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The Many Colors of Black Music

Hip Hop Artist Kazi Performs

Saturday, October 21---As the Turks and Caicos International Film Festival, an event devoted to the relationship between film and music, moves into its final stanza, one of the relevatory aspects of the event has been the remarkably vibrant rainbow of contemporary black music. While rap, hip hop and rhythm and blues (or a mix of all of the above) is clearly the dominant trend, black artists continue to expand the form of jazz, reggae, singer-songwriter and rock music. In a mix of documentaries, fiction films and live concert events, the Festival has captured the undeniable talent and multiple colors of contemporary black music.

When it was first introduced in the late 1980s, rap and hip hop was deemed a gimmick, a decidedly limited urban music that would never crossover to the mainstream. That was a time when the only black artist who got airplay on MTV was Michael Jackson. Well, those pundits were as wrong as wrong could be. Rap and hip hop have become the musical expression of our times, with an especial resonance for black urban performers who find catharsis in the creation of the music to voice their frustrations, fears and inspirations in dealing with the social inequities that continue to plague American culture.

Prince

While the “gangster” image and the ties to drugs and violence make great headlines, a number of thoughtful artists are seeing greater potential in the transformational nature of hip hop music. Two films in the festival point this out in a thoughtful and accessible way.

In THE LAST DAYS OF LEFT EYE, a polished VH1 production by veteran music director Lauren Lazin, the last days of hip hop/r&b superstar Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes is chronicled, before her untimely death in an auto accident in Honduras. The film, which combines archival footage with music videos of Lopes and her cohorts in the amazingly successful supergroup TLC, also integrates confessional videos Lopes shot herself at the Honduran jungle retreat where she continually returned to find solace and spiritual renewal. The pressure of superstardom, the greed of record companies and managers, and the artist’s continued struggle to be original in an industry that demands repetition, are all here, along with a prescient video diary of Lopes’ spiritual quest to address old wounds and find true expression through her music.

Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes

The power of music to change troubled lives is also the concept and inspiration behind THE HIP HOP PROJECT, the dynamic and inspirational story of a pro-active arts and social initiative that allows New York inner city teenagers a chance to learn about the music industry, as it allows for an outlet for personal transformation through the creation of original hip hop music. Co-directed by Matt Ruskin and Scott K. Rosenberg, and executive produced by Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah, the film follows a number of teenagers who are given the opportunity to create new music and record their tracks on an album, finding expression and self-fulfillment through hip hop’s poetry and rhythms.

The Hip Hop Project

The film also delves into the personal life of the Project’s mentor, Kazi, a young Bahamian who is abandoned by his parents and lives a hardscrabble life on the streets in New York City. Becoming involved with Art Start, a not-for-profit arts organization that encourages self-expression and development through music and the arts, Kazi finds his calling and his artistic voice by becoming a mentor to the young people who share aspects of his difficult childhood. In the film’s most wrenching scene, Kazi finally confronts his mother and reaches a point of reconciliation that allows him to transcend his personal pain and unleash his purest artistic gifts.

Kazi

The inspirational documentary was screened as part of the Festival’s Youth Arts Day, with several dozen high schoolers from a local school brought in to screen a series of films and hear from inspirational lecturers. The messages inherent in THE HIP HOP PROJECT clearly resonated with the young audience, who were also treated to an impromptu performance by Kazi after the screening.

Youth Arts Day At Festival

Jazz is, of course, one of America’s only true artistic inventions. And yet the audience for the music remains remarkably marginal, as jazz artists receive very little radio airplay outside of college or public radio stations. And for purveyors of progressive jazz, as opposed to the “happy jazz” that is commercially termed light jazz, the struggles are even greater. A film in the Festival addresses this issue by deftly combining a fictional narrative with live performances by burgeoning jazz artists. BRASS TACKS, directed by Gavin Dougan, tells the story of a group of young, hungry and talented jazz musicians who struggle to find an audience (and a record deal) for their wildly expressive and “difficult” music. It personalizes the lonesome road that musicians must travel who insist on not following the tried-and-true formats and buck the system with ferocious energy.

BRASS TACKS Director Gavin Dougan

Their struggles are mirrored in their fellow African-American musicians who are struggling to express themselves through punk rock and heavy metal, two musical genres where blacks have not had a major following. Two films in the Festival explore the difficulties of black artists attempting to be recognized in genres that are generally reserved for white musicians.

ELECTRIC PURGATORY, directed by Raymond Gayle, gives a historic perspective by chronicling the early struggles of such seminal rockers as Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix and Rick James to break into the almost exclusive white world of rock and roll. Hendrix has come closest, but perhaps because of his iconography as one of the short lived casualties of the 1960s.

Little Richard

While certain rock groups did have some cross over success by cannily mixing rock with r&b rhythms (specifically Sly and the Family Stone, Earth Wind and Fire, Prince, Rage Against The Machine, Living Color, Fishbone, Lenny Kravitz), those whose sound was more “hardcore” have had a struggle to be accepted into the all-white punk and heavy metal clubs. Featuring revelatory interviews by musicians from such contemporary groups as Blackbushe, Brothers From Another Planet, God Forbid, Burnt Sugar and Weapon of Choice, the film explores the challenges of black artists who insist on following their own muses, even though commercial success and a following by their own communities remain tantalizingly out of reach.

Brothers From Another Planet

AFRO PUNK, by director James Spooner, explores similar territory, tackling the hard questions that confront black musicians who find expression through punk rock, a genre with limited appeal to a black consumer audience. Such issues as loneliness, exile, inter-racial dating, accusations of “selling out” and the artists’ personalized expression of black power are vividly explored. The film follows the lives of four black musicians who have dedicated themselves to the punk rock lifestyle and musical expression. They find themselves living in conflict, torn between their identification with their community and their immersion in a punk world that hardly has any members of color in it.

AFRO PUNK

Adding to the mix of musical colors at the Festival have been some outstanding live concerts, most notably the intimate singer/songwriter revelations of Raoul Midon and the funk-meets-reggae feel-good rhythms of Caribbean music sensation Elvis White. It’s been a feast for the eyes and the ears at the Turks and Caicos International Film Festival.

Elvis White


Sandy Mandelberger
Festivals Editor

Comments (1)

Sweet Honey In The Rock

Is it true that Sweet Honey In The Rock's documentary RAISE YOUR VOICE will be shown at this festival and if so, will they perform?

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Online Dailies coverage of the 3rd Turks and Caicos International Film Festival, October 16 to 21, 2007

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