Shot over the course of four years, Scott K. Rosenberg and Matt Ruskin's documentary about the development of a nonprofit program that uses music to keep troubled teenagers on the straight and narrow follows a familiar uplifting paradigm. But the story is compelling enough that even glib phrases like "healing through hip-hop" can't drag it down.
Christopher "Kazi" Rolle was abandoned by his mother in their native Bahamas and, after passing through a series of orphanages and foster homes, made his way to New York as a teenager to find her. Their reunion went badly and he wound up homeless in Brooklyn, later finding refuge in Art Start, a program founded by codirector Rosenberg and a group of artists in 1991 with the goal of using the arts to empower at-risk teens and teach them skills that would help them rise above poverty, fractured families, street violence, drugs and a pervasive culture of despair. Kazi is a success story: Not only did Art Start give Kazi focus and purpose, but it inspired him to propose a new program in 1999. After getting the go-ahead, Kazi papered Brooklyn with flyers offering aspiring rappers the opportunity to collaborate on an album, then handpicked several teens to participate. He tells them he doesn't want to hear derivative rhymes about thug life: He wants them to write about their lives. The stars of the group soon prove to be Diana "Princess” Lemon, who wants desperately to make more of her life than her parents did of theirs but has gotten pregnant and is messing up at school, and Christopher "Cannon" Mapp, who lost his mother to a slow death from multiple sclerosis and whose remaining family is now in danger of being evicted from their apartment. In between working with his fledgling performers, Kazi scrambles to find donors to keep the project afloat, eventually coming to the attention of Bruce Willis and Def Jam CEO Russell Simmons, who donates studio services that make the Hip Hop Project album a reality.
It's easy to be cynical, but Kazi's project clearly works — it's not a panacea, but it's a viable one-life-at-a-time antidote to despair over huge social problems that defy solution. And if Kazi's second reunion with his mother is sadly inconclusive — she seems to have no idea why he's still so wounded — it's an absolute thrill to see Princess step up and take over the Hip Hop Project's reins. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh