Kevin Epps/Kevin Kelly
Kevin Epps is the producer/creator of the film Straight Outta Hunter's Point. Hunter's Point is a predominantly African American ghetto located on a peninsula jutting out into the Bay in the south east of San Francisco. The neighborhood, the site of the old US Naval shipyards, has been isolated economically for decades. The largely black population in Hunter's Point, like the black populations of Richmond and Oakland, California, consists of the families of many of the men and women who immigrated into the Bay Area from the American south during World War II to work in the then booming war industry. They lived, for the most part, in military housing that was converted to public use after the war. Many of the locals still live in these apartments, while many others have bought their own homes over the years. Several generations of institutionalized racism and poverty have left Hunter's Point and neighboring Bayview troubled communities. The area is also scheduled as a Federal Superfund clean-up site. For years during the Cold War the Navy conducted experiments with radiation and other toxic substances at the base (the half-melted battleships that were exposed to the hydrogen bomb the US Government exploded over Bikini Atoll were stored in the shipyards.) Residents complain that the Navy has been unresponsive to their requests to adequately clean up the area, which evidence suggests is still "hot" with radioactivity and, a 47 acre chemical waste dump. Youth gang violence also remains a problem, as does lack of local ownership of local businesses.
Despite these problems Hunter's Point and Bayview are close-knit communities, as is evidenced in Kevin Epps' film. Residents play together, live together, make art together, grieve together, die together and pray together. This isn't always apparent to outsiders. Nor is the fact that whatever the problems, Hunter's Point is a community with a lot of hope and vitality. I spoke with Kevin Epps, rapper Kevin Kelly and Eugene of Bossalini Clothes in April of 2004. Matamind, Kevin's film and music production company, has a web presence at www.mastamind.com. As of October 2005 Kevin has begun to work on his newest film Black Rock -- a history of the black experience on Alcatraz -- Joe.
S: Did you grow up in Hunter's Point?
KE: Straight outta Hunter's Point. Lived there most of my 34 years.
S: In the whole time you grew up in Hunter's Point, have you seen the neighborhood change since you were a kid?
KE: I've seen it go through a few changes in terms the city conducting make-overs of the housing we lived in. Around 1979 they had everyone move out of the Hunter's View housing projects in West Point where I grew up while they remodeled. It wasn't a complete re-modification. They just painted everything, spruced stuff up and then moved everyone back in. We thought that we were practically getting a new house but when we moved back shit was still breaking apart: walls, doors, steps -- you feel me? The streets changed too. I remember a long time ago dudes used to be hella cool. When the eighties came in that all seemed to change because that was when the crack cocaine came in. When the crack came in that's when violence started to happen. A lot of cousins of mine got killed in the eighties. Everything changed hella quick. Right before this change-over I remember that the movie Scarface came out. Scarface was all about coke and crime. A lot of people that were older than me at the time got really into the movie and would walk around talking like Al Pacino did as the "Scarface" character. Back then I was little and I had no idea what this was all about. I would ask myself "Who was this Scarface?" I finally saw the movie and realized that people were idolizing this drug dude from a movie.
I've seen Hunter's Point go through a lot of cycles. Now the violence that was first with older people and some younger people has perpetuated itself to the kids. It's nothing for a kid to have a gun. That shit is nothin'. It's at the point now where it's a matter of whether or not you provoke a kid with a gun into using it on you or not.
S: Where is everybody getting guns?
KE: Where are they getting the guns? That's where the line gets drawn. That's where me being a film maker and me being a cat on the street has gotta bite my tongue.
S: But it's not the community that brings the guns and drugs to the streets. Coke doesn't grow in San Francisco or Oakland naturally.
KE: No. To be honest there's not very much around as far as cocaine is concerned. It's an epidemic but people are starving for crumbs; fighting for very little food. That's the whole mentality and it comes out of the existing social conditions. A lot of people are not Internet literate -- so to speak -- so they're out of this whole new economy. You have companies in Hunters Point/Bayview -- wholesale warehouses -- but they don't hire people that live in the community and people in the community don't know that these businesses exist because the companies do everything via the Internet and e-mail which, again, people in the community don't have access to. Shipping and receiving is self-contained. UPS trucks will drive into the neighborhood and then go into a warehouse and back out. The people who work at these places come from outside of the community. They drive to work, go into a garage and never get to know the surrounding area. Inside of these companies there's all this computer technology that's intimidating to people who are not familiar with it. People that live around these companies are locked out. The Digital Divide -- that shit is real! I'm lucky as a black male to be computer literate, to run and own websites. I'm in that shit. I look like my cousin, dress like him -- but when it comes to computer literacy it's a different ballgame. You feel me? Sometimes my cousins don't comprehend the shit I'm talking about or how I'm moving. Now they see that what I'm doing is for real. I've been doing this for a few years and they've started to catch up.
Making this film was hard. Even my family didn't understand what I was doing. My cousin was like "Get real nigger! You dreamin'." But that same cousin is still with me, and I still love him. I just think that his putting down what I was trying to do made me want to do what I had to do even more. It's not like I had to dislike him for what he was saying, but there were some things that people close to me were saying that were painful. If I was a kid, and I wasn't mature enough to deal with all the adversity I had to go through, I would have just given up. No money, self-esteem problems, struggling -- that's what I dealt with while making this film. All kinds of shit just piled up. Being on the streets for years, going to jail, at the end of things like that you just feel whipped. It's so easy to quit because this is so hard -- especially when you have a rap sheet that's longer than your work history or resumé. For the most part that's how it is with me. My shit is like that. It's not a bad thing but it is. All that you do they record and it's very hard to get a job.
I remember I got out of prison and went down to Rose Pest Control. They had a driver/technician position open and hella people were trying to get in there. I went down and took their test and got the best score, so they said they wanted to hire me. When I was filling out their application I got to the part that asked: "Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Have you ever been to prison? This will not necessarily disqualify you from consideration for employment." I wrote: NO. Right? Bam! I got the job. I thought at the time "Damn, is this really right, lying on this form?" but I knew, if I told the truth I wouldn't have gotten hired. Then I told my parole officer that I got a job and I would appreciate it if he didn't come by there, because I needed to keep it. Wouldn't you know that parole officer called up those people, went down to Rose Pest Control, looked around the facility and all that. I wound up getting fired. They don't want you to make it. How could they want you to make it if they do shit like that?
S: How did you get the idea to do the movie?
KE: I don't know, man. I've always watched things: film, TV. I used to go to the St. Francis Theater on Market Street and watch underground cinema and Bruce Lee films. I always had an interest in movies. I used to try to write screenplays. I did write a few. I wrote a few shorts too, a few documentary film treatments. The first one I wrote was a film called Ghetto Gangster -- a film I want to do eventually. When I was a kid I always wanted to do this -- make some artistic expression and tell a story. I could shoot you talking to this lady here and put a story around it. I was in the game later on in life, hustlin, but even then I still wanted to do a film. Hustlin' ended me up in jail, where I spent my time productively reading film books. By the time I got out I had this program in my head, about getting an education and learning how to make a movie and then actually do it. I enrolled at State but I was still hustlin'. School was hard, because of all the finances so I got back into the game. "Give me some crack cousin because I need to hustle now!" I went back to jail, and got out again. Once more I was back at SF State, lookin' at the bulletin board one day, thinking "I gotta do something that I can get my hands on and learn how to make something." I saw a posting for the Film Arts Foundation who provide grants and training to people who want to make film so I went over to them and started taking their workshops. They had 9 to 5 training schedules and they had 16 mm film you could work with and edit. Sixteen millimeter is really expensive, so I could only use it every now and then. I made copies of the information they had available and read up on everything. I found out as much as I could about what they were doing in the world of film and the kind of techniques that people were using out there.
Later on I ended up working at Public Access TV. We used to do these community based shows where we would talk to people about what was going on in their community see? Then things started happening. I was up in Hunter's Point and I had a camera and looked at what was going on. "What the fuck is this?" I would ask looking around. I would ask myself, what the fuck is Hunter's Point? It was then that I thought I should make a film about Hunter's Point. Actually I didn't think about making a film first. The first thing I was thinking about was, what is Hunter's Point. How did this shit end up here you know? Let's try to capture this. That's when I started working on it. I talked to some older people. My uncle worked at the ship yards and I talked to him and some of his partners. They all came from Louisiana and Texas way back in the forties. Back then there was this old strip out in the point filled with all these juke joints where everybody used to hang out: workers, marines, military personnel. Everybody hung on Hunter's Point Boulevard on the weekend. There were a lot of soul food restaurants and all this old time life that I didn't know about.
I didn't know about the riots until later on, until I talked to the older people. I would ask "Riots? Why was there a riot? How did that come to be?" Then all these things started to happen, to evolve, you know.
S: Where did you get the footage of the riots in the film?
KE: From some old people. They had all this history in their closets or storage areas. Old people gave me old footage, old photos. They would just have bags of stuff. It was like just some old junk they had but it wasn't really junk -- all these old photos. Black and white photos and film from the 50's. Images of kids and people wearing old clothes. It was a trip man. I've been thinking I want to preserve this legacy and do a Hunter's Point Historical Museum -- not anything huge, just a place where you could lay out some images and preserve them. When we showed the film at the Sony Metreon we had a little gallery set up for people who were interested in this history. People can see all of this and know that this was once upon a time you know?
S: When you made the movie it was you and the people at Mastamind right?
S: Was Mastamind originally a rap record label and then the film came afterwards?
KE: Mastamind was a production company that I started -- an LLC -- to make the film Straight Outta Hunter's Point. Simultaneously we did the soundtrack that was produced by Mastamind too. Bumper Joe Laury, who was my young partner, was more into the music so we produced the soundtrack. [Straight Outta Hunter's Point is dedicated to the memory of Joe Laury who was killed before the completion of the film]. The soundtrack consists mostly of Hunter's point artists -- probably 95 percent of the songs -- with some East and West Oakland and Richmond rappers that I got together for the same. People from these other communities live in similar situations to people in Hunter's Point and Bayview so I thought it would be good to get them in there. It was kind of like a collaboration of ghettos. The Coup -- have you heard of The Coup?
KE: T-Kash, he's a member of The Coup. Before he blew up with them he was living on the streets so his music was timely for what we were doing. He's going to have an album out this summer ('04) on Paris' Guerrilla Funk label. Other artists featured on the Straight Outta Hunter's Point soundtrack included the RBL Possee, Herm Lewis, Odd Couple and others.
S: One thing I noticed in the lyrics was all the commentary about rap being blamed for "Dope, money and sex" but "the kids at Columbine High were listening to AC/DC." It seems to me that music is blamed for a lot of social problems. In the matter of the Columbine High School massacre the media was quick to finger the music of Marilyn Manson as being responsible for making the "Trenchcoat Mafia" kids go crazy. Do you think the problems of HP and other ghetto areas are caused by things more complicated than music? It seems to me that people really find it easy to scapegoat music especially when the music is saying things people don't want to hear.
KE: I think that this is going on and that's what the problem is. You have these bureaucrats that don't have a connection with anything to do with the streets trying to dictate what this music, what rap, is. [cell phone rings] Excuse me.
The music is what it is man. Know what I'm sayin'. If they paid more attention to the music then they'd understand some of the situations that the music describes. Can you feel me? The music is telling them exactly what's going on. People are starving. There's homelessness; there's hopelessness. Violence! It's real shit. That's what the music is tellin' them. But they choose to think that the music is exploiting the situation. Really it's the corporations that are exploiting the situation because they're the ones that know how to commodify music and go platinum. The artists don't have nothin' but the propaganda machine blames them for everything. The corporations take care of the politicians, the politicians create the policies that make things bad for people in these communities while giving everything to rich people. It's all bad man. The rich just got richer last year. The richest people in the world made 100's of billions of dollars more last year! The divide is just getting bigger. You got one percent of the population of the world controlling ninety percent of the wealth. C'mon man. Where we goin'? It ain't even getting better it's getting worse my nigger! His partner [Indicating Kevin Kelly] that raps with him -- Yukon -- he got shot up. He's on life support right now. The young partner should be here right now.
S: But who initially is bringing the guns and drugs in?
KE: I don’t know really.
S: Because it's a mystery to me.
KK: It's not us.
Eugene from Bossalini Clothes: It just happens to get dumped in the black community. But America is basically built on drug money. Even though they say they're goin' after drugs and opposing drugs they're thriving from drugs. Who let these people in as far as these boats coming in? It's US officials that are allowing cocaine to come in. You don't have minorities working where these boats are coming in. A lot of the War on Drugs is illusion.