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J.M. Harper raises his hands in applause.

“As We Speak” Investigates Weaponization of Rap Music

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 22: J.M. Harper presents his film “As We Speak” at Library Center Theatre at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Annie Lyons

Filmmaker J.M. Harper knew that if he was going to make a documentary about hip-hop, then the language of the film needed to speak hip-hop. 

His feature directorial debut, As We Speak, investigates the increasing criminalization of hip-hop and rap lyrics with potent urgency, underscoring the dangers of censorship and how vital it is to protect artistic expression. Screening in the U.S. Documentary section at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary demonstrates how easily these subjective lyrics can be manipulated as “character evidence” and how the practice insidiously grows out of a long history of racist censorship of Black music. 

As We Speak premiered on January 22 at the Library Center Theatre in Park City, Utah. “I wanted the documentary to feel like a song, in the sense that I knew we had to tell the truth in a lyrical way,” Harper says during the film’s post-premiere discussion. “That went for the cinematography, the different formats we used, aspect ratios, the music, the beautiful score that was written by Will Fritch, the virtuosic edit.”

The director centers the journey around Bronx rap artist Kemba. With the feeling of a road-trip movie, Kemba travels across the U.S., meeting with fellow artists in various local scenes. Additional interviews provide further insight, and Harper imbues the film with a kinetic energy, thanks to stylish flourishes like a striking black-and-white reenactment of Romeo and Juliet performed by drill artists, which shows how Shakespeare’s words could also get accused of promoting gang activity. Perhaps most chilling is when a criminal defense lawyer invites Kemba to imagine how prosecutors would pick apart his lyrics, a thought experiment made visceral when she walks him into a staged courtroom. 

“I knew that we had to tell it by going back 300, 400, years and to talk about how what Shakespeare was doing related to what was happening today. That’s what hip-hop does — it draws connections,” Harper elaborates. “It creates poetry between things that seem opposite, and it says, ‘These two things are connected and here’s how.’ Kemba does it masterfully. The documentary needs to make these connections between things that you didn’t think were related, and that was the language of the film.”

Kemba and J.M. Harper shake hands at the Library Center Theatre.
(L–R) Kemba and J.M. Harper shake hands at the “As We Speak” premiere. (Photo by Michael Hurcomb/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

As We Speak also sees Kemba off to the U.K, where he meets with drill artists there and learns about the more extreme surveillance they face. When asked about the situation with the U.K. artists they encountered, Harper says, “It’s funny, because we thought that it was worse there, and they thought it was worse here. It’s bad everywhere.” 

He continues, “These artists, they need their music to be out there to survive. As Kemba said at the very beginning of the documentary, [music] is one of the clear ways out of the situation. The police… will do everything they can to stop the music and to pull it at the root before it can have a power in society, like you’ve seen hip-hop do for the last 50 years. And they’re doing it with alarming efficacy.” 

Harper wasn’t ready to dive into another music film after his last project (as editor on jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, 2022 Sundance Film Festival), but after his producer encouraged him to read Rap on Trial by Erik Nielson, he knew this was something he had to do within reading one chapter. 

“When this film reaches the public, it has to inspire action. Otherwise, the whole effort is kind of useless,” he says. “The music is entertaining on one level, but on another level, it has [the utility] to inform people of what’s going on. Of course, it becomes incredibly complex because it’s commercial. Hopefully, the documentary puts that in a way that people can understand it, and then they can see the types of plumbing going on beneath society that we aren’t aware of, the infrastructures of power.”

He adds, “We hope that this film causes people to do what you saw mentioned at the end of the documentary, which was to vote, to look at your DA races, and to just realize that there’s legislation going on that’s failing in some states, succeeding in others, to stop the use of rap lyrics in trial.”

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.