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The Independent Critic

Chris Rolle, Diana Lemon, Christopher Mapp, Bruce Willis, Doug E. Fresh
Matt Ruskin
Rated PG-13
88 Mins.
 "The Hip Hop Project" Review 
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If you had the whole world listening, what would you say?

In his powerful, inspirational documentary "The Hip Hop Project," first-time feature documentary director Matt Ruskin presents a world foreign to many Americans and a stark, everyday reality for many others.

Based upon the real life "Hip Hop Project," an arts outreach program of Art Start in New York City, "The Hip Hop Project" follows a group of inner-city young men and women from their initial introduction into HHP's world in 1999 through their graduation four years later.

Initially attracted by flyers promising the chance to record an album, HHP's young hopefuls are a hypnotic blend of wide-eyed innocents and streetwise afterthoughts. In a world that often considers their thoughts, ideas, hopes and dreams irrelevant, the Hip Hop Project welcomes them in with open arms and, seemingly, offers them the chance to chase a dream.

Yet, this world of the Hip Hop Project is more than it seems...MUCH more. Founding program director Chris "Kazi" Rolle, himself abandoned in the Bahamas by a mother who chased her own American dream, knows all to well the truths of the young men and women who enter his program. He also knows that success, real success, will only be found when each individual in the Hip Hop Project is given a chance to learn, heal, express, grow, be accepted, be listened to and, finally, make positive changes in their lives that will empower themselves and all those around them.

Himself given the opportunity to plant the Hip Hop Project by former instructor and Art Start Executive Director Scott Rosenberg, who knew his potential and took a risk, Rolle isn't just a program director. He's a father to the fatherless, teacher to those many said can't be taught, a counselor to those for whom trust is nearly impossible and, perhaps most importantly, Rolle represents hope for many who have tossed hope by the wayside because so often those who must struggle to survive hardly have enough time, energy or resources left to dare hope.

Starting with a group of 30, the Hip Hop Project becomes a journey about discipline, self-care, healing, building community, establishing trust, learning to community, integrity, spiritual awareness and, yes, spitting your truth...but not the "It's hard out here for a pimp" truth. Rolle won't settle for what's on the surface of these young men and women. He won't settle for their anger or rage or their spontaneous raps about drugs, bitches or guns.

He commands, and because he offers it himself, he gets the very essence of their souls.

There's Diana "Princess" Lemon, an attractive, articulate young woman who goes almost frighteningly within in recounting her experiences with an early abortion.

There's Christopher "Cannon" Mapp, an explosive young man who seems to literally scream at the microphone with a rap that is half desperate for love and half furious at watching his mother slowly wither away from Multiple Sclerosis. Sadly, his mother will pass away before this project is completed...yet, in hip hop, "Cannon" finds a way to express the rage, despair and grief that all too often gets locked up deep inside.

Then, there's the eloquent Robin "Kheperah" Kearse, a powerful, intelligent and gifted rapper that will undoubtedly bring to mind some of this generation's most gifted socially responsible rap voices.

There are, of course, others and it is their collective voices that begin to take shape as HHP moves from a loose collection of angry, hurting individuals to a brilliant, insightful and sensitive hip hop collective. What many of the young men thought would be a quick journey becomes a four-year journey through their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

Equally as admirable is that Rolle, while using hip hop to get these young men and women in the door, remains true to his words and their hopes and dreams. Their reward for joining him on this journey is, indeed, the opportunity to record a 17-track collection that is due to be released when "The Hip Hop Project" goes into national release. This recording was made possible largely as a result of a studio donated by actor and one of this film's producers Bruce Willis along with rap mogul Russell Simmons.

As a documentary, "The Hip Hop Project" is a near perfect blend of street beats, real life testimony, stylish cinematography and even a bit of group therapy. Even Rolle gets into the mix realizing that he cannot teach what he's unwilling to do himself...thus, he reconciles with his mother in a scene that somehow manages to be both painful and empowering for Rolle.

Ruskin's direction often makes "The Hip Hop Project" feel like one of the Fugees' grooviest vibes, and only occasional lingering camera shots with "Cannon" distract from the film's marvelous cinematography.

The ending, while feeling a touch forced, also feels incredibly full circle as we realize that Rolle, who has resigned from HHP and "passed the baton" to Princess, and his young men and women have shared this journey. Fortunately, Rolle remains involved and is actively developing a curriculum as the program begins to be planted nationwide.

Deeply moving, insightful, inspiring and brimming with hope, "The Hip Hop Project" is currently playing at the Heartland Film Festival while on the festival circuit prior to its planned nationwide release, most likely in early 2007.  "The Hip Hop Project" received Heartland's prize for "Best Documentary Feature" during the 2006 festival.

If you could say anything you wanted right now, what would you say.

Well, go ahead. Say it.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic