Shake the Dust
In the past forty years, no music form has had a bigger impact on American culture than hip hop. But what we don’t often think of, is how hip hop has impacted people across the globe. Director Adam Sjöberg turns his attention to this global aspect, specifically how it empowers youth in the third world. Hip hop since the beginning has taken four forms: rapping, turntablism (or DJing), graffiti art, and b-boying (or breakdancing). Through some incredible footage and surprising access, Sjöberg focuses on breakdancing in Yemen, Uganda, Colombia, and Cambodia, showcasing how hip hop can be an incredible lifeline for children looking for expression and purpose in even the most difficult circumstances.
The film itself has withstood some difficult circumstances itself, as it’s been 8 years since its initial conception. Being funded almost completely by Sjöberg himself for a few years, the film then stalled before attempting a Kickstarter campaign, which ultimately fell short of its goal. Sjöberg continued to look for funding, when the film fell in the lap of the perfect person, Nas, certainly one of the ten most important figures in hip hop history, who agreed to help fund and advise the project. Nas provides legitimacy to the project, an advisor that knows hip hop like the back of his hand and helped birth the movement as we know it today.
Chock-full of globe-spanning rap music including two songs from Nas himself, the music has a constant sense of rhythm and exudes joy. The film offers really open and endearing portraits of its subjects, especially a father-daughter duo in Colombia and a pair of best friends from Uganda. Rather than narrating himself, Sjöberg wisely opts for letting his film subjects do all the talking, giving voice and allowing his subjects personalities shape the film.
Shake the Dust also gives credit where credit is due, pointing to community organizers and club founders that are providing an outlet for expression for troubled kids not much different than how Afrika Bambaataa provided a refuge for gangmembers with the Zulu nation.
Shake the Dust also captures the hard work and practice required to make these breakdancers so great. As one of the film subjects describes it, b-boying is like “Olympic gymnastics for the poor”, and surely some of the moves are just as impressive and stylish. Combining these acrobatic moves with a killer soundtrack and stunning cinematography, Shake the Dust offers up some truly breathtaking moments that ask us to re-examine the script we always hear about some of these war-torn countries and the people that preside in them.
The most significant shortcoming of Shake the Dust in my mind, comes from the lack of a real-driving narrative, which probably has more to do with the style of documentary than anything else, deciding to provide a collage rather than one central narrative. Without a big competition at the end or a crime waiting to be unsolved, the film doesn’t have the big satisfying ending you might hope for.
So if you love hip hop, globe-trotting, or just love beautiful cinematography, make a point of watching Shake the Dust. It’s a joyful look at hip hop’s saving power across the globe.