Hip Hop Project, The

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Though burdened by a need to be uplifting, The Hip Hop Project is a commendable documentary with many engaging on-camera subjects. Hip-hop aficionados will quibble with some of the generalities made about the current rap-music scene, but director Matt Ruskin has made a slick yet affecting look at a group of aspiring artists trying to better themselves through personal expression.

The Hip Hop Project centers on Chris Kazi Rolle, abandoned as a child by his mother in the Bahamas but eventually moved to the U.S. in his teens to track her down. After an unsuccessful reunion attempt, Kazi was living on the streets in Brooklyn, but he found his calling when he began participating in an educational support group that encouraged creativity as a means to address social and personal problems. In 1999, motivated to help others in similar ways, he began the Hip Hop Project, an organization devoted to troubled urban teenagers, aiming to give them an environment to vent their frustrations and dreams through rap music.

Ruskin divides his film between Kazis life and the lives of some of his students, who must contend with poverty, eviction, and broken families while fine-tuning their rhymes. Tired of mainstream gangster raps misogyny and materialism, Kazi exhorts his pupils to focus in their raps on the honest realities of their day-to-day experience. The ensuing saga follows the students as they write, record and release an album of the groups material.

Offering an inspiring message about how people from modest means could lift themselves up through perseverance and heartfelt expression, The Hip Hop Project unfolds as a nonfiction version of the inner-city fiction films (often based on true stories), where an encouraging, charismatic teacher rallies disaffected minorities to believe in themselves and to follow their dreams. As in Freedom Writers (with Hilary Swank) or Take the Lead (to cite two recent examples of the sub-genre), creativity helps to unlock young minds, giving the students greater self-confidence and focused direction.

There have been so many iterations of this cinematic model, that its easy to be cynical when The Hip Hop Project takes a similar road. However, while the story told feels familiar, the documentary succeeds on the strength of the personalities on display.

While Kazi comes across at first as an almost unbelievably selfless, upbeat individual, Ruskin offers small hints of the desperate little scrapper he must have been as a motherless child, which suggests how his outwardly optimistic persona conceals a certain amount of unresolved unhappiness from his youth. These unresolved issues come through strongest, when Kazi finally speaks to his mother near the end of the film in a tense get-together whose resolution is emotional and unexpected.

Additionally, several of the students, including hopeful rappers Christopher Cannon Mapp and Diana Princess Lemon, are appealing figures who, despite being pushed to the margins of our society due to poverty and lack of formal education, are able to communicate through eloquent rhymes and emotional performances.

Ruskin sometimes diminishes his subjects by glossing over the individual hardships they must overcome, turning them into generic cases to root for. Thus, by following such a predictable path, The Hip Hop Project sometimes seems to force the students subjective narratives into predetermined inspirational narrative arc, where just about everyone finds a “happy ending.”

The harsh realities of inner-city life, with its many obstacles and self-destructive temptations, get only a light examination due to the filmmakers' primary goal, to focus on the students third-act triumphs.

While Kazi (and by extension the film) should be lauded for denouncing the rampant sexism and violence in gangster rap, more discriminating hip-hop fans will argue that his organization is hardly the only outfit offering an alternative to mainstream hardcore rap music. In the late 1980s, groups like De La Soul have sought a more enlightened approach to rhyming, concentrating on such issues as self-knowledge, black history, and the scourge of drug abuse in the African-American community in their lyrics. While these acts have failed to dominate the charts like their coarser, thuggish contemporaries, such recent artists as the Grammy-winning Kanye West continue this tradition of intelligent discourse in mainstream hip-hop.

By simply addressing how Kazis group fits into this alternative movement, The Hip Hop Project would have been a more well-rounded examination of the issue. Instead, the film gives Kazi too much credit for his anti-materialism crusade, creating the false impression that he is the only figure in the hip-hop world that's concerned with the negative messages being sold to audiences.

Despite deficiencies that hamper the film, the students talent overcomes all. Not since Curtis Hanson's 8 Mile has a movie provided such a glimpse into the creativity that goes into the verbal dexterity inherent in great rhyming. As a result, its a treat to consistently watch these young men and women find their voice figuratively–and literally.

Credits

Running time: 85 minutes

Director: Matt Ruskin
Production company: Pressure Point Films
US Distribution: THINKFilm
Producer: Scott K. Rosenberg
Executive Producers: Bruce Willis, Queen Latifah
Editor: Matt Ruskin
Cinematography: Ari Issler, Matt Ruskin