With its academic interviewees and mini-histories, J.M. Harper’s directorial debut “As We Speak,” about the weaponizing of rap lyrics in the courts, has the trappings of rigor. But not unlike its subject, the documentary’s power, beauty and complexity lie in Harper’s use of rhetoric and lyricism. The film editor of the Emmy-nominated series “Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” has made a willfully creative work that mimics the ways rap can be intimately observational, seemingly confessional even, but is also a feat of artistic expression.
The hip-hop artist and Bronx native Kemba acts as a guide and a character for “As We Speak,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Utilizing Erik Nielson and Andrea Dennis’s book “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics and Guilt in America,” the film follows Kemba as he crisscrosses the nation to speak with fellow artists and then leaps the Atlantic to the U.K.
For 50 years, hip-hop has shifted American and global culture. It has moved and challenged fans and critics alike to tussle with its intimate dance of life and art, the streets and the imagination. It can be political speech. It can be personal speech. It is often both.
Kemba and Harper don’t need to argue much that the musical genre’s nuance, metaphors and craft are of little interest to a legal system that continues to be tainted by racism and leverages bias. Using the lyrics defendants wrote, quote or listen to has become a way to up prosecutors’ conviction rate against young black defendants.
The documentary’s host of persuasive experts on legal and constitutional matters include USC law professor Jody Armour, MSNBC legal news analyst Ari Melber and defense attorney John Hamasaki. Nielson provides even more context. Academic Alan Dunbar conducted an experiment in which participants read lyrics from the 1960s folk song “Bad Man’s Blunder.” (“Well, early one evening I was rollin’ around / I was feelin’ kind of mean, I shot a deputy down…”) But they were told that the genre was either rap, country or heavy metal and asked to make certain judgments about the lyrics and the person who wrote them. The outcomes were conclusive about rap and bias. But it’s Harper’s visualizing of Dunbar’s study — a long-haired white man with a pool cue, a white woman wearing a cowgirl get-up in front of a microphone and a Black man seated in front of a white screen reading the same lyrics — that is worth the price of the ticket.
Stops along the way include Atlanta, where Kemba talks with Killer Mike about the healing the rapper found in writing about his community during the crack epidemic. In New Orleans, Mac Phipps (worthy of his own documentary) discusses his decades-long imprisonment for a crime he did not commit based on lyrics from two different songs, spliced together by the prosecution. Kemba heads to Los Angeles and then to Chicago.
In both LA and Chicago, the twining of gangs and gun violence with the artists who wrought new forms of expression from those realities — hardcore and drill — may get stickier. In London, Kemba learns from female artist Lavida Loca how the U.K.’s culture of police surveillance only adds to the rappers’ burdens.
Criminal defense attorney Alexandra Kazarian brings pivotal — and performative — expertise to the film. Kemba listens intently as the Los Angeles lawyer walks him through why it’s so easy for prosecutors to use lyrics against defendants. It doesn’t have to do with the lyrics but with the economics of the courts. “Why do people plea? … Because they don’t trust the system,” she says as the two of them look through a picture window upon staged court proceedings. And because the services she provides cost around $150 grand. Is it better to take a chance with juries and being represented by an overworked, underpaid public defender or plead out?
In a final scene, Kemba sits beside that harried defender of Kazarian’s mock-court supposition having decided to stand up for his rights. He gazes into the camera as it moves in with a “what do you think is gonna happen?” look. Thanks to “As We Speak,” we have a pretty good and damning idea.