The Hip Hop Project Interview
Star Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle
Chris Rolle, also known as “Kazi” (a shortened form of “Kharma Kazi”), is founder and Co-CEO of One+One Records, a hip hop performer, and a motivational speaker on men’s issues in the African American community. He was born in Nassau, Bahamas; since the age of 4 he has lived in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1994, while in high school, Rolle began an involvement with Art Start as a student in the Media Works Project. He graduated in 1996 from the New York City Public Repertory Company (an alternative arts high school), where he won the Playwrights Competition. In 1997 he taught the Media Works Project curriculum to teenagers coming our of Rikers Island prison, and in 1998 he led Art Start’s anti-racism PSA project, which received coverage from the Bravo cable network in the documentary Fire, Risk and Rhythm.
He then went on to found, in 1999, Art Start’s Hip-Hop Project, which eventually led to collaboration with Russell Simmons and others, led to his major role in the documentary The Hip Hop Project, executive produced by Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah, and won him praise from the likes of Doug E. Fresh. He was with the project until September 2003, when he left Art Start to found One+One Records. He was succeeded in his role at Art Start by one of his own students, Diana “Princess” Lemon. Simultaneously, he was a director, actor, and writer for Tomorrow’s Future theatre company; his work there included the play A Brooklyn Story.
Since June 2004, he has been a member of Art Start’s Board of Trustees. His numerous awards include a Governor’s Citation, and the CBS Fulfilling the Dream Award for his play, A Brooklyn Story.
Wild About Movies: What a perfect time for this film to open now, with everyone calling out for change in rap music.
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: Yeah, I think it’s definitely a blessing. I’d like to say that this whole process has been very divine for us. Every thing that’s happened that you saw in the movie blew us away just as much, like a studio falling in your lap, and all of these big names and notable people are endorsing the movie. We just did our premiere on Monday, we didn’t think any celebrities was going to come, and a ton of celebrities came and everybody was just moved and inspired to want to help. We think that this project is definitely blessed, meaning that the world needs it and every obstacle or barrier that has ever come in our way in terms of getting it out there has been moved, so I like to say that it’s been very – this whole project is divine.
Wild About Movies: Which celebrities came and what did they say to you?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: Everybody, Bruce and his support just is so great and his main thing is just that – like what most people are saying, is just like the story in that it’s us giving. This one little thing has turned into this whole big thing, and it just shows how when you give to somebody else you get a lot back. And then for a lot of the hip hop luminaries such as the Buster Rhymes and even Ice T, and Doug E. Fresh, who’s also in the film and has been my mentor, say the same thing. It just reminds them of the power of giving back, which is what this whole movie is really about. Even to have Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah, who we could have paid, we would pay for what they have given us, and they said, ‘Listen, no. We don’t want no money.’ A hundred percent of all the net profits from this film is gonna go back to non-profits working with young people, and everybody who hears that they just want to give more and more.
Wild About Movies: Talk about how you started the project and then how you found out how a documentary was going to be made.
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: In high school, Scott Rosenberg, Matt’s partner in making the film, was my high school teacher, and he taught a media class and one of the concepts that we really got connected was when he was teaching us about what is called montage sequence, which is a long period time condensed into a short period of time, and he used the Notorious B.I.G.’s debut album to connect, based on the fact that all the kids in the class liked hip hop, and I thought that was kind of cool. So I told him about my idea, and he constantly asked me about it, which was more his approach to teaching, is that people already know what they want to do already, just having a vision, they just need to learn the process. And after graduating from that high school, called Public School Repertory Company in Times Square in New York City, he asked me to teach the same curriculum to kids in the school, and during that process I kept developing my program and then on October 16, 1999, I created the program. Another thing that happened during the course of being in his class is called the Media Works Projects, was that he took us to see a film called Hoop Dreams, and I think to this day it’s on my top ten list, actually number two, this one is the number one movie.
But it blew me away just how the brothers just shared, William Gates and Arthur Agee just shared their story, and I think Arthur Agee because he was the underdog, and that’s so hip hop, I was just so overwhelmed that I had to hide from my friends because my eyes were just watering. And then Scott and I kind of just talked about it, and then years later when I started the program, I just started shooting immediately because I just had this dream, and then along the way we had some false starts, but Scott came in and basically told all the young people that, based on our commitment to wanting to share our stories, and just wanting to do the project, he’s going to do everything in his power to make it happen. And he went out there and we sought different filmmakers, and we saw a lot of people but Matt came in and he had done another project and the way it was done was just so beautiful, and his willingness to just say I’ll be a fly on the wall morning, noon and night to just make it happen. We all was like, ‘We’ve got him, he’s the one.’ So him and Scott teamed up, Scott even left Art Start, took a step back from his work at Art Start to partner up with Matt and make this movie, and years later we’ve got a movie.
Wild About Movies: Talking about being a fly on the wall, how difficult was it to film talking to your mother. How do you think having a camera there might have changed her reaction to anything that happened?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: No, I think me and Jean had that relationship, but I do think that the cameras probably brought up a lot more pride, you know what I mean? So I think that that part of it, somebody was saying my West Indian (heritage) (chuckles) but I think pride is a very big thing. I don’t know about other cultures, but growing up in the West Indies that dignity and that pride, so I think that did come up, but it did spark a confrontation that – sometimes conflict is what’s needed to go to the next level, and our relationship is constantly evolving, we talk on the phone on the regular now, and Matt and I went to the Bahamas in December and I got to meet my father and he got to talk to my mother, and they haven’t spoken in years, and that started the healing process. But the movie is very authentic, and I often wonder how you can just be a fly on the wall too.
Wild About Movies: If there was one thing that you could say to a lot of teens out there who are kind of in the same place as the kids in your school, words of inspiration, what would it be?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: I have so much I can say, but – I would say that for me, what my biggest lesson has been that when you go through the hardest stuff in life that means that you have a greater purpose, and as long as you don’t let it crush you and you seek more ‘why is this happening to me?’ and you seek out that answer, over time when the answer is revealed you see that it really made you a better and stronger person. And seek support, I think that’s a big thing. I had a lot of angels in my life who have done a lot for me and their support when I got weak helped me to see the different perspective that maybe these things are for a greater purpose, is what really got me through.
Wild About Movies: The film has such ups and downs, but you seem to be hanging in there for most of the time, what was the one time when you almost felt like you’d just give up?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: There were many times.
Wild About Movies: What’s the worse one? Like the record isn’t going to get made, what was the worst?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: You know, maybe right around the time when it was time to go to the Bahamas, it was just like – stuff was just not moving and this was not moving.
Wild About Movies: You mean in your life personally?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: I think the program actually became my life. One day I could feel like I could want to give it all up, and then I could go to sleep or I could watch a movie or see something, and then, wham, I’m back. I think my personality is like that. The worse things get, the more resilient I get. It’s not always that good, that’s not always good, sometimes you’ve got to learn when to walk away, so looking at the movie I think that was my lesson, that I would pass onto other teachers or parents or whatever. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do, but that’s when all of your work will manifest itself and you take a step back and let go.
Wild About Movies: Do you keep in contact with Princess and Cannon and Ty?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: Well Princess is on her way to see me right now. But the whole group, we have – based on what Matt and Scott has created, is really a great platform for us to now continue to push all of our music, and use this as our platform to share the music around the world, so we formed a group called The Hip Hop Project, and we seek to perform and take this music around the world. And so Lakeshore is releasing our soundtrack next Tuesday, and it’s available right now on iTunes, but it will be available in retail stores, and people every time they walk out of the movie, they want to get the album. So everybody is a part of the alumni, the fellowship program, where they all come back and teach as part of the curriculum, and Princess continues to run the program.
Wild About Movies: How is she doing now that she has the baby?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: We’ve really formed a big family and she’s the healer in her own family, and she has support of her daughter’s father, she has all of our support and the program pays her a nice salary, so she’s good.
