How impactful are music videos? Hollywood spares nothing for captivating content—the issue in a battle between Los Angeles music executives, the rappers they represent, and a man caught in the middle.
By Amanda Squire/El Inde
Disclaimer: This article contains explicit language and jargon in reference to music lyrics and quotations that emblematize aspects of the story. This is also done in an effort to accurately express the words of sources/interview subjects. It also details drug use, illegal activities, and other sorts of behavior. Included only in an effort to not misquote direct quotations or lyrics. Further, these explicit words are used to have honest rhetoric about the culture surrounding rap/hip-hop music in an effort to provide further context to the subject matter.
Paul Wildum is average height, about 5’8’ (although he would claim he’s 5’11”), with a masculine build. He’s sleepy-eyed, proudly-postured, and sharply handsome. He has the resting expression of someone who just woke up from a long afternoon nap and whose moods range from wild intensity to a soothing calm. He is twenty-seven years old and works as a music video director for rappers and musicians in Los Angeles, California.
I first met Wildum one fall evening in 2017, at the Sigma Chi fraternity house in Tucson, Arizona. The enclosed courtyard reeked of stale beer and sweat. The occasion was a special appearance from the famous DJ, Carnage, for whom Wildum was filming a music video. He is passionate about adding blissed-out edits and wild music to accompany his footage of musicians and party-goers.
Wildum did not dress for the occasion, the theme for which was “fight night”. In a vast stream of silken robes and topless men in boxer shorts, he was wearing a cotton-blend shirt with a graphic orange and black print and blue jeans that were faded and worn to the point where you couldn’t tell if the holes were intentional or not. His wild mane of brown curls was held back by what appeared to be a women’s headband. At the event, he had climbed on top of the chainlink structure that resembled a cage above the packed crowd. Wildum sauntered casually toward the stage, dozens of girls jumping in front of him trying to get in the camera frame. He giggled, jumping onto the speaker I had been standing on, amusingly moving his camera in a sporadic, circular frenzy. (It was an abrupt introduction, to say the least). Running his fingers through his tangled hair, speaking in a rasping, smoky tone (likely a result of the rolled joints he keeps tucked behind his ears) he abruptly said, “I value uniqueness. I love weird sh*t. To the point where it’s almost uncomfortable.”
Wildum was born in New York City but grew up in Tucson. He says he was a bad kid, always finding trouble. This is not hard to believe. When he wanted alcohol as a middle-schooler, he would meet up with a man at the local mall who had been recently released from prison, a man who called himself “Happy.” Despite his cheerful name, Happy had tattoos of the phrase “white power” engraved across his knuckles and had been sent to prison for shooting up a Payless Shoe store. Happy bought cheap bottles of vodka for the then 13-year-old Wildum; he would put the liquor into empty water bottles, and sell them to other kids, but decided drinking most of the vodka with his friends was a better idea. So it’s no surprise Wildum spent most of his time in the principal’s office at school.
Being told he was a bad kid in his youth, he internalized his mishaps as a troublemaker, identifying himself as a “bad boy” entirely. His mother taught him as a child to not care what anyone else thought of him because other people are so often too busy thinking about themselves. When he was in his teens, his mother would drive him and his friends around La Encantada Mall, blasting rap music out the rolled-down windows, while taking laps through the turnaround. That was fourteen years ago. While he may have grown out of vandalization and a lack of concern for others, he has managed to build a career based entirely on rap music and “not giving a f***k,” as he would say.
Wildum’s conversational style is a blend of lively metaphors and emphatically lyrical rhetoric. This is not the result of dedication to learning in a formal educational setting. He went to high school in Southeast Tucson, and college at The University of Arizona, but everything he knows is self-taught. To tell the truth, it is nearly impossible to imagine him in a classroom. Not that he doesn’t value his higher education he credits college with many of the opportunities that have come his way since— but he refers to mainly the opportunities that have stemmed from relationships, not academic fervor. Although he regards his degree in political science as just about the furthest thing away from the path he has since pursued. But glimpses of political and structural thoughts surface if you pay attention.
As he got older, Wildum went from breaking free from his notorious reputation as a child to selling drugs to college students at The University of Arizona. At one point, he walked around with $10,000 cash in his pocket on any given day from selling drugs to college students. It was a part-time job that quickly spiraled out of control. The logic entwining altruism and rule-breaking to justify a financial possibility is a Wildum specialty. He may be the most principled-unprincipled person I’ve ever known.
