Can hip-hop change lives? National Geographic thinks so

“The truth will set you free,” or so says Chuck D, hip-hop legend and pioneering voice of Public Enemy. Committing to social change, Chuck D used his celebrity for a cause: joining Sol Guy and Josh Thome, co-founders of Direct Current Media, in promoting the release of the upcoming television series 4Real.

The series, set to be aired on National Geographic Wild and National Geographic Music channels, aims to forge connections and promote social awareness by documenting trips that Sol and Josh take with celebrities to developing countries.

Guy and Thome are also joined by Brazilian hip-hop star MV Bill, and discussed their project in a panel discussion at the National Geographic headquarters in D.C. last Friday, followed by a musical performance.

“I’m not down with the whole ‘You want to change the world, go to Africa’ (mindset). Change it here,” Guy said in an interview with The Hatchet. And though his work does in fact bring him to other countries, he sees documenting what exists abroad and forging connections as promoting change at home. A former hip-hop artist and manager, he explained the power of using new media to translate a greater message of change, careful to position his activism within hip-hop culture – something he characterizes as his first love.

Guy and Thome have been joined in the past by celebrities like Cameron Diaz, Joaquin Phoenix, M.I.A. and Mos Def on travels to developing countries trying to connect with others people promoting positive change in their world.

Guy, a former musician with a Canadian hip-hop group, was brought to Sierra Leone to serve essentially the same purpose as the celebrities he now travels with: communicating conflicts to youth. The moment of impact on his journey? Guy recalled a memory of a woman without an arm, explaining to him that the work he was doing was essentially “bullshit.” She was willing to talk and discuss her life, but she didn’t see any benefit of his film.

“I backed up. I’ll always remember that woman,” he said.

“In these times, the art (we create) becomes paramount,” he said, emphasizing the impact art has to affect change. “I want to peel the layer that can exist between this conversation and the world.”

While Guy entered into this project with a background in hip-hop, Thome noted the environmental activism of his past as that which has influenced his current work. According to Thome, a short documentary he produced on Earth Day was picked up by MTV.

“The environment is a social issue, and a social issue is about people,” said Thome, characterizing his new focus as a natural progression.

MV Bill, speaking in Portuguese with a translator, noted that he was influenced by Public Enemy. Chuck D cited his honoring of MV Bill, who (through a documentary and two books) works to expose drug trafficking and violence in his home – the dangerous “City of God” in Brazil.

“Whatever you do,” Chuck D said, “you have to put back into the music and bring to the community.”

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