Rap, Heard Round The World

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

To the hip-hop cognoscenti, rap music's global appeal may not be groundbreaking news, but as a slate of films at this year's Filmfest DC makes clear, the art form resonates far beyond the Bronx, Philly or Compton. It belongs to anyone who wants in, be they B-girls, gays, Cubans, Tanzanians or, in the case of performance artist Danny Hoch, white guys having a little fun.

Hip-Hop 4 Reel -- the 10 feature films and five shorts screening as part of Washington's international film festival, which begins its 20th year tonight -- stands out as one of the fest's more distinctive sidebars.

That's not so much for the quality of the films. Most seem more concerned with covering their subjects than making artistically memorable works, although Jauretsi Saizarbitoria and Emilia Menocal's "East of Havana" is an eloquent tone poem to three engaging young Cuban rappers. The value of these films, then, is their content -- what they show and tell us about rap and the fascinating people who follow it. Viewed as a whole, they form a scrapbook of impressions, sensations and revelations from around the globe. We see not only how hip-hop spread to distant corners of the Earth and almost every variety of humanity, but how it has been reprocessed and redefined by each new convert.

And each rapper has his or her own story to tell, political issues to hash out, musical traditions to draw from. They take rap and live it, breathe it, bump it and squeeze it till it's synced to the beat of their souls.

You haven't heard the full promise of rap, for instance, until you've experienced Moroccans doing it "Maghreb style" in Belgian filmmaker Bart van Dijck's documentary "Bellek," or watched a young Argentine woman as she freestyles in Virgilio Bravo's nine-minute work in progress "Estilo Hip-Hop: America Latina."

You can appreciate rap's deep significance to a Cuban musician named Soandry, who (in "East of Havana") declares, "Hip-hop means struggle. It means having a determined attitude towards life. Rebellion. The fight to make things better. The detoxification of the mind and body. To me, it means freedom." Coming from someone living under Fidel Castro's regime, these words are anything but casual.

Cuba is the foreign country most represented here. In "Havana," which was produced by actress Charlize Theron, "Inventos: Hip Hop Cubanos," by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, and Lisandro Perez-Re's "La Fabri_K" (about the band of the same name), we see how young people have fused rap with the distinctive Cuban sound, that lazy conga happiness, and how they have made do with so little. Decent equipment, batteries and even electricity seem in short supply. Yet they find ways to express themselves, performing live or, when they can jury-rig a system, recording with no-tech aplomb.

They seem to have a different attitude toward poverty -- in stark contrast to the victimized fury that spits out from so many of their American counterparts. And their music seems to be more inclusive and user-friendly than the sturm-und-bling outbursts from Compton, Philly and the Bronx. When Alexey Rodriguez of the band Fabri_K takes a tour of America, his first trip beyond Cuba, you can feel his elation as he raps in Spanish on a New York subway train.

"I'm kickin' it here with a cellular phone," he improvises. "My homie right next to me is from Alamar/Yelandy's got my back and Magia does, too/I'm an MC straight out of Havana." He has transformed the burning embers of American rap into something else, something cheerier.

"East of Havana," which enjoyed an enthusiastic response at the recent South by Southwest Film Festival, stands out for its subjects, including Mikki Flow, who looks at his dusty old boombox, declares it a "museum artifact" but says, "It would break my heart to throw her away." That's right: His boombox is a woman. But the movie also provides perspective, showing how rap was affected by such political events as the collapse of Cuba's already flimsy economy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the exodus of 1994 in which 34,000 Cubans, including Soandry's brother Vladimir, fled the country.

Hip-Hop 4 Reel also includes home-grown films. Thomas Gibson's "Letter to the President," produced by Quincy Jones III, portrays rap as the only revolutionary means of expression for young black men and women who felt they were living in a parallel universe during Ronald Reagan's presidency. It exposes, too, the schism between those rappers and the older generation who had come through Jim Crow and the civil rights movement and found these rhyming epithets ungraceful.

Maori Karmael Holmes's short movie "Scene Not Heard" is a testament to the passion and brilliance of female rappers in Philadelphia. Among these musicians is Bahamadia, a poet and musician with a Buddhalike face, whose delivery is so rapid, smooth and fluid, it seems to come at you subliminally. And in "Beyond Beats and Rhymes," it's satisfying to see football-player-turned-filmmaker Byron Hurt take thoughtful exception to the rampant sexism in so many rap songs and music videos and in hip-hop culture in general. But rather than criticize blindly, he examines the roots behind this ignoble phenomenon -- the social tradition among many African American (and other) men of not showing weakness. Black men wear "psychic armor in order to walk out in the world every day," says a Spelman College professor and hip-hop historian. "But the other side of it is a running inside joke that everyone knows is not the case."

"Beyond Beats," like so many of these films, reminds you that hip hop-is always evolving and always surprising -- the true mark of any vibrant art form.

Hip-Hop 4 Reel, at Regal Cinemas through April 29. See http://www.filmfestdc.org/ for dates and show times.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company