This weekend, Unbound presented a piece at the Shiva called Not Anonymous. The premise of Not Anonymous was a combination of spoken word and stage choreography to let members of the Vassar community talk about uncomfortable topics. In a scene in which an actress described how her friends dubbed her an “honorary white girl” because she “talked white” despite being a person of color, the actress reminded the audience: “This is my struggle, not yours.” Yes, we can have sympathy for people who have struggles we do not face ourselves. No, we cannot conflate their suffering with ours.
This actress’ words repeated themselves over and over when I was watching Bling. The cast of hip-hop artists, a reputed grill-maker, and a former Sierra Leonean child soldier seemed to be telling a story that was not theirs to tell and also taking on their suffering in the process.
Raekwon and Tego are people of color and referred to the Sierra Leoneans as “my people” throughout the entire documentary. This is problematic because, though these artists are people of color like the Sierra Leoneans, they are not necessarily descendants of Sierra Leonean slaves; they could have descended from slaves from a number of other regions in Africa. When Raekwon and Tego refer to the Sierra Leoneans as “my people,” they participate in the homogenization of African culture that mainstream American culture already promulgates. This is similar to the way minstrel blacks in Baptiste’s introduction blackfaced themselves and contributed to imperialist stereotypes.
As a non-descendant from Africa altogether, the role of artist Paul Wall in the
documentary confounded me. As a white rapper who grew up in the middle class, his
relevance to the Sierra Leone voyage is not obvious—at least until one remembers that
his song “Grillz” contributes to the expectation that hip hop artists wear bling to portray
their steep rise in social class. (Why he wears diamond grillz to show his rise from a
middle-class upbringing that sent him to university is another issue in and of itself; that of
his relevance to hip-hop in general). I am uncomfortable with the way that Paul Wall’s
presence dominated the documentary. His personal reactions to the poverty in Sierra
Leone is made central to the narrative. Several minutes are spent fussing over his
sensitivity to the suffering of mutilated refugees. I got a sense that the film was trying to
project “Poor Paul Wall, this must be really hard for him.” Before that, he is seen arguing
with the diamond tycoon about his role in the blood diamond war. The film spends too
much time showing Paul Wall’s “sensitive” disbelief that people live in such hopeless
conditions. The audience is led to pity his difficult struggle.
One could interpret the time spend on Paul’s reactions as a sort of “oppressor
seeing-oppressed-for-first-time,” but the cruel joke is that Paul does not recognize
himself as inherently different from Raekwon and Tego. Necessarily, his experiences as a
white man have been different than those of the black hip hop artists. When the film
promises that this is not a story of race, but a story about wealth, it falsely pretends that
stories can actually be absent of race. If this voyage was not going to progress Paul
Wall’s exploration of his white privilege, it should have spent less time on his personal
journey in general because, after all, this documentary is not about his struggle.
Ishmael Beah’s situation is vastly different. As a former-child soldier from Sierra Leone, the all-but-enslaved Sierra Leoneans the cast sees mining for diamonds are more accurately “his brothers.” (Interestingly, he never remarks this). It is not until the last twenty minutes of the film that the audience learns he is a refugee of phenomenal exception: he had been chosen out of three hundred refugees to be an ambassador. Pictures of him and Bill Clinton flash on the screen. Ishmael received a college degree. His situation has ended up completely differently than almost every other child soldier in Sierra Leone, of every proto-enslaved diamond worker. He has suffered like them in the past, and he may be facing psychologically damaging circumstances as a refugee in the United States, but his struggles are not exactly the same as those who will never leave Sierra Leone.
The cast of this documentary may face their own struggles, but at the end of the day, they sit higher up in the global caste system that Kanye refers to than the slave-laborers in Sierra Leone. How can they be anywhere near to understanding what it means to be true brothers with them? “It will soon be Friday. I’ll go back to Texas. But a year from now, they’ll still be sleeping in the ditch at night,” says a self-realizing Paul Wall.
This film is progressive, but not progressive enough to give voices to the millions of Sierra Leoneans who have neither the means of Raekwon and Tego, nor the chance of upward mobility like Ishmael. I would have liked for this movie to focus more on the differing situations of the cast members and their commitment to a diamond-free hip hop culture.