Give a man an outlet for expression and you feed his inspiration for a day. Teach a man to express himself and you feed his inspiration for a lifetime.
In the powerful and, if we're lucky, influential documentary Word.Life, a young man named Chris Rolle, aka Kazi, mentors a group of teens in a program called The Hip Hop Project (HHP), a division of New York organization Art Start. Initially attracted by the promise of recording an album they think will be immediately produced, the young hip hop hopefuls end up in the program four years, during which time they learn to develop their lyrics through personal experience and identification. A girl named Princess writes about the abortion she had when she was younger. Cannon, who watches his mother die of multiple sclerosis during the making of the film, turns his heartache into song.
Kazi developed the program not just to educate and furnish opportunity, but to heal as well. HHP functions as a sort of therapy group, as evidenced in the moments where members push themselves through such emotional freestyling that they burst into tears. Additionally, the kids expect their songs to move, motivate and aid others with similarly rough lives.
At one point someone in the group brings up the point that the end product can't be just about depressing social issues; that it also has to be hot. Thankfully he isn't referring to the need for lyrics with more violent street-cred. By this point they've already been visited by Russell Simmons, founder of Def Jam Records and longtime Art Start supporter, who tells them how boring it is to hear yet another rapper go on about how "gangsta" he is or how many cars he's going to buy when he's richer.
Also thanks to Simmons, friend Bruce Willis becomes involved with the project (he's also executive producer of the film) and donates a studio to the group so that they can finish recording their album. Beforehand, Kazi had run out of money and was in the process of fundraising. One step in that process was a discouraging yet amusing culture-clash, in which the kids performed in a yuppie loft amidst abstract art, cheese plates and rich old women.
Eventually HHP's first album is complete, and the kids graduate from the program. Word.Life isn't just about HHP, though. It is about a cycle of expression and inspiration born out of Kazi's own problems growing up, and so the film does well to follow his soul-searching journey as he revisits the Bahamian home where he was abandoned as a child, and also as he later reunites with his estranged mother. In tracking the origins in addition to the proceedings of Kazi's program, the documentary gives hope that the cycle will continue, and that not only is the featured incarnation of HHP only the beginning, but that HHP itself will inspire the creation of more programs like it.