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Raising Up Through Hip-Hop

Breakdancers and rappers around the world tell their stories in Shake the Dust with a little help from Nas. by Laura Feinstein

April 14, 2015

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Shake the Dust premieres on Vimeo today. Special thanks to Bond/360 for images 
Shake the Dust travels to areas like Uganda and Cambodia to capture the resilient spirit of hip-hop

There are many stunning scenes in filmmaker Adam Sjöberg’s breathtaking new breakdancing documentary Shake the Dust, co-produced by David Jacobson (of The Butler) and rap legend Nasir “Nas” Jones, that will knock the wind out of you. In the span of 90 minutes, the 30-year-old director travels from the slums and barrios of Colombia, to the rugged mountaintops of Yemen, to the roughest neighborhoods in Uganda and Cambodia to capture the global hip-hop spirit. 

The scene that grabbed us like the holy ghost was a long, panoramic shot in which one of the film’s teenage protagonists climbs to the roof of a car in a taxi depot in Kampala, Uganda. As the sun sets, with the background an endless field of worn-out automobiles, he releases a powerful torrent of dance moves. He jumps, locks, contorts, and flies with the ease of an expert—as all around him daily life in the developing city continues, both passively acknowledging and oblivious to his explosion of joy. 

A broken-down taxi in Kampala, Uganda becomes the perfect platform for a master breakdancer

It’s in moments like these that Sjöberg, a member of the GOOD 100 in 2013, captures the true power of visual storytelling. In his work as a photographer and filmmaker, the Midwestern son has traveled to more than 60 countries, covering conflict and natural disaster in places like Haiti and Burma, as well as lighter topics like design, architecture, and culture, for outlets ranging from BBC World News to ESPN. Yet this project, which formally began in 2009, has been, according to the director himself, the most fulfilling one thus far. An initially self-funded passion-related project, worked on between assignments, during periods of personal travel, and financed, on what are now, several maxed-out credit cards, it is the definition of a “labor of love.” As he told GOOD by phone from his offices in Los Angeles, Shake the Dust “was like getting a Ph.D. in filmmaking”—an all-encompassing project that took up the bulk of his 20s. Sjöberg’s paean to hip-hop and breakdancing is more than just music and moves, it’s also an exploration of what its community stands for—rhythm, empowerment, resilience—and the value of storytelling in our culture. Though the hip-hop breakdancing revolution may have started on the streets of the Bronx, its reach is now worldwide.

Kampala, Uganda

With the skill of an old-school gumshoe, the filmmaker lands in places like Sana’a, Yemen, and Bogota, Colombia, searching the streets for rappers, disc jockeys, and b-boys in order to reveal how breakdancing today acts as a positive force enabling social change. But before he hopped on a plane, Sjöberg started somewhat local. “I began small, filming in the Bronx in New York, and immersing myself in the hip-hop community, modern dialogue, and culture,” he said. “The first major chunk of production began over a two-month period when I traveled to Uganda, Egypt, and Yemen to document small communities of breakdancers who were changing their cities and countries for good through their dance, words, and, more importantly, their social consciousness.”

On a mountaintop, high above Yemen’s political turmoil, a breakdancer in Sana’a has a moment of quiet reflection. 

“Over the past several years I’ve had the opportunity to travel globally on both personal and professional film and photography projects,” says Sjöberg in his artist statement. “Through the course of my travels, I’ve seen a great deal of human suffering. Paradoxically, I’ve also witnessed great hope and endurance in the midst of such suffering. I’ve seen joy and camaraderie in the face of adversity, and resilience amidst complete uncertainty of survival. My goal with Shake the Dust is to demonstrate that suffering is indeed present in these third-world countries, but it is not the majority of what is there. When we are able to glimpse the whole of their experience—to taste their daily life, and seek to understand their culture—we can then truly show compassion. This, I believe, will be the catalyst to stir us into action.” 

Bogotá, Colombia

Sjöberg, the son of a pastor, wanted to show his subjects’ inner strength, rather than exploiting their hardships—a trap many documentarians fall into. “It’s very easy to look at people in the developing world with pity, and not as people,” he says. “I wanted to tell their story, to bring them up. Hip-hop to me transcends culture … [and I wanted to create something] that would highlight some of the parts of hip-hop I love the most. There is resilience to it as an art form. It’s [also] a genre that’s all about storytelling. It’s rooted in a tradition of African forms of storytelling talking about life experience. Hip-hop itself is about being empowered to tell your own story.”

As anyone who’s ever worked on a creative project knows, there is a long, often tortuous, journey between idea and final result. After several years of traveling, and cutting a precious batch of raw footage, Sjöberg knew he needed help and brought on longtime friend and colleague David Jacobson to help produce the project. Through a connection, the duo were able to get the footage in front of iconic rapper Nas, who quickly became the film’s steadfast supporter and executive producer. “What these kids are doing around the world reminds me why I fell in love with hip-hop and how important it is as a creative and constructive outlet,” Nas has said about the film. “After hearing Adam’s vision for this project and hearing the stories, I was incredibly excited to help bring the film to global audiences who need to hear this surprising message of empowerment.”

A still from Shake the Dust shows the egalitarian quality of breakdancing, as almost anywhere can become a makeshift stage. 

Rather than just a credit on the final screen, Nas—who began his hip-hop career with the epic Illmatic at around the same age as many of the dancers profiled in Shake the Dust—was undoubtedly the movie’s driving creative force. The busy rapper, who is currently revving up to release his newest album, made it a point to screen the film at every major cut. According to Jacobson, Nas brought on “people who were well-versed in everything from Middle Eastern politics to philanthropic media. They were asking questions, and challenging us. It was great to hear his gut reaction, and to have that very authentic relationship.” The answer to why such a prolific artist would want to take on a low-budget indie as a pet project is rather straightforward. As Nas said to Jacobson, “I was that kid in Queens, and my own story of falling in love with hip-hop and being swept up in the power and influence of hip-hop wasn’t so different from Erick and Fahad [the film’s two main dancers] of Uganda, who were doing it for the same reason.” Whether it’s Uganda, Cambodia, or the South Bronx, there is a universal quality of that struggle to have your voice heard. This is also reflected in the film’s diverse soundtrack, a mix of notable American artists like Common and Talib Kweli, as well as international hip-hop, and original music by Nas, created exclusively for the film.

While Sjöberg was able to capture remarkable footage, there’s still one dance team that “got away.” While trying to get into the Gaza Strip for a fifth filming location, he was detained despite having proper papers. “There’s a group of breakdancers in Gaza city called ‘Camp Breakerz,’ and they teach people how to dance,” said Sjöberg, explaining his particular pull toward this Middle Eastern location. “At the end of the film, when the credits roll, I dedicate the film to those at Camp Breakerz. I still never met any of them, but we’ve stayed in contact.”

Despite that setback, Sjöberg is happy with the end result of a project that captivated him during the years that most young creatives spend trying to find their focus. When asked what pushes him to create and whether the process, perhaps, is a result of his socially-conscious upbringing, he tellingly responds, “I think I still retain a strong sense [of social-consciousness], and in documentary filmmaking a desire for people to thrive and not suffer, and the idea of having passion. It’s fulfilling to want to tell other people’s stories, and to also help people tell their own stories.”

Shake the Dust premieres on Vimeo Tuesday, April 14, 2015, and is available to livestream here. In honor of the premiere, the film’s creators have put together a clip exclusively for GOOD, exploring Bogotá’s biggest scene-drivers. "Breaking began on the street corner and in underground clubs—and much of Shake the Dust seeks to embody those beginnings,” Sjöberg told GOOD. “In Colombia, the hip-hop scene feels as fresh today as it did in the Bronx thirty years ago.” Check it out below:

Special thanks to Loose Luggage Media

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Raising Up Through Hip-Hop Breakdancers and rappers around the world tell their stories in Shake the Dust with a little help from Nas.