This is partly why, on a soggy Monday afternoon last week, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam records and general ambassador for the genre, held a news conference issuing a fatwa on what he considers the three most heinous words in hip-hop culture. You probably already know what they are. Fox News, for its own reasons, has covered the story to death; if you're even a casual listener to rap music, you've heard the words nigger, bitch, and ho pop up so frequently that it's hard not to become desensitized.
It's also a sad place for a music genre to be. So, in the wake of the Don Imus fiasco (in which conservatives tried to argue that hip-hop created the conditions where the term nappy-headed ho could be uttered on a live broadcast), it's as good a time as ever for rap to do some self-examination. The watchdogs are watching, the vultures are circling, and if hip-hop can't at least appear to have a level of restraint, it gives weight to Tipper Gore's 15-year-old argument that rap is one of the vilest forms of music to emerge, ever.
Hate to say it, but some days, I'm on Tipper's side.
At the same time the media were swarming all over that story, a 30-year-old rapper/actor named Kazi was in South Florida, promoting the new documentary The Hip-hop Project, which debuts locally in theaters May 11. He was here (along with the documentary's director, Matt Ruskin) to introduce community screenings talking to youth and, he hoped, building a buzz for what stands to be one of the most powerful and uplifting films about hip-hop ever to hit the big screen. I caught up with Kazi to pick his brain on the documentary and the future of the genre we both love.
For the most part, his success story is atypical, but it falls in line with the street-life mentality from which hip-hop emerged. Born and raised in Nassau, Bahamas, Kazi was shuffled between orphanages and foster homes on the island for most of his young life. He was abandoned as an infant and abused by his foster parents, and he was rebellious. His biggest problem, as he describes it, was a compulsion to steal. "I had sticky fingers back then," Kazi says. "I was always acting up in schools, getting in fights, and like most kids with those challenges, I was always testing people."
He was kicked out of more schools than he can remember, but his saving grace, even on a teeny Caribbean island, was hip-hop. He'd tape Yo MTV Raps faithfully as a kid, and he always wanted to be a rapper, he says. At age 14, a social services worker located his birth mother, and Kazi was sent to live with her in New York City. His life of crime, however, only worsened; gangs and selling drugs became a lifestyle. When his relationship with his mother soured, Kazi ended up homeless. Still, he was closer to the essence of hip-hop, living in the city where the art form was most vibrant. After finally graduating from high school, he started the Hip-hop Project to help inner-city youth transform their life stories into powerful works of art, using the medium as a vehicle for self-development and healing.
The project caught the eye of Simmons. Then Queen Latifah and Bruce Willis got involved, and what started as a potent afterschool program is now the subject of a feature-length film. Frankly, it couldn't be hitting the streets at a more appropriate time.
"People are looking at us right now as a culture, because of the Don Imus thing," Kazi says. "I don't take that as a knock. People recognize our strength and our power, so I take it on. We get the bad rap 'cause we're over-the-top; we're in your face, aggressive. But even from the days of Shakespeare, the poet has always offended people."
He recently issued his own fatwa of sorts, to the kids in the Project's afterschool program, declaring a 90-day moratorium on all swear words. It's a challenge, asking for artistry to be returned to the genre and for the elimination of the crutch of vulgarity.
"We have a lot of people out there who aren't artists," Kazi says of today's mainstream rappers. "They make hooks, and have a hit song, but there's no creativity. Anyone could do that. A true artist knows how to use the punch lines, metaphors, similes, personification all the things that hip-hop has mastered."
As often as not, it's a side of rap music the media fail to highlight. A sense of collective responsibility still exists within the genre, but it's often overlooked. You can cast blame for that in a number of directions. But since hip-hoppers lobby so hard for the right of self-determination, the first place they should look when they're misunderstood or misinterpreted is themselves.