IN Conversation with Diallo Javonne French

Photo by Steven Green

You can hear his smile over the phone. Photographer and filmmaker Diallo Javonne French, 48, captures musicians lost in the pleasure of performing, and when you talk to him, it is clear he’s drawn to joy. Positivity flows from him like a spring. So when the conversation turns to this summer’s painful clashes over racism, his clear-eyed observations, often tempered with gentle laughter, shock like a cold splash of water.

He would rather talk about art. French’s intimate black-and-white portraits have been exhibited at the Box Gallery, and one of his short films, Let This Be Love, which was shot in Kansas City, aired on national television. He co-founded the African American Artists Collective, which helps connect painters, textile artists, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, actors, and writers to projects and funding.

Four years ago, French produced Kansas City Dreamin’, a 45-minute film about the roots of Kansas City’s music scene. Now he’s dreaming bigger, raising funds to expand that film into a full-length documentary for a national audience about Kansas City’s essential role in the evolution of American music from jazz to soul to hip-hop. (You can help fund the project at gofundme.com/f/kansas-city-dreamin039).

You avoid political commentary on your Facebook page. But on June 2nd, you posted “#blacklivesmatter” and made your profile pic a photo of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X shaking hands. Why?
I wanted to show their different sides of being an activist. Obviously, Martin Luther King was very non-violent, and he believed in praying for our oppressors and so forth. Malcolm X was actually non-violent as well, but his attitude was more: If you bring violence to me, I’m going to bring violence back at you. I’m kind of in the middle on that. I definitely believe in non-violence and peaceful protesting, but if you smack me in the face, I’m probably going to smack you back.

Have you been to the Black Lives Matter protests in Kansas City?
I’m almost 50, and I feel like this is a thing of the younger generation, and that’s good. It’s also very encouraging to me that it’s not just African Americans out there protesting. Since I live near the Plaza, my dad called to ask if I was OK, if I was protesting, and I asked him, jokingly, “Are you going to go protest?” He said, “No, I’m 70, I’ll let the younger people handle that. I did that already in the ’60s.” But (a few days later) when Trump started talking about “law and order” on TV, my dad called me up and said, “That made me so mad, I almost put on my dashiki and went out there to start protesting.” [Laughs]

When you were growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, did your parents warn you about the police?
When I was a teenager, about to start driving, my mother sat me down and said, “When the cops pull you over, this is what you do: You keep your hands on the steering wheel, you’re always polite, don’t be a smart ass.” What changed is, there are video cameras now. But it’s been going on forever and ever and ever.

I dated a young lady who lived in Overland Park, way out by 170-something street. She was black like me and her dad was a surgeon. They had the biggest house in the neighborhood. She had a bunch of brothers, and she told me how when her brothers were in high school, they were constantly getting pulled over and asked by cops, “What are you doing in this neighborhood?”

And for me, in my lifetime, I don’t know the exact stats, but I would say I’ve been pulled over maybe a dozen times and at least ten of those times I was in Johnson County. I rarely get pulled over when I’m in the city.

When was the last time you were pulled over?
It was either two or three summers ago. I got a ticket for an “unsafe lane change.” [Laughs] I didn’t even know that that was a ticket you could get. I have to tell this story—I have to tell this story.

Tell the story.
So, he pulls me over. I’m on Shawnee Mission Parkway. I’m thinking, “OK, I wasn’t speeding, my tags are up to date. What is it this time?” He comes up and says, “You made an unsafe lane change.” Then, the first thing he asks me is if I have any weapons in the vehicle. And I said no. And he asks me if my license is suspended. And I’m thinking, “Wouldn’t he look that up?” He gives me the ticket, and I thought, “You know what? I’m fighting this.”

So I went to the first court date, where you either pay the ticket or plead not guilty. And this is in Mission, Kansas, so when I go to the courthouse, I swear to God everyone that’s in there for a ticket is black. Every single person. And I’m thinking to myself, I’m familiar with the landscape of the city, and I know there’s not a ton of black people that live in Mission, Kansas, and you want to tell me that black people are committing all the traffic violations here?

When the judge asked me, “How do you plead?” I said, “Not guilty.” Then the judge basically tried to talk me out of pleading not guilty. He said, “I must warn you, all our cars are equipped with video cameras,” blah blah blah. I said, “That’s fine, let’s do it.”

So I come back on my court date, and once again, all the defendants except one white guy, were black. When it’s my turn they show the video, and I’m watching it, shaking my head, thinking, “I don’t know why I’m here.” The prosecuting attorneys were these two younger ladies, looked like they were fresh out of law school. They said, “We have nothing, Your Honor.” They didn’t even try to prosecute the case.

Because I was representing myself, I got to cross-examine the cop. I said, “Is it mandatory that the first question you ask is, ‘Do you have weapons in your vehicle?’” He said, “Yes. We do it for our safety. We ask everyone that.”

I have never been asked that, and I’ve been pulled over in Mission.

[Laughs] It’s bogus. I asked [white] friends I work with that live in the area, and they said they’ve never been asked that when they were pulled over. But when the cop said that in court, the judge backed him up and said to me, “You’re within your rights to ask that question, and the officers are supposed to ask that whether you’re black, white, or green.” He actually said that, the judge. Then he pulls out a driver’s manual and starts telling me how many feet are supposed to be between the cars when you make a lane change and how many seconds your turn signal is supposed to be on.

Now, I’ve got my arms folded across my chest and I’m just staring at him while he’s reading this stuff. Then he asks the cop, “What was Mr. French’s demeanor when you pulled him over?” The cop goes, “He was cordial.” Then the judge says, “OK, Mr. French, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to dismiss this ticket. Just don’t get any similar kind of ticket in the next few months.” [Laughs] And I’m thinking, “What’s my demeanor got to do with it? If I was a jerk, would you make me pay the ticket?”

This is my opinion of what happened, and I’ll probably take it to my grave: He was a young white cop. He saw a car with a Missouri tag, and he saw what he thought was a young black man—I look fairly young for my age—and he needs a reason to pull me over. The best thing he could come up with was “unsafe lane change.” To me, it’s pretty clear cut. When cops in Mission, Kansas, see Missouri tags or Wyandotte County tags and a young black face, they’re profiling people. My regret is that I didn’t say that in the courtroom.

Do you remember as a child when you became aware that your skin color meant that you were not part of the group that is in charge?
As a black person, you always know that. You’re aware of that at a very early age. You’re aware of it almost instantly.

I grew up in Wyandotte County, in Kansas City, Kansas. The elementary school I went to was pretty diverse, I had white friends, Mexican friends, black friends, and everybody gets along.

Because racism isn’t natural, it’s learned.
Exactly. And then as you move along through middle school you start hanging out with your black friends more than your white friends, and by the time you get to high school, depending on the school, everything is totally segregated.

As a kid, did you experience hatred based on skin color?
It happened to me a couple of times when I would be walking home from Coronado Middle School by myself, down Parallel [Parkway]. I was about 12 years old, and a car full of what looked like white, male teenagers would drive by and they would yell out the car, “N*gger!” and “Spook!” I remember thinking how cowardly it was that I’m on foot and they’re in a car and yelling that stuff as they drive by.

Over the course of your life, has your conception of how you as a black man should move around in this racially biased society changed?
Yes. I was blessed to be able to go to college in Atlanta in the mid-’90s. I only lived there for three years, but it changed my life drastically. The two cities in America where African Americans do the best economically are Atlanta and Washington, DC. There are more black millionaires in Atlanta than in any other city. Living there was very inspiring.

I majored in communications, radio, TV and film. My goal was to direct music videos. I never directed a video for a major artist, but I got to work in and learn the industry. A big producer, Kim Moye, hired me as an intern and then started paying me to make music videos with groups like TLC and OutKast and Goodie Mob.

Musicians Bobby Watson, Gerald Dunn, Matt Hopper. Photograph by Diallo Javonne French.

At the time, my mother was ill, and I’m her only child, so I came back here to help with her. She had scleroderma and died at age 54. That was in the late ’90s, around the time of Kansas City’s kind of re-birth, when they rebuilt the Jazz District and the Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

I got a job as the events coordinator at the Jazz Museum, which is how I got into jazz photography. I was around all these guys and as a hobby I started photographing them, and then musicians started using the pictures I took. Bobby Watson told me, “You’re documenting our current music scene,” and I started to take it more seriously. Then I did a short film, May This Be Love, that aired on BET.

How did your time in Atlanta change how you experience Kansas City?
There’s a sort of cultural belief in Kansas City, not among black people, but among white people, that the city is not that racist because we don’t have as many incidents as you hear about in other places. But that’s not the case. I think Kansas City is more racist than many places.

How so?
It’s not like in the South where it’s in your face. It’s really subtle.

Because the city is so segregated.
Exactly. It’s terrible. There are probably [white] people that have lived here most of their life that have never or only very rarely been east of Troost.

I believe that every job you have teaches you something. From 2012-2015, I was a full-time limousine driver for Overland Limousine Service. It’s a pretty good company, family owned and one of the biggest in the city. They deal in corporate accounts. They drive the Royals, the Chiefs, and Hallmark and Cerner and so forth. They drive the majority of the celebrities when they’re in town. I got to drive Paul McCartney and other celebrities around. But 85 percent of the time, you’re just picking up people from the airport and taking them to their house. Most of the clients we had lived in Johnson County. And it’s interesting to see how they think.

I remember one guy straight up said he was moving here from another city, and his coworkers at the office told him he should look for a place to live in Mission Hills, Prairie Village, and Leawood, in that order. He asked me my opinion, and I said, “Those are nice areas but there’s not much diversity.” Then he said a co-worker told him that they have a saying here that “If you’re on Prospect, you’re a suspect.” He said this to me!

I was like, “I wouldn’t necessarily say that. My grandmother lives a few blocks from Prospect, and I survived. I’m pretty sure you could drive down Prospect right now and you wouldn’t die.” [Laughs] But this is the mindset, you know, of the people I was driving around every day. And they weren’t necessarily bad people, but they’re in their own little bubble.

What makes you not move immediately back to Atlanta?
It’s funny that you ask me that, because my dad asks me that at least weekly. [Laughs] So here’s the thing: Every black person can’t live in Atlanta.

A lot of people that are from Kansas City or St. Louis or Cleveland who think outside the box and have a broader mind end up leaving and moving to Atlanta or New York or LA or Chicago, and our cities get left behind. My attitude is, how can I make Kansas City better by staying here?

Atlanta doesn’t need me. I want to make a documentary film on a national scale to show that Kansas City isn’t just flyover country. People on the coasts think we all live on farms and have cattle and that it’s like Mayberry. When I lived in Atlanta, I’d tell people I’m from Kansas City, and they’d say, “There are black people in Kansas City?”

That’s the mentality other people have about our city. But without Kansas City, jazz would not have evolved. Kansas City is important to the evolution of rock and roll through Big Joe Turner, people don’t know that. We’re an important piece of this American pie.

Do you have a dream for Kansas City?
Yeah. We’ll never be like Atlanta, because we don’t have the number of African Americans here, and also Atlanta at one point had four historically black colleges—one closed, so they still have three.

I always think of Kansas City, in my mind, as being like this tiny version of Chicago that the rest of the country doesn’t seem to know about. I think that the powers-that-be want to keep it that way.

What do you mean?
We all know that this city is run by a handful of wealthy families. I think it’s very intentional that the image of the city is cows and farms and wheat. Once when I was driving one of “the ladies,” I won’t say her name, to her huge home in Mission Hills, I was talking about how people don’t know what a jewel we have here in Kansas City and she said, “Good, stay away. We don’t want them to come here.”

That’s the mentality—if Kansas City becomes like an Atlanta, they won’t really have the power over this city that they’ve had for a hundred years or so.

You are friends with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Kevin Willmott of Lawrence, whose work is highly political, but your films are not political. What is your thematic interest?
This is going to sound really sappy, but my films are love stories at their core. Not just romantic love but love of being an artist and of music. I have a lot of respect for guys like Kevin and Spike Lee, because they make more socially conscious films, and we need those types of films.

[Pause] I don’t know where this love thing came from for me, but everything that I do centers around that. And I’m a person that’s never been married, doesn’t have any kids. So, I don’t know, maybe I’m not jaded on love like the average person is. Maybe that’s my contribution.

Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.