Arts Listings

‘The Hip Hop Project: Rap Goes New Age

By Gar Smith, Special to the Planet
Friday May 11, 2007

You may not be a fan of the rap industry, but if you’re looking for a movie with more heart and soul than a dozen Dream Girls, check out The Hip Hop Project, which opens today (Friday). And there’s something else that sets this film apart: all the profits from ticket sales are being donated to youth art programs. 

You might expect something out of the ordinary when Bruce Willis and Queen Latifa team up to produce a film, and HHP delivers. This is a transcendently honest and emotional film that will rip you apart and hug you back together. Over the four years it took to film HHP, you can see a rag-tag group of New York kids age from troubled but driven 14-year-olds to amazing, accomplished young adults. 

The film soars on the personalities of a number of young rappers, including “Cannon,” “Princess,” and the former street orphan who inspires them to produce one of the best rap CDs of the year. Chris “Kazi” Rolle, survived on some of Manhattan’s meanest street and found his life transformed when he became a surrogate father to a family of talented but conflicted teens who were brought together by two common forces: pain and art. 

For people who “don’t like rap,” don’t fret. This isn’t gang-banging rap. The HHP was designed to be an antidote to misogynistic, chest-thumping gangsta rap. This is Rap 2.0. Instead of rapping about being supernatural toughs, Kazi’s kids are telling their own personal stories of struggle, abandonment and achievement. 

As one tough-looking kid raps his story, his lip begins to tremble and tears stream from his eyes. This is not your Snoop Dogg’s rap. 

According to HPP’s director Matt Ruskin, this movie was intended as “a call to end the destructive forces of violence, misogyny and criminality that dominate the music our children are listening to.” Although this New Rap has been stripped of references to bitches and hos, the film was originally rated R because of 17 “fucks” that are uttered during the movie. In a rare ruling, the MPAA Ratings Review Board reconsidered and granted HHP a PG-13 rating, citing the film’s positive images and concluding that the message was “too important to turn kids away.” 

In the course of the film, HHP shows how a scruffy would-be rap artist evolves into what one might be tempted to call sainthood. Kazi is one in a million, a kid who listens, feels and heals — a Soul Buddha from the Hood. At one point in the film, Kazi is even shown introducing his young peers to meditation. 

There’s a remarkable scene where Kazi confronts the mother who abandoned him. The encounter left the audience groaning in anguish and then, amazed by a long moment of wrenching honesty unmatched in cinema and rarely encountered in real life. During a live performance following a preview screening of the film in Oakland’s UA Emery Bay Stadium, Kazi had the crowd pumping fists and swaying to one of his songs.  

Halfway through his passionate mike-waving rap, Kazi inserted the lines of the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

This film has won 12 film awards, but because it’s plowing its profits back into impoverished communities, it doesn’t have a budget for expanded distribution. 

The distribution process is so grassroots that the film’s director, producer, and star are all traveling across the country to help promote these critical screenings. 


Gar Smith is a Berkeley writer and editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal.