Rhymes, Beats, and Film

hip hop film
A scene from "Straight Outta Hunter's Point"

I walked into the Black Box Theater in Oakland, California right as a film called "Sydeshow" was starting. At first, there was nothing but smoke on the screen. After the smoke cleared there was a spinning car burning its tires while an audience stood by, watching and cheering. From there it was one car after another. Young drivers were doing tricks and showing off their cars on different streets, at different times, with different tunes in the background, but one thing stayed the same: The audience was always filled with Black and Hispanic youth coming together in neighborhoods where few outlets exist.

"There is nothing else to do in Oakland," the onlookers reported to the camera. Directed by Zazaboi, "Sydeshow" shed light on an activity for which youth are often criminalized and harassed by police. The short film was just one of a number of short and feature-length films that ran as part of the Hip Hop Film Festival, which first showed in San Francisco and is making its way to cities around the nation.

From its beginning, hip hop has dealt with the streets. Telling the truth about drugs, poverty, politics, and good times through rhythms and beats, it's an expression or imitation of life. So incorporating hip hop music with film just flows. Film might be the next natural extension of the culture, which includes DJing, breakdancing, MCing, and graffiti (generally known as the "four elements of hip hop).

hip hop film
A scene from "Freestyle"

The Hip Hop Film Festival was conceived when director Kevin Epps was touring with his documentary, "Straight Outta Hunter's Point." While attending the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, Epps met Kevin Fitzgerald and Todd Hickey, the award-winning directors of "Freestyle," a film about the history of rhyming. After seeing each other's work, the three thought to combine their talents in order to bring the work of other young filmmakers to a larger audience.

Since then they have taken the Festival to New Mexico, Hawaii, North Carolina, Oregon, and up and down California. Epps says they try to bring it to community spaces, such as cultural art centers and theatres. Word has traveled fast about the Festival and in every location people have turned out, though there is little official promotion.

Epps believes it is important that San Francisco is the birthplace of the Festival. He says, "I just wanted to have it here because there are a lot of artists here, a lot of culture, a lot of community. [San Francisco] is what hip hop is really about, in essence."

hip hop film
A scene from "Sydeshow"

"Straight Outta Hunter's Point," Epps' directorial debut, documents the harsh realities of the predominately black San Francisco neighborhood, Hunters Point. In it Epps explores the history of the neighborhood's war between rap labels, drug life, and the illnesses caused by the neighborhood's proximity to the Hunter's Point Shipyard, a naval shipyard-turned-superfund site.

In addition to "Hunters Point" and "Freestyle," two films that have been particularly magnetic for audiences everywhere, the festival is a montage of independent films that run the spectrum of hip hop culture. "What's Up Fatlip?" for instance, explores the life of Fatlip, the ex-member of the Pharcyde, as a once famous rapper who has to fall from stardom to learn a valuable life lesson. There are also cartoons like, "Groove Monkee," directed by Sam Hood, and documentaries like "A Rose From Concrete," a profile of Kev Kelly, a musical artist and model who lives in Hunter's Point, but has been able to make an impact on the world.

After the Oakland screening of "A Rose From Concrete," one young audience member said she appreciated the insight the film provided into life in a poor neighborhood. "I thought it showed that people struggle," she commented, adding that it was profound to see portrayals of African Americans that went beyond stereotypes, "people who, despite all the thing they're dealing with, were able to rise up and do positive things with their lives."

hip hop film
Doing donuts in "Sydeshow."

In addition to showing inspiring films to which young audiences can relate, the Film Fest coordinators also hope to weave together real-life performances with the screenings. At the Oakland showing, the filmmakers were on site to comment on their work and up and coming rappers performed during intermission to get exposure.

The impact of the Film Festival, however, doesn't stop when the audience leaves the theater. Epps explains that youth in Hunter's Point and around the Bay Area have "turned the camera on the hood." He points to digital video as a revolutionizing force in hip hop because film is becoming an affordable way for youth to tell their stories. Epps has been working with Bay Area organizations such as Conscious Youth Media and Point:Visions, to encourage and teach young people how to express themselves through film. Hickey and Lila Maes, another prominent organizer of the Festival, are currently developing the Center for Hip Hop Education. The Center, as reported by Eric Arnold of the East Bay Express, will reach out to schools, run workshops and offer classes on hip hop filmmaking and expression, while exposing the finished works through the Festival.

Partial profit from the Hip Hop Film Festival goes to the Hunters Point Community Youth Park Foundation. The children of several of his now-deceased friends are among the hundreds of kids who benefit from the park. "If they're going to make it out of the Hunter Point projects," Epps told the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this year, "they're going to need more than a little guidance and some hope. They'll need new swings, computers and other resources that will distract them from the lure of easy drug money on the corners outside their cramped apartments."

Epps stresses the importance of tapping into to the power of hip hop as a tool to motivate. After all, it's what he's been listening to all his life. "I grew up on this rap," he says. "You can't tell me nothing about it, historically. I know the power and understand how important that medium is as a voice."

For more information about the festival: www.hiphopfilmfest.com

Na'imah Boone is an intern at WireTap.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.