Film Series Spotlights D.C. Style Of Hip-Hop

By Akeya Dickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

This is what two local men hope the D.C. hip-hop scene can become: Local emcees and independent artists freestyling in a lyrical battle, waiting their turn to spit out rhymes about where they're from or simply to release a clever stream of thought "off the top."

Just such a cypher -- or session of improvisational rap -- was part of the Hip Hop Cinema Cafe last month, in the first of a planned monthly series of film screenings and discussions dedicated to all things hip-hop, with a special nod to local artists.

Washington natives Kimani Anku and Brandon Felton have led the effort to put the series together. The duo, the principals behind the marketing and events company SolSource Group, also launched the annual "Can a Sista Rock a Mic?" showcase of female singers and rappers in 2005.

"Hip-hop here in the city -- people don't know about it and where to get it from, but I think it's starting to open up with [local artists] Tabi Bonney and Wale opening doors," Anku said. "Hopefully, all the old heads are able to get more exposure. I think D.C. definitely does have its own niche, its own swagger and style."

At the D.C. Historical Society on Jan. 31, performers and fans shared the lobby with black-and-white images of Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt and other U.S. presidents arrayed on placards from a history exhibition.

The crowd that filled the City Museum's theater that afternoon came to watch "Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme," by Kevin Fitzgerald, a filmmaker also known as DJ Organic. His film is a work in progress, an experimental documentary that focuses on improvisational rap. He traces the style to the 1980s, highlighting some of the genre's more well-known contributors, such as Supernatural, Craig G, Black Thought, Juice and the Freestyle Fellowship.

Also screened were clips of locally produced projects, "Rest in Beats," and an independent documentary on record producers, in addition to Anku's tentatively titled "The DC Hip-Hop History Project," which aims to chronicle the city's long relationship with rap.

Following the screenings, local TV and radio host Konyka Dunson moderated a panel discussion by local artists. They showed a music video titled "The Warning," which includes area artists Sunrock, the Package, Enoch Ras and the Grammy Award-nominated Kokayi.

At future Cinema Cafe events, Anku and Felton plan to screen trailers of new and in-progress documentaries related to hip-hop, as well as snippets from Anku's project.

Anku, who lists Head-Roc, Kokayi and Emoni Fela among his favorite local rappers, said he started the series to give other beginning filmmakers a platform to show their works, and as a way to "offer something educational for everyone, to not just focus on what's on the radio," he said.

"Local artists are stepping up with their music videos. . . . I want SolSource to be a part of that," Anku said. "They still aren't getting the support that they really need, which is on the radio. Once you hear local artists on the radio every day, it has an impact."

Stephanie Hill, 27, who attended the event and works in production management for the Discovery Channel, said information about a lot of the area's hip-hop events travels largely through word-of-mouth and blogs.

"I think the hip-hop scene is very underrepresented," she said. "There are a lot of underground groups and forums like this one. A lot of promotion happens around the universities. I have friends in the arts and find out about these events that way, since a lot of them are usually a fusion of things -- poetry, freestyling, art."

Anku said he is hopeful about the future of hip-hop in the Washington area.

"We were shocked with all the different kinds of people who showed up," he said of the first Hip-Hop Cinema Cafe. "With President Obama in office now and him being black and white, we think more people are open to crossing cultural and color lines because of him. I think D.C. is a hotbed right now, and in the next year or two, D.C. is going to be the spot, if not sooner."

Anku and Felton have an agreement with the D.C. Historical Society to test the series for six months. The next Hip-Hop Cinema Cafe is scheduled at 2 p.m. Feb. 28. The society's building is at 801 K St. NW, in Mount Vernon Square.

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