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June/July 2007
Where The Bling Comes From
The Satya Interview with Raquel Cepeda


Raquel and Daughter Djali.
Courtesy of Raquel Cepeda

Snapshots from Bling: A Planet Rock

You see Paul Wall, a large white Texan rapper, blinking back tears after meeting some “bush wives” at a rehabilitation center for women who had been abducted and used as sex slaves during the war. Paul quietly talks about how his mom was raped and how he knew that affected her. He imagines how the abduction and rapes must have hurt all those women.

The group visits a diamond mine in rural Sierra Leone. “TV Johnny” Dang bobs up and down in the mud, grinning to show the miners what “grills” are—diamond-encrusted tooth coverings. Paul Wall and TV Johnny pioneered this popular dental bling. The workers have never seen a cut and polished diamond before.

An utterly overwhelmed Raekwon is unable to get off the bus for a visit to an amputee community center. He can’t bear to see what was done to them. During the war thousands of civilian Sierra Leoneans had limbs and body parts cut off, a particularly brutal form of terror. An aid worker tries to coax Raekwon off the bus, explaining that these people didn’t “choose” to be amputees and inviting him to draw on their will to live normal lives and be inspired.

The whole gang goes to a “bad” side of Freetown, where an angry group of homeless men crowd around them. “I have no shelter in my own country,” cries one man. He says he’s only 20 but looks like he’s 40. Paul Wall just stands there, listening. “I know, it’s just wrong,” he consoles. The man is so very angry. Then, Wall opens his arms wide, giving him a big bear hug.

Bling illustrates how hip hop is a global culture that transcends boundaries. Ishmael Beah talks about how important American rap was to him as a kid, singing for his life in the countryside when locals suspected him of being a Revolutionary United Front rebel. Since there were no uniforms available, fierce RUF soldiers would wear t-shirts bearing the face of gangsta rap icon Tupac Shakur. The rap stars learn how the music that spoke to the youth of American inner city streets, speaks to people all over the world.—C.C.

Bling: A Planet Rock is a unique documentary that draws together American hip hop, its trappings of glittery bling-worship and the recent civil war in Sierra Leone, which was fueled by diamonds mined under brutal conditions. This complicated story is told in a personal, transformative way, through the eyes of three hip hop stars.

To better understand what happened in Sierra Leone, how the diamond trade funded the war and how to connect with the people there, filmmaker Raquel Cepeda assembled Raekwon, formerly of the influential Wu-Tang Clan, Tego Calderón, a Spanish-language Puerto Rican rap star, and Paul Wall, who originally entered the hip hop world as a jewelry designer. They are introduced to Ishmael Beah, who tells them about his experiences as a child soldier during the war. They fly together to Sierra Leone to see where the bling comes from and what “blood” and “conflict” diamonds really are. Bling: A Planet Rock brings the viewers along on this life-changing journey.

You might wonder how the artists responded to their African education, since returning. “I’m sure they’re still processing,” says Cepeda. “Going to Africa for these artists, especially Raekwon and Tego, was a sojourn. It was connecting to their heritage, where they come from. So it’s much more than just an act of what you’re going to do with jewels. For them, it was more of a personal growth.” For Tego Calderón, “it changed the way he looks at everything,” Cepeda says. “He’s decided not to wear diamonds and that’s his choice.” And according to his website, Paul Wall’s jewelry designs are now made with “conflict-free” diamonds.

Filmmaker Raquel Cepeda, the former editor-in-chief of Russell Simmons’ magazine One World, took some time to talk to Catherine Clyne about Bling: A Planet Rock.

What first got you interested in blood or conflict diamonds?
I thought blood diamonds was the best parallel about the war in Sierra Leone and the anomaly of what was going on there. The atrocities really took me aback, and to see the parallels between African American culture and hip hop culture, and what was going on in Sierra Leone was just bewildering. I thought it would make for a better documentary than article. I started writing the treatment at the end of 2001. It was a creative impulse, my desire to do something in the wake of 9/11 that would change the way Americans think, at least people in my community, about the global community and their counterparts in different countries.

Given that goal, how have people responded to the film so far, especially in the hip hop community?
The hip hop community has given me a very positive response. So has every other community that’s seen it. It’s interesting, this film is crossing over to many different kinds of demographics. People are responding so much better to the theatrical version and with much more emotional resonance than they did the [abridged VH1] television version. We’re trying to screen it and enter festivals. I would like it to have a theatrical release, even if it’s limited. And we are supposed to be coming out on DVD in the fall.

There seems to be a clear advocacy side to this documentary, you want to educate people. What do you want people to do or think about when they leave the theater?
I would want them to think about the global community and know we are not insulated, America’s not the only country on the planet. There are other countries we should be taking care of and treating as if they were our family. Because hip hop is the voice of youth culture all over the world, I also want people, especially the artists in the hip hop community, to come away with a sense of empowerment. Maybe it will inspire some people to get involved in different kinds of causes, and not think that if you get involved, you have to trade in your brand of hip hop for a kufi, if you will. I wanted to bring hip hop artists like Paul Wall, Raekwon and Tego, who have their ear to the streets.

As far as the whole conflict diamond situation, I definitely wanted people to come away with the sense that it’s way bigger than just whether a diamond is conflict-free or not. It’s about the way these workers are being exploited, and hopefully the international spotlight will shine on Sierra Leone. Maybe people will become motivated into making change and pressuring the global community to improve the conditions in which these miners work.

During the Q&A at end of the New York City screening in April, you mentioned Tego had stopped wearing diamonds and made a point to say that was “his choice.” Ishmael Beah also expressed during the Q&A that he doesn’t necessarily hope people will just stop wearing diamonds. Can you talk a little about these responses?
For Sierra Leone, diamonds are a natural resource that gets exploited and, for better or worse, puts money, even if it’s very little, in the pockets of the people. People have been mining for generations and generations. So who are we to tell them to stop doing it and it’s not good for them? It’s not really up to me to tell people what to do over there or what kind of jobs to take. It’s not about forcing them to change and get into agriculture; it’s more about giving them the knowledge and educating them to maybe cut and polish the diamonds and do that kind of trade there.

Hip hop is stereotypically a very male-centered artistry and culture, as is war, obviously. How was it being a female film director, documenting such a testosterone-infused universe?
Well, I have been in the hip hop community for a pretty long time. When I first came into the industry, before I even had any kind of jobs, I was down with folks like De La Soul, and later The Roots—they’re more confident in their masculinity and don’t have to throw their testosterone around—they don’t have to be hyper-masculine and homo-erotic and homophobic at the same time. They’re very grounded in who they are.

But yes, of course, working in the community as a journalist, as an editor, doing a pilot for an international hip hop travel show, in production, I always had to deal with threats and bullshit, and a lot of misogyny. But the community that I come from, Uptown, I always had to fight my way through. I thank god for every challenge these rappers put me through over the years because it definitely helped me arm myself for some of the bullshit I went through in the production side [of making Bling]. It helped me develop my sixth sense. Rappers have a sixth sense, a street sense. And having that street sense, having your instinct and your wits about you, really helps you maneuver in other countries, and in dealing with people. And it definitely helped me weed out the shit.

What’s your next project?
I’m developing something with one of the artists that was part of the trip. I’m also trying to develop something with women in the hip hop community and in South Africa, around the whole myth of raping a virgin [to cure HIV]—not only women—even children.

Bling: A Planet Rock is a co-production of Djali Rancher Productions, VH1, Article 19 Films and the UN Development Programme. Learn more at or