Q&A: Bertolain Elysee, Co-Curator of the Maysles Institute's "Country Rap 2: The Gulf States" Series, Opening This Weekend
The Maysles Institute's documentary film series "Country Rap 2: The Gulf States" and its accompanying program "Katrina: Five Years Later"--both opening this weekend--tie the rich spirit and deep history of Southern hip-hop to recent tragedies like Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Films about Miami bass (2 Live Crew: Banned in the U.S.A), bounce (Ya Heard Me?), Southern rap (Dirty States Of America, The Carter), Delta blues (The Land Where Blues Began), and New Orleans jazz (Jazz Parades) stand alongside histories of the Black Panther Party (Lowndes County Freedom Party) and the Miami University football team (The U). Alabama up-and-comers G-Side will perform at the venue on Saturday. (And all of this in New York City, a/k/a the town that booed OJ Da Juiceman!) Via e-mail, we spoke to co-curator Bertolain Elysee about the event's expansive intentions, why libertarians should love 2 Live Crew's Luke, and Lil Wayne and Lil Boosie's particular kind of political activism.
Last summer's series, "Country Rap Tunes," was fairly New Orleans and Texas-centric. This year it's the Gulf states.
Last summer was programmed by cinema co-director Philip Maysles, who actually lived in Houston for a few years and brought that experience to the event. This year, in light of the Gulf oil spill and Katrina's 5th year anniversary, co-director Jessica Green suggested we dedicate at least one night to each state that borders the gulf and also curate a series in honor of Katrina's 5th anniversary. So, "Country Rap films" will segue into "Katrina: Five Years Later," a series of documentaries that speak to the ways in which Hurricane Katrina, and now the oil spill, has affected Gulf folks' lives.
Why rap though?
Our perspective was more along the lines of, "why not rap?" Or, "why haven't the effects of Katrina been discussed from a hip-hop point of view, given its massive economic and cultural presence?" Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, for all its achievements, did not contain one single interview with a hip-hop artist. But rappers were definitely involved and affected--consider David Banner rerouting his tour buses to carry relief supplies down to New Orleans.
And while much of the nation has ostensibly forgotten Katrina, references to the hurricane haven't diminished in rap. Lil Wayne's still wrestling with it in his verses. New Orleans-born Jay Electronica mentions it pretty frequently too.
Yes. And for local artists, the storm radically changed how they make and could make music. We have a documentary, Ya Heard Me?, that traces the social and stylistic development of New Orleaans bounce music to how its artists were scattered throughout the south by the storm. We're also putting on another mixed-media exhibition that night, "Where They At," that shows how the cultural and physical contexts of bounce has been changed by this dispersal. These kinds of histories, especially within hip-hop, are histories that are often too easily untold or forgotten.
That "forgotten" aspect is what grabbed me about the screenings. My guess is very few people have seen Penelope Spheeris' 2 Live Crew: Banned In the U.S.A.
We were initially trying to find a general documentary about the history of Miami Bass and couldn't really, but maybe that was for the better. Spheeris does a good job of contextualizing 2 Live Crew's music within a performative context--people were really getting down to this stuff. 2 Live Crew weren't just shouting these explicit raps into a vacuum. I also remember reading her mention that 2 Live Crew were actually a lot more respectful to her as a woman than the rock stars she filmed for Decline of Western Civilization, which is hilarious.
Spheeris also lets Luke speak for himself.
Definitely. It's funny, Luke's defense of 2 Live Crew's music should actually make any libertarian, small-government sympathizer proud, and Spheeris interviews some of those groups to make that connection clear.
You also have something like The Lowndes County Freedom Party, a documentary tracing the Black Panther Party's roots to Lowndes County, Alabama. It's not explicitly hip-hop related, but it works into the "Country Rap" thesis: That the South's significance to black history shows up in unexpected, under-discussed ways.
It is not just a matter of placing political films and hip-hop docs together out of the hope that "gangster rap" will acquire a political consciousness by the power of association. The same desire African Americans in rural Lowndes exhibited to assert self-definition and self-determination that inspired folks to form the Panthers upon their return North also courses through independent Southern hip-hop. Lil Boosie idolizes Tupac--a Panther cub. The New Panther Party went south to invigorate a new civil rights movement around Jena 6. Boosie marched with the New Black Panther Party in Baton Rouge and was moved to call out corrupt D.A.'s, judges and police on "Dirty World": "Jena 6 did it /you see this world wicked." I don't think it's a coincidence that he was targeted by the Baton Rouge police department from that point on.