In April 2016, at the age of twenty-two, he was sent an indictment in the mail for felony charges related to drug trafficking—marijuana solicitation, marijuana paraphernalia, marijuana trafficking—all felonies, with over a pound of weed in his house at the time, including remnants of mushrooms, acid, cocaine, and every illicit drug under the rainbow. Wildum says that in a paranoid flurry, not remembering any encounter with the police, he frantically tossed thousands of dollars of drugs to a customer and told her to run.
Pleading guilty would mean facing a minimum 5-year sentence, getting the charges reduced to three years probation, with weekly drug and alcohol tests. He was extremely lucky. It was less than a month into his probation when he decided to be the designated driver for some friends.
Sober and not planning on drinking, he took half of a Xanax at the beginning of the night. “My next memory was seeing red-blue lights in the rearview mirror. Looking at my phone in my hand, it was 3:52 am,” he said.
After being pulled over by the police Wildum got a DUI. He had 72 hours to notify his probation officer (PO), Erica Johnson, a polished woman who had been working with criminals from all walks of life for 25 years. She told him that there was nothing he could do at that point, his probation was going to be revoked. After that conversation with Johnson, he had four days to accept that he was headed to prison for 5 years.
In desperation, Wildum went to meet with the pastor at the local Methodist Church on University Blvd. in Tucson at 7 p.m. the night before he was set to turn himself in to the police. During that conversation, he was told to do things with intention so he could get out of his way, to let go of things he couldn’t control, to take charge of the things that he could, and to do them all unconditionally. By that, the pastor meant, that sometimes people may think that they have let go of something, that they are making changes for the right reasons, but they’re lying to themselves. Wildum realized then that his luck up until that point was by miraculous circumstances, that he would fill with hollow promises of good behavior, soon fading into the abyss. His acceptance of going to prison surprisingly created a sense of liberation instead of fear, and as he walked out of the church he knew he had a larger purpose. It was the awakening of absolution, of not having the choice not to change. Through this experience came the vantage point of humility. At that moment, he made a promise to himself: “If I go to jail, I’m going to become the best version of myself. And if by some miracle, I don’t go to jail, I’m still gonna carry out that promise to myself,” he said.
It’s now his firm belief that our society is built around taking people away from becoming the highest version of themselves. “Once people find where spirituality, science, and religion all meet in the middle, that’s where the answers lie. I was raised religious, but when I left religion is when I found God. I consider myself spiritual, I believe in frequency and vibration,” Wildum said.
With a renewed sense of faith in the world and God’s plan, Wildum went to meet again with his PO, Erica Johnson. Uncompromising in her decisions, she’s the kind of woman who does not cut breaks for anyone. standing behind her desk was a man named Officer Martinez, her supervising officer, an intimidating older man, adorned with an assertively aggressive handlebar mustache, a badge on his waist, and a gun flashing attached at his waist. Johnson set the tone for the meeting ensuring transparency, saying at that moment that Officer Martinez wanted to put Wildum in a jumpsuit and handcuffs. But then, came the miracle, granting Wildum the biggest break in her 25 years as a PO. “I am not cutting you this deal because I think that you have an exceptional chance or that I even believe in you, you’re no better than anyone,” Johnson said, in a cautionary tone.
The reason he was getting a break was none other than a miracle, a gut feeling, Wildum says. The night before, Johnson had been laying in bed with her husband while he was watching TV. As she closed her eyes to fall asleep, she had a gut feeling telling her to cut Wildum a break. “I have always believed in the universe and it’s always steered me right. Please don’t f***k that up for me, get out of my office,” Johnson said. That moment reminded him of what the pastor had said before he left the church, “Oh, and if by some miracle, you end up not going to jail then you best believe God has a plan for you,” Wildum recalled. He credits that as the most pivotal moment of his life, allowing him to realize that he wanted to be sober more than he wanted breath in his lungs. That was the turning point, the process of coming to terms with his mistakes.
Between 2016 and 2017 is a time Wildum refers to as “The Twilight Zone” because of the intense focus on immersing himself into the craft of photography. He picked up a camera and soon after became popular in the videography community in Tucson. He began working with drone investor Alan Rhodes in the summer of 2016 when they were still widely unknown. Through his drone work, his phone started to ring with inquiries for promotional video projects working with sororities in Tucson. Admitting that he would accept projects he didn’t know how to edit and would stay up through the night at the university library watching YouTube tutorials on how to edit in Premiere Pro. The sororities led to fraternities, leading to DJs, clubs, music festivals, weddings, and promotional events. Lots of money flew back and forth, but he kept almost none of it that first year. Once, he spent thousands of dollars previously collected from deposits when his car was broken into. All the footage was gone as all his equipment was stolen. Wildum has never regretted the expense because it pushed him to work even harder. He particularly enjoyed letting them fuel him. He had no other options, he didn’t have a backup plan.
Graduating college in May of 2017 from the University of Arizona with a 2.8 GPA, his peers were posting pictures of job offers and parties, while he was at the library editing videos. “When you’re in a certain mindset where the intention is the direction, and emotion is the propeller,” Wildum said.
That summer, Wildum got a call from Simone Fermin, a college friend who was living in Los Angeles, telling him to move there. “I see you’re doing some big stuff with video. I work in public relations. I work with all hip hop, R&B artists. You can sleep on my couch rent-free, I think we’d be a good team,” Fermin told him. The next weekend, he moved in with Fermin. He would end up sleeping on her couch in her studio apartment in Hollywood for over a year. “She definitely put her neck out for me,” he said, eyes lighting up at the thought of her.
Once arriving in LA, the key to breaking into the industry was networking. With Fermin working in PR, she had the invite to all the music industry events. In 2018, Wildum met actress Bella Thorne and musician Mod Sun. Taking photos of Thorne and Sun was what propelled Wildum to get more work and connections in the industry. Thorne brought Wildum on to do video projects, as she started a music label now called Filthy Fangs (launched at the Coachella Music Festival in 2018). Generating content for Thorne is what catapulted him into the music scene in LA
Photos were taken by Wildum’s work with Mod Sun and Bella Thorne in July of 2018. (Photography by Paul Wildum).
“The thing I love is for every video you make, you normally get other people that want a video from you because of that,” Wildum said. Since moving to LA in 2017, he has directed music and event videos for rappers Wacka Flocka Flame, ANTY2FLY, Yung Manny, YK Osiris, Chase6ank, Loui, Nutso Thuggn, Shabibz, Bizze-E BlazE, Chxpo, Lil gotit, 41LilJay, Luh Cheetoh, King Ice, and other musicians associated with Death Row Records.
THE EXPLOITATION OF WOMEN
The disparity faced by women in positions of power and blatant sexism soon became clear to Wildum as he attended PR events with Furman. “Simone would take me out to these events because her boss was invited to them, she was close with everybody in the industry,” he said. At a Def Jam event, a rapper came up to him instead of Fermin and their boss, Lauren. “I was like, ‘Wait, why is this guy talking to me?’ They’d always assumed she was with me,” he said. For attractive women in the industry, there’s always a layer of sexuality in everything which assumes women making music are expected to have sex with producers.
A 2018 survey conducted by USA TODAY revealed that 94% of women working in entertainment in Hollywood have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault. Whether it’s film or music, the power dynamic between artists and gatekeepers has allowed for abuse to run wild. Rap music sells a specific “lifestyle” represented by money, designer clothes, women, fast cars, sex, and drugs. This image is reinforced through music videos. In his single, “Way 2 Sexy” rapper Drake epitomizes this in his lyrics:
Oh, you like the boy? Well, tell me what you like about him
You a turnt up little thotty, ain’t no wife about it
I’ma f**k her friends and send her back to Metro housing
I get cash wherever I fly, got bitches sexing on me
Money, cars, and all this jewelry make a bitch look sexy
I get cash wherever I fly, got bitches sexing on me.
In the song, there is very little reference to love; the lyrics of the song and the video focus on Drake’s expensive possessions. The sexual relations described as a frequent theme in the song are affirmed on the conviction that the male can provide the female character with expensive material objects. This phenomenon is known as what French sociologist Jean Baudrillard coined as The Object Relation Theory. According to Baudrillard, we are now in a world of consumption, so subject relations are transformed into object relations.
To sell these tantalizing, seductive hip-hop music videos, directors have to continue selling the narrative of women acting as props or possessions of male artists. According to Wildum, certain music video directors may be talented but if the vibe on the set isn’t right, it sets everything off. The “vibe” that is implied refers to the protection of women on set. “The number one thing is making sure all the right people are around like one person can f**k it up so, at the end of the day, it’s all about making sure the right people are around and everything else will just fall into place,” Wildum said.
When it comes to working with female extras as a director, Wildum goes out of the way to ensure women always feel comfortable. When all the girls are comfortable and having a good time, the video comes out perfect. “If I do things that set me up to get good footage, then that’s what I’m gonna do and that comes into the energy of the set for sure,” Wildum said.
HOW THE MUSIC INDUSTRY OPERATES
In June 2021, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released the results of a study analyzing music executives, which concluded that out of 4,060 music executives, the top 86% were both male and white. In contrast, found that only 7.5% of those executives were Black when the biggest stars topping the charts are people of color.
Rappers have lost the ability to question the system, finding self-identity fame and bravado sold to them by the industry. An industry that promotes conspicuous consumption, drugs, binge drinking, violence, weapons, and the sexualization of women. “Rap can be used as a tool to back the institutional things that are in place,” Wildum said. The current business model of major labels involves offering contracts to Black artists who come from marginalized communities. This creates a power imbalance, taking control over every aspect of their careers. The artist-label relationship is a big deal when it comes to rap, these relationships mold artists’ identities.
Rolling Stone previously published an article touching on the systemic problems in the music industry. This came in light of the Black Lives Matter social justice movement exploding in 2020. Journalist Elias Wright revealed in the story that nearly all the people interviewed wished to remain anonymous out of fear of being reprimanded for speaking out on this issue, because addressing the mistreatment of Black artists would mean bringing transparency to a venomous, vindictive system that pits labels and artists against each other. 6
It’s hard to create fundamental change when the problem is also the source of rappers’ fame and financial security. Executives lure Black musicians into signing contracts through which they profit millions of dollars off these artists, while artists relinquish creative control over their music to sign a record deal. This gives the labels control over the message that is being conveyed in music, but also this is usually met with a one-time payment and then the right to pocket around 18 cents on the dollar for recordings made with the label, a fraction of what the labels are making.
Wildum says it’s always a huge conflict for artists, the battle of drawing the line of how much they need to make music for the money versus how much they need to do to be creative. Some people choose to only do it only to indulge their creativity and they’ll be poor their entire life. The artist has to figure out what they value more.
The music industry has always influenced youth culture. Similarly, the entertainment empires that dominate Hollywood have long dictated the narrative on a global scale; one that has been molded by label executives; whose executive boards are predominantly comprised of white men.
In 2020, Wildum grew increasingly conflicted about creating work that he felt contradicted his ethics.“I felt I was doing something that I don’t even believe in anymore. I felt very disconnected, working in the industry allows me to have the credibility I need to be able to speak against it,” Wildum said.
VIBRATIONAL TONES, MANIFESTATION, & MUSIC
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said: “Music is the universal language of mankind” — the ultimate equalizer. Neurological studies show the human brain responds to the sensation of music and is activated in the same way relating to experiences such as food, sex, or even illicit drug use.
Music can be related to the process of manifestation, which means to bring something into existence. The language of the Law of Attraction says, we manifest based upon our thoughts and belief systems. When trying to manifest something, you have a mantra that you tell yourself, “I am grateful for this… or, I am..” That’s your mantra. Like Muhammad Ali said to himself: “I am the greatest.” This is how you manifest things. What you say, what you believe, that is what becomes your reality. Distilled notions of music reinforce ingrained cultural ideologies. Performers and listeners have individualistic experiences, where the meaning and legitimacy are detached. Some musicians interpret messages in sound, and anonymous masses perceive that.
Wildum relates his beliefs to an atomic and molecular structure on a scientific level, that can be applied to Hollywood and the music industry. “They’re putting negative vibrations, they’re putting sedative tones and words [into music],” he says. “The highest vibrations in the universe are love, gratitude, and selflessness, those work on a molecular level, that make your reality around you change. So just the way it can be used for good It can also be used for bad.”
So although it may seem harmless to sing along to your favorite songs, you manifest the message that song pervades. For example, in 2019 millions of people were listening to the song “I Love It” by rapper Kanye “Ye” West and Lil Pump. Millions of people singing the lyrics (“I’m such a f**kin’ hoe, I love It,”) instead of people manifesting a positive thing, were unconsciously manifesting the negative message in the song.
Beautiful writing, art, songs, often come from places of despair and grief. Being able to portray the darker elements, especially in hip-hop, means talking about gun violence, killing people, and drugs because that’s expressing things artists might have experienced culturally. For Wildum, the real issue isn’t with the dark side of the art, but rather, with the ostentatious manner it can be displayed in. The fault lies in the culture of how it’s portrayed.