Grade: B

Uplifting stories about inner-city youth struggling to find a way out of their plight aren’t exactly thin on the ground, but this one sets itself apart by focusing on a distinctive escape route—one that’s often considered part of the problem rather than a solution. “The Hip Hop Project” records the success of a Brooklyn program created under Scott K. Rosenberg’s Art Start banner to recruit hopeful rappers from the neighborhood and encourage them to shift their creative energies from the gangsta cliches so prevalent in the culture to themes directly related to their own lives, in effect making their songs biographical, revealing and thus, in effect, therapeutic. The goal is broader, though: the project aims to culminate in the production of a CD showcasing the best work of the participants, as well as grooming students to take over the operation themselves while expanding it to other cities.

Of course the film by Matt Ruskin aims to document the program, a process that involves recording some of the group “composing” sessions and the donation of a recording studio by Bruce Willis so the kids can make their CD. But as part of that, it concentrates on several individuals. One is Chris “Kazi” Rolle, the director of the project—a young man who’d been abandoned by his mother in the Bahamas, was taken from an orphanage by a foster mother, and eventually made his way to New York City, where he lived on the streets until becoming part of the program. We learn a great deal about him in the course of the film, returning with him on a trip to the Bahamas, hearing the testimony of his foster mother, and even watching him meeting with his birth mother and trying to rebuild a relationship with her.

The picture also focuses on two of the youngsters participating in the program—particularly Diana “Princess” Lemon and Christopher “Cannon” Mapp, offering some nicely revealing footage of the problems they face in their home lives as well as their work on the songs. By skillfully entering into the lives of these three, “The Hip Hop Project” personalizes the undertaking as well as covering it.

Even if you don’t particularly care for rap, “The Hip Hop Project” may persuade you that there’s something to be said for it, after all.