Only two years after graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Nigerian-born photographer and director Munachi Osegbu has proven himself to be one of the leading visionaries in the entertainment industry. His directorial debut for Megan Thee Stallion, “Big Ole Freak,” has accumulated over 83 million views on Youtube, and his later collaboration with her, “Hot Girl Summer” featuring Nicki Minaj, has won them both a BET and a VMA award.
However, Munachi will be the one to tell you that all those rewards did not come without hard work. Learn more about Munachi’s on-set philosophy, his inspirations, and the importance of tenacity to achieve success below.
This interview took place over the phone between Ella Jayes in New York and Munachi Osegbu in Los Angeles, and was edited by Duc Dinh.
EJ: How did you get to where you are today?
MO: I always knew that I wanted to be some sort of a visual artist. When I was in high school, my art teacher let me borrow her camera for one summer. So I started shooting, and I won some awards, then I got a scholarship to go to NYU for photography.
While I was in school, I would shoot in the studios every weekend, or even multiple times a week, and just really hustle. And then, I started doing freelance work, and it just continued on afterward.
You went to Tisch at NYU and graduated in 2018. What classes did you love? Are there any professors that you recommend?
For me, school was more about having access to the studios and being able to create a body of work. At NYU, I really enjoyed taking classes with Shelley Rice and Deborah Willis. There was also another class that I took with Christopher Phillips called “Photography Now”, which was definitely one of the most interesting classes that I took while I was there.
Were there any programs you learned that are important for your work today?
I had so many avenues in school to get super advanced in Photoshop, but I do wish that I knew more of After Effects and 3-D modeling. Maybe now's the time to learn it at home [during quarantine].
Speaking of learning after school, is there anything you listen to or read to keep yourself tapped in?
I've been trying to watch a lot of movies, meditate, and get into different research holes for inspiration.
You mentioned that you were freelancing on the side while in school. What projects have you worked on during that time?
I started shooting while I was still in school, for Refinery29 a couple of times, and then I did a job for Converse. I was incessant about emailing. I would wake up in the morning, do research on LinkedIn, and I’d send 20 or 30 blind emails every day. A lot of times, I would do that, and not get a single answer. But sometimes, I would be getting a couple of answers a month, and that would make me feel inspired and want to keep going.
Did you come with a creative deck about what you wanted to do? Or were you just making connections?
I think it's better to talk to people first. I have so many ideas all the time, every day, that I think it's better for me to wield them when they're needed. It’s also to protect my own ideas. If you were sending people decks for shoots all the time, who knows where they would actually end up?
The way I framed it was, “Hey, here's my work. I would love to meet and talk.” Asking for advice, rather than asking for a job, always helped me. I just wanted to talk to everyone and have as many people to be familiar with me as possible—I didn't expect that I was going to be working for a lot of these people.
Remember that Pitbull song called “Feel This Moment,” in which he sings, “Ask for money, and get advice. Ask for advice, get money twice.” [laughs]
I love that it’s your motto! Aside from freelancing, were there any other jobs that you picked up along the way? You briefly mentioned that when people graduate, there's this false notion that you immediately have to be a successful artist.
Yeah, that's just not the case for a lot of people. Usually, when people have that sort of immediate success out the gate it's because they come from wealthy or well-connected families. I grew up lower-middle class in Wilmington, Delaware, so I had no industry connections or anything to help me. That's a very distinctive, important thing that people don't like to talk about because everyone wants to have an image of self-made success. But it’s extremely real.
While at NYU, I was working at this restaurant called Houseman in TriBeCa, which I love. I had so much fun working there. But people don’t realize that while I was doing those Megan Thee Stallion videos, I was still working at a restaurant.
Wow, that’s amazing and now you’re a full-time artist. I know it changes, but what does your role consist of now?
I spend a lot of time writing treatments, a 10-to-15 pages deck describing how the music video is going to look, how it's gonna play out, how we film it—all the specs and details. Then we have to get booked for the treatment. And to get it, sometimes you're competing against 20–30 other people to see whose ideas the labels are going to invest large sums of money. It's a lot.
