Q&A: Bertolain Elysee, Co-Curator of the Maysles Institute’s “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States” Series, Opening This Weekend


The Maysles Institute’s documentary film series “Country Rap 2: The Gulf States” and its accompanying program “Katrina: Five Years Later”–both opening this weekend–tie the rich spirit and deep history of Southern hip-hop to recent tragedies like Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Films about Miami bass (2 Live Crew: Banned in the U.S.A), bounce (Ya Heard Me?), Southern rap (Dirty States Of America, The Carter), Delta blues (The Land Where Blues Began), and New Orleans jazz (Jazz Parades) stand alongside histories of the Black Panther Party (Lowndes County Freedom Party) and the Miami University football team (The U). Alabama up-and-comers G-Side will perform at the venue on Saturday. (And all of this in New York City, a/k/a the town that booed OJ Da Juiceman!) Via e-mail, we spoke to co-curator Bertolain Elysee about the event’s expansive intentions, why libertarians should love 2 Live Crew’s Luke, and Lil Wayne and Lil Boosie’s particular kind of political activism.

Last summer’s series, “Country Rap Tunes,” was fairly New Orleans and Texas-centric. This year it’s the Gulf states.

Last summer was programmed by cinema co-director Philip Maysles, who actually lived in Houston for a few years and brought that experience to the event. This year, in light of the Gulf oil spill and Katrina’s 5th year anniversary, co-director Jessica Green suggested we dedicate at least one night to each state that borders the gulf and also curate a series in honor of Katrina’s 5th anniversary. So, “Country Rap films” will segue into “Katrina: Five Years Later,” a series of documentaries that speak to the ways in which Hurricane Katrina, and now the oil spill, has affected Gulf folks’ lives.

Why rap though?

Our perspective was more along the lines of, “why not rap?” Or, “why haven’t the effects of Katrina been discussed from a hip-hop point of view, given its massive economic and cultural presence?” Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, for all its achievements, did not contain one single interview with a hip-hop artist. But rappers were definitely involved and affected–consider David Banner rerouting his tour buses to carry relief supplies down to New Orleans.

And while much of the nation has ostensibly forgotten Katrina, references to the hurricane haven’t diminished in rap. Lil Wayne’s still wrestling with it in his verses. New Orleans-born Jay Electronica mentions it pretty frequently too.

Yes. And for local artists, the storm radically changed how they make and could make music. We have a documentary, Ya Heard Me?, that traces the social and stylistic development of New Orleaans bounce music to how its artists were scattered throughout the south by the storm. We’re also putting on another mixed-media exhibition that night, “Where They At,” that shows how the cultural and physical contexts of bounce has been changed by this dispersal. These kinds of histories, especially within hip-hop, are histories that are often too easily untold or forgotten.

That “forgotten” aspect is what grabbed me about the screenings. My guess is very few people have seen Penelope Spheeris’ 2 Live Crew: Banned In the U.S.A.

We were initially trying to find a general documentary about the history of Miami Bass and couldn’t really, but maybe that was for the better. Spheeris does a good job of contextualizing 2 Live Crew’s music within a performative context–people were really getting down to this stuff. 2 Live Crew weren’t just shouting these explicit raps into a vacuum. I also remember reading her mention that 2 Live Crew were actually a lot more respectful to her as a woman than the rock stars she filmed for Decline of Western Civilization, which is hilarious.

Spheeris also lets Luke speak for himself.

Definitely. It’s funny, Luke’s defense of 2 Live Crew’s music should actually make any libertarian, small-government sympathizer proud, and Spheeris interviews some of those groups to make that connection clear.

You also have something like The Lowndes County Freedom Party, a documentary tracing the Black Panther Party’s roots to Lowndes County, Alabama. It’s not explicitly hip-hop related, but it works into the “Country Rap” thesis: That the South’s significance to black history shows up in unexpected, under-discussed ways.

It is not just a matter of placing political films and hip-hop docs together out of the hope that “gangster rap” will acquire a political consciousness by the power of association. The same desire African Americans in rural Lowndes exhibited to assert self-definition and self-determination that inspired folks to form the Panthers upon their return North also courses through independent Southern hip-hop. Lil Boosie idolizes Tupac–a Panther cub. The New Panther Party went south to invigorate a new civil rights movement around Jena 6. Boosie marched with the New Black Panther Party in Baton Rouge and was moved to call out corrupt D.A.’s, judges and police on “Dirty World”: “Jena 6 did it /you see this world wicked.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was targeted by the Baton Rouge police department from that point on.

