Interview December 5, 2013
Guerrilla Filmmaking Meets Global Hip-Hop: An Interview with Muhammida El Muhajir

Hip-Hop: The New World Order, available at, is one of the few films to delve into the huge impact that hip-hop has made all over the world. Muhammida El Muhajir originally shot the documentary between 1998 and 2000, travelling on her own with a tiny budget to Tokyo, Havana, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Johannesburg, and Rio de Janeiro. She interviewed many of the pioneers of hip-hop in the places she travelled to, including Zeebra and K Dub Shine in Tokyo; Black Twang and Roots Manuva in London; Oxmo Puccino in Paris; and Planet Hemp in Brazil.  Muhammida finally completed editing her footage this year, and has since secured a distribution deal. She screened the film in Europe, Lagos and Accra, and presented its Brooklyn debut on November 20 at the Brooklyn Moon Cafe. We caught the film there and met up with Muhammida a few days later to talk about her perspective on hip-hop in Africa and beyond.

Jesse Brent: You showed the movie in Lagos and Accra. That was a few weeks ago?

Muhammida El Muhajir: Yeah. The 21st through the 25th of October.

JB: What was the reception like there?

MM: It was a really good reception. I think the hip-hop scenes there have really exploded. I didn’t film there, but I knew it was going to be important to go there and connect with the hip-hop communities because they are some of the biggest artists in Africa. It was interesting because people that I would have shot had I gone then were there. Reggie Rockstone in Ghana-- he’s the godfather of hip-hop and the fusion of hiplife and hip-hop. He was there at the screening in Accra, so that was huge. He spoke there and so did some of the newer artists, who are his proteges-- D-Black and E.L. I felt like I got a glimpse of what it would have been like if I had gone there then. And all those guys know each other around the world--the pioneers. Reggie said, “I know Roots Manuva and I see Black Twang.” People are all really connected and I found that once I started screening. I think people don’t really realize how connected they are until they see that going on around the world.

JB: Yeah. It’s cool that in recent years you’ve seen some African hip-hop artists coming over to the US and either recording here or having some kind of distribution. Do you know Spoek Mathambo?

ME: Yeah. From South Africa.

JB: He recently collaborated with an artist from Brooklyn named Shamon Cassette. So it seems like it’s a lot easier now for people to know what’s happening in places all over the world, whereas when you went 13 years ago probably not too many people in the US knew about what was going on in South Africa. So you were on the cutting edge there.

ME: I’m actually surprised that it’s still taken this long for people to be a little bit more connected. You talked about that kind of collaboration-- Spoek Mathambo. I would have expected it be a little bit more just because of the way technology exists now. I think part of that still is the American access. You still have to be wanting to research that. If you watch MTV or some video channel in Africa or anywhere else, they’re going to show their stuff and our stuff, but here we only get our stuff. Unless you’re somebody who’s really interested in African hip-hop or British hip-hop or Brazilian music, you wouldn’t just automatically see it, whereas over there, they get everything. So they’re more open to those kinds of collaborations. I see it’s just starting to happen now. Some of the artists in Nigeria and Ghana have done collaborations with Wyclef. I heard at one point that 2Face from Nigeria was going to be on G.O.O.D. Music, but I haven’t seen anything happen with that. I guess that went down the drain. Then Rick Ross shot his video in Nigeria. So you see some stuff happening, but it’s baby steps.

JB: I know this because we just did a show on South Africa, so I know more about what’s happening there right now, but a lot of South African songs that you hear on the radio are just straight-up imitations of what’s on the radio here-- like Katy Perry songs-- that sound almost identical. But then again, there are great, unique scenes all over the place that are very different. It’s just that the money is necessarily isn’t there.

ME: I think that people see the American style, the aesthetic-- you’re not really doing it unless you’re doing it like them. So you sound like that and you talk about those things and some people are afraid to stray from that.

JB: And also in terms of subject matter, most of what you have on the radio is pretty materialistic, whereas what you were showing a lot in the movie was more about social commentary and had some political edge to it.

ME: That’s also the time. If I would have shot that here at the time, that was the rise of Bad Boy and all that stuff. But still there was more diversity and options in music. Even at the beginning, our stuff here was party, but it was fused with social commentary at the same time, whereas now, artists don’t talk about anything social.

JB: Some do. It’s just not mainstream.

ME: Right. But at the time, mainstream artists would talk about stuff too, and it was fine. It wasn’t like, “Oh, they’re this conscious rapper.” It was Melle Mel. Everybody talked about everything. And artists abroad-- if they’re following what we set as a model-- they’re like, “OK, nobody’s doing that anymore, so we’re not going to do it.” It’s all about the party and the club and the poppin’ bottles.

