When did you fall in love with hip-hop? That’s the question that draws the audience into the first few minutes of Rick Famuyiwa's cinematic paean to the music genre—the perennial Brown Sugar. Sixteen sweet years ago, Famuyiwa gave the mic to the MCs who’d been there from the beginning: Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, Pete Rock, Method Man, Common, and other artists whose names appear on GOAT lists and are creators of undeniable classic cuts. Famuyiwa shared their music via the love story of two best friends whose lives would run parallel to the evolution of hip-hop.
“Brown Sugar was refreshing in the sense that we could just see black people loving each other without some sort of socio-political struggle or violence for once. It’s like black people get to go after their passion and be in love? All in one film? In 2002? Damn,” said Lindsey Addawoo, a culture critic based in Toronto.
As a filmmaker, Famuyiwa has the enviable ability to zone in on the singular so as to illuminate the whole. He did so with 1999's The Wood, a film he wrote and directed, where he melded a story of black friendship and coming of age with the realities of life in Inglewood, CA, in the 80s and 90s. With Brown Sugar, hip-hop was both a main and supporting character to the highs and lows of childhood best friends Sidney Shaw (Sanaa Lathan) and Andre Ellis (Taye Diggs), capturing the moments that marked the different shifts in their relationship. Famuyiwa tells a conventional love story between two people, and a love story about a community and one of its greatest creations.
Hip-hop, like jazz, was created organically in the US. The birth of hip-hop is so intrinsically linked to the existence of blackness in America and from a specific African-American reality which understood and was exposed to poverty, police brutality, social inequality, and economic segregation—all entrenched in anti-black racism. The Roots’ ?uestlove also appears in the film’s early credits, and he summed up what hip-hop means for those who connect to its racially coded history: “It felt like freedom.”
Starting with “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, the late 80s and early 90s ushered in a Golden Age for hip-hop that saw the likes of Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest, KRS-One, and Eric B and Rakim release timeless albums that pushed the boundaries of the genre’s capabilities. It is this moment in hip-hop’s history that Famuyiwa was dedicated to highlighting in Brown Sugar—a time when the rabid and vapid consumption of hip-hop was on the horizon but still far away enough for it to be a cautionary tale.
“What I love most about Brown Sugar is that the entire film is an ode to hip-hop as a culture. Hip-hop is this beautiful metaphor for Dre and Sydney’s relationship, with Syd talking about hip-hop the way you’d talk about a journey or relationship with a loved one,” said Addawoo. “Aesthetically, the film falls almost in line with other black films we’ve seen that weren’t necessarily about hip-hop, but still had a hip-hop feel. It’s just a specific, inner-city vibe that is unique in its own context and has its own heartbeat.”
Brown Sugar came out in the early 2000s, and much of its story pays homage to a late 80s New York. One which saw Reagan’s war on drugs adversely affect the African-American community, an increase in police surveillance in inner city neighbourhoods, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic which would disproportionately affect the black, latino and queer community. Famuyiwa was endearingly pragmatic in how he chose to portray Dre and Sid’s New York. It featured B-boys and B-girls battling on the basketball courts and young men with their easy swag inspired by Run DMC and LL Cool J standing around boomboxes belting out hits. We saw a microcosm of a New York that was vibrant, teeming with soon to be discovered talent on the street corner, and love for the black people who’d given it the New York State of Mind. It wasn’t just a breath of fresh air, it was a snapshot of a reality that was still able to thrive irrespective of multiple social factors that directly affected America’s black communities.
The conflicting crux in Brown Sugar is the direction of hip-hop and what this would mean for the two lovers who’d grown and matured just as the genre had. They’d fallen in love in the midst of a hip-hop uncomplicated by sales, crossing over, bastardization, and MTV. Would its inevitable mainstream ubiquity lead to a loss of cultural language and their relationship? Ren and Ten, the Hip-Hop Dalmatians, a black-white rap duo belting out an undercover cop version of “The Girl is Mine” called “The Hoe is Mine,” represented the beginning of the end. Rapper Cavi Vichon, played by Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), is positioned as the savior and his bars were authentic, devoid of gimmicks and “gully.” The success of bona fide hip-hop at the film’s end as Vichon’s single is finally given radio play, mirrors the growth and final transition of Sid and Dre’s relationship, from being a close friendship to a union between adults who had reached a point of realization. It shows that while hip-hop craves youth, it is still able to evolve and be full grown, and continue to reflect the lives of the people it came from.
We are living in a reality where for the first time in American history, hip-hop has surpassed rock ’n’ roll as the most listened to genre in the US. By sheer scope of global influence within a pop culture landscape, this means that hip-hop is now the most popular genre of music in the world. It’s a pyrrhic kind of victory and it means hip-hop has become the soundtrack to people’s lives, coloring their interactions with blackness and black culture in divergent terms.
Hip-hop has become so ubiquitous in media it’s easy to forget that for a long time, it was a mostly black space. Black people are still its main protagonists and yet white palatability seems to now be the goal. Brown Sugar made it clear that hip-hop would go through growing pains and that sometimes it would be unrecognizable from what it was in its beginnings. But the film also made it known that the genre would always remain constantly glued to the people who’d made it a reality. Dre and Sid were good apart but were even better together.
As far as hip-hop, it will always be something that is deeply entrenched in the black experience. One of the most innovative things about the genre is its chameleon ability to change, grow, mutate, and become a hybrid creation of all things that serve as a testament to the ingenuity of radical black creative expression. And Brown Sugar, much like the Common joint, remains original, pure, untampered— a down sister.
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