The Root Interview: dream hampton on 'Black August'

The hip-hop journalist steps behind the camera for her debut documentary, Black August.

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dream hampton first attracted attention in the '90s when she was writing for the hip-hop bible, The Source, but what most people don't realize is that writing was simply a diversion from hampton's real love, film.

"You can't help how people identify you, but film was the only reason I was in New York in the first place," hampton, a Detroit native, told The Root. Her film-directing credits include an award-winning short called "I Am Ali" in 2002. While attending NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, hampton filmed hip-hop icon Christopher "Notorious B.I.G" Wallace for a documentary-film class, and that footage was later used on an Emmy-winning VH1 documentary, Behind the Music: The Notorious B.I.G, for which she was the associate producer. Now hampton is preparing for this month's DVD release of her newest film, Black August: A Hip-Hop Documentary Concert, at the Sundance Film Festival.

Black August, which premiered in August at Lincoln Center, combines archival footage from Black August Hip Hop Project concerts, while also telling the story of the black liberation struggle through the lives of black political prisoners, such as former Black Panther Assata Shakur, an African American in Cuban exile for the past 25 years. It was Shakur and fellow exile Nahanda Abiodun who, in 1998, inspired the founding of the Black August Hip Hop Project.

Sponsored by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) -- a political-action organization with eight chapters nationwide, and created by activist and MXGM director Lumumba Bandele -- the Black August Hip Hop Project uses hip-hop music to bring awareness to the plight of black political prisoners while also helping fundraise for various causes, such as international cultural exchanges with artists from Cuba, Tanzania and South Africa.

hampton helped found the Brooklyn, N.Y., chapter of MXGM, organizing hip-hop concerts that highlighted various causes. "Our very first fundraisers were designed to help people with some of the most basic of needs," said hampton. "A lot of the time, we'd raise money for people who needed to have a lawyer at their hearing."

Through the years, top hip-hop artists like Mos Def, Talib Kwali, David Banner, Fat Joe, Dead Prez and Biggie Smalls have either appeared or contributed to the Black August cause. In the documentary, there's more than 10 years of footage shot by Hampton, along with interviews with Shakur in Cuba.

"I remember telling Tupac that we needed raise money for posters for his stepfather, Mutulu Shakur, and he took the money right out of his pocket and gave it to us," hampton said. Mutulu was an active member of the Black Liberation Army during the 1970s and was convicted of bank robbery in 1986. He's since been lauded for his work behind bars in helping black youths overcome their struggles.

And that's where the whole Black August concept began, with a struggle behind prison walls. "In the beginning, [the] Black August [movement] didn't have anything to do with political prisoners," hampton explains. "It began in 1971 when George Jackson was murdered at San Quentin [State Prison]." Jackson, who'd been a Black Panther, was shot to death by San Quentin prison guards. "Jackson was organizing prisoners, giving them books and even protesting things like toilet rights. After he was assassinated, a group of prisoners on the West Coast would declare a moratorium on violence every August, and then self-educate and fast. Soon the Black August idea spread to people on the outside."

And with August also being a historically significant month for African Americans -- the Nat Turner insurrection, Marcus Garvey's birthday and the Haitian revolution all happened during the month -- the synergy was complete.

This connection of hip-hop culture, history, politics and the prison system is one of the ways Black August: A Hip-Hop Documentary Concert is effective. In particular, one doesn't have to think of the prison industrial complex as being something relegated to those prosecuted in part for their political views, but as something that touches black people on the micro level.

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