Author and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda is a well-known name within the hip-hop community, interviewing a number of music artists and penning the book, And It Don’t Stop, chronicling the growth of hip-hop in the last 25 years. Pushing beyond paper and ink, Cepeda also wrote and directed the documentary, Bling: A Planet Rock, bringing to light hip-hop’s obsession with bling and the illicit smuggling and trade of diamonds in Sierra Leone. Wanting to further examine the devastating effects of the civil war funded by the diamond trade, Cepeda took rappers Raekwon, formerly of the Wu-Tang Clan, Paul Wall (known for his spectacular diamond encrusted grills) and Puerto Rican Rapper Tego Calderon to Sierra Leone to visit diamond mines and meet victims of war. Clutch was able to catch up with Cepeda to talk about her journey as a journalist and her objective behind making the film, Bling.
Q: You started out as a journalist, what attracted you to this career?
I always loved to read and write stories since I was a kid, and the idea of being able to communicate with others through this medium really appealed to my Gemini self. I also saw early on, especially combing through issues of The Village Voice and reading the work of Greg Tate, Nelson George, Joan Morgan and Lisa Jones circa ’89–‘91 and thereabouts that maybe I could follow in their footsteps . . . that is, if a career being MC Lyte’s ghost-writer didn’t pan out. I grew up in Washington Heights where many of my friends were starting families in high school so I was dreaming big!
Q: You are also former Editor-in-Chief of Russell Simmons’ One World Magazine. How did that experience influence the direction of your career now?
The experience I gained there was invaluable, and I enjoyed my part in giving the magazine it’s global edge. The things I’ve done since—successes and failures, alike—have been an extension of my desire to explore the hip-hop and youth culture abroad. Both of my parents are Dominican, so I think this is why I’ve always been interested in how and why other people see us the way they do; and hip-hop allows me to package the information in a way that is palatable to people here Stateside.
Q: Have you always had an interest in filmmaking?
Yes, but not exclusively. I am interested in creating content in all forms whether it be in film, screenwriting, books, radio or online.
Q: What inspired you to create the documentary, Bling: A Planet Rock?
I’ve been asked that question about a hundred times now, and the answers always vary because there are so many reasons I wanted to make this film, most of them driven by my love of our funky planet. The shortest answer is that I wanted to show how American hip-hop culture has become such a force around the world that it’s even intersected a decade long diamond-fueled conflict.
Q: In the hip-hop community, having “bling” goes hand in hand with flashy cars and beautiful women/men on your arms. How has the response been from the Hip Hop community after seeing this film?
The response has been really cool. I’ve gotten great feedback from the artists featured in the film, and other artists have expressed a desire to “go somewhere out of the States” to go on their own sojourns; if I had a financial backer I’d do just that. I bet you $10 that if we exposed more artists to the world, folks like Snoop wouldn’t only wax poetic on “bitches” and shit, but the invasion of Iraq and global warming (two issues that are especially affecting people of color here and abroad).
Q: What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
I’d like for people to see that everything we do, even something seemingly insignificant like rocking diamonds, has its consequences; we are all connected. I’d also like for the hip-hop community to see how resonant their voices are globally; perhaps this empowerment may encourage balance in their music.
Q: As a woman of color, did you find any resistance coming up in a business that is male dominated?
Absolutely. I often feel like I’m running up a steep hill with a rope around my waist attached to a hummer. Did I mention that the hummer is filled with members from next season’s cast of “The Biggest Loser”? I’m still climbing . . . and the idea of shopping a show featuring Paris Hilton twirling her hair is looking better with each step!
Q: What has been the biggest fulfillment as a result of the work you’ve done?
I haven’t found it yet. I’m still on the road searching for that perfect moment Buddhists call “satori.”
Q: You have a beautiful daughter, how do you manage both career and family?
My daughter is my anchor and the reason why I haven’t written down that Paris Hilton reality show treatment I’ve been mulling over in my mind! Honestly, faith in God—Olofi—my ancestors and in karma has kept me mentally afloat so far. And I am forever indebted to my father and stepmother for helping me raise my daughter when I’m traveling or working even though they don’t quite understand what I do or why I do it.
Q: What advice can you give to women who would like to become filmmakers?
Regardless of what you want to do in life, I’ll tell you what I try and tell myself everyday; Emiliano Zapata made famous a quote originally made by Jose Marti, “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” Or you can opt to sample Sean Combs circa Puffy and make “I’m neva gonna stop . . . yeah . . . come on . . . we ain’t ever gonna stop . . .” as your mantra.
Q: Do you have any new projects in the works?
I’m currently filming and fundraising for my next documentary called Blow US Up! featuring Paul Wall and Johnny Dang. The Second Iraq War is the hip-hop generation’s Vietnam. To understand how we got here, we’ll have to discover where we’ve been. Following in the tradition of Bling: A Planet Rock, this film uses the medium of hip-hop to engage and enrage a whole new audience with the story of two American wars, a generation and musical genre apart from each other. It’s not a war film but more one that focuses on truth and reconciliation. We’ve been bombarded enough, pun intended, with war films. I’m also hoping to write a book about my experiences via hip-hop around the world this year.
To learn more about Raquel please log-on to www.myspace.com/djalirancher