A Hard Look at The Hip Hop Project
Taking It To The Streets—And Back
“I stopped listening to hip-hop 10 years ago.” … McDaniels points out that Run DMC rhymed about everything from materialism (“My Adidas”) and higher education (“I Go to St. John’s University”) to Santa Claus (“Christmas in Hollis”). “We weren’t choirboys, but we had multiple points of view. This past decade it seems like hip-hop has mostly been about parties and guns and women. That’s fine if you’re in a club, but from 9 a.m. till I went to bed, the music had nothing to say to me.” —Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC, Time, 9/29/05

Hip-hop has lost its moorings. Booty and bling has been the formula for success and it has all but destroyed the artistic and socially-conscious medium that grows at the roots of the hip-hop culture. Princeton University professor Cornel West calls the sell out version “Constantinian” hip-hop and says that it “revels in the fetishism of commodities, celebrates the materialism, hedonism, and narcissism of the culture (the bling! bling!) and promotes a degrading of women, gays, lesbians and gangster enemies” (Democracy Matters, 184).

Kazi Rolle, subject of The Hip Hop ProjectThe problem isn’t the medium, which is often speculated equally by older white and black conservatives—the problem is the market, which is 72% white, which, as West writes, longs for “rebellious energy and exotic amusement in their hollow bourgeois world” (183). No longer does the mainstream hip-hop scene have the classic prophetic voices of Grand Master Flash, KRS One, Afrika Bambaataa, or the Furious Five—but we have seen a upturn of on that front from underground MC’s like the Perceptionists and the Blue Scholars, as well as semi-mainstream rappers like Black Star, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, and Alicia Keys.

This is why I can stand up and applaud The Hip Hop Project, an incredibly cool production, and a heart-felt story by which only the semi-dead won’t be aroused. Chris “Kazi” Rolle was abandoned on the streets of New York (via the Bahamas) first by his biological mother and then his foster mother. Kazi, by his own admission, was a boy who got in a lot of trouble by the time he was 14 and needed an outlet for his angst and pain. In truth, it was the pain that caused the rebellion. Confusion, fear, and anger forced him to steal and to lash out to a society that threw him away.

Most often, the Kazis of the world end up unknown and in our prison systems, but by the grace of God and a love for music, Kazi got involved with Art Start, a teen project in New York City that helps youth express themselves through the arts. Kazi soon became the program director of a new project that centered on his love for hip-hop, and the “Hip-Hop Project” was born, taking various teens and working closely with them for four years to create an album that would express their voices.

The beauty of the project is that it was much more than a music project. It was a transformation project. It was an expression of the power of one individual making the difference in the lives of others. He began by raising the bar on their art. The youth were raised in hopelessness and anger, and their art was reflective of a mainstream love affair with violence and sex. Kazi matured them, and encouraged them to write about their experiences in ways that uplift, educate, and release. He simply asked the question, “If the world would stop to listen to what you had to say, what would you tell them?” That’s profound! Their music was born out of that question. What did they want the world to know about their lives, and their experiences and the social ills around them? He simply led them back to the roots of the medium that most of the world—including a whole new generation of fans that know nothing of the legacy of hip-hop—does not know.

This documentary steers clear of sensationalism and digging in to the ugliness of many of these teens’ lives, instead allowing us to understand the ugliness from the outside. The film centers on rising above it all, individual expression, and reconciliation. It allows us to witness the fruit of Kazi’s labor—creating an album with the help of Russell Simmons (Def Jam Records) and Bruce Willis, who footed the bill for the needed studio time for the project.

The Hip Hop Project, as well as movies like Born Into Brothels, and Rize, brings out the sublime in humanity. They remind us that when we begin to get outside of ourselves, and to “give back,” as Kazi exhorts, we begin to heal the hurts not only in the lives of others, but in our own lives. Kazi had many internal hurts, but he became a healer, a sacrificer of himself for the transformation of others. This alone is a message that we all need to be reminded of.

It also reminds us that there are many potential artists walking the streets of major cities in this world, never to be discovered or given the opportunity to use their talents and abilities—or to even get a chance to express the experiences and pain of their own lives in any kind of medium. Kazi reminds us of that when he says that “the Criminal mind is a creative mind. It all depends where you put your energies.” How true that may be, and how easy is it to judge when we’ve been afforded the opportunities to succeed when many haven’t.

As much as this movie is about music, and the power of art in broken communities, it is also about reconciliation as Kazi travels back to the Bahamas to meet up with his foster mom, and finally with his biological mom who abandoned him at birth. These are not only touching moments in the film, but highlight the need for forgiveness and reconciliation—in spite of the reaction of those that hurt you. Though the movie may have been a bit more powerful had it centered more on these stories, it still showed the integrity and courage of Kazi to reconcile some very hurtful things in his life.

Kazi’s story shows how the power of one can transform a broken community into something sincere and beautiful. There isn’t a community that isn’t broken and in need of transformation. It is important for all of us to reach out to the broken in our midst, and seek peace and reconciliation.

This is one of those movies to think about and dialogue with—let its ethos penetrate an often lugubrious existence.

If pop culture is your thing, I would not only recommend this movie, I’d also say go out and support Art Start by buying HHP Vol. 1, the first Hip-Hop Project’s album, with 17 tracks. And by the way—100% of the net profits from this film are being donated to organizations working with youth.

The Hip Hop Project is Rated R “for language.” This is Hip Hop, baby. Expect it.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of The Hip Hop Project. Also see Mike’s interview with Kazi Rolle and director Matt Ruskin.