Celebrating Black History Month with Swiss Renaissance Man William Bejedi
The Embassy recently sat down with William Bejedi, a Swiss-Cameroonian musician, film director, and video producer, to talk about his upbringing, what led to his multi-faceted career, and his place in the Swiss cultural scene.
Swiss Embassy: You were born in Bern, Switzerland, to a Swiss mom and a Cameroonian dad. Many can relate to belonging to two cultures and finding their own space in both worlds. When do you feel closest to each home country? How has this enriched your life and what might be challenging about it?
William Bejedi: Being at home in different cultures can only be an enrichment if you know these cultures. The examination of my roots was and is central in the development of my personality. Growing up in a society where the majority of people don’t look like you can be difficult, especially in your younger years. Fortunately, my parents prepared me for certain difficult situations. I grew up in Valais, a rural area. We were the only dark-skinned family in my town for a long time. So, willy-nilly, you stand out. Police controls and everyday racism were part of it.
In addition to a good education from my parents, they also passed on a passion for music and dance, which has always been my support and my protective zone. There, I was embraced just the way I am.
Exploring my Cameroonian roots and the history of the African continent in general, helped me strengthen my identity and understand the contexts that lead some people to assume that dark-skinned people are inferior. The history and representations of Africa in our latitudes are often distorted, false, and derogatory. Some would be amazed to learn the inventions and achievements that came from the African continent. Ignorance tempts us to judge other people disrespectfully. It is society’s task to change this by properly informing and approaching other people openly.
As a teenager, I often felt as if I was sitting on two chairs that diverged from each other. I tried to hold these chairs together with all my strength so that I would not fall on the floor. Today, I have realized that it is easier to build a bench on which not only I, but also other people can sit. This is a metaphor that helps me to approach other people with more consideration, empathy, and respect.
I am a product of my ancestors and their cultures. Of course, I obviously notice this in rather clichéd situations. I like punctuality, which is a trait attributed to the Swiss. I am very expressive, which some would attribute to my African roots. But in the end I think that these are clichés that say very little about a person. There are punctual Africans and expressive Swiss. Generalizations carry the danger of overlooking the real essence of a person. We are conditioned to think in labels. But this often prevents us from approaching our fellow human beings and curiously asking about their backgrounds and opinions. Becoming a father and watching my children grow has allowed me to relive this innocent curiosity. I learn a lot from my daughters and try to incorporate that into everyday life. However, this is not always easy for me.
I grew up in two cultures and am Swiss on paper. But this says very little about who I really am. Through the many travels I have experienced thanks to my work, I came to the conclusion that nations, cultures, and religions are secondary. In first place comes the human being and the moments we share together. What connects us is more important than what makes us different.
Swiss Embassy: You are considered a renaissance man, a man with many talents. You are a musician, a film director and a video producer. Could you give us an inside view into your artistic work, starting with your work as musician with being the front man of Klischée?
William Bejedi: I grew up with music. My father’s hobby was DJing and from a very young age he always took us to his events. Besides having good taste in music, he was also an excellent entertainer. He knew how to get people to come out of their shells, let loose, and have fun. That had a big impact on me. There was always music playing in our home, whether it was African music or more African-American music. When I was 10 years old, my older brother came home with a cassette tape of the French rap combo “IAM.” That’s when I fell in love with hip-hop. Until I was 16, there was nothing else. I danced and rapped every free minute I had.
Fast forward to 2009, I was approached to collaborate on a song with producer Dominique Dreier, with whom I had previously worked on a hip-hop project. Dominique worked together with producer Kilian Spinnler on electro-swing. The genre was new to me, although I often listened to jazz, big band sounds, or swing music of the 1920s mixed together with modern music by artists like Guru (Jazzmatazz) or Rubin Steiner (Lo-fi Nu Jazz, Vol.2). The collaboration went very well and a single resulted from it.
A year later they invited me to come and perform the song live with them. Their DJ set was complemented by video jockey Benjamin Kniel to give the audience an audiovisual experience. I performed the song live and was so grabbed by the energy of the audience and the guys on stage, that I didn’t let go of the microphone and remained on stage as an entertainer and impromptu host for the rest of the show.
That was the genesis of the band Klischée: Dominique Dreier, Kilian Spinnler, Benjamin Kniel, William Bejedi.
Until today we have kept the mix as an audio-visual collective and have been able to travel the world with our music and shows. As a band, we have an unconventional approach: As the front man, I am not always the one who comes up with song ideas or lyrics. The origin of a song can be a picture, a sound, a life situation, or a sample. We often collaborate with other artists and musicians. We invite them to our studio sessions. Everything works very patchwork-like and is worked out together or alone.
The aspiration of our music is that we can share it live with the audience and, using light, visuals, performance, and a lot of interaction, turn it into something boundless and magical. The people who come to our concerts leave them with a smile on their face and aching muscles in their legs. That’s the effect we want to create everywhere. It’s about sharing something unforgettable together and forgetting for a short moment the worries of everyday life. The parallels of what our music represents with the “Roaring Twenties” are obvious and intentional.
My tasks with Klischée have expanded and developed over the years along with the development of the band itself. In the beginning, I rapped and mainly acted as host or MC during a DJ set. Today we have a complex performance with live music, lots of singing, dance choreographies, and clear arrangements.
Swiss Embassy: Next up, you are a film director. What is cubique and what does your catalogue include?
William Bejedi: I came to this role unexpectedly through the project cubique. I share the role of film director with my girlfriend Brigitte Fässler, who has much more experience in this field than I do. In our joint video productions we try to enhance each other’s skills. She is strong in creating aesthetic and emotional moments. I, on the other hand, am a storyteller. Together we try to leave a lasting impact on the audience in our productions. We want the audience to engage with the issues we address.
The productions we have created with cubique over the last two years always deal with socially relevant topics. They are 3–9 minute dance films, in which dancers perform in a four cubic meter cube made of metal rods and the narrative happens through dance. We stage this with the help of landscapes and the interplay of camera movements and light. So far we have produced eight videos that have been nominated, awarded, and broadcast at various festivals and competitions worldwide. (Black Lives Rising Virtual Dance Film Festival USA, Dare to Dance in Public Festival USA, Aesthetica Short Film Festival UK, Nepal Human Rights International Film Festival, and Scandinavian International Film Festival, just to name a few.)
Swiss Embassy: And then, you are also cubique’s video producer. Where has this work led you so far and where are you going in that role this year?
William Bejedi: The role as producer for cubique fell into my lap, because we do all the organization, execution, and release of our films by ourselves. I am a good communicator and very organized. Since communication and organization are the most important aspects of a video producer, this role was naturally handed over to me. Today I am lucky enough to be able to share this task with other people in our team. After that, it’s also important for me to be able to get the most out of a production by thinking of a release strategy that will ensure wide exposure through various media channels. I am quite new in this role and still have a lot to learn. But it’s the contact with people from different sectors that I really enjoy and that makes me want to do more of this work.
As a producer, the primary task is to secure the financing of a project. Currently, I am facing the challenges the Covid-19 pandemic has brought to the entertainment industry. Money is tight everywhere and nobody invests without guarantees. But I also see this challenge as an opportunity. Many previous processes are outdated and need to be modernized. Technological achievements such as blockchain technology are opening up new worlds that are still very much unexplored. This encourages me and gives me the strength to remain flexible and eager.
Swiss Embassy: Cubique dives into social relevant topics such as racial profiling, fatherhood, domestic violence, or our relationship with nature through video, music and dance. It sounds very timely and interesting. Tell us more.
William Bejedi: Three years ago, cubique grew out of the idea of capturing the performance of dance duo Dakota & Nadia about domestic violence in a short film. Before we even started with the film production, the dance duo was able to show the performance at different competitions. The performance was a great success. They won many awards, went viral, and touched more than 50 million people worldwide.
This showed us that dance is a universal language that touches people emotionally all over the world and can communicate difficult topics in an empirical way. From this point on we focused on finding dancers who have the ability to tell stories about current problems and events through dance.
It is important to us to highlight the incredible quality of dancers we have in Switzerland. Eighty percent of the dancers featured in the first season of cubique are either from Switzerland or live there and are part of the Swiss dance world. It is also important to us to represent the diversity of dance styles.
In the eight dance videos we have produced in the last two years, we also address heavy topics like domestic violence, racial profiling, and white privilege. Our goal is to get people to reflect on what they see, talk about the issues, and take action. We have been able to use and make the videos more available for workshops, conventions, or classrooms. They help to bring people to the same emotional level, so that afterward everybody knows what they are talking about. We can use our own experiences and emotions as a template to approach the viewers with our content as genuinely and touchingly as possible. When working on the video for racial profiling, I was confronted with repressed memories. The project was a kind of therapy that helped me heal from hurt, fears, and insecurities.
The interplay of video, dance, and music is the quintessence of my last 15 years of work as part of the Swiss cultural scene. I can draw fully on my know-how, but also on my network, and I am constantly developing. Besides this personal development, it is nice to see that cubique offers a platform to artists from different fields to present themselves and to develop personally.
On the whole, and even if it is only a small contribution, cubique draws attention to the problems and grievances of our society. We do not offer solutions, but open the window on a topic that many people do not know or do not (want to) perceive.
For more information about William and his projects check out his social media accounts:
Other Black History content you may enjoy: