Can It Be that It Was All So Simple?
Soundz of Spirit is a documentary and accompanying CD soundtrack that explores the “creative process” and “spirituality” in hip-hop.
First-time filmmaker Joslyn Rose Lyons sets out to illustrate the positive qualities of the oft-maligned and misunderstood global phenomenon. In the face of constant mainstream media reduction of hip-hop to a profitable marketing tool and / or the butt of pop-culture jokes, Soundz attempts to discuss hip-hop on a level field with accepted art: appreciation of art for art’s sake. In this broad sense, Lyons’ vague thesis seems to be on the right track: she focuses on the common quality of all art disciplines—the emotional and spiritual mystique behind creativity—to legitimize hip-hop. Lyons interviews a wide swath of hip-hop artists—everyone from radio personality, journalist and community activist Davey D to big-time hitmaker Andre 3000—and pieces together their thoughts in a series of candid interviews. The range of perspectives, not to mention the sheer incredulity of such a cast (albeit West Coast-heavy: Zion I, Blackalicious, Del, Planet Asia, Living Legends, and Jurassic 5, to name a few), appears impressive. More notable is the intimate nature of the interviewed subjects’ comments, a reflection of the warmth and sense of community that Lyons and other boosters of underground hip-hop idolize.
However, in surrendering her voice to those of the artists, Lyons forgets her role as documentarian: to organize and analyze her subjects’ thoughts. While Lyons has an incredible wealth of first-hand sources to back her argument, she rarely probes them or provokes them to build that argument. Instead, she allows artists to speak as unquestioned authorities: I am an artist, therefore I am the Truth. Soundz ultimately caters to predictable responses that rarely venture outside of the oversimplified notion of the “goodness” of hip-hop. This notion may resonate with the aforementioned boosters, but the point of the film appears to be to turn heads, not to get the attention of said heads. Over the course of four rough sections—a general discussion on the definition of hip-hop, its “creative process”, its spirituality and its use as a tool for activism—Soundz is composed of a grab-bag of thoughts on the genre. Insightful comments are buried in the mix, but the whole fails to truly go beneath the surface.
The film opens with a stripped-down history of hip-hop, background approached from both a historical and theoretical standpoint. Davey D immediately establishes hip-hop as not just an occurrence, but a progressive cultural phenomenon and tool for activism. What started with Bambaataa’s block parties and the Zulu Nation’s peacemaking efforts, he explains, have been spun by succeeding generations into a format for community advocacy, youth voting, etc. Davey D forgoes discussion of whether or not hip-hop is a legitimate art form, and instead points to its specific actions: how has hip-hop served as an organizational tool in communities, what is hip-hop’s specific role in these situations besides providing a language, a manner of speech, a common cultural frame of reference for different people? However, this point never receives a follow-up, and subsequently leads the viewer to wonder: why hip-hop, as opposed to something else?
Saul Williams comes closest to addressing this why, using his definition of “person”—a being of sound—to explain hip-hop’s resonance. “It is beats and voices in the same way that we are defined by beats and voices”, Saul says, calling hip-hop “the closest thing to a manifestation of people”. Thus, Saul argues that hip-hop is the closest art form to human nature. The point is fascinating and can be explored in a theoretical / sociological context, but Lyons wisely leaves that discussion for another day. However, she does not further pursue the Why, leading to the troubling establishment of a specific identity for hip-hop that excludes its total influence. In other words, even a person with a passing understanding of hip-hop will recognize its role in mass media; after all, who doesn’t remember Barney Rubble with fat chains and his wheels of stone?
Talib Kweli consistently provides the most provocative sound-bites in Soundz as he addresses this overstatement. “It’s a mistake to elevate hip-hop to a level that’s more than life”, Kwa argues. “Some people love it to the point where they’re not taking care of themselves.” The point resonates frequently in the film as various artists describe the intensity of the artistic process in hip-hop. Breakdancer Ms. Little describes the feeling of freedom she experiences after a session, but this colorful description is emblematic of the bombast that characterizes much of Soundz, which over the course of an hour-and-a-half becomes the same kind of bloated message that Kweli warns against. Not to say that Ms. Little or any other artist does not actually experience what they describe in their interviews. Rather, their poetic speech is like another form of art: the truth is between the lines. In Ms. Little’s case, her freedom is different from Jose Padilla’s. Without an established definition of the terms with which each artist speaks, the language of the film’s subjects can often only be read into lightly.
