If you learned to speak English by listening to hip-hop music, what kind of American would become? With so much being made of the assumed negative impact of hip-hop music on youth culture, would you become a drug dealer over night? Grab a glock and join the gangsta grime that sucks in so many? Or would you get your head around the passion and the activism and the politics of it, and pick out the stories and what they mean to the communities they represent?
That's what Ilana Weaver did. Moving from Israel when she was just 9 years old, Weaver learned English by listening to hip-hop music, writing out the lyrics and constructing her own rhymes—sort of a Hip-Hop Hooked On Phonics. Around the age of 15, she began to take rhyme slinging seriously. She has been Invincible ever since.
As Invincible, Weaver became a star in her current hometown of Detroit, and even curried the favor of some rap heavyweights, like Talib Kweli.
Invincible raps about politics, neighborhood development and the state of the American city—ideas she learned by working for activism and educational groups like Detroit Summer. With Finale, another Detroit MC, she created Locusts, a 12-minute music video/documentary about gentrification and urban displacement. She is currently traveling the country showing the short film and leading discussions about the effects of gentrification and how to stop irresponsible development.
We caught up with Weaver to—ahem—rap with her about her work, both as an MC and an activist.
NBC: You have been traveling around doing these talks in a lot of cities, right?
Invincible: All over the place, small cities, big cities, showing that this is a pattern, not just an isolated incident.
NBC: What is the focus of these talks?
Invincible: The focus has been on Locusts, this documentary video that Finale and I created, but it is also about media in other cities. In every city I go to, someone has made a documentary about gentrification in their community so I usually try to show my video side by side with those pieces. A big part of the forum is highlighting community-based media, giving people the skills and tools to tell their own stories. We also try to engage people to take action, talk to them about what they would like to see in their community, while identifying alternative visions and solutions.
NBC: What are the dangerous kinds of development you saw in Detroit that inspired you to create Locusts and sparked this tour?
Invincible: The song and documentary were initially inspired by Brush Park (formerly known as Paradise Valley/Black Bottom), a historically black neighborhood in Detroit, how it was originally displaced when the highway was built through it in the 50s. The city built new baseball and football stadiums on top of that neighborhood in the 90s. As a result, a lot of condos have been built and a lot of people have been pushed out. There were hundreds of fires in the neighborhood that the residents claim were caused by developers who hired arsonists to get rid of historic buildings, making it legal to build there. An elderly couple even had their home demolished while they were still living in it. We wanted to write a song that would tell these stories and, more importantly, give people a chance through the interviews to talk about what they would like to see in their community instead.
NBC: Philadelphia is not Detroit. Is it difficult to apply the themes you saw in Detroit to other cities you visit?
Invincible: Our cities have many similarities from our musical and movement legacies, up to the current issues we are facing, and the short sighted solutions the city developers are proposing such as casinos. Secondly, this is not a panel, it is very interactive—more of an exchange—and so you learn from each other and you get these alternative visions for how our community can grow, and how to better respond to the community residents' needs. It's beyond just the local context as well, for example I did a forum in Seattle where we screened films about displacement in New Orleans, Palestine and in the Philippines so there was more of an international scope to it. These communities that are facing displacement, no matter where they are, have something to learn from each other as far as how to resist it and create sustainable solutions.
NBC: How did hip-hop get you into documentaries?
Invincible: Over the years, hip-hop was not just a way for me to learn the language, it was also very politicizing because there are narratives and stories running through the music that won't be told in any mainstream media source, so I was given access to many different schools of thought. I guess you could call it a gateway drug, in the sense that it got me addicted to seeking out the truth and researching various subjects, so I got heavily into documentaries and recently started making my own with Locusts. The docu-music video brings more community voices to the topic and adds more layers to a song than beats and lyrics alone.
NBC: What else can cities and communities do to get people involved in this issue?
Invincible: There are already several community groups in Philly doing work on the issue such as Scribe's Precious Places program, the Anti Displacment Solidarity Committee and many more projects that people can become involved with, or start their own neighborhood councils to reclaim their area and develop it led by residents' visions. Most importantly, youth should be involved in deciding the fate of their neighborhoods, since they will ultimately be living there the longest. The program I work with, Detroit Summer's Live Arts Media Project, focuses on bringing new curriculum into the schools and education spaces in general, creating a place for young people to engage in solving the problems that face them in their communities. I feel like people learn best when creatively solving problems that are relevant to them. Don't just teach students math from a textbook. They can learn math by coming up with a plan for the neighborhood that will impact future generations.
Locusts will be screened Thursday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Scribe Video Center, 4212 Chestnut Street 3rd Floor. Tickets are $10, free for Scribe members and students.
After the event, catch Invincible with Ethel Cee and Reef The Lost Cauze as they host Philly Vs. Detroit at Fluid Nightclub, 613 S. 4th St. Tickets are $10.