Hip-hop is the number-one exported culture in the United States," DJ EFN claims. "It can connect us and bring down any barriers in between."
As a vet of the 305 rap scene who, along with fellow local rapper Garcia and the Crazy Hood Film Academy, has documented the underground hip-hop scene in Cuba, Peru, and most recently Haiti through his award-winning series, Coming Home — which landed him and his crew a sweet deal with Revolt TV — EFN knows a thing or two about the genre.
"When we do films, we tend to go into shady areas," he explains. "I'm trying to prove hip-hop is a common language and we're like a light that brings people together."
What began as a simple curiosity has taken the Cuban-American DJ on a hip-hop journey around the globe. And it all began with a visit to the motherland.
"For a very long time, even growing up, I wanted to go to Cuba," he admits. "What my family and parents saw — I felt I needed to go now. That was in 2012. I met another person who was also Cuban-American. I had never really been into the Spanish side of things, but he had already gone twice and told me about the hip-hop artists and vibrant scene down there.
"So I was like, if I went to Cuba, I wanted to have a cultural, like-minded exchange," he says. "I told Garcia: 'Hey, let's go and record our experience.' I told my friends, who weren't even Cuban, and they were like, 'Yeah, let's go.' It was all very amateur stuff."
Just like that, Coming Home: Cuba was born. Upon his return to the Magic City, EFN and his boys put the film together and screened it locally. Soon enough, EFN's debut production was showcased at film festivals — where it won several awards — before being picked up by Revolt, the television network owned by rapper and entrepreneur Sean Combs (AKA Diddy).
"It really went in a direction I didn't expect. People who weren't Cuban started gravitating towards the film. It's like Anthony Bourdain for hip-hop," he laughs.
Much like Bourdain, EFN brings people to unlikely places, exposing them to different cultures, but in this case through the eyes of hip-hop rather than food.
Although EFN wandered through the "shady" areas of Cuba and Peru, his familiarity with the language made it easier to navigate through those countries. In Haiti, though, the language barrier — which EFN says was "the biggest difference for [him and his crew] as filmmakers" — was real.
But the greatest struggle wasn't communicating — it was finding a way to get into Cité Soleil, Haiti's most dangerous city, which EFN says is completely self-governed.
"When we got [to Haiti], people were telling us not to go, that it wouldn't be safe," he recalls. "But we just had to do certain things differently. We had to meet the neighborhood gangster, and we had to promise that we would only film the artists and not venture into anything else.
"The first day or two [of the filming process] are really slow," he explains. "People are hesitant because they're used to people filming them and exploiting them, but we're not going in as filmmakers. I'm a DJ. Garcia is a rapper. We're going as artists."
Though EFN admits his guard was up when he arrived in Haiti, he's learned to just "submit to the moment."
"Let's just be genuine with these people," EFN says is his mentality, "so that they see we're here just to interact with them and have a cultural exchange."
And in doing so, EFN and the Crazy Hood crew have been able to see firsthand the impact hip-hop has had worldwide.
"One thing I found in Haiti is that they really are trying to carve an identity for themselves," he says. "They're infusing their culture and talking about their stuff and want people to be proud of Kreyol rap. That's what I found fascinating: They're not just taking on American hip-hop — they're taking it and making it their own."
And, sure, hip-hop was born in the United States, but in many ways, Haiti's use of the genre is more authentic than our own, according to EFN.
“[Haitians are] using hip-hop a lot for what hip-hop was used for in the ‘80s and ‘90s here,” EFN compares. “They’re not doing it for the money, so they really are using it as a way to express themselves. They told us we in the U.S. lost the essence of hip-hop. We no longer live the hip-hop culture. It’s just a business now. For them, it’s just art and a creative platform, and they’re looking at us like, ‘You guys lost it.'”
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EFN isn't stopping with Coming Home: Haiti. The music junkie is already mapping out his next film, Coming Home: Vietnam. While hip-hop certainly isn’t the first thought that comes to mind when one thinks of Vietnam, the film, which is set to be released sometime next year, focuses more on the B-boy and B-girl aspect of Vietnam's culture.
“I wanna show people in the U.S. that hip-hop is a global phenomenon,” EFN says. “It’s our number-one exported culture. I want to ask people, ‘Should we be responsible for making sure we get the right message out to the world or should we not?’"
Coming Home: Haiti airs this Friday, November 13, at 4:30 and 8:30 p.m. on Revolt TV. Check revolt.tv for additional listings. The complete Coming Home series can be purchased at crazyhood.bigcartel.com.