A new documentary shines a light on Buenos Aires' vibrant grass roots hip hop scene.
A new documentary shines a light on Buenos Aires' vibrant grass roots hip hop scene.
In a city that styles itself as the Paris of Latin America, proudly displaying its tango and European culture to the rest of the world, hip hop is usually excluded from the picture. As an underground movement, hip hop’s contribution to Buenos Aires’ rich and varied cultural offering is largely ignored by the rest of society. But beneath the gaze of most Argentines, an immensely creative, multi-class and multi-racial, grass-roots music culture thrives.
After meeting in the city’s thumping underground clubs, Diane Ghogomu from Pittsburgh, Sebastian Muñoz from Chile, and Segundo Bercetche from Argentina, became determined to reveal this vibrant scene through new documentary Buenos Aires Rap. The international crew brought different perspectives to the project, shaped by particular experiences of hip hop culture in their home countries.
The film has already sold out its screening tonight at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI) but the filmmakers are relying on their crowd-funding campaign to allow them to properly complete the final stages of post-production. Huck spoke to Diane to learn more about the extensive three year project and the vibrant hip hop culture it documents.
What makes the Argentine rap scene distinctive?
Rap was brought to Argentina in the in the ’80s by hip hop culture movies like Wildstyle. At first it was more of a middle class alternative culture and wasn’t adopted by marginal populations – they were more inclined to listen to Cumbia Villera (Shantytown Cumbia). But now rap is present in all socio-economic groups and played in the ghettoes, exclusive night clubs and middle class neighbourhoods. It’s still a very alternative and underground culture that lives in homemade studios, grass roots competitions, freestyle battles and community festivals.
We’re an international crew from very different hip hop backgrounds, so we’re interested in how that culture is interpreted here. Often the first hip hop artists people hear goes on to heavily influence the type of music they go on to make and the way they understand hip hop culture.
The scene here is inspiring for its diversity, and also for the dedication that the rap artists have to their craft. There is no sturdy industry in Buenos Aires, so almost nobody can live off hip hop. Rappers sometimes spend more money than they earn when they play at a club or make an album.
Although there is a history of stiff competition between crews here in Buenos Aires, we are seeing that there is a new movement to unify the hip hop community. Those fortunate enough to have their own home studios often help record others. People gather in plazas to freestyle every weekend, fill up hip hop clubs, and support their own music festivals.
How were you introduced to Buenos Aires rap and when did you decide to start shooting it?
I first went to Buenos Aires about six years ago as a student to do anthropological research on the Afro-Argentine community. I was really interested in how hip hop could be employed by the younger generation of Afro-Argentines and interviews with people I met in clubs became the basis of my university thesis.
When I returned, I started taking my camera to all of the hip hop culture events that I could. That’s where I met Sebastian Muñoz, a Chilean sociologist who was writing his thesis on rap in Buenos Aires and Segundo Bercetche, an Argentine filmmaker who was working with him.
They had been filming the history of the hip hop scene in Buenos Aires and a diverse spectrum of rap artists in and around the city. I was impressed with their vision and they were interested in my work on the Afro-Diaspora in Argentina so we decided to begin to work together on the project.
What’s your background in documentaries?
I’m a photographer but I had no previous experience as a documentary filmmaker. My preference is to be directing and asking questions rather than behind the camera. But in a grass-roots production like this, we all had to get our hands dirty in every role. None of us had shot a documentary before so we made every mistake that you can think of but we all learned a huge amount.
Segundo is our audiovisual expert, with a really natural eye and flow with the camera, and we learned a lot from his vision and direction. The project sparked his interest in documentary filmmaking and he’s now embarked on a few really interesting new projects. Sebastian is an incredible director, who always asks the relevant questions and anticipates our next moves as a group. I’ve learned so much from both of them.
What were the challenges in presenting the story to a wider audience?
I think the biggest challenge when presenting documentaries, especially foreign documentaries, is finding your niche, your audience. That’s why we tried to give the documentary a rhythm and hip hop aesthetic to keep the audience engaged and bouncing along the journey.
Subtitling was extremely difficult as we were dealing with an underground subculture that has its own rituals, languages, and codes. Rap is an art that works by signifying on cultural symbols – it’s an insider culture. Sometimes when you translate a rhyme into English that made the whole cipher go wild when it was dropped, you kill it, you sterilise it. You would have to write paragraphs of footnotes for the viewer to understand all the cultural references. As outsiders, sometimes we didn’t understand everything, but that’s the fun part of cultural decoding. Our job as documentarians is to attempt to transmit this reality across language and culture barriers.
How can people show support?
This project has been funded almost entirely independently. We’ve received a few individual grants but the biggest investment over the last three years has been our own money and our own time. We started our Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the final stages of post-production, applying to film festivals and finding a distributor. This money is going to be so crucial in making sure that this documentary is seen in the best way possible.
We’ve put so much of our lives into this project for the last few years. The protagonists have been so dedicated to their art and have blessed us by allowing us to enter into their world. We just want to make sure that these voices, these realities, these existences, have the birth and flight that they deserve.
What’s your relationship with Argentina?
A taxi driver asked me the other day how long I had been living here. I told him four years. He laughed and said, “Buenos Aires is like cocaine: once you’re in it, its impossible to get out,” I told him that I would be using his phrase, so shout out to him. I suppose I’m a Buenos Aires addict. I never expected to stay here so long, but there’s something about this city that sucks you in.
Was it important to you to represent the city authentically?
Sebastian and I are huge hip hop heads but this documentary is about much more than just hip hop. It was important to show the hidden Buenos Aires that doesn’t make it onto postcards and probably won’t make it into the history books.
In most modern cities people rarely take the time to truly experience realities that are not their own. People talk about Buenos Aires as if it were a completely European city. The popular history here says that all of the black people died and that most of the indigenous people were massacred.
People are scared to go into the villas (shantytowns) and the communities that many of the people in the film come from, so the realities they experience aren’t discussed. But hip hop is a social phenomenon that allows characters from different socio-economic realities to come together and create.
What did you feel your responsibilities to the rappers you shot with were?
I think we all feel a huge responsibility to represent each artist as truthfully as possible. We tried to show a holistic panorama of artists who represent the ghetto cosmopolitanism of modern Buenos Aires. Our effort was to show these characters inside and outside of hip hop, to show their wholeness as people and artists.
What are the major things you have learned from making the doc?
We are all so grateful to have been involved in this process. We’ve been able to understand, experience, and participate in the reality of so many people in Buenos Aires. It was such a privilege to talk, hang out and film with so many artists who are passionate about what they do and live for the art they make.
Filming a documentary encourages people to open doors to you, that they perhaps wouldn’t otherwise. We’ve often found ourselves sitting at dinner tables, walking into bedrooms, meeting families, boyfriends, shared intimate situations with our characters, and for me that is the most beautiful part of this process.
How do you hope your documentary will have an impact?
I hope this can be a mirror for citizens in Buenos Aires to look at themselves and truly begin to integrate these diverse collectives and communities into part of the national imagery. Many of the Afro-Argentines, or children of immigrants who live in Buenos Aires are constantly bombarded with, “Where are you from?”
Although we suffer from a very harsh systematic and informal racism in the United States, we have an idea of America that includes all immigrants, which is an attitude still lacking in Argentina. I want people to come out with an understanding of Buenos Aires as a rich and enigmatic city where immigrants have always played a crucial role.