What happens once the idea is invested in?
We go into pre-production. My team, Collin Druz, Heather Heller, and I, go through the process of hiring everyone—the director of photography, the production designer, and other people. We basically spend a week or two just putting everything together, depending how long we have before we film.
After that, it goes into the editing, post-production process. And I like to sit with editors in real life. I'm very hands-on with that process, even down to fractions of a second. I have a photographic memory and very strong visuals of what I see in my mind, so I know if this second would be better if it was a close-up, or a different shot of a different setup, or something like that.
Did you meet your team through school, through work, or are they your friends?
Heather reached out to me last year and I met with her. Her company is a bit newer. It was very serendipitous because she produced the music video that made me want to be a director and an artist. She was Francis Lawrence's production partner, who was involved with making “Bad Romance” for Lady Gaga. She did all of the videos that inspired me. So obviously, I immediately signed with the company. We’ve been doing really beautiful and amazing work.
On set, how do you command people around you and keep them excited? How do you deal with problems?
Well, there's always Murphy's Law, “whatever can go wrong will go wrong” on a set. I stick to that and I don't really leave a lot of room for confusion.
I think it's important to be kind to everyone, and acknowledge their roles because we're all there to make something together, so being mean to people or not having a good attitude is never conducive to a healthy work environment. So that's not something that I would ever do or be, but I do get very stern about what I want or need on set.
You're just very specific about what you want. I think sometimes people are afraid to speak up when something doesn't go their way, especially younger creatives like us.
I used to be like that, too. I think it was just a fear of being so new with this, and not wanting people to be angry at me, or think that I'm a difficult person, or bad to work with. It was hard for me, at times, to speak up, but I realized that when you don't speak up, you're literally betraying your art. If you have a vision, and you're not getting what you want, and you don't say anything, because you don't want to rock the boat, then that's a betrayal of your vision. I try my hardest to not betray what I’ve worked so hard to get here to do.
Let’s talk about the projects you’ve done. Was Megan The Stallion’s video your first?
Yeah, “Big Ole Freak” was the first music video I’ve ever done.
How did that come about?
I met Rayna Bass (now Senior Vice President of Marketing) from 300 Entertainment at a dinner that they had. A month later, I shot Megan for Refinery29. After that, Rayna reached out and said, “Oh I heard you did this shoot, let’s do a press shoot with Megan.”
And then, they mentioned that they were doing videos for some songs and asked me to write a treatment. I wrote a treatment and got the project. So a week later, I went to LA for the first time to film the video, and then she wanted me to do more afterward.
How were you feeling going into your first shoot?
I was definitely nervous. But I felt like my whole entire life has led up to that moment. Since I was a kid, a lot of the times when I listen to music, I’d daydream and I’d see visuals in my head. I’ve always been obsessed with music videos. My memory of music videos is encyclopedic. If you ask me, “Oh, give me an example of a music video where someone has a red hat on and is sitting on the toilet,” I can do that. And that's not just American [references], that's Japan, Korea, and a lot of Europe, too, in terms of music videos.
Going into it, I just felt that it was something that had been welling up inside of me for 10 years. At that point, I was ready. I knew exactly how I wanted the camera to move. I knew that I wanted sweeping shots. Even though I didn't know what a techno crane was back then, I knew what I wanted the shots to look like.
You’ve also done “Hot Girl Summer”, which you’ve won awards for?
Yes, we won the BET and VMA Awards. That was my fourth or fifth music video.
After Megan, what was next for you?
It’s not a linear story, but I started branching out and working with other artists. I love working with female rappers and female singers— that's where my work shines and fits the most.
Are there any artists you’d like to collaborate with?
I really love Doja Cat. I feel that she and I visually could work very well together. So I really would love to do something with her, eventually.
I've seen people describe your work in different ways, but how would you describe your work?
