Editor’s note: Estilo Hip Hop is also screening at Barnes & Noble at New York’s Lincoln Triangle on 17 July, 7pm ET.
Everyone is aware the system doesn’t work, that the cops are bad, that education fails us. That’s being aware. But being conscious means asking why.
“Media will have us believe that hip hop is nothing, nothing more than party music,” announces Guerrillero Okulto. He’s on the street in Santiago, Chile, his tattoos eye-catching, his voice insistent and earnest. As a crowd gathers, he continues, “But hiphop is organized. We believe in communal organization, we believe in the value of human beings.” For Guerrillero, “we” is RH2A, or the Network of Hip Hop Activists, a citywide organization that offers alternative political education workshops in neighborhoods deemed “marginal.” Guerrillero and his crew use classic hip hop (that is, the four elements of rhyming, DJing, graffiti-writing, and breakdancing) in order to inspire listeners to action and faith in one another.
One of several artists profiled in Estilo Hip Hop, airing in PBS World’s Global Voices series, Guerrillero explains, “Rap has become my political weapon of choice.” Emerging from what he calls “a poor and humble family,” he remembers the effects of hopelessness on his own parents. They “fought constantly,” he says, looking on his own young daughters. Divorced from their mother, he is determined to change his community’s longstanding pattern, to help young people to find work and build futures rather than taking out their frustrations on one another.
Each of the stories in Estilo Hip Hop combines the personal and political. Eli Efi, in São Paulo, Brazil, first appears on screen as he’s flying kites with a group of kids. As they scamper on a hillside, their neighborhood stretches below, drab and depressed. Eli Efi smiles. “In communities like these,” he says, “there are many black people that are ashamed of being black. I got into hip hop because I want freedom.” To that end, he founded the collective DMN and then the neighborhood association Abevic; each week, he performs for enthusiastic crowds on streets and in clubs. Urging their response to his call, against racism and for self-respect, Eli Efi promotes critical thinking and collaboration.
Similarly, in Havana, Cuba, Magia and her husband Alexi make clear their investment in hip hop as a way to shape awareness. She is especially focused on transforming the “role of women in hip hop.” While she understands the practical reality — she can feel “stuck in the kitchen” even living within a politically conscious home — she fights back by telling her life story in music. “In her self-encounter,” Magia raps, “She took stock of her life, / Saw herself at the center of arguments and scorn / From a mother who mistreated her occasionally. / Her father justified his neglect with his job.” Members of the group Obsesión, Magia and Alexis (under the name El Tipo Este) say they “promote political values as well as social moral values.”
Again and again, the artists in Loira Limbal and Virgilio Bravo’s sharp, engaging documentary reject personal success (lucrative contracts or individual fame) in favor of broader goals. These goals are not always specific but they are sincere; when DMN had to the chance to sign with Sony, Eli Efi decides against it. Of leaving the group he helped to form, he says, “It was the hardest thing I ever did. We had become a family.” And yet, he remains determined to work against corporate assimilation; by film’s end, he’s moved to New York City and started shining shoes to pay rent. “I don’t live I a fantasy,” he says, “I live in reality. This is what I have to do in order to not sell out.”
Still in Santiago, Guerrillero stays focused on his community work even as he releases a first CD, Verses of Resistance, which he sees as a way to reach more listeners and change more minds. “I’ve never subscribed to a particular ideology, but I feel political down to my bones,” he says. At the same time, Guerrillero understands the potential for hypocrisy and irony in the business of hip hop. “If you walk to shows and then take a car,” he muses, “People call you a sell-out. But I think that will change. As working class people, we’re not used to seeing ourselves as being capable of great things.” He means to embody that capability, to live out the example of self-improvement, even as he enters into a legal battle over custody of his children.
Family relations also shape Magia’s art, but in very different ways. Her focus on sexism and racism stems from her own experiences, which in turn inform her work with both Obsesión and the collective La Fabri_ka. Speaking out against the Cuban Revolution, Magia appears on stage, her vivid metaphors asserting her responsibility for her own education: “I’m Magia,” she announces, “The literary academy, serious and justified like agrarian reform. / My loose tongue is my bullet, annihilating any word-proof vest.” It’s hard to imagine anyone more “serious.”