticize Christianity. Of course, when 9/11 happened, it turned into the right to criticize Islam, which then there was a whole lot of Liberal backlash against that idea like does this sort of become the intersection between atheism versus actual racism and FOB and all of that, and it got very muddled at a certain point, and now it seems like a lot of my atheist heroes have turned into free speech advocates specifically like Sam Harris because now it’s like the Left is essentially protecting its turf, and we’ve gotten to a point where this sort of interpersonal tribalism has expanded everywhere. But the danger for me, by the way, is as a free speech absolutist who loves Sam Harris and things like that, there is still this other element where I see now the free speech people now courting a little bit with the Fox News people, which is a little strange because they feel that the Left has gone so bonkers like Sam – who’s that guy? Dave Rubin, right?
Nico: Yeah. Dave Rubin, the YouTube guy.
Joseph: In the beginning, he was interesting to me because he was talking to all of the same people, but now it’s like you can actually see him go on Fox News, and he’s definitely instigating a lot of things that are almost pro-Trump, and it seems like he’s hand-in-hand now with Fox News. So, there’s a little bit of a warning spot for me where I’m a little hesitant to hop into either side because it seems like they’re branching off to these extreme politics no matter what. I don’t think Sam is by the way, but you can see a piece of the free speech movement sort of aligning itself with the alt-Right simply because it’s the easy adversaries right now, but I see some hypocrisy there because the alt-Right can easily do the same fucking thing if they had their ways. They don’t want Kaepernick fucking kneeling. As much as they keep talking about their free speech, they have their own issues with things that you can and cannot say.
Nico: It’s kind of hard to figure out who is the true civil libertarian who defends the neutral principles, which is really what being a civil libertarian is all about, and who’s kind of out to just own the libs so to speak. Like Milo Yiannopoulos. He pays good lip service to free speech, but when the rubber hits the road, I don’t know that he’d go to the mat to defend a Liberal’s right.
Joseph: I have no interest in owning the Libs. I am Liberal. At the end of the day, all of my personal politics that I believe in free speech, I also believe in freedom of religion, I believe in pro-choice, and pro-homosexuality. Do whatever you want to do. But what I do think is that this sort of overboardnesss of nitpicking and especially this sort of attempt especially on the college campus side of things to stop the conversation simply because you feel righteous, that’s not cool.
Nico: Have you tried to get this movie shown on college campuses? I’m just kind of curious how it would play out.
Joseph: So, two months ago I went to Stanford to speak about filmmaking, and they wanted me to show the film there, and I absolutely did not show the film because I just felt like all of the professors that liked me would get fired, quite frankly.
Nico: So, it was a professor who invited you to show the film?
Joseph: Yeah, and they’re sweet. They’re awesome. They’re really cool, and I actually do like academics. I’m an Asian person, so for me, academics and science and getting degrees, that’s all really cool stuff. As a stupid Asian that dropped out of college to make funny films, I’m still in awe of people that actually have degrees. So, going on college, the one thing that I kept thinking is that I just don’t want them to get fired because one student can simply say, “They showed a movie where they’re saying the “f” word and the “n” word and without context,” and the next thing you know, as you’ve seen in Evergreen and things like that, boom. It’s in the school paper, and people lose their jobs. So, I was super, super careful about that.
But irrespective of that, there still was controversy because telling the story of how I made the movie, I brought up one example. The movie itself is about stereotypes and just perspectives that may be racist but they’re not racist. It’s just that intersection of all of that stuff. So, I was telling one story about when I was casting the movie, there was a stereotype that I realized that I had but that I didn’t realize it, and the stereotype was when I was casting for black rappers, I thought most black guys could rap and that was a stereotype. It turned out to be completely untrue, and I actually shocked myself that I had this perspective that I had walking in my system for the last 30 years. I just kind of assumed that all black guys could rap because I always see black guys rapping. Whenever I talk to my black friends, they can rap and things like that, but it turned out to be I just happened to be in a subset of people that worked in the record industry where people are more musically inclined, and then when you go to actors who are not necessarily musically inclined, they can’t rap.
