IOL's Youth Day film festival: Q&A with Hip Hop Revolution filmmaker Weaam Williams
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Say the words POC and The Base to a certain generation of Capetonians and they will get a glazed look in their eyes as they get transported to an era of Hip Hop and B Boys, and battles raged on the streets against the brutal apartheid regime.
Weaam Williams takes you right back there in her documentary "Hip Hop Revolution", part of the line-up for IOL's Youth Day Film Festival, which sees a specially curated selection of documentaries and features about youth activism and topical issues being made available on the IOL website for free for the 24 hours of June 16, 2020. We are calling on you to use the day to pause and watch your rise.
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Williams, screenwriter, director, poet and the owner of Tribal Alchemy Productions, found her voice as an activist using filmmaking. Her documentary looks at the influence of Black Consciousness and hip hop on the lives and thinking of young people living under apartheid, with particular reference to the Cape Flats state of emergency in the 1980s and early 90s.
The documentary funded by the National Film and Video Foundation of South Africa, which saw it’s local festival release in the summer of 2006 and international release at Silverdocs in 2007; where it was nominated for the “best music film award”. It was awarded the best- edited film at Reel Sisters in NYC 2008, where the acclaimed Spike Lee was on the jury. Hip-Hop Revolution has been broadcast in 28 countries.
Vernon Pillay spoke to Williams about her documentary:
How important has hip hop been in your political and social development, given that this was the subject matter of your directorial debut?
Prior to making Hip Hop Revolution, I was a performance poet, and often shared the stage with MCs like Devious. I was told by an MC friend, that I should start writing lyrics, and so I gave it a go with a hip-hop crew called Parliament. I had a short-lived life span as MC Desert Blossom, a name my now husband came up with.
I wrote the outro track to Hip Hop Revolution called Revolution. My words as a poet, and lyrics as an MC have always been militant, an exo-skeleton I have had to adopt as a woman of colour which has helped me to grow as a filmmaker.
I guess in post-2000 I found a common intellectual headspace with hip-hop headz who were looking at issues of legacy post-apartheid. I found that local MCs were encapsulating the struggles of people of colour and I think that is what drew me to make a film about hip-hop music. The element of “knowledge of self” which were echoed by young people who understood, vocalised and visualised their systemic oppression.
In essence, why is hip hop so important to you and why is the education about hip hop so important in South Africa?
I believe hip hop definitely influenced the political awareness of young people who grew up under apartheid and exposed them to the idea of Black Consiousness, as expressed by Shaheen from POC, Mustafa Maluka (fine artist) and others who were active in the '80s and '90s.
I believe the voice of hip hop has changed alot, and I would like to see more conscious hip-hop music. Maybe I am out of touch with what’s happening on the underground, but I think the medium has become very commercialised and sexualised.
My film is really about the parallel issues faced by black Americans and black South Africans, and how the youth who were raised in the 80s state of emergency became politically informed via Black Consciousness music from the US, and I use POC to demonstrate this example.
However, Hip Hop Revolution was produced in 2005/6 and is also a gaze at a post-democracy perspective of the issues young people are still faced with. I feel it is important for this film to be on the circuit again, as it brings to the fore many issues of racial identity and resonates with the #BlackLivesMatter campaign which we are dealing with in both the US and South Africa.
In the documentary, you explain how state-sponsored gangsterism permeated the Cape Flats and how this led to a cycle of abuse. How did music, hip hop and break dancing culture play a role in elevating certain people out of this hardship and mental space?
I think the film answers this. This is why it is so important for young people in South Africa and especially in the Western Cape to watch the film.
As a filmmaker how has the process of documenting this art form changed you?
I think every film I made has changed me. Hip Hop Revolution is my documentary directorial debut, and I went with my gut with regards to how I wanted to tell the story - and it worked. I used hip hop style rhyme to narrate the film, which is very different to the usual voice over one gets on a documentary. So, I took some risks but remained true to the essence of the story I wanted to tell, which was looking at the parallels of racial discrimination in SA and the US, and how it is articulated via hip-hop culture.
We have been witnessing, just these last two weeks, the power of protest and youth engagement in creating political change. As a filmmaker what is your take on the current protests in the US, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the power music and the arts have had in shaping how people of colour assert themselves and move forward?
I believe the power of social media, has certainly mobilised #BlackLivesMatter globally. I believe that outside of hip hop, black artists have always vocalised our struggles. However, maybe it is not always about marginalised groups pushing forward and asserting ourselves, but also about time those on the other side of privilege start to listen, and reflect. Change is not a one way movement, their needs to be a reciprocation for change to take place.
Lastly, what advice do you have for other young aspiring filmmakers in SA?
If you believe it is your calling to be a filmmaker then do it, persevere and tell your story. Try to remain authentic and not recycle other peoples ideas. And yes, I have been on the receiving end of other artists in my immediate social circles recycling my ideas - its incredibly frustrating. However, it happens so often, nowadays I just say to myself but that’s so stale already… and take it as a compliment. With art, it’s tricky as proving intellectual property is another can of worms altogether. Try as much as you can to protect yourself from being plagiarised, be willing to start at the bottom and get your hands dirty so you can learn how this mechanism works. However, if you are uncertain about film being your calling, then do rethink it as it is a very challenging industry, it is competitive, cut throat, and one in which you are bound to face both racism and sexism.
* This Youth Day, because of the coronavirus pandemic and the nationwide lockdown, we can’t take to the streets to highlight our causes. So instead we urge you to pause and watch your rise as IOL’s Youth Day Film Festival showcases a selection of films focused on youth issues and activism.
From Professor Siona O’Connell’s documentary The Wynberg 7: An Intolerable Amnesia about a group of high school students imprisoned in the 80s to Nadine Cloete’s powerful and heartbreaking short film Miseducation, the story of Keletso, a young geologist, who is passionate about the protection of the beautiful environment she grew up in, and more.
Watch along with us this Youth Day and reflect on where we have come from and the battles ahead.IOL