The Hip Hop Project

posted January 31, 2010 02:01:00 PM CST | 2 comments

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The Hip Hop Project, a just-released DVD documentary by Matt Ruskin, is the story of a group of teenagers dealing with great adversity and the mentor who inspires them. So, yes, this is a feel-good story, but it is not nearly as sentimental as those types of stories usually are. The reason for this is the honesty that of all the participants, particularly Kazi, the aforementioned mentor and founder of the Hip Hop Project at Art Start, a program focusing on exposing youth to the creative arts.

Throughout the film Kazi is unwaveringly supportive of his students and unflinchingly candid in his discussions with them, as well as being impressively open with the details of his own struggle. Kazi was born in the Bahamas and raised there in an orphanage and foster-care until he moved to New York City to live with his biological mother briefly before a falling out between the two left him homeless at the age of 15. Due to his hardscrabble roots, it is amazing that Kazi is as seemingly well-adjusted, confident, and responsible as he is. For this he credits Hip Hop and because of his own salvation through the music he works tirelessly to show the kids in his program that music can be a way out. He requires that they refuse to rap about clichés: drugs, money, violence, etc. He instead instructs them to be honest and to, like he did in his own life, subvert expectations and succeed.

This tact leads to some startlingly affecting scenes. One that is especially moving involves 17 year-old Ty who uses a therapeutic exercise to exorcise his own demons. He begins by imagining an argument between he and his father. The young man begs to be allowed to stay the night in his father’s home but is refused, being told that the older man’s “real sons” are sleeping inside. His speech slowly builds into rhymes. With tears streaming down his face and anger and a catch in his voice he begins with clichéd and obvious rhymes bust soon breaks through with crushingly detailed and brutally frank lyrics. It is as moving a depiction of an artistic breakthrough as you are likely to see on screen.
This film succeeds because it does not simply choose to be the behind the scenes tale of a group of kids making a record with funding by some famous names (Russell Simmons, Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah), but because it spends most of its time outside of the studio showing the life that inspires the rhymes. It can be bleak at times as the students face abortion, parents in prison, and death. But their resilience and Kazi’s doctrine of honesty first, not only in lyrics but everyday dialogue with one another, cuts through all the darkness. This aspiring rapper, and one time protégé of Doug E. Fresh, has an altruistic spirit and en enthusiasm that is genuinely infectious and will hopefully inspire a lot of people beyond the kids whose lives he has touched in person. Let’s hope this film is looked at as an truthful account of how to affect change, one that leads to more programs like this, and is not just written off as another “feel-good story.”

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