Justin Schell, who was recently awarded a Minnesota State Arts Board Arts Initiative grant for his in-progress documentary, We Rock Long Distance, has been busy as of late. He's currently working on post-production on a segment featuring M.anifest's trip to Ghana, planning to travel with Maria Isa to New York and Puerto Rico in May, and scheduling another a trip with Tou SaiKo Lee to Thailand next December, all while managing to find time to squeeze in his Ph.D. dissertation. He's also returning to Ghana for a conference celebrating the 90th birthday of legendary composer and music scholar J.H. Kwabena Nketia, M.anifest's grandfather.
Schell first met M.anifest, Maria Isa, and Tou SaiKo Lee in 2007 when he was writing an essay about the Twin Cities hip-hop scene. "I was struck by how many different types of hip hop there were in the Twin Cities," he says. He interviewed all three artists, and the resulting essay was published in an encyclopedia called Hip Hop in America: Regional Guide.
Around this time, Schell was becoming more interested in doing video work, so he decided to make a documentary about diasporic hip hop in Minnesota. After narrowing down his topic he chose M.anifest, Isa, and Lee for their community engagement, popularity, and skill. "There are lots of people I could have chosen," he says. "These were the people I had the best relationship with."
Over the past 18 months, Schell has developed a plan for the film, which asks the question: What does it mean to be home? Each of the three artists have different answers. For Lee, the Hmong have no homeland, while Isa says she feels equally comfortable in New York, Puerto Rico, and the Twin Cities. What the three artists have in common is that all of them regard the Twin Cities as one of their homes.
The first trip to Ghana happened last fall after Schell received a grant from the former Office of International programs (now called Global Programs and Strategy Alliance).
Upon arrival, Schell and M.anifest "hit the ground running," he says. They spent a lot of time just talking to people while hanging out with artists, filming music, walking around the neighborhoods, and going to clubs. They visited the archives at the University of Ghana, attended both a West African hip-hop festival and a traditional music festival. "We would find out about new things every day that would change our whole schedule," he says. "We didn't have any expectations going in."
Throughout the trip, Schell was very aware of the politics and connotations of being a white male with a camera. When they went to touristy places, it would be four times as expensive with a camera.
"I had to have someone with me all the time," he says. "Some people got upset with me. They thought I had paid [M.anifest] to show me around." The people living there were wary of the exploitation that has occurred in the past, and the resulting post-colonial anxiety. "People are very protective of their cultural heritage," he says.
Schell is making every effort to be respectful and accountable to the artists and places he films. For one thing, he practices reciprocity. "I've known each of these artists for three, three and a half years," he says. "I've worked with them on a number of different projects." And though there is a trust that has been established between himself and the artists, "I don't want that to determine my action, about what I can do and how I can act."
Schell says he wants to think of the documentary as collaboration. "I'm trying to incorporate them into the production," he says, "rather than me shooting all this and coming up with something three years later."
At the same time, he's analyzing and reflecting on his own role in the process. "I want to be ethical and transparent," he says.
While Schell is continuing his work on We Rock Long Distance, he's simultaneously chugging along on his doctorate dissertation on the process of going to Ghana and his work with M.anifest. Both the documentary and the dissertation should be completed by May 2012, Schell hopes.