Pras Michel on Skid Row
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In his latest project, hip hop artist, actor, and filmmaker Pras Michel (The Fugees) goes undercover for 9 days and nights as a homeless person in downtown LA's notorious Skid Row. I met up with Pras in a hotel lobby in Manhattan to discuss Skid Row , the documentary based on his time on the street living with 90,000 people in a 50 square block area. Pras talked to me about Muhammed Ali, why he likes Obama and doesn't go for Bill Cosby, how Oprah and Snoop could help the "lost African-American" generation by meeting face to face, and why we're in a "transitional moment."
Check out www.skidrowthemovie.com to find where it's showing near you.
Why did you make this movie?
To make people aware. The majority of Americans just want to be able to work and provide. People on Skid Row ... they just want to be able to work, they don't care what it is. A lot of people think if something's going on over here and not where they are, then it doesn't affect them. We have to get away from that mindset. Keeping the masses ignorant is hurting the country. If people were educated, they would learn to not pollute. I know the theory about short term vs. long term. But you gotta think about your children, your children's children ... things that we think don't affect us, come back and affect us.
We saw this mindset during the AIDS crisis. No one cared because it apparently was only for homosexuals. Then AIDS showed that it did not discriminate. That's what's happening with homelessness. The health care crisis and the foreclosure crisis are distant, if not near cousins of homelessness. Millions of people losing their homes. Not all of them have people to stay with until they figure out their situation. This project is supposed to make people aware, to build a community. The globe has gotten smaller, more interconnected. We gotta start thinking like that. My job is to get people to realize that. Our goal isn't to say we have a solution because we don't. But we can show people that thinking "I'm gonna make it on my own. and if I'm successful I did it on my own, forget about everybody else" is wrong.
Did your own success make it hard for you to stay grounded and feel connected to the community?
I think the person that I am now, innately, has always been inside me. Success doesn't change us, it amplifies who we really are. If I'm an asshole, I'm gonna become a major asshole with power and money. If I'm a hermit, I'm gonna build a moat around my house so no one can come near me.
What surprised you most about Skid Row?
I met someone who said he hadn't been distracted by women in three years. That's how he stayed clean. Any little distraction and he would have slipped back. In my world, I think about sex -- I mean I don't think I think about sex like the average man does --
Which is 24/7?
Which is 24/7, I'm probably like ...
No really, more like 22/7 right?
Yeah ... I can't lie to you -- sex was nowhere on my mind. Maybe because I was getting acclimated. But if I was there longer, I probably would have adapted.
And I surprised myself. When you're homeless a lot of things go out the window because it's all about survival. I had to do certain things I don't do. Like I'm not one of those people who smiles. It doesn't mean I'm not happy. It's just not part of my temperament. I never had to do that before. But on Skid Row, when I was looking for money, a guy said to "smile". He was gay. I'm not homophobic, far from it. Most guys would get offended. I wouldn't get offended, I just wouldn't smile. But on Skid Row when this guy offered me $5 to smile, I'm thinking, I have to eat. So I smiled for him. And another woman said to me, "Come on brother, it can't be that bad. Smile." And I smiled for her too.
I was really surprised by how nice people were to you and how much they opened up to you. Was it your smile?
Well they saw me as part of the community. They saw me around. It wasn't like I was an outsider. They saw me on the sidewalk. And they would save my little section for me when I came back late. That was New York's [Pras's alias] little home.
How did you feel about going undercover? Did you feel conflicted about violating people's trust, even if it was in order to raise awareness?
No because I walked the walk.
So how did people respond when you told them who you were?
They thought it was good that we were exposing it, and exposing it in the realest form. It wasn't some Tyra Banks thing, going in there for two hours with no makeup. This was real.
What was the scariest part?
The unknown. Somebody got shot around the corner from where I slept. Someone could stab with you a needle and then you're done.
What did you learn on Skid Row?
I learned a lot. I learned a lot from the people on Skid Row. I was a student down in Skid Row. I was like a student at Oxford University. Like Philly [who lives on Skid Row] is brilliant. He builds computers. This dude is a computer geek ... I mean we adapt to our situation. You take Philly and you take him from the street and put him in a corporate job -- everything he learned he's able to upgrade it to a level, to a corporate side. Just like if you're corporate and not street-smart and you become homeless, you're gonna be able to downgrade it to make it work on the street. That's how you're able to survive.
Is hip hop still political?
