“Oh Baltimore, man it's hard just to live.” Those are the words of Randy Newman taken from his 1977 song Baltimore, lyrics which aptly sum up how most Baltimoreans think of their city. This is a city that has suffered significantly over the last fifty years, from a high homicide rate, crime higher than the national average, economic neglect, and poverty.
However, things are changing and as is showcased in the new TT The Artist’s film Dark City Beneath the Beat, this change is being driven by local African Americans through the Baltimore club music scene, a scene which has sprung up over the last thirty years.
Dark City Beneath the Beat takes us out to the streets and community centers of Baltimore, and into the lives of locals trying to defeat the odds and make something of themselves through dance and music.
Based predominantly in the black and LGBT communities, people have been galvanised through what is known as Baltimore club, a fusion of break-beat, house, and hip-hop, and TT The Artist, herself a rapper, does a terrific job in showcasing just how much the culture around this music is helping to turn people’s lives around.
TT The Artist fuses both traditional documentary and music video techniques and moves between the two forms across the hour-long film, with no narration and only a handful of talking heads. This is a look at the scene from the inside out essentially and focuses squarely on the people involved and their art.
We see artists singing and dancing in wonderful set pieces full of colour and exuberance. These are mini-music videos that capture the talents of the singers, rappers and dancers, the essence of the scene, and the overall positivity, this music and its people are bringing to Baltimore.
This is an overwhelmingly positive film and represents quite an optimistic story. We get to hear the personal stories of city dwellers, dancers, producers, and musicians sharing their love for their city and scene, as well as artists and DJs who have managed to take the talent they forged in the city, away to other parts of the States.
One interview which stands out, in particular, is with a mentor at a youth recovery center who alludes to how he has become a father figure to kids who are very passionate but just need direction in their lives, something no doubt Baltimore club music can offer.
We also get to see footage of the Queen and King of Baltimore contests. These are battle pageants that see young men and women competing in dance-offs. It is clear this is a key avenue to get kids off the streets and into dance, and in the process give them something positive to live and strive for, something the organisers alluded to.
Overall, Dark City Beneath the Beat is the sort of film that is needed for these times. It shows that despite institutionalised racism and other barriers affecting the African American community, there are still avenues open for people to move forward and bring joy to themselves and their community. In Baltimore, a city that has gone through a lot, it is dance and hip hop that is doing this, of which this film does a fantastic job of showcasing.
The club music scene and its culture is a scene I had no idea existed despite Baltimore’s strong musical heritage. TT The Artist manages to fit so much of a unique and at times complex story into such a short film she should be applauded, especially, also, given this is her debut as a director.
Dark City Beneath the Beat will put a smile on your face and if anything, proves there is still hope for humanity even amidst the doom and gloom of 2020.