It is the Wednesday of the NY2NZ Hip Hop History celebration week. We’re watching the documentary Bouncing Cats off a projector, shining onto a white bed sheet. This movie is about poverty and the relief Bboyin and Hip Hop provide for people struggling in the ghetto. But in Bouncing Cats we’re talking about real poverty — like no proper irrigation systems for the entire village type-hard. At least we have a projector. The sheet is funny though, hanging off the ceiling at the Wellington City Mission in Newtown, the inhabitants of this place during the day live life with a different kind of tough; it is a place for students who have been kicked out of mainstream schools (for varying reasons) to come and learn. As we celebrate Hip Hop History month with the Aotearoa chapter of the Universal Zulu Nation there’s a question that arises about pain; as an emotion caused by varying degrees and situations — Is pain still pain, and the same, regardless of what caused it?
In the movie, Somalian born and raised rapper now living in Canada, K’naan explains that though there are extreme degrees of poverty between Africa and western countries, there is still a universal feeling of struggle in Hip Hop music that transcends cultural and language barriers.
Rass Kant from Kissini Ghetto says in the doco: “You’ll end up finding that everyone in the ghetto is positive in mind, they think of going to school but they don’t have a way of going to school. They think of doing big business, but there is no capital, and no-one trusts them. Still we have kids who are growing in a good manner, not in the previous manner.’
Walking through Kissini Ghetto shocked and struggling to hide his offended senses is Crazy Legs, a legendary Bboy from New York’s South Bronx. Standing in a Red Bull singlet, in the middle of what he suggests is ‘hell’, he’s shocked as he passes starving kids playing with machetes amongst sewage. Older kids sniff glue and hang around. They’re in Gulu, North Uganda, an area highly affected by the LRA. Common, the doco’s narrator explains there is little opportunity and nothing for youth to do.
Main man and leader of Breakdance Project Uganda, Abramz says, “A lot of people didn’t choose to live in the Ghetto, you just find yourself being born here. Of course they got into criminal acts because he has to pay rent, he has to buy new shoes, he has to eat, he has to survive. Not because he wants it so much. You know so if they’re given something else to do, we believe they can live a better life”.
“Break dancing here in the ghetto, is one of the weapons that most of the youths want to use to speak out the truth, to speak out their point, to tell the people what is deep in their hearts,” says Rass Kant.
When he is first introduced to the documentary, Crazy Legs talks bout the commonality of his poverty with fellow Bboys and girls in Uganda. It was an initial gesture from Legs; a way to set some common-ground for two foreign parties who’d be spending a lot of time together. “The South Bronx at the time [Hip Hop began] could have been any third world country” he says sitting in a nice Ugandan garden.
‘You know, and that’s what we have in common is that we all come from shitty conditions, we’re born poor’.
By the end of the movie Legs is in tears over just how wrong he was. The poverty he was raised in and branded ‘third world’ reigns prince under Africa’s poverty, which would be king (If poverty was to be rated like this). Watching Bouncing Cats in NZ made me recognise that our poverty is non-existent. Imagine if we went to Uganda with our food grants and temporary additional supplements — and though we’re sitting in a City Mission for troubled kids, the walls are splashed with bright, bold graffiti. Well loved books line the walls on shelves, there is a boxing bag and gym gear behind the make-shift sheet-screen. There is a well stocked kitchen and a pool table in the front. Wellington City Mission has good character and is a warm, well-loved space to be in. Namnita is another single mother in here, a lyricist and a maker of amazing curry, she’s also a non-Zulu member, like me. Both our sons (11 and 8) sit and watch the part of the movie where kids have been stolen from their families and forced to be soldiers in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. There’s horrific shots and sad music in the background, this is where Xzavier, my son, disconnects and asks if he can have my phone to play Minion Rush. I say no, but understand he doesn’t feel the mother’s pain I feel or the empathy I have as a human being for these people, who are smiling and dancing despite what they go through everyday — sometimes there’s no food to buy, even if your fortunate enough to have the money. An intervieweee John, as a boy had had his hands mutilated vertically, as well as his lips and front-nose sliced off. Horror like rape as a weapon, murder, mass-killings, starvation or aids are not a reality Xzavier can fathom. This is fine, but as his mother I still make him watch in the hopes he soaks up something about empathy and understanding.
Well known Hip Hop personalities Common, K’naan, Will.i.am, Mos Def, Crazy Legs and more all feature in the movie which is well worth the watch. The work Abramz is doing with Breakdance Project Uganda allows their youth to gain a form of self-confidence in themselves, and it provides a release from the stress of living with no food and other human necessities.
“When I dance I do not think of the past, I think of the future…Being a Bboy makes me proud, ” says Atema Alfred, a 16-year-old Gulu boy who escaped the LRA.
K’naan expresses, “These are kids who had experiences they never should have had, who are now in a position where they must live with these experiences. And so, how do you live with something of that nature? I mean we don’t know the answers to this and so what it is, is it becomes person specific. I don’t think there is a therapeutic blanket that can wrap all these children and fix their personal scenarios. But I do think there are things they have in common, they’re young — they have that in common and there’s a certain art form in music and sound which they collectively like — that’s another connection.