Hip hop is just a mild version of what Reverend Wright was saying to his community. And it just got acceptable because it had music behind it and people said, "They're entertaining us. They don't really mean it." Then hip hop became successful, got away from what the agenda was, started doing the gangster stuff. So hip hop lost all edge, all credibility. But it used to be the black CNN.
Are there any hip hop artists who still have the edge and credibility?
Mos Def, Talib Kweli, but it's such a cult thing. The African-American generation is lost. They're not being represented correctly. The leaders, the Bill Cosbies, the Oprahs, instead of sitting down, they'd rather just criticize and point fingers. And they don't understand. Oprah, instead of saying, "Snoop is misogynist," can call Snoop and say, "Come see me in Chicago." He'll be more than happy to. And she can say, "Snoop, explain to me the disrespect of women, the homophobic thing, the gangster thing. Explain to me how is that advancing the community." And then he's gonna express it. And you're gonna have a form of dialogue. And guess what? Whatever she says, he may not totally agree, but it's going to influence him. Then maybe Snoop will come out and say, "Listen ... it's all about the community now. I'm not saying I'm making mom and pop songs but I'm gonna be a little more conscious. I wanna do more. " Because we know Oprah is the god.
So you're saying if there was dialogue, instead of finger-pointing ... ?
Oprah and Bill Cosby know you're not supposed to do certain things. But if you come from a broken home, you grew up without a father, how are you supposed to know? Just because black people don't relate to Oprah doesn't mean they don't respect how gangster she is. They know she is a beast. You can't deny who she is. Oprah can make the argument -- "Listen, I came from a hard life." But you take 10 people and put them through the same thing, maybe 2 of them will come out of it OK. So we need a dialogue, we need communication.
What about the Cornel Wests of the world?
I love Cornel West. I respect him. But a black kid on the street don't have a clue who he is. Look, When Muhammed Ali came out ... the reason he's "the people's champ" ... is because he was defiant, he went against the U.S. government when they wanted to ship him to Vietnam. And he stood by it and people stood by him. Nobody called Michael Jordan "the people's champ." ... Michael Jordan is a sell-out. There are lots of black sell-outs.
Somebody said to me you only like Obama because he's black. Well I can think of a couple black people I wouldn't vote for. I'm not into black power. And on the other end of the spectrum, you got the Uncle Toms, the Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice ... I'm not into that either. Obama is a uniter. He's perfectly comfortable with the skin he's in. He's not gonna sell out. That's a man of great principle.
The African-American generation is a lost generation unless something happens quickly. You have a generation of kids who are lost. Twelve-year-olds having sex and not understanding the meaning of that ... People don't understand the power of having someone on a certain level that you can identity with. Five months ago, young African-American people didn't care about politics. Until Obama. If you are a young black person, you can relate to him because he's black and he's running for the highest office and he has a real good shot. He's articulate, he's smart, he's smooth. The people in the black community, in the urban community, are changing their style, the way they dress, because they see someone they relate to. He's not Charlie Rangel. He's only 46. He's 10 years older than me. He probably listens to hip hop and Mozart and jazz at the same time. I'm telling you, people don't realize the power of that speech Obama gave. Trying to hide and act like it didn't happen is like having a wound that can never heal. Obama is walking a tightrope. But we need to talk about this stuff. It's like if you're in a relationship with someone and something's not going well and you try not to talk about it because you hope it's going to disappear. It's not. I thought it was brilliant ... By the way, I don't formally support Obama. I just want people to know I really like him.
I do not believe governments change willingly. LBJ didn't sign the Civil Rights Act because he wanted to. It was the pressure of the times. The times inspired Rosa Parks. The times inspired Martin Luther King, to stand up as a leader. It inspired white people who supported black people to come out of the closet and not be called a "nigger-lover." It inspired black people to say, "We can do this." It inspired a whole nation, which led to the Civil Rights Movement, which led to the Civil Rights Bill. The people are going to make the change -- you can feel it. It's brewing in the air. You see it in the way we eat, the way we interact at work, the way we watch TV, movies, interact with the Internet. We're in a transitional moment.
Katie Halper is a co-founder of Laughing Liberally , one of the national directors of Living Liberally and artistic director and comedy curator at The Tank . Katie blogs regularly for the Huffington Post , Working Life , Culture Kitchen and the political comedy site 23/6. Katie is working on a documentary about Camp Kinderland, the "Summer Camp with a Conscience."