The Lil Wayne documentary The Carter also asserts the complex, political nature of rap music. It’s like the rap equivalent of the Bob Dylan doc, Don’t Look Back: a portrait of a politically engaged but ultimately reluctant artist.

Yeah, though Wayne’s the “voice” of his hometown, he really distances himself from some New Orleans traditions. There’s a scene where he shuts down an interviewer who compares his rapping to poetry and jazz, and his music to big brass. It’s classic. Rap’s relationship to that stuff is there but it’s not that simple. Even beyond an overtly political song like “Georgia Bush”, Wayne’s response to Katrina and FEMA, Lil Wayne references New Orleans constantly, sometimes in general ways (“Sell his chain, celebrate, block party, second line/Zulu Ball, Essence Fest, Jazzfest, Mardi Gras” off “Best Rapper Alive”), and other times in awesomely specific ways (“New Orleans coroner, his name is Frank Minyard/Fuck with me wrong, you’ll be waking up in his yard” off of “Run This Town” on No Ceilings). How could we not include something on him?

I was really psyched to see the inclusion of The U, a documentary about the legendary Miami University football team, directed by Billy Corben, who did the Cocaine Cowboys movies.

Corben is really adept at accentuating difference in worldview through shifts in tone and aesthetic devices. Aesthetics aside, Corben’s film deserves praise for presenting hip-hop within a very broad and layered context. Spheeris’ Banned In The U.S.A is well served by being coupled with The U. At the same time that 2 Live Crew is facing obscenity charges, Miami football players are banned and penalized for hip-hop-inspired touchdown celebrations. There is little difference between the dour faces of Notre Dame Football and the Dallas Decency league going after Luke and company.

All of these films documenting the history of the South build upon one another.

Well, there’s been a significant influx of black migrants moving back to the South from the North and the West in the last ten, fifteen years. Atlanta has pretty much supplanted New York as hip-hop’s media capital, and in addition to the radio stuff, you have a wide range of artists and styles coexisting in the region–from kinda proggy, funky “spaced-out” stuff (Aleon Craft, Hollyweerd), to your underground trap rap (Killer Mike, Pill) to your dark but comic skater types (Yelawolf), to G-Side, who fuse all those disparate styles together.

G-Side are performing at “Country Rap” this Saturday. They’re a youthful, cultish rap group out of Alabama. They seem to really represent the next step for Southern rap.

They’re coming out of Huntsville, Alabama, not a traditional media hub by any means, but have been able to build a pretty high profile for themselves despite that. There’s an emotionally expressive, but also put-your-head-down-and-work quality to their music that just makes you feel like you can achieve anything with enough honesty and motivation. “Rising Sun” off last year’s Huntsville International, probably captures that feeling best for me. Honest, instructive lines like “The whole point of flippin’ a brick was to flip it legit…I’m a W-2 boy/Do what you do long as you know what you do it for,” and then that kung-fu sample drops and ups the ante, bringing the track into boss battle territory, if you know what I mean.

Totally. There’s no posturing in their music. It’s all earned.

And it helps that their beats are mostly these sprawling, gorgeous things.

G-Side are also bringing a documentary with them, put together by Codie G, the head of their label Slow Motion Soundz, but also a generous ambassador for the entire Huntsvile hip-hop community.

As soon as I spoke to Codie G. on the phone, he was really excited and ready to help out, not just with the rap series, but with promoting the Katrina series too. He’s just like that. I asked him if there were any films documenting Alabama rap, and there weren’t at the time, but no matter, he said–he’d just compile one for the series himself!

He basically made a documentary illustrating the history of Slow Motion Soundz.

The footage is about an hour long, and yeah, it tells the story of how Slow Motion Soundz has grown into a sustainable independent project, splicing music videos and interviews with key helpers. We also reached out to early G-Side supporters Baller’s Eve to co-sponsor the event with us. It felt natural considering their existing connection to G-Side and other independent artists from the South. I believe they’ll be out for the discussion we’re hosting after the screening too.

These hubs of Southern culture outside the South, like Baller’s Eve, make a case for Southern rap as not just some rarefied thing (“the dirty states of America”) but as something that’s–pardon me for this one–bigger than hip-hop.

This festival and the work Baller’s Eve is doing are just small examples of how black culture flows in all kinds of varied and unpredictable ways between the North and South, and we really want to make these connections explicit. As an example: by the most conservative estimate, 70 percent of the current residents of Central Harlem (where the Maysles Cinema is located) can trace their roots back to the South.