“One person’s gangster rapper is another person’s Mark Twain,” Sacha Jenkins told us when we sat with him, Rap & Dave East at this year’s SXSW.
Sacha Jenkins, a veteran journalist and filmmaker, is primarily a storyteller. He is a griot in the tradition of Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks and Slick Rick. He is a native, telling stories of his culture to his culture in order to preserve them both. Sacha carries this legacy, one inherited from artist parents, a filmmaker father and a painter mother, and placed into his work as a documentary filmmaker as seen his new project, Rapture (premiering on Netflix March 30). The eight-episode documentary series tells the story of an eclectic mix of hip-hop artists and producers from a native’s perspective. The transition from pen to camera has been natural for Jenkins. “I’m doing the same things I’ve always done just with a camera.”
Each episode delves into the lives of hip-hop artists at varying stages of their success. Scenes of their family and close community show how these aspects have shaped the artists in unique and fascinating ways. “To understand hip-hop culture, you have to understand the black family,” says Jenkins when asked why those scenes of familial interaction were so vital to the series. The episode directed by Jenkin features Dave East and a middle school classmate of Jenkins you have heard before, Nasir Jones. “Nas’s story has been told before. I kind of wanted to tell Nas’s story almost through Dave, since they’re from the same neighborhood. [Almost] so that Dave could see where he could be in the future.”
Dave East, the well-respected Harlem-Queens rapper is the subject of the Jenkins directed entry in the series. The episode features East’s doting parents and rambunctious daughter Kairi and is framed around his relationships with his close-knit family. “I used to not give a fuck. Having her changed that,” East says about his daughter. Rapture features endearing stories from his doting father, David Brewster Sr. In one particularly telling moment, he retells the story of how he met Dave’s mother while she was visiting the city from Down South. “She had green eyes. I ain’t never seen anybody with green eyes before.” Dave Sr. placed a basketball in his son’s crib, hoping he would take to the sport. He did. Eventually, Dave would earn a scholarship to play college ball in Baltimore. Almost as soon as he arrived he found himself out of college basketball, back in the neighborhood and staring at a father asking him, “What you gonna do now?” Dave chose music, and rather than the quick cash grab of the turn up anthems and club bangers, East chose to follow a more complex path. “It’s cool to have Flex drop bombs on it. That’s cool for the hood, but I’m here for the long haul.”
“I love gangster movies with an ill, intricate plot,” says Dave when asked about his songwriting inspirations. At his heart, Dave East is a storyteller, a griot of substance. “Not everybody can afford to turn up in the club, poppin’ bottles, or pills or whatever. But those experiences that everybody goes through. That’s what connects with people.” While most in his graduating class may have forsworn more complicated lyrical content, Dave cast his lot with his heroes of previous generations. “I tell Jadakiss and Styles, ‘You guys raised me.’ Everyone that’s had a long career, they were lyricists.”
“Nobody remembers who went number two or three on the charts. They remember how those lyrics and songs spoke to them,” chimes in Rapsody, the sole female MC in the eight-part Rapture series. While she doesn’t consider herself a “punchline” rapper, she embraces her reputation as a “lyrical” MC. Rapsody approaches her bars like an essayist. “I like to connect the first line to the third line and surprise the listener.” She finds inspiration for her intricate brand of storytelling from suspense thrillers and movies that hit an emotional resonance. Her music reflects this with songs like “The Man” from her release Beauty and the Beast. “Men come up to me all the time talking about how much that song touched them.”
In addition to being respected for her pen, Rapsody wants to be an inspiration for women and girls everywhere, especially those in her family. “My niece is a Barbie-head. I took her to the store and she didn’t want a black Barbie because “they were ugly.” Rap sees that as an opportunity to be an example. To show girls that there is no one way to be feminine. She cites MC Lyte and Queen Latifah as examples of the variety of womanhood that were out at the same time and showing how multifaceted women in hip-hop can be. Hailing from a family of powerful matriarchs, Rapsody’s only fears were disappointed them. Seated at the dinner table, absorbing the energy and wisdom of her elders, Rapsody embodies the nature of the griot. Naming her latest album after her grandmother Laila, Rapsody understands the power of community and carries that into her approach to her music.
“Cultures endure because of their elders. But in hip-hop the kids don’t want to hear from the older people and the older people don’t want to hear from the kids. Sometimes you age out and that’s okay too. As a 40-something-year-old man, it’d be weird if I knew what Tekashi69 was up to or talking about all the time.”
Griots are the repository for a culture’s history. A people’s songs, traditions, hymns, poems and art are preserved and documented by sensitive native hands, in hopes that the culture will endure for future generations. Hip-hop is home to the modern griot, who tells stories and weaves life lessons through music, journalism and film. These artists have been able to preserve a specific moment in time ensuring the enduring for generations. More than just inner city bards, these people are preservers of America. Hip-hop is more than black-and-brown culture, it is American culture. Rapture both participates and captures this preservation process for the true hip-hop fan to witness and enjoy.
Sometimes art is disposable, but in the case of hip-hop, it won’t ever be.
Rapture, which is directed by Sacha Jenkins and produced by Mass Appeal, is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
Micah Young can be found weekly with his inebriated cohorts holding your hand through the foolishness and fuckery of your timeline on The Brown Liquor Report.