Vikram Gandhi | In episode 72 of Light Culture Podcast, Paper Magazine founder David Hershkovits talks with director of new Tekashi 6ix9ine documentary on Hulu
6ix9ine is a phenomena well worth understanding. Gandhi, the director of the new documentary, “69: The Saga of Danny Fernandez,” tells us what he’s learned about the rise and fall of the controversial Bushwick rapper who rode social media and criminal behavior to fame and fortune, only to lose his friends, family and wind up in prison. The film’s director talks about Bushwick, pop, politics and the attention economy; the dangers and seduction of fame; and how his years at Vice News prepared him for his career.
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First off, congratulations, Vikram. I watched your new film, 6ix9ine, the saga of Danny Hernandez. Fascinating, even for a non-fan, like myself. I’d heard of him but he seems like a perfect example of all that’s wrong with our society today. Would you agree with that statement?
I don’t know if he’s an example of everything that’s wrong with society, but I think he’s an example of somebody who became addicted to fame. And I think he’s a cautionary tale of what happens in the age of social media, when people get addicted to getting clout, attention from the Internet, as a course to fame and fortune. I do think it’s something that only have happened during the time we live in, yes.
So- But you don’t want to blame all of society’s- I mean, obviously this- something happened here with him, and we’ll get into all of the elements of social media and how that could absorb someone, and sort of take over someone’s life in the way that seems to have, uh, happened. You’re an established Hollywood director. You- did Kumare which is a mock documentary, you played the figure of a guru in a movie about fake gurus-
And Barry. About, Barry Obama. AKA Barack Obama.
The Grass is Greener with Fab 5 Freddy, which was actually the first episode of this podcast. With Freddy as my guest then. So I feel like we’re part of a family.
Yeah. I remember being in contact with you back then.
What made you detour into this story?
I’ve had experience being an on-camera correspondent for Vice for over five years, and travel the world to pretty much every continent to report on different stories. And, this topic piqued my interest and, I thought about, pursuing this story, and I followed this story, and then at a certain point, I just decided I should just go out and try to tell it. That’s really what happened. I don’t think I really fully grasped what the depths of this story would be. I knew, just on instinct, that 6ix9ine or Danny Hernandez had a profound, interesting story that a lot of people wanted to pay attention to. And it’s just on the surface and seemed like it had everything. It had a charismatic figure, a person who’s a contradiction, it dealt with race, it dealt with gang violence. It also dealt with social media. And the conflict between our digital personas and who we are. It’s something that touches on a culture phenomena that’s happening to all of us in the world, especially young people. When their identities are slowly getting divided between who they are inside and how society views them.
But you had a personal connection, as well, right? Because this happened in your neighborhood.
Yeah. You know, I had been to the bodega that Danny worked at. I’ve- been on his block, I know the neighborhood really well. And I understood, to some degree, how interesting Bushwick is right now, as this nexus between old New York and new New York. As gentrification comes in, you see all of these different influences from around the world happening, in a neighborhood that twenty years ago was full of some gangs and violence. And at that confluence, you find a person, like Danny, who’s a sponge, who is able to use the new and the old, the outside and inside influences and create something that captured people’s imaginations, a lot of young people’s imaginations. I could see how so much of what he was doing in his work was drawing from this place in Brooklyn that could create the environment for someone like him to prosper.
So at what point did you jump into the story? What was happening in his life when you started working on this?
Well my process is to start finding out about the story, and looking into it and asking questions. So my first time thinking about this story was before he went to prison. I had heard of him about, probably, six months after his- his ascendance to fame, when the violence started happening. Before he was arrested, I reached to his manager, Shotti, which I remark in the movie about, with the interest of looking into it. I was also just really interested in understanding the whole phenomena of Sound Cloud rap, as somebody who had grown up in ’90s hip hop. I was a little bit shocked to see what the new face of rap music had become, and how it was so different than where it had started. And that also was a huge draw for me. There were times where I was looking into seeing if some of the other people who were part of this same phenomenon would be part of this film as well. When I really started going hard was after Danny was arrested, and we didn’t know if he was gonna get out of prison while we were filming it, or if he was gonna be sentenced. Everything was up in the air. That’s when I really started going.
Did- did you ever meet him?
