'Bling'd: Blood, Diamonds and Hip-Hop,' Thursday on VH1
The jewelry that drips off big-time hip-hop artists too often comes from exploited African workers who live anything but large, argues the troubling new VH1 documentary, "Bling'd."
This connection isn't quite as lurid as that premise might at first sound. The show doesn't suggest hip-hoppers buy more Sierra Leone diamonds than, say, Park Avenue society. It doesn't suggest hip-hoppers know about their jewelry's history and blithely buy it anyhow.
But it does suggest that because many black American artists have ancestors who were exploited as slaves, they should be concerned when ornaments of their success come from a system built on similar exploitation.
It makes this point by traveling to Sierra Leone with three hip-hop artists - Paul Wall, reggaeton star Tego Calderon and Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan - and tracing diamonds back to a muddy stream in a mine.
While many products are created by exploited workers, this show suggests Sierra Leone diamonds have a particularly sordid back story: They were used as currency to fund a bloody rebellion that left thousands dead or mutilated before it ended in 2001.
That's how they came to be called "blood diamonds," which is also the title of a current Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
"Bling'd" touches on some of the politics of the war, including strong indications that South African mercenaries who helped beat the insurgents were rewarded with lucrative mine leases. But its focus is on the human side, and the most powerful footage comes at an amputee camp, where it's explained that one of the rebels' signatures was cutting off children's limbs.
When the group visits this camp, Raekwon at first stays on the bus, saying he's got sympathy, "but I just can't look at my people this way."
Since many folks would feel the same about an 8-year-old with a stump, it's a strong moment. It's also juxtaposed nicely with footage of a much happier Raekwon doing a guest rap at a Sierra Leone music club.
The trip has a sobering effect on the participants that should extend to viewers as well, and the producers clearly hope it will help put pressure on the diamond miners to channel more of their profits into helping Sierra Leone's people recover.
The implication for hip hop, specifically, is that since rappers are on the cutting edge of the bling biz, their help would be invaluable in spreading the word.
Like all good documentaries, this one speaks in a strong voice that knows exactly what it wants to say. It's not always pleasant to watch, but it's hard to turn away.
BLING'D: BLOOD, DIAMONDS AND HIP-HOP
8 p.m. EST Thursday