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Hip-Hop Fridays: RapCOINTELPRO Part XVIII: The Letter To The President Documentary

Toward the end of The Letter To The President DVD, narrator Snoop Dogg states, "For years, political activist, Cedric Muhammad has insisted that a task force existed that surveillances rap artists and their entourages." His words introduced my second ‘appearance’ on the Hip-Hop documentary which explores the context, evolution and expression of the relationship between social conditions, politics and Hip-Hop culture.

The news of my presence in The Letter To The President came as a surprise to me. Although I granted the producers of the documentary a near 20-minute interview while at the Hip-Hop Political Convention in Newark, in June of 2004, I deliberately never signed the release form granting permission to include the video footage. I explained to the producer that I would sign the release form on condition that a conversation took place regarding how my comments and I would be represented and whether or not our, "Streets Are Political" Mix CD could be promoted along with my representation. It was a friendly interview and I was honored to have been asked to participate in the production.

The producers never made follow-up contact with me and when I learned about the release of the DVD I assumed the lack of communication meant I was not part of the documentary. Well, you know what they say about assuming (smile).

So, I purchased the DVD (no complimentary copy was provided) and have now watched it twice in recent weeks. I have enjoyed it thoroughly, think it is unique and very significant and have been considering its eventual impact and contribution.

For the most part, I think the QD3 production is attention-grabbing. There are certain parts of it that stand out more than others to me. First, Saigon and David Banner were excellent. Hip-Hop historians and opinion leaders, Davey D. and Jeff Chang were solid as always, anchoring and amplifying a wide variety of points; while Michael Eric Dyson is, well, Michael Eric Dyson. The DVD also caused me to think deeper about the importance of KRS-One and the intelligence and wit of 50 Cent. I appreciate the DVD’s close attention to the CIA-Contra-Crack cocaine connection of the 1980s. The interview clips of Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Ricky Ross and Gary Webb were grabbing. I dug how N.W.A. was skillfully framed in a social and political context. I was struck by a short comment that Chuck D. makes which gets to the very heart and mind of part of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO thesis, contained in an August 25, 1967 FBI memo. I was enlightened by the documentary’s segment on the 2 Live Crew which included some little-known information about the genesis and implications of the rap group’s political and legal battle for free speech. I was intrigued by video footage of General Colin Powell’s participation in a private meeting with leading Hip-Hop artists and activists in the early 90s. And I was entertained by a hilarious segment on Bill O’Reilly, which features Larry Flynt. What also makes the documentary extraordinarily valuable might be its bonus material which includes lengthy informative and provocative interviews of Russell Simmons, Saigon, Dick Gregory, Chuck D., KRS-One, M1, and David Banner.

Still, on a critical note, I thought the documentary, at times was overpowered and skewed by ideology. As a result, Ronald Reagan’s position, too early than warranted, is made central. The focus on President Reagan, although legitimate in many respects, overshadows the more valuable and informative emphasis the DVD places on the music of Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel and songs such as "The Message" and "White Lines". Instead of framing the Republican President as a significant factor in the context in which Hip-Hop music evolved, the Gipper is made to appear as a determining factor on Hip-Hop culture. The result is a film that focuses disproportionately on the 80s, only tangentially focusing on the 1970s, the actual decade in which Hip-Hop was born and whose consciousness, political environment and social conditions shaped the nature of Hip-Hop culture. Thus, the difference in the slogans of the MixCds and the Letter To The President DVD. The former is "The Streets Are Political". The latter is "The Streets Get Political." As Russell Simmons and I discussed on the mixtape, Hip-Hop has always had a political essence and the every day life of the street is permeated by politics. By unnecessarily giving the impression that Hip-Hop is a culture and art form that became or 'got' political in the 1980s because of Ronald Reagan (and is 'getting' political again today); and by not placing adequate emphasis on the argument that the genesis of Hip-Hop in the 1970s was a political act in and of itself; Letter To The President opens itself up to criticism that its apparent ideological bias affected the quality of its research process and editing. Supporting that argument is the documentary’s exemption of President Bill Clinton from criticism (even though more Black men were incarcerated under his two terms than during a combined three terms of President Reagan and President George H.W. Bush) and its peculiar omission of the impact that the Nation Of Gods and Earths and the Nation Of Islam had on Hip-Hop's political evolution. Perhaps the latter factor is the subject of a future QD3 production.

I think the documentary wrestles with how to adequately present an extraordinary amount of material. In general it does not miss in the gathering of most of the salient points of its subject, although it struggles with their prioritization. The documentary’s concluding attention to the surveillance of Hip-Hop artists is credible and I think provides an authentic reference or introduction for those interested in learning about the dynamics of the relationship between Hip-Hop artists and law enforcement agencies. And the personal anecdotes and experiences on this subject, shared by Chuck D. and Vinnie of Naughty by Nature are riveting, as is the account provided by M1 in the bonus material.

I have been disappointed with the manner in which the DVD has been marketed thus far. I am not knowledgeable about the dynamics that may be negatively impacting the promotion of this QD3 production made in association with Russell Simmons and Stan Lathan. I do know that it is relatively difficult to buy the documentary at retail outlets that carry other QD3 productions like, Beef, Beef II, and The MC.

That is of course a function of marketing and business, but perhaps it is also a reflection of a political phenomenon.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, August 26, 2005

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