Before making his documentary Pick Up the Mic, a documentary about queer hip-hop artists, director Alex Hinton wondered, “If you are gay and a fan of hip-hop, why would you even consider staring down the mountain of homophobic lyrics that litter the airwaves and dare to pick up the mic?”
But as he met the gay and lesbian hip-hop artists who are making hip-hop their own, he came to see that it was not an option for them to put down the mic. Hinton realized, “It is the rhythm of their life. It is their being. It is their soul.” Pick Up the Mic, which has screened at Atlanta’s See Us in the Life film festival and at Australia’s queerDOC, is now airing on Logo.
Hinton takes us to the beginning of this hip-hop movement, going from the first queer hip-hop show in the country — Peace Out in Oakland, Calif., in 2001 — to performances from some of today’s top queer, hip-hop artists. Pick Up the Mic features a multitude of talented rappers including JenRO, God-des and She, Miss Money, Katastrophe (one of the only five FTM rappers in the world) and many of the founders of the homohop scene, including Deep Dickollective’s Juba Kulamka.
The film alternates between raw concert footage and interviews from all over the United States, from the liberal coasts to the red-state interior. One hilarious scene involves God-des and She performing in the Ozarks. The strength of the film lies in the intimacy that is created between the viewer and the performers, who are so honest that they seem like good friends.
One of the highlights is watching charming, feisty JenRO, who came out in eighth grade. She tells a painful, funny story about the segregated “gay table” in her high school cafeteria. Students sometimes threw apples at the “gay table,” and the way JenRO defended herself and her friends foreshadows the spunk she shows in her rapping.
In her song “Misunderstood” she raps: “I dedicate this to the haters that make me angry at night/But it’s OK ’cause the sweating makes my rhymes come out tight/The more they push us the more we gonna shove/And the more you gonna hate the more we gonna love.” Since the documentary was filmed, JenRO has garnered a following in the West Coast, the Philippines and Mexico.
Katastrophe is another poetic and potent find; his clarity in explaining his struggles with being an out, FTM rapper are refreshing. In one wonderful moment, Katastrophe’s parents talk about receiving a standing ovation from an audience at one of his concerts because of their support for their transgender son.
Each of the rappers in Pick Up the Mic has his or her own ideas about success and how they can make a living from being an openly queer rapper.
God-des is very clear about wanting to cross over into mainstream success, and refuses to listen to any naysayers. She becomes very upset when her girlfriend asks her, “What if you don’t be come a successful rapper?” In pursuit of her dream, she moves to New York and tries to break open every door to find success. God-des and She’s persistence seems to have paid off, because the duo performed their song “Lick it” on Season 3 of The L Word.
Miss Money, a Houston-based rapper and producer with an amazing voice, lives up to her name. With her label Money Talks Records, she has even released a CD from a straight rapper that includes the lyric “I want to kill a faggot,” clearly with the bottom line in mind.
But other queer rappers, such as Juba Kalamka (often nicknamed the godfather of the homohop movement) of Deep Dickollective, have made the decision not to try to cross over and are willing to sacrifice the potential of mainstream success to tell their stories.
One weakness of Pick Up the Mic is that Hinton does not show enough of the artists’ lives outside of rapping. In addition, he interviews so many rappers that at times the documentary loses focus.
Nevertheless, the documentary is a fascinating look at artists who are taking a stand and are willing to express themselves in a musical form that has been traditionally closeted.
While rap has a reputation for its violent lyrics, many of these rappers are poetic and powerful and deliver some truly amazing rhymes. Pick Up the Mic definitely will appeal to lovers of hip-hop, but the talents and courage of many of these artists are so outstanding that the documentary will appeal to a larger audience as well.