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At a glance: Sierra Leone

Hip-hop documentary brings home clear-cut truths about ‘blood diamonds’

© UNICEF video
Rapper Raekwon from the group Wu-Tang Clan shows his medallions during a trip to Sierra Leone documented in the new film on conflict diamonds, 'Bling: The Planet Rock'.

By Amy Bennett

NEW YORK, USA, 2 May 2007 – There’s no end to clichés about diamonds. They’re forever. They’re a girl’s best friend. And recently, the term ‘blood diamonds’ has become commonplace, representing the fact that many armed conflicts in Africa have been funded by the sale of diamonds.

Last week the United Nations Security Council, in a show of support for the efforts of one West African nation – Liberia – lifted the ban on the export of diamonds from that country. In return, Liberia must conform to the Kimberley Process, which tracks the origin of exported diamonds to prevent illicit sales.

Before blood diamonds became such a public issue, US hip-hop artists and other pockets of American culture had claimed the gems as their own measure of success, without considering that their purchase may have funded bloodshed overseas.

Wearing a lot of diamonds is known nowadays as ‘blinging.’ In the world of hip-hop, diamonds are a sign that you’ve arrived. No one knows this better than the people featured in the new documentary, ‘Bling: A Planet Rock’.

© UNICEF/HQ01-0132/LeMoyne
Standing knee-deep in river water, two boys sift soil and stones in search of diamonds near the town of Kenema in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province.

‘Not all that glitters…’

The film follows three hip-hop artists – Paul Wall, Raekwon and Tego Calderon – as they travel to Sierra Leone, which is still recovering from a decade of civil war. Mr. Wall is a hip-hop artist and jeweller best known for his diamond ‘grillz’ worn on the teeth, Raekwon is from the group Wu-Tang Clan and Mr. Calderon is a Latin hip-hop star.

The three visit diamond mines and refugee camps, and meet with children who were victims of the war. Each artist ends the trip with a new understanding of what blood diamonds are and how the diamond trade works.

‘Bling’ also traces the relationship between diamonds and poverty, and the influence of hip-hop music on global culture. “It’s just ironic that what made black people feel so empowered was completely demoralizing and destroying other black people,” Grammy Award-winning rapper Kanye West notes in the film.

“People lost their lives, and we didn’t even know,” adds Raekwon.

On several occasions during the documentary, the three men are overwhelmed by what they see – from angry young people to amputees and the diamond diggers themselves, who barely subsist on meagre wages. “Not all that glitters is gold,” Sierra Leonean hip-hop star Jimmy B tells them.

© UNICEF video
Hip-hop artist Paul Wall is a rapper, a DJ and a jeweller, best known for his diamond ‘grillz’ worn in the mouth.

‘Blinging’ with a conscience

‘Bling’ was produced as part of the VH1 music network’s Rock Docs franchise, in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and its Diamonds for Development initiative, which aims to accelerate development at the local level starting with diamond production zones and governance reform. The film was recently featured on the closing night of the African Film Festival at Lincoln Center in New York City.

The objective of the documentary is to educate young people, according to TV and Film Production Specialist Irena Mihova of UNDP.

“When people look at ‘Bling’,” she says, “I believe that they will see that you can learn from any experience.” The point is not to shame people into boycotting diamonds, she adds, but instead to raise a voice on behalf of the millions of diamond diggers – and to help disadvantaged communities and entrepreneurs reach their full economic potential.

‘Bling: A Planet Rock’ hopes to harness the power and influence of hip-hop music for the greater good. With the help of these artists and the progress already made by Sierra Leone’s neighbour, Liberia, the world is one step closer to ‘blinging’ with a conscience.




April 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Amy Bennett reports on the debut of ‘Bling: A Planet Rock’, a documentary about hip-hop culture and conflict diamonds.
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