JB: It was cool to see that when dead prez came to South Africa so many people knew dead prez and were really into it.

ME: I was surprised because if they had been walking around Brooklyn at that same time not many people would have even known them. They knew their lyrics. Everywhere I went in the world people always said they were inspired by Public Enemy. I think that young people want a focus. They want to be a part of making change, but they’re young people too, so they want to have fun. And very few artists have found a way to merge those two ideas together, and the ones that do usually connect to the fans. Artists are afraid to do that, but when they do it resonates with people.

JB: One of my favorite parts in the movie is when you were interviewing someone from Planet Hemp and you were asking him what his music was about. And he said it was about marijuana and social commentary, which was interesting because in the US, there’s a lot of stuff that is “weed rap” and then “conscious rap” and there’s some crossover, but you probably wouldn’t have a band say, “Oh yes. We rap about weed and social commentary.” What other things surprised you in terms of what people were rapping about?

ME: I was really interested in places where they were starting to develop their own sound. Coming from America, I wasn’t really too impressed with people who were doing it just like us. Even though they might get props in their own country for looking or sounding like artists here. But I was more impressed with the artists that were creating their own sound. So you talked about Planet Hemp-- those are some of the people who are so true to Brazilian music, incorporating samba and those elements, but also keeping it 100% hip-hop at the same time. I have a lot of respect for those artists and those are really interesting to me. Black Twang in London was saying, “I’m a part of hip-hop, but I keep it true to me and my experience here. I don’t talk about what American artists are talking about.” Those are the people who really got it and understand what the purpose is.

JB: You studied in Ghana, right? Can you tell me at all what that was like?

ME: I studied in Ghana after I had done the film. It was a long time after. At that time I thought that I was totally getting out of media and entertainment. I was studying international relations-- more on the development and trade and business side. Not so much media. And one of my professors was like, “You’ve done all this research with your film, so why wouldn’t you use that for thesis material?” And I was like, “No, I’m done with that stuff. I want to do something real.” But then at the end of the year, I was like, “Maybe I should see how cultural globalization has impacted young people-- not just young people-- people’s everyday lives. How advertising is being affected by culture and all those different elements.” Especially now, years later, going back to those countries, I’m like, “Oh my God. Every poster, every billboard has got some hip-hop artist-- on the billboard for the Hennessy ad or the cellphone company.” You really see how the corporations are being infused with the culture. You’ve seen that happen here, but when you see that happen elsewhere...You know where it’s going and they’re always a couple steps behind us. Oh God, it’s about to happen.

JB: One thing that stood out from the movie is that in places like Cuba and Brazil and South Africa, it was a lot harder in terms of production because they just couldn’t get the equipment. Do you think that has changed now?

ME: For Cuba, I imagine it’s still pretty much the same. South Africa, they’ve got the number one economy in Africa, so I think it’s changed quite a bit. Everything in South Africa is super slick-- the videos, studios. People have access. It’s like here-- people are poor, but they have access to equipment. I think it’s changed a lot in Brazil. They’ve done very well as a country economically and the artists have evolved. I mean honestly, people struggle. And can young kids from the favela get turntable equipment? No. But technology has changed in such a way where you don’t even need that equipment anymore. So that’s made it more accessible.

JB:  You said that you basically only speak English and a little bit of French. So how were you able to communicate with all these different people? You went to these places by yourself, right?

ME: I would always find one person who would be my guide. And it just worked out. Alot of the artists-- especially the big ones-- did speak English. Early in hip-hop in most of those places, the people who listened to it were the people who spoke English. And then they usually tried to rap in English first. Ferris MC said that. The guys in Japan-- Zeebra and K Dub Shine-- they all said, “When we started out, we tried to rap in English. And it’s not our native language, so it was very difficult.” So I would either find someone who spoke English or have someone with me who could translate. That’s how it worked.

JB: It seems like you were pretty well connected. You know all these people who were originators of hip-hop all over the world. Plus Method Man, and ?uestlove. How were you so well connected?

ME: I didn’t know that those were the hot people. If I came to a town or a city and I said, “I’m making this film about hip-hop,” they would be like, “This is who you need to talk to.” Most of those artists had done one album. This is a while ago, so it’s not like they were these big, huge stars with Nike deals and stuff like they are now. I think they all had one album out. Oxmo Puccino had his first record out. Planet Hemp-- maybe they were on their second album. Roots Manuva had just done his first album. People were pretty early in their careers. It just seems like they are these hot people now because they have emerged. But then… You know how everyone is on their first album. They’re just happy to talk to anybody. So it’s just interesting that those people are still in the game, still so relevant, and that I was able to capture them in that moment.

