Political hip-hop just might be the most arbitrary sub-genre in music. There doesn’t really appear to be a semblance of logic as to how an artist ends up as a “political rapper”: While emcees such as KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco and Common have magically acquired the label for rhyming about social issues and government, dozens of others — ranging from Raekwon to Danny Brown to Lil B to Yeezy — have covered the exact same topics in their careers while somehow avoiding the designation. We need a better definition of the genre, at least for Wikipedia’s sake.
Mark Ford’s compelling new documentary, Uprising: Hip-Hop and the L.A. Riots, finally gives us some guidance. By revisiting the devastating Los Angeles riots of 1992, the 66-minute film powerfully proves that political rap isn’t just about blasting George W. Bush every second song (we’re looking at you, Immortal Technique). Rather, it’s about giving thousands of angry inner-city residents an anthem to blast while lighting a city on fire in response to racialized injustice. Hmm. Perhaps not. This whole political rap thing is kind of complicated.
But that complicated reality is what makes Uprising such a fantastic piece of cinema. Ford, who was working for CNN during the 1992 riots, was clearly comfortable with the tension of telling the complex story of the riots through the complex lens of hip-hop. He was fully aware that 53 people were killed, that Reginald Denny and Fidel Lopez were horrendously beaten at Florence and Normandy, that historic animosity between the black and Korean communities erupted — and that “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A. was the theme song to it all.
“It was one of those situations where hip-hop really became a unifying force in that community,” Ford says. “That song was a battle cry during that time period, and a way for people to vent their frustration in a way that connected them. I’m not saying that all the damage and destruction that occurred was a positive thing, but one thing about the riots was that there was a lot of unity among people [such as the Bloods and Crips] who weren’t unified prior.”
The tale of the riots is well known to most — in fact, well known enough to essentially justify a superficial, run-of-the-mill History Television telling of the beating of Rodney King, a black man, the acquittal of the four police officers responsible, and the brutal aftermath. But Ford’s a better filmmaker than that: in Uprising, he conducts startling interviews with those who would be on the fringes of many other docs, such as Henry Watson, one of the four men convicted of infamously assaulting white truck driver Reginald Denny. In perhaps the most captivating scene of the whole film, Ford asks Watson if he regrets being a part of the Denny beating, to which Watson chillingly responds: “What the fuck can I tell you? It’s just something that happened. Do I regret it? I mean, do I regret what? April 29? His ass-whooping? I don’t know.”
“An important thing from our point of view was not to judge,” Ford explains. “You know, we wanted to try to understand what people did those three days. When you see the footage of Henry Watson doing what he did, and what they did to Reginald Denny, of course it was horrible, but there’s more to the story than that. I think it’s important when we see atrocities being committed, where are they coming from? What’s motivating them? Because that’s how you prevent them from happening again. If you examine the root causes of the anger and rage, you’ll find it was rooted in oppression.”
Ford’s refined awareness of racism and class privilege inevitably brought him back to viewing the events through the culture of hip-hop. It’s what separates Uprising from other documentaries you’ll see about the events. Listening to the legendary Snoop Dogg — who participated in the riots before he was famous — narrate the film brings an unparalleled understanding to the viewer. Ice Cube’s “Black Korea” and Dre’s “The Day the Niggaz Took Over” won’t ever be the same after hearing them expertly edited into the telling of the story. Seeing Nas, KRS-One, Too $hort and Sir Jinx simply banter (although KRS-One never just banters) about the riots gives us insight into both the time period and the artists.
In Uprising, Ford has managed to tell an astoundingly complicated story in a surprisingly brief film, while integrating expert editing, unseen archived footage and interviews with some of the world’s most famous (and political) rap stars.
Uprising concludes with interviewees suggesting that the racial tension that sparked America’s most destructive riot two decades ago is once again rising, perhaps even approaching a boiling point. The Trayvon Martin case in Florida might prove to be that catalyst: So-called political rappers Mos Def and Dead Prez recorded a song specifically about the murder, as did not-so-political rapper Plies. Rick Ross, Ludacris, and Frank Ocean have all posted pictures of themselves with hoods up on Twitter. If there’s one thing that we should all take away from Uprising, it’s that emcees of all subgenres are both prophetic and encouraging of social upheaval in one way or another. We better start listening.