Arctic Hip Hop. Directed by Randy Kelly. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2007. 44 minutes.
#Bars4Justice. Directed by Queen Muhammad Ali and Hakeem Khaaliq. New York: Third World Newsreel, 2015. 9 minutes.
Arctic Hip Hop focuses on a five-day hip hop workshop for students at Kiilik High School in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut (population 1,477).1 On the first day, Stephen Lafloor, also known as B-Boy Buddha, debunks myths about what hip hop artists look like. This middle-aged, Caucasian male shares the following with his youthful listeners: “Just because I have tattoos doesn’t make me a thug,” “I’m a dad with three kids,” and “I’ve been a social worker for twenty-five years.” Although nervous at the start, the students move out of their comfort zones and find the courage to dance in front of everyone. As they dance, B-Boy Buddha tells them, “Hip hop was started by kids just like you” in the Bronx, and the purpose of this form of expression was for youth to reach inside themselves and express who they are through art, music, and dance. More than just teaching dance, B-Boy encourages the youth to question the world around them and mentions that in addition to learning about the origin and artistry of hip hop, they will “do intensive social-work talks” regarding community issues that affect them. He does this by encouraging them to reject commercialism and materialism by asking the question, “Wait a minute. What’s in it for them [business enterprises that possess financial power]?” He plainly states, “We call that critical thinking.”
Although I find that the discussions of depression and suicide lack depth, the hip hoppers do a great job of integrating this art form with serious social issues. For example, Sunny (also known as Cassandra) was in an accident, struggled with alcoholism, and ambulates with a walker, but because of the energy of hip hop performers says, “I didn’t think I would be here today,” and [I am] better than I ever imagined.” This leader of the community thanks the hip hop leaders, and during the final event they call “The Battle,” the young (hip hoppers who have practiced together for many hours) and old (elder members of the community) simultaneously embrace tradition and welcome this artistic form. This film thus shows that although many individuals in this small community—including Kiilik High School administrators, youth, and the general public—are wary of the Canadian Floor Masters because they fear the dancers will “not connect with the people here and learn about their culture first,” after witnessing the positive effect on the youth, their minds are changed. In particular, guidance counselor Ermie LeBlanc, substitute teacher Sarah Jancke, and principal Mike Simms develop a greater appreciation for hip hop because it does not compromise the values of the culture and gives youth the opportunity to develop their identity, connect with other youth, and cultivate strong relationships through teamwork. Through the family-like relationships that they build over five days, the students share that hip hop has helped them control their anger and eradicate their cigarette and alcohol use and/or abuse and has motivated them to create breakdance clubs or classes. Dance has given them an effective antidote for loneliness and thoughts of suicide. Ultimately, through this culturally respectful event, youth have a deeper appreciation for their culture, and the elders understand that hip hop validates their culture. As student Shannon Kemukton states, “It’s all about family!”
Arctic Hip Hop provides powerful evidence that hip hop is much more than a musical genre or form of aesthetic expression and has the power to connect generations and foster positive life change. Arctic Hip Hop and the other film reviewed here, #Bars4Justice, are relevant to a wide range of fields, including hip hop studies, indigenous studies, women’s and gender studies, communications, and sociology.
#Bars4Justice is a stirring documentary that opens with the unsettling voices of police officers speaking over intercoms, the lynching of Black males, and the chaos that ensues when police murder another unarmed Black male. It then informs viewers “Since the killing of Michael Brown, approximately 1,100 people have been killed in the United States by police.” Narrated by Jasiri X, a young hip hopper, this work highlights how hip hop activists have elevated the demoralized spirits of communities that lose someone due to police violence. For example, Jasiri X receives an invitation from Talib Kweli and other artists (e.g., Tori, Nakeemah McCray [also known as “Kay P”], 1-0 Technique, Pharoah Mon, Dead Prez, and Common) to raise money for the family of Michael Brown on the anniversary of Brown’s death (August 9, 2015). This electric free concert takes place at Fubar, a club in St. Louis, Missouri, yet sadly, on the same night this concert occurs, police murder Kimberly King, an unarmed Black teen, not far from the location where Brown lost his life. In the wake of their anger, frustration, and sadness, people of various ages, races, and socioeconomic statuses take to the streets, holding signs, walking arm-in-arm, and loudly crying, “Black Lives Matter!” When Jasiri X and the other protesters experience arrest, he cannot help but feel fortunate that he lived through this encounter with the police while Kimberly King did not. The documentary ends by featuring Black, Latino, and White males spitting socially conscious lyrics that highlight racial inequities, flaws in the criminal justice system, and the negative ways that many in society perceive Blacks. This short, yet powerful documentary makes the viewer feel part of the protest, helps them experience the emotions of the jailed protesters, and ultimately reminds everyone that civil rights are indeed human rights.
Because it sheds a powerful light on racial and socioeconomic injustice as well as the factors that foster individual and collective resistance, this documentary can catalyze fruitful discussions on race, gender, class, social inequities, power, and social and political activism. #Bars4Justice is relevant to a wide range of fields, including African American studies, criminal justice, sociology, women’s and gender studies, communications, and sociology.
1 For a more detailed analysis of hip hop, see Jeff Chang’s, Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation (New York: St. Martin's, 2007) and Nelson George’s, Hip Hop America (London: Penguin, 2005).