I haven’t met Danny. No, the majority of the time I was making this film, he was in prison.
You broke – the movie up into chapters, reflecting different stages of his life. You started out you rolled up in your car, and you wanted to interview someone and immediately you got some beef from people who wanted to protect him.
I think that one way to look at this story and, um, my experience of talking to people around him, is that he’s a trigger. The story of Tekashi 6ix9ine and the lives of people that he was friends with, who were in his career, uh, who he partnered with, ex-friends, it’s a triggering conversation. That’s the best way that I could describe it. I think that most people who I’ve spoken to have mixed emotions, are nervous about speaking, excited to speak but at the same time reluctant because they didn’t necessarily have the greatest experience with him. Or the ending of that experience was negative. Also, you’re talking about somebody who is in jail, and had yet to be sentenced. And that uncertainty made people uncertain, made some people reluctant to speak. And those, who are his friends and maintain relationships with him, were not interested in helping a documentary. So that’s my understanding. So I think those two reasons. But especially during the time while he was in- in jail awaiting sentencing. People were reluctant to be speaking about him in case it may have some effect on his trial or what not.
Tell us why he was arrested finally and what happened. Or maybe even better, if you could just sort of summarize your story in the way that you tell it, starting out, like just a local kid obviously charismatic people like to be around him. The story, in my view, goes, his behavior goes downhill, one after the other, but his fame keeps on growing at the same time.
Well I think what we look at is, how did somebody go from obscurity to becoming one of the most famous people in the world, in just a short period of time. I mean, about a year is how long his career lasted. From the first time he was really discovered by the masses. And I think it shows so many different things, both about his personality, but also about society. One is you could look at the film as almost a blueprint for how to become famous in the digital age. Using shock and awe, using analytics, understanding the Internet and social media. This kid was able to engineer his own fame from his phone and a laptop, but probably mostly his phone. And that is a remarkable thing. It’s something that is new, and it’s something that is absolutely a credit to him. I think that there are a lot of people who helped him, or you could say that he- he used along the way to gain fame. But, it is coming from a drive within a person. And so this story is about, you know, somebody with talent and a level of genius, in a way, uh, using that to carve his own niche in the world, and find- and create- himself as an international artist. But also that drive to become famous and how it can make people lose themselves. And I think the story is a very classic narrative in art, of an artist obsessed with fame and fortune and gets lost in that obsession. I mean, this story has happened before. It almost has a mythological stance, you know. Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil. This is its own unique, bizarre story that’s about an artist selling his soul. It has a lot to do with New York, New York culture, Brooklyn right now, gang culture, social media. So that’s how I would describe this story. Rise to fame and fall from grace.
Were you a fan in the beginning at all?
I wouldn’t say I was a fan of his music. Like a lot of pop music, and popular music, can grow on you over time. But what I was intrigued by was his personality and his persona, of the persona that he had created. I, in my first film, experimented with creating my own persona, of a different character from myself. And you even hear Tekashi speak in some interviews about his desire to create his own world, that he wanted to become a villain so he created this universe around him. This is so related to the American dream and what we’re all taught to do, is like carve our own world. And so this happening for this kid at this time, um, his presentation and his audacity and confidence in himself, that was intriguing to me. I have to say, I think I credited him with possibly doing some sort of Andy Kaufmanesque prank. You know, that he was pulling one over on everyone. The way that he flaunted his gang, um, affiliation, the way that he spoke of violent acts that he posted on the Internet. Things that were so appalling that someone would do that they could not possibly be real. And it really tested our ability to understand the difference between reality and fiction as we live in an age where those lines have been blurred. I was a fan of what he was capable of. I wasn’t a fan like I was a fan of ’90s hip hop, where I was listening to the music. But I’m not sure if that’s what his big picture was. I think that he was creating a persona, and that was part of his artform. I went into it with a mixed opinion of him. I never really drew a full conclusion. And so I wouldn’t say I was a fan, but I was definitely someone deeply interested in this story.
Because of your journalism background, you were looking at this as a trainwreck or a social phenomena. As it did come out of the hip hop generation, it connects culturally as well. Is that part of it? Was more like an outsider looking in as a journalist.
I would say yes, I’m an outsider. I think almost everybody’s an outsider of this. But as somebody who has lived in New York most of my life, um, who has followed hip hop, watched Brooklyn gentrify. Spent a long time trying to get as deep into stories that I cover as possible. I just approached this like any other journey in filmmaking. Is to just go deep, meet people, listen to them, hear their story, try to see the world from their perspective, and just deliver the story in a straight way so that people can make their own judgments about it.
And a part of that is, this whole social media world, and I can’t help thinking of Donald Trump, and the way he used social media, and the way he is able to manipulate people, and understand how the media works, generating attention. I was looking at his Instagram, where somebody made some kind of crack about him, and then his response was, “Look how many followers you have.” You know like, “My ratings are high, so therefore I’m better than you.”
Do you feel he’s influenced others to follow his direction of fame and fortune?
Well I think that with Trump and Tekashi 6ix9ine there is a striking similarity in the way they are able to frustrate people, gain attention, and become masters of an attention economy. Right now, we live in a world where the corporations that really are running the world are fighting for our attention. That is the real estate that they’re fighting for. And both 6ix9ine and Trump are masters of gaining that attention of manipulating the media, of using outrage in order to fuel their careers and gain clout through that. And it’s made someone president, and it’s also made, um, somebody a celebrity in the process. So I do think, um, that it is an addiction, but it also is an economic force in a way in our culture. And it’s something that is, across the board, we are gonna have to deal with and grapple with for probably the rest of our lives of how that’s gonna affect our sense of self, and humanity. And I think that this is a cautionary tale of somebody who was able to master social media and understand how the world thinks and manipulate them, but also could drive their real person into a life of organized crime and racketeering.
So yeah, let’s get into that a little bit. He started out as this bodega guy and began to have some success in- in rap and social media.
First of all, I’m empathetic and excited about any story of somebody who, with few resources, creates their own art and creates their own music, and I think that’s something that’s admirable and interesting. I have a lot of empathy for somebody who decided to do it on their own. Our film started as a very DIY project and that is what Tekashi is. He did it himself. And he used his limited resources to create something far bigger than himself. And so I think that is something that a lot of people can look to. And it can, in ways, almost be inspiring. But, I do think that his search for a way to stay relevant, to keep his career going, there’s such a level of almost anxiety in it that his pursuit of success drew him into places that most people would warn him against going. His decision to affiliate himself with a gang, to use that to create a level of street cred for himself, and to sort of posture as if he was a gangster is something that is both a brilliant marketing tool but also a very, very dangerous path to go down. And, um, that’s a decision he made. He was hooked up in many ways, and didn’t necessarily have to continue that route. He had already gotten a label, the backing of a powerful person in music. He had already gotten a lot of attention. But he had made this new commitment to carving out this new persona, of a very tough, angry gangster, in order to get fans. What started off as fiction turned into reality, and in some cases, violence.
I think that’s what happens with people when they get so deep into something. What you were before is no longer who you are now. This is the rap persona. People take new names, they carve new identities, but the difference is that often the people actually care about their music. And that’s what drives them. They have passion. They want to make great music, and become famous because of that. In this case, it seems like he wanted to be famous first, and then try to figure out all the different stages along the way that would lead to that. You know, from his tattoos on his face to his clothing, to eventually his gang membership. And even after that, when he had to snitch and give up a bunch of guys in his crew. How do you view that? Do you see that as another chapter in this roleplaying? Or is something that brought him down to the real world?
Well I think that there’s a moment in his story where, what is an act is taken so far that it becomes a reality. With the backing of a gang, with the backing of a crew, a lot of things that happened in real life, um, supporting this persona, which were negatively affecting a lot of people. There were people being jumped, beaten up, shot at. He put a hit out on another rapper while he was on TMZ. There’s this performative element that is happening here that it just doesn’t seem real. And I think that, uh, he’s just made a number of decisions. And I think what it comes down to: is fame that important to risk other people’s lives? Is the fantasy that is created in rap music, which is-that fantasy of a gangster image, which is something that, uh, rap has been engaged with for decades.
In some ways you can see that as people telling stories similar to like, you know, Goodfellas. They were telling stories about gangsters in the same way we enjoy gangster movies. But in this instance, he was keeping it real. You know, there’s that, uh, Dave Chapelle skit, When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. This is an example of somebody keeping it so real that things got really, really wrong. What I know of Danny and everyone who’s spoken to him, that he himself is not a physically violent person. He was violent towards the mother of his child. That’s understood. But he was not, uh, picking fights or shooting guns at people. He had other people that he was able to manipulate to do that. People, I think, he considered his friends, and they considered him as friends. And that relationship is difficult when you’re on a path to fame. I think a lot of the movie comes down to a story about friendship. About somebody who wanted fame so badly that he left a lot of people in the dust, screwed other people over, and it all came down to him actually, um, breaking up with the people who supported him, turning his back on him. Or, you know, also just not knowing how to include them in his success, and deciding to move on, uh, to greener pastures. And that has happened with almost everybody who ended up being arrested. He seemed to be close, tight friends with them, and at some point gave them away, for different reasons.
Were they ever really friends? Or were they just there because they helped him and he could use them? And then when they no longer need him, or he feels like they’re not loyal in the extent that he would want, then he drops them. Would you say he’s a sociopath in this respect? Or did he ever feel bad about anything he did, even, you know, upon reflection today, to the best of your knowledge, given your contact with some of his associates? Did he ever feel like, “Oh, shit. I fucked up.”?
Well, I mean, we only really know what people let us see. He has a big microphone, a big platform, and what he’s shown the world is that he didn’t have remorse. And that there were reasons that he pointed out of why he turned on his own people. He was kidnapped and hurt by people he put away. There was already conflict going on.
As far as whether he’s a sociopath, all I can really say is I think that we do live in a time, and maybe we’ve always lived in this time, but we live in a time that it’s shown more apparently that our society does reward a certain level of sociopathic behavior. Our society does reward people who create outrage. We live in a time, a culture of rewarding narcissism and rewarding self interest that, in some ways, people are excited by, endorse, and almost admire people who can put themselves over other people to create fame and fortune. And, we see that all over social media. And we see it all over business and so many other things in our society. So I think Tekashi’s just another example of somebody, his level of confidence and audacity, was intoxicating to people. They couldn’t look away. Who he is on the inside, that’s something that only he knows and people very close to him know. But from people who we’ve interviewed, who spent a lot of time with him, I think everyone’s conflicted. I think they all believe that there was someone humble, um, intelligent, creative that was underneath, that lost its way and turned into another being. And I look at, you know, there’s Danny and there’s Tekashi 6ix9ine, and he was transforming into this avatar of his own self creation. And he said himself that he wanted to be a villain. He didn’t want to be a hero, he wanted to be a villain. And I think, um, he made himself into that image that he wanted to be.
Someone in the film mentions that he wanted to break the cycle of poverty. Do you feel that’s true? People who are marginalized economically and socially often forced into illegal activities because there are no other opportunities. You can’t just go get a regular job. You may have a criminal record. You have a life where people you know are in and out of jail constantly. So what do you do? So given those options, maybe this made sense to him. But do you feel that he was ever that rational about it? To the point of like thinking, “Oh shit. I don’t want to be poor forever. I’m gonna go do something amazing.”
I fully believe in his drive to get out of poverty. I mean, I think people we’ve spoken to, they credit him in, finding a place for himself and building his own persona, and creating a career. Who knows if he was coming from a different background, somebody with his mind and intellect could’ve done other things. I think he’s a pretty intelligent person. He says early in his career that he wanted to make it cool to be poor. He wanted to embrace that. And that is something that has always been in hip hop. It has always been in rap music. The rags to riches story. Though, when you stop being inspiring and start becoming another rich person flaunting your clout, money, jewelry, and, more other superficial things, you kind of lose the plot. He came from very little and he was clearly a hard worker. Working as a young man at a bodega. And I think we do live in a society, in a city that has overlooked people in those situations, um, a lot. That was so much of what drew me to his story too, that I just thought, “This kid is brilliant on some level.” I’m always rooting for the underdog, for someone who can take control of their lives and make art, and get it to the world. Where he ended up was obviously a different story, but I think those roots, there is something there to- to lean into.
You keep saying making art. I think making art of himself became his biggest art project. From the tattoos, the clothes, and the lifestyle. That- that was the artform, to me, and everything else was just sort of an excuse for that. And he even said, I think somewhere along the line that people don’t care about my music, they just like the videos. You know, he had this understanding of visual culture, and what gets people excited.
I do think though that part of the story is not new. I mean, if I think about the great artists of New York, that were icons when I was young and still are, you know, the New York art scene has always been about people whose personas stood in front of their work. You have the punk scene, Basquiat that whole era was all about creating personas and creating hype and learning about how to think about pop art. So I don’t look at this and look at what these young kids are doing, “Oh my god, they’ve lost the plot. Like they don’t know what real art is. It’s not real music.” I don’t look at it like that. There’s nothing wrong, with creating a persona and, using that as the full immersive artform. That’s been done before, it works and sometimes people can bring some interesting things to the world because of it. But, at the end of the day, I think, it’s- this isn’t all about where it came from, and the initial intention. I think people’s intentions change over time and we can get lost in the pursuit of fame and fortune. And I think that’s what’s happened here. When I look at the stuff he was doing early on, not necessarily just all of the outlandish videos of sex and drugs, but as a filmmaker, watching what he did, making his own music videos, he was prolific. And, I think that’s something that a lot of people in the arts in New York, trying to make their way, can see a little bit of themselves in.
As much as I went into this story with optimism about who he is, I did understand that he crossed lines when it came to his videos, that he had a sex crime on his record. And that he was somebody who was taking part in very violent acts. All of that is something that we also very much wanted to make sure was clear in the film and accurate. And I think in a time right now where all of those things are really relevant, we’ve seen so many documentaries about people like that. It is also puzzling why, in a cancel culture, that somebody with a crime like filming a minor in a sex act, would continue to grow in fame. That is something that was always puzzling to me, that he wasn’t canceled. It’s just also something that adds another layer to the story. I did say earlier that Danny, himself, wasn’t personally seen as violent. But after spending time with the mother of his child, it became clear that he was in fact violent to her on multiple occasions. That was something that I want to make sure isn’t left out of this story. It’s important to know that that was part of his character before he turned into Tekashi 6ix9ine, as well.
I want to spend a few minutes here talking about Vice, because you were there kind of in the heyday of Vice, when it was becoming a media company to, you know, to this big extent that it still is today. And it was kind of a wild west show in those days. How was your experience there and how did it- you get involved with them?
As far as Vice, I had an amazing time, in the early days of Vice going to HBO, or when Vice became a more mainstream TV brand. I live pretty close to where the first office is, and I was living there at the time. I’d been hearing about them making videos. And at a certain point, a friend of mine connected me with some people there, and I saw the pilot for the HBO show. It felt like the kind of gonzo journalism that I had grown up reading in Hunter S. Thompson books, and it was like the visual version of that. And it was sort of the dream job. It was something I’d always dreamed about doing, is making documentaries around the world about exciting subjects. Fearless about where we went, and with a very human element to it. That was a very exciting thing. After I made my first movie, Kumaré, soon after that, I was linked up with some members of the team. I saw the pilot. I worked as a producer for the first season, on several episodes in India. That’s where I met Shane Smith, uh, when covering the border in Kashmir. You know, as we drove up to the mountains, we started becoming, uh, you know, friends. I- I left to do some other projects, and then, when the second season came around, Shane texted me and said, “Do you want to host next season?” And, uh, that’s how I became a correspondent on Vice, and worked there for many years on the HBO show. And the greatest part of that experience was its DIY element, it’s ability to break the rules, to, um, ,be audacious, to go places and deeper than other journalists had gone. At a time where foreign journalists were being reduced in a lot of networks, Vice was able to become a very influential voice of international news in America by giving this like, you know, we could call it a hipster face. But in a way, a face that young people could get behind. And I had a really great time there. Especially in the early days of the HBO show, where we could go on hunches and go deep into a story, and put the time in. I’ve filmed on every continent in the world there. And, feel lucky to be part of that era, which was an amazing time at Vice, and an amazing time for being an investigative journalist.
So thank you, Vikram. Appreciate your time and, uh, really enjoyed this conversation. And, uh, I look forward to seeing more of your work.
Thank you. Thanks for having me on. Good talking to you.
Okay, man. Take care.
Thanks a lot.