There’s an inspirational story lurking within The Hip Hop Project, but directors Matt Ruskin and Scott K. Rosenberg can’t quite seem to bring it out. Their documentary concerns itself with the titular project created by Chris “Kazi” Rolle at educational nonprofit organization Art Start (founded by Rosenberg) to use hip-hop as a vehicle for individual and social change. Kazi instructs his teenage participants to write and record an album of songs based on personal emotion and experience, his aim being to turn the tide of hip-hop away from materialism and misogyny and toward more enlightened introspection and honesty, and in the process teach his kids about the power of sincere expression and critical thinking. Should be slam-dunk subject matter, and yet Ruskin and Rosenberg are so (understandably) taken with Kazi—who grew up as an orphan in the Bahamas and then spent years on the streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn after being rejected a second time by his mother—as well as by budding rappers Diana “Princess” Lemon and Christopher “Cannon” Mapp, that they often lose their guiding narrative thread. The directors’ focus on these three principals lends the film a great deal of heart but, at the same time, a nagging lack of concentration, with the actual day-to-day operations of the Hip-Hop Project, which ultimately obtains funding and publicity from Russell Simmons and Bruce Willis, receiving second-billing behind Cannon’s attempt to maintain an apartment and graduate from high school and Kazi’s desire to reconcile with his estranged birth mother. Such mini-sagas provide an arresting glimpse into the deleterious role that absentee parents play in young African-American kids’ lives, but MIA is crucial information (for example, how did Kazi find and choose his students?) which might have brought more cohesiveness and heft to its portrait. As it stands, The Hip Hop Project‘s inability to juggle its various points of interest makes its eventual, modest uplift feel slight, and free of the complex ambiguity that arises from its finest scene, in which Kazi’s reunion with his mother reveals the difficulty of truly transcending one’s circumstances and past.
- 90 min
- Matt Ruskin, Scott K. Rosenberg
- Chris "Kazi" Rolle, Christopher "Cannon" Mapp, Diana "Princess" Lemon, Doug E. Fresh, Russell Simmons, Sway, Bruce Willis
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