Monday, September 10, 2007

A Review of Bling: A Planet Rock

Something didn’t sit well with me after this movie. I left the theatre with a pang in my gut that was all too familiar.

You know when you’re at a hip-hop club and the majority of the women begin to make moves leaving behind hordes of resilient men who, even in the face of countless rejections, are determined to leave the club with someone?

As the sun begins to peak over the horizon, our most primitive proclivities unleash as fights break out, and women are accosted by concupiscent men making their last earnest attempts to acquire the math.

Upon examining this sort of behavior, I can’t help but feel utterly despondent and exhausted. I can never quite understand this conduct and maybe I never will.

In the midst of it all, I tend to ask myself one of two questions, with expletives removed for the children’s sake: “Why am I here?” and “Why do I keep coming here?”

That is honestly how I felt during the Q&A session with Raquel Cepeda, director of Bling: A Planet Rock. The primitive fights were replaced by displays of rhetorical prowess and the flaunting of accomplishments. One woman gave her entire life story before finally getting around to asking a question. And the question was about when the DVD would be available!!! The earnest “last call” attempts to get women to give up the digits was supplanted by a misguided attempt to highlight the correlation between hip hop and the diamond industry; a correlation that everyone seemed to take for granted from the get.

So I found myself spurning ideological advances and trying to keep alert so as not to be drawn into the spectacle of battling egos. It really felt like someone was trying to kick game to me about the merits of hip hop on an intellectual level. But thankfully, I’ve been in the game long enough to know that just because it sounds good, don’t mean it’s all good.


I’m going to borrow from BAM’s synopsis of the movie because I’m too lazy to try to paraphrase it.

Just tryna keep it real...

Directed by Raquel Cepeda [,…]this documentary takes a hard-hitting look at how the flashy world of commercial hip-hop jewelry played a significant role in the ten-year civil war in Sierra Leone, West Africa. The movie follows three hip-hop celebrities: Raekwon (Wu Tang Clan), Paul Wall, and Reggaetón king Tego Calderón as they visit the capital of Freetown to meet the community and survey the devastation caused by the diamond mines.
This idea, the notion that the “flashy world of commercial hip-hop jewelry played a significant role in the…war in Sierra Leone”, resonated throughout the film and was echoed by Raquel Cepeda in the Q&A session that followed the viewing.

I’ll submit to you today that hip hop did not play a significant role in the civil war.

The words “significant role” tell me that if commercial hip-hop had not popularized bling, thereby increasing the demand for diamonds, then the civil war in Sierra Leone may have been just a little different.

What then should we make of the struggle for power and/or stability fueled by greed, hunger, hatred, post colonial strife, and a million more catalysts that most definitely initiated a reaction of violence and war? What about the fear that griped the people of Sierra Leone? What of the despondency that plagued the inhabitants of villages? What about the combination of gun powder and cocaine that made scores of rifle totin’ child-conscripting regiments numb to human emotions and feelings?

To say that mainstream hip-hop played a significant role in all of this is simply wrong.

This movie is an attack on the “perversion” of hip hop (an attack on mainstream hip hop) by people who believe in the idea of a hip hop that has been good since its inception. Consequently, what we are left with is a movie about hip hop with Sierra Leone acting as the backdrop.


The best parts of this film, by far, had to have been the moments of enlightenment.

One of the most remarkable parts of the film was a scene where Ishmael Beah, best-selling author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, recounted his experiences as a child soldier. Beah had returned to Sierra Leone for the first time in over a decade and the sub plot of his trip home was juxtaposed with the first visitation by renowned hip-hop stars Raekwon, Tego Calderon, and Paul Wall.

In this particular scene of the movie, however, Raekwon was slumped in his seat, his body manifesting the sense of guilt the trip had already given his conscience. His gaze seemed to indicate that he was listening to the story as images of the mutilated children he had just visited with earlier in the day ran through his head.

As Ishmael told them his story, Raekwon politely interrupted asking, “Did you kill anybody?”

When Ishmael responded in the affirmative, Raekwon rephrased his question. “Did you kill children?”

Ishmael did kill children and he made that known to all the rappers in so many words.

But Ishmael isn’t a gangsta. He’s in his early 20s with a youthful countenance and innocent eyes. But behind those eyes lies a mind that is well acquainted with atrocities. His smile is wide and warm but hearing his story makes you wonder whether it masks a true sadness. And my heart goes out to the brother. He has an intimate knowledge of what man is capable of in this world.

I’m sure that this particular revelation hit home with many of these rappers who associate with a culture that glorifies violence and assertions of prowess because it forces us to juxtapose our experience, one that we are often quick to define as “real” or “thorough,” with someone else’s. And it’s humbling as hell.


Marcus Garvey would have been delighted to see brothers return to the motherland because that journey is the first of many steps that we, as foriegnors, can take in assisting that continent and its people in the fight to attain true liberation.

Unfortunately, one of the most difficult things about making such an emotionally uncomfortable trip is the return to familiar and comfortable conditions back home. Though there is no substitute for human interaction, the experience of emotion and concern that we go through while watching a film dealing with issues as pertinent as this one is, in a word, real.

I wonder and worry about the human disconnect that this age of technology once repaired but now exacerbates. There was a time when images of canines attacking black adolescents shocked the world into action. Today, images just as grave are as abundant as they are inciting. But the sheer magnitude of problems is so overwhelming that we are shocked into a sense of helplessness.

When asked what she would want people to think about upon leaving the movie, Racquel Cepeda responded saying the following, in a June 2007 interview with Satya Magazine:

I would want them to think about the global community and know we are not insulated, America’s not the only country on the planet. There are other countries we should be taking care of and treating as if they were our family. Because hip hop is the voice of youth culture all over the world, I also want people, especially the artists in the hip hop community, to come away with a sense of empowerment. Maybe it will inspire some people to get involved in different kinds of causes, and not think that if you get involved, you have to trade in your brand of hip hop for a kufi, if you will. I wanted to bring hip hop artists like Paul Wall, Raekwon and Tego, who have their ear to the streets.

As far as the whole conflict diamond situation, I definitely wanted people to come away with the sense that it’s way bigger than just whether a diamond is conflict-free or not. It’s about the way these workers are being exploited, and hopefully the international spotlight will shine on Sierra Leone. Maybe people will become motivated into making change and pressuring the global community to improve the conditions in which these miners work.
I think the director had nothing but good intentions when she envisioned this film. What this movie failed to do in my eyes, however, was illustrate that "it's bigger than hip hop" © Dead Prez.
If you stop wearing diamonds, the death and decadence in this world will not end. You might put DeBeers out of business but some other manufacturer will take its place. They'll come up with a brilliant marketing and advertising scheme for a product that you don’t really need and consumption by the masses will ensue.

As Raquel Cepeda mentioned above, it's not just about the suffering in Africa. It's about the disparity in wealth all around the world. It's about the problems that plague humanity; problems from which hip hop itself was birthed.

In closing, I want to say that I thought the movie was real. It did what the director hoped it would. It elicted emotion and ultimately got this brother thinking.

I worry, however, because feeling and thinking is not enough. But I think I echo the director's sentiments in hoping that those who've watched the uncomfortable images of the documentary simply don't return to the comfort of everyday life.

The world, literally, depends on it.

Dig deeper ya'll...


solgenic said...

I agree with you that the movie failed to show a connection between Hip Hop/diamonds and the conflict.

To paraphrase Ms. Cepeda:
"The glorification of bling by rappers made people like Paris Hilton wear diamonds in a whole different way than ever before and those images being broadcasted around the world made people want to drape themselves in diamonds, which increased the worldwide demand for them, which helped fuel the war in Sierra Leone. So, Hip Hop played a significant role in the war!" WHAT?

Ishmael Beah stated that there came a time when he had the choice of becoming a child soldier or being killed/amputated and as as soldier he was deprived of sleep and given drugs to keep him killing... and yet he tells the rappers that hearing Raekwon say "CHUH POW!" is what allowed him and other child soldiers to rationalize killing other people?

I will disagree with you that this movie is "real."

The way she used non-blacks in this movie is just disgusting. The CEO of the diamond company was unfairly portrayed. She practically says that he's lying about their policy of not allowing anyone, including himself, to personally touch the diamonds. Through the use of an old 1960's BBC report on the firm, she insinuates that current practice is that they only allow the whites expats to touch the diamonds while native workers handle the diamonds with gloves and behind a glass partition. But we never see this scene in the present.

She cast Paul Wall in this thinking he'd fill the role of the evil white man co-opting black American culture AND profiting from the death and dismemberment of their fellow brethren in Africa.

Blame the white man.
Blame Hip Hop.
Blame diamonds.

She wanted a specific kind of film and made the facts fit around that story.

"America's not the only country on the planet," and to prove it, let's make a movie claiming that a musical style born in America and American consumption habits had a significant impact on the death and mutilation of millions in another continent... yes, that's the way of going about it.

Brother Smartness said...

And I forgot to mention what a great pleasure it was to have watched this movie with Solgenic.

I think you are absolutely right about her misplaced intentions regarding the film, but I don't think that takes away from the realness of the experience for the rappers and Ishmael. But again, I absolutely agree with you when you say "She wanted a specific kind of film and made the facts fit around that story."

Could not have said it better myself...