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Carat Marks

Kareem Edouard digs up the connection between hip-hop and its diamond obsession

You've seen Joan Rivers and Oprah Winfrey wearing it on their daytime talk shows, you've caught most rappers and hype-men flossin' with it on album and mixtape covers, and you might have even purchased some for your S.O. or round-the-way boy or girl. But where does bling come from, and what is the source of its allure? A 25-year-old from North Miami named Kareem Edouard has made an eleven-minute documentary short titled Bling: Consequences and Repercussions, giving an up-to-date history of diamond mining, the conflict diamond trade, and hip-hop's obsession with bling-blingin'. (The film is being made into a full-length feature set for release in 2007, but the short film — launching as it is in the shadow of the controversial Blood Diamond — is getting lots of film-industry attention.)

Although consumers like to believe these jewels were refined in an organized working environment and then shipped and sold throughout the world according to international trade law, director/producer Edouard, who has made TV spots for Volkswagen and shot videos for hip-hop generals Smif-N-Wessun, exposes some of the black-market dealings and picks up where Kanye left off, focusing on the corrupt diamond industry in Sierra Leone. Narrated by Public Enemy MC Chuck D and featuring interviews with jewelers from New York and Miami as well as the public on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, this is one documentary your social studies teacher should be showing in class. New Times sat down with the founder of WGH (World's Greatest Haitian) Films to find out if diamonds really are forever.

What were you looking to accomplish by putting out a documentary about this topic?

Kareem Edouard: "I don't think people are less aware about 
their bling's origin — more that they just don't care"
Kareem Edouard: "I don't think people are less aware about their bling's origin — more that they just don't care"

My main goal is to get the message out about conflict diamonds to the hip-hop generation. With all the hype associated with the bling-bling lifestyle, a lot of people are missing the negative impact it has here in the United States and in Africa. In African countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, people were being raped, murdered, and displaced for man's lust for diamonds. Here in the U.S. there is a cultural impact. As a black man, it saddens me to see a rapper dancing on TV with grills and diamond crosses, screaming "bling-bling" at the tops of their lungs. I call the bling lifestyle the "new-age minstrel"!

For those who don't know, what is a conflict diamond?

They are diamonds that originate from areas controlled by forces opposed to legitimate and internationally recognized governments and are used to fund military action in opposition to those governments.

Describe the process of the diamond trade today.

Today DeBeers runs 60 to 70 percent of the world's diamonds, with contracts hidden beneath the monopoly that DeBeers has on the industry. Antwerp, Belgium, is the central processing center for rough stones. When stones are found on a DeBeers mining center, they are sent to Antwerp to be processed and cut. New York is the largest processing center in North America; stones are brought there to be sold, making 47th Street a wholesale center for diamonds.

What's the situation like now for the average miner in Sierra Leone?

Sierra Leone is recovering from the devastation that conflict diamonds caused in the Nineties. What has replaced the murders, rapes, and displacement of the local area people is slavery. People there are paid ten cents a day, given a fifteen-minute break for a cup of rice and water per eighteen-hour shift while mining diamonds for DeBeers. This is similar to the sharecropping days in the Deep South after slaves had no choice but to stay on the farms they were liberated from and work for low pay.

What devastation in the Nineties are you referring to?

The war the rebels, or RUF, made on the corrupt government who started keeping profits of the diamond trade for themselves. In 1999 they assaulted the capital Freetown with "Operation Living Thing," killing 6000 people in a few days. You have to understand that the RUF was not just 50 or so men; they were hundreds of poor, young men without jobs or a future. Also there was martial law running throughout the country that made the conditions perfect to wipe out a large number of people.

Do you feel that Kanye West addressed this topic correctly with his "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" single?

Kanye initially did a great job bringing up the topic. After that point, the man has done absolutely nothing to further the cause. It's amazing how you can shoot a million-dollar video, take a stand on a topic, and then continue with your own line of Diamond Jesus jewelry. Every time you see him on an awards show, he is still wearing the latest bling.

With artists like Paul Wall and Nelly, and custom jewel merchants like the recently indicted Jacob the Jeweler becoming famous partially for their bling, will people become even less aware of their shines' origins?

I don't think people are less aware about their bling's origin — more that they just don't care. Take Oprah: She goes to Africa five, six times a year; she built a multimillion-dollar school in South Africa; but every day on her show you can see her wearing millions of dollars' worth of diamonds.

Can you relate the overexposure of bling today to America's consumer society?

Yes, but it also parallels the overexposure of hip-hop. Since hip-hop is a $10 billion industry worldwide, it sets the trend for many cultural movements. So the more Top 40 "bling-hop" that is purchased, the more bling is exposed to consumers.

If you could wear any type of jewelry, what would it be?

None. I'm not a jewelry kind of guy. I let my Blackberry do all the shining for me. Also I know people ask me this all the time — would I buy a diamond for my fiancée when it's time to get married — and I say only from a trusted dealer.

In your opinion, is it possible to improve the situation in Africa and throughout the world, and make the mining process safer and less corrupt?

Yes. There are plenty of organizations like Global Witness that look to push legislation to fight against conflict diamonds. Also the easiest way to address the issue is to simply ask questions. Ask your jeweler if he knows where he got those diamonds; ask for paperwork for their origin.

Are other natural resources in the world, for example oil and copper, being plundered in the same way?

Yes. Gold, platinum, silver, Nike, Adidas — you name it — a major company around the world is holding down somebody for it!

How do you feel about the last statement from the young white kid at the end of the documentary: "Most rappers should be supporting the Africans that are getting hurt; they should know better"?

Well, what he said that I thought was very powerful was that "most rappers are black and they should know better and help the Africans...." That to me was a very powerful statement, and that's why I used it to close the film. As African-Americans who use hip-hop as a voice to fight oppression, it's kind of ironic that it is adding to the destruction of our brothers in Africa.

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