Project Background

Moving to the Beat grew out of an earlier documentary that began with videotaping in Sierra Leonean refugee camps in 1999 and continued with production work in the United States through 2002. That first documentary, Diamonds, Guns and Rice, told the story of the civil war through the eyes of women and was distributed with a curriculum book, Speaking Out: Women, War and the Global Economy (2005). The book and DVD version of the documentary, praised by many educators for their innovative use of stories, poetry, music and interviews, was produced to extend the educational mission of the documentary for high school and college classroom use. Diamonds, Guns and Rice also was screened at over a dozen universities in the United States and Britain, and screened at the Cascadia Africa International Film Festival in 2003.

In the course of filming several special features for inclusion in the Diamonds, Guns and Rice DVD in 2005, we learned that the next generation of Sierra Leonean youth in Freetown and in Black communities in the US were enlisting hip hop to speak out on issues from post-war trauma and the AIDS/HIV pandemic to poverty and political rights. The Moving to the Beat project was initiated as a means of both documenting this use of hip hop among youth on both sides of the Atlantic, and to provide a forum for young men and women to speak in their own voices about why they were using hip hop as a language for social change. Rather than "talking heads," we sought to position the youth themselves as the experts in analyzing issues that affect their lives.

As educators and documentary filmmakers, we share an investment in challenging stereotypical conceptions of marginalized communities. We also have worked on a range of multimedia (e.g., video/film, radio, performance art and text) projects focused on generating community dialogue on important social issues and on breaking down the boundary between academia and everyday life. Hip hop emerged as a key site for this convergence of interests. There is a flourishing scholarly literature on hip hop as both an artistic genre and social movement but very little of this work makes its way into mainstream popular culture.

At the same time, both hip hop music and Africa are often in the media spotlight, although often in stereotypical ways that undercut the rich complexities of Black culture. In addition to an incessant stream of music videos featuring the most sexist and commercial aspects of hip hop, a number of serious documentaries have been produced in recent years on hip hop, including several that feature Sierra Leone. Refugee All Stars tells a moving story of how a group of musicians assist in encouraging refugees to return from camps in Guinea to Sierra Leone after the close of the civil war, while Bling'd: Blood, Diamonds, and Hip Hop follows the travels of commercial hip hop artists in the US as they discover the violent history behind diamond mining in Sierra Leone.

Much like Bling'd, the documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes brings a critical eye toward hip hop culture, and similarly focuses on the deficit side, rather than the strengths, of this area of Black youth culture. All three of these important documentaries include critical insights and fresh perspectives. Moving to the Beat goes beyond them, however, in focusing on progressive traditions of hip hop and in creating an inspiring story of genuine dialogue between activists and artists in Africa and America. Moving to the Beat also departs from many of the conventional narratives about Africa. Images of Africa brought to American audiences tend to alternate between brutally violent, tragic and exotic. Narratives often follow a formulaic Western storyline that centers on either a talented individual (or few individuals) that survive and escape their miserable lot, or portray a hopeless state of senseless violence and misery.

Moving to the Beat grew out of a commitment to bring a more complex reading of African politics and culture into view, and to contribute to the development of collaborative models of documentary filmmaking. Our aim throughout this project, as well as in our previous work, has been to use the power of visual media to capture the gripping dramas of oppressed and marginalized people, caught in historical and social forces not entirely of their own making. We also wanted to preserve the distinctive voices and perspectives of individuals who contribute to the collective forces of history.