10/24/2011 10:05 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Stepping on a Rhyme, Stopping on a Dime

When taken out of their original context, certain artistic ingredients can lose their potency. A musical style that was once the rage of the Continent may now seem frivolous and/or tedious to modern audiences. Poetry that may once have inspired great passions may fall flat on its face when translated for another time and culture.

I often like to compare the success of certain works of art to a chef's success in delivering a perfect soufflé to his dinner guests. The slightest variation in oven temperature, ingredients, moisture -- even the shape of the pan -- can have a dramatic impact on the final product.

A new documentary by Joshua Atesh Litle about the international spread of hip hop culture was recently screened at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival. Oddly enough, The Furious Force of Rhymes suffers from a bizarre and curious fault which has everything to do with poetry and rhyme and very little to do with hip hop's political context.

Although rap music may have originated in New York's black ghettos, Litle treats hip hop as a form of "transnational protest music." Throughout The Furious Force of Rhymes audiences are introduced to Israeli Jews, marginalized French Arabs, East German skinhead punks and West African feminists who all share a common musical language.

As Litle explains in his production notes:

"I discovered that you could find at least one rapper in just about every country in the world. So I quickly realized I had to develop some criteria to decide what countries I would feature in the film. The first thing for me was that there had to be a substantial scene; it couldn't just be one or two groups. There had to be a real, local, hip hop movement. Next, in my subjective opinion, the music and the rapping had to be good. A lot of countries had fledgling hip hop scenes but they still hadn't really figured out how to flow in their own language or how to make good beats. I also discovered that in other countries where they spoke English (like the U.K. or Australia) there was a common tendency toward copycatting American Rap. Because they spoke in English, they would often lift lines and even rap with a Black American street accent. But as soon as people started rapping in non-English languages, they were forced to start to tell their own stories, to figure out how to flow in German or Japanese and, as a result, they created something that seemed more original to me than what the non-American Anglophone rappers were doing.

I decided fairly early that, with the exception of the United States itself, I would only be going to non-English countries. Of great importance to me was that the lyrics had to be political or address the social issues of the country and those issues had to be serious ones. This became an essential criteria and eliminated countries like Japan, where hip hop is huge but it's mostly middle-class Japanese adolescents partying or pretending to be American street thugs. So although some of the music is good, and the cultural aspect is interesting, it didn't really seem valid to me. The last thing that had to do with the long-form shape of the film was to avoid repeating the same issues from one country to the next. There had to be an evolution in terms of the kinds of social or political problems people were facing (issues of racism in France are different from the issue of conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, which is different from the social marginalization of white former Soviet East German kids). This decision moved me outside of the African Diaspora. At various times there was a temptation to move exclusively from one black community to the next -- for example, from the U.S. ghetto to Brazilian favelas and to the South African townships. In the end I decided to move outside the Diaspora."

Poster art for The Furious Force of Rhymes

Even though Litle was able to download many samples of international hip hop music, filming on location presented numerous challenges, not the least of which were confrontations by local gangs.

Litle, who was in college during what he calls "the golden era of hip hop" (when he was influenced by groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy) has always felt a strong connection between rap music and the social oppression of minorities. His documentary clearly demonstrates how people all over the world have adapted American street music to their own causes. But the following snippet from The Furious Force of Rhymes demonstrates the film's greatest (and ultimately unavoidable) weakness.

As audiences watch these Palestinian rappers, they will be confronted with two distinct challenges:

  1. With a handheld camera erratically recording the action, it's extremely difficult to read the film's subtitles in order to understand the translation of each rapper's words.
  2. Without any fluency in the language being used by the rappers (as well as its regional slang and/or dialects), it's impossible for anyone other than local audiences to appreciate the rhyming that might impress -- or even thrill -- if it could only be understood.

As a result, what one sees throughout Litle's documentary are marginalized young men and women from all over the world mimicking the threatening poses, hand gestures, and body language routinely seen in hip hop music videos. As the filmmaker explains:

"I think it's powerful in the film to see not only the connection between the many black artists worldwide, but also the profound way in which other people, including Israeli Jews and East German white guys, have adopted American black music as their own. In that sense, the film is not only about the black struggle but about universal humanism and the collective need outsiders of all stripes feel for artistic expression. And, of course, the profound influence American Blacks have had on world culture."

Whether or not you are a fan of hip hop music, The Furious Force of Rhymes offers an international sampling of how it has been adopted by other cultures. Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape