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African Diaspora Film Festival seeks perspective on hip-hop

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Every year, there are film festivals in the Triangle that mostly focus on black culture in America as well as abroad. The Hayti Heritage Film Festival at Durham's Hayti Heritage Center had its run during Black History Month in February. UNC's Diaspora Festival of Black and Independent Film, held at the Stone Center, usually runs throughout the fall. And in the spring, it's the African Diaspora Film Festival at N.C. State that unspools its yearly selection of black-and-proud cinema.

Now in its 10th year, the free, monthlong festival—held at the Witherspoon Student Center auditorium on the NCSU campus—is a product of the school's Africana Studies program and the African American Cultural Center (also located at Witherspoon). The festival generally features films that deal with a certain theme; previous ones have revolved around concepts of home, sex and sexuality, and African-Americans telling their own stories. The title for this year's festival says it all: "Hip-Hop: Community, Culture and Critique."

"From the academic standpoint, even from an intergenerational standpoint, hip-hop has its issues," says Sheila Smith McKoy, director of the African American Cultural Center. "And we don't want to shy away from those issues. In fact, we want this to be an opportunity for people to talk about not only the positive impact of hip-hop, but also things that aren't so positive about that experience."

For this fest, Smith McKoy got Cultural Center assistant director Dante James to curate the films. James, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who teaches a course on African-American images in film at N.C. State, selected films that both spotlight and examine hip-hop and hip-hop culture. "We're going to look at hip-hop culture in an interdisciplinary complex context," says James. "There's not going to be just a total celebration of hip-hop, because there are parts of it that need to be put under a microscope and examined and unpacked in terms of how it impacts not only African-American culture and communities, but the whole of American society."

The festival begins Monday with a screening of Juice, the inner-city crime thriller from 1992 starring Omar Epps and the late Tupac Shakur. Co-screenwriter Gerard Brown will be in attendance to talk about his experiences on the film and for a Q-and-A session after the screening. The festival continues on April 10 with Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, a 2006 documentary (which also played the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham that year) examining the sexism, homophobia and macho swagger often found in hip-hop music.

A double feature on April 16 presents two films focusing on female rappers. First up, there's Sarabah, a 2011 documentary about the Senegalese rapper Sister Fa, who uses her music to help bring an end to genital mutilation among Senegalese women. It's paired with Say My Name, a 2009 doc in which female MCs discuss having to compete in a male-dominated industry. The festival concludes on April 23 with Bling, a 2006 documentary about hip-hop's obsession with diamond jewelry. James will moderate a panel discussion after the screening.

James says this year's festival is also looking to show how hip-hop has transcended the black community, becoming an influential, moneymaking force here and in other countries. "Hip-hop is so prevalent throughout American society," says James. "It has evolved from something that was grounded in and grew out of issues that urban hip-hop artists had with the whole of American society. But now it has become something that is, in many cases, a commodity."

The festival works on a small budget from the Africana Studies Program, but it seeks out films that will incite the most conversation. Smith McKoy says she allocated $1,000 for the festival this year, allowing her to pay for the rights to have these films digitally projected at the festival. In previous years, she's had to pass up some of the more exotic films she had her eye on. "Sometimes the screening fees can be exorbitant because some of the filmmakers—because we do documentary films—have their own money tied up with it," she says. "Some of the filmmakers that we've done in the past are not in the United States."

But some filmmakers have realized what the event brings to the Triangle and have given Smith McKoy a break. "[The festival] is a nice opportunity for us to celebrate their work," she says, "and those who have been so kind to reduce our fees have really made the festival possible."

James says filmmakers have been "philosophically supportive" of this year's festival, and Smith McKoy expects a diverse mix of moviegoers. "It's something that we do not only because it's a service to the community, but it's also a service to our academic mission here at the Cultural Center," she says.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Up close with hip-hop."

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