Chris "Kazi" Rolle was a homeless teenager struggling at a "last chance" New York City high school when he found Art Start, an innovative program designed to reach at-risk kids through the arts. Art Start gave Rolle a chance to voice his anger and pain, as well as his hopes and ambitions, through rap music.
After several years of involvement (and personal evolution) in the program, Rolle established his own branch of Art Start, first known as Word.Life and eventually called The Hip Hop Project. The Hip Hop Project movie documents the efforts of Rolle and the project's participants to write, produce and release their first collaborative album.
Early in the film, Rolle admits that the leaders of Art Start took a chance when they let a young man with a troubled past head up a new endeavor. "Pressure either busts pipes or makes diamonds," he says, with a charismatic grin that hints at which way it turned out. The Hip Hop Project is, fittingly, the story of diamonds in the rough; it takes an inspiring look at the ways a group of disadvantaged but talented adolescents turns pain into art, and need into community.
First time director Matt Ruskin has a great but rather unwieldy story to tell. Many films have mined this sort of teens-redeemed-through-constructive-outlets-and-a-caring-mentor territory (Freedom Writers, Coach Carter, and Take the Lead come to mind). But unlike those fictionalized dramas, The Hip Hop Project must follow unscripted, unpredictable, and sometimes unsavory twists and turns in the lives of its participants. The director faces the daunting task of documenting both the group's creative struggle (over a period of several years), and the individuals' compelling but sprawling back-stories.
Ruskin is not always up to the task. The film's chronology is confusing at best, and some of the peripheral players are never really defined or contextualized. Early in the film, Ruskin seems to substitute reenactments and montages for in-the-moment documentation. Although his use of stylish color saturation and various motion effects is eye-catching, it creates an odd slickness that keeps the viewer one degree removed from the story. Fortunately, as the film develops, Ruskin wisely begins to focus on a few key individuals, and the documentary finds a more raw and immediate tone better suited to its subject matter.
One of those individuals is Christopher "Cannon" Mapp, an intelligent, expressive teen (he is 14 when he joins the group) coping with his mother's MS-related decline and eventual death. His masterpiece is "Once Had It All," a gut-wrenching rap that describes with brutal honesty the ravages of his mother's disease and its effect on him. The lyrics give graphic details of his mother's condition ("She couldn't do something as simple as go to the toilet to remove her bowels/To me—That's … foul"), and yet convey the young man's sense of injustice with poignant restraint ("I felt God acted inconsiderately").
The film documents Cannon's legal battle with an unethical landlord for the right to continue renting his mother's apartment, where he lives with his grandmother and toddler-aged niece. We get our best sense of the young man in scenes shot inside the apartment, where he argues politely with his grandmother over his poor grades, declaring with male adolescent bravado that his inevitable success in music will make an education unnecessary. As grandmother and grandson each make their case to the cameraman, the audience gets to enter the kitchen—and the lives—of these very real people in a very authentic way.
Another rapper featured in the film in Diana "Princess" Lemon. Princess is also 14 when she joins the project; by the film's end she is in her first year of college. She lives the four intervening years under the weight of two heavy burdens. The first is her father's incarceration for drug trafficking, and her fear that he will receive longer jail time or get deported. The second is her angst over an abortion, and the film returns several times to her piece "A Mother's Cry." Although it's doubtful the filmmakers would identify themselves with the pro-life cause, Princess' lyrics (and her pain) are a powerful treatise for the sanctity of life:
Laying on the table while the doctor flashing the light
I feel an injection and they robbed my baby like a thief in the night
I woke I seen the crooks they left without a trace
And the evidence they left was a puddle of blood
I felt bad even though I co-conspired the crime
Sometimes I wish it was me instead of my baby that died
The third individual featured in The Hip Hop Project is Rolle himself, who is so passionate and irresistibly likeable he lights up every frame he's in. When he takes a trip to his native Bahamas, the film begins to fill in the blanks of his past. Abandoned by his mother at six months old, young Chris ended up in a children's hostel and eventually foster care. A failed reunion with his mother left him homeless in New York City at 15. Rolle acknowledges that, for all the progress he's made in his life, his unreconciled relationship with his birth mother continues to hold him back. "I can't rise if I got weight on me, you know?" he admits, just before he journeys to his mother's house in one of the movie's most powerful scenes. She seems incapable of giving her son the connection he needs—it's hard to say whether it is the awkwardness of being filmed or simply an emotional stunted-ness that holds her back—but Rolle is able to forgive and ask for forgiveness in an astonishing display of grace.
The Hip Hop Project is of course also about the music business. Def Jam Records founder Russel Simmons becomes a financial backer for the project and challenges the participants to avoid the misogyny, violence and materialism of gangsta rap and offer something fresh. (The fact that he's made millions of dollars on the kind of music he derides makes his input ironic, yet strangely credible.) Simmons also brings Bruce Willis into the picture, and the two men provide the cash-strapped project with a recording studio. (Willis eventually executive produced the film, along with Queen Latifah.) '80s rap icon Doug E. Fresh, Rolle's own mentor, appears briefly. So does MTV personality Sway, who enjoys some of the film's lighter moments providing media coaching and trading attitudes with the kids.
By far the most eloquent representative of the music industry is Robin "Kheperah" Kearse, a former employee of Def Jam and Arista who becomes The Hip Hop Project's champion and Rolle's girlfriend. Kearse is able to articulate the power of hip hop (both as a cultural movement for an entire generation, and as a form of healing for the subjects of the film) in an amazingly lucid way, and her commentary is an invaluable contribution to the film. She is also, as the woman who loves Rolle, an important part of our protagonist's evolution.
The Hip Hop Project makes forceful statements about art and urban decay, the music industry, abortion, parental abandonment, culture wars, and individual perseverance over obstacles. But perhaps its most compelling message is about the importance and power of community. Rolle claims the project's participants spent the first two years primarily learning to trust each other, and the film's audience is privileged to watch his group of scrappy orphans pray and cuss and fight and stay together. Long before the participants could become recording artists, they needed to become family. "We all get into emotional ruts, into quicksand," Rolle tells his protégés. "You need people to pull you up."
The Hip Hop Project, for all its technical challenges and flaws, triumphs in shouting that message.
- The members of The Hip Hop Project are, for better or worse, incredibly real with one another. Do you have a community (or even a single friend) you can be completely authentic with? If not, what steps could you take to find that sort of relationship? Would you want to? Should you want to?
- The participants who succeed in The Hip Hop Project are the ones who use their admiration and envy for each other's work to push themselves on. When you are around someone who is excellent at what they do, does it shut you down or motivate you? Is there at least one person in your life that helps you strive for more, as "iron sharpens iron" (Proverbs 27:17)?
- "The criminal mind is a creative mind," says Rolle. "It's all where you put that energy." Are there criminal or delinquent minds—particularly young ones—in your community who could benefit from an opportunity to redirect their energies? How could you be a part of the solution?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
The Hip Hop Project was originally rated R for language. There are 17 occurrences of the "f" word, and an R rating is usually given when there are more than two usages of the word. Ruskin (the director) and Rolle (the "star") appealed the rating, mainly "to allow teenagers access to see this film because they are the ones who need it most," said Rolle. "After years of working with teens, I know you have to reach them when they are young. Just as I didn't have a parent to take me to the movies when I was a teenager, many of the young people who would benefit most from this film would have been denied access if the R rating stood." They won the appeal, on the basis that the "positive images and inspiring message" of the film justified exposing young people to its content—and it is now rated PG-13. Other than the language (which also includes frequent use of the "n" word and other profanity, mostly in the context of song lyrics), there is no violence or sex in the movie, and the film does present many redemptive themes and storylines.
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