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DVD Review: The Hip Hop Project

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Using music as a means to achieve healing — be it physical, mental, emotional or spiritual — is hardly a new concept. But although music can be a "ladder to the soul," it must be used in a certain way to allow for the soul to ascend. And this is where The Hip Hop Project differs from many other similar socially oriented and music-centric projects.

The first interesting thing about the program is its name: The Hip Hop Project. Why wasn’t it called The Rap Project? It seems that the title has been chosen very carefully, despite its seeming simplicity, and is a reflection of the depth of the project. After all, while rapping is a vocal style, hip hop is an entire culture which includes rapping, breakdancing, lifestyle, and more. It’s as if Kazi, The Hip Hop Project’s director, was telling the project’s participants from the beginning that this wasn’t just about words; it would be about transforming the very culture in which these young men and women lived.

Music is about going above and beyond what words alone can express in situations that can be quite different one from the other. For example, it has a unique way of energizing a party, a collective expression of joy, while at the same time allowing us to express the most intimate of emotions such as the mysterious force of love or soul-wrenching anguish. It has fueled many protests against various negative social processes before we understood just how corrosive they were to society. In particular, hip hop has been used by many a talented artist to talk about subjects that are considered taboo, thus sharing a message that otherwise would have been long stifled.

Hip hop is used as a means for self-expression as well as a means to transform the lives of the teenagers involved in The Hip Hop Project. As a powerful means of self-expression, hip hop's beats seem to bring out the best in these teenagers as some of their darker stories come out, probably because only when these stories come out can they be dealt with. And rather than become blinded by the glitz of modern day hip hop, The Hip Hop Project’s first director, Kazi, focused on what hip hop really should be about.

While The Hip Hop Project’s objective is the creation of a collaborative album by its participants, it most certainly isn’t about creating an album that is commercially viable; rather, it's about challenging the participants, all youth going through extremely difficult times, to say something different than what we tend to hear on the radio. Instead of rapping about the usual materialism and misogyny, we are told, the participants are encouraged to go to the core of what is wrong in their lives and to rap about that, both as a form of self-healing through self-expression but also as a way to inspire others going through the same thing but who don’t have the voice or the talent to express it like these youths do.

The result is a collection of songs that are filled with anguish, infused with soul, and that will grab the listener's attention. The songs are thought-provoking, a reflection of real struggles lived by the artists who have the courage to share personal and sometimes very intimate narratives, and include insightful social commentaries that are a result of this  self-discovery. The participants not only rose to meet Kazi’s challenge — "If you had the ability to make everyone stop, bow their head and listen to what you say, meaning the whole world stops, and listens to you, what would you have to say?" — they surpassed it, in more ways than one.

The Hip Hop Project is no Cinderella story; while Russell Simmons and Bruce Willis did donate a recording studio to the project, it remains that these youth have life struggles that they are still dealing with at the close of the project. However, armed with the hope and tools of expression that Kazi helped them develop, it seems like the path chosen by these young people is going to lead them on an upward spiral, rather than a downward one. This is yet another reason why this movie is powerful: it's realistic.

The purpose for making this movie seems to be two-fold. On the one hand, by sharing the story of the The Hip Hop Project, executive producers Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah probably hope to inspire others to start on their own road to recovery through music and reaching out to others. On the other hand, The Hip Hop Project shows how many lives were transformed by this project, particularly that of its director, Kazi, whose incredible journey takes him from a seemingly hopeless young man destined for nothing but trouble to a successful artist, mentor, and inspiration to other youth in the same boat as he once was in.

For Kazi didn’t make the participants just write lyrics about the hardships that permeate their lives. Rather, he stepped into the role of mentor, keeping in touch with each participant, helping them face the obstacles before them and make a conscious and conscientious choice as to what path to walk on. And Kazi didn’t stop there; so as to lead by example, he worked side by side with the participants in dealing with his own obstacles. In the true spirit of self-development and leadership, Kazi traveled back to his native Barbados to deal with some of the ghosts in his past that were keeping him down.

The depth of The Hip Hop Project is the main reason why it took four years from the group’s first meeting to the album's release date. And this is no delay; it was planned early on that the project would take some time, as Kazi intended for the participants to get to know each other and to get to know themselves. And because unique bonds are created when individuals embark on such an arduous journey together, I believe wholeheartedly that when The Hip Hop Project’s participants call each other ‘family’, they mean it.

The DVD comes with a slew of extra features, including deleted scenes and full performances. And to keep with the spirit of The Hip Hop Project, 100% of the net profits from the sales of the DVD are being donated to organizations working with youth.

Trailer:

You can learn more at The Hip Hop Project’s Facebook group.

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