Sunday, February 17, 2008

Film Review #149: Keepin’ it Reel ‘08: Exploring Hip-Hop
Annual film fest at Community Folk Art Center, Syracuse, NY, 2/14-17/2008

“There is a huge love for Hip Hop,” Diane Weathers told WAER Syracuse in a phone interview in early March 2005, “based on its early exuberance, diversity and creativity. We wanted to be clear we wouldn’t allow this to be used by people who wanted to attack Hip Hop – that wouldn’t work with this group. We were just women bothered by what we saw who wanted to talk about it. And the response was global.”

That January, Essence Magazine had launched its Take Back the Music campaign, aimed at gangsta rap that disparaged women and glorified pimps. Then editor-in-chief of the magazine celebrating its 35th anniversary, Weathers had just been in Atlanta, where Essence joined with Spelman College in late February 2005 for an historic, overflow town meeting on the topic. The previous spring, Spelman’s student government “disinvited” the Hip Hop performer Nellie from visiting campus when he refused to meet with them about “Tip Drill,” the music video in which he “swiped” a credit card down the bare backside of a young thong-wearing woman.

Efforts so far this decade to reclaim Hip Hop's giddy inventiveness and freedom also focused on women’s positive participation. Gwendolyn Pough’s Check it While I Wreck It, published just before she moved to Syracuse in 2004, detailed a lineage of strong Black women’s verbal eloquence and framed women's Hip Hop participation as an extension of that. New York City-based Martha Cooper, who’d photographed the Hip Hop scene from its earliest days in 1970s South Bronx, brought out a new book, We B*Girlz (2005), about the world-wide phenomenon of women dancers’ crews and battles. Performers like Jean Grae and Missy Elliot emerged. Vibe Magazine published Hip Hop Divas.

The movies getting under way at the same time tell a story wider yet. Byron Hurt includes the infamous “Tip Drill” clip in Beyond Beats and Rhymes (2006), which kicks off the Community Folk Art Center’s annual film festival this Thursday. Besides cinematic critiques of thug misogyny and homophobia, the smartly-chosen program goes a long way toward busting narrow commercial stereotypes. There’s African Hip Hop, the rise of graffiti, the world of women deejays, Hip Hop as youth mentoring tool, Christian Hip Hop. And 16-year-old local filmmaker Zakharii Willets, who goes by Ziggy, debuts his short, Hip Hop: My Generation, just before Hurt’s film on Thursday.

Award-winning and PBS-aired, Beyond Beats and Rhymes puts an accomplished, sophisticated overview right up front, and Hurt will be here in person for discussion. On-screen, the ex-quarterback is articulate and persuasive (“I love Hip Hop,” he begins, “but we’re in this box, manhood…”). He says he first confronted this when he worked as a counselor to prevent male violence against women. His movie's exploration ranges from decades of violent white movie heroes to the lengthy construction Cross-Bronx Expressway, started in 1946, that ripped a borough in half and was surely as much a factor in the rise of Hip Hop as any reaction to affluent white disco music (one interviewee opines, “If they put an expressway through your neighborhood, then you understand Hip Hop.”).

Hip Hop's culture thrives globally, from Brazil to Tokyo to Germany to Australia and New Zealand to the Middle East, where much far-below-the-radar peace work is getting done by young Israeli and Palestinian rappers. Michael Wanguhu packs Hip Hop Colony (2006) with historical context and thoughtful interviews about equatorial Kenya, which got Western-style FM radio in 1995. Three years later, Kalamashaka made the first Kenyan hip-hop album. But this film’s best moments are the segments of rough footage of a joyous back-yard jam among Kalamashaka, Big Mike, Bamboo and the great Harry Kimani. Matter-of-factly un-gangsta, the film’s “dedicated to our moms.”

Asian-American Danny Lee’s Rock Fresh (2004) documents the international scope and methods of serious graffiti as Hip Hop's visual style and expression, following five artists. Rock Fresh screens Saturday afternoon following a free workshop for high school youth. Lee’s King of Hollywood opens later this year.

Liberian-born, New York-based Dante Kaba will be just back from Ghana when he travels to Syracuse on Saturday to screen Mistress X (2005), his portrait of women Hip Hop deejays.

Matt Ruskin’s The Hip Hop Project (2006) covers four years with Bahamas-born Chris “Kazi” Rolle, who grew up homeless in Brooklyn, and the Hip Hop-based program for at-risk youth he founded in 1999.

Finally, Christopher “Play” Martin “takes the Gospel to the streets” in Holy Hip Hop (2006), revealing robust urban ministries and radio programming in eight major US cities.

You could call this film festival a Valentine for love vindicated.

This review appears in the 2/14/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column, usually reviewing DVDs. Nancy interviewed Diane Weathers for Women’s Voices Radio, WAER Syracuse 88.3 FM, aired 3/10/05. Beyond Beats and Rhymes, Hip Hop Colony, Holy Hip Hop, & Rock Fresh are available now on DVD, & both The Hip Hop Project & Mistress X soon will be.