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The We Rock Long Distance Doc Is an Artistic Homecoming for Twin Cities Rappers

L-R: M.anifest and his grandfather J. H. Kwabena Nketia

L-R: M.anifest and his grandfather J. H. Kwabena Nketia

"Listen to my rap. I rap," says 93-year-old J. H. Kwabena Nketia to his grown grandson. The two men are admiring a vast archive of Nketia's academic work, which includes several books and honors. "I'm rapping in Twi [a dialect of the Akan language of Ghana]," says the revered composer and ethnomusicologist of the proto-rap narrative poem Akwansosem Bi. "I wrote this as a student in London, studying Chaucer. And I said, I'll do my African version. The rhythmic elements are there."

As the older man performs a spoken piece dating from 1945, the cadences and flow coming from his mouth are remarkably similar to current hip-hop. His grandson, the formerly Minnesota-based rapper M.anifest, is visibly stunned. Though carrying the torch for an African living legend in his lineage wasn't M.anifest's goal, the traditions in his family history still bear weight on his work -- generations down the line and thousands of miles away.

The scene and concept stems from Justin Schell's new documentary, We Rock Long Distance, a film that follows three well-respected rappers from the Minnesota hip-hop scene -- M.anifest, Maria Isa, and Tou SaiKo Lee -- as they reconnect with their families and homelands and contextualize their modern approach with their respective cultures.

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"I was writing an essay for [Hip Hop in America: Regional Guide] about Twin Cities hip-hop and started noticing that there were lots of people doing hip-hop in Minnesota that weren't from Minnesota originally," says Schell in between final edits at his home. "I got really interested in those stories. In a lot of discussions of hip-hop it's either American hip-hop or it's global hip-hop. There's this really clean divide in a lot of writing about it and discussions about hip-hop."

A filmmaker and Digital Humanities Specialist at the University of Minnesota Libraries, Schell has been working on this project the better part of eight years.

"Folks here in Minnesota are really blurring those distinctions," he says. "These are three representative stories of that. Thinking about how many hundreds of thousands of global stories there are, these three are unique. But they're not the only ones."

Maria Isa

Maria Isa

Schell traveled to Ghana with M.anifest, to Puerto Rico with Isa, and to Thailand with Lee for the film. He chronicled their family histories and recorded scenes of new inter-generational collaborations. Similarities between the rappers' stories began to emerge as the trio drew connections between their attempts to communicate their cultural backgrounds into a post-immigration moment.

"It was really important to me to have them all talking to each other and not just have [separate stories]," he says. "[I wanted to] do justice to the way that they are woven together in their lives, both being in Minnesota and being hip-hop artists, and the geographic and generational parallels they have. There's a part where M.anifest says, 'Oh, your grandma's just like my grandpa.' There are these sort of undiscovered connections in those stories."

Lee and Isa each share screen time with their grandmothers, with Lee's work with his grandmother Youa Chang as the duo Fresh Traditions being a key element. Lee's spoken-word-influenced personal narrative raps are combined with Chang's traditional Hmong poetry chanting. Known as kwutxhiaj, the oral tradition focuses on lyrical messages and has been passed down through intensive memorization. Similar to M.anifest's revelation with his grandfather, Lee found similarities to his own hip-hop style and sought to find common creative ground.

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"[There's a] freestyle aspect to it; she doesn't exactly replicate what was taught to her, she puts her own twist on it," he says in the film. "She accepts what I do as an evolution of what she does too."

But as Lee attempts to learn kwutxhiaj from his grandmother, the film acknowledges the difficulties of cultural continuity in the refugee experience.

"It's still a recognition whether that be because of generational difference or language or whatever, we can't just go back to this," says Schell. "What his grandma does, very few people can do now."

Isa's work perhaps most directly integrates her heritage, as she's been performing traditional Puerto Rican bomba music since the age of five, later attaching rap as one of multiple elements of her musical output. She served as the Artistic Director of El Arco Iris Center for the Arts, a Minnesota non-profit organization started by her mother and aunt with a strong emphasis on Afro Puerto Rican culture and a mission to preserve Afro-Caribbean and Latino history through the performing arts, through 2013, and now serves as Creative Arts Director for La Mera Buena 107.5 FM.

"I am the next one to carry our culture, our history's torch," she says in the film. Having coined the term "Sota Rico," Isa is a strong proponent of the Puerto Rican population in the Twin Cities, representing the diaspora in her music and community involvement, and the film represents how these stories of cultural progression are taking place both abroad and locally.

"This whole project started off as looking at immigrant, refugee, and diasporic hip-hop in Minnesota... just in thinking what constitutes a Twin Cities or a Minnesota hip-hop community. There's so many different parts of it. Those boundaries become really blurry really fast," says Schell. "It's bigger than this film. But knowing that there are so many of these connections, and people come here as sort of secondary migration sites, whether it's because of social services or feeling that community that they have here. That local community, it just plays out on multiple levels. That's a bigger conversation."

WE ROCK LONG DISTANCE makes its world premiere on Friday, February 6, and Saturday, February 7, at Intermedia Arts; 612-871-4444

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