JB: How did you get Method Man to do the intros?

ME: Method Man-- I show him a few years later. I worked in the music industry. He was an artist that I worked with. Obviously, everywhere around the world, people love Wu Tang. And so I was like, “I would love to get that perspective from Wu Tang-- talking about their experience in all those different places.” He added a comedic element. It was interesting to get him because that’s one of those artists who has been to all those places. The other side of it is that when artists go, they usually are not connecting to the people. So that’s a reason why people were really open to talking to me because nobody else in the hip-hop scene from here in the States was that interested in them or what they had to say. They were pretty excited to be able to share their story. Artists usually come, they stay for a couple days, play shows, and they leave. They’re not talking to other artists. Maybe some guys get a chance to open for them, but they probably aren’t hanging out with them, talking to them. People were really open to talk and share. I was just really amazed at how articulate people were-- even in Soweto, people were so articulate in their knowledge of music, politics and world events. They were up on everything. I don’t think that if I was rolling through the hoods here they would be that up on what’s happening.

JB: Are you still filming or are you done with that?

ME: I’m done with that project. That’s a project that I had on the shelf for quite some time. And one of the reasons why was that I wasn’t sure how I was going to distribute it in a way that all the people who were in the film and all those communities would have access to it. When I made the film there wasn’t YouTube or Netflix or iTunes. The only platforms for filmmakers were that you had a theatrical run or a DVD deal. And even if I had a DVD deal here, there are very few companies that  do international stuff, even today in 2013. As a filmmaker, usually you get a deal here, then you get a European deal, and then you get an Asian deal. And people weren’t really interested in hip-hop in the film world. Then there was just other stuff that I was doing. People would ask me about it from time to time. Usually it would be a professor, who wanted to use it in their class, and they would tell the library to go order a copy of it. And so somebody would send me an email and wanted to order it, but it wasn’t out. So I would get those calls from Stanford or Cornell or whatever, and I’d be like, “God, what am I doing? Let me finish this thing.” So finally after all this time, I finished it, and you see, it’s so rough in parts, but I still think that it’s archival footage at this point. Most people who see it can appreciate it. And I’m like, “Let me just put it out and move on from this.”

JB: I think it would be interesting-- not necessarily you-- but if somebody did a sequel, either going back to those places or going to other places around the world. Because every once in a while, I come across hip-hop from places where you wouldn’t expect to find really good hip-hop, like Vietnam or New Zealand, and there’s cool stuff everywhere. Just very few people know about it here. I think there’s a lot of room for someone to expose that.

ME: Yes. I do think it would be good for someone. [Laughter] Because it was very intense. I think if I did it in a different way with an actual crew and a budget, but the way that I did it-- mad guerrilla style-- that was hardcore. But I would even be interested in seeing something like that. Maybe I’ll work on something.

JB: What artists would you pick as favorites from the movie?

ME: One of the artists, who I didn’t meet, but he’s featured in my movie because I have his music video and I talked to people at his record label, is MV Bill from Rio. I feel like he was doing hip-hop the way it was meant to be. It was social commentary, but it was hardcore. He’s from the City of God. Even the video-- maybe it’s because I’m from America, so I think that’s what hip-hop should be-- but it’s so gangsta. But he really believed in giving back and being a man of the community. I feel like you can do both. I just wish more artists got that. So I would say he was one of those people who exemplified that in Brazil. I think Brazil was one of the biggest places for hip-hop. I went to concerts there with 70,000 people to see their own people. That is huge. The Racionais MC’s are one of the biggest rap groups in the world. They sold like a million copies of their first album on their own independent record label. When Lula ran for the president of Brazil, he tapped into them to be a part of outreach to young people. That is huge. That is really the power of hip-hop. We can be jaded by these booty-shaking and cars or whatever, but that is major power. It is a powerful medium. Words have power. Honestly I think the powers that be understand that. Most revolutions are started by young people-- intelligent young people. And this is something that gives them voice. They could really be on the radio and TV 24 hours a day saying some real stuff. Nobody wants to promote that. So people get upset with the artists. Why aren’t they doing this? It’s designed that way. People just want to keep it entertainment-focused. They don’t want to enlighten the masses ‘cause who knows what could happen. When I look at the artist, I understand that, and you see Cash Money Records-- I understand this game, what it’s about. You just can’t have people too enlightened.

Check out the trailer for Hip Hop: The New World Order below: