Visual Culture: “Coming Home” to Hip-Hop in Cuba, Haiti + Beyond

Words by Jason Fitzroy Jeffers

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Hip-hop deity Rakim was only half-right when he made his famous proclamation, “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”

For the hip-hop faithful outside of the USA, where they’re from plays a major role in their relationship to the culture. In fact, their outsider status often strengthens their commitment to hip-hop, a fact that continues to inspire Miami hip-hop pioneer turned documentary filmmaker DJ EFN.

“It feels like so many people here in the States have lost touch with the essence of hip-hop, and haven’t been able to articulate what it once meant to them,” EFN says, as he readies himself for a trip. In just a few hours, he’s off to find hip-hop’s true believers in Vietnam. “When I go overseas, I’m always surprised at how well people grasp hip-hop culture. It’s very reminiscent of the Golden Era, and what it meant to me.”

For the last three years, EFN has been documenting these journeys, along with his partners from Crazy Hood Productions, one of Miami’s most respected hip-hop families. It’s given birth to the Coming Home series of films, each of which finds the crew venturing into a different country to connect with its foremost hip-hop practitioners. The latest of these, Coming Home: Haiti, is currently airing on Sean “Diddy” Combs’ cable network Revolt TV.

The journey began with Coming Home: Cuba, inspired by EFN wanting to visit his parents’ homeland despite their resistance to him making the trip. Along with his creative partner, director and rapper Michael Garcia, the decision was made to capture what they could of the island’s hip-hop community on film.

“The older generation is really against us younger people traveling to the island, but I wanted to see Cuba in its bubble before you saw McDonald’s and Taco Bell in old Havana,” says EFN. “I wanted to see it in a time capsule, what my parents would’ve lived in before they left. I figured that meeting people who share my passion for hip-hop would be a really great way to explore Cuba for the first time. I didn’t go with the intention of being of a filmmaker, I just wanted to document the memories.”

Three years after that initial trip, his visions of old Havana staring down the encroachment of capitalism have become real: in December 2014, the United States’ embargo against the island was relaxed, allowing for resumed trade and commerce between the two countries. Many have called foul on the new arrangement, among them older refugees, as well as those who don’t want to see Havana “tainted” by American business. EFN has his concerns, but is very pragmatic about it all.

“It’s inevitable,” says EFN. As long as these things eventually trickle down to the Cuban people, it’s a positive, even if there’s some negative to it. “We really have no other choice than to see this experiment play out because to keep them under the embargo is ridiculous. It just didn’t work. Hopefully the arts thrive even more now.”

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The team’s latest journey brought them to another island that has experienced some turbulence. In Coming Home: Haiti, they venture into some of the more notorious parts of Haiti, such as Cité Soleil, known as one of the largest and most dangerous slums in the Western hemisphere. But it also reveals a side to Haiti that many of outside of the country have never glimpsed via traditional media, showcasing a gritty passion for craftsmanship that inspires without becoming sentimental. It’s there as the cameras venture into cyphers and interviews with respected local hip-hop artists such as Fantom and Rockfam, and in some incredible footage of an exceptional b-boy crew dancing on the streets of Port-au-Prince without kneepads or cardboard.

“People always get negative images from Haiti. Although no-one will actually say it, I feel like it’s forever being reprimanded by the world because of the revolution,” EFN says. “There is so much Haiti has to offer the world in terms of history and culture, but it’s not respected or acknowledged. It’s sad what the world is doing to Haiti, and even what its own government is doing. The artists are pissed off. We wanted to highlight them.”

The film marks the third in the series after Cuba and Peru, with many more currently in the works. No matter where the crew travels, however, there always seems to be one truth that unites hip-hop’s most far-flung ambassadors.

“Before the music industry believed in hip-hop as a really viable money maker, artists sought the approval and respect of their peers. That’s what we’re finding still exists in these countries,” says EFN. “They’re very poor, but what matters to them is getting props. They’re not making money, They use the music to express themselves creatively and as social protest. Hip-hop empowers them. We want to share their stories.”

Coming Home: Haiti airs Sunday 11/22 at 9:30AM ET and 6:30PM ET, and Thursday 11/26 at 3pm ET, on Revolt TV.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4Z-CI0v08k