Hip-hop has always been breaking down barriers. American hip-hop artists were among the first to have videos shown on MTV, with shows like Yo! MTV Raps, which brought them national notoriety, intertwining their music with the dawn of a new global era in music. The evolution of hip-hop has not been confined to the United States, though, as shown in the documentary film, The Furious Force of Rhymes (2010), directed by Joshua Atesh Litle.
The film travels through four continents and six countries, showing how each region made the musical genre its own. While in the U.S., the music has trended toward a more materialistic message, other communities around the world have created verses out of deeper material representing a worldwide movement of people looking for a voice and a method to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Hip-hop nonprofit Words Beats & Life, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Channel and Hip Hop Cinema Cafe (presented by solSource), is hosting three screenings of the film as part of the "Focus-in! Cinema for a Conscious Community" series at Busboys & Poets this month.
"Hip-hop is more than what people think, and people around the world are using it to do innovative things," said Mazi Mutafa, founder of Words Beats & Life. “ What we do here in D.C. has global repercussions and can make a difference in the world.”
If you are in the D.C.-area tonight, January 29, it is worth the trip to the Busboys & Poets in Shirlington, Va. to see the final screening (RSVP on Facebook), including a panel discussion, "Blurring the Lines: Journalist, Scholars & Fans," with the following hip-hop bloggers and media creators:
- Amanda Bassa, blogger, UntitledType
- Saaret Yoseph, founder and director, The Redline D.C. Project
- Modi, blogger, DC to BC
- Renina Jarmon, contributor, WBL Journal
For those of you unable to make it to the showing, the film is also available on iTunes.
HIP-HOP PORTRAITS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
The Furious Force of Rhymes starts its journey in the 1980s, documenting a marginalized population in France that found a semblance of their life in the music originating from the ghettos of New York. The outskirts of Paris are littered with high-rise government-subsidized housing. The messages from American rappers about inequality, racial tension and police brutality hit a chord with the population there. Inspired by hip-hop music, Hélène and Célia Faussart of Paris formed the group Les Nubians.
“In France, first came the graffiti artists and breakdancers and then came the music,” they say. Hip-hop music fits perfectly with their feelings of alienation in a country that often defines citizenship along racial lines. As the film portrays, French hip-hop brings this to the forefront and helps to define the “new France.”
From France, the film moves to the starkly divided city of Berlin, where Joe Rilla, a white skinhead, raps about the city he loves. Growing up in the Communist-controlled East Berlin, he found out about hip-hop through West Berlin radio broadcasts. The lyrics about ghettos and poverty resonated with him. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, he had high hopes that the city would come back together peacefully. After being separated for so long, it was hard to reconcile the two parts of the city. People who were identified as “foreigners” and “not-German” bore the brunt of the strife through attacks and racism. Though Joe is a skinhead, he is no Nazi. Joe Rilla along with rapper Tyrone Ricketts, who identifies himself as Afrodeutsch, use hip-hop to spread messages of unity.
“Hip-hop doesn't stand for racism and creates a conversational platform in which differences can be aired and allows people to talk about these issues," Tyrone says. "Conversation in turn makes things normal.”
Palestinian rappers of the group Dam agree. "We're very angry but we learned to deal with things in a cool way," they say. "Instead of fighting someone we will challenge them to freestyle. Music is the answer.”
They stress that hip-hop has helped them learn to solve problems with ingenuity instead of violence. In Palestine and Israel, people of all geopolitical perspectives use rap to make themselves heard. Themes of violence, disenfranchisement, resistance and life in the ghetto color their verses.
Groups like System Ali, including both Jewish and Arab rappers, go one step further than Dam. Leading by example, their songs feature both Hebrew and Arabic lyrics. As American rapper D-Nice points out, “it's all about the flow in hip-hop even if [you] don't understand the language.”
In Senegal, a traditional language of spoken rhyme already existed in the ancient African music of Tassou. The transition into hip-hop was easy. Lord Jamar of the Senegalese group Brand Nubian insists, “It's not about color; it's about the condition and the machinery that creates that level of poverty,” which can affect anyone.
There's a strong sense in Africa that the leaders are "selling out" their countries because of the relationship that still exists with the European powers who profit while the local people continue to struggle. Rapper Pee Froiss feels a responsibility to be the voice of the people.
“Rappers are the bridge between the lowly and the elite,” he says. By singing about them, he gives people who are struggling a voice strong enough for those in power to hear.
Sharing Froiss' sentiments, Senegal's first female rap group, Alif, speaks out against other struggles, like female circumcision.
ONE FAMILY, ONE LANGUAGE
From location to location the film shows how hip-hop has become the voice of the people and successfully proves American rapper Busy Bee's point that “hip-hop is all cultures. It's not green, red, black, white. It's everyone.” Themes of poverty, violence and powerlessness are universal and stretch so far across national and racial lines as to unite human beings not only into one family but also under one language. “From capital to capital, we speak the same language: hip-hop,” Les Nubians says.
This idea was put into context at last week's panel discussion organized by Words, Beats & Life. The event included conversations with one of the film's stars, Waterflow, a rapper from Senegal who has been rapping professionally for 15 years; Risikat “Kat” Okedeyi, a professor of English at Prince George's Community College and event organizer at Lil Soso Productions; and Jerome Baker III, a local DJ and event organizer.
"Artists are in a global community and need to be responsible for what they produce,” Kat said.
Waterflow also stressed that hip-hop artists need to be accountable. “Hip-hop is like a reflection of your own self," he said. "We need, as artists, authors, organizers, to involve people.”
While the film does not mention anything specific about a particular country's government, the language of hip-hop is ultimately political because, as Waterflow said,“the power of hip-hop is to be able to control the information and also the action behind it.”
Jerome also emphasized the potential of hip-hop to affect social and political change, saying that because of the nature of the “financial influence of the music industry, inevitably it comes down to the politics of funding.”
All three of the panelists challenged the audience to support what you love. “We all have a voice," Waterflow said. "Use your own skills to support [hip-hop] because it is important for people like you to spread the word."