“Shake The Dust” Director Adam Sjöberg Speaks on Nas and the Global Impact of Hip-Hop
When hip-hop began, it was a vehicle for change and a way for its practitioners to be heard. The culture that emerged from the streets of New York City helped the disenfranchised communities of its urban landscape speak to the world and express themselves through the mediums of song, dance, and fashion.
Adam Sjöberg’s Shake The Dust adds a new chapter to this legacy, and tells the story of how breakdancing has been instrumental in taking hip-hop worldwide. The film focuses on four very different countries in Yemen, Cambodia, Colombia, and Uganda to show how folks in these embattled countries have empowered themselves and their communities through hip-hop.
To get the full scoop on the film, we spoke to its director, Adam Sjöberg. An acclaimed documentarian, Sjöberg’s ability to craft unique and engaging narratives led him to be selected by GOOD magazine as one of their GOOD 100 global citizens. The magazine was one of many outlets that caught wind of what he was doing while filming Shake The Dust, and who have been supportive of his work ever since. But someone else that took an interest in the film and its mission was hip-hop heavyweight Nas.
For the Queens emcee and hip-hop luminary, there was tremendous merit in what Adam was capturing in the early stages of filming, “After hearing Adam’s vision for this project and hearing the stories, I was incredibly excited to help bring the film to global audiences who need to hear this surprising message of empowerment,” he says of the project. “What these kids are doing around the world reminds me why I fell in love with hip-hop, and how important it is as a creative and constructive outlet.”
Check out the interview below as Sjöberg details the origins of the film, getting Nas involved, and the true power of hip-hop.
How long were you filming for Shake the Dust?
It was actually in 2007 that I came up with the idea to create a documentary about kids around the world, where they could tell their own story. In 2008, I was on YouTube checking out some dance footage and I came across a B-Boy from Uganda. I started doing some more digging and watched more and more of these videos and found this hip-hop community that existed around the world. I thought it was such a great throughline in which to tell the story. That kind of completed the idea, so in 2008 I came up with the idea for the film and then in 2009 I started filming.
Nas is known to be a figure in hip-hop steadfast on truly representing the culture and its ability to beneficially impact so many. Would you say this is why he so easily gravitated towards you and the film, ultimately getting involved with the project?
Yeah, he’s a perfect partner to help executive-produce this project. I had been working on it for a little bit before he came on board. We were able to get some of the clips in front of him and he fell in love with the idea. Being such a huge proponent of telling the history and uncovering parts of the world where hip-hop has reached, but also allowing them to have an opportunity to tell their story, Nas was the perfect fit. He’s such a legend within the culture and has been outspoken about the roots and keeping the culture pure, so we were really glad to have him on board.
In addition to Nas, your work garnered attention from some other big names. Could you speak briefly about your selection as one of GOOD magazine’s GOOD 100?
GOOD came along–they had been fans of Shake the Dust even though it wasn’t done yet–and they’d been following the film’s progress. After seeing the other work that I was doing with other non-profits around the world, they approached me in 2013 and told me that I’d been selected as one of the GOOD 100 in 2013; I was labeled as one of the storytellers in the group of 100 people making a positive global impact through their work.
Shake The Dust takes a look at the impact of breakdancing and hip-hop in Yemen, Cambodia, Uganda, and Colombia. What was it like traveling to all of these different places but seeing the common thread of hip-hop and b-boying and its significance to the people in these communities?
It was a really life-changing process working on this film. It took years to make, I filmed it little by little over the course of five years. I kind of grew up as the film grew up. It was a huge education and developed my worldview. Not only did I learn an enormous amount about hip-hop and its reach but also about what it’s like to live in these places. I was able to get an understanding of both the differences and the similarities that exist in Cambodia, Yemen, Uganda, and Colombia. These countries have incredibly different cultures, but they also share a lot of commonalities as people and also within their individual pockets of hip-hop culture. That was really eye opening and had a huge impact on the themes that come out in the film as well.
One of the b-boys from Uganda turned the word “slum” into a positive acronym: “Social Lessons Useful for Mind.” That speaks to the overall message of hip-hop, this idea that you can take your surroundings and circumstance that may not be advantageous but still using it to the best of your ability to change your outlook or situation.
Mark, one of the break-dancers from Uganda, was the one that coined that phrase. Sadly he grew up with both of his parents having died when he was very young and he wasn’t able to go to school. Through Breakdance Project Uganda, and through hip-hop, he felt empowered; with breaking he felt like he had a sense of purpose, it gave him a voice. Now that same guy, Mark, has gone on to found one of the largest breaking battles in all of East Africa. Not to say that growing up in a slum means that all you have to do is have a great attitude and everything will be fixed—I know that’s not true either. I think that it’s easy to recognize that people have it rough and that is certainly clear in Shake The Dust. The thing that I tried to highlight in this film was the people that are trying to make the most of their situation who aren’t letting their situation define them. It’s not always easy to do, but these guys and girls are really brave, I think, in their commitment to something like breaking and using it for social change.
The father-daughter duo of b-boy Ñaña and b-girl Tibisay from Colombia, I feel like their relationship and how hip-hop built the bridge between them is another testament to the overall message of the documentary.
Colombia has a very rich hip-hop scene from what I’ve experienced. One of the best of any place that I went, so I feel like they were able to really grab a hold of some of the best parts of the heart of what hip-hop is all about. From having breaking battles in the street to having a DJ out there providing the soundtrack, it takes it back to the way it really began back in the Bronx. That’s what it felt like to be in Colombia. Tibisay, she comes from a very poor background and comes from a poor neighborhood, but she’s a testament to what can happen when you realize your potential. When a kid starts breaking, it’s like they realize that they can do these amazing things and they don’t need much. They don’t need equipment, and they can, with their own bodies, do these incredible and amazing things. That in and of itself is powerful. She’s also a testament to the fact that hip-hop is not about gender. She chose, from a very young age when she saw her dad breaking, that it was something she wanted to do. Then she was committed to it and has stayed that way to this day. She has gotten way better than when we filmed her in 2013. I’m excited for her and amazed with what she has been able to accomplish through hip-hop.
BOND/360 will theatrically release Shake The Dust May 15 in Los Angeles at the TCL Chinese Theater, followed by a limited theatrical release. If you can’t catch the film in theaters it will be available on iTunes and additional VOD outlets beginning May 19.