I remember diamonds used to be girl’s best friend
Enslaving Black children with them third world gems
I don’t care about your rims,
kids ride Big Wheels up until they learn balance
and it’s obvious you haven’t
With way more ego than you have true talent

-Murs

One of Hip-hop’s most tragic moments was Kanye West’s socially conscious acceptance of where conflict diamonds come from, and the way his obsession with ice causes suffering in parts of the world where such minerals act was war currency for African nations embroiled in civil war. Kanye shamefully tried to rationalize his desire to publicize his social status by essentialist, arguing that black people need diamonds like we need fried chicken. Cooning for The Man: that shit isn’t Hip-hop. That shit is minstrelsy.

See, a part of me sayin‘ keep shinin‘,
How? when I know of the blood diamonds
Though it’s thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today
Over here, its a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there, they die from what we buy from drugs
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus Piece was so harmless
’til I seen a picture of a shorty armless
And here’s the conflict
It’s in a black person’s soul to rock that gold
Spend ya whole life tryna get that ice
On a polo rugby it look so nice
How could somethin‘ so wrong make me feel so right, right?
‘fore I beat myself up like Ike
You could still throw ya Rocafella diamond tonight, ’cause

I doubt that Hip-hop Journalist Raquel Cepeda’s new documentary, Bling: Planet Rock, on the devastation and suffering the conflict diamond trade brings to Sierra Leone will change the minds of many rappers. But hopefully, it’ll make their fans see them in a new light, and see all that ice for what it is. Blood money. Cepeda brought Wu-Tang’s Raekwon, Tego Calderon, and overcompensating ice grillmaster Paul Wall (The White people’s champ) to Sierra Leone in an effort to put things in perspective.

To better understand what happened in Sierra Leone, how the diamond trade funded the war and how to connect with the people there, filmmaker Raquel Cepeda assembled Raekwon, formerly of the influential Wu-Tang Clan, Tego Calderón, a Spanish-language Puerto Rican rap star, and Paul Wall, who originally entered the hip hop world as a jewelry designer. They are introduced to Ishmael Beah, who tells them about his experiences as a child soldier during the war. They fly together to Sierra Leone to see where the bling comes from and what “blood” and “conflict” diamonds really are. Bling: A Planet Rock brings the viewers along on this life-changing journey.

You might wonder how the artists responded to their African education, since returning. “I’m sure they’re still processing,” says Cepeda. “Going to Africa for these artists, especially Raekwon and Tego, was a sojourn. It was connecting to their heritage, where they come from. So it’s much more than just an act of what you’re going to do with jewels. For them, it was more of a personal growth.” For Tego Calderón, “it changed the way he looks at everything,” Cepeda says. “He’s decided not to wear diamonds and that’s his choice.” And according to his website, Paul Wall’s jewelry designs are now made with “conflict-free” diamonds.

In the subsequent interview, Cepeda elaborates on the making of Bling: Planet Rock.


What first got you interested in blood or conflict diamonds?
I thought blood diamonds was the best parallel about the war in Sierra Leone and the anomaly of what was going on there. The atrocities really took me aback, and to see the parallels between African American culture and hip hop culture, and what was going on in Sierra Leone was just bewildering. I thought it would make for a better documentary than article. I started writing the treatment at the end of 2001. It was a creative impulse, my desire to do something in the wake of 9/11 that would change the way Americans think, at least people in my community, about the global community and their counterparts in different countries.

Given that goal, how have people responded to the film so far, especially in the hip hop community?
The hip hop community has given me a very positive response. So has every other community that’s seen it. It’s interesting, this film is crossing over to many different kinds of demographics. People are responding so much better to the theatrical version and with much more emotional resonance than they did the [abridged VH1] television version. We’re trying to screen it and enter festivals. I would like it to have a theatrical release, even if it’s limited. And we are supposed to be coming out on DVD in the fall.

Hip-hop has always been a method of negotiating the pain and uncertainty of life in urban spaces. I have always hoped that the contradiction between Hip-hop’s ability to help people cope and our obsession with diamonds would at some point come into conflict.


There seems to be a clear advocacy side to this documentary, you want to educate people. What do you want people to do or think about when they leave the theater?
I would want them to think about the global community and know we are not insulated, America’s not the only country on the planet. There are other countries we should be taking care of and treating as if they were our family. Because hip hop is the voice of youth culture all over the world, I also want people, especially the artists in the hip hop community, to come away with a sense of empowerment. Maybe it will inspire some people to get involved in different kinds of causes, and not think that if you get involved, you have to trade in your brand of hip hop for a kufi, if you will. I wanted to bring hip hop artists like Paul Wall, Raekwon and Tego, who have their ear to the streets.

As far as the whole conflict diamond situation, I definitely wanted people to come away with the sense that it’s way bigger than just whether a diamond is conflict-free or not. It’s about the way these workers are being exploited, and hopefully the international spotlight will shine on Sierra Leone. Maybe people will become motivated into making change and pressuring the global community to improve the conditions in which these miners work.

Cepeda is not the first. Hip-hop is developing a rich and varied documentary tradition, further cementing its status as the most important and influential artistic movement of our generation. People like Raqel Cepeda give me hope that this can be done independent of corporate forces, whose only concern is creating a bankable product, rather than a dynamic piece of art. The irony of course being that VH1 is a sponsor of Planet Rock. So perhaps I’m overemphasizing the negative aspects of corporate sponsorship, and there is a great deal of potential for good there, properly harnessed.

Last but not least, Cepeda discusses being a woman in an art form that, due to corporate forces, is largely dominated by men. Peep the subtle diss against the hyper-masculinity of certain mainstream artists. ::cough:: 50 Cent ::cough::


Hip hop is stereotypically a very male-centered artistry and culture, as is war, obviously. How was it being a female film director, documenting such a testosterone-infused universe?
Well, I have been in the hip hop community for a pretty long time. When I first came into the industry, before I even had any kind of jobs, I was down with folks like De La Soul, and later The Roots—they’re more confident in their masculinity and don’t have to throw their testosterone around—they don’t have to be hyper-masculine and homo-erotic and homophobic at the same time. They’re very grounded in who they are.

But yes, of course, working in the community as a journalist, as an editor, doing a pilot for an international hip hop travel show, in production, I always had to deal with threats and bullshit, and a lot of misogyny. But the community that I come from, Uptown, I always had to fight my way through. I thank god for every challenge these rappers put me through over the years because it definitely helped me arm myself for some of the bullshit I went through in the production side [of making Bling]. It helped me develop my sixth sense. Rappers have a sixth sense, a street sense. And having that street sense, having your instinct and your wits about you, really helps you maneuver in other countries, and in dealing with people. And it definitely helped me weed out the shit.

Bling: Planet Rock screenings began yesterday. Look here to find out more.

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