When it comes to my work, I love organized chaos. So I love having something that you can really look at for a long period of time because there are different things jumping out at you. I really love to use design elements like color and spacing to create that.
There’s a book called Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, in which he talks about the enjoyment of viewing art. There’s the studium, which is the general joy of looking at a photograph and studying photography; but there's also the punctum, which is the part of a photo that touches you, and makes you want to learn more about the image and the artist.
I try to create things that make me feel a sense of that punctum—it's not really about other people, it's about what pierces me personally. So in my work, there's a sense of drama and severity, I would say.
Speaking of inspirations, are there any artists whose work moves you like that?
In terms of photographers, I love Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. I love David LaChapelle, I always get goosebumps on my back when people say that my work reminds me of his. I also love Steven Klein, Steven Meisel, Marc Baptiste, and Norbert Schoerner.
If you ask someone who’s an emerging artist what their goal is, they’d probably mention all the people you've already worked with. So what's next for you?
The rest of the world! There’s so much to be done in Asia, Africa, and Europe! I would love to make K-Pop and J-Pop videos, their productions are on a different level.
You’ve definitely put a lot of thought into your trajectory. How have you planned your future? Do you write your goals down or is it a mental image?
I feel like all my life experiences and my interests have led me to where I am today. I’ve always been obsessed with watching MTV and reading magazines. All the things that I was into stylistically, like Harajuku, mixing that with, what was going on in America then—the banjee, Baby Phat—everything really came full circle into what I do.
There’s this Japanese concept of wellness called ikigai. There’s a Venn diagram of the different levels it takes to achieve happiness, and I’ve followed that throughout my entire life. This is definitely my purpose in my life, and it happens to be my biggest passion.
I saw this quote the other day, it's so simple, but it said, “Trust your choices.” So often, we're always so wrapped up in things that we should have done. But if you really trust what you're doing, and you're mindful about it, it really can lead you to a place where you're supposed to be.
Yeah, I don't have any regrets in my life. There's no job or decision I made that I regret. I think it's more so, “Oh, my God, I wonder what would have happened if I hadn't made that decision.”
What was your favorite project you've ever worked on and why?
Definitely “Big Ole Freak.” It was a moment that was way bigger than me. It was a life-changing moment, for everyone involved, that also kickstarted all of our careers. It was my first project and probably still my favorite so far.
“Daylight” by Joji and Diplo is another favorite of mine. The set design was a dream, thanks to Haley Bowman. She's incredible.
What advice do you have for someone that's emerging in your field?
I would tell them that you should be looking at and working with people who've been doing it for at least 10 years longer than you. I think that’s why my work doesn't look like it’s from someone who has never taken a film class before. I make sure that the people that I'm working with are way, way, way more experienced than I am.
You have to be finding and working with people who know better than you. If they know the general outline of what you guys are doing better, they can help you navigate; and you only have to worry about your own creativity—carving out a visual space for yourself—because you already have the tools, guidance, and the knowledge from them. You don't have to make elementary mistakes.
A lot of people our age just want to be famous, but they don't want to play the game or do the work. And I'm so invested in playing the game and doing the work that I want to do it so thoroughly that the only people I can trust are the people who've been doing it for 20–30 years.
There’s definitely that aspect of instant TikTok fame.
Everything is factory-produced. For me, I want it to be grueling, I want us to be there for 24-hours straight filming, I want us to take 12-hours to get the shot. I just know that's what makes it worthwhile and fulfilling for me.
It's rare to find other people who are my age that has that same tenacity in what they do. On most of the jobs that I've worked, I'm the youngest person there, but I'm also the one who is directing. It’s difficult because there's a lot of pressure. But I like that, and I can handle that.
What should we expect from you this year? Anything you want us to look forward to?
As of right now, I'm just hoping for growth, in any way possible. At the end of the day, I hope that more people will want to recognize my work.
Wondering what Munachi listens to to get inspired?
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Images Courtesy of Munachi Osegbu
Special thanks to Polaroid