Born in Flames, Reborn on Tour
by Alyxandra Vesey — University of Wisconsin-Madison
September 07, 2012 – 00:00
While quite a bit of attention has been paid to how hip-hop continues to inform contemporary American cinema, most notably through the work of Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Jim Jarmusch, equal attention should be paid to how film has influenced hip-hop. Beyond the ubiquitous screen presence of crossover rappers like Ice Cube, Method Man, and Common, hip-hop has always been an intertextual cultural form that visually references and samples dialogue and music from Blaxploitation classics like Gordon Parks, Jr.’s Superfly and D’Urville Martin’s Dolemite; crime sagas like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series and Brian De Palma’s Scarface; kung-fu films like Bruce Lee’s Game of Death; and cult mainstays like Walter Hill’s The Warriors.
Taking mainstream hip-hop’s sustained cinematic aspirations as given, how does independent hip-hop invest artistically and politically in certain film texts? To address this question, let’s consider how Lizzie Borden’s 1983 pseudo-documentary science fiction film, Born in Flames, inspired hard rock artist Tamar-kali and rappers Invincible and Jean Grae’s Born in Flames tour, which launched in 2011. The film (which is currently available on Netflix Instant) stars feminist icon Flo Kennedy and future Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow. It tells the story of two New York City-based feminist groups (one led by a white lesbian, the other by an African American woman) who harness the communicative and organizational potential of pirate radio to report on the recent arrest and murder of local activist Adelaide Norris. In doing so, both groups form a coalition and speak to power against sexism, racism, and misogyny.
Beyond using the film’s title for the tour, the three artists projected and remixed parts of it into their live performances and used it to help facilitate discussions about current collective efforts toward social justice in workshops on feminism, hip-hop, and activism. In short, they were influenced by the film’s message of feminist collaboration and incorporated this obscure, often-radical film’s political and formal elements into the tour’s overall design. In doing so, they powerfully redefined contemporary independent hip-hop’s relationship to cinema.