Hip-hop culture was birthed some 40 years ago in the Bronx as economically disadvantaged youth developed breakdancing, emceeing, deejaying and graffiti to express themselves. The culture has spread worldwide since, but how it’s perceived and practiced in various cities around the world is an elusive concept either to qualify or to quantify.
Enter Muhammida El Muhajir, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker with a science background. She attended Sundance Film Festival for inspiration and instantly found her calling to document hip-hop globally. Innocent curiosity about the influx of Japanese hip-hoppers in New York City led to El Muhajir journeying to Tokyo and seven other cities in pursuit of artists, deejays and others who consider themselves part of the culture. She conducted interviews with dead prez (U.S.), DJ Muro (Japan), MV Bill (Brazil), Roots Manuva (UK), Oxmo Puccino (France), Questlove (The Roots), Marcelo D2 (Brazil), Zeebra (Japan) and Method Man (Wu Tang Clan).
The filming of Hip Hop: The New World Order took place between 1998 and 2002, but it was made available for streaming, download or DVD purchase on Sept. 10. El Muhajir’s crowdsourced fundraising campaign has so far raised nearly a fourth of her $4,000 goal, with Sept. 26 deadline looming. Depending on the donation amount ($25+), various perks such as streaming/download of film, credits and merchandise are available.
Before her departure for scheduled screenings throughout Europe and Africa, MIMO spoke with El Muhajir about her project.
MIMO: What initially sparked your interest in hip-hop globally?
Muhammida El Muhajir: This is an old project that was only completed recently. I started shooting it in 1998 and finished in 2002. It was never put out until now and has been on the shelf. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get it out. Initially, I worked in entertainment, but my background is actually in science. I lived in New York City, and I noticed a lot of Japanese kids coming over, going to the hottest clubs, done up with fronts, Timbs and just hip-hopped out. I really wondered what’s happening with hip-hop over there and wanted to tap into that.
MIMO: The time period you captured is before blogs and online media, a time when hip-hop was a force domestically. How did you go about capturing the presence of the culture abroad?
Muhammida El Muhajir: I had an idea from knowing U.S. artists who went on tour. They had concerts with thousands of people and I got glimpses back then, like when MC Solar from Paris came to the U.S. I just didn’t know how deep it was but knew it was happening.
MIMO: You point out in a blog post about Sundance that it inspired you to simply pick up a camera and go to Tokyo. Is that how it happened?
Muhammida El Muhajir: I was a pre-med major in college but a minor in radio-TV-film and was always really interested in film. Getting involved in film wasn’t new to me, but I’ve never made a film other than a class project. I went to Sundance and realized that you can’t just walk around with an idea – you had to have a visual piece. I didn’t think I was going to make the whole film, just that I would go to Japan and shoot some footage and put together a trailer.
MIMO: How did you go about choosing the other seven cities?
Muhammida El Muhajir: I plotted it out. Some places I was personally interested in – like Japan – while others like Cuba, I was really intrigued because I heard about its hip-hop scene. In Europe, it’s been there and in terms of Africa – people ask why I went to South Africa and not west Africa – was because I wanted to see what was happening in South Africa in terms of how apartheid and post-apartheid impacted artists and their lyrics. I wanted to see how hip-hop was playing a role in political and social developments.
MIMO: So you get into that in the documentary, or is it more artist-driven?
Muhammida El Muhajir: It’s very much artist-driven, it’s not a lot of narration. It’s just artists and people involved in the scene.
MIMO: What are some of the similarities and differences you’ve noticed among artists?
Muhammida El Muhajir: At the end of the day, young people are using hip-hop for self-expression. They are going through all types of things that are nowhere near what we’re going through here but still attracted to the culture. In places where people are poor – or where they’re not poor – they find it that it gives them a voice and lets them speak out on what’s happening to them. Even places where people are more wealthy like Germany or Japan, young people want to be heard. That’s the role hip-hop is having. When they see artists from here, they’ve never seen anything like that on TV ever before. They’re fly, they’re singing, they have confidence. Everything that is happening is the youth and energy of young people, and it’s never happened like that before. No other aspect of culture or art ever captured that. That was the attraction, and that’s what I really discovered. They have had other music – rock & roll and jazz – but they change the way they talk, the way they dress due to hip-hop. That’s why it keeps growing and growing. It gives people purpose and direction and becomes part of their life.
MIMO: It seems overseas there’s more of an interest in early hip-hop and less so in commercial U.S. hip-hop, or rap music per se. Does the culture feel more authentic overseas nowadays?
Muhammida El Muhajir: I’ll put it this way, because this is discussed a lot: The things that people hate about hip-hop here are things that define us as Americans. We’re a capitalist country, the king of all capitalists. Nowhere else are young people going to be infused on the daily basis since childhood with commercials on every cartoon, taught to buy and to purchase, consume and flaunt that wealth. In other places, people aren’t into that. Some of the things happening to our music here, people overseas can’t relate. They see it as art and we’re on some other sh*t here. They hear the beat, not just in terms of English, but pathology and the sickness in our communities. It’s not right or wrong, positive or negative, they just can’t get when someone is talking about a Bentley in a township or favela. They can’t mimic and when they try, it’s not authentic. I hear South African rap now and it’s all jiggy and some are copying us. When people make it their own and fuse their own sounds, it becomes truer to what they are.
MIMO: What do you hope people who see your film take away from it?
Muhammida El Muhajir: For American audiences, I feel we still don’t get enough information with what’s happening in other countries. Even in this day and age with Internet. I just had a screening in Philadelphia, and some people were surprised, like, “I didn’t know they rap over there.” The film can bring about enlightenment and awareness. Outside the country, you see their commonality and how they’re having the same experiences and using the music as a tool everywhere. As an artist in Brazil, maybe you’ve never been to Africa or Japan and aren’t having dialogue with artists there. I’m hoping to open dialogue, since we all share in the experience.