Yemen, torn apart by civil war and brimming with Islamist sentiment, hardly seems like a place where hip-hop, that most American of inventions, could blossom. Yet it has, as Adam Sjöberg's new documentary Shake the Dust shows, capturing children and young men bounding up mountains pocked with cobblestones in Sana'a, euphorically honing their dancing skills against the setting sky.
It's one of only several extraordinary scenes in the film. Focusing on the art of B-boying, or breakdancing, Dust examines hip-hop's global impact. Spanning four cities, it cuts from Ugandan boys pop-locking on the roofs of matatus in Kampala, Uganda; to Colombian girls doing headspins in Bogotá, Colombia's calles; and kids busting windmills in darkened Phnon Penh alleys.
Queensbridge icon Nas serves as executive producer, and some of his best songs, like "I Can" and "God Love Us Hood," can be heard accompanying the dancers' movements. (The rest of the soundtrack includes music by Common, Talib Kweli and international acts like Uganda's Sylvester and Abramz and Cambodian rapper Prach Ly.) Karim Lokwa, a kid Sjöberg met in "a pretty poor part of Kampala," delivers the film's spare, haunting narration.
With its sun-filtered outdoor vistas and night-shaded urban demimondes, the documentary has a visual beauty to match its fascinating subject matter. Meanwhile, the film's panoply of storylines prevents it from turning into a glorified hour-long music video. "There's a refreshing narrative of impoverished communities that are helping themselves with unlikely tools," says David Jacobson, the film's producer. "To use an analogy, Adam didn't want it to look like [classic surfing movie] The Endless Summer, like just another highlight film or a music video. He wanted that gritty authenticity."
Shake the Dust achieves it by focusing on stories that are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. A young Ugandan, Fahad, a.k.a. B-Boy Sky, movingly remembers how he witnessed the death of his mother; we also see how Fahad's lovely friendship with another dancer, Erick, a.k.a. B-Boy Full Moon, sustains him. A Colombian girl, Camilla, a.k.a. B-Girl Killer, describes how she's survived on her own since the age 13. Others speak about overcoming drug addictions and petty thievery so they can dedicate themselves to hip-hop culture.
Then there is KK, a former Khmer Rouge refugee turned Long Beach Crip who was deported to Cambodia by the U.S. government (thanks to its controversial Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act). Instead of falling into Phnom Penh street life, he founded the Tiny Toones organization, which not only educates kids about hip-hop culture, but also holds classes in English, math and computing.
"After losing everything I had, there was no reason for me to live a gangsta life," writes KK in an email. "I wanted a better future not only for myself but for the youth in Cambodia, to not make the same mistakes I did in the past."
"This is a global, street-level movement, not just hip-hop, but breaking in particular. This is a story I wanted to tell."
An L.A.-based photographer and filmmaker whose résumé includes segments for ESPN and BBC World News, Sjöberg was drawn into Shake the Dust's subject matter after he did a YouTube search on dance videos in 2008 and discovered a clip of Erick, who later became one of the movie's main characters. "I was like, 'Wow, this is amazing,'" he remembers. Further research led Sjöberg to realize that "this is a global, street-level movement, not just hip-hop, but breaking in particular. This is a story I wanted to tell."
He shot some initial footage of East Harlem crew KR3T, but eventually nixed the footage. "I wanted to tell the story of hip-hop's global reach," he says. "To me, it's more interesting to hear a B-Boy from Uganda talk about hip-hop in the Bronx." Then he maxed out credit cards as he traveled the globe, filming various crews between 2010 and 2013.
"Once I made friends with the hip-hop community in Uganda, that was a huge help," he says. "This global community of breakdancers, because they use the Internet a lot, including Facebook and YouTube, and because they've had the opportunity to travel to sponsored events for breakers, they knew a lot of other people. They knew the guys in Gaza, they personally met the guys in Cambodia."
In Bogotá, Sjöberg found La Familia Ayara with assistance from UNICEF. "Bogotá has an incredibly robust hip-hop community. There is beautiful graffiti everywhere, people organizing ciphers out on the street, DJs spinning right out on the block," he says. And in Sana'a, he connected with the Blast Boys crew through American journalist Laura Kasinof (who later wrote a book, Don't Be Afraid of the Bullets: An Accidental War Correspondent in Yemen). Sjöberg arrived in spring 2011, days before the explosion of the Arab Spring protests. "It was an amazing experience," he says.
One group Sjöberg befriended, the Camp Breakerz in Gaza, proved impossible to film. He sought admittance to the Palestinian territory twice while in Egypt, but to no avail. During the first attempt in the fall of 2012, he recalls, "We spent five days consistently sitting on the border at Rafah Crossing on the Egyptian side, and were turned away every single day. Finally, they said, 'Don't even bother coming back tomorrow, we're not going to let you in.' We don't know why. Frankly, it's not easy to get into Gaza to make a documentary."
Later, in the summer of 2013, Sjöberg tried to enter the region through one of its many smuggling tunnels. "While driving in a taxi to go to a place where I could enter a tunnel, I was picked up by the Egyptian military, brought to their headquarters and questioned for an afternoon," he says. Though ultimately unable to film Camp Breakerz, he gives a special dedication to the crew during the film's closing credits.
As Sjöberg gathered footage, he enlisted Jacobson, a college buddy from Biola University who co-produced Lee Daniels' The Butler, to help raise money for its $200K budget. More importantly, Jacobson recruited Nas, who played a key role in editing and assembling the footage.
"It was ambitious of us to think Nas would lend his creativity, his name, his influence to our little project," says Jacobson. "To be clear, he did not invest [money] in the project. He screened every major cut of the film, including the final product, and gave us notes along the way. It was about including him on that journey." The rapper has also served as an ambassador for the project, and hosted a party for prospective buyers at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival.
In a statement, Nas writes, "What these kids are doing around the world reminds me why I fell in love with hip-hop and how important it is as a creative and constructive outlet." He adds that the scenes depicted in Shake the Dust made him "incredibly excited to help bring the film to global audiences who need to hear this surprising message of empowerment."
Last April, Shake the Dust appeared online as part of a 30-day Vimeo exclusive. Following a May 15th premiere at the TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, it'll have a summer theatrical run in cities like Austin and San Francisco. (Screening dates are listed at shakethedust.org.) It will also be available on video-on-demand sites such as iTunes and Hulu starting May 19th. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are tentatively planning an album that'll feature new material from Nas and various Middle East rappers. He's struggled to stay in contact with many Yemeni hip-hoppers, however, due to the civil war raging there.
Hagage "AJ" Masaed, a Yemeni-American rapper depicted in the movie, recently wrote to him via Facebook, "I was a DJ at a radio station doing Top 40 English songs [and my own songs]. But it got blown up in the war and colleagues were killed. I was on my way to pick up money but my youngest son delayed me because he couldn't find his shoes and saved my life." Sjöberg says that AJ's current situation is "devastating." But he hopes that Shake the Dust is ultimately viewed as a portrait of their triumph despite personal adversity, redemptive power of hip-hop culture.
"When I started making this movie, I asked the people I was hanging out and meeting, 'What would you want this movie to be about?' I asked them to be the driving force behind the story that was told," he says. "That's why the movie opens with scenes of the Arab Spring: This is what you see, this is what Yemen looks like to you, now I want to show you what I saw while I was there."