Directed by Joe Klymkiw. STC. 80 min. July 29, 8:30 p.m. at the Projection Booth.
Grid Rating: 4/10
United States of Africa
Directed by Yanick Létourneau. PG. 75 min. July 27–30 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
Grid Rating: 6/10
If you let your backbone slide, will you need to visit a chiropractor? Does a northern touch feel cold and furry? And why would you ever want to wash your face in my sink?
All of these questions have long burned in the minds of Canadian hip-hop fans. Unfortunately, none get answered by the two homegrown docs that hit Toronto screens this week.
To be fair, only one is actually about Canadian hip-hop. An obvious labour of love by Vancouver filmmaker Joe Klymkiw, Hip Hop Eh assembles many of the country’s finest MCs to discuss the music’s history and its future in the Great White North. The struggle for our hip-hop artists to get recognition on their own turf is a big topic here, and one well worth exploring. Alas, with its scattershot structure and surplus of subjects in ball caps who say much the same thing over and over, Klymkiw’s film feels more like an interminable industry panel than the punchy doc that the subject deserves.
The curious lack of music adds to the monotony, though Hip Hop Eh’s brief bios of Maestro and Swollen Members will hopefully encourage young viewers to dig deeper into this history. Rich Terfry (a.k.a. Buck 65) also makes a valuable point about the challenge of making a distinct or regional sound in a genre that’s as inherently conservative as hip-hop. And he’s right to question whether a musical “underground” can still exist now that the internet has put all the players on the same level (and pretty much left them all broke).
Elsewhere in Hip Hop Eh, others utter the familiar saw that hip-hop is a global phenomenon. Viewers in need of proof can see United States of Africa, a look at some of that continent’s most politically active hip-hop artists. Montreal director Yanick Létourneau stays hot on the heels of Didier Awadi, as the Senegalese rapper connects with collaborators on a unique project that blends the voices of martyred African nationalist leaders with contemporary agitators. Since Awadi tends to speak in bland platitudes, the movie’s most compelling figure proves to be Smockey, a bold MC from Burkina Faso who’s unafraid to diss his country’s ruling class (on an awards show, no less).
Awadi’s encounters with M-1 of the American hip-hop duo Dead Prez also yield some fascinating moments as the two grapple with sometimes divergent notions about Africa, its relationships with past and present colonial powers, and the continent’s destiny. And while Awadi talks a lot about getting “beyond hip-hop,” the music remains a fine place to start forging ways forward.