In addition to the vagueness, the film’s subjects frequently turn to inaccurate generalizations and subsequently sink Soundz into the liberal trap of naiveté. Artists consistently tout hip-hop’s inner Robin Hood, such as when Shock G talks about how artists are frequently the ones to fight capitalist greed, while Mystic dismisses hip-hop in marketing as illegitimate. Goapele and even the battle-ready Medusa speak of their craft as an egoless process. While these observations highlight one aspect of the culture, they vacuously ignore every other side. If we can agree with Kweli that hip-hop influences everything from the way a person talks to the way he or she ties their shoelaces, then how did hip-hop succeed in becoming so influential? Kweli makes the point that the barrier between commercial and underground is an artificial construct that impedes the discussion of what hip-hop is or is not. In other words, who is to say that underground Is hip-hop and P. Diddy is Not hip-hop? The first black person to make a million made it off of hair products for black people, but the first black person to sustain their millions and flaunt their blackness used hip-hop. Jack Johnson was big, but Black Jack Johnson is the next big thing, y’all. Hip-hop’s co-opting of the capitalist mode is not seen as a part of hip-hop history in Soundz.
In theory, the following two sections on “Creative Process” and “Spirituality” would at least bolster the core of the film’s argument. However, given the shallow depth of probing into how the creative process or spirituality supports hip-hop, the sections work best as a quasi-poetry collage; each artist’s response is a form of expression, in and of itself. Most artists, such as Aceyalone and Zion, are quite frank and mention how they draw inspiration from “everyday life”, but Common describes hip-hop as “one of my closest ways of expressing what God is to me”. Chali2na connects his use of painting and lyricism as a means for sending a message. Producer, actress, musician, and activist Hanifah Walida points out how the artist serves merely as a vessel: “Art does not come from the artist; it comes to the artist.” These statements in combination with each other form a comprehensive picture wherein artists speak of hip-hop as any other art form, a collection of expressions worth hearing for those unfamiliar with the artistic aspect of the culture. However, beyond the proverbial chin-stroke these comments provoke, the total says little. As Del says when posed the question about spirituality in hip-hop, he skims the fat and blurts “it’s hella normal”.
The problem with questions about a hip-hop artist’s creative process and the role of spirituality in their work is that they presume a sense of self-importance, which once again, turns off the non-believers. Of course these artists speak openly about how inspiration comes to them, or how hip-hop is connected to some secular conception of God, because this is their life, their body of work. The goal should have been to find a way to articulate this to people who are not “of the life”. Davey D accurately traces the literal connection between the MC and the pulpit, but naked spirituality is not a justification for hip-hop’s existence. Religion and theology are frequently used as frames for understanding life and navigating the world; in this sense, Andre 3000 comes closest to articulating hip-hop’s role in each of these artists: “hip-hop is giving me an avenue to put it out.” However, if there is to be a substantial discussion of what hip-hop is and where its priorities are, we have to understand that it is not all of the same mainstream mold as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but stretches from Malcolm X to Jimmy Swaggart, Billy Graham to Larry Graham.
The final section of Soundz, “Revolution is for Solution”, infers hip-hop as a medium for action, but again fails to fully substantiate the claim. Instead of discussing the grassroots work of some of the film’s incredible resources—from Walidah’s stagework exploring religion, homosexuality, and AIDS to Davey D’s resourceful online, print, and mass media work—Lyons again keeps the focus on niceties and platitudes. Spearhead-leader Michael Franti speaks of hip-hop as a tool for liberalism, “to combat the corporate forces of the world”, but outside of insider’s knowledge about the artist’s extensive body of work, the film itself does nothing to support his statement. Several comments do slip by, suggesting other directions Lyons could have taken. When Kweli describes how Fabolous admitted to using hip-hop as a means to escape impoverishment, he hits upon the big A that is avoided throughout the film: Allure. Amidst its activism and action are hip-hop’s romance, glory, and fame. Being a house manager at Starbucks affords the same degree of safety and security as being a rapper, perhaps even more. However, there are obviously a few people who would rather get paid for writing rhymes about nonexistent 20-inch dubs, as opposed to welding those dubs onto Xzibit’s ride. Denying the existence of this aspect of hip-hop is tantamount to burying one’s head in the sand.
