Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Chris Rock says, “I love rap, but it’s getting a lot harder to defend.” I often feel that way. I love old-school hip-hop and rap. I love rap that makes me think. And, honestly, even though I won’t dance to the Thong Song, a much better beat might make it a minute before I realize what’s being said. I don’t think it would hurt artists to work on their lyrical abilities, but anyway…that’s not where I’m going with this.

Following the wave of national debates on the language of hip hop, there’s a powerful film that addresses commerce linked to hip hop: BLING: A Planet Rock – an off the hook documentary by former Editor in Chief of One World magazine Raquel Cepeda (and fellow Dominican) that looks at Sierra Leone and asks us to analyze our connection to (un)fair and (in)humane conditions and legacies associated with the diamond trade. In her own words:

"I felt that Sierra Leone was more than an article, because I saw these fascinating parallels," Cepeda said. "It was formed by freed slaves, and just at the time hip-hop started to become commercially successful here in the United States — in 1991 — [the Los Angeles district] Watts was burning, and this bloody civil war was beginning in Sierra Leone. So as the conflict was ending, and the aftermath was everywhere, I felt like it would be an interesting social experiment to have some rappers go there as goodwill ambassadors. Because hip-hop has affected every crevice of the world, and I wanted rappers to know that."

From: [, July 18, 2006]

What I like about the film is not just that it places the conversation specifically within a hip-hop lens, it places three very distinct hip hop artists (Raekwon from Wu-Tang Clan, Tego Calderon and Paul Wall) as the subjects of the film. I thought it was really smart that she chose three people from such different eras, locations and styles of hip hop. And, that Q-Tip and Kanye West also back the film, providing their own insights both on and off camera (Kanye West released his song: Diamonds From Sierra Leone last year, just before the film was initially released, and Q-Tip was apparently the one who set the whole question off). Cepeda also included the insights of former child soldier Ishmael Beah within the discussion of not just the war itself, but on the role of U.S. based hip hop artists within the war (for e.g. – some rebel factions using Tupac T-shirts as uniforms) and as a form of creative outlet and inspiration for Sierra Leone based hip hop artists within their own work. The film deftly maneuvers the complexities of the hip hop industry, the power of individual artists to affect entire communities and the ways in which consumer values in the U.S. end up impacting us here and people in the rest of the world.

Now, keep in mind, I have been impressed and disturbed FOR YEARS about the role of the U.S. media, and particularly the portrayal of people of color within U.S. media on shaping the imaginary throughout the rest of the world. For one, I think it’s hot that hip-hop has been embraced as a powerful transnational form of expression of blackness and resistance. But, because of its transcendent power, I’ve also been really upset by the ways in which sexism, homophobia and straight up violence have been portrayed and perpetrated. Cepeda deals with this dynamic as a true lover of hip hop, and we as viewers watch as Raekwon realizes how Wu-Tang affected an entire generation in Sierra Leone – in both very positive and painful ways. One Sierra Leone hip hop artist states, “We saw U.S. hip hop artists talking about using guns on one another, and so we felt justified in using ours against each other.” Simultaneously, hip hop provided an outlet for peace in 2001, when thousands of rebels entered Freetown to watch Sierra Leonian hip hop artist Jimmy B give a concert.

Yeah. It’s complex. We are powerful, us artists. And while we can never anticipate how our art will transform or affect others (throughout the world), we can be intentional about how we create work.

Oh yes, and one last thing. I forgot to mention the setting in which I viewed the film, something which struck me as kind of ironic. Kinda. I received an email from a friend telling me about the free viewing of the film – the email included the youtube video excerpt I’ve posted below.

So, Wu & I went to the Austin Alamo Draft House – a movie house that serves food and drinks. Scion was handing out goodie bags with XXL T-shirts, hats and tons of promotional material. I skipped the bags, but then went back and got one anyway when I found out there was a hat inside (I know – I’m easy). We got two pink tickets. When we sat down, the woman sitting next to me told us, “Those tickets are for free drinks. You can order any drinks on the menu.” Free film? Free drinks? Hell yeah. We ordered wine. A DJ was spinning house & hip hop music to old footage of the TV Dance show “Graffiti Rock” while we waited for the reel to start. Right before the movie showed, Scion reps came and took photos of the audience. I know they took photos of me and Wu because we were two of 5 black people in the audience. And the guy sitting next to Wura was South Asian. So you know – DIVERSITY. Everyone else in the audience was white.

The film itself was preceded by an awful 10 minute short documentary about homelessness in Los Angeles (quote of the year: You just put your gloves on and help.” Um. Yeah.). After muttering a 10-minute commentary under my breath, I finally hushed for the film itself. I watched, moved and awed as folks around us ate. I couldn’t help think: wow – what’s the logic behind the marketing of this film – a film about people suffering and giving out freebies? Sip. Hmm.

Following the Q&A session, we all filtered out of the theatre (it was about 12.45am at this point). Wu and I stood outside and watched the two cop cars drive off after they realized it was mostly a white audience. Yeah. So, you see, it’s complex. Watching a film about black people at war with each other – a war fueled by the diamond trade’s practices – and just outside, the cops are ready to take us.


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