Wild Style (1982)
Those clamouring for the days when rap and hip-hop were as non-commercial as they were militant would do well to observe the growth of the movement in places outside the United States. While feelings of nostalgia and the bewilderment of witnessing young white suburbanites shouting the latest ghetto phrases might lead us to believe the original intention of hip-hop has strayed from its course, around the world social revolutions are taking place — in part because of hip-hop. At the inaugural L’International du Cinema Hip Hop de Montréal, held from May 18 to 22, it became evident that hip-hop culture has become a global messenger for a new generation. What is even more astonishing is that in countries such as Cuba, Rwanda, Brazil, Burkina Faso, and Israel/Palestine (all of which featured in films), hip-hop has proven to be as socially malleable as other forms of art, and has adapted more than traditional forms of music. In many parts of the third-world, where the hip-hop movement is developing, you won’t see a majority of youngsters emulating 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg — hip-hop takes its form from each of the unique cultures in which it flourishes. The continuing racial divide in Latin America has been the ideal petri dish in which to cultivate hip-hop. Mexican President Vincente Fox’s recent comments about Mexican immigrants taking jobs “not even the American blacks want” only scratches at the surface of the issues present there for deconstruction. A drama based on a true story, Radio Favela, directed by Helvécio Ratton, chronicles a Brazilian community radio station that formed in the 1980s. The society the young Brazilian black would-be DJs live in is one of racial intolerance most Americans don’t even know exists. They live in the worst of slums and are surrounded by drugs and crime, yet their station is devoted entirely to the celebration of Brazilian music and the desire for social acceptance. While it takes place in Brazil, the story of this pirate station’s struggle to survive could just as easily take place in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles. It has been theorized that rap music can trace its origins to the traditions of African tribes, but it is American rap and hip-hop that has influenced young Africans. While colonists from Europe left the continent fifty years ago, the repercussions are still being felt. Like the governments of Nyerere in Tanzania and Senghor in Senegal, the youth of Africa desire to not only break away from their colonial past (which they never actually lived through firsthand) but to use hip-hop to forge a true African identity, similar to the way African socialism was seen as infusing the political models of socialist countries of the West with African traditions. Young rappers in Africa ponder the repercussions of adopting a more traditional way of performing. Kaidan Gakian of Niger would prefer to rap in his native tongue and perform with traditional instruments, but risks alienating his diverse fanbase (who only share French as a language). In Hip Hop Ouaga, a documentary directed by Benny Malapa about the Ouaga Hip Hop festival held in Burkina Faso, the rap scene seems not unlike the fledging scene in seventies New York — young Africans meeting to share ideas, experiences, and solutions to the social dilemmas they are facing. Musically diverse rappers from Benin, Niger, Senegal, and the host nation romanticize for themselves what Africa can become, while playing with musicians from France. As a group, the young rappers reached a consensus that African rap is more fresh and positive than the American style, as well as more courageous and militant. This extends to other forms of African hip-hop such as graffiti, traditional dancing, instruments and even acting. As idealists, they also believe in a future Africa as one nation without borders. The problems they face also don’t sound all that much different from what we normally hear from musicians in the West. Daara-J from Senegal spoke of massive pirating in Africa, while all of the young rappers found themselves unable to promote their records properly without a distribution label. The positive contributions of hip-hop in these areas aside, the often-blunt social messages associated with the movement can have the reverse effect. Anat Halachmi’s heartbreaking documentary Channels of Rage chronicles the ultimately doomed relationship between MC Tamer, a Palestinian rapper, and Subliminal, a Jewish rapper. While at first we see them sharing a tour bus, the tumultuous political situation in the region begins to wear on their improbable partnership. While Subliminal is a proud Zionist, his success only reinforces his own notions about his nationalist identity. He and Tamer first rap on stage together (both in Hebrew), and when the crowd chants death threats at Tamer, Subliminal comes to his defence, telling his fans to either support all of the performers or go home. Fast forward a year or so, and Subliminal is one of the top draws in the country, and his lyrics have become increasingly politically charged, “you’re in Tel Aviv you assholes!” As Sub’s star rises, Tamer’s falls as he becomes politically active as well. He is arrested for performing at a pro-Palestinian rally, and is forced to defend himself on Jewish television for comparing the Jews to Nazis. Tamer can’t even find success outside of Israel, and a potential tour of Egypt is quashed because of his Palestinian roots. He does, however, get a chance to tour Europe. Their relationship is a microcosm of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the film only reinforces the hopelessness of any future reconciliation. Thankfully a more positive ending occurs for the Cuban hip-hop supergroup La Fabri_k (The Factory), in the documentary of the same name directed by Lisandro Perez Rey. The northern town of Alamar, considered the birthplace of Cuban hip-hop because of the radio signals they could pick up from Key West, Florida, is where the two young groups, Doble-Filo and Obsesion, cultivate their brand of old-school hip-hop. It culminates in an opportunity for the group, minus one member, to perform in Florida and New York (the latter accompanied by the Roots). Of course, no film fest about hip-hop could omit the contributions of the United States. Legendary hi-hop documentaries Wild Style and Freestyle: The Art of the Rhyme were shown, and the directors, Charlie Ahearn and Kevin Fitzgerald respectively, attended to provide their insights into the state of hip-hop. Despite a 20-year span separating the making of Wild Style (1982) and Freestyle (2004), the underground hip-hop scene in its country of origin hasn’t changed all that much; except that the participants are even more skilled and competitive. The festival guide describes hip-hop culture as having become “commercialized into a money making syndicate, within the music industries smoky parade of sex, power and money,” but when you watch freestyle guru Supernatural perfect his craft and battle others simply out of pride and love of competition, it becomes evident that beneath the so-called smoky parade lies the same values of yesteryear. The first L’International du Cinema Hip Hop de Montréal could be considered a militant event amid the glut of summer festivals in the city (who benefit from larger government support), and while the films do celebrate the expansion of hip-hop as a global phenomenon, the event did little to promote the burgeoning local scene, which finds itself scratching and clawing for any shred of recognition. Hip-hop in Montreal needs as much help to achieve importance as many of these under-developed nations do. Still, the hip-hop film festival represents a baby step in proving that Montreal is indeed a capable hip-hop city and that hip-hop itself now belongs to the world.