Anyways, I said that and that turned into a firestorm. One student thought I was being so racist saying that and the funny thing is I was critiquing my own racism, and the next thing you know she was writing a letter and it turned into a mess.
Nico: You can’t even do that though these days. You can’t even be candid and honest with your own failings. I reflect back on – it was post 9/11. I forget what year exactly, but Juan Williams, the former NPR anchor, had talked about how he gets a little bit nervous when he sees someone in a hijab go on an airplane and he was saying it as a way to critique himself and say, “I have stereotypes. I have prejudice. I am wrong,” but there was a firestorm that happened after that as well that resulted in him eventually leaving NPR. We’re being cowed into silence in certain respects.
Joseph: This is the really bad part of trying to bully your way into your point as opposed to actually having a debate. I’ve always said that Trump himself is a battle rapper, and what I mean by that – if you listen to the vernacular and the things he says, he’s insulting people, he’s getting personal, he’s doing what we call personals constantly, and he’s punching low and the truth doesn’t matter. He’s just literally just punching away, and in order to beat him, you’re going to need a battle rapper. If you don’t bring a battle rapper to it, you’re going to lose constantly, especially to the red states that vote for him, and here’s the problem: We don’t have battle rappers on the Left anymore because we’re just coddled. We don’t want to fight. We just want to win our argument simply by de-platforming somebody, and that makes lazy arguments. The reality is you need to have a battle rapper up there. You need to have the skill set of a good debater who can take on a Trump.
For instance, Ben Shapiro. Ben Shapiro is kicking a lot of Lefty ass right now because he’s a debater. If you want to defeat Ben Shapiro, don’t de-platform him. Debate him and beat him. I actually saw Sam Harris beat him once by the way, and it was specifically – those two guys are in an interesting sort of contentious truce because they both love free speech or they’re both advocates for it, but they both have very different political views and specifically on religion. As much as Ben Shapiro says – what’s his statement? Facts don’t care about your feelings or whatever. Is that what he says?
Nico: Yeah, that’s Ben Shapiro.
Joseph: He says, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” Well, as an atheist, his God is nothing but feelings. There’s no facts supporting his God, so when he debated Sam Harris – and there’s one clip of it for seven minutes – I felt like Sam Harris wiped the floor with him. There’s only a few times I’ve ever seen that happen, so I feel that these sort of Conservative thinkers that are very willing to get into these battle raps can be defeated if you have the person on the Left that he’s battle rapping to, but we don’t have that right now because we’re just too afraid of debating.
Nico: Well, there seems to be a generational divide on this issue and many other issues that might be termed civil libertarian, but if you hear people like Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama or Van Jones chime in on these campus free speech controversies, they’re kind of aghast at the efforts by some on the progressive Left to try and de-platform certain speakers. They’re like, “What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of their arguments?” These are easy arguments to defeat and to the extent that there is a certain subset of people who believe them, you have to defeat them. That’s how democracy works, but there’s a younger generation that’s not buying into that as much; at least that’s my perception because it can seem to cause emotional trauma for these people who they don’t want on campus to even make the arguments.
Joseph: You know what it is? It’s Gen X and Baby Boomers are terrible parents, coddling your kids. We’re just terrible, terrible parents, and what I saw was at Stanford, the girl must’ve been only 18 and 19 years old, and she felt so entitled to be offended that she felt – you can sense that there was a sense of power to her position, and the next thing you know the professors are reactive to it. They’re confused. They’re debating it. They’re trying to understand it, but at the end of the day it’s one 18-year-old person super offended about one particular point that quite frankly she’s just wrong about, and the entire campus reacts for it. If that’s just one particular case, it’s going across the country right now, and I don’t think that is a positive way to build your next big battle rapper that can defeat the Conservatives if you’re a pro-Liberal.
Nico: Well, some of the words you used there like parenting and coddling, my boss, Greg Lukianoff, just wrote a book with Jonathan Haidt called The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation of Failure, and he points to how we’re raising kids – or they point to how we’re raising kids – as one of the precise reasons you’re seeing this because kids are often being raised to go seek a third party to mediate disputes. You don’t have free play anymore, for example, which is how kids are often socialized. So, when they go to campus and their parents aren’t there anymore, they’re looking for perhaps an administrator to mediate their dispute, and as a result, democracy loses.
