New Orleans is my city
Katrina had to move me…
I'm the Ninth Ward, for sure
-Kim "Black Kold Madina" Rivers Roberts, "Ninth Ward"
To watch Kim Rivers Roberts rap toward the end of the Oscar-nominated Trouble the Water, which debuts on HBO on Thursday, is to see the whole nightmare of Katrina crystallized in verse. The fear, the fury, the hope, all pulsing through a crunked-out beat. Roberts is a portrait in true grit, a denizen of the Ninth Ward who, when she realized that she and her husband, Scott, had no hope in hell of getting out of NOLA in time, grabbed a camcorder and flipped the switch. The waters kept on rising; she kept on filming.
By happenstance, Roberts happened on Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, two filmmakers who were trolling for a story. The result: a firsthand, up-close documentary of Hurricane Katrina and the chaos it wrought.
With Roberts' story set to mesmerize a new audience on HBO, we wanted to catch up with her to talk about her world post-doc and post-Oscars. The accidental filmmaker's a mom now. She's been to Paris and the Oscars. She's got an album, Troubled the Water, dropping on May 6. Her husband's working construction and helping her to promote her music. Life, she says, is full.
The Root: Was that your own video camera?
Kim Roberts: I had bought a camcorder a week or so before [Katrina hit]. Not really to record the storm but basically to film some family events. I bought it for $20 [from a guy on the street]. Once I realized we weren't going to be able to leave for Katrina, I figured I'd file something. And maybe sell it to the news. Not really trying to record history, just trying to make money, really. It was more about making money than anything, you know? Like a lot of people in New Orleans, we weren't able to leave because we weren't financially able.
TR: You managed to keep filming in some very scary situations.
KR: Yeah, I kept filming because I wanted to tell a complete story. I hadn't anticipated telling everything. Doing a documentary? That was never my plan.
TR: How did you run into the filmmakers?
KR: After five days being in New Orleans, trapped in the city, no public transportation or anything, my husband ended up getting a truck. We couldn't leave those people [in our neighborhood]. We got all those people from the truck [and left]. We got to the shelter, we didn't have any money, but we had a tape. We were on the way to the news station, to see if we could get any money.
We had just saw the news that day; we realized the news wasn't telling the whole story. We had the footage to back it up. We saw the crew for [Trouble the Water]. We told them about the footage that we had shot. We started talking to the camera.
TR: After Katrina hit and you left for Memphis, did you have any intention of going back to New Orleans?
KR: We wanted things that weren't available in New Orleans. Better jobs, better outlook on life. But we weren't educated, didn't have high school diplomas. We like Memphis; we just couldn't make it there financially. We weren't able to get the jobs. So we went back.
TR: Tell me about your life now. You have a daughter, right?
KR: I have a daughter. Her name is Skye. She was born January 2008. I'm a mom now. We also started our record label, called Born Hustler Records.
And from the Troubled the Water album, we've been all over the place, to Paris, performing. The movie has provided a platform to do the music. We're trying to get a distribution deal and push forward with our music. And we've got a non-profit organization to raise funds for drug rehabilitation.
TR: Are you still living in the same house in the Ninth Ward?
KR: We are living in a neighborhood called Bywater in the city. It's a no-flood zone. We call ourselves being smarter this time. We're still renters. But I hope that changes soon.
TR: How has the movie changed your life? Or has it changed your life?
KR: My life has changed for the better. The opportunities that the movie has provided, has allowed me to see myself in a different way. It let me find my essence. I was proud of that. Now my aim is to help people know their value, their worth. Just because they live in a desperate situation doesn't mean that they're not talented.
I was part of the vicious cycle of violence and desperation and hopelessness. My community made me feel education wasn't the key. But you can easily kill somebody. Those are the tools they give you. There is not education or books. But there are guns. Crime is normal. Negativity is normal and education and college are abnormal …. The only opportunity I had was to be part of that vicious cycle. This was the way I saw the world, "That's all I got to be, do or die."
TR: But in the documentary, you come across as the opposite of that. You come across as so positive and strong.
KR: We've always been those types of people, but we didn't have the opportunity because we didn't have time to be who we are. We were too busy surviving, being a have not. All those things drowned out the real us.
It's hard to see your worth, to know that you can be part of a positive community. It's hard to know that you have a high IQ, that you can be president, that you're just as smart as somebody white. You can't aspire to be a doctor or a lawyer or documentarian.
TR: Once the crew started following you around, how involved were you in the documentary?
KR: We saw them as people who make a movie, and we know movies make money. We wanted to steal whatever opportunity we had to get out of poverty. We didn't have nothing. We didn't know the value of our life story and our survival. The value was way above gold, rubies, diamonds. We found that out later.
We didn't know we were the subject of the documentary until two years later. We thought we were just part of the story, along with other people's stories. We didn't know that we were the story.
TR: How did you feel when you found out you were the main subject?
KR: I was excited. I just wanted people to see me, the person who I am. Maybe that will provide an opportunity for me to get my music out there. That's all that I saw.
TR: Did you feel like you got ripped off?
KR: No, I can't say that. But I didn't know then what I know now. I wanted to give. I gave all that I had, to put myself in a better situation for my financial future. That's all I had was my life story, and I gave that to the world. That's all I had. What are you going to do? Hold on to this and still be on the block, selling drugs? Or are you going to take a chance? We gave it all because that's all we had, and that's the truth.
TR: How did you feel when Trouble the Water got nominated for an Oscar this year?
KR: I felt wonderful and honored that our life story caught the attention of so many people, that it was one of the best movies of the year. That made me feel good, to know how golden and precious our life story is.
TR: Did you go to the Oscars?
KR: Yes, I did. It was a great experience, to know that our life story was worth just as much as other people's stories. Just to be among the best. People work years and years and generations and don't get to go to the Oscars. And I went.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root's senior culture writer.