Diamonds & Sierra Leone: A Hard Rock Life

When diamonds literally cost an arm and leg, is it really worth it? “Wodi, I’m tattooed and barred up/ Medallion iced up/Rolex bezelled up/ And my pinky ring is platinum plus/ Earrings be trillion cut/ And my grill be slugged up…” -Baby, “Bling, Bling,” Cash Money Millionaires (1999) The concept of “bling,” a term so […]

When diamonds literally cost an arm and leg, is it really worth it?

“Wodi, I’m tattooed and barred up/

Medallion iced up/Rolex bezelled up/

And my pinky ring is platinum plus/

Earrings be trillion cut/

And my grill be slugged up…”

-Baby, “Bling, Bling,” Cash Money Millionaires (1999)

The concept of “bling,” a term so popular it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2003, is just as much a part of hip-hop culture now as it was more than 15 years ago. In the early days, flashy MC’s like Big Daddy Kane and Rakim and Run DMC rocked massive gold “dookie” ropes and called it dapper. Today, the diamond encrusted mouths of Cash Money Millionaires spit the very word that catapulted new school hip-hop enthusiasts into a bedazzled obsessed era – “Bling, Bling.” That song, an ode to all that is luxurious, shiny and exclusive, helped strengthened the diamond’s role as a symbol of status in the culture. Part of the appeal of diamonds among rappers and rap rookies is that not everyone can purchase them. In fact, dealers like New York’s infamous Jacob “The Jeweler” Arabo have turned a girl’s best friend into a must-have commodity for the rich and shameless. But at what price?

The problem is, says Raquel Cepeda, co-director of the upcoming documentary film BLING: A Planet Rock, most entertainers rarely know about the journey that a lot of these diamonds make from Africa to the emblazoned charms dangling from their necks. From her first trip to Sierra Leone, Africa she recalls meeting a boy named Pende whose entire family was killed and was forced to fight as a member of the West Side Boys faction in the diamond conflict.

“A lot of the rebels in Sierra Leone were 14 to 18-year-olds,” says Cepeda. “Some of the rebels chose to fight, but an alarmingly large amount of children were abducted from their homes and forced into becoming soldiers,” she adds. Cepeda, former editor-in-chief of Russell Simmons’ One World Magazine, is set to travel back to Sierra Leone with some of America’s most popular rap artists to film BLING: A Planet Rock in December. She hopes that the film, which she says is “a theatrical documentary that’s sometimes satirical, but very accessible and palatable for people in our generation,” will help open the eyes of young people of color to a well-kept secret back in the motherland.

Hip-hop aficionados have said little about this diamond conflict until recently. Cepeda and film director Lisa Leone’s efforts to educate others about the Sierra Leone diamond crisis eventually lead to a chance conversation with rapper/producer Kanye West. After getting his initial information from Q-Tip, West heard more about the African tragedy from Cepeda. Finally, the Roc-A-Fella staple says he was urged to clear up misunderstandings about his new single “Diamonds Are Forever.”

“When the song first came out, people thought [I] was making a song glorifying diamonds,” he says, “which is so anti-Kanye West.” “Diamonds Are Forever” was originally about the rebirth of the Roc-A-Fella dynasty, symbolized by its well-known diamond shaped hand sign, but it took on new life after West learned about the diamond conflict.

Whether diamonds in America are bought hot off the street or from reputable jewelers, there is a chance that across the ocean a mother or child has literally paid an arm and a leg to mine them due to dangerous working conditions in the waters of places like Sierra Leone. They are called “conflict” or “blood diamonds” because they fund military actions and weapons in areas controlled by factions that are opposed to organized government.

According to the most recent United Nations General Assembly report, the exploitation of humans for diamond mining is “prolonging many brutal conflicts around the globe,” and sanctions against it are failing to eliminate the problem. Last September, a survey of more than 100 diamond retailers taken on the “National Day of Action on Conflict Diamonds” showed that only 27% of them had a policy in line with that of the Kimberley Process, a global effort led by the diamond industry to ensure diamonds are sold with authenticating, no-conflict Certificates of Origin.

In Sierra Leone, with its Freetown settlement established by freed American slaves from Canada, there are signs everywhere of a people struggling to rebound from a 10-year civil war. There are shack-like stores advertising Coca-Cola, rappers commanding microphones at small, understated clubs, and the typical scenes of children playing on dusty streets. Gone are all but one of the amputee camps, says Cepeda, that were once home to thousands of children and adults who lost limbs while being forced to mine by Sierra Leonean rebels.

I thought my Jesus piece was harmless/Till I saw a picture of a shorty armless,” West says in the remixed “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” single from his forthcoming album Late Registration. After changing the lyrics and shooting the graphic yet poignant video, West admits, “I felt like it was God working through me to get this message out…slightly enough education and just edgy enough to make people get on the Internet and say ‘damn, what’s up with Sierra Leone?’”

Before and since the release of West’s remix, musicians, filmmakers, and world politicians alike are speaking out in the hopes of ending the genocide in Sierra Leone and other countries. Protests have taken place recently against multi-billion dollar diamond producers like DeBeers Jewelers, raising questions about their involvement in the conflict. Carson Glover, the New York spokesman for DeBeers’ Diamond Information Center, gave the following formal statement on Professional Jeweler’s website: “While we have not viewed Mr. West’s new video, the lyrics of the song certainly do not reflect the tremendous work the diamond industry has done in conjunction with the Kimberley Process.”

Across the Atlantic Ocean, rappers with their own personal angst and styles are also swayed heavily by America’s Hip-Hop agenda. On a recent trip to Sierra Leone to lay the groundwork for BLING: A Planet Rock, Leone captured their reactions to watching the “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” video and says she was moved by their realization that someone else cared about their plight.

In December, she and Cepeda intend to travel back to Sierra Leone to begin filming, this time with Kanye West, Jadakiss, and reggaeton artist Tego Calderon. Cepeda said they hope to bridge the gap between artists from both countries and illustrate how our actions in America can affect our brothers and sisters on the African continent.

And the process of creating that overpass from the motherland to the ‘hood remains a diamond in the rough.