Documentary Contemplates Hip-Hop, Home, and Family

Documentary Contemplates Hip-Hop, Home, and Family

The screen fills with three shots of three different oceans, one in Ghana, one in Puerto Rico, and one in Thailand. Each shot begins an artist’s tale of music, home, and tradition.  “The stories that make up We Rock Long Distance cross distances, ask questions, and create new ones...They provoke, evoke, and illuminate different ideas and emotions relating to concepts like home and family,” writes filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Justin Schell in his online PhD dissertation. Schell’s documentary film We Rock Long Distance, which screened at Skidmore this past Wednesday, is about hip-hop and more; it addresses issues of memory, culture, and the importance of a musical tradition within families.

We Rock Long Distance is Schell’s first film, and took over seven years to complete. The project began after Schell was asked to film a family conversation for a friend. Schell instantly recognized the power of the filmmaking medium and decided to incorporate it into his dissertation. Schell’s film has now been shown at a number of venues across the United States. He expects his journey to continue with screenings in Ghana, Puerto Rico, and Thailand.

The film follows three Minnesota-based hip-hop artists with roots in different places around the world: M.anifest from Ghana, Maria Isa from Puerto Rico, and Tou Saiko Lee from Thailand. The three musicians are each characterized and connected by their use of hip-hop to tell their own stories and examine their cultures. The film begins with M.anifest, Maria Isa, and Tou Saiko Lee sitting together on a stage discussing their backgrounds and how they got started with music. The film weaves together the three narratives, cutting from one story to another with a fluidity that reveals the similarities between each artist.

The journey begins with the artists in Minnesota, and continues with each of them going back to their homeland. From the beginning of the project, Schell had two parameters for the musicians’ homecomings: the response to their work in their home country and the reconnection with their family. Tradition plays a major roll in each musician's life, all of whom were raised in families with deep musical ties. Schell shows M.anifest reading music with his ethnomusicologist-composer grandfather, Maria Isa discussing her love for performing with her grandmother, and Tou Saiko Lee on stage rapping with his grandmother. Each musician takes traditions from their own culture and artfully mixes it into their modern works. This “inbetweenness” is what makes each of them so unique; their work exists as a representation of the two cultures that have been and continue to be so influential in their lives.

Since the film’s premiere, the three musicians have continued to work towards their goals in the music and entertainment industries. M.anifest is a renowned rapper and has over 22,000 followers on twitter, Maria Isa is a Hollywood actress, and Tou Saiko Lee is promoting social change through his organization, Street Stops and Mountaintops, which aims to bring music to children in orphanages.

To learn more about Schell’s film, visit www.werocklongdistance.com/

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