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Spiritually grounded hip hop: an interview with Idris Hassan, the filmmaker of ‘Bay Area Cypher: Freestyle Documentary’

June 24, 2009

by Minister of Information JR

Film-maker Idris Hassan
Film-maker Idris Hassan
When watching movies we often see the perspective of directors, writers and producers who were not conditioned to see the world and the culture they are filming from the viewpoint of somebody living in it instead of just a spectator. Idris Hassan is one of many emerging female filmmakers who refuse to sit back and just accept someone else’s view of what is happening. She took it upon herself to go to a production class, acquire a camera, learn video editing and basically put out her debut movie, “Bay Area Cypher: A Freestyle Documentary,” which will be showing as a benefit for the Black Dot and the Block Report Radio show on Wednesday, July 8, at 6 p.m. at the Black Dot Cafe on 1195 Pine in the Bottoms of West Oakland.

In her flick that she directed, produced and edited, you will not see the gold and platinum chains, the cars, the naked girls, the drugs, the guns and the alcohol that is associated with corporate hip hop. This film is about the spirit and community aspects of the art form, featuring the voices of many of today’s independent Bay Area conscious rappers, including Do D.A.T., Sinista Z of East Bay Politics, Fiya Wata, Ise Lyfe, Wonway Posibul, the Black Dot Artist Collective founder and leader Marcel Diallo, to name a few of the artists who grace the screen.

In the film, longtime hip hop journalist and historian Davey D also imparts some of his wisdom and perspective on the spiritual, creative and communal aspects of hip hop, giving the flick a historical context from someone who was on both coasts when the culture kicked off and started identifying itself as something unique.

In the Bay Area, I’m aware of only two times when the movie was shown, yet people are talking about it from college campuses in Berkeley and San Francisco to West Oakland street corners. You have to see. Now read the words of Ms. Idris Hassan in this exclusive Q&A …

M.O.I. JR: How did you decide that you wanted to do a documentary on Bay Area hip hop? How did you pick your interviewees?

Idris: I wanted to do a documentary that showcases the uniqueness of hip hop in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a piece that grew from a project in my production class. I was feeling dismayed with some of the perspectives I was seeing and hearing in rap music. I found that spiritual and communal aspects were limitedly explored in mainstream media.

I’ve always been amazed at performers that are able to manifest spiritual energy through the art of freestyle rhyme and dance. So I decided this was a topic worth working on and the project grew from there. Many of the people are good friends; some were referred to me through the process. But really these are just cool folks that I felt I wanted to highlight.

M.O.I. JR: How long did the process take to make this flick? What has the public response been like so far to “Bay Area Cypher”?

“Bay Area Cypher” cover
“Bay Area Cypher” cover
Idris: The whole process took about two years off and on. Shooting of the footage took about two months worth of time and the editing process took a great deal of time. I’ve been getting good responses. People say they enjoy it a lot and that it’s an aspect of hip hop rarely discussed.

It’s been screened in a few film festivals here in the Bay Area, at the AMC Conference in Detroit, and it’s set to screen in Indianapolis later this summer.

M.O.I. JR: Did you face any specific hardships in shooting this film due to the fact that you are a woman filmmaker?

Idris: Well, I did face some hardships, but not because I was a woman, but more so because I was working with limited equipment and crew. One aspect I wanted to focus more on was highlighting more females, but I found capturing more female emcees and dancers challenging because of access and time. I also think that more attention needs to be paid to female filmmakers in hip hop because we do exist.

M.O.I. JR: Your film features artists and writers of different ethnicities, not just Black people. Why did you decide to make a film like this?

Idris: While I am an artist dedicated to highlighting Black culture in my works, I felt it important to represent the multicultural face of the Bay Area, which is quite diverse in its ethnicities. I feel mainstream hip hop is very lacking in balance and diversity, musically and content wise, and that that in part comes from a lack of various cultural views. I think these different perspectives help to inform humanity and build a more communal vibe among various cultures.

M.O.I. JR: What makes “Bay Area Cypher” unique from all of the other Bay Area hip hop documentaries out, in your opinion? Who is your target audience?

Idris: I feel that the subjects of spirit and community are somewhat missing. The observance of this lack was one of the inspirations for me in creating a piece that shows hip hop culture as something other than merely a depiction of death, sex and money. I think we are saturated with that form of hip hop and that the essence of our spirit, where I feel true creativity emerges, is overlooked.

I think some of the more dominant forms of hip hop, while expressing the pain of living in an oppressive society, tend to perpetuate a toxic mind state that doesn’t discuss the transformative power available to us through our spiritual selves. My target audience is anyone who wants to be open to this perspective and to folks who appreciate creative artistry. I’ve gotten positive feedback from high school youth to elders, from people of various cultural backgrounds and women of all races. So people seem to be feeling it on a lot of different levels.

M.O.I. JR: Now that filmmaking is easier, with technology making it possible for the equipment to be more affordable, how do you think this will affect the cinema industry?

Idris: I think it is crucial for people of color to create, own and distribute their own media. I also have to say media creation is vital for women of color, and Black Women in particular. The feminine aspect on things such as relationships, communal transformation and our challenges as women in the world must not go on suppressed.

Through my time as a media journalist, I have seen how points of view and coverage of certain communities are systematically eliminated from mainstream communications and cinema. Access to affordable equipment I believe levels the ability to present different stories, unheard stories, and stories that counter mainstream conditioning.

M.O.I. JR: How can people purchase a copy of “Bay Area Cypher”? How can people get up with you?

Idris: The film can be purchased at Ameoba’s or Rasputin’s in Berkeley, or people can get in touch with me personally via myspace/bayareacypher, Facebook or at bayareacypher@yahoo.com. Watch the “Bay Area Cypher” trailer.

Email POCC Minister of Information JR, Bay View associate editor, at blockreportradio@gmail.com and visit www.blockreportradio.com.

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