April 9th, 2014

Dead Rappers Society is an organization founded by Director Ben Gregor and Geoffrey Okol that helps excluded young people express themselves through song-writing and music videos. DRS works in conjunction with youth centers around the world and aids people to create amazing work within their own community. It officially launched in March of this year with a screening of three news videos. Ben tells us more about how the project came about and how it’s helping communities around the world.

How did Dead Rappers Society come about?

I made a movie called All Stars that was an anti austerity 3D dance movie and it got me thinking about young people and how neglected they are culturally and emotionally. I wanted to work with them and open doors. So I hooked up with Geoffrey Okol, a youth worker, who got me an in at Kids Company and I started tutoring there. Soon I was shooting music videos with them and then I decided to raise the game by setting up DRS.

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Tell me a bit about the initiative?

We hook up talented committed directors and filmmakers with organizations who work with excluded and at-risk kids. We then film things. We've shot films in Toronto, London and this one in a township in Cape Flats, about an hour out of Cape Town. In the future we're doing a big project called ‘The Dad Project’ which deals with fathers and fatherhood from the kids perspective and also I've set up a DRS feature film which will be mental and amazing.

How did you come up with the name? 

The initials stay the same but name changes wherever we are - it's what the kids at the time want to call it. In South Africa we were THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF SWAG - in London we were DEAD RAPPERS SOCIETY and in Toronto DOING REAL STUFF. The kids we work with write the music and define the name. DRS is theirs.

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How important is it to motivate young people in struggling communities?

The way I see it they are the future. It's basic math. I'm only doing this so they visit me when I'm in an old peoples home (ha ha). No, seriously, it's easy to paint a black and white picture of austerity with goodies and baddies. But the facts are that youth services all over the world are being cut back as young people don't vote as much as old people - they don't earn as much and they're simply more vulnerable. So they need people like us to do stuff for them. They just do.  And everyone can help. It's not like you need to quit your job and wear a hair shirt to give a f*ck about the world. I still shoot ads and films, working with agencies and all the rest. And I like it. I just have DRS as an outlet that gives me great joy!

What are the major success stories you would highlight? 

Just click on the first video.

What have been the challenges of setting up this organisation?

It's actually been really refreshing to be asking for favours and begging for time and stuff. I've been used to being kind of established in what I do so to go back to the bottom and be producing music and making videos for free has been a slap in the face I really needed to be honest. But some people, like The Mill, have been super generous with their time and their energy and that has been so wonderful. 

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What are the highlights of being involved in something like this?

I get some pretty amazing emails and stuttering voicemails from the kids I've worked with. They're not used to adults following through with promises. So when you do their minds get blown and little LEGO blocks of trust start being assembled in their minds. They come from the streets, from very shocking backgrounds. And the amazing organisations like Kids Company and Sketch and the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre are the essential conduit to giving them a normal, rich life. I am like a tiny part of that process. But it's fun and an honour to be involved at all.

How were the films received at the screening? 

People went crazy.

What are your hopes for the future of DRS?

The Dad project should blow minds I hope. And I'd like a platform like the MTV VMAs to show our work at. I'm working on that. Also we're doing a pilot scheme in a big Youth Detention Centre. But really, I just hope kids keep getting involve and taking the time to write music and trust us with their amazing talent. It's definitely been the most satisfying work I've ever done. I'm super grateful to The Mill and everyone else who has helped make DRS become what it will be tomorrow (I hope!).

Watch DRS South Africa, a music video made with Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Centre: