‘Digging for Weldon Irvine’ is a gem of a documentary in the 22nd annual San Francisco Black Film Fest

Victorious DeCosta – Photo: Hyo Parks

by JR Valrey, Black New World Journalists Society

As the longtime publicist for the San Francisco Black Film Festival, I have to go on record and say that “Digging for Weldon Irvine” is one of the most informative and well crafted documentaries that has been selected to screen in the 22nd San Francisco Black Film Festival, which is totally virtual this year. And that is out of over 200 films, which is twice the amount of films that would have been selected to screen had the COVID-19 pandemic quarantine not put hosting film festivals in theaters in peril. 

“Digging for Weldon Irvine” breathes life into the lost legacy of the forgotten master musician who co-wrote “Young, Gifted and Black” with the civil rights musical icon Nina Simone, taught Roy Ayers and many others about getting paid from sampling, and was a music mentor to some of Hip Hop’s elite, including Q-Tip and Yasiin Bey. 

“Digging for Weldon Irvine” is a beautifully shot documentary that illustrates how mental illness can look when worn by one of the most profound soundscape artists of a generation. In a life that ended in a similar fashion to that of the irreplaceable legendary crooner Donny Hathaway, it is one that should be celebrated, and I salute filmmaker Victorious DeCosta and his crew for digging up the memories of an icon whose history could have remained buried, especially for those of us who live outside of Weldon Irvine’s stomping ground of Queens, New York. Here is filmmaker Victorious DeCosta in his own words, discussing his groundbreaking documentary.

M.O.I. JR: What made you do a documentary on Weldon Irvine?

Victorious DeCosta: It wasn’t really my idea. My guy G-Clef Cavaseno was a good friend and mentee of Weldon. Weldon called him his Last Disciple. He brought the idea to me because I had some regional success with short films, and he had just seen the Jaco Pastorious documentary, I think. He had the idea I had the confidence and I had the talent. I took it, because I thought it would be easy. There wasn’t much at all about Weldon online, and so I thought all I saw – is all there was.

M.O.I. JR: What did Nina Simone’s song, which Weldon Irvine co-wrote, “Young, Gifted and Black” mean to the psyche and political and cultural progress of Black people? Why did it resonate like it did?

Victorious DeCosta: I will first have to say that I didn’t grow up with that song. I don’t know why. In my house, it was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I say all that because I had to find that out myself when I did the research and the interviews. 

Being Black wasn’t just a rough and tumble Black power thing. It made it, as the lyrics go, a lovely precious thing, a lovely precious feeling; something to be adored and protected.

The first thing is that there was a certain freedom attached to using the word Black. James Brown kicked the door open with “I’m Black and I’m Proud” about a year earlier. That’s when you could say it aloud – and saying it loud was an act of revolution. But with the Nina version, which was linked directly to the Lorraine Hansberry play of the same name, it gave you that energy where you could say it a bit softer; which has its own power because it was feminine and self-reflective. 

It told you that you were gifted – in a time where they told us that we were stupid. And let me not forget the young part – it was an anthem for the leaders of tomorrow. Being Black wasn’t just a rough and tumble Black power thing. It made it, as the lyrics go, a lovely precious thing, a lovely precious feeling; something to be adored and protected. “Yuse a dumb nigga!” “Oh yeah, well, this song here says that I am not!”

M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about what Weldon meant to the music-making community, where he schooled older musicians on sampling, publishing and the like?

Weldon Irvine

Victorious DeCosta: Weldon was the godfather of Jamaica, Queens, music. Jamaica, Queens, is to funk – and I want to be respectful here – what Detroit is to rhythm & blues. It was something in the water. 

The greatest artists of Black American music – from Lenny White, who played on Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” before cofounding “Return to Forever” and later “Twennynine,” Billy Cobham, who cofounded Mahavishnu orchestra, Bernard Wright of The Jazz Samaritans, the great Marcus Miller, who is known also for work not just with Miles, but also Luther Vandross, Donald Blackman, Tom Browne, Camille Gainer, Terry Burrus, Poogie Bell, The Grate Brothers, the Flythe Brothers – all were under the early tutelage of Weldon Irvine in one way or another. 

And they were all great musicians when he met them; let’s be clear about that. He was like Professor X. I didn’t mention that Larry Smith, who we know from Run DMC, was in Jamaica too with a group called the Thunderbolts. But in the new era Weldon schooled Yasiin Bey, Talib Kweli, Common, Q-Tip, Casey Benjamin and all that. 

And most of the people I named, he taught them about publishing. I have Weldon copyright forms from 1961. He was in high school doing this, because Horace Brown taught him how. He told Roy Ayers about sampling, and also T.S. Monk. A lot of the people I mention consider themselves to be alumni of the Weldon Irvine School. 

M.O.I. JR: What made you deal with depression and mental health in this documentary, when you could have very easily swept over it?

Victorious DeCosta: Because Lamarr, Kiko, Master, Born and Jerome were my friends that died by suicide since I was 19. And that doesn’t count the people who died by suicide-by-proxy in the streets because depression got the best of them. 

I was never a fan of so-called jazz music and I never knew about Weldon. So it wasn’t the music that attracted me. It was because this brother was so respected, yet so hidden and in so much pain. So maybe others could have swept over it, but not me. I was compelled by it. I actually give a damn. Mental wellness is important to me. Some of my heroes could have used some help in that department.

M.O.I. JR: How long did it take from conception to post production to complete “Digging for Weldon Irvine”? And what took the longest? Why?

Victorious DeCosta: It took about four years. Starting from 2015. One reason is that it was difficult to gain everyone’s trust and willingness to open up this wound. Another reason is that he was not a famous artist that I could just google info on. Another reason is that my mother was diagnosed with a nasty disease in February of 2017 and I was one of two caregivers. 

I edited the film myself, and I did most of the editing from her hospital room, overnight as she slept, from the visiting room couch. I shot a lot of things at her house, and coordinated shoots near her hospital when I could. All that, and I ain’t have almost no money. I was only able to raise a bit over $25,000 online. It is a lot, and I thank everyone, but as far as making movies? It is peanuts. That takes time.

What is keeping us from releasing it in the marketplace is that we can’t afford the licensing and are looking for someone to pick it up. April was going to be a powerful month for us – but you see how that went. Oh, and to wrap that story, she died in 2018 – and I had to keep pushing on, slowly, but pushing.

M.O.I. JR: My condolences, my brotha. What do you hope people get out of this film?

Victorious DeCosta: Treat yourself better. Treat your friends better. And check on that strong friend. Pay people what they deserve. 

M.O.I. What is the biggest thing that shooting “Digging for Weldon Irvine” has taught you?

Victorious DeCosta: I don’t know. I’m still in a fog.

M.O.I. JR: How could people keep up with you?

Victorious DeCosta: Weldon Irvine on Facebook. WeldonIrvineFilm on Instagram WeldonIrvineDoc on Twitter. 

That is the film – me? Victorious DeCosta on all platforms. 

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of the Black New World Journalists Society, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.youtube.com/blockreporttv. The 2020 San Francisco Black Film Festival starts June 18; learn more at SFBFF.org.