A Talk With Rolle and Ruskin
Truth Without Compromise

On April 11th, 2007, I sat down to talk with Christopher “Kazi” Rolle and Matt Ruskin at The Max Hotel in Seattle. A couple of weeks earlier, I had screened Ruskin’s new documentary, The Hip Hop Project, which documents Rolle’s efforts to better himself—and others. I highly recommend the film, which goes into limited release May 11th.

Ruskin was first contacted about the film project by Art Start director Scott Rosenberg, but he wasn’t that excited about it until he actually met Rolle and spent some time with him—and it became a no-brainer. Both Rolle and Ruskin wanted to get the word out that if you are willing to sacrifice and take the time to give back to the communities in which you live, you can make a big difference. They also wanted young rappers and artists to know that they could develop commercial projects without compromising their own values under market pressures.

Currently, Rolle is traveling to promote the movie, and will soon be on a tour called the “90-Day Challenge,” which dares young MCs to craft their skills and vocabulary without degrading women and without advocating drugs and violence.

Kazi Rolle, subject of The Hip Hop ProjectRolle himself grew up in the streets, hustling from 8:00 pm to 8:00 am, and then attempting to go off to school. It wasn’t working, and he hated school—but he got much guidance from teachers (particularly Scott Rosenberg), as well as other mentors in the Church and in martial arts. He also joined a theatre troupe that helped significantly. This guidance and mentoring has set the foundation for much of Rolle’s desire to give back to the community, and help others in turn.

Rolle’s main goal in beginning The Hip Hop Project was to “help teens express themselves and their anger and their hurt in an artistic and helpful way”—instead of acting out in anger and violence. Rolle encourages teens to hone their skills in articulation so that they can tell their own stories, and feel heard.

MG: What do you feel Hip Hop has to offer the world?

Rolle: Basically, Hip Hop is a culture [that combines] expressions found all over the world, and is quite universal and influential. It is a form of expression that communicates feeling and story well. It gives youth the chance to express in dance and music what they are thinking and experiencing. There is no doubt that it is not the cause of our ills, but a mirror of them. Our culture is saturated with violence and sexuality, and Hip Hop expresses that reality.

MG: Is mainstream Hip Hop accomplishing that?

Rolle: Much of it does, but much of it is also influenced by economic success and catering to the market. There is a lot of good mainstream Hip Hop out there, but I would like to see a brand of Hip Hop that speaks the truth without compromise.

MG: Matt, you did a fantastic job bringing out some of the redemptive themes toward the end of the movie. Was it hard not to make these the focus of the film?

Ruskin: Yes, definitely; but time was our nemesis and we had to stick to telling a story in ninety minutes.

MG: Since the movie opened up your past relationships with your birth mom and your foster mom, Kazi, have you had ongoing relations with them?

Rolle: Absolutely! I speak with my foster mom often, and know that she put up with a lot of grief from when I was younger. I have also been able to meet my biological dad, and there has been a great deal of healing with other members of my family as well—as a result of these meetings!

MG: If the world would stop and listen, what would you tell it?

“Whatever you do, if you are willing to devote time and give back, you can effect changes in the world.”

Matt said it, and Kazi seconded it!