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Shake the Dust: Finding Hope Through Hip-Hop 

Wednesday, May 27 2015
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Boys and girls, no older than 15, breakdance in the poverty-stricken streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as 50 Cent's 2003 hit "In Tha Club" blasts out of a nearby boombox. Some of the older breakdancers — or "B-boys," as they're known — take on a mentoring role, showing the newcomers how to dance their way into a more positive, uplifting mentality.

Shake the Dust, the Nas-produced documentary by Adam Sjöberg, explores hip-hop's positive influence on underprivileged youth around the world. From Uganda to war-torn Yemen, where a brutal civil war involving Islamist groups has displaced hundreds of thousands of citizens, Shake the Dust lets its characters tell their own story. Narrated by Ugandan B-boy Karim Lokwa, the documentary shines a light on people using unconventional means to help themselves.

"The continent of Africa as a whole is tired of people thinking of them as a bunch of kids with flies on their face begging for food," Sjöberg said, "because it's patently untrue and an inaccurate depiction of one of the most beautiful, resourceful places on earth."

Sjöberg discovered the foreign B-boy movement the same way it discovered Western hip-hop: the internet. While living in Harlem in 2007, Sjöberg stumbled onto a YouTube video of a breakdancer in Uganda, which intrigued the journalist-turned-filmmaker to tell this compelling story. Having traveled through various developing countries in the past, Sjöberg had always wanted to make a film about underserved communities. Married with his love of hip-hop, this was the perfect starting point for a project that would take him, like hip-hop's influence, all around the world.

"This idea of trying to lend a voice and dignity to people who we see on the news in a negative context while using hip-hop, which is a powerful tool, was a perfect blending of two ideas," Sjöberg said.

The filmmaker was able to bring Nas onboard after meeting the rapper and showing him the film's trailer. "He was immediately like, 'This is an important story and hip-hop deserves to have this story told, I want to do anything I can to help make sure that the film gets out there and that people will see this.'''

The film's soundtrack, which features the Nas songs "God Love Us" and "I Can," along with additional music by Talib Kweli, Common, and the Cambodian rapper Prach Ly, gives a strong nod to the elevation of hip-hop as a social movement and not just a genre of music.

The most surprising find of the film is the juxtaposition of the Arab Spring protests and the B-boy groups of Sanaa, Yemen. In one scene the B-boys take the stage in a fairly public area surrounded by elders and police, who made the boys nervous. Despite the anxiety, the pop, lock, and dropping was well-received, even garnering support from local police, who started to do crowd control so the dancers could have their space. It's a powerful moment, proving that even countries with strong Islamist sentiments have B-boys enjoying Western hip-hop.

"They're such a kind people," Sjöberg said. "Their hospitality is deeply ingrained in their national ethos. I think we as Americans are aware that we're not loved everywhere, but I've travelled to over 65 countries and I don't think Yemenis hate Americans. I think they hate American policy."

The B-boys in the slums and ghettos of marginalized communities around the world connect with hip-hop for the same reason youth in South Central L.A. did — it gives hope and a voice to those who feel constrained and restricted by their surroundings. At one point in the film, a B-boy from Uganda named Mark explains his definition of a slum: "Social Lessons Useful for Mind."

Sjöberg recalled one of the most moving moments in the film being a conversation between two of the dancers from Uganda talking about how rich people have their own problems and having money doesn't solve things.

"To hear someone who grew up in a slum, and lost his mother at a young age, and has basically been fending for himself since the age of 15 say, 'I recognize that poverty isn't all about money' — to me that is an incredibly moving message."

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Ellie Loarca

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