Joseph: Can I also tell you there’s also – I’m an Asian dude and I only mention that from the identity politics point of view to want to explain to you that I’m not part of the white guilt culture. I don’t feel guilty about being an Asian dude at all. So, what I see is that there’s a lot of white guilt in the Liberal world, and it really does cast this crazy weird – as much as Fox News keeps saying, “You’re being racist” to Liberals, what they’re really saying is and the deep core of it is that you have a low expectation of brown people. You’re afraid if you say one thing that it will literally demolish everyone’s egos because of your superiority or something like that. Some of that might actually be true because there is a certain tension obviously between minority cultures and mainstream white culture, but there are other viewpoints from other minorities, and I think you’ll probably find that more in the Asian world quite frankly because we’re quite frankly kind of kicking ass financially in America, so we kind of have less of a problem with it. You also look at the statistics of 50% of all Asians interracial marry specifically to white people and stuff like that.
The funny thing is when we tested Bodied using the NRG Service, they listed out black, Hispanic, and then white/Asian, so they didn’t give Asians our own thing. They just lumped us in with white people, so I thought that was very interesting. So, I think there’s a certain level of white guilt, and God bless you. It’s kinda cool. It’s nice to know that there are white people who have emotions and care and all of that shit; otherwise, what you’re left with is the Trump people. So it’s admirable on a certain level, but it’s also kind of highly insulting.
Joseph: Yeah, it’s patronizing. It’s what Bodied is about on a certain level that sort of patronizing perspective of race relations where you’re just kind of inadvertently looking down on other people’s expectations.
Nico: Well, that’s one of the things our approach to free speech on campus at FIRE is we make what we call the strong student argument that students are not too weak to live in freedom – live with freedom I should say – and to the extent in recent years, we see students say that words are violence or “Words can cause me trauma and to have certain words or certain ideas expressed on campus will not just hurt me emotionally, but it can have a physical manifestation in me,” kind of works against our strong student model that it used to be the best constituency for us on campus, but I don’t know. I see that changing and it worries us because we see ourselves as defending the rights of these students. We’ve always operated under the impression that they want this sort of freedom.
Joseph: I know. It’s a little weird. What I am is a pop culture dealer. The drug that I sell is pop culture, and I’ve seen an interesting thing in terms of how we market pop culture to kids, and it’s happened gradually over the last 10 to 15 years. It used to be that when you want to market to kids, you just say they’re cool and here’s some sex. It’s kind of an easy formula, but somehow over the last 10 years, it became – remember when Lady Gaga first came out and she was all about self-empowerment and gay rights and finding yourself and “Born This Way” and all of that stuff, right?
Nico: Oh, yeah.
Joseph: It’s not an original thought, and Madonna was doing that in the ‘80s, but when Madonna did it, I feel like it came from a more honest place because it was more dangerous to take up gay rights in the ‘80s. Nobody wanted to hear that shit, especially with AIDS and things like that. It was a big taboo. And then Madonna was in there and she was having sex with black guys on crosses and making out with other women in hotels and coming out with sex books and really sort of liberating that perspective. And by the way, I’m part of the Lady Gaga business. I’ve done a couple of videos for her.
Nico: Her latest movie is great. I saw it and I was crying at the end. I thought it was fantastic.
Joseph: Well, let’s get back to the bad part of Lady Gaga. I think there was a commercialization of self-improvement that felt more like Deepak Chopra than actual movement in terms of – it became more of a hipster sort of perspective of fashion as identity or identity as fashion, and I think a lot of the meaning got taken away, and then the tribalism along with social media created these pockets of people now essentially fighting for their own individuality, but you’re not individuals because you’re [inaudible] [00:40:57] linking up with millions of other people that think just like you. If you’re truly an individual and you’re off social media and you’re trans and you’re this or you’re gay or you’re Asian or whatever, that’s a much tougher thing to do than suddenly you have this collection of people padding yourself and pressing like and retweeting you and all of that stuff. It became this collective mob mentality, and then it pervaded into advertising it everywhere. I don’t know how many advertising you’ve ever seen of people in documentary style being narrated about how great they are and how fearless they are. It’s like every commercial is like that.
Now it’s like the entire idea of identity politics. And by the way, when you guys say identity politics, you’re talking about race or sexual things or whatever, right? When I say identity –
Nico: Generally, yeah.
Joseph: – politics, from my perspective as a pop culture dealer, it’s just literally the idea of selling the self as the final option in any particular demographic, making yourself so important as an individual that you become the final product itself. You’re no longer Coca-Cola. You’re selling you. You’re just directly tapping into the ego, and I think it’s caused quite a bit of havoc in terms of how we now perceive things because we’re now so tribal that we’re all essentially marking territory and trying not to let anybody have any piece of – our little invisible social sphere is the fight now that we’re all fighting for.
Nico: You were talking there about how Lady Gaga and Madonna were kinda trying to do the same thing, but it was more transgressive when Madonna did it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When you think about art, whether it be music or movies, who is transgressive these days in mainstream filmmaking or in mainstream music? It seems to me that you don’t see the same transgression that you saw with the punk rockers back in the day or with Madonna back in the day, and I’ve heard other people actually say that the alt-Right are the new punk rockers. Now I don’t know that I agree with that, but to the extent they’re a minority culture that are having some sort of effect or [inaudible] in the morals of the moral majority, that might be true.
Joseph: And I’ll tell you who’s transgressive. It’s battle rap and maybe hip-hop in general, and the reason why is this. Rock ‘n’ roll is dead. You know this. Nobody sells rock records anymore.
Nico: Not since the darkness.
Joseph: I know and the reason why is because they took the sex out of it. White people – you – are so afraid of sex and offending each other that you literally took the fucking sex out of rock ‘n’ roll. Now rock ‘n’ roll is a dead thing. Your kids do not want to listen to rock ‘n’ roll because you can’t fuck to rock ‘n’ roll, but you can fuck to hip hop. You can have sex to Cardi B. You can have sex to Jay-Z. You can have sex to Beyoncé. They’re still primal and fun and honest because when you’re a teenager, you’re not thinking – you’re thinking about politics and all of that stuff, but at the end of the day as a teenager, your hormones are raging and you want to fuck, and you’re trying to deal with ways to get that or circumvent it or [inaudible] [00:44:14] love or whatever you want to do, but ultimately, the human body is saying reproduce, and that is the core of music. Music is a rhythm of reproduction. There are fertility dances involved in music, and –
Nico: Have you seen the studies lately that say that this generation of kids is drinking less, is smoking less, is having sex less than previous generations? I have to think that’s tied in here somewhere.
Joseph: I think white kids are doing that less, but here’s the truth too. Hip-hop would not be as big if white kids weren’t buying that stuff either. Crazy Rich Asians for instance. It’s not Asians who made that film successful. We’re only 3% of the American population. We could buy out every fucking theater constantly and it wouldn’t make a dent in terms of the box office. White people fucking made that movie a hit, and white people make hip-hop a hit. It’s not the 15% of black people in America buying all of these records; it’s the fucking 60% of white people that will flood that market and put in all of the dollars.
So, I think that whatever they say about kids having sex and all of that less, I tend to sort of have a distrust with those figures because I just know how human beings work, and also at the end of the day, hip-hop is the biggest thing in the world, and hip-hop is all about sex at its core.
Nico: So, how do people see this movie?
Joseph: People can see this movie in theaters. Unfortunately, I gotta tell you, it’s very hard to see this movie because everybody was so afraid to release it. Want to hear a little back-story behind it?
Nico: I’d love to.
Joseph: When I made this movie, I sent it to every film festival – Sundance – not Toronto. I got accepted there. To Sundance, to Tribeca, to –
Nico: And you won an award there.
Joseph: Literally all of the major film festivals turned it down because they were all afraid it was racist because it said racist things, but just because it says racist things, doesn’t mean it’s racist. It’s just that they literally couldn’t understand that the people laughing at this stuff were actually going to be other people of those races, and it wasn’t until Toronto accepted the film – and they slotted it in a weird slot. It was the Midnight Madness one. It wasn’t the important part of the festival. It was the midnight thing where a bunch of people get drunk and watch a movie. We premiered it there, but then it won the audience award. So, it shocked everybody like, “What the fuck did they actually make?” and they were still hesitant. And then we won another audience award at another film festival and then won another, and we kept winning audience awards at film festivals, and I think that there was still some internal debate with the movie companies because if you’re a big studio, do you risk for a small amount of money risking people suddenly writing at you and saying, “You’ve just released the most racist movie ever”? So, it was very, very hard to get distribution.
It wasn’t until YouTube came on board that we had distribution, but our distribution is very strange. It’s like a very small theatrical release in pockets of cities that change from week to week with zero promotion except word of mouth. That’s why I am doing this podcast because I literally have no other options to let people know about this movie. I don’t even know who the fuck you guys are and I’m talking to you. That shows you the situation I have.
Nico: Well, I appreciate it, and I actually do want to organize a trip for the staffers at FIRE. Our headquarters is in Philadelphia, but the remote office in Washington D.C. I want to organize a trip for our Philadelphia staffers to go see it in Philadelphia, but it’s not playing there yet. So, how can people get the movie in their theaters?
Joseph: Well, you’ve got to contact NEONrated. I don’t know if that’s going to help or not. They’re just going to do what they do. So, you can go @NEONrated on Twitter and ask them. I’m not sure that’s going to do anything quite frankly. Look at bodiedmovie.com, see if it’s playing in a theater near you. On the 28th of November, it will come out on YouTube premium. It’s a subscription service, but you can sign up for free for a month and sign off if you don’t like it. The only thing that kinda sucks about it honestly is that I made it for artist and audience and participation.
The thing that every fucking film festival got wrong is that people were laughing at these racist jokes, but it’s actually the people being made fun of. Literally, it’s black people and brown people and Asian people laughing at brown people Asian people jokes. That’s the thing. They completely underestimated the audience, and unfortunately, the best way to see this is in a theater with other brown, Asian, white, black. Everybody, every race, get in there and start laughing at racist jokes and get over it. That’s the best way to watch this. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen now, so you’re going to be at home on YouTube and you’re going to laugh and wonder is anybody else laughing too. You’re never going to experience that, unfortunately.
Nico: Well, it’s interesting because there was a study that came out earlier this month or late last month that said that 80% of Americans hate political correctness, and they believe that political correctness is “a problem in our country,” and I think you see that reflected in the audience response to your movie, but the suits at the studios don’t get that or they’re afraid of what might happen if they do play to that 80% of the population that hates political correctness however it defined.
Joseph: And I wish the film was as simple as that too, but as you’ve seen in the film, we also sort of slap you on the wrist for laughing at some of these jokes at some point. Life is complicated. There is no easy answer, and things change from context to context and period to period. As much as I love a good racist joke, there are points where it can go too far and that’s the stuff that we explore in the movie. When is it good to laugh? When is it not? I don’t know, dude, but watch the movie and you tell me.
Nico: And it’s a movie that begs to be seen in theaters. The rap battles are awesome, and it makes sense now that you had a battle rapper help write this script. So, I go see movies if there’s an audio or visual reason to see it in a theater like with Dunkirk for example or with A Star is Born and with this movie. This is one that you have to see in theaters. So, to our listeners out there, if you can go see it, go see it. And before I sign off here, Joseph, my girlfriend asked me to ask you if the lion in the Taylor Swift “Wildest Dreams” music video was actually real.
Joseph: Dude, everything I do in those videos are real. There’s nothing fake.
Nico: Well, Joseph Kahn, thank you so much for speaking with me today, and I hope the movie and the film itself do well. And if you can’t see it in a theater, go see it on the 28th on YouTube. Thank you.
Joseph: And your audience by the way if I came off super arrogant in some of these answers, I apologize. I’m just very tired. Sorry.
Nico: Thank you, Joseph.
Joseph: Thank you.