Wild About Movies: There was a lot of emotion in it because of the abortion, she put it in the music, so now that she’s gone through that process, do you think that’s helped her becoming a new mother?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: Yeah, totally, and she’s actually working on a book called “Me, Myself and I” where she shares a lot of the lessons in her journey, and I think most people, many people do know that this is what we should all use but sharing is a very important part in the healing process, because you receive back as well. People say, ‘Well, I was the only one and then that conversation happened,’ so in our book she’s constantly talking to other mothers, as well as, like I said, we have a very big family from the program, and other programs that we all connect to, so if I don’t have a person, somebody else have them and we’re constantly, always interacting with each other, and I think when you have that family structure or that support, it makes everything easier.
Wild About Movies: Can you describe a little bit when you first met Bruce Willis (producer of “The Hip Hop Project”), and you heard that he was going to give you guys a studio. Were you like, oh yeah, right?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: Yeah, I was definitely shocked, but I definitely like I said, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of people when they first come into a spirituality and know that – wow, I’ve just always – they’re just so shocked and just so, I’m a very hype person, I’m actually cool right now, but I was always just high hype. I was like, ‘Wow, I just feel so excited.’ What do the call the word, surreal? So that’s what it was for me, it was like, I can’t believe it.
Wild About Movies: But he came there and was he super friendly at first?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: Oh he’s a really smooth guy, really just smooth, it’s like really fazed him, his voice never was never raised above this level, (does impression of Willis) ‘Kazi, man, it’s just a small thing, man, I’m just giving you this, and I know you’re going to make much of it.’ You know, he was just cool, he was just very smooth and very cool, and we all were just very grateful and they brought him, and Russell came down together and Annabella Sciorra she all was there as well, and hip hop and a lot of stuff that goes on within the inner city is usually always highlighted when it’s negative, and it’s not always highlighted when it’s positive. For people like that, I think it’s a small thing, to give a $100,000 studio, one of his many houses, and Russell just to take – they were down there about an hour, an hour out of their day was an immense amount of support, and recognition for us and the work we’re doing at the Hip Hop Project at Art Start.
Wild About Movies: How did you get to be so positive, because you have quite a background? There seems to be a lot of anger behind rap, but it was so moving how you could see them change when they broke down the barriers and started speaking the truth about their lives instead of being angry – did you notice a difference?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: I don’t really see myself as positive. I keep hearing the feedback and sometimes I’m really actually overwhelmed by the things people say. I don’t know, I guess you go through stuff in life and it made a certain person, and I mean I’m personally still striving, I don’t got it all together or nothing, and I’m just constantly striving, just constantly striving and just want to make it better. And I think some of it is that a lot of people along my way have really helped me out, and anytime I think about them I think that drives me a little bit more. The things that people say, just like wow, you know, and I think for me that’s a little bit of a push, that’s why I said about the resilient thing, the more people say stuff, or people that said stuff about me.
Wild About Movies: You mean negative stuff?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: Negative stuff, you know, and I just feel like I want to prove them wrong.
Wild About Movies: Why did you leave as director, because you wanted to do your own thing? Why did you pass the reins on to Princess?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: I never really left, I don’t think. I think that my position transitioned. So I’m on the board of Art Start, which is the umbrella organization where our Hip Hop Project is, the program is constantly growing and growing, so I change the position and basically Princess knocked me out of that spot anyway. Along the way she was leading all of the boys and asking me questions I myself could not answer, and I’m still there. I have a lot of further visions for where the program can go.
Wild About Movies: Is it in different cities now?
Chris ‘Kazi’ Rolle: That’s one of the visions, but not as yet.
“The Hip Hop Project” is one of few movies to be granted a new rating by the MPAA after appeal. Director of “The Hip Hop Project,” Matt Ruskin, lobbied the MPAA to get the film’s rating changed from R to PG-13. And even with seventeen utterances of the word ‘fuck,’ “The Hip Hop Project” received the coveted PG-13 rating. Anytime a movie has the word ‘fuck’ in it more than three times, regardless of connotation, it receives an R-rating.