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Street poets who aren't in it for the money: Irish hip hop on film

Broken Song is due out on 15 November – a mainly black and white film that takes a look at Dublin emcees, singer and label boss.



(Zucca Films/Vimeo)

THE LIVES AND work of a small group of Irish hip-hop artists is explored in a new and unexpected way in the soon-to-be released Broken Song.

This documentary focuses on GI, Costello and Willa (William) Lee, north-Dublin based street poets, hip-hop artists and songwriters, for whom music is not a hobby, but a religion.

While GI and Costello are quickfire, introspective-yet-outgoing emcees, Willa Lee has the soulful voice of a man far older than his tender years. Also featuring in the documentary is Dean Scurry, of the impressive Workin Class Records, who works with the young musicians and songwriters.

In contrast to the graffiti-strewn, urban look that people tend to favour when profiling hip hop, director Claire Dix chose to shoot most of Broken Song in black and white, with some imaginary sequences in colour.

The result is that the viewer isn’t distracted by bling, but instead drawn in by the fluid, somewhat dreamy feel of the film. The characters of the men are able to come through, as Dix follows the ups and downs of their real lives over a number of months.

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Dix first met Costello, Scurry and GI back in 2010, and despite her initial unfamiliarity with their work, they left quite an impact on her, particularly the lyrics, which she described as “modern-day, real poetry”.

As Dix got to know them, she realised that, contrary to the image conjured up by mainstream artists, they were not motivated by money.

“Commercial success isn’t what drives them. Hip hop is a part of their everyday life. They call it their religion,” she explained.

The men aren’t just happy to work on their own output, and are very involved in outreach work with younger children in the Ballymun area of Dublin in particular. For them, it’s a way of fostering the same love of hip hop that turned them into creators. “There’s something very refreshing there,” said Dix of their approach.

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Costello

Rather than relying on the over-used tropes of graffiti, bright colours and flashy editing, Broken Song is a more gentle, poetic affair. Dix sees it as an art piece, and instinctively shot the majority of it in black and white.

The film looks at the men’s lyrics and writing more so than how they create their beats, as Dix is clearly fascinated by the words they spit out and weave together.

The first song they performed for her, called Flawless, was about “how unjust the whole society is” and what it is like to be a voice for the disenfranchised. This served as a focal point for what she wants to get across with this film, as it showed how the musicians were getting back to the real roots of hip hop.

The landscape that surrounds the men, the streets where they spend their time and which inspire their work, in turn inspired Dix:

Their poetry comes, really, from the streets where they are from. [The footage] does really linger on landscapes, shots of Ballymun. This is where they are rooted, what inspires them, what they are trying to articulate.

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Willa Lee

Broken Song is a positive film, but it doesn’t shy away from the issues facing the men. Willa Lee’s court issues are documented, but Dix said he was not reticent about this being included. “He didn’t seem to have any qualms about it. We really did get great access, they really took a leap of faith.”

Dix was careful not to rely on stereotypes when filming the musicians, treating them like artists rather than caricatures. “I really see them more as poets,” she explained.

As for the documentary title, while Dix said it references the idea of rap being a deconstructed or broken song, it is also inspired by Willa’s struggles.

One thing that is not fractured is the tight relationship between all of the men, for whom collaboration is a key part of what keeps them working so hard.

“They’re all so committed to their thing. There’s no preciousness involved. They help each other out,” said Dix. “It is such a collective in the real sense of the word.”

This isn’t a documentary about Irish hip hop as a whole, but it’s a film about people who happen to be Irish hip hop artists. This is a look at young men who are “heroes in their own neighborhood and within the hip hop world”, who aren’t in it for the money, and who work with young people to give them their own voice.

“They were so disempowered but the music made them powerful,” said Dix of the transformative effect that she believes creating hip hop has had on GI, Costello, and Willa Lee.

“They did it themselves with their own voice and own brain, and poetry and soul. They managed to become powerful.”

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Broken Song will go on release in the IFI in Dublin on 15 November and axis: Ballymun on 27 November. For more information visit Claire Dix’s website.

Read: Hip-hop exchange teams up Irish and Dutch rappers>

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