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.”