Ultimately, Soundz speaks to a limited audience with its over-reliance on the artist’s authority. If the purpose of the film was to provide a positive representation of hip-hop that makes heads and the underground feel good, then Soundz is an All-American cheerleader. If the purpose of the film was to demystify or counter the misunderstanding surrounding hip-hop, then Soundz makes little sense or headway. By merely opening the camera as a forum for hip-hop artists speaking without substantial backing, who can really accept their word? Who would want to? If creative process and spirituality represent an artist’s personal journey, how does reducing their comments to sound-bites and clumping them together actively support their work?
Given Lyons’ bias towards the “conscious” end of hip-hop, she could have at least spoken more about the actions of these artists. Generally speaking, mainstream discussion should open up to what hip-hop does, not the various perceptions of hip-hop. After all, the participants are right there, ready and willing to talk. So why not talk about Vote or Die and hip-hop Summit Action Network. Or Future Sound and Unity Committee. Or Zulu Nation and the Black Spades. Or the Bloods and the Crips. Or Amadou Diallo. Or Making the Band. Let’s talk about Rodney King. Or Father MC. Or Sarah Jones’ “Your Revolution.” Or Death Row. Or Stop the Violence. What is our idea(s) of hip-hop? How does each one fit into hip-hop? Writers like Jeff Chang and Nelson George represent a broad range of approaches and perspectives to these questions. In one of the greatest strokes of subversion, Aaron McGruder explores these issues daily in one of the most read parts of a newspaper: the comics section. Films on graf, DJing, freestyling, breaking, and even crate-digging abound. Hell, VH1 has taken the lead in producing mainstream documentaries on hip-hop. And yet so much mediocrity abounds, and substantive discussion is needed more than ever. If Soundz’ best offerings are its highlight reels, then it is simply not good enough.
Towards the end of the film, B. Stille of Nappy Roots echoes Lyons’ concern by advocating for the representation of the more “positive” side of hip-hop in the media. However, nowhere in this doc does an artist explain what “positive” is, let alone what the triumph of “positivity” would entail for hip-hop. Does this mean that every song must be a “Dear Mama” jam? If every song were “Dear Mama”, what would we be saying about hip-hop’s expressive ability? Would Saul Williams’ idea of persons and hip-hop being in synchronicity, mind, spirit and beats be completely realized? Is uniformity positive?
Lyons correctly compares hip-hop with all the other creative arts in terms of creativity and spirituality, but she forgets its communicative nature. Hip-hop is a medium for dialogue, for conversation. When I say Hey you say Ho. Soundz could have better addressed Lyons’ voice, the underground’s voice, the third unheard, and how they fit in the greater whole. Lyons is obviously onto something by creating this exhaustive project, so hopefully her next project will build significantly on this first step. However, she must learn that exclusive concert clips, impromptu performances, and a cast of many will only float a film so far. Soundz’ love-me-ism is charming, but that is all. Can it be that it is all so simple? Hardly yes, yes y’all.
The bonus soundtrack contains a mixture of previous released album tracks (Cee-Lo’s “Beautiful Fool” from Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine; Jennifer Johns’ “Beautiful” from Heavyelectromagneticsoularpoeticjunglehop; Pep Love’s “Substance” from Ascension), b-sides (Martin Luther and Planet Asia’s “Sweeta by the Day” from Luther’s “Daily Bread” single on ABB; Aceyalone’s “God in Me” from his “Moonlit Skies” 12”), and obscure tracks (Blackalicious’ “Oblivia” appeared as an import-only bonus track to Blazing Arrows). Much of the material plays in the background or during the film’s transition montages, and centers around the broad themes of positivism and creative inspiration. The CD plays well completely removed from the film because of the strength of the artists’ material—Rakaa breathes mighty on the “Global Dynamics” remix, while the Living Legends receive overdue representation.