It’s strange to think that there was a time, not too long ago, when hip-hop wasn’t considered “real” music. The rhythms and beats are now so ingrained in our culture, that music would be severely lacking without it. Hip-hop has stretched far beyond the confines of the United States seeping into every corner of the globe. The stories told through the music inspire those whose lives are far more devastating than we could ever imagine. The songs we blast through our open windows, and the movements that have inspired us for the last several decades, are the same ones they gravitate towards. Hip-hop has connected us all.
Directed by journalist turned filmmaker Adam Sjöberg, and executive produced by hip-hop icon Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones, “Shake the Dust” paints an inspiring portrait of b-boys and b-girls from Uganda, Colombia, Cambodia and Yemen. Their environments are bleak. Many of them were orphaned at a young age, and turned to drugs or a life of crime. And yet, for all of them, it was the music that brought them back from the brink. They have found happiness and satisfaction in break dancing. In Cambodia, mega talented B-Boy- Suicide spins on his head continuously as a crowd gathers around him. His name, he says, was given to him because of his willingness to go to the extreme to perfect his techniques. He has no fear, because as he states, “What’s left to fear?”
The film starts of slowly; the first half is stuffed with beautifully shot vignettes that bounce from country to country. However, much of the material doesn’t scratch beyond the surface. I desperately wanted to know more about these young men and women, and what drove them to break-dancing; I needed to connect with them on a deeper level. It’s not until the second half of the documentary that the film finds its footing. In Cambodia we meet KK, a former refugee turned LA Crip who was deported back to Cambodia by the United States government. Instead of continuing with his life of crime in Phnom Penh, KK founded Tiny Toons; an NGO that teaches break-dancing, English and math to children of the community. The intersectionalities of KK’s identity are astonishing to observe. Quite frankly, director Sjöberg could have made a feature documentary that focused entirely on the former Crip’s life and experiences.
Back in Colombia we meet Tibisay a 10-year old B-Girl who along with her father moved to Bogotá from the coast of Colombia with their crew, Kings of the Floor. For them the dance, the music and the movements are lifestyle. Tibisay was transfixed with “breaking” from a very early age after watching her father every day. Though her father now calls her “The Experiment,” he hadn’t thought to teach her to break until she asked. Five years later, she’s a sensation all on her own. Aside from Tibisay, we only have a chance to meet the one other B-Girl in the film. B-Girl Killer (Camilla), also from Colombia, uses hip-hop and breaking as a kind of therapy from her painful past. She gets lost in the movement and the music as a way to cope with her less than ideal circumstances.
Cambodia and Colombia aren’t the only countries with an ever-growing hip-hop presence. We often here horror stories coming out of Uganda. It is one of the poorest nations in the world rife with civil war, unrest and social injustice. However, for the B-boys who live and thrive there, “Poverty is not due to of lack of funds, it’s due to lack of hope.” Erik, Fahad and Mark have become brothers because of break dancing. In one the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Fahad recalls his mother’s death, which occurred days before his big dance competition. Near tears at first, he smiles as he remembers Erik coming to stay with him during that difficult time. The duo began dancing at his mother’s funeral; finding joy in her life, despite being brokenhearted by her absence.
“Shake the Dust” is a about the connections that bond us all together. It puts a face on the global community of break dancers. However, the film left me yearning for more. The dancing and movements are incredible to watch, but it’s the stories of these B-boys and B-Girls that drew me in. Still, the message of the film is both poignant and encouraging. It’s about the will to find hope and self-determination when all you see before you is despair. Dust may be the only thing beneath your feet, but at least you’re still moving.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami