blogs-Hip Hop High – Documentary Review

Its lyrics are full of descriptions of a hard reality, but also of commitment and betting on a brighter future; something which doesn’t end with its songs.  It is music, dance, fashion, art, a way of life, a culture.  Think Hip Hop, and what may spring to mind are the early nineties and deceased rappers like Tupac, Eazy-E and Notorious BIG.   But could it be a game changer for Northern Ireland?

What-the-(insert obscenity here) does Hip Hop have to do with Northern Ireland?  Nothing right? We all know that Hip Hop is a commodity of the Bronx, where you can witness battle raps, or downtown NY where block parties are the norm.  Think again.  Northern Irish filmmaker, Chris Eva takes us back to the thrilling moment of hearing a completely new sound in Northern Ireland, and offers an insight into a sub-culture which no one could image would become a prevailing force in combating hate in this small island of ours, with his documentary, Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys.

“I discovered that from the eighties, in midst of troubles, this scene had exploded out of people wanting to be different and do something different,” says Chris, who has pulled together footage, which he has shot over the past eight years, time shuttling us from then to now.  The documentary delves into a scene whose roots are based in the USA, and shows us how, bar the explicit language, it has been and continues to be relevant to cohesion and engagement here in NI.

Enter, Jun TZU, well known for his politically charged Hip Hop lyrics in the scene, and wide recognition from his videos on Youtube.  His music with comical yet clever lyrics, has turned him into a topic for conversation across all levels of the media.  He raps about his family’s personal experiences, from paramilitary involvement to transformations and God. Listen to his song, “Born in Belfast,” and it might give you a laugh or two – or perhaps even have you singing along.  In reality, though, his role in Hip Hop permits him to channel an important message; one that tells us that we can use the negativities of the past as an advocacy tool to change the future.  His medium permits him to engage with many young people in Northern Ireland, in a way which no Politician could.

“It is so important to discuss what I am talking about, because so many people, especially today, are scared to mention the past. They think you are bringing up old water.  Like I’m trying to insight something; when the truth is I am trying to expose something, and say let’s look at what actually happened here.

“My goal is to unite the youth of Northern Ireland and show that there is no real difference between them. Belfast is not a gimmick, I am simply using my past and the things I went through as a child to accomplish this.”

Then we meet Big Geoff from the ‘old’ Hip Hop scene, who paints us a picture of what Belfast was like, when he started out in Hip Hop some 20 years or so ago. He tells of the dangers and segregation, and how through this sub-culture he and fellow artists have broken down many barriers.

“It is such a positive thing…I have made so many good friends through this music, that is what Hip Hop brings.”

Not all about the music – Hip Hop culture also translates to art – graffiti- to be exact. One artist tells us how graffiti took him in a different direction – when his peers where out writing hate messages on the walls such as, “kill all taigs and huns,” he was focusing on perfecting his signature, his art. He like many other artists in the documentary tell how Hip Hop has helped forge friendships and allowed them to venture into different areas which would previously have been considered off limits.

Graffiti from the Meeting of Styles Project in Northern Ireland.
Graffiti from the Meeting of Styles Project in Northern Ireland.

While the overall idea of Graffiti art is great – there is some amazing artwork out there, and no one can deny it – the theme of Graffiti in the documentary doesn’t show as positive a role as other aspects of Hip Hop in Northern Ireland, simply because of the illegalities involved.  The artists feel strongly that their art is a progressive and a positive outlet, but lack of legal walls in Northern Ireland means that many have resorted to painting in the early hours of the morning without permission. Which is where the problem lies.  If we look to the council’s reaction of Christoff Gillen, the artist recently fined in Belfast for writing the word ‘Love’ in chalk, we can only image the punishment that would be given to these artists. Meaning also, that such activities have not exactly endeared Hip Hop to the powers that be.  We certainly don’t want to be encouraging illegal acts, but yet, the documentary does make you hope that more legal areas come about, so this art form can continue in a legal fashion.  After all, it is an extremely pleasant change to the sectarian and racist letterings which we are used to seeing in our streets and on our telly.  It is another area of Hip Hop culture which has brought together, diverse people from varied cultures and countries, showing that, when it comes to Hip Hop, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, you just need a love for its art forms.

Do you ever turn on MTV or any other music channel and secretly try to bust out some of the dance moves from the Top 40? How about a bit of twerking, it has made it into many a recent video.  Have you never been to a reunion where someone has pulled out the old ‘worm’ party trick, then at some stage after at home had a go at it yourself?

Anyway. I digress. Dance.  Perhaps the favoured aspect of Hip Hop in the mainstream is its dance form, B-boying or breakdancing. Breakdancing is a tool for self-expression, creating visual art, and it has even developed into an international sport, and a pretty difficult one at that. The documentary teases us with tasters of B-boys or breakers in Northern Ireland doing their thing, and one thing that can be said, is that, we really do have quite a talented bunch of people living here in Northern Ireland.  The Madden Twins, with over twenty-five years on the scene, have helped shape Hip Hop in Northern Ireland, and according to those in the know, are possibly Belfast’s best—and, undoubtedly, most respected— hip-hop choreographers in the North. They talk about Hip Hop having a domino effect of positivity, and how they have used its dance form to unite people and bridge divisions.

The Madden Twins. Northern Irish Hip Hop choreographers.  Integrate NI. Affinity
The Madden Twins. Northern Irish Hip Hop choreographers.

The doc, goes on to introduce us to many other Hip Hop artists in the region, all of which share the same sentiments, that Hip Hop is a medium to express themselves, a medium which takes negativity and creates positivity, used to confront local issues from past and present.

Particularly impactful, is the simple fact that this scene exists, and is powerful; it has power that the politics can’t get the hang of.  Chris Eva teaches us a little bit more about the country, about a sub-culture which many, I am sure, had no idea (until now) was so relevant to Northern Ireland.

Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys, isn’t just about the talent or the music; it is about a bigger picture – how Hip Hop offers a positive outlet for our youth, and once again shows how the arts could be a game changer for Northern Irish politics, should those with the power decide to embrace it.

And as for Hip Hop, it is alive and kicking, and starting an encouraging debate in Northern Ireland, taking battles off the streets and onto the dancefloor.

You can watch Chris Eva’s Bombin’, Beats and B-Boys here on the Community Channel.  We have also included a youtube video below. Enjoy!

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